The Guide of the Perplexed
By Moses Maimonides
One of the most significant and life changing books ever written is Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides lived from 1138 to 1204. Many people consider him the most important person since Moses who handed Israel God’s revelation. Others are convinced that he is far better in many ways than the first Moses. He revealed what the first Moses kept hidden: how to think and the answers to many issues about God, people, and the world.
There are two modern English translations of this twelfth century philosophical masterpiece. The first is by M. Friedlander published in 1881. Friedlander rendered the title as Guide for the Perplexed, which seems to make more sense than S. Pines’ Guide of the Perplexed. Friedlander’s version is easy to read English. Pines, who was of German descent, wrote a translation that is frequently difficult to follow and appears to have been written by a person whose first language is German. Nevertheless, Maimonidean scholars prefer the Pines product, saying that it is a more precise version of the original Arabic, the language Maimonides used, and therefore any quote from the Guide in scholarly articles has to be made from Pines.
Pines and Leo Strauss introduce the Pines translation with two scholarly articles containing significant information that reflect the authors’ approaches to Maimonides’ Guide. The two introductions are quoted frequently in articles about the great master and people who want to know about Maimonides need to know what is in them. Strauss’ main thesis is that Maimonides wrote his book in an extremely clever way so that it could be understood on two radically different levels, common people will find ideas in it that satisfy their needs and intelligent people will be able to go beneath what is stated explicitly for the common people and find significant lessons. An example is angels. Maimonides mentions angels several times and the average reader will think that Maimonides felt such beings exist. However, a careful reading shows that Maimonides was convinced that angels and demons do not exist. God is all-powerful and needs no helpers. When the Bible speaks of angels, it is referring to a force of nature. Angel is a metaphor for anything that carries out what God would have considered proper. Even everyday winds and rain are angels.
What makes the Guide so important? Maimonides addresses all of the important questions that people have about God and religion. What approach did Maimonides take concerning religion? He was a rationalist. He insisted that people should not base their ideas about this world and life upon blind faith and tradition. Faith is the acceptance of ideas as true even though the ideas are contradicted by the senses (what on sees, hears, etc.), science, and reason. No sensible person would prescribe a medicine to a dying person based only on tradition. He wrote that the views of Hippocrates and Galen, the ancient teachers of medicine, for example, needed to be reevaluated based on modern science. This, he said, is why God put eyes in front of people’s head.
Is the Guide easy to understand, even in the Friedlander edition? No. Maimonides recognized that the common uneducated people, who rely on the teachings they were given as children and never advanced, could not accept his rational teachings, so this is why he wrote his Guide in a way that the general public would think he agreed with them and the educated would see that he presented new ideas. Thus, people need to learn how to pay special attention to what he wrote. Do all people agree with Maimonides today? No. People have great difficulty advancing beyond the ideas they were taught in grade school and others, unfortunately, lack sufficient intelligence.
What are some of the Maimonidean rational ideas that the common people could not and still do not accept? God has no emotions and does not become angry. The Bible speaks of God becoming angry because the common people need to believe that God will punish them for doing wrong; people who accept this idea are more restrained from committing many wrongs.
Prophets never received a communication from God. Prophecy is a natural event, a higher level of intelligence. Some Maimonidean scholars say that Maimonides considered even the fourth century BCE pagan philosopher Aristotle a prophet because he was so intelligent and was able to communicate truths to people.
Maimonides wrote that “the truth is the truth no matter what its source.” People make a terrible mistake when they think that only their own religion communicates the truth.
Neither passive piety nor study of the Bible, Talmud, and mystical tracts bring people to God. Near the end of the Guide, Maimonides summarized his views and pictured Talmud scholars as people who stumble outside God’s palace without knowing how to enter. The purpose of the Bible, he stressed, is three-fold: it teaches true ideas and helps improve individuals and society. People fulfill the Bible’s mandate when and only when they study and understand about science and nature and use it to improve themselves and society.
Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides did not believe that God is imminent; God is not present on earth and does not help people. God is transcendental. This is why Maimonides said that prophecy is a natural event. People are helped, Maimonides wrote, by using their intelligence. God is also not involved in the bad things that come to some people. These are natural events. Maimonides explained that there are three sources of evil: (1) people do bad things to themselves, such as overeating or consuming improper foods, (2) other people cause the problem, as when a nation invades another country to acquire its land and resources or when misguided people kill others who do not believe what they believe, and (3) people can be hurt by forces of nature that is good for the world as a whole, such as storms and hurricanes that clean the atmosphere.
These are some of the many insights that Moses Maimonides presented in his philosophical masterpiece. If people read and reread the masterpiece many times, they will derive a new understanding of life from each reading and be able to enter God’s palace. They will then be all that they can be.