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Thomas Aquinas reads Maimonides
Among the Jewish writers known to Thomas Aquinas (12254274), Moses Maimonides (11351204) is certainly the most important, both for the number of times he is quoted and for his major work Guide for the Perplexed. This book, the first attempt at a conciliation between biblical revelation and Aristotelian thought, is one of the sources of the solutions proposed by Thomas Aquinas in the following century for this same problem.
Moreover, from the beginning of his studies the young Thomas was in direct contact with Maimonides. The final edition of the Guide appeared between 1185 and 1190, and fifty years later it was already considered authoritative, especially in southern Italy. In its own way it met the need of the concordists at the court of Frederic II (1194-1250), a need that received its principal backing from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Naples and from the Dominican convent there. Moses of Salerno, the first commentator of the Guide, was in communication with Peter of Ireland, a Dominican professor at the Studium of Naples and teacher of Thomas Aquinas, from 1240 to 1244. It is important to note that the Guide, while professing absolute fidelity to biblical revelation, aims at providing the elements necessary to ensure that the study of Aristotle will be in no way prejudicial to the Jewish faith. The influence of Maimonides was particularly strong in the south of France and in Italy, while that of Averroes was chiefly felt among the Aristotelians of Paris. His interpretation of Aristotle took no account of a faith based on Moses and Christ and was thus poles apart from that of Maimonides. It is important to remember that later on, in order to defend the faith against attack from the followers of Averroes, Thomas Aquinas was to become for the Parisians the proponent of the Neapolitan interpretation of Aristotle. It has been written of him that in the Guide he found « the ideal model for his own synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and revealed faith ». 1
On the occasion of the seventh centenary of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas it is perhaps not out of place to recall these links of kinship, thought and historical dependence. This is the more fitting because by setting before us an outstanding example of the study of certain passages from the Guide where this link is more obvious, we can be helped to a better understanding of the meaning of what we today call « Jewish-Christian dialogue ».
The Guide for the Perplexed
Moses, son of Maimon, was born at Cordova in Spain on the 14th of Nisan 4895 (March 30, 1135 in the Christian calendar). His youth was uneventful but we know that he grew up in an atmosphere of conflict — conflict between Christians and Moslems, and between the different Moslem sects. There was religious repression of Jews, exemplified at Cordova in 1148 when the city fell into the hands of the Almohads and the Jews were treated with such intolerance that they were all obliged to become Moslems. These were the conditions in which Moses, increasingly busy with the Torah, began about 1158 his commentary on the Mishnah. He was to finish it ten years later at Fostat in Egypt where his family had settled after having been obliged to leave Cordova.
While his elder brother David traded in precious stones, Moses became more and more involved in study and in the concerns of the Jewish community. This entailed a considerable correspondence of which some important letters are extant. His literary work as a religious commentator developed so much that he was called upon to play an important part in the internal affairs of the Jewish community. In addition he undertook such thorough study of Aristotelian philosophy and of medicine that he became court physician to alTadil, vizier of Saladin, at Cairo.
After fifty years of a life spent in study, publication of religious works, professional practice of medicine, and active concern for the affairs of the Jewish community, Maimonides clearly understood the difficulties of many of his correspondents, friends and disciples. It was in response to their request that he wrote the Guide for the Perplexed. The aim of this work is to reconcile the contradictions between the Bible and Aristotelian philosophy in order to help those believers who, after receiving a training in philosophy, are no longer certain how the expressions of revelation, especially about God, creation, the angels, are to be understood. The author himself thus introduces his book:
The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the (fundamental principles of the Law; and even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity. This work has also a second object in view. It seeks to explain certain obscure figures which occur in the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterized as being figures ...Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed. 2
The Guide was written in Arabic in Hebrew characters. It was immediately translated into Hebrew, under the author's personal supervision, by one of his friends, Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon. The Latin translation soon followed. It was made in the south of Italy at the court of Frederic II and was already known to Alexander of Hales (died 1245) and William of Auvergne (died 1248) before 1240. This translation was in fact one of the chief points of contact between Jews and Christians at Naples when Thomas Aquinas was a student.
Without entering into a detailed analysis of the Guide, it should be said that it is composed of an introduction, in which the author explains his intention, followed by three parts. The first examines the expressions used by Scripture when speaking of God and his attributes. This forms a logical whole in which the chapters sometimes assume the appearance of a dictionary of biblical terms with their philosophical explanations. The second part, the Ma'aseh bereshit, is a study of God, beginning with the proof of his existence, and of the nature of the world. The third part, the Ma'aseh mercabah, analyses certain subjects connected with divine government such as the problem of evil, the purpose of creation, divine knowledge and providence, the theology of God's commandments; it ends with some chapters on divine worship. These three parts are equally important in the confrontation of biblical revelation and Aristotelian philosophy; the first makes more use of Aristotle's logic while the others stress the biblical doctrines of God, creation and the divine vocation of man within the framework of the Aristotelian theories of cosmology and ethics.
One has only to glance at this ensemble to become aware of the curious fact that it has the same general structure as the more personal works of Thomas Aquinas, such as the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. This does not point to any dependence in the conceptual plan but rather to a logical development in the questions that were then being asked by both Jewish and Christian authors, particularly those arising from the topics of Aristotelian philosophy. It is, however, certain that Thomas Aquinas took numerous ideas from Maimonides which he incorporated either as such or with criticism in the more than eighty quotations from the Guide which are found in his works. Though Maimonides encountered much opposition in religious circles, Thomas Aquinas was favorable to him.
We know little of Maimonides after the publication of the Guide. He continued to interest himself in the Hebrew translation made by one of his friends, Ibn Tibbon, but in his letters he complains more and more of the illnesses which were to cause his death at the age of seventy. He died on the 20th of Tevet 4965 (January 5, 1204 in the Christian calendar).
Thomas Aquinas and the Guide
We have seen that Thomas Aquinas, from the beginning of his intellectual career, knew the works of Maimonides whom he generally calls Rabbi Moses, sometimes adding that he is a Jew' from Egypt. For one accustomed to the works of Thomas Aquinas a mere reading of the Guide evokes him almost at every page, and it would be a long but extremely easy task to show howclose to each other these writers are, even without the numerous indirect quotations. In fact, Thomas Aquinas seems to refer explicitly to Maimonides in only about fifteen of the more obvious problems. In these he quotes Maimonides directly, either to criticize his opinion or to define more clearly his own position in the framework of current thought. For example, Aquinas deals with two passages in particular in the first book of the Guide: the pedagogical character of the language of the Bible and the theory of the attributes of God. These are the most important passages and we shall study them in greater detail.
With regard to the second book, Thomas Aquinas adopts a less Aristotelian position than does Maimonides on the question of the number of angels, s but he fully supports Maimonides' assertion that creation is the proof par excellence of God's existence 6 and his doctrine on the different degrees of prophecy doubtless inherited from rabbinic tradition.
Finally, in the third book, to mention only the most important evocations, Thomas Aquinas agrees with Maimonides on the purpose of creation but disputes his ideas on God's knowledge of individual things 8 and on the way in which individuals come under the action of divine government.' The entire treatise on the Old Law in the Summa Theologica 10 is so full of elements from the Guide that the Guide itself can almost be said to have been for Thomas Aquinas the direct and most easily available source of contact with rabbinic tradition.
In choosing these few examples we have purposely passed over numerous passages, especially passages dealing with cosmology. In many of these Thomas Aquinas, in his quest for a certain concordance between the cosmologies current at the time, especially with the contribution of Aristotelian theories, recalls Maimonides. The two following quotations exemplify this: « Heaven is to the world what the heart is to the animal » " and « the nature of something that is in the state of becoming is not the same as its nature when it has reached perfection ». 12
However, the most important link of continuity between Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas is neither borrowing of themes nor similarity of solutions proposed. When a reader of Thomas Aquinas examines the ensemble of explicit quotations and meditates on the Guide, he is led to the conclusion that he is dealing with two authors both rooted in the same biblical tradition, with the same discernment of the metaphysical possibilities of Aristotelianism, and both seeking appropriate ways of expressing « the divine realities ». Their language, with perfect technical mastery, aims at translating the teaching of the prophets into philosophical terms without betraying it. In order to demonstrate this satisfactorily it would be necessary to undertake a serious study of the relationship between the works of Thomas Aquinas and the Guide. Failing this, and to give a certain consistency to the convictions already expressed, it would seem useful to study two themes which are at the same time the pivot of the first book of the Guide and the logical foundations of Thomas's treatise on the knowledge of God. These themes are the pedagogical character of the language of the Bible, or as Thomas Aquinas says, of faith, and the meaning of human language when applied to God, or as Maimonides says, the theory of essential attributes.
The Pedagogical Nature of Biblical Language
The first thirty chapters of the Guide contain a certain number of « homonyms », words used by Scripture to speak of God but which, while they have meaning for us, do not express the same reality when applied to the world, to man, to angels and to God. For example, « Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries », etc. 13 In these first chapters Maimonides draws up a kind of general lexicon, a methodological aide-mêmoire.
It should be observed that when we treat in this work of any homonym, we do not desire you to confine yourself to that which is stated in that particular chapter; but we open for you a portal and direct your attention to those significations of the word which are suited to our purpose, though they may not be complete from a philological point of view. You should examine the prophetical books and other works composed by men of science, notice the meaning of every word which occurs in them, and take homonyms in that sense which is in harmony with the context. 14
Where Maimonides uses « homonymy » to express that law inherent in human language to which Holy Scripture itself is subject, Thomas Aquinas speaks rather of « equivocity », or in certain very special and important instances, « analogy ». Maimonides says:
You, no doubt, know the Taknudical saying, which includes in itself all the various kinds of interpretation connected with our subject. It runs thus: < The Torah speaks according to the language of man », that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. 15
When we read Scripture we must keep in mind the fact that it is addressed to all men and for this reason its language is adapted to the natural limits of our intelligence and to the habits acquired in our current knowledge of the world and of our surroundings. Moreover, if he is to be initiated into divine knowledge and perfection, man must of necessity begin by knowledge of the things of sense and by the images and figures of prophecy before attaining the purely metaphysical considerations which are the final meaning of Scripture.
You must know that it is very injurious to begin with this branch of philosophy, viz., Metaphysics; or to explain [at first] the sense of the similes occurring in prophecies, and interpret the metaphors which are employed in historical accounts and which abound in the writings of the Prophets. On the contrary, it is necessary to initiate the young and to instruct the less intelligent according to their comprehension; those who appear to be talented and to have capacity for the higher method of study, i.e., that based on proof and on true logical argument, should be gradually advanced towards perfection, either by tuition or by self-instruction. 16
The initiation and instruction mentioned above are of the greatest importance because without them it is impossible to understand the meaning of the images and figures used by Scripture to express divine things. These images and figures are not imposed by the demands of their object, which transcends them, nor by the intention of using esoteric language to conceal mysteries whose meaning is comprehensible only to the initiated. On the contrary, the language of Scripture is determined by the condition of mankind as a whole. Human language can be understood only in relation to sensible reality and immediate experience. In so far as the Word of God is addressed to all men it must be accessible and comprehensible to all. It does not claim to be the most perfect possible human expression of divine things, but above all a pedagogical language. This language, read and studied, can nevertheless lead to that knowledge of God which the philosophers strive to translate into metaphysical terms.
The importance given by Maimonides to stressing man's need of a language at the level of his purely human experience, and therefore universal, in order to express divine things, shows clearly his conception of Scripture: a book open to all, a road to the knowledge of divine things. Maimonides gives five reasons why the language of metaphysics must not be used for all men or for beginners; to speak the human language of the Scriptures is a necessary stage in the initiation into knowledge of divine things.
I will now proceed to explain the reasons why we should not instruct the multitude in pure metaphysics, or begin with describing to them the true essence of things, or with showing them that a thing must be as it is, and cannot be otherwise. 17
He then continues in the next chapter:
There are five reasons why instruction should not begin with Metaphysics, but should at first be restricted to pointing out what is fitted for notice and what may be made manifest to the multitude.
First Reason. — The subject itself is difficult, subtle and profound, « Far off and exceeding deep, who can find it out? » (Eccles. vii. 24). The following words of Job may be applied to it: « Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? » (Jab xxviii. 20). Instructior. should not begin with abstruse and difficult subjects. In one of the similes contained in the Bible, wisdom is compared to water, and amongst other interpretations given by our Sages of this simile, occurs the following: He who can swim may bring up pearls from the depth of the sea, he who is unable to swim will be drowned, therefore only sudh persons as have had proper instruction should expose themselves to the risk. 18
This first reason, deduced from the object of study itself, is certainly fundamental. In the early days of instruction the transcendence of divine things can be envisaged only through those images and figures whose role it is to ensure the progress of our intelligence, which is inadequate from the start and slow to acquire knowledge. The two following reasons make this clear:
Second Reason. — The intelligence of man is at first insufficient; for he is not endowed with perfection at the beginning, but at first possesses perfection only in potentia, not in fact. Thus it is said, « And man is born a wild ass » (Job xi. 12). If a man possesses a certain faculty in potentia, it does not follow that it must become in him a reality. He may possibly remain deficient either on account of some obstacle, or from want of training in practices which would turn the possibility into a reality. Thus it is distinctly stated in the Bible, «Not many are wise » (Jab xxxii. 9); also our Sages say, « I noticed how few were those who attained to a higher degree of perfection » (B.T. Succah 45a). There are many things which obstruct the path to perfection, and which keep man away from it. Where can he find sufficient preparation and leisure to learn all that is necessary in order to develop that perfection which he has in potentia?
Third Reason. — The preparatory studies are of long duration, and man, in his natural desire to reach the goal, finds them frequently too wearisome, and does not wish to be troubled by them. B• convinced that, if man were able to reach the end without preparatory studies, such studies would not be preparatory but tiresome and utterly superfluous ... The necessity of such a preparation and the need of such a training for the acquisition of real knowledge, has been plainly stated by King Solomon in the following words: « If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength; and it is profitable to prepare for wisdom » (Eccles. x. 10); « Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end » (Prov. xix. 20). 19
The last two reasons are based not so much on the limitations of human intelligence in its nature as a rational intelligence, as on the limitations of the very exercise of a rational intelligence which arise from the conditions of its existence: the internal order of the subject (moral pacification) and liberty with regard to the other cares of life (external pacification):
The Fourth Reason is taken from the physical constitution of man. It has been proved that moral conduct is a preparation for intellectual progress, and that only a man whose character is pure, calm and steadfast, can attain to intellectual perfection; that is, acquire correct conceptions ... For this science is, as you know, different from the science of Medicine and of Geometry, and ... it 'is not every person who is capable of approaching it. It is impossible for a man to study it successfully without moral preparation; he must acquire the highest degree of uprightness and integrity « for the froward is an abomination to the •Lord, but His secret is with the righteous » (Prov. iii. 32) ...
Fifth Reason. — Man is disturbed in his intellectual occupation by the necessity of looking after the material wants of the body, especially if the necessity of providing for wife and children be superadded; much more so if he seeks superfluities in addition to his ordinary wants, for by custom and bad habits these become a powerful motive. Even the perfect man to whom we have referred, if too busy with these necessary things, much more so if busy with unnecessary things, and filled with a great desire for them — must weaken or altogether lose his desire for study, to which he will apply himself with interruption, lassitude, and want of attention. He will not attain to that for which he is fitted by his abilities, or he will acquire imperfect knowledge, a confused mass of true and false ideas. 20
Finally, and somewhat disappointingly, Maimonides excludes from the study of metaphysics the average man and those who are not yet initiated into the divine mysteries. This attitude, though perhaps realistic, seems somewhat too exclusive.
For these reasons it was proper that the study of Metaphysics would have been exclusively cultivated by privileged persons, and not entrusted to the common people. It is not for the beginner, and he should abstain from it, as the little child has to abstain from taking solid food and from carrying heavy weights. 21
This means that Scripture leads all men to the knowledge of God in the only language accessible to them, a language whose depth at the beginning is beyond human intelligence. It can be acquired only after prolonged study in the context of a life of purity and seclusion from temporal cares. This pedagogy, necessary for several reasons, explains the imagery and figurative language of the Bible. It explains also the direction and progress of the human intelligence towards those higher truths which are themselves supported by the same images and figures as those used by Scripture.
Thomas Aquinas knew this text and probably admired its systematically Aristotelian rigour. He quotes it several times, always adding a theological precision which is not without importance, as can be seen from this classic passage of his works:
Even in this life it is perfectly possible for man to attain full knowledge of certain divine truths by reason. Although these truths can be known, and are known by some, faith is nevertheless necessary, for the five reasons stated by Rabbi Moses:
First, because the depth and subtlety of the subject itself obscures divine things from the human intellect. In order that no man may lack all knowledge of these things it has been made possible for him to know them by faith. « Deep, so deep, who can discover it? » (Eccles. vii. 24).
Second, because the human intellect is initially weak and attains its perfection only by degrees. So that it may at no time be without knowledge of God it needs faith through which it receives this knowledge from the beginning.
Third, because of all the necessary preliminaries to the knowledge of God by reason. For this knowledge man must be acquainted with almost all •branches of study, since the end of all knowing is to know God. There are very few who can either understand or follow these preliminaries; hence, so that multitudes may not be without knowledge of God, faith provides them with a divine way of attaining it.
Fourth, many are incapable of attaining intellectual perfection by way of reason, and faith has been given so that they too may not be without knowledge of God.
Fifth, on account of the many cares incumbent on them it is not possible for all men to attain by reason the necessary knowledge of God. The way of faith has therefore been opened to them so that they may believe in those things which are known to others by reason. 23
The theological precision introduced by Thomas Aquinas into this transcription from the Guide consists in the explanation of those things that are essential to all men if they are to have a certain knowledge of divine things: faith and « sacred doctrine », that is, the instruction which derives from faith. There is evidence in Maimonides of a certain ambiguity; he does not manage to complete his thought which stops at the necessity of images and figures whose object is not finally stated. Thomas Aquinas points clearly to faith and concomitant instruction. The images and figures of Scripture are directed to this instruction which constitutes an initial perfection of the intelligence, a need for deeper knowledge — « faith seeking understanding ». Here, echoing the scholastics from St. Anselm of Canterbury onwards (died 1109) and even St. Augustine of Hippo (died 430), he means a rationally perfectible knowledge in this life which is orientated towards the vision of God in the next.
The Essential Attributes of God
The Guide, after studying some of the biblical expressions applied to God, presents a small treatise on the divine attributes. Its aim is to explain how the plurality of these attributes, especially the essential ones, in no way threatens the unity of God. Maimonides begins with a very beautiful declaration on faith which is not merely the proclamation of a doctrine but the very knowledge of the reality of God, of the Truth:
When reading my present treatise, bear in mind that by « faith » we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object [of belief] is exactly as it is apprehended. 23
The importance of this truth attributed to the profession of faith is at the heart of the problem now confronting us: the reality of the divine attributes in God.
If, as regards real or supposed truths, you content yourself with giving utterance to them in words, without apprehending them or believing in them, especially if you do not seek real truth, you have a very easy task as, in fact, you will find many ignorant people professing articles of faith without connecting any idea with them.
If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any •form or in any sense whatever, and that rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. 24
How can one recognize a reality in the profession of faith and simultaneously admit attributes, particularly essential attributes, in God without violating his unity and his simplicity?
Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. 25
In other words, the opposition between the one and the many makes obvious the non-existence in God of essential attributes: his essence is simple and nothing can be added to it. For Maimonides " the question is one of a truth so obvious yet nevertheless so contrary to our habits of thought, that we have to try to make it understood, to explain it. For this purpose he adopts at the beginning a logical method of exclusion. He dismisses all plurality in God both at the level of essence and at that of the other Aristotelian categories, particularly those that could give rise to a certain confusion, such as quality, relationship, action. n The only admissible plurality of attributes, concludes Maimonides, is that derived from the plurality of effects, because in our way of speaking we tend to see in God a diversity of qualities, relationships and actions which correspond with the diversity of the effects produced.
What we have explained in the present chapter is this: that God is one in every respect, containing no plurality or any element superadded to His essence: and that the many attributes of different significations applied in Scripture to God, originate in the multitude of His actions, not in a plurality existing in His essence, and are partly employed with the object of conveying to us some notion of His perfection ... 28
In the following chapter Maimonides refers to authors who defend the reality of the attributes and base their ideas of plurality in God on a misuse of Scripture interpretation. These are the « attributists ».
Every attribute which the followers of this doctrine assume to be essential to the Creator, you will find to express, although they do not distinctly say so, a quality similar to those which they are accustomed to notice in the bodies of all living beings. We apply to all such passages the principle, « The Torah speaketh in the language of man », and say that the object of all these terms is to describe God as the most perfect being, not as possessing those qualities which are only perfections in relation to created living beings. Many of the attributes express different acts of God, but that difference does not necessitate any difference as regards Him from whom the acts proceed. 29
After giving examples such as fire which, though one, produces different effects — whitens, blackens, burns, boils, hardens, softens — and the human faculties of intelligence and will, which though unique have such diversity of action, he resumes his thought:
The attributes found in Holy Scripture are either qualifications of His actions, without any reference to his essence, or indicate absolute perfection, but do not imply that the essence of God is a compound of various elements. For in not admitting the term « compound », they do not reject the idea of a compound when they admit a substance with attributes. 30
Once the question of the attributes which qualify the divine action has been settled there remains that of the attributes which express the divine essence itself, prior to all action, the essential attributes. really existing in God. In opposition to this, Maimonides strives to show that existence, life, power, wisdom and will in God correspond with no other reality than his essence, God himself, indivisible and « uncomposed ». The fact that we think of God as existing, living, powerful, wise and loving is finally the result of our knowledge of creatures in whom these attributes correspond with different realities, whereas in God they can impose no distinction.
In order to realize this Maimonides studies the fundamental text of the contemplation of Moses in Exodus. 31 He insists on the perfect homonymy between the attributes of existence, life, power, wisdom and will applied respectively to God and to creatures:
Those who are familiar with the meaning of similarity will certainly understand that the term existence, when applied to God and to other beings, is perfectly homonymous. In like manner, the terms Wisdom, Power, Will, and Life are applied to God and to other beings by way of perfect homonymity, admitting of no comparison whatever ... there is, in no way or sense, anything common to the attributes predicated of God, and those used in reference to ourselves; they have only the same names, and nothing else is common to them. 32
Afterwards Maimonides goes a step farther and sees the identification between essence and existence in God the proper metaphysical reason for the non-existence in him of essential attributes:
It is known that existence is an accident appertaining to all things, and therefore an element superadded to their essence ... God alone is that being, for His existence, as we have said, is absolute, existence and essence are perfectly identical; He is not a substance to which existence is joined as an accident, as an additional element. His existence is always absolute, and has never been a new element or an accident in Him. Consequently God exists without possessing the attribute of existence. Similarly He lives, without possessing the attribute of life; knows, without possessing the attribute of knowledge; is omnipotent without possessing the attribute of omnipotence; is wise, without possessing the attribute of wisdom; all this reduces itself to one and the same entity; there is no plurality in Him .. . 33
The divine simplicity on the one hand, and on the other the perfect homonymy of human words when applied to God, make it impossible for us to presume to use any but purely negative language when speaking of him; in other words, we must refuse to affirm in God the reality of any essential attribute whatever:
Know that the negative attributes of God are the true attributes: they do not include any incorrect notions or any deficiency whatever in reference to God, while positive attributes imply polytheism, and are inadequate ... It is now necessary to explain how negative expressions can in a certain sense be employed as attributes, and how they are distinguished from positive attributes. 34
This distinction is quite simple: the negative attributes, like the positive, always refer to a specific object, to a reality, but whereas the positive attributes designate the object directly, the negative do so only indirectly. With God, whose existence differs in no way from his essence, it is clear that no other reality can be added to him. Consequently no positive attribute has any meaning when applied to God. Since the positive attributes can designate directly nothing except the simple, divine essence, they can correspond to absolutely nothing in God. But the negative attributes are different:
The negative attributes, however, are those which are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe concerning God; for, on the one hand, they do not imply any plurality, and, on the other, they convey to man the highest possible knowledge of God; e.g., it has been established by proof that some being must exist besides those things which can be perceived by the senses, or apprehended by the mind; when we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible. 35
It is the same with the attribute of life, which implies indirectly that he is not like inanimate beings and that he is not dead; with wisdom, will and power, that he is not without the perfection proper to the higher beings and that all things are ordered, willed, and kept in existence by him.
Thus the terms we use in speaking of God either signify, as though it were a divine action, the dependence of an effect in relation to God, or else they have an indirect meaning which attributes to him perfections which are merely the negation of corresponding imperfections in his creatures:
... every attribute predicated of God either denotes the quality of an action, or — when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself, and not of His action — the negation of the opposite. 36
Maimonides himself concludes:
What, then, can be the result of our efforts, when we try to obtain a knowledge of a Being that is free from substance, that is most simple, whose existence is absolute, and not due to any cause, to whose perfect essence nothing can be superadded, and whose perfection consists, as we have shown, in the absence of all defects. All we understand is the fact that He exists, that He is a Being to whom none of His creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other (beings, and whose relation to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real but serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe; that is, that He gives it duration, and preserves its necessary arrangement ... In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavour to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure. 37
In the following chapters Maimonides continues to develop his theory of indirect language or negative attributes, the essence of which he has already made clear. Thomas Aquinas made good use of this theory, often referring to it in his works, often saying: « as Rabbi Moses expressly states ». Here is the oldest of these passages; it constitutes a synopsis of those chapters of the Guide to which we have just referred:
On the question of the existence in God of the reality of the attributes ... the following is the opinion of Rabbi Moses: God is subsistent being, and in God there is nothing other than this being: for this reason he is called being without essence. All else that is attributed to God is true of him in two senses: either by negation or by causality.
By negation in two ways:
— to remove all idea of privation or corresponding defect; we say, for example, that God is wise to avoid implying the defect that exists in those who lack wisdom;
— in the measure that an affirmation follows from a negation, as when God is called « one ». He is one by the very fact that he is not divided ... All these attributes are conceived rather to avoid affirming than to affirm anything in God.
By causality also in two senses:
— because when God produces a certain quality, such as goodness in his creatures, and pours forth goodness on the world, he is said therefore to he good ...
— in so far as he acts as creatures act: when, for example, he produces effects like those of willing and pitying, he is said to will and to pity. 39
In this instance Thomas Aquinas's « reading » of the Guide, although substantially faithful, does not seem to take into account all its nuances; he appears in fact to force it towards too negative a position. To say that for Maimonides God is « being without essence » 40 seems somewhat incorrect when we read in the Guide, for example, in the same context:
... as regards a being whose existence is not due to any cause — God alone is that being, for His existence, as we have said, is absolute —existence and essence are perfectly identical. 41
This « negativism » which Thomas Aquinas attributed to Maimonides leads him to conclusions which appear somewhat out of harmony with the Maimonides of the Guide. Thomas Aquinas concludes:
According to this opinion it follows
— that all names applied both to God and to creatures are equivocal, and
— that there can be no resemblance between
creature and creator because the creature is
good, wise [or any such thing] ...Rabbi Moses
expressly says this.Accordingly,
— what is understood by the names of the attributes does not correspond with anything in God...
— they exist in our intelligence only but not in God, and
— the intelligence discerns them by considering creatures either by way of negation or by way of causality. 42
It is difficult to reconcile all these affirmations with the Guide. When Maimonides expressly denies all similarity between creatures and God he is speaking of a similarity based on a certain relation between two things », u that is, the similarity that exists between two things which belong at least to the same genus. Because it is a question here of the simplicity of God, for unassailable metaphysical reasons he does not even consider the problem of a « transgeneric » similarity between God and creatures. Historically, it does not seem very accurate to say that he denied something the possibility of which did not even exist for him. It would seem that Maimonides confines himself to the denial in God of essential attributes within the admittedly too narrow framework of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics. He was not aware of this narrowness. His position is rather that of one stage in the continuing development of a system of thought that is not yet in possession of all the means necessary to resolve the questions arising from the encounter of the biblical and Aristotelian traditions.
The step forward was, as we know, taken by Thomas Aquinas himself. He was thoroughly convinced of the value of Maimonides' theory of the negative attributes and he tried to find a new way of acknowledging in God the reality of those attributes which, while remaining homonymous in the sense of the Guide, yet are analogical and not purely equivocal. The essential attributes which indicate a pure and simple perfection really exist in God in the eminent reality of the divine essence, which is his own act of being, rich in all the perfections that we see poured out and diffused in the world, where they are mirrored by all beings from the most insignificant to the most perfect. What Thomas Aquinas owes to Maimonides, and through him to the whole Jewish tradition, is the sense of transcendence, the abyss of negation inherent in all discourse on God. Analogy is advanced as a solution, but though analogy is not the homonymy of Maimonides this homonymy is nevertheless a radical condition of its very authenticity.
A Theological Jewish-Christian Dialogue?
Without reading any farther in the Guide it is striking to see how Thomas Aquinas has adopted the two most important theories of the first book. By treating them with greater precision and perfecting them, he makes them the pivot of his own thinking on the necessity of faith and of sacred doctrine, and on the inevitably negative character of human language when applied to God. Between the Christian and the Jew there is an undeniable link of continuity. The stature of the protagonists and the importance of the themes make it clear that we are faced not so much with a cultural osmosis as with a remarkable instance of the insertion of Christian theology into the current of biblical tradition, and that this tradition is received through the rabbis in the same cultural framework, that of the Aristotelian Middle Ages.
Is it possible to speak of a theological Jewish-Christian dialogue in the middle of the thirteenth century when Christians spared the Jews neither contempt nor the worst effects of their intolerance? It is clear that there is no reciprocity, though there were very real and deep exchanges between Jews and Christians in the centres where Thomas Aquinas studied. Maimonides influenced Thomas Aquinas, and it is possible to detect a certain influence of Thomas on contemporary and immediately subsequent Jewish writers. 45
There is, however, a true dialogue in that Thomas Aquinas, far from adopting a sectarian position against the rabbinical opinions of Maimonides, welcomes them with the deepest respect and listens with docility to the two currents of thought expressed in the Guide, the biblicotalmudic tradition and the doctrines of Aristotle.
This very position is a dialogue, chiefly because there is nothing passive about it; on the contrary, it seeks to criticize, deepen and perfect teaching in the interests of a more real common possession of a Truth that is held by all to be absolutely transcendent.
Theological dialogue has for its object research into the knowledge of God. Theologians of the stature of Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas know well that the whole of theology is dominated by the quest for God, that it obliges man to be attentive to every truth, especially every human truth, to have great purity of heart and to be free from all incomplete explanations of the world and of life. The theologian must know how to look at and listen to all human experience, to understand in depth all that is positive in this experience. He must have no desire to deny or despise it on pretext of a more perfect or better-guaranteed revelation which he believes to have been « transmitted » within his own religious denomination.
In this sense theology in its human and historic framework always calls for dialogue. Its exercise is authentic only within Tradition because the Word is indispensable and it is in Tradition alone that this Word comes to us, though it is not confined within Tradition and is in no way exclusive. In all human seeking for good, truth and beauty there is a positive element of the Word that the theologian must integrate into his search for God. Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas seem very near to each other in their different theological positions since both have an openness and an attitude of dialogue that transcend all ecclesiastical, political and ideological frontiers. Both the Jew and the Christian, nourished by Aristotle and enriched by mutual dialogue, invite and impel us to a dialogue that is universal, widely ecumenical and directed to the quest for God.
1. Giuseppe Sermoneta, Un glossario filosofico ebraico-italiano del XIII secolo. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1969, p. 41.
2. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlander, New York: Dover Publications, 1956, Introduction. (All quotations are taken from this edition. In the references, Roman numerals indicate the section, Arabic numerals indicate the chapter.)
3. Summa Theologica, I, q. 50, a. 3c.
4. Ibid., I-II, q. 101, a. 3, ad 3m.
5. Cf. Summa Sententiarum (Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum), II, d. 3, q. 1, a. 3c; Summa contra Gentiles, II, c. 92; Summa Theologica, I, a. 50, a. 3c.
6. Cf. Summa Sententiarum, II, d. 2, q. 2, a. 3 ad 2m; a. 15, q. 3, a. 3, 3; III, d. 37, a. 5, ql. 1, s.c. 2; ib. c.
7. Cf. Summa Sententiarum, IV, d. 48, q. 2, a. 3, ad 6m.
8. Cf. Summa Sententiarum, I, d. 35, q. 1, a. 2c;
d. 36; q. 1, a. ic; De Veritate, q. 5, a. 9, s.c. 5.
9. Cf. Expositio in Threnos Jeremiae Prophetae, c. 3; Summa Sententiarum, I, d. 39, q. 2, a. 2c; Summa Theologica, I, q. 22, a. 2c; ad 5m.
10. Cf. Summa Theologica, I-II, qq. 101-108.
11. Cf. Summa Sententiarum, II, d. 2, q. 2, a. 3c; De Veritate, a. 5, a. 9, s.c. 5.
12. Cf. De Veritate, q. 13, a. 1, ad lm.
13. Guide, I, 2.
14. Guide, I, 8.
15. Guide, I, 26.
16. Guide, I, 33.
18. Guide, I, 34.
22. Expositio super Librum Boethii de Trinitate, q. 3, a. lc (ed. Decker, p. 111f). Cf. also Summa Sententiarum, III, d. 24, a. 3 ql. ic, the treatise on faith, where for the first time the five reasons of the Guide are reproduced in chronological order; Summa contra Gentiles, I, c. 4, and Summa Theologica, I, a. 1, a. lc, the first article, where the « reasons » are enlarged on to show the necessity of the « sacra doctrina », that is,without wishing endless discussion on the meaning of these words, « instruction flowing from faith », which takes revelation into consideration; finally, cf. Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 2, a. 4c, in the treatise on faith.
23. Guide, I, 50.
26. Guide, I, 51.
27. Guide, I, 52.
29. Guide, I, 53.
31. Guide, I, 54; cf. Exodus 33:13 and 34:7.
32. Guide, I, 56.
33. Guide, I, 57.
34. Guide, I, 58.
38. Cf. Summa Sententiarum, I, d. 2, q. 1, a. 3c; d. 8, q. 1, a. 1, s.c.; Summa Theologica, I, q. 13, a. 2c; De Potentia, q. 7, a. 2, s.c. 2; a. 4, s.c. 3; a. 5c; q. 9, a. 7c.
39. Summa Sententiarum, I, d. 2, q. 1, a. 3c.
41. Guide, I, 57.
42. Summa Sententiarum, I, d. 2, q. 1, a. 3c.
43. Guide, I, 56.
44. Here it is a question of a fundamental thesis that Thomas Aquinas treats ex-professo in numerous passages, the basic texts remaining always the first articles on the question of the simplicity of God in the Summa Theologica (I, q. 3) and those on the question of the divine names (I, q. 13).
45. Cf. Sermoneta, op. cit., p. 436f, where the example is given of the influence of Thomas Aquinas's Tractatus
de unitate intellectus contra Averroistas on the Tratto sulle retribuzioni dell'anima of Hillel ben Eliezer ben Samuel of Verona, written around 1291.