- Maimonides on the Origin of the World by Kenneth Seeskin
In this bold and engaging book, Kenneth Seeskin provides a careful and thorough argument for the unfashionable view that Maimonides is to be “taken at his word” when he insists in his Guide of the Perplexed (trans. S. Pines, 1963) that the world was created ex nihilo and de novo, that is, not from pre-existent matter and together with the creation of time. The God who created the world is for Maimonides, according to Seeskin’s reading, a God of purpose and free and benevolent will—though not of caprice—whose will and wisdom alone can account for the world’s particularities and peculiarities, that is, for why things in the world that surely could have been otherwise are as they are, and for celestial phenomena that do not conform to discernibly regular patterns.
It is perhaps ironic that taking Maimonides at his word represents a courageous move on Seeskin’s part, but the dominance of the age-old and still flourishing “esotericist” approach to reading Maimonides’s Guide makes Seeskin’s [End Page 736] project a daring one. In the face of Maimonides’s expressly issued notice in the introduction to this monumental work that its contradictions are deliberate and that his method is one of “revealing and concealing” the truths it contains, scholars have not felt at liberty to take Maimonides’s professions of orthodox views at face value. Some have regarded him, on the matter of creation versus eternity, as a Platonist (as he understood Plato); others are convinced that he is a strict Aristotelian (as he understood Aristotle). To contend, then, that in fact Maimonides hews to the Torah’s belief that the world was created ex nihilo and de novo is in fact to swim against the scholarly tide.
The virtues of Seeskin’s book are many. It is clearly and forcefully written; it is free of the arrogance that often accompanies “maverick” books; it is intelligent and its arguments cogent; and it provides a wealth of background material to help put the issue of the origin of the world in context. Seeskin’s insightful and penetrating discussions of rabbinic interpretations of the opening verses of Genesis (chapter 1), of Plato’s Timaeus (chapter 2), of Aristotle’s physical and metaphysical works as they bear on his view that the world is eternal (chapter 3), and of Plotinus and the theory of emanation (chapter 4) sharpen the issues and raise the stakes. The reader can see what the ramifications are of accepting one view or the other, and can confront head-on the incompatible Weltanschauungen embedded in the two positions. One striking feature of the book is that its concluding chapter (chapter 7) is no mere summary but contains a fruitful discussion of two Jewish philosophers, Gersonides and Crescas, who serve as both guides to and critics of Maimonides.
Seeskin argues that Maimonides’s endorsement of the creation view derives from a dual allegiance: to Torah, on the one hand, and to the superior philosophical argument, on the other. In other words, according to Seeskin, Maimonides believes, as he says several times, that to accept the world’s eternity is to dispute one of the “pillars of the Law” (Guide 2.13, 2.25, 2.27, 3.50); at the same time, he also recognizes that the Aristotelian argument for eternity is imperfect, falling short of a demonstration. The Aristotelian proofs proceed from the operations of the world once in existence to how it must always have been, but they cannot sustain the assumption that the rules governing an already-existent world apply at the instant of creation—if there was such an instant. Moreover, Aristotle’s view depends on regularities in the movements of the heavens that ordinary observation belies.
Seeskin takes note (55, 56) of the seemingly odd fact that in 2.13 Maimonides regards the Platonist and Aristotelian views as being close to one another, insofar as neither accepts creation ex nihilo, yet in 2.25, Maimonides sees the Platonic...