- Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed: A Philosophical Guide by Alfred L. Ivry
Although there has never been a shortage of book-length commentaries on Plato's Republic, Descartes's Meditations, or Spinoza's Ethics, the same cannot be said of Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed. A few Hebrew commentaries exist, but they are neither influential nor readily accessible to English-speaking audiences. So while there has been a noticeable resurgence of interest in Maimonides since the publication of Shlomo Pines's English translation in 1963, there is still a respect in which Ivry's book breaks new ground.
The reasons for the lack of such a commentary are several. The original text is written in Judeo-Arabic and presupposes advanced knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic commentaries on the Bible, the platonized Aristotelianism that informed such thinkers as Alfarabi and Avicenna, and medieval astronomy. Ivry's extensive background in this material and linguistic facility with the original text are evident on every page.
Equally important is the manner in which Maimonides approached his subject matter. Although he says that his purpose is to explain the meanings of equivocal terms occurring in the prophetic books, it soon becomes clear that the issues he discusses are both speculative and controversial—speculative because they take us to the outer limits of what human beings are capable of understanding, and controversial because Jewish tradition prohibits one from discussing them in a public forum. As a result, Maimonides claims that he intends to write [End Page 345] in an esoteric fashion, hiding his intentions from all but the most sophisticated of readers, even to the point of contradicting himself when he thinks it is appropriate.
Scholars have long debated whether his true sympathies are with religious orthodoxy, which posits a personal God who exercises free will and whose providence extends to individual people, or naturalistic philosophy, which posits an impersonal God whose will is governed by necessity and whose providence is generic. More recently, scholars have debated whether Maimonides's critique of the metaphysics and astronomy of his day qualifies him as a full-blown skeptic or whether it is merely an attempt to show that the system of thought he inherited from Alfarabi and Avicenna could not be known with complete certainty. It is to Ivry's credit that he is willing to be critical of the master. When it appears that Maimonides is papering over cracks that separate religion from philosophy, or speaking in a manner that masks his real position, Ivry does not hesitate to tell us. What follows is an honest assessment of a great thinker trying to come to terms with issues of monumental importance. In Ivry's words, "I contend that Maimonides is one of the perplexed for whom the Guide is written; his writing the book is his attempt to work his way out of conundrums he shared with the best minds of his time" (4).
Prominent among these conundrums is Maimonides's heavy reliance on Neoplatonic metaphysics and the fact that, according to Ivry, the structures of his metaphysical beliefs were "wobbly at best" (228). Even so, Ivry is reluctant to label Maimonides a skeptic (5). Another conundrum is the dispute between a God who exercises free will and a God governed by necessity. Ivry is correct in saying that the thrust of Maimonides's arguments in defense of creation is to defend the idea of a voluntaristic God who acts for a purpose. But that is hardly the end of the matter. As Ivry goes on to say, because God's will is identical with his wisdom, his will "is not free at all" (116) and is "'constrained' by his nature" (240).
Ivry explains the apparent discrepancy by saying that while there are no external constraints on God, it is nonetheless true that his wisdom knows and has always known what his will would decide. To this one might object that the unity of wisdom and will in God still leaves open the question of which takes precedence...