- The Philosopher-King in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought
Abraham Melamed presents his book as a study of Jewish political thought in the medieval and Renaissance periods. However, it is also, to my mind primarily, a study in Jewish theology focusing on issues of prophecy and revealed law. As such it is the more valuable to a contemporary student of Jewish religious thought. After all, Jews were stateless in these periods, and problems of political theory had no application in reality. Melamed argues that Plato's Philosopher-King theory was applied first by Muslim thinkers such as Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd as a model for understanding Muhammad as Prophet and Lawgiver, and by Jewish thinkers as models for understanding Moses as Prophet and Lawgiver. By contrast, Christian thinkers whose Two Swords theory posited a distinction between civil authority and religious authority used [End Page 164] Aristotle's Politics. Like Plato's Philosopher-King, Moses and Muhammad, as Founders of the Religion, would have sole and absolute political power in teaching and applying a set of laws that the Prophet would know to be true; and like Plato's Philosopher-King, the Prophet-Lawgiver would not live a solitary and isolated life contemplating the truth, although the contemplative life is the highest life humanly attainable. Instead, the Prophet-Lawgiver would accept the responsibilities of statesmanship and the practical duties of a political leader with a view towards shaping the ideal society here on earth. Melamed's acute and penetrating analysis of Maimonides' theories of revelation and prophecy demonstrates Maimonides' dependence on Plato's theory of the Philosopher-King, although on every other issue in philosophy, Maimonides follows Aristotle.
There is much that is original in Melamed's book. This follows largely from his use of the methodology of the history of ideas. He traces the emergence and development of the idea of the Philosopher-King in Muslim writings and its transmission to Jewish writers, and finally its rejection by modern Jewish thinkers influenced by Machiavelli, such as Simone Luzzatto and Baruch Spinoza.
I approached Melamed's book with hesitancy. What, after all, is the pertinence of Plato's Philosopher-King theory to contemporary readers who have adopted republican and democratic forms of government to replace monarchical and absolutist forms of government? Yet Melamed won me over. Political speculation in the Middle Ages served apologetic purposes—talking about the glories of political organization in Biblical times enabled the medieval Jew to reply to the denigrating polemics of the dominant Muslim and Christian cultures. Moreover, the Philosopher-King theory enables us to understand something about the Islamic Republic of Iran today.
The book's contents, however, are uneven, and the author's choices puzzling. Melamed says nothing about Saadia Gaon and Judah Halevi, but focuses on less influential writers such as Shemtov Ibn Falaquera and Jacob Anatoli. Melamed critiques scholars such as Ernest Baker and E. I. J. Rosenthal but says nothing about Leo Strauss, who made the Philosopher-King theory central to his interpretation of medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy. This is most regrettable since Leo Strauss adopts an enigmatic style of writing very like the style of writing of authors whom he sets out to examine; Melamed could have been helpful in understanding Leo Strauss.