- The Virtue Ethics of Levi Gersonides by Alexander Green
The works of Gersonides (Levi ben Gerson, 1288–1344) encompass science, philosophy, and biblical exegesis. The majority of the philosophical writings are constituted by supercommentaries on Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle’s works, whereas his magnum opus, The Wars of the Lord, encompasses all three genres. Since these works engage his preeminent predecessors, Maimonides and Averroes, and since Gersonides explains the motivation to composing the Wars as a concern for human flourishing, the absence of a supercommentary on the Nicomachean Ethics is striking.
The Virtue Ethics of Levi Gersonides is a bold attempt to provide an account of Gersonides’s ethics as a significant departure from his preeminent predecessors, especially Maimonides, in two primary respects. First, although he does not altogether abandon the Aristotelian model of the virtues, Gersonides adds two categories of individualistic virtues, self-preservation and altruism, that focus primarily on the body rather than knowledge. Second, in a more radical departure, Gersonides rejects the view of the prophet as a lawgiver and argues for the benefit of separating political institutions, with the prophet serving as a check on the monarch. Whereas Gersonides has been viewed as either a proto-modern scientist (Gad Freudenthal) or as a man caught between the medieval and modern worlds (Menachem Kellner), Green goes further in presenting him as a modern in style, arguing that his practical concern with individual self-preservation decides his turn away from philosophical commentaries to biblical ones in which human deeds are examined. Moreover, against the views of prominent scholars (Sara Klein-Braslavy, Steve Harvey), Green argues that Gersonides’s turn to biblical commentaries marks a change in genre away from the philosophical. While the focus on biblical commentaries constitutes an important contribution to the study of Gersonides, and while the philology is exemplary, the sharp distinction between the philosophical and biblical commentaries is, at best, exaggerated.
In each of four substantive chapters, Green focuses on Gersonides’s departures from the Aristotelian-Maimonidean ethical model that, he claims, denigrates the perfection of the body and considers all perfections inferior to, and in the service of, the perfection of the intellect—acknowledging that this exaggerated separation is likely a response to later Maimonideans. In chapter 2, Green emphasizes that, for Gersonides, the primary goal of the practical intellect is self-preservation, best attained by the perfection of the virtues of endeavor, diligence, and cunning. Moreover, in a significant departure from Maimonides, Gersonides not only reinterprets “chance” in Aristotle, but, despite acknowledging limits to human knowledge, turns to the study of astrology and astronomy for understanding [End Page 368] the relation between determination and chance. Although Green concedes that “egoism” and “altruism” are anachronistic concepts, in chapter 3, he continues to deploy them to simultaneously engage contemporary scholarship on Aristotle, Saadia, and Maimonides, and argue that Gersonides presents an individualistic model of altruism as imitatio dei, a duty to cultivate the virtues of loving kindness, grace, and beneficence as distinct from Maimonides’s “passive” model. This distinction, which depends upon their understanding of emanation, would have greatly benefitted from a discussion of their respective cosmologies, especially Gersonides’s radical reinterpretation of conjunction with the agent intellect. In light of the tension between self-preservation and love of neighbor, Green proceeds in chapter 4 to draw a further distinction between Maimonides and Gersonides with respect to the role of justice in ordering competing goods and the deliberative authority of individuals. He argues emphatically that, whereas for Maimonides the Torah is the decisive standard of political justice, and only trained jurists have deliberative authority, for Gersonides the Torah imposes no such standard and only provides practical examples for deliberation. Discussing three competing goods, property/family, peace, and divine law, Green emphasizes the priority of peace to both physical self-preservation and divine law, arguing that peace is a prerequisite for both. This is not only a decisive break from his predecessors, but also a quasi-modern turn from an understanding of justice as a political virtue to its understanding as...