Sunday, August 13, 2006

Paper: Talking About God in Maimonides' Guide

Talking About God in Maimonides’ Guide

“No one can reach the ending until he has completed the beginning.”

- Al-Ghazali, The Beginning of Guidance

Therefore fastings, vigils, meditation on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection, but aids to perfection: because the end of that science does not lie in these, but by means of these we arrive at the end. He then will practise these exercises to no purpose, who is contented with these as if they were the highest good, and has fixed the purpose of his heart simply on them, and does not extend his efforts towards reaching the end, on account of which these should be sought: for he possesses indeed the implements of his art, but is ignorant of the end, in which all that is valuable resides.”

- John Cassian, Conferences

There are two senses of talking about God for Maimonides. The first consists in the ordinary propositions made by the multitude. The second consists in the rare propositions made by those who have truly come to know God. Strictly speaking, only the second set of propositions actually succeeds in being about God. The statements made by those of the first class, though seeming to bear the marks of statements about God, are actually meaningless and about nothing. However, while statements of this kind are not actually about God, Maimonides considers certain kinds of these as worthwhile in both an ethical and religious sense. They bear an importance in the ethical sense insofar as they serve to formulate correct opinions in the multitude. This ethical perfection, in turn, serves a religious importance inasmuch as it allows the mind to be cultivated and led toward the apprehension of God through a series of exercises. Only once these exercises have been completed and understood is one in a position to come to know and worship God. While they put us in a position in which we are finally without impediment with respect to knowledge of God, they do not actually give us this knowledge. This, our ultimate perfection and our highest good, must be achieved on our own. Only after achieving this perfection can we come to make statements of the second kind, if we are so inclined.

First let us consider why anyone would want to say anything about God. For Maimonides, we must desire to make statements about God in order to come to know Him. This knowing brings us near to Him, but not in a physical sense: “For nearness to Him, consists in apprehending Him” (Guide I: 19, 45). The attainment of knowledge of God is man’s summum bonum for Maimonides. He says:

[T]he true human perfection…consists in the acquisition of the rational virtues—I refer to the conception of intelligibles, which teach true opinions concerning the divine things. This is in true reality the ultimate end; this is what gives the individual true perfection, a perfection belonging to him alone; and it gives him permanent perdurance; through it man is man.

(Guide III: 54, 635)

However, this knowledge is not easily attained. For, men must first come to know their distance from God before they can ever come to be near Him. Furthermore, it will be shown later that in order to worship God, one must know Him. As we must desire to worship God through prayer and song, we must therefore make use of religious language. However, as will be shown later, according to Maimonides in order to truly worship God, we must know Him. We will only come to know God and so become near to Him and able to worship Him, through our completion of Maimonides’ exercises. These rely importantly on religious language. Accordingly, Maimonides sees religious language as serving a pedagogical function with respect to both ethics and spirituality.

What, then, is the status of things said about God by those who have not acquired this apprehension and perfection? Let us consider Maimonides’ claim that statements that seem to be about God, if made by one who has not achieved apprehension of God, are ultimately meaningless and not about God at all. Maimonides says:

As for someone who thinks and frequently mentions God, without knowledge, following a mere imagining or following a belief adopted because of his reliance on the authority of somebody else, he is to my mind outside the habitation and far away from it and does not in true reality mention or think about God. For that thing which is in his imagination and which he mentions in his speech does not correspond to any being at all and has merely been invented by his imagination….

(Guide III: 51, 620)

While one who lacks knowledge of God might seem to express something about God in his speech, according to Maimonides this is not actually the case. For, what the ignorant multitude take to be God is actually a non-existing thing. There is nothing that possesses the qualities they earnestly ascribe to the object of their worship. Therefore, Maimonides says:

As for one who affirms an attribute of Him without knowing a thing about it except the mere term, it may be considered that the object to which he imagines the term applies is a nonexistent notion—an invention that is false; for he has, as it were, applied this term to a notion lacking existence, as nothing in existence is like that notion.

(Guide I: 60, 146)

Moreover, according to Maimonides the logical status of talk about God rests not merely in the terms used, but in the sentiments and degree of understanding that give rise to such utterances. Later in the Guide, he says: “…belief is not the notion that is uttered, but the notion that is represented in the soul when it has been averred of it that it is in fact just as it has been represented” (Guide I: 50, 111). This is an important distinction. For, even if one were to recite prayers and participate in all forms of worship, if one has not come to know God, one will ultimately merely mouth insignificant noise. This is the case for the multitude. They do not actually say anything about God, no matter how hard they try or how devout they take themselves to be. Maimonides says: “For the multitude grasp only the actions of worship, not their meanings or the true reality of the Being worshipped through them” (Guide I: 36, 84). If two people, one who knows God and one who does not, utter the same things, only the former will actually succeed in saying anything about and worshipping God successfully. It is thus impossible for the ignorant to truly speak about or worship God. For the thing they speak about and worship does not exist and is therefore not God. In order to truly worship God, one must know Him. Maimonides says: This kind of worship ought only to be engaged in after intellectual conception has been achieved. (Guide III: 51, 620). How, then, can one come to know God, and what is the importance of religious language in attaining this important knowledge?

According to Maimonides, we must begin in a state of absolute ignorance regarding divine matters. Eventually we will come to hear religious language and so pick up the practice of making literal affirmative attributions of God. In order to first give us an inkling as to God’s existence and excellence, the things that will be said at this point will “be everything that the multitude consider a perfection” (Guide I: 26, 56). While this does not give us the ability to actually talk about and worship God, it serves the purpose of giving us a starting point. The first function of religious language is that it allows for the right kind of foundation to be laid in a person’s mind. Maimonides says: “For necessity required that all of them be given guidance to the belief in the existence of God, may He be exalted, and in His possessing all the perfections” (Guide I: 46, 98). Without this form of talking about God without really talking about Him, nobody would ever come to have knowledge of God. Maimonides says:

Accordingly if we never in any way acquired an opinion through following traditional authority and were not correctly conducted toward something by means of parables, but were obliged to achieve a perfect representation by means of essential definitions and by pronouncing true only that which is meant to be pronounced true in virtue of a demonstration—which would be impossible except after the above-mentioned lengthy preliminary studies—this state of affairs would lead to all people dying without having known whether there is a deity for the world, or whether there is not, much less whether a proposition should be affirmed with regard to Him or a defect denied. Nobody would ever be saved from this perdition except one of a city or two of a family.

(Guide I: 34, 75)

Here we begin to see more of the usefulness of religious language that is not actually about God. Those things we come to say and believe based on tradition and parables serve to conduct us toward knowledge of God. Without this original form of religious language, we would never be in a position to gain this knowledge. That is, we are dependent on tradition and parable for the beginnings of our religion.

However, statements of this kind are not ends in themselves. While they seem to be about God, they nevertheless fail as a result of our ignorance. If we are willing and able to come further out of ignorance and thus nearer to God, we must next come to understand that these affirmative propositions do not express truths about God. This will lead us to embark on the via negativa. Here we will learn to negate privations with respect to God. Maimonides says: “…anything that entails corporeality ought of necessity to be negated in reference to Him…” (Guide I: 55, 128). Maimonides advocates that at this point in our emergence from ignorance we ought to negate rather than affirm attributions with respect to God. At each step on the way to this apprehension, one must not merely utter the negations but must understand the reason for their negation. Maimonides says:

[T]he negative attributes make you come nearer in a similar way to the cognition and apprehension of God, may He be exalted. Desire then wholeheartedly that you should know by demonstration some additional thing to be negated, but do not desire to negate merely in words. For on every occasion on which it becomes clear to you by means of a demonstration that a thing whose existence is thought to pertain to Him, may He be exalted, should rather be negated with reference to Him, you undoubtedly come nearer to Him by one degree.

(Guide I: 60, 144)

For, despite any anthropomorphic or otherwise corporeal scriptural attributions, it is known that God is neither embodied nor in possession of any accidental attributes. He says: “…to ascribe to Him…the accident of oneness is just as absurd as to ascribe to Him the accident of multiplicity” (Guide I: 57, 132). Therefore, even perfections must be negated. However, negated affirmations are not sufficient to Maimonides. While Maimonides believes that such affirmations must at this point in our spiritual progress be negated, to do so is not yet to speak of God. Therefore, he says, “Likewise all privation ought of necessity to be negated in reference to Him” (Guide I: 55, 128). Such negated privations allow man to realize the indescribability of God, but still are not actually about God. The negation of privations is but another exercise on the path towards apprehension of God.

Inasmuch as the via negativa allows us to see the frailty of human speech about God, it serves as a spiritual guide from the remoteness of ignorance to the nearness of understanding. Maimonides says that the via negativa serves as a guide towards God. It serves to

Conduct the mind toward that which must be believed with regard to Him, may He be exalted, for no notion of multiplicity can attach to Him in any respect on account of them; and, moreover, they conduct the mind toward the utmost reach that man may attain in the apprehension of Him, may He be exalted.

(Guide I: 58, 135)

Maimonides does not say that negations give the mind the utmost apprehension of God, or that they are actually about God, but that they serve to guide one’s mind, in the way of wisdom, towards this apprehension, which culminates in one’s nearness to God.

The via negativa truly is a way for Maimonides. It is the road, not the destination. Furthermore, it is a road that must be understood in order to be traveled. If we have come to truly understand the reasons for making these negations, and held on to our instruction, we will then come to understand that even these do not succeed in really being about God. Their subject-predicate form renders them incapable of expressing anything about God. While recognizing the superiority of negative attributions over their affirmative counterparts, Maimonides realizes that these are still wholly inadequate to truly speak of God.

We may receive guidance out of ignorance but not into knowledge. This guidance comes in many forms. First, it comes through “the practices of the worship, such as reading the Torah, prayer, and the performance of the other commandments,” but these “have only the end of training you to occupy yourself with His commandments, may He be exalted, rather than with matters pertaining to this world;” (Guide III: 51, 622). Guidance serves to train us. Secondly it can come through the teaching of those who have themselves attained knowledge. For, as Maimonides says:

Some of the men of science and some of the prophets, having been penetrated by the overflow, might come to “call to the people, teach them, and let his own perfection overflow toward them. It has already become clear to you that, were it not for this additional perfection, sciences would not be set forth in books and prophets would not call upon the people to obtain knowledge of the truth. For a man endowed with knowledge does not set anything down for himself in order to teach himself what he already knows. But the nature of that intellect is such that it always overflows and is transmitted from one who receives that overflow to another one who receives it after him until it reaches an individual beyond whom this overflow cannot go and whom it merely renders perfect…The nature of this matter makes it necessary for someone to whom this additional measure of overflow has come, to address a call to people, regardless of whether that call is listened to or not, and even if he as a result thereof is harmed in his body” (Guide II: 37, 375).

We must consider Maimonides as being one of those whose nature made it necessary to communicate the overflow. He suffered as a result of his teaching, or at least as a result of the misunderstanding it received. However, he sees the perfection of a single man as being worth the harm he might sustain from the ignorant masses. Maimonides can guide us through the process of removing that which stands between us and God, but cannot give us actual apprehension of God. He can set up road signs and guideposts, but cannot deliver us directly to apprehension of God. This is what Maimonides sees as the purpose of his Guide. For, he says of himself:

I am the man who when the concern pressed him and his way was straitened and he could find no other device by which to teach a demonstrated truth other than by giving satisfaction to a single virtuous man while displeasing ten thousand ignoramuses—I am he who prefers to address that single man by himself, and I do not heed the blame of those many creatures. For I claim to liberate that virtuous one from that into which he has sunk, and I shall guide him in his perplexity until he becomes perfect and he finds rest.

(Guide Introduction, 15).

While Maimonides’ goal in the Guide is to lead us towards this rest, he knows that he cannot guarantee it for us. After we have been guided out of ignorance, we must then acquire true knowledge of God, our highest good, on our own, without further guidance. For,

This rank is not a rank that, with a view to the attainment of which, someone like myself may aspire for guidance. But one may aspire to attain that rank which was mentioned before this one through the training that we described. One must beseech God that He remove the obstructions that separate us from Him…

(Guide III: 51, 624).

By “someone like myself,” we must understand Maimonides to mean “someone who has been prepared for apprehension.” If we become like Maimonides in this way, then we are no longer in need of a guide. At this point, if we “shall have cast off desires and habits, shall have been endowed with understanding, and shall reflect on what I shall say in the following chapters, which shall treat of the negation of attributes, you shall necessarily achieve certain knowledge of it” (Guide I: 51, 111). It is important to note that Maimonides does not claim that mere utterance of negations will serve to bring us into silent communion with God. Rather, we must “cast off desires and habits,” be “endowed with understanding,” and then reflect on what Maimonides says if we are to “achieve certain knowledge.”

If we succeed in doing this, we will take the last step towards God and gain that silent apprehension which is our ultimate good. This ultimate perfection will be truly our own, and therefore the only true human perfection. For, all other perfections pertain to others and our relations with them. However, “This ultimate perfection…pertains to you alone, no one else being associated in it with you in any way: They shall be only thine own, and son on” (Guide III: 54, 635). Once this state has been achieved, Maimonides says:

Then you shall be one of those who represent to themselves the unity of the Name and not one of those who merely proclaim it with their mouth without representing that it has a meaning. With regard to men of this category, it is said: Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins. But men ought rather to belong to the category of those who represent the truth to themselves and apprehend it, even if they do not utter it, as the virtuous are commanded to do—for they are told: Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.

(Guide I: 51, 111-2)

Our apprehension of God will first result in silence. Of this understanding-induced silence, Maimonides says: “Thus all the philosophers say: We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest…” (Guide I: 59, 139). Following this, however, we may come to find ourselves in a position in which the divine overflow necessitates our coming to say things about God, as Maimonides says above. Once one has achieved this knowledge of and communion with God, one may finally come to make meaningful statements that are actually about Him. However, only those who understand the way in which this is the case will truly hear and understand. These utterances, if we make them, regardless of their particular content, will be the first of ours which truly succeed in being about God.

It has been shown that while we may only truly say things about God once we have come to know Him, we may not come to know Him without saying things about Him that are not truly about Him. Towards this knowledge it is necessary that we undergo a series of stages in which we fail to truly speak of God, yet attempt to. First we must make affirmative statements learned from tradition. This lays the groundwork for the possibility of knowing. Next we will learn to negate these affirmations. Finally, we will learn the necessity of negating these privations. Once we have understood and undergone this process of saying things about God that are not truly about Him, we will finally find ourselves in a position to come to know Him. We will have finally become prepared for the apprehension of God. If we are to gain this final apprehension, our greatest good, we must do so on our own. Once we have attained this silent apprehension, we may then finally come to say meaningful things that are actually about God, if we are so inclined.


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