The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics, by Joseph I Gorfinkle
Selected verses edited by Rabbi Norbert Weinberg
My notes in [ ] and italics
[The MD’s approach to spiritual wellness
The Rambam , Maimonides, discussed our spiritual ails from a medical mind/body perspective.]
Chapter 3 [The parallel between physical health and psychological health. The English word used here, soul, is a transposition of the Greek word, psyche, which we understand as “ Mind”. Soul, Neshamah, is not to be understood as some ghost flittering around us, but as “Mind”, encompassing our core essence as a human being]
THE ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness. The soul's healthful state is due to its condition, and that of its faculties, by which it constantly does what is right, and performs what is proper, while the illness of the soul is occasioned by its condition, and that of its faculties, which results in its constantly doing wrong, and performing actions that are improper. The science of medicine investigates the health of the body. . . .
But, if he who is morally sick be not aware of his illness, imagining that he is well, or, being aware of it, does not seek a remedy, his end will be similar to that of one, who, suffering from bodily ailment, yet continuing to indulge himself, neglects to be cured, and who in consequence surely meets an untimely death.
Chapter 4 [Attaining “stasis”, balance in body and mind]
GOOD deeds are such as are equibalanced, maintaining the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little.
Virtues are psychic conditions and dispositions which are mid-way between two reprehensible extremes, one of which is characterized by an exaggeration, the other by a deficiency. Good deeds are the product of these dispositions. To illustrate, abstemiousness [zehirut-temperateness] is a disposition which adopts a mid-course between inordinate passion and total insensibility to pleasure. Abstemiousness, then, is a proper rule of conduct, and the psychic disposition which gives rise to it is an ethical quality ; but inordinate passion, the extreme of excess, and total insensibility to enjoyment, the extreme of deficiency, are both absolutely pernicious. The psychic dispositions, from which these two extremes, inordinate passion[ hedonism] and insensibility [ anhedonia], result the one being an exaggeration, the other a deficiency are alike classed among moral imperfections….
It often happens, however, that men err as regards these qualities, imagining that one of the extremes is good, and is a virtue. Sometimes, the extreme of the too much is considered noble, as when temerity is made a virtue, and those who recklessly risk their lives are hailed as heroes. Thus, when people see a man, reckless to the highest degree, who runs deliberately into danger, intentionally tempting death, and escaping only by mere chance, they laud such a one to the skies, and say that he is a hero. At other times, the opposite extreme, the too little, is greatly esteemed, and the coward is considered a man of forbearance; the idler, as being a person of a contented disposition; and he, who by the dullness of his nature is callous to every joy, is praised as a man of moderation, [that is, one who eschews sin].
In like manner, profuse liberality and extreme lavishness are erroneously extolled as excellent characteristics. This is, however, an absolutely mistaken view, for the really praiseworthy is the medium course of action to which every one should strive to adhere, always weighing his conduct carefully, so that he may attain the proper mean. [ Derekh haemtza’it- Middle way-shvil hazahav- Golden path- Golden Mean]
Know, moreover, that these moral excellences or defects cannot be acquired, or implanted in the soul, except by means of the frequent repetition of acts resulting from these qualities, which, practiced during a long period of time, accustoms us to them. If these acts performed are good ones, then we shall have gained a virtue; but if they are bad, we shall have acquired a vice.
In such a contingency, it is proper for him to resort to a cure, exactly as he would were his body suffering from an illness. So, just as when the equilibrium of the physical health is disturbed, and we note which way it is tending in order to force it to go in exactly the opposite direction until it shall return to its proper condition, and, just as when the proper adjustment is reached, we cease this operation, and have recourse to that which will maintain the proper balance, in exactly the same way must we adjust the moral equilibrium.
Let us take, for example, the case of a man in whose soul there has developed a disposition [of great avarice] on account of which he deprives himself [of every comfort in life], and which, by the way, is one of the most detestable of defects, and an immoral act, as we have shown in this chapter. If we wish to cure this sick man, we must not command him merely [to practice] deeds of generosity, for that would be as ineffective as a physician trying to cure a patient consumed by a burning fever by administering mild medicines, which treatment would be in-efficacious. We must, however, induce him to squander so often, and to repeat his acts of profusion so continuously until that propensity which was the cause of his avarice has totally disappeared. Then, when he reaches that point where he is about to become a squanderer, we must teach him to moderate his profusion, and tell him to continue with deeds of generosity, and to watch out with due care lest he relapse either into lavishness or niggardliness.
The perfect Law which leads us to perfection as one who knew it well testifies by the words, (Psalms 19:8) "The Law of the Lord is perfect restoring the soul; the testimonies of the Lord are faithful making wise the simple" recommends none of these things (such as self-torture, flight from society etc.). On the contrary, it aims at man's following the path of moderation, in accordance with the dictates of nature, eating, drinking, enjoying legitimate sexual intercourse, all in moderation, and living among people in honesty and uprightness, but not dwelling in the wilderness or in the mountains, or clothing oneself in garments of hair and wool, or afflicting the body. The Law even warns us against these practices. . .
[The path of self-denial is not our path]
[Those] who imitate the followers of other religions, maintain that when they torment their bodies, and renounce every joy, that they do so merely to discipline the faculties of their souls by inclining somewhat to the one extreme, as is proper, and in accordance with our own recommendations in this chapter, our answer is that they are in error, as I shall now demonstrate.
The Law did not lay down its prohibitions, or enjoin its commandments, except for just this purpose, namely, that by its disciplinary effects we may persistently maintain the proper distance from either extreme.
The Rabbis,( Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim Ch 9) greatly blame those who bind themselves by oaths and vows, in consequence of which they are fettered like prisoners. The exact words they use are, "Said Rabbi Iddai, in the name of Rabbi Isaac, 'Dost thou not think that what the Law prohibits is sufficient for thee that thou must take upon thyself additional prohibitions?' "
Chapter 5 [What is the purpose of human existence?]
As we have explained in the preceding chapter, it is the duty of man to subordinate all the faculties of his soul to his reason. He must keep his mind's eye fixed constantly upon one goal, namely, the attainment of the knowledge of God (may He be blessed!), as far as it is possible for mortal man to know Him. Consequently, one must so adjust all his actions, his whole conduct, and even his very words, that they lead to this goal, in order that none of his deeds be aimless, and thus retard the attainment of that end.
So, his only design in eating, drinking, cohabiting, sleeping, waking, moving about, and resting should be the preservation of bodily health, while, in turn, the reason for the latter is that the soul and its agencies may be in sound and perfect condition, so that he may readily acquire wisdom, and gain moral and intellectual virtues, all to the end that man may reach the highest goal of his endeavors. Accordingly, man will not direct his attention merely to obtain bodily enjoyment, choosing of food and drink and the other things of life only the agreeable, but he will seek out the most useful, being indifferent whether it be agreeable or not. . .
From this point of view, the study of medicine has a very great influence upon the acquisition of the virtues and of the knowledge of God, as well as upon the attainment of true, spiritual happiness. Therefore, its study and acquisition are preeminently important religious activities, and must not be ranked in the same class with the art of weaving, or the science of architecture, for by it one learns to weigh one's deeds, and thereby human activities are rendered true virtues.
The man who insists upon indulging in savory, sweet smelling and palatable food although it be injurious, and possibly may lead to serious illness or sudden death ought, in my opinion, to be classed with the beasts. . . . (Psalms 49:21) "he is like the beasts who perish". Man acts like a human being only when he eats that which is wholesome, at times avoiding the agreeable, and partaking of the disagreeable in his search for the beneficial. Such conduct is in accordance with the dictates of reason, and by these acts man is distinguished from all other beings. Similarly, if a man satisfy his sexual passions whenever he has the desire, regardless of good or ill effects, he acts as a brute, and not as a man.
…. The real duty of man is, that in adopting whatever measures he may for his well-being and the preservation of his existence in good health, he should do so with the object of maintaining a perfect condition of the instruments of the soul, which are the limbs of the body, so that his soul may be unhampered, and he may busy himself in acquiring the moral and mental virtues. So it is with all the sciences and knowledge man may learn.
[Study of philosophy and science is an essential prerequisite to developing the trained mind need to achieve the human’s highest goal]
Concerning those which lead directly to this goal, there is naturally no question; but such subjects as mathematics, the study of conic sections, mechanics, the various problems of geometry, hydraulics, and many others of a similar nature, which do not tend directly towards that goal, should be studied for the purpose of sharpening the mind, and training the mental faculties by scientific investigations, so that man may acquire intellectual ability to distinguish demonstrative proofs from others, whereby he will be enabled to comprehend the essence of God.
If man has this as his ideal, he will dispense with many of his customary deeds, and refrain from a great deal of ordinary conversation…[Enjoyment of material goods is part of keeping the soul healthy, within moderation]
Therefore, our Rabbis of blessed memory say, (Shabbat 25b) "It is becoming that a sage should have a pleasant dwelling, a beautiful wife, and domestic comfort"; for one becomes weary, and one's mind dulled by continued mental concentration upon difficult problems. Thus, just as the body becomes exhausted from hard labor, and then by rest and refreshment recovers, so is it necessary for the mind to have relaxation by gazing upon pictures and other beautiful objects, that its weariness may be dispelled. Accordingly, it is related (Shabbat 30b) that when the Rabbis became exhausted from study, they were accustomed to engage in entertaining conversation (in order to refresh themselves). From this point of view, therefore, the use of pictures and embroideries for beautifying the house, the furniture, and the clothes is not to be considered immoral nor unnecessary.
Know that to live according to this standard is to arrive at a very high degree of perfection, which, in consequence of the difficulty of attainment, only a few, after long and continuous perseverance on the paths of virtue, have succeeded in reaching. If there be found a man who has accomplished this that is one who exerts all the faculties of his soul, and directs them towards the sole ideal of comprehending God, using all his powers of mind and body, be they great or small, for the attainment of that which leads directly or indirectly to virtue I would place him in a rank not lower than that of the prophets
They forbid one to say, "I, by my nature, do not desire to commit such and such a transgression, even though the Law does not forbid it". Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel summed up this thought in the words, "Man should not say, 'I do not want to eat meat together with milk; I do not want to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen; I do not want to enter into an incestuous marriage', but he should say, 'I do indeed want to, yet I must not, for my father in Heaven has forbidden it'".
The instances they cite are all from the ceremonial law, such as partaking of meat and milk together, wearing clothes made of wool and linen, and entering into consanguinuous marriages. These, and similar enactments are what God called (Leviticus 18:4) "my statutes" (hukoth), which, as the Rabbis say are (Yoma 67b) "statutes which I (God) have enacted for thee, which thou hast no right to subject to criticism, which the nations of the world attack and which Satan denounces, as for instance, the statutes concerning the red heifer, the scapegoat, and so forth".
IT is impossible for man to be born endowed by nature from his very birth with either virtue or vice, just as it is impossible that he should be born skilled by nature in any particular art. It is possible, however, that through natural causes he may from birth be so constituted as to have a predilection for a particular virtue or vice, so that he will more readily practice it than any other.
For instance, a man whose natural constitution inclines towards dryness, whose brain matter is clear and not overloaded with fluids, finds it much easier to learn, remember, and understand things than the phlegmatic man whose brain is encumbered with a great deal of humidity [ medieval neurology- brain function affected by moist/dry/phlegm/humors]. But, if one who inclines constitutionally towards a certain excellence is left entirely without instruction, and if his faculties are not stimulated, he will undoubtedly remain ignorant. On the other hand, if one by nature dull and phlegmatic, possessing an abundance of humidity, is instructed and enlightened, he will, though with difficulty, it is true, gradually succeed in acquiring knowledge and understanding. In exactly the same way, he whose blood is somewhat warmer than is necessary has the requisite quality to make of him a brave man. Another, however, the temperament of whose heart is colder than it should be, is naturally inclined towards cowardice and fear, so that if he should be taught and trained to be a coward, he would easily become one. If, however, it be desired to make a brave man of him, he can without doubt become one, providing he receive the proper training which would require, of course, great exertion.
I have entered into this subject so thou mayest not believe the absurd ideas of astrologers, who falsely assert that the constellation at the time of one's birth determines whether one is to be virtuous or vicious, the individual being thus necessarily compelled to follow out a certain line of conduct.
Were a man compelled to act according to the dictates of predestination, then the commands and prohibitions of the Law would become null and void, and the Law would be completely false, since man would have no freedom of choice in what he ; does. Moreover, it would be useless, in fact absolutely in vain, for man to study, to instruct, or attempt to learn an art, as it would be entirely impossible for him, on account of the external force compelling him, according to the opinion of those who hold this view, to keep from doing a certain act, from gaining certain knowledge, or from acquiring a certain characteristic. Reward and punishment, too, would be pure injustice, both as regards man towards man, and as between God and man. Suppose, under such conditions, that Simeon should kill Reuben. Why should the former be punished, seeing that he was constrained to do the killing, and Reuben was predestined to be slain? How could the Almighty, who is just and righteous, chastise Simeon for a deed which it was impossible for him to leave undone, and which, though he strove with all his might, he would be unable to avoid? If such were the true state of affairs, all precautionary measures, such as building houses, providing means of subsistence, fleeing when one fears danger, and so forth, would be absolutely use- less, for that which is decreed beforehand must necessarily happen. This theory is, therefore, positively unsound, contrary to reason and common sense, subversive of the fundamental principles of religion, and attributes injustice to God (far be it from Him!).
In reality, the undoubted truth of the matter is that man has full sway over all his actions. If he wishes to do a thing, he does it; if he does not wish to do it, he need not, without any external compulsion controlling him. Therefore, God very properly commanded man, saying, (Deuteronomy 30:15-19) "See I have set before thee this day life and the good, death and evil .... therefore choose thou life", giving us, as regards these, freedom of choice. Consequently, punishment is inflicted upon those who disobey, and reward granted to the obedient, as it is said, (Exodus 19:5) "If thou wilt hearken", and (Leviticus 26:14) "If thou wilt not hearken". Learning and teaching are also necessary, according to the commands, (Deuteronomy 11:19) "Ye shall teach them to your children", (Deuteronomy 5:1) "and ye shall do them and observe to do them", and, similarly, all the other passages referring to the study of the commandments.
[ Maimonides is deeply engaged in contemporary Islamic thought, as Jewish and Moslem scholar alike shared these intellectual positions. This is the period of great Judeo-Islamic synthesis]
The Mutakalimun( Islamic philosophy) are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. [ Time, as well as matter is atomistic-discrete- one moment cannot cause the next moment- It requires the Divine will of Allah at each moment to decree it] We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course, in accordance with what Solomon said, (Ecclesiastes 1:9) "As it was, so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun"….
In everything that they said, you will always find that the Rabbis (peace be unto them!) avoided referring to the Divine Will as determining a particular event at a particular time.
As regards, however, the words of God, (Exodus 14:4) "and I will harden the heart of Pharaoh", afterwards punishing him with death, . . .Such, however, was not the real state of affairs, for Pharaoh and his followers, already of their own free will, without any constraint whatever, had rebelled by oppressing the strangers who were in their midst, having tyrannized over them with great injustice, as Scripture plainly states, (Exodus 1:9-10) "And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and mightier than we, come let us deal wisely with it". This they did through the dictates of their own free will and the evil passions of their hearts, without any external constraint forcing them thereto. The punishment which God then inflicted upon them was that He withheld from them the power of repentance, so that there should fall upon them that punishment which justice declared should he meted out to them.
Reflect, then, upon all that we have said, namely, that man has control over his actions, that it is by his own determination that he does either the right or the wrong, without, in either case, being controlled by fate, and that, as a result of this divine commandment, teaching, preparation, reward, and punishment are proper. Of this there is absolutely no doubt.
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