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The duty to philosophize: Socrates and Maimonides.

PHILOSOPHY MAY BEGIN IN WONDER, BUT it is sustained by the desire and need to understand; and these latter are the archai, the true grounds for philosophy. Furthermore, this desire to understand is, itself, motivated by a certain conception of the good life and human happiness. If one does not believe that the human good consists, at least in part, in the search for, attainment of, and reflection upon truth, one shall hardly see the need to philosophize. We, as philosophers, readily assent to all this, or at least understand it, but in so doing we must also be struck by how often we have strayed from this ideal. So professionalized has philosophy become that it seems that the only duty to philosophize which we feel is in the context of the obligation to meet various deadlines, to teach classes and to write papers for conferences. But such heteronomy was not always the norm. One cannot imagine Spinoza's reflections and writings, for example, being motivated by the just-mentioned obligations. For him, an inner need, as we might put it, was the driving force. And though this inner drive was, itself, derived from his desire to achieve blessedness, a condition in which one gained mastery over, and understanding of, the passions, and a sense of one's place in the universe,(1) the sort of heteronomy which motivated Spinoza seems rather "purer" than ours.

Viewed in this way, philosophy quite naturally fills a deep epistemic need of the individual. Indeed, Spinoza is a paradigm of the kind of thinker for whom philosophy as self-understanding, as understanding one's place in a purposeless universe bereft of a creator, makes sense. We have, in Spinoza, a picture (a self-portralt?) of a solitary thinker whose reflections are a very private affair. On this model, philosophy presents itself as a most apolitical enterprise, an activity done by the individual and, as importantly, for the individual.

But this model of philosophy and its practice is not the only one. And on this note we may begin.

1. Preliminaries

One of the hallmarks of the modern age, at least from Descartes' and Spinoza's time, is the privatization of many aspects of human life which were previously well-integrated into society as a whole. The privatization of religion is an obvious example; another is exemplified by the "problem," indeed the embarrassment, which the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle in particular, felt in attempting to square competing conceptions of the human good. The tension between politics and philosophy, and, with it, an unresolved tension between competing conceptions of the human good,(2) arose precisely because of the philosophers' discovery that the human good might be conceived as apoilitical in nature. For us moderns, this dichotomy between the private and the public is familiar and hardly surprising, but, for the Greek philosophers, this (apolitical) conception of the human good did not sit well with the "truth" which Aristotle himself, on behalf of Greeks generally, uttered: "man is by nature a political animal" (Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b11; Politics 1.2, 1253a7). If this latter is true, then the privatization of the human good becomes problematic.

The point, then, is this. In pre-modern times a certain "publicity" attended activities which, in latter days, we have privatized. In this essay I should like to reflect upon this with reference to the aforementioned duty to philosophize. I choose, as my pre-modern exemplars, Socrates(3) 3 and Maimonides. These two philosophers, so different in time and place, do share at least this in common: for both, the duty to philosophize (to "do" philosophy and/or to study it) is a religious obligation, an obligation grounded, at least in part, by a divine pronouncement, oracular or scriptural. Furthermore, such philosophical activity as both Socrates and Maimonides engage in, is not activity whose results are bereft of political application. On the contrary, I shall show that the religious obligation to do philosophy has political relevance. For both Socrates and Maimonides, the duty to philosophize does not remove the philosopher from the world, but, rather, impels him, on the basis of his philosophical reflection, toward it.

II. Socrates and the Duty to Philosophize

Socrates viewed his philosophic mission to the Athenians as exactly that, a mission, grounded, at least in part,(4) by remarks which the Delphic oracle uttered to his friend, Chaerephon. Motivated by reflection upon Socrates' discussions with Athenian citizens of repute, Chaerephone betook himself to Delphi and asked the priestess of Apollo whether any man was wiser than Socrates. The reply was no. Never has a negative proven to be more positive, for Socrates was dumbfounded by the response and, in reflecting upon it, he was driven to test its veracity and to discover its meaning. And thus, motivated by an oracular decree, Socrates took to the streets.(5)

He questioned poets, politicians and craftsmen, all of whom imagined that they possessed (moral) wisdom and knowledge (of virtue). Euthyphro, for example, a man with a reputation for piety, supposes that he, more than others, possesses knowledge of what piety is. But Socrates shows him, indeed proves to him, that he does not possess such knowledge about piety as he thinks he has. Euthyphro is ignorant about the nature of piety. In this regard, however, Socrates is no wiser than Euthyphro, for he, too, possesses no knowledge of what piety is. What, then, accounts for Socrates' wisdom, of which the oracle spoke? The only knowledge which Socrates is cognizant of possessing is his knowledge, his awareness, that he has no knowledge.(6) In this he is wiser than Euthyphro, who imagines he knows what, in fact, he does not know. Socrates' second-order knowledge of his lack of (moral) knowledge accounts for the oracle's declaration that no one is wiser than Socrates; correlatively, the "double ignorance" of Euthyphro (and those like him), his ignorance - his lack of awareness - of his ignorance, manifested in his conceit of wisdom, accounts for the oracle's declaration of Socrates' preeminent wisdom.(7)

All those whom Socrates questioned - politicians, poets and craftsmen - suffered not merely from an intellectual failure, an ignorance of the nature of (the) virtue(s), but, as importantly, they suffered from a moral failure, the conceit of wisdom. Correlatively, Socrates' lack of such conceit, his "humility" in the face of lack of knowledge, grounds his moral wisdom. In fact, this latter claim is too weak; rather, Socrates' humility is his moral wisdom. Given this, the discussions which Socrates has with his various interlocutors take on a certain coloration, sometimes overlooked. Socrates' discussions are not merely intellectual jousts; they are also, and just as importantly, moral tests.(8) The gaining of wisdom, se sought by Socrates, entails that one's character be properly established. And this establishment of a character appropriate for learning is as much a part of Socrates' "teaching" as is anything else. In being disabused of purported wisdom, Euthyphro and Meno are forced to see, even if only momentarily and with reluctance, that their respective characters are deeply flawed.(9) The Socratic elenchus (refutation) is a test, then, of the interlocutor's character, and successful elenchus entails moral reform.

So conceived, Socrates is a moral reformer. This is hardly surprising until we realize that here is a moral reformer who has nothing, no doctrine, to teach. Such knowledge as Socrates possesses, namely, the awareness that he lacks knowledge, is for him no more than a starting point from which to (start to) seek the knowledge which is lacking. But what sort of wisdom is this self-awareness of one's ignorance? It seems almost vacuous, unless accompanied by a gloss of the sort of knowledge (of ignorance) which the wise man has. The knowledge which the wise man possesses (of his own ignorance) is not a spectator-like knowledge of a fact "apart" from his being. The knowledge of one's ignorance and lack of wisdom is not of a piece with the knowledge of how many trees are in the forest. There is a motivational, desiderative component to the former. This knowledge desires to rid the soul of its ignorance. Not merely does the wise man know that he knows nothing, but he also finds this state of affairs intolerable. It is intolerable to know that you know nothing and to do nothing about it. "The unexamined life is not worth living for man" (Apology 38a).

But how does one "teach" this to another? How does one teach another to desire to gain wisdom, to philosophize? How does one disabuse another of the conceit of wisdom and do so in such a way that he awakens (kindles) a desire to learn? This is Socrates' task, to which he devoted his life, and for which he was put to death.

Socrates viewed this task as a divine service, as a duty to the gods. As such, it is an act of piety. In the Euthyphro, toward the end of the dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the possibility that piety is a kind of divine service (hyperetike theois, at 13d7) which humans offer to the gods. But to what end or goal does this service tend? All subordinates help their respective masters achieve some goal: carpenters help architects build a house, soldiers help generals achieve victory in war, and so forth. Again, what goal do we humans help our "masters," the gods, achieve? No answcr is forthcoming by Euthyphro. Piety remains unexplicated, as a result. The dialogue soon ends in perplexity. It should be noted, however, that no one ever denies that piety is a kind of service to the gods. Further, when read in the light of the Apology, it seems clear what that particular service to the gods is, which is no other than piety.

The Apology clarifies Socrates' task as a divine service, and his role as a "soldier" of Apollo (28d). His mission to the gods, dutifully carried out, is the questing and search for knowledge, i.e., the doing of philosophy, by means of the questioning and testing of his fellow citizens. In a word, the service to the gods which is plety is nothing other than the public practice of philosophy.(10)

With this understanding of Socrates' activity, philosophy may be viewed as a duty. The philosopher's piety, his service to the gods, is to make himself and others as good and as wise as possible. On trial for his life, Socrates proclaimed:

There is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god (to theo hyperesian, at 30a6-7). For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul (30a-b; trans. Grube).

Socrates' duty, to himself and to others, is to try to establish his desire for knowledge, a desire born of a deep awareness of his own ignorance, as a civic desideratum, replacing ships and armaments. The duty to philosophize, then, is political in its intent. Socrates is enjoined to force others to care for their souls, not their reputations, and to put nothing ahead of the quest for wisdom. And this obligation falls upon him, and him alone, because only he already possesses the requisite character. Others, mired in a conceit of wisdom, await moral reform. That the polis put Socrates to death reveals how much reform was necessary. More specifically, it reveals a stark truth about human nature: vanity breeds vindictiveness.

III. Maimonides and Philosophy as a Religious Obligation

In turning to Maimonides, one is struck by an elitism, an intellectual elitism, which is absent in Socrates. Socrates discoursed with all and sundry, even a slave, never imagining that the care of one's soul and the examination of one's life could prove dangerous. Plato and Aristotle, however, commence a tradition of philosophical elitism. For them, philosophy may prove hazardous. Nihilism may result. For Plato and Aristotle, one must be properly prepared and of age before one can proceed to engage in the kind of speculative inquiry which probes the deepest foundations.(11) With specific reference to Plato, the "intellectualization" ("academization"?) of philosophy, and the concomitant narrowing of the audience for whom philosophy is suitable and valuable, is, perhaps, a manifestation of Plato's increasing pessimism about human beings generally and his inability to put theory into practice. Perhaps it is even a final reflection upon the scandal of Socrates' death at the hands of Athenian democracy.(12) Whatever the reason, the tradition of philosophical elitism began.

It is a tradition that was adopted wholeheartedly by the philosophers of medieval Islam and Judaism. The most celebrated statement of this kind of intellectual elitism is to be found in Averroes' Fasl al-Maqal. On pages 22-3 (ed. Muller), Averroes presents an analogy between the legislator and the medical doctor, both of whom need to exercise caution in the presentation of their respective truths. Like the doctor who will prescribe a cure to the layman in terms which the latter can understand, so the legislator, a veritable philosopher-king, will provide for the psychic well-being and religious belief of the unphilosophical masses in their own terms. To address them by means of demonstrative reasoning, the philosophical mode, would be worse than useless, for it would cause unbelief. To attempt to persuade the unphilosophical masses by demonstrative arguments would undercut the foundations of their belief, a belief based upon the imaginative faculty alone and unencumbered by any trace of esotericism.(13)

This intellectual elitism, with its concomitant stand against the public teaching of philosophy, was adopted by Maimonides.(14) The whole of the Guide is addressed to a certain narrow audience of perplexed individual, the religious Jew who has tasted a bit of philosophical fruit and, as a result, finds trouble in making commensurable the wisdom of the Greeks with his religious beliefs and practices. Negatively, the Guide is manifestly not addressed to all those others who will never be philosophically perplexed. In this context, in addition to his explicit remarks in the Introduction to the Guide as to the intended audience of the work, one must also undersand all of Maimonides' remarks in I.31-35, which describe the subtlety and difficulty of metaphysics and warn of the deleterious effects of studying it too soon or, indeed, at all, in the case of those whose mental capacity is naturally deficient for such study.(15)

For purposes of this essay, that aspect of Maimonides' intellectual elitism which is of interest is the obverse of his proscription of philosophy for the un philosophical masses. For those capable of philosophy, its study, as will be seen, is not merely allowed but obligatory. For those capable of so doing, there is a duty to philosophize.

Averroes, be it noted, thought so as well. The Fasl al-Maqdl addresses itself to the very question of whether, from the standpoint of shari'a, the study of philosophy (and logic) is allowed, prohibited, recommended, or obligatory. Basing himself upon a number of Qur'anic verses, e.g., "Reflect, you have vision" (59.2), Averroes strongly affirms that the study of philosophy, i.e., metaphysical speculation, is obligatory by law for those capable of it. For him,

...whoever forbids the study of [philosophy] to anyone who is fit to study [it]- that is, anyone who unites two qualities, (1) natural intelligence and (2) legal integrity and moral virtue - is blocking people from the door by which the Law summons [such people] to knowledge of God, the door of theoretical study that leads to the trucst knowledge of Him; and such an act is the extreme of ignorance and estrangement from God, the Exalted (p. 5, Muller; trans. Hourani).

For Maimonides, too, as for Averroes, there is a religious obligation to philosophize and to study Greek wisdom. As Davidson has well pointed Out,(16) the duty to philosophize, i.e., to understand Judaism from a rational point of view, follows for Maimonides (and for other medieval Jewish thinkers) from (the interpretation of) three sources: (1) from the injunction to know God (Deut. 4:39; Jer. 9:23; I Chron. 28:9); (2) from the injunction to love Him (Deut. 6:5, 11:13); and (3) from the injunction to study Torah (Joshua 1:8; Avot, passim). The injunction to know God entails, for the philosopher, the necessity of knowing that God exists, i.e., of proving and demonstrating that God exists. Indeed, Maimonides presents Abraham as a philosopher who, having contemplated the heavenly bodies and the pattern of celestial motions, proceeds to demonstrate (a posteriori) the existence of God (as first mover).(17) Here, clearly, knowing God entails, for a few, the doing of philosophy. Only through such activity is the faith of the religious intellectual grounded. A similar conclusion is to be reached in the case of the second injunction, to love God. To love God (Deut. 6:5) entails the necessity of knowing Him, the first injunction. As one cannot love what one does not know - and on this Malmonides is explicit: "love is proportionate to apprehension" (Guide III.51; cf. I.39, Ill .28 and Mishneh Torah, T'shuvah X.6) - the injunction to love God requires, for the philosopher, philosophical knowledge of Him. And, finally, the third injunction, to study Torah, is, for the philosopher, a commandment enjoining the study of physics (ma'aseh bereshit) and metaphysics (ma'aseh merkavah; cf. Guide Introduction) as well as the study of the law in the narrower, legal sense.

The duty to philosophize, then, is a religious obligation. What is the content of this obligation for the religious intellectual? The positive knowledge attained through the study of philosophy is nothing less than knowledge of all of God's creation as well as His governance over nature (Guide Ill.54). Further, this knowledge is not merely speculative, for it has moral and political implications for the knower, whose life is to be lived in imitation of God's ways (Guide, Ibid.). But we should note that, in gaining such knowledge of God as is possible for humans, one learns, according to Maimonides, another kind of moral wisdom as well, a kind of self-knowledge, not, I think, unlike Socrates' knowledge of himself as one lacking in knowledge. As profound as Socrates' awareness of his ignorance about ultimate matters, is the knowledge of the Maimonidean philosopher (Maimonides?) that he cannot fathom God's essence. The philosopher may well know that God exists and much about His creation, but, yet, an unbridgeable gap separates the thinker from the ultimate object of his knowledge. The prayer with which Maimonides concludes Guide 1.58 makes the point starkly:

Praise be to Him Who is such that when our minds try to visualize His essence, their power of apprehending becomes imbecility; when they study the connection between His works and His will, their knowledge becomes ignorance; and when our tongues desire to declare His greatness by descriptive terms, all eloquence becomes impotence and imbecility (tr. Rabin .

This prayer is nested in the midst of Maimonides' cclebrated discussion of the doctrine of negative attributes, and this doctrine, the semantic correlate to Maimonides' finitist epistemology, undergirds the point that I have been stressing. The doctrine of negative attributes, which follows directly from God's absolute unity and utter transcendence, and from the poverty of human discourse to describe Him (Guide I.50), has normative implications, if you will. It entails that knowledge of God, to the extent that it is possible, entails, pari passu, a deep awareness of one's ignorance about Him. In gaining what knowledge of God is possible for humans, the philosopher is made equally aware of what he does not, indeed, cannot, know. I would suggest that this delimiting of human wisdom is an attempt on Maimonides' part to create - in advance of, and along with, the philosophic quest for knowledge - the requisite moral stand for the would-be philosopher, an attitude analogous to that which Socrates attempted (unsuccessfully) to create in his interlocutors. Again, the severe difficulties which attend metaphysical speculation (Guide 1.31-35), and the impossibility of direct knowledge of God, are not simply "facts" which Maimonides wishes to stress. His remarks are equally to be understood as ways whereby Maimonides attempts to instruct his erstwhile student and addressee of the Guide, the impetuous young Joseph, to slow down and temper his enthusiasm, and only then to proceed to learn in an appropriate and measured fashion. Viewed this way, these Maimonidean chapters are, in part, moral lessons offered to inculcate the appropriate character for learning(18) Suffice it to say, for both Socrates and Maimonides, the philosophic quest for knowledge requires a certain humility, a deflation of the ego.(19)

The fact that humans cannot have direct knowledge of God entails that such knowledge of Him as we can possess is indirect. As finite creatures, we can know Him only through His creation and His actions. Further, such knowledge of God's actions entails "limitation of His ways," ways of "loving-kindness, righteousness and judgment" (Guide III.54). Again, knowledge of God's actions entails an active engagement by the knower in the world. Viewed this way, human knowledge of God is part of Maimonides' political agenda.(20) The religious duty to inquire and to philosophize is part of a (Platonic) political agenda which attempts to ground leadership in the community upon sound metaphysical principles. We have previously noted that the Socratic duty to philosophize was a duty enjoined upon Socrates and, through him, upon all Athenian citizens. Socrates' duty became, ultimately, an obligation upon all citizens to examine their lives and to modify them accordingly. Maimonides cannot be making this point, for his intellectual elitism precludes the possibility of all Jews gaining the kind of knowledge (and level of self-awareness) accessible only to the philosopher. But, though the insight of the philosopher is given to him alone, the Maimonidean duty to philosophize does not lapse into isolationism, a removal of the thinker from the world. The duty to philosophize does not only serve to assuage the intellectual perplexity of the philosophically-minded Jew, but it also forces him to realize his humanity and, in so doing, to help others realize theirs.


(1). Ethics VP3C, p. 38, p. 42 and Scholium. (2). Plato: Republic VII, 519d-521b; Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics X.7-8. For some recent discussion of this much-discussed topic, see (1) J.M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), pp. 144-80; (2) A.W.H. Adkins, "Theoria versus Praxis in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Republic," Classical Philology 73 (1978): 297-313; (3) N. White, A Companion to Plato's Republic (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), pp. 189-96; (4) J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato's Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 266-71; (5) R. Kraut, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 15-77 (also p. 4, n. 7); (6) S. Broadie, Ethics with Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 366-438. (3). The "Socrates" of Plato's "early," aporetic dialogues. (4). "[A]t least in part...": The qualification is necessary, for the oracle is not hortatory. It simply asserts that no one is wiser than Socrates. By itself, the assertion would never have moved Socrates, unless he were already predisposed to be so moved. And it is this (pre)disposition or character trait (virtue) of piety, a commitment to following divine wishes, which, together with the oracle itself, yields his mission. For further remarks on this, see T. Brickhouse and N. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 95, n. 79; R. Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 271, n. 43. (5). Apology 21a-c. (6). Apology 21b. (7). Apology 21d. (8). For recent work which emphasizes this moral aspect of the Socratic refutation, see K. Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987); I. Dilman, Morality and the Inner Life: A Study in Plato's Gorgias (London: Macmillan, 1979); T. Schmid, "Socratic Moderation and Self-Knowledge," Journal of the History of Philosophy 21 (1983): 339-48. (9). Euthyphro 11b, Meno 80a-b. (10). For this interpretation of the nature of piety, see the still fundamental study of W. Heidel, "On Plato's Euthyphro," Transactions of the American Philological Association 341 (1900): 164-81. (11). Plato, Republic VI, 497e-498c; VII, 539b-540b; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.3 (1095a2-13); VI.8 (1142a11-20) with Rhetoric II.12; see also C.D.C. Reeve, Philosopher- Kings: The Argument of Plato's Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 275, n. 3. (12). Seventh Letter 325b-c. (13). Fasl, p. 15 (Muller). (14). See Guide I, Intro.: 6-7 (tr. Pines), I.33: 72 and references therein to BT Hagigah 11b, 13a: "The Account of the Chariot [i.e., metaphysics] ought not to be taught even to one man, except if he be wise and able to understand by himself, in which case only the chapter headings may be transmitted to him ... The Account of the Beginning [i.e., physics] ought not to be taught in the presence of two men." (15). See, especially, I.33-34. (14). H. Davidson, "Philosophy as a Religious Obligation," in S.D. Goitein, ed., Religion in a Religious Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Association for Jewish Studies, 1974), pp. 53-68. (17). Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah I.2-3, Guide II.39, III.29; cf. Fasl, p. 2. (18). See further, "The Elimination of Perplexity: Socrates and Maimonides as Guides of the Perplexed," in D. Frank, ed., Autonomy and Judaism: The Individual and the Community in Jewish Philosophical Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992). (19). To be sure, the humility of Socrates is compatible with the possibility of knowledge of ultimate matters, while, for Maimonides, humility is incompatible with knowledge of God. In this sense, their respective humilities are instructively different. Nevertheless, my point here is that an analogy is in force insofar as both Socrates and Maimonides demand a humility (a self-aware "I don't know") in the face of purported wisdom before true learning may commence and as long as it continues. I thank Irving Block for forcing me to clarify this point. (20). For this interpretation, see L. Berman, "The Political Interpretation of the Maxim: The Purpose of Philosophy is the Imitation of God," Studia Islamica 15 (1961): 53-61; D. Frank, "The End of the Guide: Maimonides on the Best Life for Man," JUDAISM 34 (1985): 485-95.
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Author:Frank, Daniel H.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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