Anne-Laurence Caudano

title.none: Seeskin, Maimonides (Anne-Laurence Caudano)

identifier.other: baj9928.0702.005 07.02.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne-Laurence Caudano, University of Winnipeg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Seeskin, Kenneth. Maimonides on the Origin of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 224. $24.00 ISBN-10: 0-521-84553-X, ISBN-13: 978-521-84552-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.02.05

Seeskin, Kenneth. Maimonides on the Origin of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 224. $24.00 ISBN-10: 0-521-84553-X, ISBN-13: 978-521-84552-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Anne-Laurence Caudano
University of Winnipeg

In the Guide of the Perplexed, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) discusses the creation of the world in terms very similar to the Torah. In conformity with Genesis 1:1, Maimonides argues for a world created out of nothing in the first instant of time (creation ex nihilo). This conviction opposes him to both Plato and Aristotle, who ruled out the possibility of a creation out of nothing. While Plato granted that the world was created out of pre-existent matter (creation de novo), Aristotle rejected the process of creation altogether and considered the world eternal. In fact, Maimonides' affirmation of the Mosaic creation surprised scholars used to his adherence to Aristotelian natural philosophy. Many saw this as a form of religious prudence and looked for signs in the Guide of the Perplexed that would indicate his eventual belief in a world that exists in eternity (179).

This is the approach to Maimonides that Kenneth Seeskin sets out to dismantle. As it is clearly demonstrated in this book, Maimonides did not just confirm biblical creation in a religious whim. He truly disagreed with Aristotle on this point and highlighted the shortcomings of the Aristotelian system. Rather than an eternal world which exists out of necessity, the world, according to Maimonides, is the creation of a divine will and is contingent. In this well-argued book, Kenneth Seeskin offers an analysis of Maimonides' argument and, most important, the extent of his original contribution to the discussions on the origin of the world. Seven chapters progressively tackle the different aspects of his demonstration: the problem of discussing the origin of the world (chapter 1); Maimonides' interpretation of the Platonic, Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic traditions (chapters 2-4); the question of the particularity of the world (chapter 5); other questions related to a created world, such as its possible end (chapter 6); and, finally, the reception of Maimonides' ideas by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344) and Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410) (chapter 7).

According to Maimonides, although one should not adopt all elements from the text of Genesis literally, for instance in the count of days, Genesis 1:1 offers a consistent doctrine according to which the whole world was brought into existence by God at once. For him, the question of creation was not so much a factual problem (how did it happen?), as a conceptual one (chapter 1). The question one should ask is the following: "is it reasonable to think that a simple, immaterial being possessing free will is responsible for the complex material world we inhabit? (33)" Said differently: can a simple cause (God) create multiple effects (a complex world)? We can see the immediate problem facing the philosopher: God is not an object of experience, and is thus difficult to discuss. In the same way, we cannot discuss the origin of the world in similar terms to natural processes (matter or form for instance).

In justifying his position, Maimonides is indebted to Plato's Timaeus and the possibility of a creation de novo (chapter 2). Unfortunately, the style of the Timaeus is such that intellectuals hesitate on Plato's original intention and disagree on whether to give a literal or metaphorical interpretation to his views on creation. Moreover, we know that Maimonides only had access to paraphrases or secondary (Aristotelian) sources on the Timaeus. What we have is Maimonides' understanding of Plato, an interpretation inspired by a monotheism not assumed in the Timaeus, and in which the Demiurge plays a role greater than intended by Plato. Thus, in Maimonides' view, God is the cause of matter and the agent who imposes shape on it (59). In his argument for creation de novo, however, Plato assumed pre-existent matter and rejected creation ex nihilo: while the structure of the world is created de novo, its material component co-exists with the Demiurge. In fact, by assuming the eternity of space and forms, Plato never resolved the question of how images are formed: the structure of the world rather than its origin was the main concern of these philosophers.

To prove his point, Maimonides must also disagree with Aristotle's arguments for the eternity of the world (chapter 3). Indeed, the idea of an eternal world implies that the world is as it is by necessity. It also assumes that divine will does not change and that no other form of the world could ever be created. In Maimonides' interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy, two types of arguments prove the eternity of the world. The first, based on the nature of the world and the origin of a natural thing within the world, is flawed because it upholds that the principles used to explain the world as it is now may also be used to explain the origin of the world. Generation and change within the world are not similar to bringing things into existence, or creation. There is no proof that creation ex nihilo is impossible. The second, based on the nature of God, also implies that we can apply principles of natural philosophy to theology. May we assume impediments or incentives on God to create the world at a certain time and not another? Will and wisdom in God are beyond our comprehension, and one may not say that the creation of the world is either arbitrary or necessary. We have to conclude that the world is contingent and created with time.

Plotinus' idea of an emanant causality reached Maimonides through Alfarabi (c. 870-950) and Avicenna (980-1037) and has the advantage of providing a form of causality that does not require physical contact (chapter 4). For Plotinus, the world proceeds from a unique simple source, eternal and transcendent (the One). It is not always clear what Plotinus meant in some of his statements, however, which explains why other thinkers brought in their personal clarification of the system. For instance, to account for the question of how a world characterised by its complexity can emerge from a principle characterised by its unity, Avicenna introduced the idea of a chain of intermediate stages, or chain of causation, from the divine to the earthly matter. This explanation has the merit of providing grounds for the existence of a world. For Maimonides, though, it does not account for the particular features of this one (120).

The question of particularity is the following (chapter 5): is there any reason why our world is as it is, for instance in size or in the number of heavenly spheres, and not differently? If no reason is found, should we believe in arbitrariness? This essential question is related to the problem of divine choice as well: if no reason explains the current state of the world, it must be the result of the decision of a free agent, an agent with choice. In fact, for Maimonides, there are limits to the idea of a chain of causation purporting to explain emanation. According to Avicenna, God only produces the first intelligence. From there smaller measures of perfection are gradually conveyed to other forms. This, says Maimonides, not only denies God free will but also restricts God's choice to the placement of stars (146). In this chapter, Kenneth Seeskin offers an intriguing analysis of Maimonides' approach to astronomy. For Maimonides, indeed, limits to the emanation principle may be found in astronomy. Even though the astronomy of Ptolemy is able to predict the movements of the stars, its reliance on eccentrics and epicycles contradicts the Aristotelian model of natural motions. Astronomy is a successful theory that rests on questionable principles and is, therefore, a "true perplexity" (132). While astronomy may not qualify as a proper Aristotelian science, it resembles science thanks to its effective predictive capacity. From there, Maimonides has to conclude that there is no necessity in the structure of the heavens. He is still convinced, though, that order in the heavens prevails, not arbitrariness. Because it is not for us to know divine reasons, he cannot say why. If the purpose of the world cannot be determined, however, we can surmise that it is conform to God's will. Maimonides leaves us with the need to recognise limits to human understanding.

Other questions are related to creation (chapter 6). For example, Maimonides rejects the possibility of the end of the world or the likelihood of its annihilation by God, as the natural processes of decay that go with natural generation do not apply to something created by God's will. Moreover, even though God has the possibility to destroy the world, preserving the world is as much part of divine will as creating it. Finally, even though there are limits to science, for instance in astronomy, this does not undermine scientific enquiry (171). The Aristotelian sciences are naturalistic explanations based on sense experience, which are true for the sub- lunar world. They are conjectural for the rest. In this respect, Maimonides remains true to his Aristotelian convictions.

Eventually, Maimonides is unable to demonstrate his position (chapter 7): no causal connection as we know it, or creation in space and time, proves that the world was created ex nihilo and de novo. Divine will may explain creation, but is not always transparent to our human understanding. Because some things may still be understood, we may only presume that the world is not the creation of "a frivolous or arbitrary will" (184). We need also to admit that anything other than God is contingent, and not necessary. On this matter, after Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas had to consider this hypothesis as an article of faith rather than reason. Other philosophers did not adhere to Maimonides' views: Gersonides rejected creation ex nihilo, while Crescas believed in an eternal creation.

This excellent book will be an enjoyment to all interested in medieval philosophy and cosmology. It is a welcomed contribution to the scholarship on Maimonides, which clears all doubts on the Jewish philosopher's position about creation in the Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides clearly disagrees with Aristotle regarding the origin of the world. His argument is not just a form of religious caution that scholars have sometimes imputed on him. By leading us through Maimonides' thought, Kenneth Seeskin also invites us to rethink the object and limits of Aristotelian philosophy and natural sciences, as well as the place of astronomy within them.