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22.12.09 Halper (ed.), The Pursuit of Happiness in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Thought

22.12.09 Halper (ed.), The Pursuit of Happiness in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Thought


The theme of this volume is the idea--widely accepted in the philosophical traditions of medieval Judaism and Islam--that human happiness consists of some kind of intellectual knowledge of God. Most of the articles in the volume explore texts and teachings by a diverse range of Jewish and Muslim thinkers (as well as certain Christians and Greek pagans) who shared this intellectual ideal of human happiness. But as the articles collectively demonstrate, these thinkers offered a wide range of ideas about what constitutes intellectual knowledge of God and how such knowledge may be pursued. Their views reflect divergent philosophical and theological presuppositions, particular interpretations of religion and religious texts, and varying opinions about the roles of practical activities like politics, ethics, and medicine in the pursuit of intellectual happiness. The volume showcases similarities and differences among and between medieval thinkers by situating their ideas in broad historical, philosophical, and textual contexts. These contexts include the ancient Greek philosophical background, the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian traditions of late antiquity that spread in the Middle Ages, the philosophical curriculum as it was studied and transformed in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and the complex religious cultures of medieval Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

The broad scope of the volume and the specific subjects of each article are held together nicely by the theme of intellectual happiness. Most of the articles connect explicitly to the theme, while others connect to it more indirectly. In the introduction to the volume, Yehuda Halper and Resianne Fontaine present the theme of happiness and describe how it unites the twenty chapters that follow, each of which explores some aspect of it through thinkers and texts from across the landscape of medieval Jewish and Islamic thought. What is especially compelling about the volume is that its theme foregrounds what so many medieval thinkers themselves took to be their highest purpose as human beings. The pursuit of happiness through intellectual knowledge of God oriented and united intellectual life for so many of these thinkers, so it is a fitting theme to facilitate comparative study of their teachings. What they considered the highest good deserves the focused attention that the volume provides.

Many of the articles contain fresh insights and interpretations that will be of interest to scholars working in various subfields of medieval philosophy, religion, and intellectual history. Rather than attempt to review all twenty contributions (see the volume’s introduction for a concise summary of each), I’ll highlight three currents that run through the volume, using select chapters as examples. The first three chapters “provide general background for the entrance of the notion of intellectual happiness into medieval Muslim and Jewish cultures” (10). They also focus attention on three of the main areas of inquiry that subsequent chapters continue to explore: (1) relations between and varieties of Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism; (2) interactions between philosophy and religion; and (2) textual transmission and philosophical terminology. I’ll use the first three chapters as entry points into these three areas.

The first chapter, by Cristina D’Ancona, examines Neoplatonic conceptions of intellectual happiness and their development in relation to certain ideas in Aristotelian philosophy. D’Ancona begins with Plotinus’s conception of “happiness without sense-perception” and then traces its afterlife during the medieval period, in both the Islamic east and the Latin west. This opening chapter underscores the basic fact that Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism did not develop as wholly separate philosophical traditions, even if clear differences and distinct patterns of development can be identified. There were various forms of both Aristotelianized Neoplatonism and Neoplatonized Aristotelianism, all of which transformed still further as they traversed cultural and religious borders. While many of the thinkers explored in the volume may be classified as Aristotelians or Neoplatonists, they cannot be reduced to either label.

Examining interpretations of Plato and Aristotle (or Neoplatonic and Aristotelian texts) plays a central role in many of the chapters that follow. And in certain chapters, it is the combination of and interplay between Neoplatonic and Aristotelian elements that comes into focus. For example, the volume’s two essays on Alfarabi, by Charles E. Butterworth and Thérèse-Anne Druart, both involve showing how interpretations of Plato and Aristotle figure into Alfarabi’s views on intellectual happiness. This focus helps the authors discern the literary characters of different works by Alfarabi, the aims of those works, and the relationships between them, which in turn allows the authors to make measured contributions to ongoing debates about the political and pedagogic aspects of Alfarabi’s writings.

In a similar vein, the chapter by Hannah Kasher and Ariel Malachi shows that Muslim and Jewish Aristotelians could subscribe to the same Aristotelian doctrines while also disagreeing considerably on crucial details. Kasher and Malachi identify a major difference between Maimonides and Ibn Daud in the realm of Aristotelian logic, one that has deeper implications for their respective efforts to reconcile philosophy and divine revelation (and thus for the role that the latter can play in the pursuit of intellectual knowledge). For Ibn Daud, the revealed traditions of Judaism can be known with certainty when they meet certain conditions, and when they do, they can function as premises in demonstrative reasoning. For Maimonides, by contrast, these traditions do not meet the conditions required for certainty and demonstration. While Aristotelian logic is authoritative for both, they diverge fundamentally over the logical and epistemological status of revealed traditions. Moreover, Kasher and Malachi maintain that their divergence is due to the fact Ibn Daud follows Avicenna’s version of Aristotelian logic whereas Maimonides follows Alfarabi’s. Varying receptions of Aristotelian logic in Islamic philosophy thus mediated varying receptions of Aristotelian logic in Jewish philosophy.

And not only are there important differences between thinkers who generally follow the same philosophical tradition; there are also those who openly oppose a philosophical tradition while still borrowing extensively from it. Yitzhak Melamed’s chapter on Spinoza offers the most notable example in the volume. Spinoza’s philosophy represents a strong break with Aristotle and Aristotelianism. Yet Spinoza “critically adopted, and reinterpreted, key Aristotelian concepts and doctrines” (389), including the central notion that the highest good is knowledge of God. Spinoza’s account of the highest good is very much his own, of course, but as Melamed demonstrates, he developed his views by reworking those of Aristotle, Maimonides, and post-Maimonidean Aristotelians.

The second chapter, by Giuseppe Veltri, provides background for a second major current of the volume: interactions between Greek philosophical notions of happiness and the religious worlds of medieval Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Veltri’s chapter concerns ancient Jewish ideas about happiness, including Jewish Hellenistic and rabbinic views. He shows that certain Jewish ideas reflect Greek conceptions, but that there are significant differences as well. This discussion sets up subsequent chapters that address relations between philosophy and religion in the medieval period. Some chapters highlight how philosophy influences and is influenced by theology, law, and/or scriptural exegesis, and some explore relations between philosophy and religion by considering particular social and political contexts.

For example, the chapter by Charles Manekin, on Maimonides’s letter to Joseph Ibn Jābir, emphasizes Maimonides’s integration of philosophy and Judaism in his understanding of ultimate happiness. Manekin raises the question of whether Maimonides’s intellectualist conception of immortality--or in traditional terms, life in “the world to come”--offers the uneducated multitude, or even educated laypersons like Ibn Jābir, any path for achieving it. According to Manekin, Maimonides’s pedagogical philosophy is by no means restricted to intellectual elites. It accommodates beginner and intermediate levels of learning, which can ensure some measure of immortality for non-philosophers and prepare them to achieve still higher levels of knowledge. Drawing on various works by Maimonides, with attention to the role of love of God and the distinction between true and false beliefs, Manekin argues that Maimonides “adapts, rather than adopts, an intellectualist model...in order to provide a conception that conforms with what reason and the principles of the Law require, and what is alluded to in traditional sources, properly interpreted” (162).

The chapters by Katja Krause and Chaim M. Neria are also notable examples of this current in the volume: both examine interactions between philosophy and theology (including influences across religious traditions) and situate those interactions in specific historical contexts. Krause explores a pivotal idea in Aquinas’s theory of happiness, namely, that there is divine facilitation in the human intellect’s attainment of the beatific vision. She carefully analyzes this idea--lines of argumentation, conceptual distinctions, technical terminology, borrowings from Averroes--and tracks developments in the idea across Aquinas’s three major works of systematic theology. Taking into account the specific contexts in which these works were written, she shows with precision that the developments reflect Aquinas’s life experiences, including his engagement with contemporary theological debates, his educational endeavors, and his church-political activities.

Neria’s chapter takes historical context into account in order to show the immediate existential stakes of a philosophical-theological debate. The focus of his chapter is comparing Joseph ben Shem Ṭob’s views on courage, death, and martyrdom in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with those of Aquinas, who influenced Joseph ben Shem Ṭob. Besides elucidating the similarities and differences between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Joseph ben Shem Ṭob, Neria connects the latter’s views to the political circumstances of the Jews in fifteenth-century Spain. At a time when Jews confronted persecution and forced conversion, “the question of Jewish martyrdom (qiddush ha-shem) and death for the sake of belief was perhaps the central theological and philosophical question” (311–312). As Neria shows, Joseph ben Shem Ṭob preserves basic differences between theological and philosophical understandings of death, courage, and martyrdom, but also interprets Aristotle through Jewish texts in order to formulate a Jewish theological-philosophical view that can assure Jewish martyrs of their ultimate happiness and immortality.

The third chapter, by the late Mauro Zonta, is a brief “terminological introduction” (11) to the volume that points to the philological caliber of the scholarship throughout. Zonta surveys terms for “happiness” in languages and cultures of the Near, Middle, and Far East, and suggests possible points of contact between them. Nearly all the other chapters in the volume are grounded in careful study of texts and terms in their original languages and/or the languages into which they were translated during the medieval period.

The chapters by Yehuda Halper and Warren Zev Harvey exemplify the volume’s philological rigor and terminological focus. Halper examines the meaning of the Arabic term for erotic desire, ʿishq, in Averroes’s Long Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics by examining the use of the term in Averroes’s Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. As Halper explains, the only use of the term in the commentary on the Metaphysics is in a discussion of human happiness, where it is reserved specifically for human conjunction with the active intellect; it is not applied to the conjunction of the heavens with the separate intellects or with the Unmoved Mover. Halper turns to Averroes’s commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics to investigate the term’s meaning and determine how and why it is used for human, but not heavenly, conjunction. Through this meticulous philological investigation--which moves between Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin texts--Halper clarifies the meaning of ʿishq, the differences between human and heavenly conjunctions, and the paradoxical character of “human happiness as a kind of metaphysical eros, that is, the human desire to know what is beyond the human capacity to know” (196).

Zev Harvey’s chapter likewise revolves around a single term. He examines the uses of the Hebrew term for happiness, haṣlaḥah, in Hasdai Crescas’s Light of the Lord. Crescas is unlike all the other thinkers studied in the volume because he rejects the idea, which all the others accept in some form, that happiness consists of intellectual knowledge. As Harvey explains, Crescas’s critique of the Aristotelian conception of happiness was part of his radical attack on Aristotelianism more generally. Nevertheless, Crescas appropriates this key term from Aristotelianism, integrating it into his own religious, non-Aristotelian conception of happiness. Harvey illustrates this appropriation by analyzing how Crescas deploys the term when discussing major philosophical and theological topics.

While the volume as a whole is unified by its theme and these areas of focus, there are two contributions to the volume that need to be singled out, not because they do not connect to the theme, but because of the extent to which they depart from typical norms and conventions of modern scholarship. Both the chapter by Ruth Glasner and the epilogue by John Walbridge may be classified as works of historical fiction. While some readers will be puzzled by their inclusion in the volume, both chapters add to the volume’s engagement with the theme of happiness in significant ways. They do so by writing in alternative literary genres that tap into the imagination. This is clearer in the case of Glasner’s chapter, which takes the form of a “fictional epistle” (13) written by Gersonides to Plato. Gersonides poses questions to Plato about happiness and human knowledge. These are questions Gersonides might have had, had he known all of Plato’s writings and read them in Greek. This creative exercise, which is based on Glasner’s knowledge of what Gersonides really did know about Plato and what he did not, brings out differences between the two thinkers, differences that may otherwise have gone unappreciated.

Walbridge’s epilogue offers a suggestive lens for reflecting on the volume and its theme. The epilogue consists of imaginative vignettes that alternate between Greek tragedy in the Athens of Euripides and Islamic life in modern Pakistan, with shifting narrative perspectives that include historical and fictional elements. As Halper and Fontaine write in their introduction, Walbridge suggests some unexpected similarities between the two places and their approaches to the good life. Based on that suggestion, Halper and Fontaine offer their own: “We might even infer that the break with Greek philosophy so characteristic of modern Western philosophy is not necessarily the case for many Islamic countries. Indeed, we might even question whether the departure from Aristotelian views of happiness and its philosophical pursuit in the West is necessarily an improvement” (14). These are weighty suggestions and worthy of consideration. However, it is not clear to me that the epilogue carries that weight, since it does not clearly involve the Aristotelian conception of happiness or clearly depict modern conceptions that break with it. Still, the imaginative comparison and the suggested interpretation add color to the volume, raise the philosophical stakes, and point to similarities and differences across cultures in ways that are very much consistent with rest of the chapters.

This volume is a fitting tribute to Professor Steven Harvey, who is a leading scholar and foremost authority in the field of medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy. The contributors are all colleagues, students, and friends of Harvey, and their essays build on his scholarship, much of which concerns the theme of happiness, topics related to it, and the thinkers, texts, and terms studied in the volume. As scholars working in the field know well, Harvey’s own contributions to the study of medieval philosophy are immense. His field-defining contributions are listed at the end of the volume, in a bibliography of his writings, which will serve as an important resource and research tool for current and future scholars in the field.