Maimonides on the Sabians,
A Case of Constructive Disapproval

by Mark R. Sunwall


Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), was a medieval authority on philosophy, medicine and Torah (Jewish divine law). It has been argued that the underlying purpose of his main philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed, is to show that God created the world as asserted by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as opposed to the view that God and the cosmos are co-eternal as championed by Aristotle. However, there is also an important secondary theme in the Guide, that human history shows an evolution in the direction of monotheism. Maimonides develops a three stage theory of what would today be called "cultural evolution." Each of the three stages is characterized by a different legal basis for society:  political law, natural law, and divine law. The second and third stages are represented by the teachings of the prophets Abraham and Moses, respectively. However the first stage, that of political law, is illustrated by the culture of a pagan society, the Sabians of Harran (an ancient city of starworshipers located north of Syria). In this paper I discuss why Maimonides chose the Sabians of Harran to characterize the pagan world, and how he uses this Sabian data to establish several important anthropological and legal hypotheses.

Editorial Note:

Mark R. Sunwall taught English in the Department of Foreign Languages at the College of Nursing Art and Science, Hyogo, Japan. This essay is reprinted from the College of Nursing Art and Science Hyogo Bulletin, Vol. 6, March, 1999.


Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed writes disapprovingly, but at length, about a group of people whom he refers to as "the Sabians." Although Maimonides' underlying purpose in this is to show the philosophical dubiousness of eternalism (as championed by Aristotle) in contrast to creationism (as asserted by the Abrahamic religions), he also develops several major corollary themes in his "Sabian" digressions. First, he sharpens the distinctions between political law, natural law, and divine law, and sets these within a historical sequence which is relatively clear. Second, he develops a typology of human cultures, based on the external criteria provided by the claims of monotheism. In this paper I will endeavor to illustrate how, in taking up these corollary themes Maimonides answers several important objections to divine command theory.[1]

Maimonides and the Guide for the Perplexed

Before examining how Maimonides used the ethno-historical category "Sabian" to articulate his understanding of religious and legal "evolution," it may be helpful to review some background information on Maimonides and his works. The philosopher Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon) known in rabbinical circles by the anagram "the Rambam" was an Andalusian Jew born into a family of scholars at Cordoba in 1135 of the Common Era (CE). Due to the intolerance of an Islamic sectarian movement [the Almohads -- ed.] he was forced to emigrate, ultimately to Egypt, where he supported himself as a practicing physician while writing on Torah (Jewish divine law), philosophy, and medicine. He became the leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, and died there in 1204.

His major halachic (legal) works are a Commentary on the Mishna, as well as the massive codification, Mishna Torah. The latter, although not becoming the universal handbook of religion and law as he had hoped, has become a widely respected reference work. He also wrote numerous letters and treatises on a variety of subjects. However his most controversial work is a book entitled the Guide for the Perplexed explaining Jewish religious doctrine from a philosophical point of view. He dedicated this to an absent student named Joseph. However realizing that a written document is liable to fall into anybody's hands, he crafted the work in such a way that it would reveal different levels of meaning to people with different philosophical knowledge and interpretive skills, hence the famed "esoterism" of the work. The work, originally written in Arabic under the title Dalalat al-Hairin, was widely read from the beginning among people of all the major religious communities of the Western world, being translated into Hebrew as Moreh Nebuchim by ibn Tibbon, and, at least in part, into Latin by anonymous translators. Its rationalism brought it into contempt during the century following its writing. However today most commentators agree that Maimonides, whatever his philosophical opinions, was sincerely religious and desirous of defending the orthodoxy of his community. The Guide has become a classic of Judaism and, to a lesser extent, of the Western philosophical tradition in general. (vis. Maimonides [Friedlander trans.] translator's introduction, 1956)

Modern scholarship on Maimonides, outside of rabbinical circles, was initiated by Salomon Munk in the 19th century, and received a further stimulus from Friedlander's translation of the Guide into English. Contemporary controversy on the nature of Maimonidean thought was stimulated by the renewed emphasis on the esoteric/exoteric dimensions within the Guide on the part of Leo Strauss and his students.[2] Strauss was trained in philosophy and philology in Germany between the wars and later emigrated to the United States where he taught classics at the University of Chicago and subsequently St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland. Straussian hermenutics emphasizes the fact that any serious work on morals, metaphysics or philosophy which is committed to writing will be exposed to an indiscriminate readership, mostly ignorant, and in a few cases actively hostile; thus there will be a tendency to write in such a way that disarms criticism while at the same time reaching the intended reader. This approach owes much to the influence of Maimonides, who in the introduction of the Guide alerts the reader to the fact that his work ha,; both an exoteric and an esoteric dimensions

However, the celebrity of the Straussian approach should not be allowed to create the impression that the purpose of the Guide is to obscure the truth as Maiiiionides understood it. As Arthur Hyman points out (in Kraemer 1991) Maimonides intended to clarify the religious conception of readers at every level up to the maximum limits of their respective capabilities. While an exoteric level may indeed exist, most of the obscurities in the Guide for the Perplexed are related to the inherent difficulty of the matter presented. Notably, in the case under discussion, the beliefs of the Sabians are used to illucidate, amongst other things, why the "statutes" of the Torah were formulated in certain particular ways. This is a speculation that must have scandalized those persons who believed that the reasons for these "statutes" should not be investigated, yet in the Guide these matters are discussed without any attempt at concealment.

The Category "Sabian" Inside and Outside Maimonides

The category of "Sabian" is a very important one for Maimonides, for at least three reasons. First, it is the category to which he evidently thinks that Aristotle belongs, this philosopher being the one whom Maimonides is most concerned to define his philosophy against. Second, it is a category which is clearly connected to a schematism of the types of understanding which human beings may have of the world. Third, it is a category which enables him to give a semi-evolutionary account of certain of the more difficult to rationalize aspects of the Mosaic law.

When one attempts to relate the term "Sabian" as it appears in Maimonides with the appearance of that term in other contexts contemporary or antecedent to those of the rabbi, one runs into the curious situation that this term is used to denote a number of different, even opposed, ethnological/religious groupings. The most widely known, since it occurs several times in the Qur'an, usage of the term "Sabian" refers to one of the four "peoples of the book" (Ar. ahl al-kitab):  Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Sabians. There are a number of theories as to who might have constituted this mysterious monotheistic community. However, from the point of view of Maimonides this is a moot point since his usage of "Sabians" clearly does not refer to a monotheistic community.

Maimonides uses the category "Sabian" as a general typification of pagans, and astrolaters in particular. So in contrast to the usage of the Qur'an, Maimonides is a monotheist who takes a disapproving attitude towards the "Sabians," their beliefs and practices. In all likelihood, the Quranic "Sabians" and the "Sabians" who appear in Maimonides refer to completely different ethno-religous groupings. The former may refer to one of the various baptizing Judeo-Christian sects, or to the Mandeans who have survived into modern times. However the "Sabians" of Maimonides seem to be based on the Sabians of Harran, who were a sect of Hellenistic astrolaters who survived into early medieval times. It is doubtful whether Maimonides could have had any knowledge of this Sabian community which was other than literary. He does make references to Sabian customs continuing to "our time" (late 12th c.CE); however the context indicates that he is referring to "the remnants of the Magians" (Guide III, 47, Pines p. 595), in other words Zoroastrians, not Platonic crypto-pagans. All of this is indicative that he has reformulated data on a particular community mentioned in historical documents at his disposal, notably the Nabatean Agriculture [3], into the basis for a general historical type.

Indeed, Maimonides is not overly concerned with the ethnological specifics of who was or was not a "Sabian." This is because his major intent is to develop the category of "Sabian" as a type which can be employed in solving the historical riddles of the relationship of monotheism to its pagan environment. Thus he is able to use the ethnological data provided via the Sabians of Harran to give concreteness to the term, while expanding it to the status of a universal category denoting any pre- or non-Abrahamic culture. Thus,

No one is antagonistic to him or ignorant of his [Abraham's] greatness except the remnants of this religious community that has perished, remnants that survive in the extremities of the earth, as for instance the infidels among the Turks in the extreme North and the Hindus in the extreme South. These are the remnants of the religious community of the Sabians, for this was a religious community that extended over the whole earth. (III, 29 Pines p. 515)

Thus "Sabian" refers to any tendency toward astrolatry, whether inside or outside Harran, although the latter are considered in some sense the classic example, and perhaps the historical origin, of the type. However the fact that "Sabian" is a category fleshed out from data associated with the peculiar culture of Harran should not lead one to believe that this was an arbitrary choice on Maimonides' part, or dictated by the interesting nature of the Nabatean Agriculture. Rather, Harranian society with its mixture of late Neoplatonic worldview and early Semitic cultural items fits Maimonides' requirements well. What he requires is a paradigm for an evolutionary stage within which he can include the Greek (and other pagan) civilization(s) while at the same time drawing on this paradigm to elucidate factors conditioning the further development of monotheism, a function for which the history of classical Greek civilization is not suited. The fact that Abraham himself resided for some time at, and preached belief in the one God in, that very city, allows an emphasis on Harranian paganism to sharpen the contrast between Sabianism and monotheism.

The historical project of Maimonides:  Monotheism as perennial philosophy

At the heart of Maimonides' historical project is the desire to confirm that monotheism is the natural and primal human understanding of reality, and idolatry is an innovation. This is a hard task to accomplish today, however even in the middle ages there must have been a strong counter thesis. The data of recorded history, as known to the ancients and medievals by the Greek and Roman historiographers would seem to indicate that paganism was established from time immemorial, and monotheism was an innovation. In Maimonides' time there were two powerful factors which would have induced certain thinkers in the direction of such a belief. The first was an analogy on the basis of the contemporary cosmoconception. Aristotle's idea of an eternal and smoothly rotating universe could be seen as the analogy of the cyclical myths of the ancient astral religions, giving them a certain intuitive claim to primacy. The second was a consequence of the fact that monotheism was waxing in ascendancy, and human history might be seen, in purely linear terms, as the history of an ever increasing displacement of paganism. For example, Maimonides himself gives expression to this "progressivist" elan when he mentions at the end of his early Treatise on Logic, "In these times all that -- I mean the regimes and the nomoi [pagan states and deliberately framed laws] -- has been dispensed with, and people are governed by divine commands. (Maimonides in Weiss and Butterworth 1975: p. 161)

First of all with regard to the primal status of monotheism, Maimonides has ruled out the most powerful argument that could have been made in its favor, that of an innate moral or metaphysical faculty in the human mind. This was a characteristic notion of his own, predominantly Islamic, cultural epoch. This sort of rationalistic anthropology motivated works such as lbn Tufayl's The Life of Hayy, in which the inhabitant of a desert island arrives independently at rational, moral, and monotheistic conclusions. However, Maimonides debars himself from saying "all human beings are natural monotheists" in the same sense that many of his contemporaries would have asserted that "all human beings are natural Muslims" (i.e. when they are born and until they may happen to be perverted by the cultures of non-Muslim societies). Rather in the Guide and elsewhere in his ethical writings, Mairnonides goes to great pains to deny that human beings have any innate metaphysical, and especially, moral intuitions. For Maimonides, although there are moral and metaphysical absolutes, these have been discovered, revealed, or forgotten, within the context of human history as a whole and then transmitted, correctly or otherwise, by tradition. This places the burden of justifying the primal nature of monotheism entirely on historiography.

Furthermore, unlike his Islamic and Christian counterparts, Maimonides cannot extract from the record of revelation itself a dispensational scheme which would depict human opinions as a direct response to the guiding hand of providence. Historically there is only one revelation defining absolute and transhistorical standards of human behavior and opinion, that of Moses from Sinai. Everything else throughout history which is not imitative of it is the product of reason, imagination, or madness. This means the elaboration of Maimonides' historical and cultural generalizations must proceed along the kinds of lines that could be justified by secular historiography.

Decent into imagination and arbitrary government

For Maimonides history is V-shaped, beginning with a descent into idolatry which reaches its nadir in the generation of Abraham, after which a slow but steady ascent occurs which continues even through his own times and is expected to culminate with the future Messianic age. This is of course, the standard rabbinical view, which in turn is an amplification, guided by certain hermeneutic principles, of what can be found in the Biblical texts. Maimonides does not need to "discover" this schematism, but only to expand upon it in order to justify it. Maimonides must treat history in two parts. First, he must illustrate the descent from pristine monotheism into paganism prior to Abraham. Second, he must show how the ascent after Abraham mirrors an ascending scale of moral and political values.

What stands out in the Maimonidean version of this standard religious historiography is the extent of his willingness to put the nomoi of the Greeks into a common category with Sabian astrolatry. The dominant historical understanding of modernity tends, even while recognizing the "irrational" or "Dyonisiac" quality of much of Greek culture, to stop short of implicating Greek political institutions under this heading. The city-state and the legislative assembly of the classical period are seen as the font of both democracy and political rationalism. Although the ancient republics, on the whole, ended rather badly, as indeed modern studies of public choice would tend to predict, modern interpretation persists in seeing deliberative legislation as completely different from, and qualitatively superior to oracular law, judicial astrology, and the political use of divination.

It is precisely this distinction which Maimonides, in linking the "nomoi of the Greeks" with the "ravings of the Sabians" refuses to admit. Although as a rationalist, Maimonides makes a clear psychological distinction between reason and the imaginative faculty, he calls into question, by linking the Greeks and the Sabians, whether deliberative acts of legislation (nomoi) are entirely rational. For Maimonides an essential attribute of rationality is its transhuman quality. Unlike mathematics, but rather similar to poetry and other imaginative productions, legislation is clearly the result of the exercise of human will. Thus in a broad sense idolatry and legislation can both be seen as works of the human imagination. Therefore the Greeks and their nomoi can be grouped together with less obviously rationalistic cultures, not on the superficial basis that the Greeks used an elaborate iconography to represent the divine, but because their institutions like those of other pre-monotheistic cultures, were the result of arbitrary human innovation.

Maimonides illustrates this thesis of the essential unity of the arbitrary and the irrational by taking a particular historical and ethnic community, namely the Sabians of Harran, for whom he had extensive (although from our vantage point perhaps unreliable) information, and raising them to the status of a general type representing all the pagan peoples of the ancient world, including the Greeks. That is, showing how their beliefs and practices developed as a deviation from monotheism and spread throughout the world before receding again under the impact of revealed monotheism. This he accomplishes by showing that the Sabian account of their own origins is highly legendary, dependent on Jewish writings in many points, and indicative of innovation within their own tradition.

They deem Adam to have been an individual born of male and female like the other human individuals, but they glorify him and say that he was a prophet, the envoy of the moon, who called people to worship the moon, and there are compilations of his on how to cultivate the soil. Similarly the Sabians say that Noah was a cultivator of the soil and that he did not worship any idols. Therefore you will find that all the Sabians blame Noah and say that he never worshiped an idol. (III, 29 Pines p. 516)

Modern historical criticism considers The Nabatean Agriculture to be heavily influenced by Gnostic speculation at the end of the Hellenic era, and hence resulting in an eclectic mixture of pagan, Jewish, and Christian elements. Thus it is unlikely to give an accurate account of the kind of astrolatry practiced by early Mesopotamian cultures. However none of this reduces the value of what Maimonides is trying to get across to the reader, that the placation of particular astral beings is not as primary an orientation toward reality as the worship of a supreme Creator. Moreover, that astrolatry and other forms of animism are likely to have originated out of anxieties connected with the agricultural cycle.

Maimonides provides a good allegory and support for the primacy of monotheism by historicizing Sabianism in the above way, or rather by showing how certain Sabian-Gnostic sects historicized themselves. However what is really established here, apart from the historical particulars of the matter, is the logical primacy of monotheism, as Sabianism is shown to be parasitic on or a deviation from, early monotheist notions.

The Sabians in the Moral Hierarchy of Laws

Although one of the functions of the Sabian digressions in the Guide is to support the historical framework proposed by Maimonides, this sets the stage for what is a more fundamental consideration, the use of the Sabians as a foil to illustrate the distinctions between the different legal regimes under which the human species has lived. The historical tendency, after the "Abrahamic turn" can be seen as meliorative, almost "progressive." Now the temporal sequence, Sabianism -> Abrahamic monotheism -> Mosaic prophecy, can also double as an increasing scale of moral values. At this point we have to turn to the question of how Maimonides uses the example of the Sabians to throw the cultural and moral distinctions between these stages into sharp relief. What, precisely, is the essence of these distinctions.

Obviously, what Maimonides finds blamable in the Sabians is their idolatry.[4] However this is still too vague, because we tend to identify "idolatry" as a matter of false belief. However, Shlomo Pines gives us an interesting hint, where he mentions the Sabians in his introduction to the Guide, by indicating to us that,

The Torah's condemnation [of idolatry] is not directed against the theory, but against the practice, namely, the cultic worship accorded to the intermediaries that exist between God and man. Evidently such worship does not imply a false belief; it is nevertheless harmful for practical political reasons. (Pines, cxxiv)

Thus "idolatry" is not the same as falsely denying the existence of God, providence etc. Maimonides employs another typification, the "Epicuros" to designate such a denial. However the Sabians in fact believe in a Supreme Being, as well as (like Maimonides and other monotheists) the existence of intermediary beings between this Being and the human race. Where the Sabians are in error is in supplicating the intermediaries rather than the Source. This has very practical, as Pines says "political" implications.

Maimonides first mentions the Sabians in chapter 63 of part I of the Guide,

You know that in those times the teachings of the Sabians were generally accepted and that all except a few men were idolaters. I mean by this that they believed in spirits, that they believed that those spirits can be made to descend among men, and that they made talismans. At those times everyone who claimed to be listened to either claimed, like Abraham, that speculation and reasoning had come to him indicating to him that the world as a whole had a deity, or else he claimed that the spirit of a star or an angel or something similar had descended upon him. Yet that an individual should make a claim to prophecy on the ground that God had spoken to him and had sent him on a mission was a thing never heard of prior to Moses our Master. You should not be led into error on this point by what is said in Scripture with regard to the Patriarchs, with reference to whom it is mentioned that God spoke to him and manifested Himself to them. For you do not find in their cases the kind of prophecy that would have made Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or those who preceded them to say to people:  "God told me: You should act or not act in a certain way"; or "He has sent me to you." This had never happened before [Moses]. The Patriarchs were addressed in regard to their private affairs only; I mean only in regard to their perfection, their right guidance concerning their actions, and the good tidings for them concerning the position their descendants would attain. They had addressed a call to people by means of speculation and instruction, as is made clear, in our opinion, in the passage: And the souls that they had gotten in Harran. (Guide I , 63 Pines)

What needs to be kept in mind by moderns when reading a passage such as the above is that for Maimonides the relationship between human beings and the supernatural is not just a matter of occasional encounters with what, following Rudolph Otto, we are accustomed to call "the numinous."[5] Rather relations with the divine set, not only the tone, but the very standards of conduct in human society. Thus we always have to ask ourselves, how does the quality of human/divine relations in any culture determine its political regime and legal system.

Before the "Abrahamic turn" Maimonides sees moral and legal norms as deriving from a combination of human deliberation and oracular divination, i.e. "the nomoi of the Greeks and the ravings of the Sabians." Although Maimonides never says as much, it is implicit that such methods cannot produce the sort of disinterested, categorical judgments which would satisfy the criteria of a universal and objective system of justice. This inference is established by an implicit comparison with Abraham. Interestingly enough, Abraham is not, for Maimonides, a prophet in the fullest sense of the word (a station unique to Moses of Sinai); rather he is a philosopher of the highest rank who discovers a notion similar to what we would call "natural law." Only after the descendants of Abraham have created a community of natural-law abiding persons who will not confuse a revelation from God with the oracles of intermediary beings is the world made safe for the Mosaic revelation. Although the Mosaic code contains many peculiarities which resemble the pagan normns, a matter which shall be addressed below, in its essence it is a ratification of "natural law." For instance, it deals with principles rather than particulars; it is a once-and-for-all decree rather than a series of revisable oracles; and it is delivered in public by a prophet in command of his rational faculties rather than in the darkness by an ecstatic seer. Maimonides is no doubt confident that the distinction between Sabian divination and Mosaic prophecy could be maintained on the basis of such characteristics alone. However, in terms of the structure of the work and its exoteric readership he finds a historical stage theory both a convenient and convincing schema to tuck into the implicit framework of the Guide.

This implicit schematism is as follows:

  1. Sabian divination:  Subjective dealing with the numinous forces within nature. This, in the view of Maimonides, corresponds to the idea of political law.
  2. Abrahamic speculation:  Universal, rationalistic understanding of the world as the creation of a single creator. This corresponds, for want of a better term, to "natural law."
  3. Mosaic prophecy:  Suprarational contact with the God above nature. This produces divine law.

A modern reader may be tempted to question, if not the existence of divine law, at least the distinction between divine and natural law. In this respect, modern skepticism is just a public expression of the same doubts which were often expressed in veiled language by philosophers in the Islamicate period. After all, if both natural and divine law purport to be rational and universal, perhaps one can afford to be agnostic with regard to their origin. However, matters of terminology and metaphysics aside, it is not a single revolution, but rather two distinct transformations, which separates the stage of the Sabian nomoi from the stage of the Mosaic covenant.

The first is the Abrahamic discovery of "natural law." In the passage above it is noted that Abraham claimed that "...speculation and reasoning had come to him indicating to him that the world as a whole had a deity." The implications of this are drawn for us by Maimonides in part III chapter 34 of the Guide,

Indeed all things proceed from one deity and one agent and "have been given from one shepherd" (Prov. 30:12-13) ...In view of this consideration, it also will not be possible that the laws be dependent on changes in the circumstances of the individuals and of the times, as is the case with regard to medical treatment, which is particularized for every individual in conformity with his present temperament. On the contrary governance of the Law ought to be absolute and universal, including everyone... (Pines p. 535)

Thus the principles of the law must be universal, apodictic, and eternal. There may be interpretive sciences, perhaps even legal sciences, which, like medicine, employ casuistry, yet the principles of law remain unaffected by such. Abraham doesn't need any revelation to establish the content of such a "natural law" as the progressive generalization of concepts like equity and fairness will suffice. Maimonides doesn't mention the judicial content of Abraham's speculations but instead suggests that the particularistic flavor of the scriptural account has nothing to do with legislation but rather is a record of personal spiritual guidance.

However, for Maimonides the notion of "natural law" (which I have been putting in quotes) is by no means unproblematic. If "natural law" means that rational beings (humans) pursue their own good while discharging their obligations toward, and respecting the rights of others, the results are likely to be satisfactory, but far from perfect. Maimonides recognized the validity, at a certain level, of such goods as virtue and continence, which figure prominently in any Aristotelian way of thinking. Thus someone following the formula of the mean with regard to all their actions will eventually attain a humane and harmonious temperament. Yet this is a matter of balancing natural forces, not becoming free of them. Nonetheless, it is the best that we can do if there is nothing beyond the closed cycle of nature, or even if whatever is beyond is nothing but an unknowable "thing-in-itself" such as the Aristotelian God who is eternally engaged in self-contemplation.

Thus Maimonides posits a second level, that of perfection, beyond that of mere virtue. Such a state will appear radically asymmetrical, for example, too acetic, or too wise, or otherwise superogatory from an Aristotelian point of view. Such a pattern cannot be extracted as an optimum from the ordinary data of our experience within nature, but could only be discovered through the introduction of some exogenous criteria which would serve as a template for the reformation of human nature. In short, such a result could only be attained through the imitation of God, not of nature.

One must notice, however, that Maimonides is disbarred from speaking about "imitatio dei," that is, the imitation of God, in any naive sense. One of the major purposes of the Guide is to purify the beliefs of people who think that God can be imagined as having certain attributes, physical or otherwise. Thus the God of Maimonides is, in most senses, unsearchable and unknowable. However, he differs from the God of the philosophers in one very important sense, in that the speculative God of Abraham is also the God of Moses on Sinai who has communicated, unilaterally and definitively, to human beings. Thus, apart from the unknowability of the divine essence, in the Torah we are in possession of the standard by which human beings may be perfected. Moreover, in the writings of the prophets we have examples of people adhering to this standard who have, if not attained, at least approached perfection asymptotically. Thus in the fourtieth chapter of the second section of the Guide, Maimonides defines and defends the notion of law emanating from an objective prophetic revelation.

Accordingly the faculty or difficulty of the Law should not be estimated with reference to the passions of the wicked, vile, morally corrupt men, but should be considered with reference to the man who is perfect among the people. For it is the aim of the law that everyone should be such a man. Only that law is called by us divine Law, whereas the other political regimens -- such as the nomoi of the Greeks and the ravings of the Sabians and of others -- are due, as I have explained several times, to the action of groups of rulers who were not prophets. (II , 40 Pines)

With reference to natural law Maimonides puts his finger on the fallacy of trying to derive moral norms from a social consensus. Any merely empirical derivation of moral criteria will simply result in an averaging out of aggregate human behavior, from the most noble to the most wicked, into a dismally unchallenging norm. Furthermore, within communities which are left to their own devices for the production of law, the product will be the result of some sort of bargaining, either mutual bargaining among humans, e.g. "the nomoi of the Greeks," or between humans and some sort of tutelary spirit, e.g. "the ravings of the Sabians." Thus the Sabians may be seen as a typification of political law.

In the schematism which Maimonides, building on rabbinical sources, elucidates in the Guide for the Perpleted, there is no simple progression from the paganism of the Sabians to monotheism. Without the intervention of the stage of Abrahamic speculation it would not have been clear to the ordinary reader how Mosaic prophecy differs from Sabian divination. The Torah, after all, contains many obscurities and asymmetries in its legislation, which bear a superficial resemblance to particularism and casuistry. However, in his historiography Maimonides demonstrates how the Mosaic code presupposes and builds upon the "natural law" notions of primitive monotheism. What is added is an ethic of perfection, the obscurities of which would, in the absence of a clear historical account of its origin, make the divine law easy to confuse with the nomoi from which it is doubly removed.

In What Sense Is Maimonides' Disapproval of the Sabians to be Distinguished from an Anti-Naturalistic Attitude?

The historiography of Maimonides is essentially world-affirming and optimizing, not a "fall from grace" but rather a sort of cultural evolution, in which progressively deeper principles of reason and order supersede one another. However, it is difficult for a modern reader to sense this since this historiography hinges on a polemic against a community of "nature-worshipers," and our contemporary world is in the midst of a struggle to develop a friendlier, and more harmonious relationship with "nature."

Thus a reader who is either careless, or biased, or both is likely to mistake Maimonides' disproval of the Sabians for the kind of fundamentalist invective which is often directed against mysticism, occultism, and naturalism. Depending on their opinions, a reader will either mistakenly approve of this tone or, more likely today, will dismiss it as the anti nature diatribe of a bigoted cleric. Either interpretation would be hasty and in violation of the hermeneutic rules for the interpretation of the Guide which Maimonides himself alerts the reader to in his Introduction to the treatise. Yes, his strictures against idolatry are rigorous and severe, and I shall return to examine the reasons for this subsequently. However, we must first recognize that Maimonides (himself a natural scientist and a physician) is not trying to "disenchant" the natural world and substitute for it a drably mechanical and moral view of the universe.

The most important clue, in those portions of the Guide which treat of the Sabians, that Maimonides is criticizing the religious orientation of the Sabians and not their understanding of "nature" occurs in III, 29,

For when the Torah had become generally known among the religious communities and they had heard the external meaning of the Account of the Beginning, taking the whole of it according to its external meaning, they concocted this story... [a variant, Gnostic version of Adam's experiences], (Pines p. 520)

The problem with the Sabian account is not its mysticism, but its crude literalism. It is not that the Sabians had delved too deeply into the mysteries of nature, or that understanding such had ever been forbidden them, but that their understanding was shallow and secondhand. Furthermore, by mentioning "the Account of the Beginning" Mainionides is drawing implicit comparison with his own cosmoconception. Anybody who thinks that Maimonides disavowed the theory of celestial influences will have a hard time explaining away what is said in chapter II, 10,

It is known and generally recognized in all the books of the philosophers speaking of governance that the governance of this lower world -- I mean the world of generation and corruption -- is said to be brought about through the forces overflowing from the spheres. We have mentioned this several times, and you will find likewise that the Sages say:  There is not a single herb below that has not a "mazzal" in the firmament that beats upon it and tells it to grow. For it is said:  Knowest thou the ordinances of the heavens? Canst thou establish the dominion thereof in the earth? Now they also call a star: mazzal. You will find this clearly in the beginning of Bereshith Rabbah in the same passage. For they say:  There is a "mazzal" that completes its motion in thirty days, and there is a "mazzal" that completes its motion in thirty years. By means of this dictum they have made it clear that even individuals subject to generation have forces of the stars that are specially assigned to them. And though all the forces of the sphere pervade all the existents, yet there also exists a force specially assigned to to a certain species -- as is the case with regard to the forces of a single body -- inasmuch as all that exists is, as we have mentioned, a single individual. (Pines 269-270)

From the way in which he discusses the definition of "mazzal"[6] it should be clear that Maimonides does not conflate astrolatry with theories of celestial influence in general, such as would be normally employed by, say, natal astrology for the purposes of character description. Furthermore it is evident that Maimonides, so far from having a mechanistic view of the universe, actually sees the cosmos as a single organism. A sort of "Gaia hypothesis"[7] stretched to include the heavens!

The Reason for the Rigor of Maimonides' Disaproval

Now it should be understood that Maimonides recognizes the organic interconnectedness of the natural world, not even excluding celestial influences on terrestrial events. What then, is the ground of Maimonides' criticism of the Sabians? Primarily, the Sabians think that this organic unity, the cosmos, is an eternal uncreated entity, not the creature of God. This leads them to an animistic worship of various beings inside the cosmos, which Maimonides defines as idolatry.

This is a religious judgment, and leads into the legal (Heb. halachic) opinions of Maimonides, which are outside the scope of this paper. However, even though, as Leo Strauss has pointed out, the Guide is primarily a book of Judaism, and not a philosophy book, it is still a book which speaks the language of philosophy. Thus it should be possible to look at Maimonides' condemnation of the Sabians without getting into the technicalities of what is termed "idolatry." On the other hand if we look at the scorn and ridicule which Maimonides pours out on these typifications of paganism, it is easy to mistake our rabbi for a skeptical natural scientist lampooning the "occult fringe." This is especially so because Maimonides is usually categorized as a neo-Aristotelian.

What is at issue here is not primarily a question of science but of ethics. It is not that Maimonides, armed with the terrestrial wisdom of Aristotelianism, is debunking the Sabians for being too celestial and Platonic in their notions. Rather, he is criticizing them for stopping at the boundaries of the cosmos, and failing to become supercelestial, or completely Platonic, in their thinking. The Sabians resemble Aristotle in their eternalism, but just as importantly, in their eudaemonism. For them the cosmos is a system of instrumentalities which can be manipulated to attain the goals of human happiness. In particular, the agricultural cycle is only assured by the worship of certain astral deities. This is the foundation upon which human well-being and happiness in the ancient middle east rested.

In contrast, although Maimonides writes extensively on the "golden mean" and other sub-optimal ethical compromises, he ultimately asserts that the highest goal of ethics is not human happiness at all, but the service and imitation of God. In this he is opposed both to the Sabians and to Aristotle. For Maimonides, as for Kant, a moral criteria which is not exogenous to the human instincts for pleasure and survival is no criteria at all.[8]

Severity and Universality in Maimonides

Still, even a sympathetic reader is likely to wonder, "Why does Maimonides have to be so strict?" Part of the answer should be clear from the preceding. Maimonides is not in fact sitting in judgment on a particular community, but establishing an ideal type for the purposes of illustrating the consequences of idolatry and its interaction with monotheism. In all candor it should be mentioned here that Maimonides was a strict judge, more so than many other Jewish authorities, and this rigor did not stop at the boundaries of philosophy or the ethnology of extinct communities. Be this as it may, and of course these are rabbinical matters which fall far outside the scope of this paper, there are plausible and coherent reasons for why, as a historian and philosopher, Maimonides should have gone out of his way to censure an extinct or near extinct community of pagans.

In ethics there tends to be a trade-off between rigor/universality and laxness/particularity. Maimonides could very well have found grounds for exonerating the Sabians or treating them as an ethnological curiosity, much in the style of a 19th century European travelogue. The fact that he didn't is, I think, closely connected with the exoteric nature of the Guide, and the fact that it was written in Arabic, the lingua franca of the day. Living amidst the Islamicate civilization Maimonides was trying to press the case of Judaism as a universal religion. This he could do by showing how Judaism, like Islam, ultimately judges all humanity by a single standard, the distinction between idolaters and non-idolaters. By dealing severely with the Sabians Maimonides is showing that he grants them a moral significance somewhat equivalent to that of members of his own religious community. He resolutely refuses to "orientalize" the Sabians. He does not reduce them to the status of aesthetic objects, flowers in an exotic ethnographic garden. Rather, they are human beings with whom he is (via Abraham) engaged in a sort of dialectical contest by proxy over first principles. As part of their human status they have the right to his censure. Paradoxically, the price of treating them with this seriousness is to condemn them.

Even for Maimonides however, the Sabian is by no means on the bottom of the moral hierarchy. This is reserved for the "Epicuros" or atheist.[9]

Displacement and Supercession of Sabian Rituals and Institutions in the Torah

Finally, Maimonides puts his Sabian type to its boldest and most subtle use when he develops a historical explanation for the "statutes" (as opposed to the "commandments") of the Torah.[10]

If modern cultural sensibilities are "shocked" by the moral absolutism of Maimonides and his willingness to apply a standard set by revelation independently of time, geography, and culture, surely this is nothing compared to the dismay which his orthodox contemporaries must have felt towards his speculations on the reasons for the various statutes in the Torah. Maimonides was willing to entertain theses regarding the nature of these statutes which strike the modern reader as something akin to giving them a cultural-evolutionary explanation. While, strictly speaking, this is not the case, the fact that Maimonides was willing to speculate at all, and very boldly, about such "reasons for the statutes" in the Torah, immediately placed him in opposition to a widely held opinion that such speculations were dangerous and impious.

In brief Maimonides sees much of the content of the statutes of Torah as determined by a divine concern first, to distinguish the content of Jewish ritual and practice from that of the idolaters (represented in their specifics by the Sabians) and second, to compensate the new monotheistic community for the ban placed on familiar pagan rituals. The first consideration would be radical enough, in so far as it indicates a willingness on the part of an unconditioned Creator to accommodate the statutes to the conditioned circumstances of human history. However, in terms of the overall principles taught in the guide, it is essentially an extension of the principle, reiterated constantly throughout the work that "the Torah speaks in human language" i.e. accommodates itself to human understanding. There are numerous instantiations of the "differentiating" principle at work in the "reasons for the statutes" portion of the Guide. These all involve turning some Sabian custom around to its opposite. For example, the Sabians are clean-shaven, the Jewish men are to wear beards (Guide III, 37); the Sabians practice hybrid aboriculture, the Jews are forbidden to graft certain trees onto one another (ibid. III, 37); the idolaters pray to the morning sun in the east, the Jews are to set the Holy of Holies in the west and pray in that direction (ibid. III, 45); the tolemistic animals of the Sabians and other idolaters become the sacrificial animals of the Mosaic covenant (ibid. III, 46).

However Maimonides' boldest stroke occurs where he indicates that the ritualistic provisions of the Torah are in general a concession and a compensation to a community which was still in a transitional state between idolatry and monotheism.

His wisdom, may he be exalted, and his gracious ruse, which is manifest in regard to all his creatures, did not require that He give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship [i.e. temple-service, incense, sacrifices]. For one could not then conceive the acceptance of [such a Law -- Pines], considering the nature of man, which always likes that to which it is accustomed. At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon people to worship God, would say:  "God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon him in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all." (Guide III, 32, Pines, p. 526)

Thus Maimonides gives what would seem to be an evolutionary account of the Torah statutes. However it is important to note that he does this without denying, indeed with the intent of justifying, the heavenly origins of the Torah. Unlike modern secular thinkers, he sees this not as a human adaptation, but as a divine adaptation to human weakness. In this case the weakness is not a fault. We have seen that what is blameworthy in the Sabians, from Maimonides' point of view, was not that they performed rituals or had an animistic world-view. The Torah also endorses ritual, and Maimonides himself, up to a clear limit, embraces an "ensouled" view of the world. What is blameworthy in the Sabians is that they have no law arising from anything higher than rational speculation or irrational inspiration arising from the world of phenomenal reality. Thus they cannot separate the is from the ought, and the highest morality of which they are capable arises either from their own social consensus or irrational contact with instinctual drives. Admittedly, this is a typification, and it may do less than justice to the historical Sabians of Harran. However Maimonides makes coherent and constructive use of this type, and as such is saying something of universal significance, not excluding even our own age.


Bleich, J. David, "Divine Unity in Maimonides, the Tosafists, and Me'iri" in Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought, Goodman, Lenn E. (ed.) SUNY Press Albany NY: 1992

Buijs, Joseph, A. (ed.), Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays, U. of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana: 1988

Fahd, T., "Ibn Wahshiyya" in The Encyclopedia of Islam, E.J. Brill, Leiden: 1986

Fahd, T., "Sabi'a" in The Encyclopedia of Islam, E.J. Brill, Leiden: 1986

Fehervari, G., "Harran" in The Ecyclopedia of Islam, E.J. Brill, Leiden: 1986

Fox, Marvin, Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1990

Hyman, Arthur, "Maimonides on Religious Language" in Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies, Kraemer, Joel L. (ed.), Oxford University Press: 1991

Lerner, Ralph, "Maimonides' Governance of the Solitary" in Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies, Kraemer, Joel L. (ed.), Oxford University Press: 1991

Maimonides, Moses, Ethical Writings of Maimonides (Raymond L. Weiss and Charles Butterworth eds.), Dover Publications, New York: 1975

Maimonides, Moses, The Guide for the Perplexed (tr. M. Freidlander), Dover Publications, New York: 1956

Maimonides, Moses, The Guide of the Perplexed (tr. Shlomo Pines), University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1963

Strauss, Leo, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors (trans. and intro. by Eve Adler), SUNY Press, Albany NY: 1995

Strauss, Leo, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss (selected and introduced by Thomas L. Pangle), University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1989

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 1

Divine Command Theory

The notion of divine law, although central to Judaism and Islam, has never been popular within the context of Western civilization, even in its Christian, let alone its contemporary post-Christian phase. Even the Roman Catholic Church has preferred to couch its imperatives in terms of "the law of nature" rather than the content of revelation. The image of divine law has generally been that of an intolerant and rigid system. The revival of interest, in some Christian circles, in divine command theory, has only demonstrated the depth of this image though the avowed advocacy of an openly intolerant system of supposedly "divine" laws by certain clerics and publicists.

However, apart from certain very marginal movements, the notion of "divine law" has largely been perceived as a dead letter in the West. The real debate has been between political and natural law, and the course of history has been in favor of political, at the expense of natural, law. Apart from those factors promoting the applicability of political law, there are also inherent weaknesses in the reasoning and data pertinent to natural law. First of all the idea of "nature" itself has been transformed from the immutable system of cyclical recurrence familiar to the Stoics and Aristotle to the evolutionary paradigms of today. Thus the idea of "nature" no longer seems to provide the stable exogenous criteria of judgment that it once did. Another important component of natural law theory is that there is a minimal code of human conduct for human behavior which is known, recognized, and enforced in all human societies. This premise is readily falsified if the falsification of any moral precept's candidacy for universality is achieved by discovering a single counter example somewhere in the historical and ethnographic record. [Editor's Note: John Locke, who says "And Reason, which is that Law," may be said to have a conception of natural law that depends neither on nature nor on actual social universality. This is more conformable, as Sunwall recognizes below, to the Kantian Moral Law. Aristotelian natural law is much more vulnerable to an empiricist and heteronomous interpretation, which actually seems to be accepted mutatis mutandis by Maimonides himself in regard to revelation.]

If today, natural law is on the defensive, and divine law rarely even considered, it is not because the latter theory is without coherence or merit, it is rather that the source documents of the latter theory are so little studied outside the clerical circles of Judaism and Islam. Maimonides provides several source documents for the study of the Torah, which is, according to Judaism, the original revelation of God to the human race. In addition to the philosophical Guide Maimonides wrote on the "divine law" which was, within certain limits, in effect within his community in Egypt, notably the Mishna Torah, a codification of Jewish law.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 2

Why and How Maimonides Should be Read Seriously:  The Viewpoint of Leo Strauss

As Leo Strauss has pointed out, reading Maimonides, or any other important philosopher or religionist of the middle ages requires a particular sort of suspension of judgment. There is no reason to read such thinkers at all unless one is willing to entertain the possibility that they actually accomplished what they claimed as their object, the discovery of "the truth."

...the belief in the superiority of one's own approach, or of the approach of one's time, to the approach of the past is fatal to historical understanding. This dangerous assumption, which is characteristic of what one may call progressivism, was avoided by what is frequently called historicism. Whereas the progressivist believes that the present is superior to the past, the historicist believes that all periods are equally "immediate to God." The historicist does not want to judge the past, by assessing the contribution of each person, for example, but rather seeks to understand and to relate how things have actually been...and in particular how the thought of the past has been. The historicist at least has the intention to understand the thought of the past exactly as it understood itself. But he is constitutionally unable to live up to his intention. For he knows, or rather he assumes, that, generally speaking and other things being equal, the thought of all epochs is equally true, because every philosophy is essentially the expression of the spirit of its time... Now all philosophers of the past have claimed that they have found the truth, and not merely the truth for their time. (Strauss 1989, p. 210)

Thus, even when one is reading relatively straightforward assertions by Maimonides, a modern reader is hard pressed to overcome the prejudices of progressivism and historicism, and to take the claims of an exiled 12th c. Andalusian Jewish philosopher seriously as an objective description of reality. Yet this is exactly the sense in which Maimonides (above any considerations of exoterism) intended his works to be read. In order to take the thought of Maimonides seriously we have to reorient our thinking according to the doubly difficult criteria that, first, there may be an objectively truthful view of the world, and secondly this view may not be our own but rather a previous understanding which has been, to a greater or lesser degree, discarded.

Furthermore, in the case under consideration, where we are examining a medieval philosopher's treatment of an ancient people, we must face a further interpretive convolution. Here it is Maimonides himself taking on the role of a judge of history. Unlike the historicist, Maimonides assumes that systems of thought must be judged favorably or unfavorably in so far as, and in the degree to which, they approximate objective moral and metaphysical truths. In this respect he seems to resemble the naive modern progressivist. Thus, in the case of the "Sabians" we will have to extend to Maimonides credit in a case where he himself seems to be refusing to lend. It will be tempting to dismiss his observations as something like a "missionary ethnography" or the account of a hostile observer of an enemy culture, or just the triumphal snobbery of someone who thinks his age is more progressive than the ancients. Indeed, if one were seriously interested in collecting data on the group or groups denominated as "Sabians" the Guide for the Perplexed would be an insufficient guide indeed. However, as will explained, these "Sabians" are little more than a mirage. Maimonides is of little help in understanding them, whoever they were. However, we must pay attention to them if we want to understand Maimonides.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 3

The Nabataean Agriculture and the city of Harran

Maimonides used a body of literature called The Nabatean Agriculture as his source on Harranian Sabian belief and practice. This is a collection of texts which exists even today, and has been the source of an extended academic debate since the nineteenth century. This work purports to be a translation by a certain Ibn Wahshiyya, supposedly from "Chaldean" (which may mean, in this instance, Edessan Aramaic) into Arabic. There has been considerable academic controversy as to what the sources were that he compiled into this work. These range from the opinion that the work as a whole is a forgery (Gutschmid and Noldeke) to the, today undefended, belief that the texts do indeed date from close to the time of Abraham (Chwolson). Perhaps the most reasonable assumption is that Ibn Wahshiyya was acting as the redactor of traditions portraying the activities and beliefs of some pagan groups during the late Hellenistic or early medieval periods. Be that as it may, Maimonides uses these texts to his own purposes, which in fact are far broader than the sources he draws from. (vis. "Ibn Wahshiyya" by T. Fahd in The Encyclopedia of Islam)

Harran, dedicated to the Moon-god Sin, is associated with Abraham in the Bible, and legend locates the tomb of his father, Terah, in the same city. Ironically Harran, the birthplace of monotheism, was the last stronghold of late Hellenistic paganism and surprisingly survived as a pagan community not only through the Christian Roman Empire but well into the Islamic period. Known to early Christian authors as "the heathen city," perhaps the survival of this pagan redoubt was due to its remoteness or being in a region of overlapping Roman/Sassanian control. They may have been able to practice their religion as crypto-pagans during the early Caliphate as a result of adopting the name "Sabians," a sort of miscelanious category of monotheists tolerated as "people of the Book" alongside of Christians and Jews by the Muslims. Learned pagans from Harran, such as Thabit b. Kurra, collaborated, like Jews and Christians, in the translation and transmission of Hellenistic philosophy and science into the mainstream of Islamicate civilization. However, their position, even within the city, gradually eroded, and by the 5th Islamic century, 11th century CE, the last Sabian temple was destroyed. Around the time that Maimonides was writing the Guide for the Perplexed, the famous traveler Ibn Djubayer visited this now thoroughly Islamified city, commenting on the beauties of its Great Mosque. (vis. "Harran" by G. Fehervari in The Encyclopedia of Islam)

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 4

Idolatry (Heb. Avodah Zarah)

It should be understood that the term "idolatry" (and "idolater") in Maimonides and other rabbinical sources is not a pejorative term like "heathen" although, of course, it has a strongly negative value. Rather it is a legal term, the precise definition of, and halachic (legal) implications of which are an important subject of rabbinical debate. However it should be mentioned that on this issue, as often elsewhere, Maimonides is on the rigorist extreme of the debate. The nature of idolatry is not a subject clarified in the Guide, but it does figure prominently in both Maimonides' Commentary on the Mishna and in his Mishna Torah codification. (vis. J. David Bleich in Goodman 1992 pp. 237-254) Whatever one may think of it, Maimonides was loath to see, even in the Christian doctrine of the trinity, anything other than tritheism. Thus one can hardly expect the star-worshiping Sabians to be anything but totally beyond the pale! The issue in the Guide with regard to the Sabians is not whether they are idolaters or not, since Maimonides considers them as such from the outset, but how their particular kind of idolatry sheds light on the sequence of legal/political stages which define human religious history.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 5

Experientialism, Existentialism, and Psychologism in contemporary Philosophy of Religion

For Maimonides, and most of his contemporaries in the Islamicate and medieval worlds, philosophy and the sciences got their warrant, ultimately, from religion, which was the court of last appeal. This is, of course, no longer the case today. On the other hand "religion" seems to be a perennial plant which has hardily survived several relentless attempts at its total abolition in modern times. This leaves contemporary scholars with the task of deciding how to cognize something which no longer determines the overall architectonic of knowledge, and yet cannot be readily dismissed as something illusory or pathological. At the risk of considerable over generalization, one might say that the most popular solution to this problem is to see religion as a set of phenomenologically describable states of mind, the early 20th century German scholar Rudolph Otto has provided a good omnibus term, "numinous" to categorize these experiences. This categorization works well in the study of mysticism, which may be one reason why studies of mystics and mystical movements are so "in" these days.

On the other hand this approach doesn't work at all well for someone such as Maimonides. In fact, in lieu of being disqualified as a religious thinker on the grounds of not being, at least obviously, a mystic, perhaps one would have to call him a lawyer who wrote a philosophy book! Unfortunately this doesn't do justice at all to the coherence of Maimonidean thought. For an alternative approach to religion which is based on the nomic rather than the numinous vis. Strauss (1995).

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 6


Maimonides draws attention to the fact that there are two definitions of "mazzal":  1) a lunar mansion, i.e. a fixed portion of the sky through which the planets move, and 2) the planets themselves. He exculpates the Talmudic sages from giving assent to the first conception, which is clearly an astrological construction. However, in offering the second definition as a possibility, the passage, which Maimonides quotes as authoritative, still indicates that earthly affairs are influenced by celestial (planetary) factors.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 7

"Gaia hypothesis"

This hypothesis is a contemporary theory which views the Earth's biosphere as so ecologically interdependent that it virtually constitutes a single living organism.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 8

Maimonides in the Kantian perspective

At the risk of anachronism, there is a strong resemblance between the divine command theory expounded in Maimonides and the categorical imperative of
Immanual Kant. For Maimonides the ethic of perfection is underivable from either the instinctual strivings of the self or the political consensus of the community, which is just a net bargained result of numerous instinct-driven individuals. Thus, as Ralph Lerner points out, the highest ethic for Maimonides is essentially the path of personal perfection rather than community welfare. (Lerner in Kraemer 1991) Be this as it may, for Maimonides, it is impermissible for the wisdom-seeking ascetic to separate from the utility-seeking community, since only the example of the wise can gradually induce the many to raise their moral objectives.

However, Maimonides differs from Kant in that the standard is truly exogenous, the record of revelation, rather than "conscience." One only has to look at Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone to see how radically different Kantian moralism and the nomic piety of Maimonides are. Tolerant and liberal as he is, his extreme dislike of revelation actually leads Kant into a sort of miso-Judaism. Interestingly enough, Maimonides avoids some of the tension inherent in Kant's moralism, through his particular hermeneutic understanding of scriptural passages dealing, notably, with "the fall." As Marvin Fox (1990) points out, here Maimonides applies the logical distinction between good/bad and right/wrong to show how the intellectual faculty is more primal than the faculty which produces moral distinctions. In fact the case can be made that it is the usurping domination of the moral faculty which is itself the defining characteristic of "the fall" from the Maimonidean point of view.

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 9


The "Epicuros" is a type, found in the Talmud and picked up in the usage of Maimonides. It designates one who denies revelation and providence. It derives from the Epicurean school of philosophy which did polemicize against popular conceptions in religion. In Maimonides and other rabbinical usage, however, it has less reference to a particular school than as a general term for "unbeliever."

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Maimonides on the Sabians, Note 10

"Commandments" (Heb. mishpatim) vs. "statutes" (Heb. chukim)

Orthodox rabbinics makes a distinction between commandments or mishpatim which can he rationally justified, and statutes or chukim who's purpose is mysterious. An example of the former would be "Thou shalt not kill," a rule for which almost anybody can find a superabundance of justifications, ranging from inherent emotional revulsion at the act to sophisticated theories of an implied social contract for civil order. An example of the latter would be the prohibition on eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

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Ayn Rand's Second "A":
Is It Really Averroism?

by Mark Sunwall

Editorial Note:

Mark R. Sunwall taught English in the Department of Foreign Languages at the College of Nursing Art and Science, Hyogo, Japan. This essay is reprinted from the College of Nursing Art and Science Hyogo Bulletin, Vol. 6, March, 1999.

I. Ayn Rand: Rationalist and Individualist

The novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand dedicated her life to writing novels which expounded a philosophy of rationalism and individualism. Rand's slogan was an inveterate opposition to what she termed "faith and force," two factors in twentieth century society which she saw as destroying the modern world. What she meant by "faith" was reasoning not based on what she considered to be the givens of the existent world and operated upon by Aristotelian canons of inference. "Force" on the other hand is equated with physical coercion. The two are linked when public authorities use "floating concepts" or, to use a non-Randian term, noumena, to justify policies which involve the initiation of physical force. To faith and force she opposed reason and freedom.

Rand's rationalism hinges on a simplified and radicalized version of Aristotelian ontology, the root notion of the primacy, of existence.

The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent consciousness (of any consciousness), and that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists -- and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. (Rand 1973)

The reversal of this attitude results in the primacy of consciousness. Rand identifies two main variants of this error. On the one hand, minimalist skeptical or positivist philosophies, often in unholy alliance with fideism, which assert that since reason can prove little or nothing concerning the cosmos, the search for objectively verifiable standards at the core of human existence, is an illusion. On the other hand are the maximalist constructions of philosophical idealism which attempt to organize reality with floating nounenal non-concepts.

It is the paradox of Rand's ideas to have influenced millions without having made any recognized contribution to philosophy as a specialist discipline. This lack of "academic respectability" has been variously deplored and accepted with disdainful pride by fans and followers of Rand, reactions which continue the attitudes expressed bv the author during her lifetime. It has been suggested by unsympathetic commentators that she was no more than a "pop philosopher," while on the other hand her defenders have replied that her works are too radical for contemporary culture, and thus have been blacklisted in an effort to keep them off the literary and philosophical cannon.

Perhaps there is some justification for this latter view, after all; the lack of engagement with, quite apart from acceptance of, the Randian works among the intellectual establishment and their relegation to cult status bespeaks a guilty conscience. Even if Rand should not, or cannot, be placed within some "great tradition" of Western though, she should at least be brought into what has been described as the "great conversation."

II. Rand in Context: Classification vs. Influence

1. Rand's antipathy to influence

However, if the implications of Rand's philosophy are to be followed in this matter, the real reason for the non-acceptance of her works must rest in the identity those works and their author, rather than establishment conspiracies and other cultural imponderables. One of the more legitimate reasons for ignoring Rand is that it is difficult to take such an isolated thinker for something more than an autodidact or a belle lettrist. Being a self-proclaimed original thinker, Rand rejected being placed inside a tradition, to the point where it might be considered a sort of travesty to suggest the existence of any unrecognized intellectual inheritance in her work. However, as Rand herself constantly reiterated, it is impossible to think rationally about anything which is devoid of context. If Rand can be located in relation to those thinkers who are most proximate to her own positions on ontology and metaphysics, it would at least be possible for specialist thinkers to cognize her and make evaluations, positive or negative as the case might be.

2. "Heretical" Classifications: Rand as modified Neitzschean or methodological Dialectician

Thus the major legitimate reason for not addressing Rand as a serious philosopher is the fact that she seems difficult to place in historical context, and the primary obstacle to finding Rand's antecedents is Rand herself. In validation of this premise, Rand scholarship has developed in proportion to which the veil has been ilfted on her intellectual inheritance.

Generally speaking, two avenues of inquiry have opened up regarding influences on Rand. The first is typified by the approach of Ronald Merril in The Ideas of Ayn Rand. (1991) Merill sees Rand as starting from a Nietzschean standpoint and gradually developing her own human ideal as she grew into a more benevolent and rational world-view. The second is championed by Chris Sciabarra who's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), sets out the resemblances between Rand and the Russian systems of philosophy which she so strongly rejected. Sciabarra sees Rand as a "dialectical thinker" arriving at very different conclusions from the Russian Marxists and Orthodox Christian philosophers to whom she none the less bears a strong methodological resemblance.

3. The self-attributed classification: The Three A's

Of these two views, Rand as modified Nietzschean, or as Dialectican, I have nothing further to say. Rather I want to show that the "orthodox" Randian view, namely that Rand is an Aristotelian, has not been sufficiently developed. Although Rand strongly resisted the idea that she had been influenced by previous thinkers, she was willing to classify her philosophy along side of a select club of intellectual predecessors.

In bravura fashion, Rand once said that in the history of philosophy she could only recommend the "3 A's" -- Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand. (Sciabarra 1995:12)

The logical place to start a search for further discussion of the interrelationship between the "3 A's" would be in works on intellectual history by Rand herself. However, Rand's historiography is minimalist, having the qualities of rhetorical illustration rather than historical analysis. An example of this historiography is found in the essay "For the New Intellectual," ancient and medieval history being reduced to a few paragraphs, her intent being to create a drama using "philosophical archetypes," the good Intellectual (Reason) vs. the evil Attila (force) and Witch Doctor (faith). Aristotle gets somewhat better than average coverage.

...Aristotle's philosophy was the intellect's Declaration of Independence. Aristotle, the father of logic, was the world's first intellectual in the purest and noblest sense of that word. No matter what remnants of Platonism did exist in Aristotle's system, his incomparable achievement lay in the fact that he defined the basic principles of a rational view of existence and of man's consciousness:  that there is only one reality -- the one that man perceives -- that it exists as an objective absolute (which means: independently of the consciousness, the wishes, or the feelings of any perceiver) -- that the task of man's consciousness is to perceive, not to create, reality -- that abstractions are man's method of integrating his sensory maierial -- that man's mind is his only tool of knowledge -- that A is A. (Rand 1962)

Aristotle is such a distant and fundamental source that it scarcely detracts from a thinker's originality to admit Aristotelian influence. However by reason of the same, it hardly enables one to establish any precise influence or even affinity between such a thinker and others. With regard to linkages or intermediary influences between Aristotle and Rand only one name is ever mentioned in "orthodox" Randian literature, namely the occasional grudging reference to Aquinas as a clear thinker and generally positive influence, as Sciabarra notes,

Rand's hostility to religion did not blind her to the specifically nonreligious achievements of one of the most important saints of the Catholic Church: Thomas Aquinas ...she writes that Aquinas "brought an Aristotelian view of reason back into European culture, and lighted the way toward the Renaissance." In Rand's view "the grandeur of his thought almost lifted the Church close to the realm of reason (though at the price of a basic contradiction)." (Sciabarra 1975: 429 n.75)

Thus Rand celebrates the rationalism of Aquinas, even while depreciating his theology. Does this make Rand a neo-Scholastic or a neo-Thomist in some broad sense? After all, as Copelston writes (1962) Thomas was the first to set up philosophy as an independent project, interrelated to, but with a methodology distinct from, theology.

IV. A plausible hypothesis: Averroism as the second "A"

1. Differences between Rand and Thomism

Everybody agrees that Rand's philosophy is, in some sense, a species of Aristotelianism. The question I am posing here is, "In what sense?" There is a tremendous gap between the historical context of Aristotle and that of Ayn Rand. In the absence of any competing hypothesis, the only linkage which has been suggested to bridge this gap is Thomism.

If the salient element in a comparison of Rand and any previous svstem of philosophy is the exclusive dominance of reason, then Thomism only meets Rand halfway. Thomistic scholasticism sets up reason along side of revelation as an independent source of knowledge while maintaining the primacy of the latter.

2. Likenesses to Averroës and Averroism

Now if mediaeval Aristotelianism were exclusively Thomist, the matter would have to be left at this point. However, as Father Copelston (himself a neo-Thomist) reminds us, there was a school of thought during the middle ages with an attitude toward theology much closer to Rand's.

...if one wishes to find a radical contrast between medieval thinkers in regard to their view of the relation between theology and philosophy, one should not contrast so much ..[pre-Thomistic scholasticism on the one hand] ..with St. Thomas on the other as...[all the scholastics]...with the Latin Averroists...the philosophi and radical Peripatetics on the one hand stand over against the Fathers and theologians and Sancti. (Copelston 1962: 2, ii, 280)

Latin Averroism was the school of radical Aristotelianism in Europe inspired by the Spanish/Islamic commentator Ibn Rushd (Lat. Averroës, 1126-1198).

...there arose in Paris a school of philosophers who claimed to represent integral Aristotelianism, the chief figure of this school being the celebrated opponent of St. Thomas, Siger of Brabant. These 'integral' Aristotelians, the genuine Aristotelians as they thought themselves to be, meant by genuine Aristotelianism the system of Aristotle as interpreted by Averroës, the Commentator par excellence. (Copelston 1962: 2, i. 212)

Averroës was also, in his own way, a champion of reason and a critic of fideism. At any rate this is the reputation he has acquired, especially in Europe. For example a UNESCO publication of the past decade devoted several articles lauding his rationalism and tolerance. One such article stated that,

The name of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) has become a symbol of freedom of thought and rationalism, of rejection of mysticism in all its forms and of blind faith in the Holy Scriptures. The influence of the Cordoban philosopher has spread widely...(Sagadeev 1986)

His main claim to fame as an independent philosopher (as opposed to commentator) lies in his refutation of al-Ghazzali's skeptical fideism, as contained in the latter's The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ghazzali was in turn criticizing the philosophical idealism of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who had argued that the, world was both eternal and created.[1]

3. Rand and Averroës: Non-recognition or nonawareness?

In Rand the transmission of the Aristotelian tradition gets very short shrift.

Aristotle's works were lost to scholars of Europe for centuries. The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas. (Rand 1962: 23)

Precisely two lines! To the best of my knowledge there is no other discussion in the Randian corpus of the specifics of the transmission of Aristotelianism to the West. This in itself would not be strange, given what has been said above about the rhetorical intent of Rand's historiography, yet this historiographic mythos seems to play a more than marginal role in substantiating what might be called the Randian world-view. Rand, while disavowing mechanistic theories of progress and social evolution (Hegel, Marx, Spencer) relies on her readers' tacit acceptance that the social and technological revolutions in the West since Renaissance times were positive albeit flawed developments. This underlying drama of progress in turn is ascribed to the rediscovery of Aristotle. However, the attribution of the recovery of Aristotle to Thomas must be either a rhetorical ellipsis or a misattribution. In fact, Aristotle was recovered through the works of translators such as the the School of Toledo and William of Moerbeck. It was then rejected by Augustinian conservatives among the Christian clergy and received by the Averroist radicals, prompting the prohibition of Aristotelian and Averroist studies at the University of Paris in 1210 and again in 1215. (Copelston 1962: 2, i, 236-237) Finally, it was synthesized into a Christian philosophy by Thomas (born in 1225). Thus if Rand celebrates Thomas and ignores the Averroists, she seems to have gotten her intellectual history wrong.

Was Rand totally unaware of this philosophical movement? Given the sources at my disposal I cannot at present make any clear judgment about Rand's knowledge, or otherwise, of Averroism. One might wonder however, who was the archetype of the solitary genius laboring during the dark ages which Rand refers to in the following bit of historicized rhetoric?

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest of martyrs struggled to keep the human race alive. (Rand 1962: 169)

This is a very unlikely portrait of Aquinas, who was a celebrated figure even in his own lifetime and was canonized as a Catholic saint within half a century of his death. However, Rand's correspondence with Isabel Patterson gives a tantalizing hint of who the primary referent of the archetypal "man of ability" during the "Dark Ages" may have been. In one of her letters Patterson had mentioned Averroës as an example of someone who had been content to discover the truth without any hope of disseminating it in society. In her answering correspondence Rand compares this to her own struggle to get her message across to an (in Rand's pre-celebrity phase) unheeding world.[2]

In fact, the portrait of Averroës as an isolated thinker is historically untrue. It may either reflect early twentieth certury ignorance of mediaeval Islamic philosophy or reflect a garbled awareness of the so-called "double truth" theory. What is important in the present context is that this was the image of Averroës in the minds of Rand and Patterson. While, it would be a fascinating endeavor to push our inquiry into the possible linkages between medieval philosophy and Rand's philosophical sources, we will have to break off this line of thought and return to the question of "family resemblances" between Averroës and Rand. Do they hold under closer scrutiny?

IV. Differences between Averroës and Rand

1. Salient Doctrines of Averroism

It should be clear that with regard to the independence of philosophy from theology the Latin Averroists were closer to the spirit of Rand's philosophy than Thomists, then or now. However, apart from this overarching methodological consideration, how did the specifics of the Averroist teachings compare with Rand's formulations? According to Copelston, the Averroists were distinguished in their days by two famous, or notorious points,

The salient point in their doctrine, and the one that attracted most attention, was the theory that there was only one rational soul in all men. Adopting Averroës's interpretation of Aristotle's obscure and ambiguous teaching on this matter they maintained that not only the active intellect, but also the passive intellect, was one and the same in all men. The logical consequence of this position is the denial of immortality and of sanctions in the next life. Another of their heterodox doctrines, and one which incidentally was an undoubtedly Aristotelian doctrine, was that of the eternity of the world. (Copelston 1962: 2, ii, 156-157)

When we turn to these two issues, that of monopsychism and cosmology, we will see that a similarity "in spirit" between Rand's philosophy and Averroism is seriously qualified by disagreement at the level of specifics.

2. Monopsychism

At the level of psychology and epistemology Rand's philosophy is fundamentally opposed to that of the Averroists, albeit showing an interesting affinity in spirit of approach. This affinity can be seen the interesting Randian term "psycho-epistemology" with its conflation of thinking and being. Both the Averroists and Rand esteemed objective thought in a way that in both cases goes back to the Aristotelian teaching of the rational soul, or nous, as the divine element among the human faculties. However, the Averroists hypostatsized objective thought as a single Universal Mind, a position which Rand would have considered reification of an abstraction.

Although both consider rational thought to be the highest state that an individual can attain, for Rand this thinking is an attribute of an individual while for Averroism it is an attribute of the universal Mind in which human individuals, during the term of their corporal existence, are capable of participating. Both Rand and the Averroists denied personal immortality, but again, this is a consequence of parallel, rather than identical, arguments about the nature of the soul and consciousness.

The root difference is that the Randian epistemology is a kind of conceptualism, while the Averroist doctrine represents an extreme realism. For Rand the mental and the corporeal are inseparable, and thus all knowledge is a property of concrete individuals. The Averroists drew a different conclusion from the Aristotelian notion of hylomorphism. According to one way of construing Aristotelian psychology, the forms which the mind knows are the very same as the forms which constitute the nonmaterial essence of things. Thus knowing something is conflated with being that thing. If we grasp the essence of some thing, say a carrot, the carrot is actually inside our mind apart from the fact that the particular material substrate of any possible concrete carrots are still outside of us. Monopsychism is a radicalization of this participatory epistemology at the level of psychology. The direct participation of all forms in the act of knowing implies that all Mind is a unity, only the existence of a material substrate pluralizes and individualizes the essences.

Rand was, in this respect, closer to the modern consensus in seeing knowledge as being built up in the minds of specific individuals, knowledge being dependent, ultimately, on sense experience but not reducible to such. For her, the human mind, although the most noble thing in the universe, remained a property of concrete individuals. No doubt Rand would consider monopsychism in any form a variant of mysticism and collectivism.

3. Cosmological Concerns

Both Rand's philosophy and that of the Averroists are philosophies of immanence, rather than spiritualist or supernaturalist philosophies. However, the precise working out of the immanentism in each case shows how these two doctrines, in spite of their superficial similarities diverge in their concrete implications. The immanence of Rand is purely ontological while that of Ibn Rushd is cosmological and physicalistic.

The God of Averroës is the highest Intellect in the universe, the attractive power of which causes the furthest celestial sphere to revolve in a circular motion. Rand's highest principle, which she variously calls Existence or Reality, likewise serves as an axiomatic basis for her entire system. The difference is that Rand, having posited the locus of values within the existential world and thus legitimating a non-transcendental outlook, takes no further notice of physical science but proceeds directly to questions of ethics and political philosophy. In both Averroës and Rand the concept of causality, as in any Aristotelian system, plays a prime role; however, this principle is applied to utterly different realms of concern. Averroës and later Averroism, struggling with what seems in retrospect wrongheaded scientific conceptions, endeavor to apply the concept of causality to the successive levels of intellect and layers of spheres within a geocentric cosmology. The concern is both with celestial mechanics and cognitive science in so far as for Averroës, who was a panpsychist, these studies were intertwined at the level of the macrocosm.

Rand on the other hand has no interest in cosmology and, as a modern, no need to defend the conceptions in Aristotle's De Caelo as an integral part of her Aristotelianism. As soon as she has debunked any lingering suspicions of the existence of a noumenal world she can proceed directly to moral and political philosophy. While her argument moves along rather different premises than that of the medieval Aristotelian thinkers, the movement is essentially the same. The movement of the argument and the movement of nature are considered to be in direct correspondence according to the relation of sign to thing signified. This is made possible by the Aristotelian term logic where the premises, if correct and subjected to valid inference, are productive of additional truths. Whereas the mediaevals, including Averroës, constructed a physical/cognitive model according to this method, Rand constructs a cognitive/moral model.

IV. Differences between the Averroist school and Rand

1. Ibn Rushd vs. Averroism

The question of whether Ibn Rushd was promoting an esoteric rationalism more radical than the exoteric contents of his works would warrant has been debated since the time of Ernst Renan. The case for dissembling on the part of Averroës is more contested than in the case of Maimonides, the paradigm case of the Straussian school which pursues this type of interpretation. Arnaldez synopsises the shifting grounds of this debate in his article in The Enclyclopedia of Islam.

For him [Renan] as for the followers of Averroes in the Middle Ages, the Arab thinker is the one who revealed in Aristotle a rationalist method and doctrine, which as such were opposed to religious dogmas. This being so, Renarn, following his preconceptions, considers the theological writings as artifices intended to deceive or to provide a challenge to the inquisition of the Maliki fukaha [jurists of religious law]. An examination of the biography and the work of Averroes shows that this assessment is entirely without foundation...(Arnaldez 1986: 911)

Arnaldez proceeds to mention the modern authorities who see no contradiction between Ibn Rushd's role as philosopher and orthodox theologian, philosophy and religion being a double expression of the same truth.

It is important to remember that Averroës was not an Averroist, at least not a "Latin Averroist."

That school of Christian scholasticism which was most deeply influenced by Islamic philosophy was Latin Averroism. Latin Averroism is famous for its doctrine of the double truth, for its assertion that a thesis may be true in philosophy but false in theology, and vice versa. The doctrine of the double truth does not appear in Averroes or his predecessors. (Strauss 1989: 224-225)

The Latin followers of Averroës were not familiar with his original works, but only his commentaries on Aristotle. None the less, however much this school sought to reestablish an "integral Aristotelianism," they absorbed a great deal of Averroës' thinking, consciously or otherwise, through the medium of the commentaries, including monopsychism and the eternity of the world. In a Christian environment this created much more serious problems of what today we would call "cognitive dissonance" for the followers than for their Muslim guide. In Islam, a religion of orthopraxy, Ibn Rushd had merely to show that philosophizing was a legal activity. (Strauss 1995) Christianity, being a religion of correct belief rather than action, demanded that the content as well as the practice of philosophy be orthodox. Thus the theory of the "double truth" came into currency specifically among the Latin followers of Averroës, apart from whatever esoteric dimension there may have been in the teachings of the master. Whether as a sincerely held ontological dualism or as a subterfuge to put ecclesiastical authorities off the track, the Averroists adhered to the notion that one and the same proposition could be true philosophically and false theologically.

Whatever sympathy Rand might have had with the Averroists as authors of some sort of rationalist samizdat, she could hardly have accepted such a violation of the principle of non-contradiction as exemplary or inspiring.

2. Ethics

In Rand's literary productions we always see the working out of a law of strict moral accountability. To read her novels is to enter a world in which good is, at least ultimately, rewarded, while evil is punished sooner or later. Moreover, according to her philosophy of aesthetics these are not mere stories but philosophical mythos superior to the logos of historical chronicles. If one were to denominate this as a theory of providence much less karma, Rand would have disavowed the identification as a concession to "mysticism." None the less this uncompromising moral philosophy is a legitimate development out of the ontological and logical premises of Rand's system.

The Randian cognitive/moral model is notable, as mentioned above, for its strict law of moral accountability as well as for the fact that the sanctions of this moral law operate automatically at the level of physical and psychological determinism. Thus Randianism, as one would expect from a libertarian system, comes down on the physis side of the nomos/physis dispute. Conventional law, where it is necessary at all, is only a sort of ratification of natural (Rand would prefer to say objective) law. The premises which are generated along the way to this natural law conclusion are, subsequent to the primacy of existence, the existence of volition and the necessity of survival. Rand makes a point that these are attributes of human beings only. Thus Rand's philosophy, although "objective" in the sense of recognizing the primacy of a reality-principle, is anthrocentric rather than cosmocentric. The celestial and panpsychic qualities of Averroist philosophy meant that it was objectivist in both a cosmological as well as an epistemological sense.

An unsympathetic critic might accuse Rand of constructing a metaphysic to suit her politics. In fact, any acquaintance with her writings which is more than superficial should put to rest any doubts as to the sincerity of her rationalism. None the less freedom often seems to be the animating telos of her rationalism. Moreover, she assumes, perhaps mistakenly, that Aristotelian influences have invariably promoted liberty. A notable exception to this, unfortunately, was Aristotle himself who, as a partisan of the Macedonian dynasty, was less a friend of freedom than of those who managed to destroy it.

For Averroës freedom meant only the freedom of philosophers to philosophize. There is a well known anecdote about Averroës being introduced to the Almohad prince in Morrocco.

The prince questioned Averroes on the sky:  is it a substance which has existed from all eternity, or did it have a beginning? ...Ibn Rushd was worried by this dangerous question, but Yusuf [the prince] understood this and began a discussion...displaying a wide knowledge of the ancient philosophers and of the theologians. Put thus at ease, Ibn Rushd in his turn began to speak and was able to show the extent of his learning. (Arnaldez 1986: 910)

When the monarch asks the philosopher a few questions about his philosophy he is at first mortified, fearing that it was the beginning of a judicial inquisition. As soon as it becomes clear that the prince is genuinely interested in the philosopher's opinions they can proceed to have an amicable discussion. Averroës' goal is to secure his right to philosophize, not to enlighten the masses, let alone to reform or overthrow the prince. Perhaps we see here both the origin of the "double truth" as well as Rand and Isabel Patterson's mistaken image of Averroës as an isolated thinker.

This is not to say that Ibn Rushd had no social theory, but that his social theory belonged to the public, exoteric dimension of his thought. In Islam religious science is divided into kalam and fiqh. Kalam (theology) was the area where Averroës deviated from accepted opinion; there is no reason to infer that his, perfectly orthodox, opinions in fiqh (social theory and jurisprudence) were anything other than his sincere opinion. In either case however it is hard to see anything in common with Rand. If he was dissembling in his political and legal opinions, we are back to the isolated and ineffectual characterization of Isabel Patterson; if not we have a representative of Islamic jurisprudence, a system of revealed legislation with conceptions of rights and duties very different from that of libertarian tradition which Rand represents.

However, the real contrast to Rand on ethics is not Ibn Rushd's Islamic law. After all, Rand, Thomas, and Ibn Rushd all agree that there is some objective law in the universe which human beings must uphold, their disagreement is over the source and nature of this law. Furthermore, even within the context of libertarian historiography it is plausible to speak of a "theological moment" in the history of freedom, when "canon law" (very loosely speaking, in fact Islamic, Jewish and especially Christian conceptions were quite different) competed with king's law for the allegiance of society and laid the foundation for a conception of rights which was both universal and objective. Here again what seems only a "family resemblance" may play a greater role in intellectual history when one sees that both divine and natural law fall on one side of the primal physis/nomos dispute.

However, when we pass from Averroës to the Latin Averroism that he bears scant responsiblity for, we see a gradual shifting in the moral philosophy associated with the latter. Now, deprived of the universal, revealed element in Islamic philosophy, the Latin Averroists find themselves in opposition to the official natural law doctrine of the Christian Scholastics, and fall back on conventionalism in ethics. This results in the production of a thinker such as Marsillius of Padua and as a consequence, of his, and kindred, thought, all the distinctive political trends of modernity. (Strauss 1989: 224) The culminating disaster of these trends, from a libertarian point of view, is statism. This represents, of course, all that Rand opposed in her life and works. This ethico-political outcome of Averroism is the final straw invalidating any close taxonomic affinity of that school with the philosophy of Rand.

V. Conclusion

The above "family resemblances" between Randianism and Averroism, like the bold brush strokes on a Cezanne canvas, are doomed to break down when transferred to the Pointillist medium of exact comparison. The thought of Ayn Rand and the philosophical movement intitiated by the commentaries of Ibn Rushd do exhibit some similarities as radical, immanent, and integral Aristotelianism. However, it should be clear that the second A of Rand's self-classification must remain Aquinas rather than Averroës as I have rather fancifully hypothesized. This exercise in trying to get a more exact classification of Rand's philosophy should none the less alert us to the dangers of conflating libertarian ideology with Aristotelian philosophy. There are as many kinds of Aristotelianism as there are libertarianism. The convergences and divergences among these must be worked out on a case by case basis.


Arnaldez, R., "Ibn Rushd" in The Encyclopedia of Islam. E.J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands: 1986

Berliner, Michael (ed.), Letters of Ayn Rand, Dutton, New York, NY: 1995

Copelston, Frederick, S.J., A History of Philosophy: vol. 2 pts. 1 + 2, Westminister, Maryland: 1962

Goodman, Lenn, Avicenna, Routledge, London: 1992

Merrill, Ronald E., The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Open Court, Chicago: 1991

Rand, Ayn, For the New Intellectual, Signet, New York, NY: 1962

Rand, Ayn, Philosophy, Who Needs It?, Signet, New York, NY: 1982

Sagadeev, Arthur V., "Ibn Rushd and the Islamic philosophical tradition" in Unesco Courier, 1986

Sciabarra, Chris M., Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Penn State University Press, University Park, Penn: 1995

Strauss, Leo, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: Essays and Lectures by Leo Strauss (ed. Thomas L. Pangle), Chicago, Chicago, Ill.: 1989

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Copyright (c) 1997, 1999 Mark R. Sunwall, All Rights Reserved

Ayn Rand's Second "A", Note 1

Ghazzali argues that whatever is eternal must be necessary in itself, thus rendering the concept of creation superfluous.

Ibn Rushd, answering Ghazali in The Incoherence of the Incoherence, concedes the point, agreeing that whatever is eternal is necessary. His object is to save a more strictly Peripatetic Aristotelianism by sacrificing Ibn Sina's Neoplatonizing version with its provocative division of all being into the necessary and the contingent. (Goodman 1992: 83)

The root of the issue between the creationist Ghazzali and the eternalist Averroës was the relative priority of two categories:  causality and existence. Averroës (Ibn Rushd) asserted the necessity and eternity of the universe, God being, not its creator, but its prime mover. In this respect Averroës and Rand could both be grouped together as asserting the priority of existence over causality. Thus Averroës possessed a philosophy which, while being theological, was theological in a very immanent way, a sort of physico-theology. Rand, conversely, presents the spectacle of a modern immanentist philosopher who's philosophy has a very theological tone. How is this? After all, Rand was an avowed atheist who repeatedly and explicitly refused to allow any theological language into her system. However, in spite of her prioritizing of existence, what is remarkable about Rand is the emphasis placed on the concept of causality in her moral philosophy. Theological thinking tends, at root, to identify causal relationships between beliefs, actions, rewards, and punishments. Even in the absence of God, Rand's philosophy contains such a strict relationship between cognitive beliefs and moral actions that it could well be considered a theological system, especially if we take theos in its original Greek sense of a primal principle, rather than a personal deity. Thus Rand's philosophy bears a stronger "family resemblance" to medieval conceptions of moral philosophy than to modern existential, situational, or utilitarian ethics, be they religious or secular.

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Ayn Rand's Second "A", Note 2

This correspondence, on Rand's side, is published in Michael S. Berliner's Letters of Ayn Rand. The discussion in question is located in a letter to Patterson dated October 10, 1943. Rand is summoning up the courage to write her magnum opus and philosophical manifesto Atlas Shrugged, and notes that she has found encouragement in a previous letter from Patterson. The relevant passage is as follows,

I know that I will now have to write The Strike [renamed Atlas Shrugged] -- you'll push me into it. If I ever hesitate, I will just read page 2 of your letter again. Your quotation about Averroes is most interesting. And pertinent. (Berliner 1995: 174)

Berliner provides the quotation "in part" contained in Patterson's letter in a footnote,

The happy few whom God has endowed with a philosophical mind should content themselves with a solitary possession. of rational truth. (ibid.)

Characteristically Rand seems to be using the quote as a spur to act in the opposite direction. I am simply using this correspondence as an indication that Rand was aware of Averroës, not that she was "following" him in this case. I do not at present know the source of Patterson's quote.

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