161 - He Moves in Mysterious Ways: Maimonides on Eternity

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Peter tests different approaches to interpreting Maimonides, focusing on his discussion of the eternity of the world, which tries to settle the debate by declaring a draw.



Further Reading

• H.A. Davidson, “Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation,” in I. Twersky (ed.), Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (Cambridge MA: 1979), 16-40.

• H.A. Davidson, Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (New York: 1987).

• G. Freudenthal, “‘Intstrumentalism’ and ‘Realism’ as Categories in the History of Astronomy: Duhem vs Popper, Maimonides vs Gersonides,” Centaurus 45 (2003), 96-117.

• A. Hyman, “Maimonides on Creation and Emanation,” In J.F. Whippel (ed.), Studies in Medieval Philosophy (Washington, DC: 1988), 45-61.

• L. Kaplan, “Maimonides on the Miraculous Element in Prophecy,” Harvard Theological Review 70 (1977), 233-56.

• K. Seeskin, Maimonides on the Origin of the World (Cambridge: 2005).


In reply to by Mark C

Peter Adamson on 12 February 2014

Maimonides review

Thanks! I enjoyed this line: "Like wearing a gun with a sequined dress, metaphysics is both incongruous and ridiculously practical."

Andres Melo Co… on 18 February 2014

On Leo Strauss

I am a fellow philosopher, though I have become less and less interested in becoming part of academia. Like Socrates, I believe philosophy is not about sects, but rather a dangerous way of life. You can see my work at www.amelo14.wordpress.com Have listened with interest to your Islamic philosophy podcast for the last few months. Have shared it. It provides a much needed introduction for many unfamiliar with Islamic thought. Having it accesible via internet is, as the company for credit cards says, PRICELESS. Intend to write a critical approach to your whole approach to philosophy (is, for instance, the history of philosophy really philosophical in the sense that it can be conceptually clear about its own historical presuppositions?). Question also whether you do justice to the powerful POLITICAL reflections of thinkers such as al-Farabi. However, this particular episode smacks of outright carelessness. For a fair and interested approach to Leo Strauss do read, and do recommend your listeners to read: Thomas Pangle´s "Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy." Of course, given the fact that great Islamic/Jewish philosophy revolves --in great measure-- around Aristotle, it becomes all the more central to get the interpretation of Aristotle right (i.e. as best as we can.) I have personally spent the last few years trying to understand the political and ethical philosophy of Aristotle. After so many years of research (outside academia) of both Straussian and non-Straussian interpretations, it seems clear to me that at the very least the non-Straussians have much to learn from the Straussian interpretation not only of Classical Philosophy but as well of Islamic philosophy. Undoubtedly, for example, Straussians really do much more justice to the reasons why al-Farabi was considered "the Second Teacher" (for instance his words on Socrates which differ strikingly from your forgettable episode 17 on Socrates). Moreover, they do indeed provide heavy arguments against the real possibility of ANY "history of philosophy", with or without gaps. Furthermore, your latest episode (163) strikingly reveals how Maimonides´s work was indeed burnt! And not having asked Professor Stroumsa in episode (162) about the Straussian interpretation, was truly a lost opportunity. It would be a great learning experience, I believe, if you could in fact contact those Straussians to get their ideas as part of your podcast. However, in this regard I am pessimistic as I have come to understand how academic sects work. Hopefully, I will be able to write in greater depth about these considerations, and hopefully they will be of interest to you.

In reply to by Andres Melo Co…

Peter Adamson on 19 February 2014


Hi there,

I actually have a rather complicated personal relationship to Straussianism because as an undergrad I studied ancient philosophy with professors who were broadly speaking in the Straussian tradition, or at least influenced by it. From that - and here I'd agree with you - I learned that the Straussians do have something to offer the study of these texts, especially in that they ask us to concentrate on aspects apart from "the arguments". For a while one could even say that Straussians almost had a monopoly on reading Plato and other authors using the tools of literary criticism. Now I think that it is much more common for philosophers to read Plato with issues like characterization, foreshadowing, textual structure etc in mind rather than just pulling out arguments as analytically minded readers used to do. I hope my episodes on Plato did bring that across.

With the Islamic-Jewish tradition I think the Straussian approach to Farabi has not been helpful, and that there is not much to say in its favor. So I didn't really get into it when covering him. The case of Maimonides is much better for the Straussian reading because of the introduction Maimonides wrote for the Guide. So I saved it for this episode and wanted both to give it some coverage, but also make clear that this is not my approach. I think that's an honest way for me to handle it. After all this is my attempt to tell the history of philosophy as I see it, not an attempt to present all possible approaches to these texts as if they are on a par with one another, whether I agree with them or not.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andres Melo Co… on 20 February 2014


Thanks for your prompt and kind reply.

In reply to by Andres Melo Co…

Andres Melo Co… on 21 February 2014


Finally, perhaps Joshua Parens´s, 'Strauss on Maimonides's Secretive Political Science', Chapter Six of "Leo Strauss´s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading "What is Political Philosophy?", may be of interest in this regard. Once again, thanks.

In reply to by Andres Melo Co…

Peter Adamson on 21 February 2014


Thanks for the suggestions - Parens is one of the scholars keeping the Straussian flame burning when it comes to Farabi, also. By the way a critique of Strauss by Miles Burnyeat, "Sphinx Without a Secret," makes for entertaining reading whichever side you are on. It was republished in his recent 2 volume collection of essays from Cambridge Univ. Press.

Stilgar on 4 May 2015

Maimonides seems to have an

Maimonides seems to have an incredibly sophisticated notion about the limits of the current theory of celestial spheres. Let me see if I get this right, the Aristotelian model doesn't match observation. And the Ptolemaic model which accounts for observation doesn't match Aristotle. Maomonides' conclusion was that these models are useful, but their subject (celestial motion) is beyond human understanding.

Indeed, if he thought there were irresolvable problems in the theory of celestial movement, then his conclusion which denies the possibility of a new paradigm is disappointing. When I consider his faith in the reach of philosophy, this conclusion seems a bit premature. What is it exactly that makes the heavens impenetrable by our finite minds?

Further question: does the Great Eagle's think stars are material?

Alejandro on 13 March 2020

an eternal universe would "undermine the whole of the law"

Hi, Peter! I'm trying to understand why Maimonides said that an eternal universe, or a universe created from pre-existing matter, would "undermine the whole of the law." You say that it's "probably because it would undercut our sense that God is a personal deity who intervenes in our world, who can arbitrarily decide to create, to reward, to punish." You also say that this would seem to make God an "automatic, necessary cause," but I can't quite follow. I understand why pre-existing matter can be seen as a limit to God's omnipotence, among other things, but why would the eternity of the universe make God an impersonal deity who acts necessarily, like Avicenna's God?



In reply to by Alejandro

Peter Adamson on 13 March 2020

Eternity and the law

Yes, good question. What he's thinking is something like this: the eternity of the world was strongly associated with the idea that the world exists necessarily. This suggests that God's relationship to it is inevitable or automatic, like fire giving off heat or light from a lamp. And if this is God's relationship to His creation then He clearly would not be laying down contingently chosen laws (like, choosing that we should not eat shellfish instead of allowing it). It seems hard to believe that the whole of the Law is necessary and could not have been otherwise, so if God always acts necessarily, He would not be able to impose the Law.

The key move there is from eternity to necessity but as you know from the series that was seen as a good inference in Aristotle and many medieval thinkers; it eventually gets undermined e.g. by Scotus but they had a hard time decoupling these two ideas from one another.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Alejandro on 13 March 2020

That explains a lot. Thank

That explains a lot. Thank you! Of course, God could still lay down the Law in a voluntarist manner, but as you say, this would not be "contingently chosen laws." But this poses another problem, doesn't it? It amounts to divine commnad theory, and theological voluntarism has its problems too, don't you think?

In reply to by Alejandro

Peter Adamson on 13 March 2020

More problems

Yes absolutely; a lot of medieval philosophy amounts to oscillating between the poles of this dilemma.

In the case of Maimonides he has a nice middle view on the Law which is that, in broad outline, we could use reason to "predict" what it should be. But the specific Law revealed by God is perfectly judged to be as beneficial as possible - and I guess he'd be open to the thought that there could be other, equally good sets of laws but God's wisdom would be needed to produce them too. So for instance rationally we can see that some dietary restrictions are needed, to teach us moderation and self-discipline, but exactly what these restrictions should be, is up to God and He chooses contingently but with consummate wisdom.

Jordan on 7 December 2021


Again a comment before listening - the way I understand Maimonides is that he's following the alchemist tradition of burying the lede. And I'm not an expert on this, but the pre-Zohar Jewish mysticism of studying Elijah also went the same way. The idea that information is powerful, and knowledge of the Divine is so strong that it can kill someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Therefore, teaching is best passed down master-to-student directly, or at worst, written down with codes and references that will be obvious to a true scholar but nonsense to anyone else. 

My understanding of alchemical practices is very fuzzy but I know it did get into bed with Hebrew from time to time. Numerology is a related practice but it's still part of modern Kabbalah. 

Wikipedia's also suggesting early Islamic thinkers were big on alchemy as based on Aristotle. 

Anyway, I think of the Guide for the Perplexed as ideally acting as a decoding tool for a student of the Torah who is seeking true wisdom but may also need to justify themselves to laypeople. In addition to the obvious scholarly and legal information, Maimonides isn't going to straight-up tell you how to mystically ascend, but he's giving some tools and nudges in the right direction. 

OK, pausing before you mention the test case at 5:16. I do think the Rambam was doing some rhetorical cheating (I remember this from first starting to read the Guide. Emphasis on STARTING... it's LONG), because he's given a heck of a disclaimer. On the one hand, it makes me wonder if there's some kind of religious persecution he's trying to avoid by saying so. On the other hand... I'm so jealous of that kind of self-confidence. Any critique doesn't count because I said so and you just don't get me!

Again though, I feel like there's a lot of context we need for this (none of which I expect from a half-hour philosophy podcast) that I really think is influenced by both alchemy and mysticism. 

Pausing at 10:00 again. So I think that the Rambam's point here is less about the age of the universe, but instead how to use logical skills in a way that's compatible with the Talmud and Torah. It might be my modern bias (that most of us now aren't stressing whether the universe is eternal) to say that the conclusion doesn't "matter," but maybe the Rambam really is making the point that, whether the reader holds that the universe is eternal or not, the Guide still applies and the same conclusions about God can be drawn. At the same time, with an ineffable God, he may be playing up the idea that humans can't really know or understand things of larger cosmic importance. That's my guess as we move forward.

OK, a quick side note. (I am Jewish but in a tradition that allows for a very flexible understanding and even uncertainty/disbelief of the divine, but I grew up in tiny evangelical Christian private schools. I am never really arguing for a single version of God, but my concept is based on some Abrahamic stuff.)

I was taught the eternal God, non-eternal universe concept. But does an eternal universe really pose a theological problem? As long as God is also eternal, then you've got the world and God existing simultaneously. But the whole cosmology with God already requires some flexible notions about causality. (Did God create himself? etc) I thought it could only be understood as placing God outside of any cause/effect framework. God's already a paradox by nature and exists arbitrarily as The Boss, so can't we just stick the universe in that understanding too, as subservient to God but eternally so? I guess that concept will also naturally lead to justification for the trinity though (since that is Christianity's usual understanding of God the Son), although it doesn't have to, because again: apparently arbitrary but immutable eternal roles. I mean, you could probably allow your definition of God to include some part of the universe, like "God's existence includes matter which He wills to exist and alters in the act of creation" and bam, you're done before dinnertime. 

Although "done before dinnertime" is probably the wrong way to approach philosophy lol. But y'know, why not spend the mental energy on something more important than doing mental flips to justify a pre-existing cosmology? 

OK cool, now the Rambam is literally jumping the causality thing. I'm here in the sidelines like, YOU GO GIRL! FAST FORWARD THAT S***! 

If the Rambam wants to know my opinion, which God knows he doesn't, I think it's a moot point because the universe (in some conceptual sense, even if it's a butterfly's dream or whatever) exists. So we're looking at cosmology like there is some big reason why existence is required. But that's kinda survivorship bias, because we can't look at all the universes that DON'T exist and evaluate the likelihood and the reasons behind that. We can speculate, and that's all fine and good and worthwhile, but unless we somehow get to a point in science where we can figure this out, it really is just a guess. Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, if there were nothing, you wouldn't be asking that question.

So... don't look a gift horse in the mouth, y'know? At the end of the day. Any answer we come up with is going to be unsatisfactory because our existence doesn't make much sense.

We can deduce our way back to a single simple cause of the universe, but that cause is still required to cause itself. So the answer is outside of causality (and doesn't make sense) or is a paradox (and doesn't make sense) or doesn't exist (and doesn't make sense). But heck, I'm not listening to philosophy because I think I understand the whole world and can't be disproven. Maybe I'll check back in in a decade and I'll be a staunch theist and have a bunch of bullet points how I was an idiot when I wrote this. Or maybe someone on the internet will see this and do it for me sooner instead of later.

Anyway, back to 13:00. I love Maimonides for being like, "Well if the universe is required to be perfectly ordered, why is this stupid star in a stupid place? It Is A Divine Mystery" This whole section is Maimonides going "I don't understand astronomy and it is going to be everyone's problem!" (affectionate)

OK as you're wrapping up, it's sounding like I agree with the Rambam about the idea that some things are just impossible to understand. But I don't! Not fully. I think the Bible makes way more sense and is a better read if you let God have a face sometimes but not always. Understanding stuff as a metaphor might explain it away, but it doesn't explain why those specific words were chosen and not some other words. Honestly that's how I understand and practice Judaism though - is getting upset at the questions, deciding there's no possible way to figure out the answer, and then sitting down and figuring out the answer (and then, the next day, figuring out why your answer is wrong). 

Fr. John Rickert on 28 June 2022

The Elusive Straussian


Greetings --

I hope I don't end up reiterating what has already been said, and probably better, but I want to mention that the Straussian approach of "reading between the lines" can create a problem of regress.  Do we read between -those- lines?  And between those?  What is Strauss himself "really saying"?  I believe there is a danger of going down a Gnostic rabbit hole.

Absolutely great series. Thanks very much.

Best wishes --

Fr. John Rickert, FSSP, Ph.D.

Fr. John Rickert on 28 June 2022

Subject line

It occurred to me that the "he" who moves in mysterious ways referred to in the title is... Maimonides.

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