Eight chapters of Maimonides on Ethics/Chapter V

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As we have explained in the preceding chapter, it is the duty of man to subordinate all the faculties of his soul to his reason. He must keep his mind's eye fixed constantly upon one goal, namely, the attainment of the knowledge of God[2] (may He be blessed!), as far as it is possible for mortal man to know Him. Consequently, one must so adjust all his actions, his whole conduct, and even his very words, that they lead to this goal, in order that none of his deeds be aimless, and thus retard the attainment of that end. So, his only design in eating, drinking, cohabiting, sleeping, waking, moving about, and resting should be the preservation of bodily health, while, in turn, the reason for the latter is that the soul and its agencies may be in sound and perfect condition, so that he may readily acquire wisdom, and gain moral and intellectual virtues, all to the end that man may reach the highest goal of his endeavors.

Accordingly, man will not direct his attention merely to obtain bodily enjoyment, choosing of food and drink and the other things of life only the agreeable, but he will seek out the most useful, being indifferent whether it be agreeable or not. There are, indeed, times when the agreeable may be used from a curative point of view, as, for instance, when one suffers from loss of appetite, it may be stirred up by highly seasoned delicacies and agreeable, palatable food. Similarly, one who suffers from melancholia may rid himself of it by listening to singing and all kinds of instrumental music, by strolling through beautiful gardens and splendid buildings, by gazing upon beautiful pictures, and other things that enliven the mind, and dissipate gloomy moods. The purpose of all this is to restore the healthful condition of the body, but the real object in maintaining the body in good health is to acquire wisdom. Likewise, in the pursuit of wealth, the main design in its acquisition should be to expend it for noble purposes, and to employ it for the maintenance of the body and the preservation of life, so that its owner may obtain a knowledge of God, in so far as that is vouchsafed unto man.

From this point of view, the study of medicine has a very great influence upon the acquisition of the virtues and of the knowledge of God, as well as upon the attainment of true, spiritual happiness. Therefore, its study and acquisition are pre-eminently important religious activities, and must not be ranked in the same class with the art of weaving, or the science of architecture, for by it one learns to weigh one's deeds, and thereby human activities are rendered true virtues. The man who insists upon indulging in savory, sweetsmelling and palatable food although it be injurious, and possibly may lead to serious illness or sudden death ought, in my opinion, to be classed with the beasts. His conduct is not that of a man in so far as he is a being endowed with understanding, but it is rather the action of a man in so far as he is a member of the animal kingdom, and so "he is like the beasts who perish".[3] Man acts like a human being only when he eats that which is wholesome, at times avoiding the agreeable, and partaking of the disagreeable in his search for the beneficial. Such conduct is in accordance with the dictates of reason, and by these acts man is distinguished from all other beings. Similarly, if a man satisfy his sexual passions whenever he has the desire, regardless of good or ill effects, he acts as a brute, and not as a man.[4]

It is possible, however, for one to shape one's conduct entirely from the point of view of utility, as we have stated, with no aim beyond that of maintaining the health of the body, or guarding against disease. Such a one does not deserve to be called virtuous, for, just as he strives for the enjoyment of good health, another like him may have as his aim the gratification of eating, or of sexual intercourse, none of which actions leads towards the true goal. The real duty of man is, that in adopting whatever measures he may for his well-being and the preservation of his existence in good health, he should do so with the object of maintaining a perfect condition of the instruments of the soul, which are the limbs of the body, so that his soul may be unhampered, and he may busy himself in acquiring the moral and mental virtues. So it is with all the sciences and knowledge man may learn. Concerning those which lead directly to this goal, there is naturally no question; but such subjects as mathematics, the study of conic sections,[5] mechanics, the various problems of geometry,[6] hydraulics, and many others of a similar nature, which do not tend directly towards that goal, should be studied for the purpose of sharpening the mind, and training the mental faculties by scientific investigations, so that man may acquire intellectual ability to distinguish demonstrative proofs from others, whereby he will be enabled to comprehend the essence of God. Similarly, in regard to man's conversation, he should speak only of those things that will be conducive to the true welfare of his soul and body, or that will tend to avert injury from them, whether his words concern themselves with science, or virtue, or praise of virtue or of a virtuous man, or with censure of vice or of a vicious person; for to express contempt for those who are loaded with vice, or to depict their deeds as contemptible—if done for the purpose of disparaging them in the eyes of other men who may avoid them, and not do as they do—is indeed a virtuous duty. Does not Scripture say, “After the doings of the land of Egypt ....... ye shall not do, ....... and after the doings of the land of Canaan”?[7] Also, the story of the Sodomites and all the passages occuring in Scripture, which censure those laden with vice, and represent their doings as disgraceful, and those passages which praise and hold the good in high esteem, endeavor, as I have said, to induce man to follow the paths of the righteous, and to shun the way of the wicked.

If man has this as his ideal, he will dispense with many of his customary deeds, and refrain from a great deal of ordinary conversation.[8] He who follows this line of conduct will not trouble himself with adorning his walls with golden ornaments, nor with decorating his garments with golden fringe, unless it be for the purpose of enlivening his soul, and thus restoring it to health, or of banishing sickness from it, so that it shall become clear and pure, and thus be in the proper condition to acquire wisdom. Therefore, our Rabbis of blessed memory say, “It is becoming that a sage should have a pleasant dwelling, a beautiful wife, and domestic comfort”;[9] for one becomes weary, and one’s mind dulled by continued mental concentration upon difficult problems. Thus, just as the body becomes exhausted from hard labor, and then by rest and refreshment recovers, so is it necessary for the mind to have relaxation by gazing upon pictures and other beautiful objects, that its weariness may be dispelled. Accordingly, it is related that when the Rabbis became exhausted from study, they were accustomed to engage in entertaining conversation[10] (in order to refresh themselves). From this point of view, therefore, the use of pictures and embroideries for beautifying the house, the furniture, and the clothes is not to be considered immoral nor unnecessary.

Know that to live according to this standard is to arrive at a very high degree of perfection, which, in consequence of the difficulty of attainment, only a few, after long and continuous perseverance on the paths of virtue, have succeeded in reaching. If there be found a man who has accomplished this—that is one who exerts all the faculties of his soul, and directs them towards the sole ideal of comprehending God, using all his powers of mind and body, be they great or small, for the attainment of that which leads directly or indirectly to virtue—I would place him in a rank not lower than that of the prophets. Such a man, before he does a single act or deed, considers and reflects whether or not it will bring him to that goal, and if it will, then, and then only, does he do it.

Such striving does the Almighty require of us, according to the words, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”,[11] that is, with all the faculties of thy soul, each faculty having as its sole ideal the love of God.[12] The prophets, similarly, urge us on in saying, “In all thy ways know Him”,[13] in commenting upon which the sages said, “even as regards a transgression (of the ritual or ceremonial law),”[14] meaning thereby that thou shouldst set for every action a goal, namely, the truth, even though it be, from a certain point of view, a transgression.[15] The sages of blessed memory, too, have summed up this idea in so few words and so concisely, at the same time elucidating the whole matter with such complete thoroughness, that when one considers the brevity with which they expressed this great and mighty thought in its entirety, about which others have written whole books and yet without adequately explaining it, one truly recognizes that the Rabbis undoubtedly spoke through divine inspiration. This saying is found among their precepts (in this tractate), and is, “Let all thy deeds be done for the sake of God”.[16]

This, then, is the thought we have been dwelling upon in the present chapter, and what we have said must be considered sufficient for the needs of this introduction.[17]

  1. For a discussion of the contents of this chapter, see Jaraczewski, ZPhKr, XLVI, pp. 2—13, and Rosin, Ethik, p. 105 ff.
  2. Cf. Ibn Baud, Emunah Eamah, III, and Moreh, III, 51. See I. Friedlaender, Der Stil des Maimonides, in Moses b. Maimon, I, p. 430.
  3. Ps. XLIX, 13.
  4. Cf. H. Deot, III, 2, and Moreh, III. 8, "Those who desire to be men in truth, and not brutes, having only the appearance and shape of men, must constantly endeavor to reduce the wants of the body, such as eating, cohabiting, drinking, anger, and all vices originating in lust and passion."
  5. See Wolff, Acht Capitel, p. 38, n. 1.
  6. See Sachs, Beiträge, vol. II, p. 78; and Rawicz, Commentar, p. 22.
  7. Lev. XVIII, 3.
  8. See H. Deot, II, 4, and 5, for a further discussion of this subject.
  9. Shabbat, 25b.
  10. Cf. ibid., 30b: כי הא דרבה מקמי דפתח להו לרבנן אמר מילתא דבדיחותא וכ׳.
  11. Deut. VI, 5.
  12. Cf. Moreh, I, 39 (end) which refers to this passage in the Peraḳim, and to the Mishneh Torah (Yesode ha-Torah, II, 2).
  13. Prov. III, 6.
  14. Berakot, 63a. This does not imply that the end justifies the means; that crime may be committed to bring about religious or charitable ends. It refers only to the violation of the ceremonial or ritual laws, as the breaking of the Sabbath, and eating on Yom Kippur, for the sake of saving life, etc. Cf. Ketubot, 5a, “You must remove debris to save a life on the Sabbath”; and Shabbat, 30b, “Better to extinguish the light on the Sabbath than to extinguish life, which is God’s light”, etc. The distinction in regard to the various kinds of transgressions which M. makes below, Chapter VI, pp. 76—78, applies here. See Shemonah Peraḳim, ed. Wolf, 1876, p. 53, n. 5.
  15. Cf. M.’s Commentary on Berakot, IX, 5: ובכל לבבך בשני יצריך ביצר הטוב וביצר הרע. Cf. also his Commentary on Abot, V, 20 (Rawicz, Commentar, p. 108), and Moreh, III, 22 (end).
  16. Abot, II, 12.
  17. That is, the Shemonah Peraḳim, which constitute M.’s introduction to his Commentary on Abot. See Introduction, p. 5.

    H. Deot, III, 3 contains a summary of the contents of the latter part of this chapter.