Eight chapters of Maimonides on Ethics/Chapter VI

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Philosophers maintain that though the man of self-restraint performs moral and praiseworthy deeds, yet he does them desiring and craving all the while for immoral deeds, but, subduing his passions and actively fighting against a longing to do those things to which his faculties, his desires, and his psychic disposition excite him, succeeds, though with constant vexation and irritation, in acting morally. The saintly man, however, is guided in his actions by that to which his inclination and disposition prompt him, in consequence of which he acts morally from innate longing and desire. Philosophers unanimously agree that the latter is superior to, and more perfect than, the one who has to curb his passions, although they add that it is possible for such a one to equal the saintly man in many regards. In general, however, he must necessarily be ranked lower in the scale of virtue, because there lurks within him the desire to do evil, and, though he does not do it, yet because his inclinations are all in that direction, it denotes the presence of an immoral psychic disposition. Solomon, also, entertained the same idea when he said, "The soul of the wicked desireth evil",[2] and, in regard to the saintly man's rejoicing in doing good, and the discontent experienced by him, who is not innately righteous, when required to act justly, he says, “It is bliss to the righteous to do justice, but torment to the evil-doer”.[3] This is manifestly an agreement between Scripture and philosophy.

When, however, we consult the Rabbis on this subject, it would seem that they consider him who desires iniquity, and craves for it (but does not do it), more praiseworthy and perfect than the one who feels no torment at refraining from evil; and they even go so far as to maintain that the more praiseworthy and perfect a man is, the greater is his desire to commit iniquity, and the more irritation does he feel at having to desist from it. This they express by saying, “Whosoever is greater than his neighbor has likewise greater evil inclinations”.[4] Again, as if this were not sufficient, they even go so far as to say that the reward of him who overcomes his evil inclination is commensurate with the torture occasioned by his resistance, which thought they express by the words, “According to the labor is the reward”.[5] Furthermore, they command that man should conquer his desires, but they forbid one to say, “I, by my nature, do not desire to commit such and such a transgression, even though the Law does not forbid it”. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel summed up this thought in the words, “Man should not say, ‘I do not want to eat meat together with milk; I do not want to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen; I do not want to enter into an incestuous marriage’, but he should say, ‘I do indeed want to, yet I must not, for my father in Heaven has forbidden it’”.[6]

At first blush, by a superficial comparison of the sayings of the philosophers and the Rabbis, one might be inclined to say that they contradict one another. Such, however, is not the case. Both are correct and, moreover, are not in disagreement in the least, as the evils which the philosophers term such—and of which they say that he who has no longing for them is more to be praised than he who desires them but conquers his passion—are things which all people commonly agree are evils, such as the shedding of blood, theft, robbery, fraud, injury to one who has done no harm, ingratitude, contempt for parents, and the like. The prescriptions against these are called commandments (מצות), about which the Rabbis said, “If they had not already been written in the Law, it would be proper to add them”.[7] Some of our later sages, who were infected with the unsound principles of the Mutakallimun,[8] called these rational laws.[9] There is no doubt that a soul which has the desire for, and lusts after, the above-mentioned misdeeds, is imperfect, that a noble soul has absolutely no desire for any such crimes, and experiences no struggle in refraining from them. When, however, the Rabbis maintain that he who overcomes his desire has more merit and a greater reward (than he who has no temptation), they say so only in reference to laws that are ceremonial prohibitions. This is quite true, since, were it not for the Law, they would not at all be considered transgressions. Therefore, the Rabbis say that man should permit his soul to entertain the natural inclination for these things, but that the Law alone should restrain him from them. Ponder over the wisdom of these men of blessed memory manifest in the examples they adduce. They do not declare, “Man should not say, ‘I have no desire to kill, to steal and to lie, but I have a desire for these things, yet what can I do, since my Father in heaven forbids it!’” The instances they cite are all from the ceremonial law, such as partaking of meat and milk together, wearing clothes made of wool and linen, and entering into consanguinuous marriages.[10] These, and similar enactments are what God called “my statutes” (חקותי), which, as the Rabbis say are “statutes which I (God) have enacted for thee, which thou hast no right to subject to criticism, which the nations of the world attack and which Satan denounces, as for instance, the statutes concerning the red heifer, the scapegoat, and so forth”.[11] Those transgressions, however, which the later sages called rational laws are termed commandments (מצות), as the Rabbis explained.[12]

It is now evident from all that we have said, what the transgressions are for which, if a man have no desire at all, he is on a higher plane than he who has a longing, but controls his passion for them; and it is also evident what the transgressions are of which the opposite is true. It is an astonishing fact that these two classes of expressions should be shown to be compatible with one another, but their content points to the truth of our explanation.

This ends the discussion of the subject-matter of this chapter.

  1. On the contents of this chapter, see Jaraczewski, ZPhKr, XLVI, pp. 13 14, and Rosin, Ethik, p. 92ff. See Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, p. 201 if., on Ḥasidut (Saintliness). Cf. Eth., Nic., VII, on Self-control.
  2. Prov. XXI, 10.
  3. Prov. XXI, 15.
  4. Sukkah, 52a. See Lazarus, Ethics, II, pp. 106—107.
  5. Abot, V, 23.
  6. Sifra to Lev. XX, 26, and Midrash Yalḳuṭ to Wayiḳra, 226, although referred to as the words of R. Eleazar b. Azariah.
  7. Yoma, 67b. See infra, p. 78, n. 2.
  8. See supra, p. 41, and n. 2; infra, p. 90.
  9. M. refers especially to Saadia who, in Emunot we-De’ot, III, 2, divides the divine commandments into rational (מצות שכליות), and revealed laws (מצות שמיעות). See Scheyer, Psychol. Syst. d. Maim., pp. 24 and 106; Kaufmann, Attributenlehre, p. 503; Rosin, Ethik, p. 93, n. 5; Schreiner, Der Kalâm, etc., pp. 13-14; Wolff, Acht Capitel, p. 45, n. 1; Goldziher, Kitâb mȧânî al-Nafs, Berlin 1907, p. 22*f., and text p. 17, n. 6; and Cohen, Charakteristik, etc., in Moses ben Maimon, I, p. 77 ff. M. refers also to Saadia in Moreh, I, 71: ומה שנתגלה מזה הענין לקצת הגאונים, ואצל הקראים, הם ענינים לקחום מן המדברים מן הישמעאלים. See Munk, Guide, I, p. 336, n. 1. On Saadia’s relation to the Kalām, see Kaufmann, Ibid., p. 3, n. 5, et al.
  10. See Rosin, Ethik, p. 94, n. 4.
  11. Yoma, 67b: תנו רבנן את משפטי תעשו דברים שאלמלא לא נכתבו דין הוא שיכתבו ואלו הן עבודה זרה וגלוי עריות ושפכות דמים וגזל וברכת השם [ו]את חקתי תשמרו דברים שהשטן משיב עליהן ואלו הן אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז וחליצת יבמה וטהרת מצורע ושעיר המשתלח ושמא תאמר מעשה תהו הם תלמוד לומר אני ה׳ אני ה׳ חקקתיו ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן.
  12. Cf. Eth. Nic., V, 10, where the “just” is spoken of as of two kinds, the natural and the conventional, the former corresponding to “commandments” (חקים), and the latter to “statutes” (חקים). The former, says Aristotle, have everywhere the same force, while the latter may be this way or that way indifferently, except after enactment, being, in short, all matters of special decree, such as, for instance, the price of a ransom being fixed at a mina, or sacrificing a goat instead of two sheep, etc.

    M. discusses the nature of the commandments in Moreh, III, 26. He makes, as here, a distinction between commandments whose object is generally evident, such as the prohibition of murder, theft, etc., and those whose object is not generally clear, such as the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen, boiling milk and meat together, etc. The former he calls judgments (משפטים, termed מצות here), and the latter he designates statutes or ordinances (חקים). See Scheyer, Dalalat al Haiirin, Part III (Frankfurt am Main, 1838), p. 178, n. 2; and Lazurus, Ethics, I, pp. 118—119.