The life of the mind is a composition of two forces: the necessity to believe in order to live, and the necessity to reason in order to advance. In ages of poverty and chaos the will to believe is paramount, for courage is the one thing needful; in ages of wealth the intellectual powers come to the fore as offering preferment and progress; consequently a civilization passing from poverty to wealth tends to develop a struggle between reason and faith, a “warfare of science with theology.” In this conflict philosophy, dedicated to seeing life whole, usually seeks a reconciliation of opposites, a mediating peace, with the result that it is scorned by science and suspected by theology. In an age of faith, where hardship makes life unbearable without hope, philosophy inclines to religion, uses reason to defend faith, and becomes a disguised theology. Among the three faiths that divided white civilization in the Middle Ages this was least true of Islam, which had most wealth, truer of Christendom, which had less, truest of Judaism, which had least. And Jewish philosophy ventured from faith chiefly in the prosperous Jewry of Moslem Spain.

Medieval Jewish philosophy had two sources: Hebrew religion and Moslem thought. Most Jewish thinkers conceived of religion and philosophy as similar in content and result, differing only in method and form: what religion taught as divinely revealed dogma, philosophy would teach as rationally demonstrated truth. And most Jewish thinkers from Saadia to Maimonides made this attempt in a Moslem milieu, derived their knowledge of Greek philosophy from Arabic translations and Moslem commentaries, and wrote in Arabic for Moslems as well as Jews. Just as Ashari turned against the Mutazilites the weapons of reason, and saved the orthodoxy of Islam, so Saadia, who left Egypt for Babylonia in the very year (915) of Ashari’s conversion from skepticism, saved Hebrew theology by his polemic industry and skill; and Saadia followed not only the methods of the Moslem mutakallimun, but even the details of their arguments.26

Saadia’s victory had the same effect in Eastern Judaism as al-Ghazali’s in Eastern Islam: it combined with political disorder and economic decline to smother Hebrew philosophy in the Orient. The rest of the story belongs to Africa and Spain. At Qairwan Isaac Israeli found time, amid his medical practice and writing, to compose some influential philosophical works. His Essay on Definitions gave several terms to Scholastic logic; his treatise On the Elements introduced Aristotle’s Physics to Hebrew thought; his Book of Soul and Spirit replaced the creation story of Genesis with a Neoplatonist scheme of progressive emanations (“splendors”) from God to the material world; here was one source of the Cabala.

Ibn Gabirol had more influence as a philosopher than as a poet. It is one of the jeux d’esprit of history that the Scholastics quoted him with respect as Avicebron, and thought him a Moslem or a Christian; not till 1846 did Salomon Munk discover that Ibn Gabirol and Avicebron were one.27 The misunderstanding had almost been prepared by Gabirol’s attempt to write philosophy in terms fully independent of Judaism. His anthology of proverbs —Choice of Pearls— took nearly all its quotations from non-Jewish sources, though Hebrew folklore is peculiarly rich in pointed and pithy apothegms. One pearl is quite Confucian: “How shall one take vengeance on an enemy? By increasing one’s good qualities.”28 This is practically a summary of the treatise On the Improvement of the Moral Qualities, which Gabirol seems to have composed at twenty-four, when philosophy is unbecoming. By an artificial schematism the young poet derived all virtues and vices from the five senses, with platitudinous results; but the book had the distinction of seeking to construct, in the Age of Faith, a moral code unsupported by religious belief.29

With like audacity Gabirol’s chef-d’oeuvre—Mekor Hayim—refrained from quoting either the Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran. It was this unusual supernationalism that made the book so offensive to the rabbis and, when translated into Latin as Fons vitae (The Fountain of Life), so influential in Christendom. Gabirol accepted the Neoplatonism that permeated all Arabic philosophy, but he imposed upon it a voluntarism that stressed the action of the will in God and man. We must, said Gabirol, assume the existence of God as first substance, first essence, or primary will, in order to understand the existence or motion of anything at all; but we cannot know the attributes of God. The universe was not created in time, but flows in continuous and graduated emanations from God. Everything in the universe except God is composed of matter and form; these always appear together, and can be separated only in thought.30 The rabbis repudiated this Avicennian cosmology as a disguised materialism; but Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus accepted the universality of matter under God, and the primacy of will. William of Auvergne nominated Gabirol as “the noblest of all philosophers,” and thought him a good Christian.

Jehuda Halevi rejected all speculation as vain intellectualism; like al-Ghazali he feared that philosophy was undermining religion—not merely by questioning dogma, or ignoring it, or interpreting the Bible metaphorically, but even more by substituting argument for devotion. Against the invasion of Judaism by Plato and Aristotle, and the seduction of Jews by Mohammedanism, and the continuing attacks of Qaraite Jews upon the Talmud, the poet wrote one of the most interesting books of medieval philosophy—the Al-Khazari (c. 1140). He presented his ideas in a dramatic mise-en-scène— the conversion of the Khazar king to the Jewish faith. Luckily for Halevi the book, though written in the Arabic language, used the Hebrew alphabet, which confined its audience to educated Jews. For the story, bringing a bishop, a mullah, and a rabbi before the curious king, makes short work of both Mohammedanism and Christianity. When the Christian and the Moslem quote the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God, the king dismisses them and keeps the rabbi; and most of the book is the conversation of the rabbi instructing a docile and circumcised king in Judaic theology and ritual. Says the royal pupil to his teacher: “There has been nothing new since your religion was promulgated, except certain details concerning paradise and hell.”31 So encouraged, the rabbi explains that Hebrew is the language of God, that God spoke directly only to the Jews, and that only the Jewish prophets were divinely inspired. Halevi smiles at philosophers who proclaim the supremacy of reason, and subject God and the heavens to their syllogisms and categories, while obviously the human mind is merely a fragile and infinitesimal fraction of a vast and complex creation. The wise man (who is not necessarily learned) will recognize the weakness of reason in transmun-dane affairs; he will keep to the faith given him in the Scriptures; and he will believe and pray as simply as a child.32

Despite Halevi, the fascination of reason survived, and the Aristotelian invasion continued. Abraham ibn Daud (1110-80) was as deeply Jewish as Halevi; he defended the Talmud against the Qaraites, and proudly narrated the History of the Jewish Kings in the Second Commonwealth. But along with countless Christians, Moslems, and Jews of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he aspired to prove his faith with philosophy. Like Halevi, he was born in Toledo, and made his living as a physician. His Arabic Kitab al-aqidah al-rafiah (Book of the Sublime Faith) gave the same answer to Halevi that Aquinas would give to the Christian enemies of philosophy: the peaceful defense of a religion against nonbelievers requires reasoning, and cannot rest upon simple faith. A few years before Averroës (1126-98), a generation before Maimonides (1135-1204), a century before St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-74), Ibn Daud labored to reconcile the faith of his fathers with the philosophy of Aristotle. The Greek would have been amused to find himself the recipient of such a triple compliment, or to learn that the Jewish philosophers knew him only in the summaries of al-Farabi and Avicenna, who knew him through imperfect translations and a Neoplatonist forgery. Truer than St. Thomas to their common Aristotelian source, Ibn Daud, like Averroës, claimed immortality only for the universal psyche, not for the individual soul;33 here, Halevi might have complained, Aristotle triumphed over the Talmud as well as the Koran. Jewish philosophy, like medieval philosophy in general, had begun with Neoplatonism and piety, and was culminating in Aristotle and doubt. Maimonides would take his start from this Aristotelian stand of Ibn Daud, and would face with courage and skill all the problems of reason in conflict with faith.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!