By Kalev Pehme
For my friend Scott Alexander, one of the best readers of Maimonides; may he get the recognition he well deserves…
One realizes when reading Maimonides’s Letter on Astrology, a comparatively short work, that it is an immensely complex and very difficult writing, written on many levels and addressed to various people of varying degrees of ability and faith. One also wonders when reading Leo Strauss’s two-and-half page analysis of the work in his book Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy whether Strauss has ignored the complexity of the work or whether Strauss has laid out the very problem at the heart of the epistle in a very terse way. It is not immediately clear.
In great part, one of the greatest difficulties of reading Maimonides, whether it be here or in the Guide for the Perplexed and elsewhere, is his use of allusions to Biblical verses. For example, at the very beginning of the astrology, there is an epigraph quoting the Song of Songs 6:10: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” The plain text of the Song of Songs is basically a love song between a man and a woman which has been allegorized by practically everyone, including the Christians who interpret the text to be a text about the love of Christ for his Church, an interpretation which is just idiocy as it is an imposition of an ideology of sexual behavior on a ancient Israelite text rather than a reading of it and what it truly means (ancient Israelites, dare to say, had no interest in the future Jesus). Nevertheless, the plain text does not convey any sense as to why Maimonides would use it as an epigraph.
However, when one looks at the verse a little more carefully in a more traditional way, we see that the word for “looketh” in Hebrew is the hopeful gaze of lover, but also the hopeful gaze of those Jews who look past the horizon in looking for the coming of the Messiah, seeking salvation and redemption. In the tradition, the “she” is actually the schekhinah, the indwelling of god in the world, which is a feminine principle and thus can be likened to the moon. The brilliance of the sun may be compared to god as an emanatory who light is all light, like that of the sun. The military allusion may be an allusion to the twelve divisions, like the twelve houses of heaven, gathered around the tabernacle while Moses and the Hebrews were in the desert. It is an image of the dawn, i.e., the beginning of a new age for the people who have left Egypt, a people who are looking forward to conquering the land of Canaan.
A part of the letter involves the reason for the fall of the Second Temple, which Maimonides attributes to Jews who relied on astrology and not on military discipline, training, and arms to defeat the Romans, the military superpower of the day. When one looks at the various themes of the letter, all of a sudden the epigraph from the Song of Songs makes a great deal of sense if read in the way above. However, making sense of the Biblical verses themselves is quite a feat, and that comes before we even get to his Maimonides’s own writing interspersed with verses. One has to make a judgment as to how far we must go with the verses before we even get a chance to read Maimonides own argument. It is easy to go the wrong way, if one looks at the verses in a non-Maimonidean way. Of course, some traditional readings of Biblical verses may not anything to do with the way Maimonides reads the same verses.
This epigraph, in part, also draws our attention to what Maimonides says are the sources of knowledge: reason, the senses, and tradition from the prophets and the just. Clearly, the understanding of the Song of Songs 6:10 comes from the tradition from the prophets and the just. In fact, a great part of the various readings (between the lines as well as in plain text) has been determined the tradition. On the surface, 6:10 is part of a love poem between a man and a woman. According to the tradition, 6:10 is actually an allegory behind the plain text as noted above.
Strauss notes after he lists Maimonides’s three sources of knowledge: “He [Maimonides] tacitly excludes the endoxa either because they deal chiefly with what one ought to do or forbear, as distinguished from what one ought to believe or not, or because they can be understood to be parts of the traditional lore.” Individual opinion is doxa, while endoxa is better as it is in someway tested socially for some kind of reliability or validity. The problem here is exactly to what endoxa refers: It appears to be pointing to the “tradition from the prophets and the just.” If that is the case and if Strauss is correct, Maimonides truly finds the roots of knowledge in the sense or in reason and in the prophets and the just. The tradition is not completely reliable because it dictates how men ought to act, as well as what men ought to believe, but it is merely something conventional that people have accepted with little thought. There is an obvious difference between what one accepts on authority and what accepts through one’s own eyes and through one’s own reason or from the prophets and the just. Obviously, the tradition is not necessarily the same as the prophets and the just and the tradition that arises out of what they said is not necessarily a correct interpretation of what the prophets and the just said. To understand them requires a great amount of reason and good sense. One might say that the prophets and the just had very good sense and reason, because only individuals can have these traits, not a tradition, which is a matter of consensus or acceptance, whether that acceptance comes from assent or by force.
I only repeat this problem to give a sense of how difficult it is to read Maimonides’s astrology. In part, I want to concentrate on how Strauss read this letter and I want to deal with something that is at the heart of a lot of Strauss’s writing, but rarely, if ever mentioned, the role of chance or luck in the world. Ever since Machiavelli, the man who said that one can conquer luck in the same way one beats a woman into submission, moderns have believed that they can at the very least contain luck a great deal or rely on probabilities to master chance or at the very least minimize its impact.
The Oxford English Dictionary actually has a very good definition of luck, that the term is simply “the fortuitous happening of an event favorable or unfavorable to the interest of a person.” The basic problem is that human beings do not have foresight of everything that happens in the future. If we had unlimited access to the future and its events, there would be no luck. I should point out that Strauss does not use the word “luck”; he uses “chance,” a word from how the dice fall (cadere), and probably more academically acceptable as luck is too much the word of the groundlings. The randomness of life is very controversial over the years, and even today the unexpected good or bad is often rationalized away as something that is part of a larger plan, often a divine plan: everything happens for a reason.
Astrology is a strange art, and its origins are obscure. In the letter, the Rambam says astrology comes from the Chasdeans, Chaldeans, Canaanites, and Egyptians. The four groups are perplexing. First, there is the problem of the Chasdeans,, who are apparently the same as the Chaldeans. They were named from Chesed, the son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, according to Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 CE-4 April 636) who had researched the etymologies of the Bible and was one of the most remarkable of the early Christian scholars. (I thought that St. Isidore was a good choice here, because in 1997 Pope Jean Paul II named St. Isidore the patron saint of the Internet. In fact, it is St. Isidore who coined the word “etymology,” and we use his methods today in scholarship.) The Chaldeans are actually the Babylonians who had allegedly taken a vast number of Jews into captivity, including the conquered from Judah. The Canaanites are a number of different people whom the Hebrews eventually conquered and in many cases exterminated. Egyptians, of course, made the house of bondage from which the Jews were liberated by Moses. With that list we have a sense that these people who may have practiced astrology were also enemies of the Hebrews. Strauss, however, also points out: “Maimonides is silent here, as distinguished from the Guide (III, 37 [beginning]) on the Sabeans.” The Sabeans (conventionally spelled Sabians today) are an obscure group of people, in all likelihood Arabs who worshipped their gods or their god (yes, some are monotheists) with incense. For the most part, Maimonides tends to use the term Sabian to refer to all non-Jewish polytheists and idol worshippers, and not all of them are enemies of the ancient Israelites. That which is omitted both in Maimonides and in Strauss may be very significant in its absence.
[I have written a small essay on the basis of polytheism and how it works in my anti-blog last year. It is a metaphysical counter-argument to Maimonides and other monotheists. The piece is located at https://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-on-polytheism/.%5D
Clearly, Maimonides is attempting to keep astrology a province that is completely non-Jewish and non-Israelite. Maimonides, Strauss notes, also says that the astrology was considered nonsense by the Greeks, i.e., the philosophers, and the wise of Persia and India. Strauss counts seven nations mentioned by Maimonides, i.e., Strauss includes the Sabians who are not mentioned as a seventh to the six mentioned by the Rambam. Here is a problem, a problem which I don’t know whether Maimonides knew or whether Maimonides simply deliberately distorted. Both India and Persia’s wise were heavily involved with astrology, especially the Indo-Aryans, from the most ancient times. I am assuming that when the Rambam speaks of the philosophers, he means the Platonists and the Aristotelians, not the pre-Socratics like Hesiod. I mention Hesiod, because not only is there something about the heavens in his work, but there are allusions to the myths of various Mesopotamians in his work. Moreover, it is hard to say that whether Pythagorean numerology and astrology do or do not coincide, and it is hard to know to whether Thales’ ability to predict eclipses had an astrological use. What we do know is that the Ptolemaic Egypt had astrology in a form that many astrologers use today and Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos is a sourcebook for astrologers even today. The other great nation that is not mentioned by either by Maimonides or Strauss , Rome, had a well-established use of astrology, including its practice by the divine Tiberius before and after he became emperor. Moreover, during the reign of the divine Vespasian, the seditious rebels of Judaea were duly defeated and their temple destroyed by Romans, although they practiced astrology, soothsaying, and other forms of magic and sacrificial worship. But the Romans also knew the obvious: To conquer requires good arms and very good soldiers, first and foremost. The stars help those who help themselves.
It is a point that Maimonides also makes. It is the most painful part of the epistle on astrology. Maimonides says that the reason that the temple was destroyed was that the Jews at that time became too involved in astrology, i.e. a form of idolatry, and they neglected what the Romans would never neglect, the art of war and of conquest. Inevitably, what Maimonides says is that the ancient Jews who rose up against the Romans relied on what they thought were good aspects and planetary placements rather than the work that is necessary to fight the premiere military power in the world. In truth, the best thing that the people of Judaea could have done was not to rise up at all and avoid the horrors of the suicide of Masada that included the murder of children and their mothers, as well as the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent diaspora. Guerrilla war may be advised in such situations, but not direct military battles. Maimonides would not approve of the current trend to romanticize the Jewish rebellion and the murder-suicide that occurred at Masada and elsewhere at the time. To be blunt, the Jewish diaspora was caused not because of a heroic attempt to free themselves from the Romans, but because those who did rise up relied on idolatry in direct contradiction to the Torah. While there may be an implication that this rebellion was doomed because of this sin, I would say that prudence must inform even the most auspicious or inauspicious of omens. It is often the mistake of astrologers to interpret good planetary positions to apply to one’s friends rather than a sign that one’s enemies might do very well. Love of one’s own and great hope for oneself tends to obscure judgment when it comes to omens or, for that matter, whatever happened in the past and might come to be in the future.
The implication is that the Jews who rose up against the Romans did not rely on their own god, but basically became like Sabians, those who regarded the planets and the stars as deities, i.e., that these heavenly bodies had divine power on their own to decide the future of men. The true science of the stars, Maimonides says, is what we call astronomy today, i.e., the study and measure of the motions of the heavens. One can predict that there will be an eclipse on a certain date, but one cannot predict that this eclipse will bring down the regime of a country. The Jewish uprising against Rome was a tacitly brought about by the abandonment of the Jewish god in favor of a belief in the divine powers of the stars trumping the Roman might. Strictly speaking, one might say that the Jewish rebels had fudged the difference between what is unexpected with what is miraculous.
Going back a bit: Although Maimonides says that the philosophers regarded astrology as nonsense, it is hard to find anywhere in Plato and Aristotle which says that. Astrology simply is not discussed at all, at least astrology as it was known later in Ptolemaic Egypt, for example. It appears to me, looking at the murky history of astrology, that Plato and Aristotle never faced judicial astrology as it was know to be later in Ptolemaic Egypt. Their criticism of Pythagoreans, for example, who had ordered the cosmos in mathematical proportions and number, was not that the cosmos is rationally ordered, but that the order of the Pythagoreans had made of the cosmos a kind of model, like a globe that represents the earth. They envisioned the cosmos and articulated it with a logos that was not in truth an articulation of the true cosmic order, but was instead an artistic expression of what they believed the beauty and harmony of the cosmos to be.
Maimonides separates astrology and its idolatry (and in the Guide along with talismans, soothsaying, etc.) from any effort to connect astrology with a polytheistic belief that goes beyond simple worship of stone and wood. For example, Vedic or Jyotish astrology, an essential part of the Vedic religion, as practiced in India for over two-thousand-years, assumes that the astrological positions that one with born with are a picture of the karmic state of one’s birth. For example, good planets in the fifth house or a well-placed fifth house ruler indicates very good poorvapunya or past life credit. The entire astrological understanding that is at work is that the stars and planets reflect the state of one’s karma, i.e., that there is some kind of judgment that is built into the cosmos or directed by some kind of divine force that has assessed past lives and the work that is required in the present life to “pay back” what one owes for past transgressions in previous lives. This kind of conjunction between divine judgment and astrology is deliberately, I would say, avoided by Maimonides.
Instead, Maimonides treats astrology as if it were a belief in a fatum that rigidly applies a set of heavenly laws that are embodied in the planets and stars and imposed on life on this earth. Maimonides treats of it as if it were not rational in the sense that this order is beautiful and a part of providence, the good maintenance of the cosmos; instead, Maimonides implies that astrology’s belief is a dark belief in an alien and strange cosmos that can only be discerned through odd forms of divination and through attempts to harness irrational forces for the good of man through the use of magic or sacrifice. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides also treats idolatry as the use of any form of image or symbol as if it were truly divine or an expression of the god. The problem with idolatry is that it lies about the god and the divine by either limiting it improperly or anthropomorphizing it. God is not, for example, an old man sitting on a throne in heaven and cannot even be likened to such an image. That kind of view of god is idolatry. Instead, the proper approach, according to the Rambam, is apophantic , i.e., by negating the ephemeral and doomed and the image in favor of a perfection, goodness, knowledge, and power that is beyond any limitation. For example, god is the perfect being. This very statement, however, has the limitations of the language, even in expressing the positive character of god. It may be wiser to say that god is not imperfect, as what is true is indeterminate. Words fail to speak the whole of reality. (For the problem of articulating wisdom see my piece: https://icastes.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/kalev-%E2%80%98s-anti-blog-words-fail/.)
The wise way to speak of god is to speak only of the truth of god and not lie or create illusions that become objects of worship. That problem also points to the relation of the philosophers to the Torah, as philosophers tacitly make the claim that they speak of what is true in a true way, while the adherents of the Torah rely on vast correspondences of corporeal terms to describe god and his works.
The “broadest basis,” as Strauss writes, is that the Rambam believes that “the world has a governor, namely, the mover of the sphere.” The sphere is the whole of the cosmos, both noetic and physical. Basically, god is the noetic sphere whose is pure thought thinking itself, and whose thought creates the physical part of the cosmos. Although Aristotle believed the entire cosmos to be eternal, Maimonides “had refuted the alleged proofs of the philosophers against creation and in particular creation out of nothing.” What must be remembered here is that what is created is not god, the sphere, but the corporeal part of the cosmos, which Aristotle, for example, thought was co-eternal with the noetic spheres. According to Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroës in the Christian lands in Medieval times), Aristotle’s great innovation was the postulating of an eternal cosmos at a time when no one, both in his own time and before, had accepted anything but creation. At the heart of the Torah is the belief that god created the corporeality of the cosmos out of nothing or no-thing, i.e., out of nothing that has being.
According to Strauss, Maimonides makes an alliance of the philosophers and the Torah against astrology. He does so even though the philosophers truly don’t agree with the Torah that god performs miracles through the angels, although the philosophers do believe the whole is animate, alive, and thoughtful. The Guide has a very great angelology, one that was taken wholesale by St. Thomas, along with Maimonides’s notion that when god created the corporeal world he created the Aristotelian cosmos. The angels, according to Maimonides, are the “separate intelligences” of the one sphere that is the whole of all being, the first and final cause of all things. The separate intelligences were noetic divisions of the one sphere, but not truly “separate” from it in the sense that the separate intelligences have a standing of their own apart from the one sphere. One might say that the separate intelligences were different modes of the manifestation of the one sphere. But each of the separate intelligences was responsible for the movement of a planet or other heavenly sphere. These spheres were the angels, and it was through these angels that divine messages and miracles were done. (That the spheres were considered angels was a part of the Western theology, both exoteric and esoteric, well into the post-Renaissance alchemy of Hermeticism; however, the entire Christian belief collapsed with the Copernican revolution, but was preserved in various forms in the Jewish Kabbalah.)
Needless to say, when planets and heavenly bodies are equated with angels, there is a suspicion that the pattern of these angels in the heavens may have sway over individual and collective human life, i.e., that they can be a basis for astrology. Moreover, if that were the case, then astrology, if a reflection of angelology, would also be a very essential part of knowing the mind of god, so to speak. It also provides for the possibility that the ancient Jews who revolted against the Romans were not as idolatrous as the Rambam makes them out to be, but that they were relying on angels to help them. Yet, again, one can hope that angels will perform a miracle or even enter a battle; however, it is usually wiser to be well-armed and well-disciplined as soldiers when it comes to fighting a war. (Astrological images are not uncommon in ancient Israel: Consider the Menorah.)
Strauss writes: “Maimonides claims to have proved (in the Guide) that there is no disagreement between the Sages of Israel and the philosophers regarding the general government of the world.” Strauss silently alludes to general providence. According to Alexander of Aphrodisias, the greatest ancient commentator on Aristotle and a very important source for Maimonides, providence is the effect of the movement of the spheres and the sphere in preserving the continuity of the sublunar world, i.e., the earth and its processes of life that come to be and pass away. Built into the way the cosmos is a means of preservation of the way the world is.
Yet, that there is a general providence is well-accepted, the real problem is a major disagreement. Strauss writes: “All the greater is the disagreement between the philosophers and the Torah regarding particular providence. According to the philosophers what happens to individual beings or individual societies is altogether a matter of chance and has no cause in the stars. As against this the true religion, the religion of Moses, believes that what happens to human individuals happens to them in accordance to justice.”
Alexander of Aphrodisias attempted to bring general and particular providence as close as it could philosophically. He wrote and I am sure that Maimonides knew this passage, “If the gods exercise providence over human beings, they provide something good for them. For everything which exercises providence over something brings about some good for the object over which providence is exercised, so what does not bring about something good for a thin will not exercise providence over it either” (Quaestio 1.15). But clearly we are facing a kind of ambiguity here, as what is good is not truly clarified. Yet, if we are accepting of the notion that providence maintains the way things are in the best way, then that doesn’t mean that everything that happens to a human being has a reason for it or that this providence is responsible for a man being rich or being poor or, for that matter, that one’s karma is this way or that.
The philosophers see that the world is in a flux where chance or luck governs what happens to individuals. It may be that a man like Kant has such a strict routine that one can set a watch by his movement, but the unexpected is always there, heavy and dangerous, like a bladder exploding at a dinner because someone won’t rudely interrupt diners by going out to pee. The unexpected is not a matter of divine judgment. It is simply random. Accidents happen, and luck, like accidents, cannot be anticipated. Luck or chance has an odd normative sense of good and bad within it, which is recognized as lucky or unlucky when a random event happens. Chance, luck, tuche, fortuna, etc. is against all reasonable anticipation. Workers in a nuclear plant go to work with no thought that out of nowhere a massive earthquake will occur and a tsunami will cause a nuclear meltdown of their workplace, and yet it happens. The one worker who stayed home that day with a headache avoids the accident.
[For the connection between chance and the gods or god, read my previous post: https://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-fear-and-piety/%5D
Astrology, when narrowly defined as Maimonides does, is a way to predict the future, i.e., to see the unforeseen or unforeseeable, tacitly denying chance (and justice). Maimonides’s point about the ancient Jews who rebelled against the Romans was that they relied solely on luck in the guise of being able to see what is unforeseen with astrology. Clearly, to rely solely on luck to life is a rather fast path to disaster. The great difficulty with the unforeseen is very simple and yet rather difficult to accept: It simply means that life and the world, although it may have some general plan and proper end, on an individual level does not when one throws the dice or when one hopes that the next day the mailman will come with news that “hope/your uncle in Australia has died/ and you are Pope,” as we find in the Randall Jarrell poem. Although the rich and the capitalists won’t agree, the truth is very simple: No one becomes rich except through chance and luck. Although the fortunate tend to see themselves as foreordained to be rich, this delusion comes apart very well in a bankruptcy court.
In great part, as much as we like to believe that our sublunar world is orderly, it is also chaotic and chaos by its very definition is contrary to order. The reason that the world is in flux is very simple: No one being, organic or otherwise, is self-sufficient, i.e., encompasses the good and its proper end within itself. As such, every being depends on other beings, which themselves are not complete, and as such depending on others and so on and so on. The flux of necessity can only be overcome by an individual being, if, as Plato write, an individual may come to possess the Good, which is beyond all beings. (This essay it not the place to discuss how that may be done.)
That the world is into flux makes our individual lives governed by something that is seemingly irrational and not given to the normal rules of causation. (For a possibility that there is greater and deeper order to chaotic chance, read my previous piece at https://icastes.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/kalev%E2%80%99s-anti-blog-some-notes-on-the-yijing-and-synchronicity/)
While we may be fated to have certain advantages or innate disadvantages in life, that the world will provide the advantages with the means to use them is not a matter to be predicted. People may acquire fortunate advantages and disadvantages, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a run on Goldman Sachs tomorrow, even if they are running their operations smoothly and even ethically and legally.
That the philosophers see the world as governed not by justice or by karma means that the philosophers are not just divided from the adherents of the Torah about the eternity of the world, but on particular providence as well. Yet, that the philosophers regard chance and luck to be the force in the world also means that man is not under a compulsion that deprives him of free will. Although Maimonides apparently takes the side that there is a particular providence does not mean that he doesn’t believe that man doesn’t have free will. It is clear from the Letter on Astrology that the reason that a man is rich is not because god has chosen him to be rich or that god has judged for an innocent man to be executed by the State of Texas and with the political glee of Governor Rick Perry. The basic problem of particular providence as we find it in the Bible is in the Book of Job, whose interpretation has been a matter of dispute since it was written. Are we to say that the Jews who rebelled against Rome leading to the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora of the Jews, not to mention their own murder-suicide, was the work of the particular providence issuing from god? Was that horrific defeat and subsequent despair owing to the providential good of the rebels?
Strauss says about Maimonides’s judgment about the Israelite rebels and their sedition is “an illustration of the view according which the philosophers trace events to their proximate, not to their remote, cause.” When the world is in flux, then there is no true concatenation of causes that can lead to a god making a judgment that god has judged that a particular man ought to be king of Saudi Arabia or that a video ought to go viral on youtube.com.
Strauss concludes: “The remark referred to is at the same time a beautiful commentary on the grand conclusion of the Mishneh Torah: the restoration of the Jewish freedom in the Messianic age is not to be understood as a miracle.” There may be a time when the right Moses comes and he sets up the Messianic age and rebuilds the Temple. But that act will not be because the heavens and the celestial angels will be in a certain way, but because men will work together using their strengths and intelligence to do what they have to do. They might need to have a little luck as well.
Years ago, I was in Israel and went to the delightful Eretz Israel Museum in Tel-Aviv, a treasure house of rarities including a Canaanite archeological site. When I was studying ancient coins, I ran into one that caught my eye. It was a Roman coin picturing in relief the patron deity of Jerusalem. It took me a while, but finally I found the name of the goddess, Tuche, luck, chance, in ancient Greek, the language of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Tuche is a bit too much tilted towards the totally random, but when one considers the long history of the sacred city what better patron deity could that city have?