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A A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy

A A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy

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by Isaac Husik

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A noted scholar elucidates the distinguishing characteristics of the works of several Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. In addition to summaries of the main arguments and teachings of Moses Maimonides, Isaac Israeli, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Daud, Hillel ben Samuel, Levi ben Gerson, and others, the author offers insightful analyses.


A noted scholar elucidates the distinguishing characteristics of the works of several Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. In addition to summaries of the main arguments and teachings of Moses Maimonides, Isaac Israeli, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Daud, Hillel ben Samuel, Levi ben Gerson, and others, the author offers insightful analyses.

Editorial Reviews

This work was first published in 1916, and it was reissued with a supplementary bibliography in 1941. Steven Harvey of Bar-Ilan University, Israel provides a preface to this edition (which is a reprint of the 1941 edition), discussing how Husik's analyses of major medieval Jewish philosophical thinkers still hold value today despite the abundance of scholarship that has appeared since he did his work. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy

By Isaac Husik

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14883-0



We know next to nothing about the condition of the Jews in Mohammedan Egypt in the ninth and tenth centuries. But the fact that the two first Jewish writers who busied themselves with philosophical problems came from Egypt would indicate that the general level of intellectual culture among the Jews at that time was not so low as the absence of literary monuments would lead us to believe. Every one knows of Saadia, the first Hebrew grammarian, the first Hebrew lexicographer, the first Bible translator and exegete, the first Jewish philosopher of mediaeval Jewry. He was born in Egypt and from there was called to the Gaonate of Sura in Babylonia. But not so well known is his earlier contemporary, Isaac ben Solomon Israeli, who also was born in Egypt and from there went later to Kairuan, where he was court physician to several of the Fatimide Califs. The dates of his birth and death are not known with certainty, but he is said to have lived to the age of one hundred years, and to have survived the third Fatimide Calif Al-Mansur, who died in 953. Accordingly we may assume the years of his birth and death as 855 and 955 respectively.

His fame rests on his work in theory and practice as a physician; and as such he is mentioned by the Arab annalists and historians of medicine. To the Christian scholastics of mediæval Europe he is known as the Jewish physician and philosopher next in importance to Maimonides. This is due to the accident of his works having been translated into Latin by Constantinus Afer, and thus made accessible to men like Albertus Magnus, Vincent of Beauvais, Thomas Aquinas and others. For his intrinsic merits as a philosopher, and particularly as a Jewish philosopher, do not by any means entitle him to be coupled with Maimonides. The latter, indeed, in a letter which he wrote to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the translator of the "Guide of the Perplexed," expresses himself in terms little flattering concerning Israeli's worth as a philosopher. He is a mere physician, Maimonides says, and his treatises on the Elements, and on Definitions consist of windy imaginings and empty talk. We need not be quite as severe in our judgment, but the fact remains that Israeli is little more than a compiler and, what is more to the purpose, he takes no attitude in his philosophical writings to Judaism as a theological doctrine or to the Bible as its source. The main problem, therefore, of Jewish philosophy is not touched upon in Israeli's works, and no wonder Maimonides had no use for them. For the purely scientific questions treated by Israeli could in Maimonides's day be studied to much better advantage in the works of the great Arabian Aristotelians, Al Farabi and Avicenna, compared to whom Israeli was mediocre. We are not to judge him, however, from Maimonides's point of view. In his own day and generation he was surpassed by none as a physician; and Saadia alone far outstrips him as a Jewish writer, and perhaps also David Al Mukammas, of whom we shall speak later. Whatever may be said of the intrinsic value of the content of his philosophical work, none can take away from him the merit of having been the first Jew, so far as we know, to devote himself to philosophical and scientific discussions, though not with the avowed aim of serving Judaism. The rest was bound to come later as a result of the impulse first given by him.

The two works of Israeli which come in consideration for our purpose are those mentioned by Maimonides in his letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon spoken of above, namely, the "Book of the Elements," and the "Book of Definitions." Like all scientific and philosophic works by Jews between the ninth and thirteenth centuries with few exceptions, these were written in Arabic. Unfortunately, with the exception of a fragment recently discovered of the "Book of Definitions," the originals are lost, and we owe our knowledge of their contents to Hebrew and Latin translations, which are extant and have been published. We see from these that Israeli was a compiler from various sources, and that he had a special predilection for Galen and Hippocrates, with whose writings he shows great familiarity. He makes use besides of Aristotelian notions, and is influenced by the Neo-Platonic treatise. known as the "Liber de Causis." and derived from a work of Proclus. It is for this reason difficult to characterize his standpoint, but we shall not go far wrong if we call him a Neo-Platonist, for reasons which will appear in the sequel.

It would be useless for us here to reproduce the contents of Israeli's two treatises, which would be more appropriate for a history of mediaeval science. A brief résumé will show the correctness of this view. In his "Book of the Elements" Israeli is primarily concerned with a definite physical problem, the definition of an element, and the number and character of the elements out of which the sublunar world is made. He begins with an Aristotelian definition of element, analyzes it into its parts and comes to the conclusion that the elements are the four well-known ones, fire, air, water, earth. Incidentally he seizes opportunities now and then, sometimes by force, to discuss points in logic, physics, physiology and psychology. Thus the composition of the human body, the various modes in which a thing may come into being, that the yellow and black galls and the phlegm are resident in the blood, the purpose of phlebotomy, the substantial character of prime form, that the soul is not an accident, the two kinds of blood in the body, the various kinds of "accident," the nature of a "property" and the manner in which it is caused—all these topics are discussed in the course of proof that the four elements are fire, air, water, earth, and not seed or the qualities of heat, cold, dryness and moisture. He then quotes the definitions of Galen and Hippocrates and insists that though the wording is different the meaning is the same as that of Aristotle, and hence they all agree about the identity of the elements. Here again he takes occasion to combat the atomic theory of the Mu'tazila and Democritus, and proves that a line is not composed of points. In the last part of the treatise he refutes contrary opinions concerning the number and identity of the elements, such as that there is only one element which is movable or immovable, finite or infinite, namely, the power of God, or species, or fire, or air, or water, or earth; or that the number is two, matter and God; or three, matter, form and motion; or six, viz., the four which he himself adopts, and composition and separation; or the number ten, which is the end and completion of number. In the course of this discussion he takes occasion to define pain and pleasure, the nature of species, the difference between element and principle. And thus the book draws to a close. Not very promising material this, it would seem, for the ideas of which we are in search.

The other book, that dealing with definitions of things, is more promising. For while there too we do not find any connected account of God, of the world and of man, Israeli's general attitude can be gathered from the manner in which he explains some important concepts. The book, as its title indicates, consists of a series of definitions or descriptions of certain terms and ideas made use of by philosophers in their construction of their scheme of the world—such ideas and terms as Intelligence, science, philosophy, soul, sphere, spirit, nature, and so on. From these we may glean some information of the school to which Israeli belongs. And in the "Book of the Elements," too, some of the episodic discussions are of value for our purpose.

Philosophy, Israeli tells us, is self-knowledge and keeping far from evil. When a man knows himself truly—his spiritual as well as his corporeal aspects—he knows everything. For in man are combined the corporeal and the spiritual. Spiritual is the soul and the reason, corporeal is the body with its three dimensions. In his qualities and attributes—"accidents" in the terminology of Israeli—we similarly find the spiritual as well as the corporeal. Humility, wisdom and other similar qualities borne by the soul are spiritual; complexion, stature, and so on are corporeal. Seeing that man thus forms an epitome, as it were, of the universe (for spiritual and corporeal substance and accident exhausts the classes of existence in the world), a knowledge of self means a knowledge of everything, and a man who knows all this is worthy of being called a philosopher.

But philosophy is more than knowledge; it involves also action. The formula which reveals the nature and aim of philosophy is to become like unto God as far as is possible for man. This means to imitate the activities of God in knowing the realities of things and doing what the truth requires. To know the realities of things one must study science so as to know the various causes and purposes existing in the world. The most important of these is the purpose of the union in man of body and soul. This is in order that man may know reality and truth, and distinguish between good and evil, so as to do what is true and just and upright, to sanctify and praise the Creator and to keep from impure deeds of the animal nature. A man who does this will receive reward from the Creator, which consists in cleaving to the upper soul, in receiving light from the light of knowledge, and the beauty of splendor and wisdom. When a man reaches this degree, he becomes spiritual by cleaving to the created light which comes directly from God, and praising the Creator. This is his paradise and his reward and perfection. Hence Plato said that philosophy is the strengthening and the help of death. He meant by this that philosophy helps to deaden all animal desires and pleasures. For by being thus delivered from them, a man will reach excellence and the higher splendor, and will enter the house of truth. But if he indulges his animal pleasures and desires and they become strengthened, he will become subject to agencies which will lead him astray from the duties he owes to God, from fear of him and from prayer at the prescribed time.

We look in vain in Israeli's two treatises for a discussion of the existence and nature of God. Concerning creation he tells us that when God wanted to show his wisdom and bring everything from potentiality to actuality, he created the world out of nothing, not after a model (this in opposition to Plato and Philo), nor for the purpose of deriving any benefit from it or to obviate harm, but solely on account of his goodness.

But how did the creation proceed? A fragment from the treatise of Israeli entitled "The Book of Spirit and Soul" will give us in summary fashion an idea of the manner in which Israeli conceived of the order and connection of things in the world.

In the name of the ancients he gives the following account. God created a splendor. This having come to a standstill and real permanence, a spark of light proceeded from it, from which arose the power of the rational soul. This is less bright than the splendor of the Intelligence and is affected with shadow and darkness by reason of its greater distance from its origin, and the intervening Intelligence. The rational soul again becoming permanent and fixed, there issued from it likewise a spark, giving rise to the animal soul. This latter is endowed with a cogitative and imaginative faculty, but is not permanent in its existence, because of the two intervening natures between it and the pure light of God. From the animal soul there likewise issued a splendor, which produced the vegetative soul. This soul, being so far removed from the original light, and separated from it by the Intelligence and the other two souls, has its splendor dimmed and made coarse, and is endowed only with the motions of growth and nourishment, but is not capable of change of place. From the vegetative soul proceeds again a splendor, from which is made the sphere (the heaven). This becomes thickened and materialized so that it is accessible to the sight. Motion being the nature of the sphere, one part of it pushes the other, and from this motion results fire. From fire proceeds air; from air, water; from water, earth. And from these elements arise minerals, plants and animals.

Here we recognize the Neo-Platonic scheme of emanation as we saw it in Plotinus, a gradual and successive emanation of the lower from the higher in the manner of a ray of light radiating from a luminous body, the successive radiations diminishing in brightness and spirituality until when we reach the Sphere the process of obscuration has gone so far as to make the product material and visible to the physical sense. The Intelligence and the three Souls proceeding from it in order are clearly not individual but cosmic, just as in Plotinus. The relation between these cosmic hypostases, to use a Neo-Platonic term, and the rational and psychic faculties in man Israeli nowhere explains, but we must no doubt conceive of the latter as somehow contained in the former and temporarily individualized, returning again to their source after the dissolution of the body.

Let us follow Israeli further in his account of the nature of these substances. The Intelligence is that which proceeds immediately from the divine light without any immediate agency. It represents the permanent ideas and principles—species in Israeli's terminology — which are not subject to change or dissolution. The Intelligence contains them all in herself eternally and immediately, and requires no searching or reflection to reach them. When the Intelligence wishes to know anything she returns into herself and finds it there without requiring thought or reflection. We can illustrate this, he continues, in the case of a skilful artisan who, when he wishes to make anything, retires into himself and finds it there. There is a difference, however, in the two cases, because Intelligence always knows its ideas without thought or reflection, for it exists always and its ideas are not subject to change or addition or diminution; whereas in the smith a difficulty may arise, and then his soul is divided and he requires searching and thinking and discrimination before he can realize what he desires.

What has been said so far applies very well to the cosmic Intelligence, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the Neo-Platonists. It represents thought as embracing the highest and most fundamental principles of existence, upon which all mediate and discursive and inferential thinking depends. Its content corresponds to the Ideas of Plato. But the further account of the Intelligence must at least in a part of it refer to the individual human faculty of that name, though Israeli gives us no indication where the one stops and where the other begins.

He appeals to the authority of Aristotle for his division of Intelligence into three kinds. First, the Intelligence which is always actual. This is what has just been described. Second, the Intelligence which is in the soul potentially before it becomes actual, like the knowledge of the child which is at first potential, and when the child grows up and learns and acquires knowledge, becomes actual. Third, that which is described as the second Intelligence. It represents that state of the soul in which it receives things from the senses. The senses impress the forms of objects upon the imagination ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) which is in the front part of the head. The imagination, or phantasy, takes them to the rational soul. When the latter knows them, she becomes identical with them spiritually and not corporeally.

We have seen above the Aristotelian distinction between the active intellect and the passive. The account just given is evidently based upon it, though it modifies Aristotle's analysis, or rather it enlarges upon it. The first and second divisions in Israeli's account correspond to Aristotle's active and passive intellects respectively. The third class in Israeli represents the process of realization of the potential or passive intellect through the sense stimuli on the one hand and the influence of the active intellect on the other. Aristotle seems to have left this intermediate state between the potential and the eternally actual unnamed. We shall see, however, in our further study of this very difficult and complicated subject how the classification of the various intellects becomes more and more involved from Aristotle through Alexander and Themistius down to Averroes and Levi ben Gerson. It is sufficient for us to see here how Israeli combines Aristotelian psychology, as later Aristotelian logic and physics, with Neo-Platonic metaphysics and the theistic doctrine of creation. But more of this hereafter.

From the Intelligence, as we have seen, proceeds the rational soul. In his discussion of the general nature of the three-fold soul (rational, animal and vegetative) Israeli makes the unhistoric but thoroughly mediæval attempt to reconcile Aristotle's definition of the soul, which we discussed above (p.xxxv), with that of Plato. The two conceptions are in reality diametrically opposed. Plato's is an anthropological dualism, Aristotle's, a monism. For Plato the soul is in its origin not of this world and not in essential unity with the body, which it controls as a sailor his boat. Aristotle conceives of the relation between soul and body as one of form and matter; and there is no union more perfect than that of these two constituent elements of all natural substances. Decomposition is impossible. A given form may disappear, but another form immediately takes its place. The combination of matter and form is the essential condition of sublunar existence, hence there can be no question of the soul entering or leaving the body, or of its activity apart from the body.


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Layed on the ground, stomach still bleeding. He crawled to the trees and pressed some leaves against his stomach.