Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed: A Philosophical Guide. By ALFRED L. IVRY. Chicago: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2016. Pp. xiii + 307. $50, [pounds sterling]35.
The Guide of the Perplexed (in the original Judeo-Arabic: Dalalat al-ha'irin) by the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides is famously and--judging by its title--paradoxically not an accessible work. In fact, Maimonides did not attempt to make his philosophical masterpiece accessible and to reach a wide audience of readers; rather, he purposefully avoided clarity and detail to guard against a traditional, philosophically unprepared Jewish readership that would strongly oppose some of his main ideas and arguments. This restrictive intent is openly declared by Maimonides in his introduction to the first part as a desire to limit the work to those who, like the dedicatee, Maimonides's select student Joseph, have already acquired sufficient knowledge of philosophy, but might be perplexed by its apparent disagreement with the Jewish law they adhere to (Munk 1929: 2-3; Pines 1963: 5-7). Nonetheless, as emphasized by Alfred Ivry in the preface and introduction of his fine guide to Maimonides's Guide, the difficulties in the work stemmed as well from Maimonides's own conflicting views and commitments as a Jewish rabbi and an adherent of the Greco-Islamic philosophical tradition. Unlike others who have tried to harmonize or smooth out Maimonides's contradictions and conflicts, Ivry is determined to present Maimonides as torn between different intellectual positions and to show the seams in his text. He accomplishes that with commendable clarity and an in-depth approach that elucidates the complexity of Maimonides's writing without resorting to simplification. Against the intent of Maimonides, Ivry sets out to decode the Guide, and he makes this key philosophical presentation of Judaism accessible to every intelligent reader. Ivry's elucidative approach to the Guide runs against that of some, notably Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines, who deliberately preserved the ambiguities and obscurities found in the original (Pines 1963: vii); as Ivry admits: "I am guilty of not following these two great Maimonidean interpreters [Strauss and Pines] in honoring Maimonides's wishes to shelter the Guide from the general public. Times have changed, and the need to rescue the Guide from obfuscation and misunderstanding is great" (p. 66; see also pp. x, 181).
In his preface and introduction, Ivry describes briefly the nature of Maimonides's Guide as a philosophical work and explains his approach to the Guide and the views that inform his interpretation. His major contention is that Maimonides wrote this book for himself as well, being also "one of the perplexed." Maimonides tried to sort out issues that challenged him, mostly related to the philosophical account of metaphysics, but failed at that, realizing the limitations of philosophy. Ivry rejects scholarly views suggesting that Maimonides's failure to present demonstrative proofs to crucial metaphysical questions, such as creation, made him a skeptic or even spurred him to adopt an orthodox posture. He argues that, despite his doubts about the philosophers' cosmological paradigm, Maimonides refrains from rejecting it essentially and ends up accepting it practically, in order to account for how God governs the world.