Aristotle and Jewish Thought: A Harmonious Encounter

Whenever we think of ideas originating in ancient Greece we are inclined to view them as having great conflict with Jewish thought. The association with Chanukkah events particularly re-enforce this this impression, notwithstanding, that some Jewish thinkers including the Rambam have carved out some exceptions. However, it may be shown that some of the parallels extend even astonishingly further when we consider the ideas of Aristotle. In this connection it is paramount to consider that Aristotle was regarded as out of the mainstream of Greek life, and in fact had become a rebel fleeing his nation state to avoid execution for subversive ideas to Greek thought.

We are, therefore, not dealing with prevailing Greek thought when considering Aristotle but rather with a rebellious outlook entailing a relationship common with the Jews who opposed the Seleucid Greeks. Further there is a revealing episode related by Josephus with some compelling reference documentation relating that Aristotle at one point in his life encountered a Jewish sage merchant who engaged in discussions with the latter that left an indelible imprint which appears mirrored significantly in his philosophical outlook. According to the notes of his student Clearchus reportedly obtained by Josephus, Aristotle described the sage as familiar with the same places and spoke with a wisdom that had a profound effect upon Aristotle where Aristotle reportedly commented “.. He had discussions with a large number of sages and imparted to us much (in some translations “more than we gave him” e.g. Samuel Kurinsky,) knowledge”. (Josephus, Against Apion, p176, also supported by such high standing scholars as Lobeck, Bernays and Von Gutschmidt). When we consider also the remarkable parallels between Aristotle’s outlook and certain Jewish perspectives the likelihood of this episode or something very similar becomes even more compelling.

Maimonides taps into the Aristotelian idea of a golden mean in sketching the out the notion of virtue in human conduct as a mean between two extremes, one an overabundance and the other a deficiency. For example courage in its true sense is the mean between cowardice and recklessness, or proper self-esteem represents the mean between total self-abasement and empty pride etc. The most outstanding of the example of the golden mean may be found in Hillel’s well known dictum,” If I am not for myself. who will be for me, if I am only for myself what am I? ”

It should be recognized in this connection that both Aristotle and the Rambam are emphatic in asserting that the mean point is not an arithmetic middle, but rather the point that sets the proper balance between the excess and the defect. Jewish values insofar as they are guided by compassion and egalitarianism or general equality entitlement would require a different point for balance in the line connecting defect and excess. For example in the case of proper concern for others or what may be regarded as other involvement, Judaism would require that much greater rootedness in the needs of others than would Aristotle. The standard 10 % of income for Tzedakah would clearly not represent the golden mean for Aristotle nor would the principle of love your neighbor as yourself figure into the moral agenda.

Two significant aspects of Aristotelian thought bear a most remarkable parallel in Jewish thought. The first of these is Aristotle’s involvement in this world or the created world which is sometimes rather inaccurately referred to as Aristotle’s naturalism. This represented a significant departure from earlier Platonic thought. Aristotle was involved through his studies in this world whose reality was undeniable and worthy of gaining both full understanding as well as living. It is from this aspiration that Aristotle devoted himself to diverse topics ranging through ethics, physics, psychology and politics. In Judaism humankind is encouraged to also focus upon this world whose creation is celebrated weekly by our dedicated observance of Shabbat. This priority stands in contrast to other faiths which emphasize other worldly preoccupations such as afterlife connections (Christianity) and nirvana (Buddhism). In fact Heaven by some measure is experienced weekly according to one Talmudic adage that the appreciation of creation that it opens up represents 1/16 of heaven.

The other significant aspect is “purpose” which in Aristotelian thought is called “telos” and is embodied in his system of teleology. Purpose is considered one of the 4 causes by which we arrive at an understanding of the universe and is referred as the “final cause”. The final cause when it comes to humankind is reflected in the “good life” we are capable of leading when we may realize more fully our highest potential of our existence ( contrasted with an acorn whose final cause in realizing its full potential is an oak tree) . Aristotle in his ‘Nichomachean Ethics” this primarily is a life ruled by reason, but recognizing, as does Judaism, that humankind has a non-rational side and that other conditions must also be satisfied such as good health, friendship, family, our aesthetic needs and even our sensual needs. This is referred as a life of true happiness or what Aristotle refers to by the term “eudemonia” sometimes more precisely translated as a flourishing life. It is a theme that the Jewish modern philosopher Viktor Frankl clarified further in his classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning” dealing with developing meaning beyond the Shoah.

There are some additional parallels with a Jewish perspective here, particularly with role of “purpose”. However, the content of such purpose is different. Significantly the need for a purposeful life is highlighted in Koheleth with a clearly implied reference to a golden mean, but the values here are God’s revealed values rather than a focus on a purely rational life. A focus on God’s values, however, steers us firstly towards the ethics of Judaism as opposed to simply the Greek virtues Aristotle embraced ( e.g. courage, rational understanding ,temperance etc.); and this Judaic outlook means holding universally life itself sacred and entails the kind of equality and egalitarianism mentioned earlier. It means building a community where the dignity of humankind itself is revered and the opportunity for all to realize their full potential is a reality. This however does not mean that all persons are to be regarded with the same esteem or even freedoms, since negative conduct can deprive some of certain options. However it does entail sensitivity to the sufferings of all, requiring their rights before the law is recognized. This overall perspective is reflected in such guiding Talmudic principles as “He who takes a human life (unjustly) is the same as one who destroys the world”. It is the very basis of the notion of humankind being created in God’s image and signified by the distinctive notion of God creating humankind by the Nishmat Hayyim (God’s breath infusing humankind in creation). We find it reflected in such moving passages of Isaiah 57, 14-58:14 read on the High Holidays (“This is chosen fast: to loosen the bonds that bind men unfairly…”).

There is a second component to a purposeful life here contrasted with Aristotle, namely the reservoir of personal inner experiences that Judaism provides that imbue life with meaning and purpose thereby rendering the Jewish version of Aristotle’s final cause. This may be found in spiritual study, observation and prayer, meditation and the sometimes fortunate spontaneous awareness of connections to God as the ultimate benevolent power. We encounter it in biblical context through Jacobs’s awareness of God’s presence upon his resting in Bethel upon his flight, and later by Moses in seeking God by his soul searching subsequent to the golden calf breakdown. (Exodus 33:18 “Oh, let me behold your presence be revealed” and his vision in partially perceiving God (symbolized by His Back). This pursuit is addressed in the Kabbalah through meditative exercises such as those advocated by Isaac Luria and Rebbe Nachman with the use of Hebrew mantra phrases and getting in tune with the magnificence of creation.

Finally we should note the connection that Aristotle’s own full time student Alexander the Great had with Judaism. Alexander upon entering Jerusalem, according to Talmud sources was immediately overwhelmed in his recall of a dream whereby the face of the high priest Jaddua appeared and prophetically assured him of dominance in his military pursuits. In response Alexander granted complete self-determination to the Jewish people, including the opportunity to continue their studies, and he further offered his own sacrifices at their Temple. It is a matter of speculation whether there literally was a prophetic dream or whether Alexander created this account as he had done in the past utilizing colorful fabrications to realize his objectives. However, it is significantly likely that this was one more example where his teacher Aristotle exerted a strong influence upon Alexander’s life and indirectly Jewish life. In this case it would be a profound supportive Jewish influence that would have run full circle in the enhancement of Jewish spiritual movement to a higher ground. This later rendered possible a kind of L’Dor V’ Dor tapped by Judah Maccabee and his inspired following.


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