An Exploration into Aristotle’s “Virtue Ethics,” with a possible solution to some of its subjectivity. This is the complete essay.
13/24 April 2020
A discussion of ethics that compares the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides would seem to be unlikely. They are separated by over a millennium in time, and by two cultures which have historically warred and resisted each other’s ideas, most famously during the events that came to be remembered through Chanukah. However, Maimonides lived in a time and place where Aristotle was a well-known authority for both philosophy and science. “Maimonides is a Jewish theologian—recognizing the Bible and the later Talmud of the sages as the full authority of our knowledge—as well as a philosopher, and it is from this standpoint, that much of the disagreement [with Aristotle and Arab philosophers] results. Yet, many of Maimonides’ views are amazingly in accord with contemporary thought” (Melber 3). He is also very open about his use of external sources, which brought up some questions, especially after his death. “Maimonides says in the preface that he draws upon both Greek (“ancient”) and Muslim (“modern”) philosophic works” (Weiss 261). Why? “A sober and usually judicious scholar [Isaac Husik] has this to say: ‘Maimonides is an Aristotelian, and he endeavors to harmonize the intellectualism and theorism of the Stagirite with the diametrically opposed ethics and religion of the Hebrew Bible. And he is apparently unaware of the yawning gulf extending between them.’ To think that someone with the intellectual acuity of Maimonides would have missed that abyss hardly does him justice” (Weiss 263).
This essay will explore the relationship between Aristotle, Maimonides, ethics, and the golden mean. Dealing with texts in translation can lead to important and concise terms being rendered as different words in English depending on which essay or book the source text is being quoted in. Note that the terms humility and pride are translated by some sources as meekness and arrogance respectively. Due to the highly philosophic and opinionated nature of both the subject and writers, some sources will be quoted at length to fully convey their position in their words.
Aristotle and Maimonides
Maimonides works with the thought of Aristotle very closely, and the Aristotelian golden mean appears throughout his work. The fourth of the Eight Chapters states, “Good deeds are such as are equibalanced, maintaining the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little.” (Gorfinkle 4:1), a clear and concise summary of the mean. It is a mystery why Maimonides would use external sources when writing about Jewish ethics. Marvin Fox explores criticism on both Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean, and Maimonides’ use of Aristotle in his theological and ethical writings. Kant especially had a scathing view of virtue ethics, and Fox quotes him stating, “It is tautological. What is it to do too much? Answer: More than is good. What is it to do too little? Answer: To do less than is good. What is meant by ought[?] . . . If this is the wisdom we are to seek by returning to the ancients (Aristotle) . . . then we have chosen badly to turn to their oracle.” In Aristotle’s defence, Fox states that the mean was to be “determined by a logos, that is by a rule or principle of reason . . . not just the arbitrariness of convention” (237). For Maimonides, prudence is less relevant, or applied differently. The Talmud, being laid out more like a series of extended arguments and case law rather than a list of rules, means that a ḥakham approaches problems more like a philosopher or a legal expert than a dogmatist. This is not the same as prudence, but it is in line with the ideal of a man of contemplation, which both philosophers agreed was an ideal. Fox, rather than reinforcing the criticism on both thinkers, addresses and then refutes it. He writes, “The elaborate and detailed principles and directions for the life of the Jew which he codified in his Mishenh Torah would seem sufficient to answer every need for guidance toward the virtuous life. . . . Furthermore, with respect to this subject matter in particular, an appeal to non-Jewish sources would seem to be singularly inappropriate. . . . How strange, then, that in a treatise devoted to setting forth the principles and the end of a good life, Maimonides begins by telling us explicitly that he drew his materials from non-Jewish as well as Jewish sources” (Fox 249). His justification, Fox states, can be found in the Eight Chapters: “I have gleaned them from the words of the wise occurring in the Midrashim, in the Talmud . . . as well as from the words of the philosophers . . . as one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds” (Gorfinkle 0:1), though Fox later concludes that while Maimonides used the mean, Jewish tradition remained the ultimate source of his ethics. Maimonides also follows Aristotle in some conceptions of virtue. They both see virtue as “a state of character . . . which observes the mean” (Fox 251), and believe that, “our actions follow from the fixed states of our character” (Fox 251). Moshe Halbertal takes some time comparing Maimonides and Aristotle’s philosophy through frameworks, such as virtue versus obligation, and Greco-Roman thought verses Jewish thought. He brings in their differing opinions of what exactly constitutes a virtuous person between the two cultures. Halbertal also explores where the two philosophers’ views of ethics differs. Who is more praiseworthy, the person who does not commit vices because they do not feel any urge to (and perhaps even feels urges for good actions), or the person who is tempted by, but does not act on, immoral deeds? In response to this, Maimonides writes in his Eight Chapters:
Philosophers unanimously agree that the latter is superior to, and more perfect than, the one who has to curb his passions. . . . When, however, we consult the Rabbis on this subject, it would seem that they consider him who desires iniquity, and craves for it (but does not do it), more praiseworthy and perfect than the one who feels no torment at refraining from evil; and they even go so far as to maintain that the more praiseworthy and perfect a man is, the greater is his desire to commit iniquity . . . which thought they express by the words, (Pirkei Avot 5:23) “According to the labor is the reward”. (Gorfinkle 6:1-2)
“Philosophers” here includes Aristotle, meaning that Maimonides is making a clear differentiation between his conception of virtue, and Aristotle’s. Based on this, Halbertal writes that Maimonides was in line with Immanuel Kant, “who denied that there was any moral significance to an action taken merely in accord with one’s natural inclination” (151).
“Perhaps the most significant difference is that while Aristotle construes moral virtue as a case of art imitating nature, Maimonides has as his standard the imitation of God” (Fox 253). Maimonides may have seen Aristotle’s comparison to nature as a relevant but incomplete approach, as it is written, “Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant…” (Eruvin 100b). Meaning, without prophesy from God, nature would be the primary source for truth and even ethics.
This, incidentally, is thought to be one difference between the name (or title) of God used in the creation of nature, Elokim (usually rendered “God”), and the Tetragrammaton (usually rendered “Lord,” or “Hashem”), which is associated with the personal revelation of God (Winston). This difference is seen explicitly through the reaction of Pharaoh, who could comprehend the power of name Elokim (Exodus 8:15), but could not understand the personal relationship that the Tetragrammaton conveyed (Exodus 5:2). Non-Jewish sources of wisdom can therefore be accepted as having truth from God, through nature, since one can learn of Elokim through the study of nature. However, in Jewish thought, the higher aspects of God can only be received through revelation. “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as kEl Shakkai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem” (Exodus 6:3). Here we see that the patriarchs had a concept of God only as kEl Shakkai, or “Almighty God” in some translations, but not of the more personal Tetragrammaton. (As an aside, the Platonic “God” and the Aristotelian “Unmoved Mover,” may be examples of the discovery of Elokim, in a sense, through the process of reason and natural induction. The common stance that it is not quite the “God of the Bible,” is thus retained; it is not, it is rather only a partial perspective. This view of the two names ties into Halburtal’s comparison between ethics of virtue and ethics of obligation. Aristotle’s virtue ethics, based on nature and human nature, makes sense regardless of revelation. Maimonides’ ethics of obligation to the Torah, only makes sense in the context of revelation, and would not make sense to either Pharaoh or Aristotle.) In a similar vein, Fox writes, “Good action and good states of character are those which follow the middle way. So far we are in accord with all men who follow the way of scientific knowledge. Next . . . Maimonides answers, unlike Aristotle (for whom such an answer would have been meaningless), that we should imitate God” (254).
The Medical Approach
“At almost every important point in his exposition of the way to moral virtue, Aristotle employs the practice of medicine as a paradigm which illuminates and clarifies his basic points” (Fox 238). There is a similarity on this point between the philosophical approaches of Aristotle and Maimonides. Maimonides uses the science of Aristotle to support his philosophy, as Aristotle used the science of medicine in his. Maimonides, being a physician, would have been able to appreciate Aristotle’s approach. The medical approach seemed to be fairly common in philosophy on curing the soul. Seneca the Younger, the stoic, was noted for his philosophy and cures for the passions, namely anger. He, like Maimonides, was familiar with Aristotle, and responded directly to the Greek philosopher’s work. Seneca uses the concept of treating the mind like one does the body, though his conception is less developed. “Just as in caring for the body certain rules are to be observed for guarding the health, others for restoring it, so we must use one means to repel anger and another to restrain it” (Seneca 203-205). Seneca does, however, bring medicine into the discussion through the infamous “boiling of the blood around the heart” (205), giving us physical medicine, as well as bringing in the four elements, and human temperaments (205), adding very early psychology into his discussion. Fox recognises the medical approach of the other two philosophers, stating, “While Aristotle’s phronimos [man of practical wisdom] has only shifting conventional standards to guide him, Maimonides’ ḥakham [“the model Jewish scholar-teacher-man of piety”] has the fixed discipline of Torah as his standard” (256). “He only varies his advice for each individual in order to move that individual closer to the one common ideal” (Fox 257). In the words of Maimonides, “Just as the physician, who endeavors to cure the human body, must have a perfect knowledge of it in its entirety and . . . also be acquainted with the means by which a patient may be cured, so, likewise, he who tries to cure the soul, wishing to improve the moral qualities, must have a knowledge of the soul in its totality and its parts, must know how to prevent it from becoming diseased, and how to maintain its health” (Gorfinkle 1:2).
An important part of the medical approach to healing is the soul. Following vastly different theological traditions, did the term “soul” mean the same thing to both Aristotle and Maimonides? “The Eight Chapters are psychological and ethical in content. The ethical system is based mainly on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, but it is far from a slavish imitation of Aristotle” (Melber 64). Melber compares the unique soul Maimonides employs to the three part conception that Aristotle holds. “Having made clear the essential unity of the soul, Maimonides lists his five divisions of the soul. In addition to the three already met with in Aristotle (nutritive, sensitive, rational), the two others are: the imaginative and the appetitive which are placed between the sensitive and the rational souls. The two new faculties were introduced by the Arabian philosopher al-Farabi” (Melber 76). While fascinating, the five-part soul (and further subdivisions) comes up very little in regards to cures for vices. (Though, a comparison between Maimonides’ psychological five-part soul and the mystical Jewish five-part soul could be explored in a more theological work). Maimonides believed that transgressions came from only two faculties of the soul, the sensitive and the appetitive, meaning that the rational faculty is not the conductive factor in vice (Melber 83-84), here he “differs from Aristotle, who asserts that sense is the originating cause of no moral action” (Melber 85). In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides simply writes, “But even a being that is endowed with the faculty of forming an idea . . . does not change its place on each occasion that it forms an idea; an idea alone does not produce motion” (qtd. in Melber 84). It is important to note that Aristotle and Maimonides are speaking more of the psyche or mind, rather than an eternal soul, when the term soul is used (Melber 82). The parts of the soul that must be healed, then, are not bad thoughts, but rather the way we process and think about sensory input, and appetite.
For Maimonides, a cure means following the opposite extreme of the mean for a period. His cure seems to work at two levels, the external (action), and the internal (soul or mind). In order to cure the soul, one must discipline it through acting in the opposite extreme, thereby adjusting the soul toward the middle road. Once this is done, a person should then switch to acting at the mean. “The role of psychological healing is to direct a person’s inclinations toward the mean. This sort of therapy calls for temporarily leaning toward the opposite extreme, so that equilibrium at the mean is ultimately achieved. For example, the miser who undertakes a course of repeated profligacy will attain equilibrium at the mean of generosity” (Halbertal 155). Based on this, Melber makes an odd claim, stating that, “both Aristotle and Maimonides agree on the course” (98), citing the philosopher’s suggestion for a cure in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics as evidence. “We must drag ourselves off in the contrary direction; for if we pull far away from error, as they do in straightening bent wood, we shall reach the intermediate condition” (Aristotle 2.9 1109b). This seems to be an incorrect reading of Aristotle’s bent wood comparison. Are sticks truly bent the opposite way (and then back again) in order to straighten them? Doing so is more likely to snap such a material. A more nuanced comparison would reveal the following: Aristotle’s cure is to exert force in the opposite direction to achieve balance, while Maimonides’ cure involves acting in the opposite way in order to, at a secondary level, cure the “disease” of the soul. Aristotle does not recommend, for example, that the stingy man give excessive charity until he has changed his nature, as Maimonides does in the Eight Chapters (Gorfinkle 4:5). This is possibly confirmed by Aristotle’s earlier statement in the same section, “[A]nyone who aims at the intermediate condition must first of all steer clear of the more contrary extreme . . . For one extreme is more in error, the other less” (2.09 1109a). To be clear, here “the contrary extreme” Aristotle is referring to is specifically the one an individual is more drawn towards (the one that brings more pleasure or less pain), however, this passage can be used to support both its explicit intent, and his difference with Maimonides. As stated, Aristotle does not give an example to show that his position is the same, neither does his sailing advice sourced from Calypso, “Hold the ship outside the spray and surge” (2.9 1109a), illustrate action in the opposite extreme. It instead illustrates action away from an extreme, or towards the centre. Due to this seeming lack of clarity, Aristotle’s cure may be hard to determine. His final point is, “Since, therefore, it is hard to hit the intermediate extremely accurately, the second-best tack, as they say, is to take the lesser of the evils” (Aristotle 2.9 1109a). This affirms the position that Aristotle’s cure is not to act contrary to one’s vice, but to either push away from vice towards the mean, or to push towards “the lesser of the evils.” Pushing is different than acting, as Maimonides suggests. “How can they be cured? We tell the hot tempered man he must accustom himself to be smitten and abused without feeling anything, and continue in that way for a long time until the ill temper is rooted out of his heart. . . . If a man has gone to one extreme, let him go to the other and conduct himself that way for a long time, until he returns to the good path which is the middle way in each temperament” (Maimonides 2.2 2).
Besides Aristotle, another of the ancient interested in curing vice (specifically passions and emotions) was Seneca. Seneca does have some conception of a mean (perhaps the mean), as seen in his advice regarding children. “By freedom the spirit grows, by servitude it is crushed . . . therefore we must guide the child between the two extremes” (Seneca 209-211). Though this is briefly present, it is not the framework from which he suggests solutions. Stoic cures do not approach the problem of vice through the doctrine of the mean, but comparison of their curative approach is still warranted. Seneca opens his discussion on cures, writing, “In my opinion, however, there are but two rules—not to fall into anger, and in anger to do no wrong” (203). Common Stoic cures formulated by Seneca include: delay, “allow some time; a day discloses the truth” (215), giving the benefit of the doubt (217), not being agitated by little things (219), diversion (277), seeking or giving council (289, 345-347), which is what the entire letter to Novatus seeks to do (106-355), moderation (209), and driving one passion out with another. Unfortunately, these cures do not engage the same problems as Aristotle and Maimonides. They address short-term emotions rather than long-term vices. Taking the opposite extreme could be considered diversion or driving one passion out with another, and following the mean could be considered moderation, but these are weak connections. The strongest point of agreement regarding cures between the Seneca, Aristotle, and Maimonides is seeking council. On this subject we see Seneca, who writes “Let us now see how we may allay the anger of others. For we wish not merely to be healed ourselves, but also to heal” (345). From a stoic perspective, one should take advice from a friend or other trusted person, perhaps a particularly wise individual, or a fellow stoic. In this, Seneca is overtaken by both Maimonides and Aristotle. Fox writes, “Both Aristotle and Maimonides require the physician of the soul to be the one who knows how to take account of individual circumstances and to advise in accordance with those circumstances” (256). Maimonides in particular writes, “Those whose souls become ill should consult the sages, the moral physicians, who will advise them against indulging in those evils which they (the morally ill) think are good, so that they may be healed” (Gorfinkle 3:2). Thus, the advice “seek good counsel” is taken up by all three figures. Good counsel for illness of the soul must come from a physician of the soul. For Aristotle, this is a man of practical wisdom, and for Maimonides, it is a sage or Torah scholar (Fox 256).
Anger and Pride
Maimonides holds to two exceptions to the mean, anger and pride. On these exceptions, Fox writes, “We know that there can be no proper moderation with respect to pride and anger, simply because we are so taught by various biblical verses and the explicit rulings of rabbis” (256). Fox’s point is that Maimonides’ ultimate source of proof is rabbinic scholarship, rather than reason and contemplation (as is the case with Aristotle and his prudent man). Seneca, we will see, agrees with Maimonides that there is no place for anger in human life, but he spends a lot of time giving reasons, and arguing against anger, whereas Maimonides simply quotes a few verses or tractate sections and moves on, having applied the power of his tradition.
The first of the two vices for which (according to Maimonides) there is no mean is pride, or arrogance. Maimonides writes that regarding pride, that one must take the extreme opposite, “For the good way here is not only that a man must be humble but also of a very lowly spirit. In this connection it was said of Moses our teacher that he was not only meek, but was very meek (Numbers 12:3)” (2.2 3). Maimonides supports this with two sources from the sages: from Pirkei Avot 4:4, “be exceedingly humble of spirit” (qtd. in 2.2 3), and, “Any person who has arrogance within him is considered as if he has denied the core belief in God’s existence, as it is stated: ‘Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 8:14)” (Maimonides 2.2 3).
The second mean-less vice is anger. On anger, Maimonides brings down, “The life of an angry man is no life. . . . The way of the upright is to be insulted but not to give insult, to hear abuse but not to answer, to do their duty as a work of love and be cheerful in suffering” (Maimonides 2.2 3). While Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics states that anger is permissible “to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way” (2.9 1109a). Seneca argues throughout “De Ira” against anger in any form. Though he does agree with Aristotle’s definition, “Aristotle’s definition differs little from mine; for he says that anger is the desire to repay suffering” (Seneca 113-115), he does not agree on its application. He states, “Again, anger embodies nothing, useful, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice” (Seneca 129). Here, and in many other places, Seneca asserts that anger has no place in any part of life. A person cannot be angry the right amount, because the right amount for Seneca is zero. They cannot be angry at the right time, because the right time is never, and so on. Interestingly, this means that Seneca and Maimonides are in agreeance against Aristole regarding anger. Maimonides writes, “Anger also is a very evil tendency, and it is essential for a man to remove himself to the other extreme, to teach himself not to be angry even about something which he ought to be angry about” (Maimonides 2.2 3). We see this illustrated clearly in Hilchos De’ot [The Book of Knowlegde] when Maimonides supports his position against anger with two proofs from the Talmud: “Any person who becomes angry, if he is a Torah scholar, his wisdom departs from him, and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him” (Pesachim 66b), and, “Anyone who gets angry, at that moment even the Divine Presence is not important to him” (Nedarim 22b), which Maimonides recalls it more sharply as, “he who is angry is as if he worshipped idols” (2.2 3).
The common thread between these two prohibitions is a citation which claims that performing the vice in question means that the subject has denied God in some way. Fox asserts throughout his essay that Maimonides used Aristotle’s mean, but that it was not the source of his knowledge or rulings. That argument is illustrated with clarity in these two examples. Maimonides did not forbid anger and pride because he saw through reason or experience that they were wholly destructive, as Aristotle wrote regarding things such as theft and murder (2.7 1107a). Instead, it is far more likely that he was aware of the Talmudic sources of prohibition, and that they were the starting point for his use of the mean (and not the other way around).
The primary authorial line of inquiry that fed this essay was an attempt to understand why an important recent Jewish scholar, philosopher, and theologian, had embedded the philosophy of the ancients into his text. Maimonides was not a humanist, a classicist, or even a student of western tradition that he should use so freely the work of Aristotle, not only in his Guide to the Perplexed, which sought to compatibilise theology and philosophy, but also in his Mishneh Torah and Eight Chapters. Fox has taken up this argument well, though it seems he is not the first. Maimonides’ approach did find its opponents, but ultimately it stood the test of time, likely once critics realized that he did not change or convolute the Jewish perspective with the Greek, but rather elucidated it through the use of a philosophic too.
As Plato writes in the Phaedrus, “Oratory is the art of enchanting the soul.” Rhetoric would be the next logical step in the discussion of the middle road and cures for vice. Aristotle speaks of anger and other passions in his book “On Rhetoric,” but he does not actively apply virtue ethics in his discussion. Maimonides does not discuss rhetoric at all. Therefore, a treatise on the use of rhetoric to curatively speak to souls is a need that has yet to be filled. Quintillian’s definition, that a Rhetorician is “a good man speaking well,” implies that such a treatise must not only tell an individual how to cure, but must also train them as an ethical physician. This is where Maimonides’ work could come into play. Though it must be admitted, between Aristotle and Maimonides, I have always preferred Plato.
This is an edited (slightly expanded) version of my final exam for a Rhetoric and Emotion course. Virtue, according to classical sources like Cicero and Quintilian, is necessary for an orator to be ethical.
That, in part, is how I managed to get permission to write an essay on Maimonides and Aristotle. This was also done in order to answer a personal question: Why did Maimonides use Aristotle’s philosophy regarding ethics at all? Isn’t there enough Jewish ethical information on this? Marvin Fox explores this far better in his essay, but I believe my essay, while doing other things, answers that too.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Co., 1999.
“Eruvin 100b,” “Nedarim 22b.” The William Davidson Talmud. Translated by Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Sefaria, 2010. https://www.sefaria.org/texts/Talmud.
“Exodus.” Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. JPS, 1985. https://www.sefaria.org/texts/Tanakh.
Fox, Marvin. “The Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle and Maimonides: A Comparative Study.” Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Joseph A. Buijs, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, pp. 234-63.
Gorfinkle, Joseph I, translator. The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics (Shemonah Peraḥim). By Rambam [Maimonides]. Columbia University Press, 1912.
Halbertal, Moshe. “Ethics of Virtue and the Ethics of Obligation.” Maimonides: Life and Thought. Translated by Joel Linsider, Princeton University Press, 2014, 148-153.
Maimonides, Moses, H. M. Russell, and J. Weinberg. The Book of Knowledge : from the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. Ktav, 1983.
Melber, Jehuda. “3 The Soul.” The Universality of Maimonides. Jonathan David, 1968.
Seneca. “De Ira.” Moral Essays. Translated by J.W. Basore, London Heinemann. 1928.
Weiss, Raymond L. “The Adaptation of Philosophic Ethics to a Religious Community: Maimonides’ Eight Chapters.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 54, American Academy of Jewish Research, Jan. 1987, pp. 261–87, doi:10.2307/3622587.
Winston, Pinchas. “The Names of Hashem: Parshas Vaera.” Project Genesis, 2015. https://torah.org/torah-portion/perceptions-5775-vaera/.
*While in-text citation varies from source to source, it is internally consistent, holding to the following rules: MLA formatting is the default. Aristotle uses Bekker numbers. Maimonides follows the format of the Bekker number ([book].[chapter] [section]). Tanakh, Talmud, and the Eight Chapters uses colons ([chapter/tractate]:[verse/section]).