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Gershon Hepner

Maimonides and Spinoza

I wonder whether if Maimonides had lived after Spinoza died,

philosophers would have considered his extremely puzzling Guide

For the Perplexed to be influenced less by a Greek goy called Aristotle

than this descendant of Marranos, model for the nesher godel.

 

Instead of wondering how much influence Maimonides had on Spinoza,

we might have wondered whether he was merely a Spinozan recomposer,

just as Jacob Klatzin thought his Ethics should be translated into Hebrew

because Spinoza’s Latin spirit fermented in an Ibn Tibbon Hebrew rebrew,

 

a Marrano malt that neither is a single nor a double, but a triple,

ale from three spirits which Spinoza’s mighty mind would dribble.

 

Maimonides is known as the נשר גדול, nesher gadol, big eagle.

In “A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 2 (April 1981): 151-172. Warren Zev Harvey writes:

To my knowledge, the only modern scholar to argue systematically for a distinctive Maimonidean influence on Spinoza was Leon Roth in his Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides. In this incisive little book, Roth presented Spinozism as a Maimonidean critique of Cartesianism and concluded: “Where Spinoza rejected the lead of Descartes, he not only followed that of Maimonides, but based his rejection on Maimonides’ arguments, often, indeed, on his very words …. Maimonides and Spinoza speak throughout with one voice. ” The case for distinctive Maimonidean influence on Spinoza also may be reconstructed out of various writings of the eminent Maimonidean scholar Shlomo Pines. ….’

Jacob Klatzkin’s opinion is counter-intuitive, as is the one expressed in my poem. Warren Zev Harvey writes:

That there was no distinctive influence of Maimonides’ philosophy on Spinoza was held also by Jacob Klatzkin, who, like Wolfson, was a Hebraist and a savant in mediaeval Hebrew philosophic literature and who is known to students of that literature as the author of the four-volume Thesaurus Philosopohicus lin-guae Hebraicae. Klatzkin set down his thoughts on the relationship of Spinozato Maimonides and to the other mediaeval Jewish philosophers in his Hebrew book on Spinoza  and in the preface to his still standard Hebrew translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Although he held that the mediaeval Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, did not appreciably influence Spinoza’s thought, he claimed that they did appreciably influence his language. Indeed, it was his extraordinary argument that since Spinoza’s early exposure to philosophy was in Hebrew, and since he never properly mastered Latin, a Hebrew translation of the Ethics not only should be expected to express Spinoza’s thought more accurately than the various German, French, or English translations, but it should be expected-at least in some instances–to express it more accurately than Spinoza’ s  Latin itself. “There is necessarily an advantage to a Hebrew translation [of the Ethics] over the translations in the languages of the West,””he wrote in the preface to his own Hebrew translation of the Ethics. “Sometimes,” he continued, “it is even superior to the Latin text, which is in this sense itself a translation.” Klatzkin was making the bizarre claim that, in a certain sense, his Hebrew translation is the original of the Ethics, and Spinoza’s own Latin translation! Spinoza, as it were, thought his philosophy in Hebrew, even when he wrote it in Latin: to translate the Ethics into Hebrew, thus, is really to restore it into Hebrew. Not shying from the implications of his claim, Klatzkin concluded that future translations of the Ethics into Western languages would have to be made only after consultation of his Hebrew version! Be that as it may, what follows from Klatzkin’s view is that the only distinctive influence the Guide of the Perplexed had on Spinoza was not that of Maimonides but that of Samuel ibn Tibbon, in whose Hebrew translation from the Arabic Spinoza read the Guide.

Now, although Klatzkin has surely overstated his case, his argument ought not to be dismissed out of hand. It should not surprise us to find instances where Spinoza’s philosophic Latin is influenced by mediaeval philosophic Hebrew, and perhaps in particular by that of Ibn Tibbon’s translation of the Guide.  It might, however, be surprising if a philosophic literature that left its imprint on Spinoza’s language did not also leave an imprint on his philosophy.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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