Walter Hilliger
Homme de lettres

The path of Almosnino and the virtues of Aristotle

Image in the public domain under the public data regime resulting from the digitization of the collections of public cultural institutions. Legend: Page from the Second Book, Chapter 3 of Sefer Hanhagat HaChaim, where R. Almosnino introduces the 12 Aristotelian virtues or Middot. Ladino edition, Salonica, 1564.

Almosnino’s Path of Life and the classic virtues of Aristotle

The Path of Lives, “Orakh Hayim“, is the Sephardic summary of the mental law* compiled by Yosef Karo (1488-1575). The title comes from King David (around 1040 BCE – around 970 BCE), who said,  תודיעני ארח חיים
Make me know the path of lives (Psalm 16:11)
In Hebrew, the path ‘of lives’ is written in the plural form, and not in singular, ‘the path of life’, which alludes to the resurrection of the dead.

Aristotle (around 384 BCE – around 322 BCE), the preferred Greek author of the Sephardim (see Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides, Ibn Pakuda) in the book intended for his son, the  Nicomachean Ethics or Sefer HaMidot | ספר המדות, also refers to the path of life of King David to teach him to choose the path of the golden mean between excess and lack of attributes (Midot), leading to virtuous choices, starting with the first virtue, that is, the Force (to resist the sensible desires of pleasures and comfort), up to the last virtues concerning truth and friendship.

The virtues of Aristotelian attributes could be summarized as the middle path between the vices of lack, and excess:

Courage is the path of life between cowardice and audacity.
Temperance is the path of life between inhibition and over-indulgence.
Liberality is the path of life between avarice and wastage.
Magnificence is the path of life between vulgarity and sumptuousness.
Magnanimity is the path of life between pusillanimity and extravagance.
Modesty is the path of life between lack of self-esteem and ambition.
Meekness is the path of life between anger and indifference.
Affability is the path of life between indifference and buffoonery.
Authenticity is the path of life between insincerity and exaggeration.
Courtesy is the path of life between incivility and submission.
Justice is the path of life between abuse and irresponsibility.
Friendship is the path of life between flattery and quarrel.

The parameters of extremes are related to the metaphor of extremities, right and left used several times in the Hebrew Bible, Tanakh as the expression in Hebrew, yamin usmol | ימין ושמאל which is used to convey the idea of staying on the narrow path of virtue:

לא תסור מכל־הדברים אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם היום ימין ושמאול

Do not turn aside from all the words which I am commanding you today, neither to the right and left (Deuteronomy 28:14)

אל־תט־ימין ושמאול הסר רגלך מרע

Neither to the right and left, remove your foot from evil (Proverbs 4:27)

וילך בכל־דרך דוד אביו ולא־סר ימין ושמאול

And he walked the path of David his father, without turning aside to the right and left. (II Kings 22:2)

R. Almosnino (1515-1580), who read Aristotle in Latin, affirms that by paying particular attention to the second and third books of Aristotle’s Ethics, “one will be able to understand the classic virtues applied to the science of the Holy Law, to easily follow the difficult path of virtue until ‘the end of the journey’ in the third and final stage of life in this world, using moral and intellectual virtues and respecting the precepts of the Holy Law, the path of life.

* Mental law is an expression used by R. David Nieto and others to refer to Halakha.

About the Author
Walter Hilliger is a French Caribbean writer, translator, and publisher of manuscript writings and facsimiles of Sephardic authors of the Grand Siècle, notably Isaac Orobio (1617 - 1787), R. David Nieto (1654 - 1728), Menasseh Ben Israel (1604-1657), R. Moses Raphael d'Aguilar (1615 - 1679) and others. He transcribed, restored, and digitized millions of words generating thousands of translated pages into current Spanish and English.
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