Monday, April 20, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part VII) - Wise and Good

Rav Leibowitz

We join the rest of Klal Yisrael in mourning HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l.  The words of the Rambam quoted below - praising a man of wisdom and deed - are a small snapshot of the great tzadik and scholar who was niftar earlier this morning.  Yehe zichro baruch.  

Who is true man?  Or better, what makes man man?  The Rambam describes true man in the following way:

The purpose of the entire universe and everything that is in it is a wise and good man. (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna).

Rambam here use two words to describe true man: wise and good. 

“Wise” means that man uses his abstract intellect to gain a perception of reality.  He pursues wisdom, be it divine, scientific, moral, or emotional wisdom. 

“Good” means that man lives his knowledge – he lives a life where the truths he has learned are implemented in his life.  For example, after acquiring moral wisdom and emotional knowledge he then pursues a life of morality and emotional sensibility. 

Rambam continues,

Such a person understands that wisdom and deed are what make him a man.   When I say “wisdom” I refer to the ability to form an intellectual conception of truth to the best of his ability and to perceive that which is humanly possible to perceive.  When I say “deed” I refers to refinement of natural instincts and freedom from indulgences… A man who conforms to this is the purpose of creation and is desirable [by God].

Rambam states very clearly in this passage that it is not enough to have elevated capabilities, man must also live an elevated existence.  Man is to use his intellect to influence and mold himself.  Together, “wisdom” and “deed” lead to an elevated existence.  “Elevated” because man uses his mind to ponder reality and clarify truth, but also utilizes his mind to influence his behavior and to mandate which actions he will perform.[1] When man’s elevated faculties work together, man’s intellect dominates his behavior and man lives an elevated existence. 

In this passage, Rambam defines “deed” as a “refinement of natural instincts and freedom from indulgences.”  To be a man of deed the calculated intellect must exert dominion over the non-calculated instincts and direct the instincts towards those goals that were clarified by the mind.  This explains why human character and behavior is referred to in Hebrew as middos.  The root word, midah, means weights, and its verb, limdod means to weigh or consider.  Thus, Middos are man’s acquired character traits and human qualities that reflect his elevated position in the world.  They are called middos because they are acquired through intellectual calculation and implementation of acquired knowledge.  In fact, the Rambam himself refers to man’s middos as “deos,” which means “intellectual perceptions,” for proper middos are a result of man’s intellect.  Throughout life, man has the opportunity to perfect his middos through strengthening his intellect.

The process of internalizing one’s acquired wisdom and actually achieving an elevated existence is long and arduous.  But through dedication and hard work, man can slowly but steadily maximizes his potential.  When this is done, man assumes the exalted position in creation that is unique to mankind.  

The Rambam elaborates on his definition of the “wise and good” man in another of his works.  In Moreh Nevuchim (III, 8) the Rambam describes a man who truly lives in accordance with man’s elevated position in creation.  In this passage Rambam enumerates four uses of the intellect for assumption of this elevated position.  He writes,

He has gained an understanding of his creator, and formed conceptions of things he has studied.  He channels his desires and anger, and considers what to choose and what to distance.  All of this behavior reflects man’s elevation. 

The Rambam’s list in this passage corresponds to our discussion thus far.  The Rambam here elaborates on the “wise and good” man and describes him as one who does the following:  (1) Uses the mind to think abstractly, (2) Pursues divine knowledge, (3) Exercises free will, and (4) Has gained dominion over his instinctual behavior. 

This passage is an excellent summation of our discussion thus far.  We see that for man to truly assume his elevated position in creation, he must engage his elevated faculties in a number of ways.  He must use his free will to choose which areas of knowledge to pursue.  After choosing areas that grant him the greatest perception of truth and reality, he must then use his intellect to implement the knowledge he has learned.  He must live by his acquired knowledge, and use his intellect to influence his character.  Through this, man not only live with elevated capabilities, but he creates for himself an elevated existence.

[1] To truly assume man’s elevated position in creation man must implement the knowledge he has gained.  He must live by his knowledge.  Many intelligent people fail to recognize this important point, as this anecdote illustrates,

Noted ethics philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell once was questioned by the Harvard Board of Governors about having an extramarital affair with a student.  When faced with the hypocrisy of being an ethics professor engaged in immoral conduct, Russell argued his private affairs had nothing to do with his professional duties.  “But you are a Professor of Ethics!” maintained one of the board members. “I was [also] a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell rejoined, but “they never asked me why I was not a triangle.” Lecturing on ethics was a job for Russell; it didn’t mean he had to live an ethical life. (“The Ethics of Making Credibility Judgments,” Joel Cohen and Katherine A. Helm)

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