Since the original Moses, the world has been blessed with Mosii of many varieties. (One of my favorites, Moses Malone, actually took the Philadelphia 76ers to the Promised Land in 1983 by dunking on his adversaries.) Pre-eminent among the later imprints, however, stands one man: Moses Maimonides (1135-1204); a philosopher, rabbi and legal scholar, best known for his Mishneh Torah, a 14-volume codification of Jewish law, and the Guide of the Perplexed, a complex, beautiful book seemingly aimed at harmonizing philosophy and revelation.

Maimonides had no less an illustrious medical career. While in Egypt, he was elevated to physician to the royal court, then occupied by Sultan Saladin. Responding to a letter from Saladin’s son, al-Afdal, who complained of bodily and spiritual maladies, Maimonides penned what has come to be referred to as On the Management of Health*, a lengthy remedy for al-Afdal’s physical ills—with some spiritual/philosophical advice on the side.

The letter is divided into four chapters, but most interesting is the second part of Chapter 3, where Maimonides investigates—and treats—unhealthy souls. Now, the root cause of any soul-sickness, Maimonides observes, are the passions, which cause all human beings at one point or another to lose perspective or orientation when dealing with life’s highs and lows. We often respond in ways disproportionate to events, which cause us deep, long-term psychic regrets. To deal with the fallout of these issues, we turn quite understandably to therapy, medicine and relaxing activities. But we eventually get too happy, angry or sad, and lose control anew.

With this in mind, Maimonides responds to al-Afdal with some unique guidance:

Insofar as he is a physician, the physician ought not to expect his art to provide knowledge of how to remove these passions. Indeed, this understanding is acquired from practical philosophy and from the admonitions and the disciplines of the Law.”

What Maimonides means by Law is, just to be clear, revelation. Specifically, the “admonitions [and] maxims taken from the prophets” and “knowledge of their virtuous lives.” Stripping some of this jargon away, Maimonides presents us, at least on first reading, with two choices: we can turn to philosophy or we can turn religion; both appear to be vehicles to a more composed psychic state.

So, how are philosophy and religion different from a visit to Dr. Feelgood and Chicken Soup for the Soul? Here, again, is Maimonides:

It is persons trained in philosophic ethics or in the disciplines and admonitions of the Law whose souls acquire courage. These are the truly courageous; their souls are only swayed and affected in the slightest possible way. The more training an individual has, the less he is affected by either of the two conditions—I mean, the condition of prosperity or of adversity.”

Now, the way one acquires the aforesaid disposition—this “courageous soul” always prepared for the vicissitudes of life—is “by considering the truth of things and by knowing the nature of existence (italics mine).”

Before I go on, I want to stop and note that, though Maimonides is rightfully exalted as perhaps the most profound commentator on halakha (Jewish law) ever to live, anyone who picks up his Guide of the Perplexed will immediately sense the great sage’s familiarity—and delight—with the intellectual patrimony of Athens. In fact, so strong is the odor of philosophy about this book, it is the cause of ongoing debate in the Maimonidean scholarly community over the exact nature of the great man’s piety.

Once one becomes aware of the two poles—Jerusalem and Athens—inhering in Maimonides soul, some of his writing can take on deeper shades of meaning. For our present purposes, when, for example, Maimonides advises al-Afdal to turn to philosophy or religion to deal with his soul-troubles, at first it seems the two paths are coequal (an already bold proposal in itself!). However, when one considers that a courageous soul can only be formed by “considering the truth of things” and “knowing the nature of existence,” and then further considers which of the two paths, philosophy or religion, best match this activity, a glimpse of Maimonides’ playfulness comes to light.

On the Management of Health has a few more odds and ends to make sense of, but I leave that to interested readers. And after your soul is in good working order, it is time to approach the Guide—a book one lives with.

If only all doctors were this fun!

*For an excellent translation of this hard-to-find text and a number of other short works by Maimonides, I recommend the Charles E. Butterworth and Raymond L. Weiss edition, Ethical Writings of Maimonides.

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