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He illustrates this by an analogy to a storm in the dead of night: Everyone is cloaked in darkness, and even those that glimpse their world in occasional flashes of lightening never see the whole world. This analogy applies equally to our knowledge of the natural world and, because Maimonides conceived of God as totally beyond human comprehension, even to revelations of divine truth.
There may be many interpretations of Maimonides, but “what’s unambiguously there is an awareness of the limitations of knowledge,” noted Horn. To claim otherwise — to assert mankind’s special knowledge or power — is, according to Maimonides, a form of idolatry.
Despite the seeming futility of attempting to fully access the great secrets, Maimonides never gave up on the pursuit of wisdom, or of education: More than almost any great philosopher, Maimonides devoted every spare minute to teaching.
“My duties to the sultan are very heavy,” he wrote to ibn Tibbon. “I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and… I do not return [home] until the afternoon… I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles… a mixed multitude who await the time of my return.” In spite of this exhausting schedule, Maimonides spent his Sabbaths teaching. “The whole congregation, or at least the majority… come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon… Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers.”
As a full-time physician and teacher, Maimonides understood the importance of persevering in contemplation despite the abundance of distractions, and the provisional nature of all human answers. Whether those distractions come from Twitter or from tending to the Sultan, whether our uncertainties are ethical or scientific, whether we’re unlearned or a towering scholar, he insists that we forge ahead in our pursuit of the truth, and of a virtuous life. It’s the kind of brash optimism in the face of uncertainty that keeps the ideas of this 12th-century philosopher pulsing on the airwaves and through the university halls, that drives home his central idea — that we must be, not just a start-up nation, but a nation of philosophers.
A former Forward fellow, Doni Bloomfield is completing his Bachelor of Arts in economic history at the University of Chicago.