A column on the Obama-Romney race by political and social commentator David Brooks in the August 20 New York Times bore the caption “Guide for the Perplexed.” Brooks was trying to give some helpful counsel to undecided voters trying to make up their minds, and either he or the editors of the column thought this would make a good title. If it came from Brooks, I have no doubt that, a man of cultivation, he was aware that it is also the name of a greatly influential, late 12th-century work of Jewish religious philosophy by Maimonides or Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, widely known among Jews by his acronym of “Rambam.” If it came from the editors of the columns page, I’m not so sure.
I say this because, lately, “guides for the perplexed” have been popping up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. Recently, the British Daily Telegraph published an article on “Cancer Cure: A Guide for the Perplexed.” August’s Jewish World Review has a contribution called “A Parenting Guide for the Perplexed.” This past June, The New Yorker ran a piece on the euro crisis, titled “The Spanish Bailout: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Last January, American film historian David Bordwell reviewed the movie version of John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” under the title “Tinker Tailor: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Among books appearing in the past several years, you can find “Christian Bioethics: A Guide for the Perplexed,” “China Energy: A Guide for the Perplexed,” “Egypt and Islamic Sharia: A Guide for the Perplexed” and “A Guide for the Perplexed: Translations of All Non-English Phrases in Patrick O’Brian’s Sea-Tales.”
Nothing, however, can rival the British academic publishing house Continuum, which, after its founding in 1999, launched a “guides for the perplexed” series that now includes nearly 50 titles, alphabetically ranging from “Arendt: A Guide for the Perplexed” and “Aristotle: A Guide for the Perplexed” to “Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed” and “Wittgenstein: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Continuum’s new guides for the coming year include books on Cardinal Newman, Mormonism, Daoism, international relations theory and predestination, and it is almost certainly this series that is responsible for having turned the title of Maimonides’s book into a buzz-phrase meaning, “everything you need to know about.”
It is a phrase with origins that few of its current users probably have any notion of. Over the centuries, indeed, many Jews familiar with Maimonides’s book, read by them in Hebrew, were probably themselves unaware that it was originally composed in Arabic, though in an Arabic (like that of nearly all Jewish speakers of the language in the Middle Ages) written in Hebrew characters.
Maimonides wrote the “Guide,” as he stated in a forward to it, to firm up the faith of a young man he knew whose Jewish beliefs had been undermined by philosophical ideas. He called his book Dalalat el-ḥ a’irin, the word dalala meaning either “proof” or “guidance,” and ḥ a’irin being the plural of ḥ a’ir, “perplexed,” “uncertain,” “hesitating” or “confused.”
It was Maimonides’s Hebrew translator, Shmuel ibn Tibbon, who gave the book its Hebrew name of “Moreh Nevukhim,” by which it has been known among Jews ever since. Moreh means “teacher” or “guide,” while navokh, the singular of nevukhim, means “perplexed” or “confused” more than “hesitating.” Since he translated the book while Maimonides was still alive, it is likely that — although the two men lived far apart, Maimonides in Egypt and ibn Tibbon in Provence — he chose this title in consultation with him.
“Moreh Nevuchim” was translated into Latin within several decades of Maimonides’s death, and had a considerable influence on Catholic scholastics like Aquinas, but the translation, variously referred to in Christian sources as “Director Neutrorum” or “Nutantium” (“A Rulebook for the Undecided” or “the Wavering”), and “Doctor Perplexorum” (“The Teacher of the Perplexed”), has not survived. A 1520 reworking of it by Italian Renaissance scholar Agostino Giustiniani hedged its bets with the title “Rabbi Mossei Aegyptii Dux seu Director Dubitantium aut Perplexorum,” “Rabbi Moses of Egypt’s Guide or Rulebook for the Doubtful or Perplexed.” A third Latin translation, done by German Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf in 1619, chose “Doctor Perplexorum.” Yedidya ben Moshe Recanati’s 1580 Italian translation was called “Erudizione de’ Confusi,” “The Enlightenment of the Confused”; R. Fürstenthal’s 1899 German version, “Führer der Unschlüssigen,” “Guide for the Undecided”; R. Munk’s 1855–66 French edition, “Le Guide des Egarés,” “The Guide for Those Gone Astray,” and M. Friedländer’s 1889 English translation, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” which is how the book is referred to in English to this day.
Friedländer’s choice was a good one. Imagine if we had a multi-book series with titles like “Kierkegaard: A Rulebook for Those Gone Astray.” Still, if I were ever to write a novel with a questioning physician as its main character, I’d go with the Latin and call it “Doctor Perplexorum.”
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org