Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 10 –
The Perfection of Man : Book III Chapters 54
Rabbi Tuvia Berman – Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”- Vince Lombardi
Where are we going and who do we want to be? In the culmination of his work, Rambam demands that reader ask the most basic question of his life. More correctly, Rambam asks what should we be? Rambam believed, following in the footsteps of many great philosophers and thinkers preceding him, that Man has an end goal – a telos or ultimate purpose. God created man to strive and even reach this final state of perfection. Although not easily and perhaps universally attainable, this goal was what man was designed to try to achieve.
According to Rambam, perfection, in our context, could be understood in four ways. Like concentric circles, each rung was closer to the real person. The first perfection is “ the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like;” Ownership of property is not only not a vice, as certain non-Jewish thinkers believe, but rather a necessary component of life. One cannot reach higher religious states while hungry or defenseless and without shelter. Property grants the person a positive state of mind. Yet ones’ possessions are not really a part of him.
There is no close connection between this possession and its possessor; it is a perfectly imaginary relation when on account of the great advantage a person derives from these possessions, he says, this is my house, this is my servant, this is my money, and these are my hosts and armies. For when he examines himself he will find that all these things are external, and their qualities are entirely independent of the possessor.
While good and necessary, argues Rambam, this is not the ultimate perfection and we should not see this as a goal in itself.
The second type of perfection is one’s physical health: “It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of man’s body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs.” Without health, one cannot function. But here too, this perfection is but a means to a higher ends:
This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim; because it is a perfection of the body, and man does not possess it as man, but as a living being: he has this property besides in common with the lowest animal;
Man is not unique among the living organisms. His physical state is like that of all animals and hence, this can’t be the unique perfection for which he was created.
Rambam is looking for the perfection of man which sets him apart from the animals and is most like the most perfect beings. This leads him to a third goal, the Ethical. “The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character.” One might believe that being good and ethical unique to mankind and therefore the ultimate reason for human existence; however, Rambam sees that this too falls short of the real goal of the individual’s life:
Most of the [Mitzvoth] aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbour; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.
Ethical Man can only exist, by definition, in a society. A person, argues Rambam, left to drift alone at sea or shipwrecked on an island cannot be moral for he lacks society in which to act as a moral agent. So why did God create him? Is the lone survivor not also important? Does he not also have a religious-spiritual goal? Can he no longer perfect himself? There must be something which is unique to mankind as a group and attains even for the individual separate from humanity.
Here Rambam turns to what he defines as the ultimate goal of the human creature and ultimately all of creation:
The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man.
For Rambam there exists only one personal, ultimate, individual perfection: the intellect. The goal of mankind and the individual person is to understand God. HaShem wants man to be in communication with Him, to converse with Him, to relate to Him as much as possible. For Rambam, therefore, the highest religious quest is knowledge. To know God is in the end to love God. Our goal in this world, argues Rambam, is to strive to understand HaShem to the best of our abilities.
Rambam concludes his work, in a way, pointing back to the very beginning. At the outset, he claimed that he wrote the Guide for a pupil interested in pursuing religious truth. The bright, young student was challenge by new knowledge and how new ideas can work with Torah. Rambam concludes that in the end, the pursuit of knowledge is truly using the gift given by God. Not only does knowledge ultimately enhance our understanding of the world and Torah, but it is also the real goal of mankind in this world. He praises his inquisitive student – continue pursuing truth. For the acquisition of knowledge and contemplation of what has been learned will ultimately bring us to a connection with God.