In addition to the Introduction to Philosophy course I am also teaching another with the title “Nature, Cosmos, God” (basically a survey of theories of nature in the monotheisms and Darwin). We are going to read some selections from Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed and as I was prepping for that lecture I came across a passage where Maimonides displays some explicit racism. I thought this was interesting in the light of our book event on Carter’s Race because it calls into question some of his claims. I’ll quote the relevant section and then outline some of what I think might be going on here, but I’m no expert in Jewish thought and so am looking forward to what Bruce and Adam might have to say.
This passage is in the midst of a simile Maimonides develops where a city and one’s position within that city to its prince comes to represent their relationship with God and the Law. In effect the description here matches Carter’s outline of the various forms of covenant relationship. These forms all take place within the city, but there is an outside to the city and Maimonides isn’t afraid to place people there. The subsequent theological anthropology is incredibly disturbing in my view as he writes:
I shall now explain this simile to you which I have invented: those who are outside the city are all those human beings who possess no religious belief whatsoever, be it of a speculative or of a traditional nature, such as the outlying tribes of the Turks in the distant north and the negroes in the distant south, as well as those in our own part of the world who resemble them in this respect. There are like animals devoid of reason; in my view they are not to be classed as human beings, but among the beings below the humans and above the apes, since they possess human shape and outline and higher intelligence than the ape (III.LI).
In connection to the Carter event I wanted to highlight the form of subjectivity that Maimonides advocates. One of Carter’s claims is that a theology that turns away from the self is inherently faithful to the Gospel of Christ without supercessionism. That is it understands the life and death of Christ within the history of Israel, which is a history of covenant. Maimonides is interesting because he also has a kind of “kenotic” conception of the human self. Many of the passages where he deals with the proper way to live one’s life read to me as if they could have been placed in the mouths of Christian theologians with their poetic theology of suffering. Carter presents this in such a way that a logic of covenant should be able to avoid the whiteness of theology and yet we find in Maimonides, despite holding and basing his entire system (it seems to me) on just such a logic is also corrupted by this whiteness.
A potential counter-reading to the one I’m putting forward here might focus on Maimonides discussion of animals in earlier parts of the book. Maimonides seems to operate with a highly modified form of Neoplatonic hierarchy, but the form of this modification is very important. While he claims that only human beings are effected by divine providence, that has to be read in the light of his naturalization of the divine law such that the dignity of animals is raised (“[do not believe] that all things exist for the sake of the existence of man, but that all things other things were intended for their own sake, not for the sake of any other thing [III.XIII].”). In my view what you get with Maimonides is a view of animals as basically fellow creatures who, like human beings, lack any purpose. That shared lack of purpose ironically creates, for Maimonides, a certain ethical injunction similar to what you find amongst liberal foodies. So an absolute ethical injunction to not eat meat isn’t given, but he does say “We should never inflict suffering needlessly and without purpose, but should endeavour to show mercy and kindness even to every animal, except when our needs demand otherwise (III.XVIII)”.
A creative reading of this could purpose get Maimonides out of the bind of whiteness, but I think it would feel very forced since Maimonides appears at times to write inconsistently with prior claims and so this reading would leave a lot of open questions.