The Duties of the Heart, by Rabbi Bachye, tr. by Edwin Collins, , at sacred-texts.com
BACHYE'S "Guide to the Duties of the Heart" is the unique work that first linked the ethical science of the West with the emotional and spiritual morality of the East. It combines, in an artistic unity, elements drawn from the philosophy and contemplative mysticism of the Arabs, from Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism, and from Greek thought. By exhibiting the spiritual foundations of universal Ethics, and of the moral law of the Bible, in the light of pure reason, Bachye prepared the way for finding that common ground on which, wholly or in part, all the moral religions, and all the non religious systems of morality, are rooted. Therefore, although actually written in Spain, a land of the West, it forms a fitting opening volume for the "Wisdom of the East Series."
Only a small part of the original finds a place in the following pages; but I have in my translation—sometimes literal, now and again a summarised paraphrase—endeavoured to give a selection of passages connected by the author's central thought,
and showing his line of argument and the aim and spirit of his work, instead of a mere collection of pithy sayings and isolated, beautiful, but disconnected reflections. This was the only way of doing justice to an author, some of whose reasonings are out of date, but the spirit of whose main contention is eternally valid; a teacher of virtue and duty, who did not attempt to inculcate this or that individual virtue, but aimed at the formation of character and conditions in which right conduct would be inevitable, so that details might well be left to take care of themselves.
If the modern world owes its delight in physical beauty, and much of its sense of the true in Nature and in Art, to Greece; its ideal of goodness, and practically all the spiritual elements in our thought and feeling, our conception of holiness, and every moral characteristic of civilisation and of culture, have come to us from the Orient. For the form and system of Ethics we may be indebted to the few Hellenic thinkers whose sublime intellects raised them above the phenomenal world into a clear atmosphere of ideas, always suffused with the light of truth and justice; but all the permanent and vital contents of Ethics came, living and pulsating, with their vitalising possibilities, both into that atmosphere and into our life of to-day, with the glow of dawn from the East. Indeed, the two cardinal ideas essential to all present and future moral systems—the sanctity of human life as such, and the absolutely universal authority and validity of moral law and obligation—are entirely absent from even the writings of Plato, the greatest
of the Greeks. These two are among the most definite colours that the prism of modern thought has enabled us to single out in our perception of the pure white light, from the sun of righteousness, that shone on Sinai. They are specially characteristic of the Hebrew moral teaching which the three great religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islamism—have spread throughout the world.
In the world's organism, it seems to be the special function of the Oriental peoples to secrete, or to absorb from what is, or may be, beyond and above the physical universe, all that man needs to nourish the life of his soul and to perfect his individuality; while it is the function of the Western civilised nations to show the Eastern peoples how the material resources and the forces of nature may be mastered, and the observed relations which we call nature's laws may be applied to serve the purposes of material life, individual and communal. The Semitic religious, and the Aryan-Oriental mystic, intuitions, seem to be the chlorophyl that draws, from the sunlight of spiritual being, elements essential to the healthy growth of the human race; and if Western humanity is to be saved from becoming a dry and sapless log, it must perenially renew that foliage which brings it into contact with the ambient upper air, warmed by the glow of righteousness and love.
It is to help in this process of renewing the spiritual and moral life of the West that the "Orient Press" is publishing the present series of selections.
In the middle and latter half of the eleventh century, Spain became the rallying-point, and a radiating
centre, of Jewish culture—religious, philosophical, and poetic; and while practically the whole of the Western world was then sunk in the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages, the Jews of Spain were not only cultivating the sciences and developing, to its highest perfection, their own spiritual and intellectual heritage; they were also preparing the way for the Renaissance, and for the re-enfranchisement of Western thought, by their study, and dissemination, in Hebrew and Arabic translations, of the philosophy of Greece. It was the Jews of Spain who were the chief students of the so-called Arabian philosophy, and the chief instruments by whom it was subsequently made effective on European culture. "It was," says Lewes, in his "History of Philosophy," "through their translators, and through their original thinkers, such as Avicebron [Jehudah Ibn Gebirol, the author of the "Vons Vitæ," b. 1021; d. 1070], and Moses Maimonides, that the West became leavened with Greek and Oriental thought."
It is to this brilliant period in the history of Jewish literature that our author belongs.
Rabbi Bachye bar Joseph ibn Bakoda was a contemporary of the poet-philosopher Ibn Gebirol, and held, in the Jewish community, the position of Dayan—an office which combines something of the duties of a judge in civil, religious, and matrimonial causes, with those of a Rabbi authorised to answer questions on all matters of Jewish law and life, and on the application, to special and exceptional cases, of the general principles found in the Bible and Talmud.
Next to nothing is known of his life, and even the exact date of his birth, and the place where he held office, are not known with certainty. The evidence, however, seems in favour of Jellinek's opinion that he lived in Saragossa, was born in the second half of the eleventh century, and died in the first half of the twelfth century.
He was a man of the most amiable and genial character, and, though profoundly religious, extremely liberal-minded. He was an industrious student of all the science of his day, and held it to be a sacred duty to gain, both by observation and by independent thought, a knowledge, as complete as possible, of the material world and of the history of man. Believing that every accession to our knowledge, and every strengthening of our instrument of thought, must tend to deepen our admiration for the Creator, and tend to fit us more and more thoroughly for fulfilling the ideal of our raison d’être, and, by perfecting our character, tend to perfect us in our worldly conduct and in our relations with our fellow-men; he held it to be a moral and religious duty to study what are usually called secular subjects. Thus natural science, mathematics, anthropology, zoology, history, etc., etc., are numbered by him among the matters with which the seeker after spiritual and moral truth is bound to occupy himself. He teaches also, by his own example, as well as by express injunction, the duty of "learning from everybody, no matter to what race or creed he may belong," no matter what may be his religious opinions.
Before the writing of his "Duties of the Heart," no systematic treatise on Ethics had appeared among the Jews. Hebrew literature, from the Bible onwards, is, of course, full of ethical and moral teaching, and the same must be said of the Talmud and the Midrashim, "The Sentences of the Fathers," and of Rabbi Nathan; while "The Masecheth Derech Eretz," Ibn Gebirol's "The Choicest of the Pearls," and "The Son of Proverbs," by Samuel Hannagid, must be mentioned among the chief works with ethical contents. But no scientific working out of a system of ethics based on one central thought, and claiming universal validity, had even been thought of. Bachye also complained that although there was no lack of guidance as to the duties of the body and its members, by which he understood all the outward conduct of life—even honesty in dealing, deeds of charity and benevolence and even the activities of the tongue and lips in prayer and praise, and in good or evil speaking, in telling the truth and in lying—there was no book dealing with the Duties of the Heart and Mind.
It was to supply this want that he wrote, in Arabic, the book which was destined in its Hebrew Translation * to become one of the most popular as well as the most authoritative expositions of spiritual Judaism. This work has never appeared in English.
By the Duties of the Heart Bachye understands the whole of conduct, and of thought in its ideal essence. For he holds that the outward act is,
morally, of no significance, except in so far as it represents a manifestation of character and an expression of intention.
The whole of conduct belongs to the domain of ethics. Every act, and every abstention from action, is either right or wrong. Even the amount one eats, the wearing of certain clothes, the use of language, the simplest movements of the body, are, all of them, parts of conduct to be distinguished as either right or wrong. But what makes them so is not the act itself, but the intention with which it is done or left undone. And, since our intentions are conditioned by our state of mind and feeling, the first and the final duty, the foundation of ethics, is the perfection of our own souls.
Thus Bachye is at one with Stephen in asserting that "the moral law has to be asserted in the form: not 'do this,' but 'be this.'"
The perfection of the human soul, however, from which all right conduct must result, and which every righteous act and every righteous thought tends to produce, is only attained by bringing it into complete unison with God, through such a perfect love of Him that His will is our will, and we have no desire that is out of harmony with His wisdom and His benevolence.
But Bachye's ethics is not theological in the sense of taking as its starting-point the Bible, or any other revelation or authoritative statement of the will of God, who can only be known through His works, the universe and man, who is the world in miniature (the microcosm). He does not even take for
granted the existence of a God at all, nor appeal to revelation for assertion of that truth. He starts ab initio, and claims to deal with the problems of absolute being by the aid of reason and—note well—observation of the material world.
He starts by submitting to the test of reason the questions,—"Is there a Creator or not?" and if so, "Is there more than one Creator?" and "What can we know about Him?"
He then proceeds to demonstrate the duty of devoting the heart and mind to the study and contemplation of the works of God, whence conviction of the infinite goodness of the Creator, and of the infinite indebtedness, and obligation to gratitude, of the creature, are borne in upon the mind.
Contemplation of the results of such study will lead to true humility, and to perfect trust in God and resignation to His will, devotion to His service and the concentration (unification) of all works on His service. This service does not mean religious observance, though it may, and in the case of Israelites must, include it; but means the doing of His will and ethical conduct. Asceticism is recommended as a means of removing hindrances to union with God.
Full intellectual recognition of the goodness of the Creator will, through gratitude and humility, lead to perfect and disinterested love of God and an understanding of His will, which includes benevolence to all creatures. Hence this love of God will suffice, without rewards or punishments, even without the commands of the Bible or of human legislation, to induce perfect conduct in every relation of life. The
restraints and commands of the Bible are given to bring the less intelligent of mankind this; but, being of divine origin, the Law will also be accepted as part of their duty by those who reach ethical conduct and feeling through reason; and such of them as are Israelites will keep the specially Jewish laws. Thus the obligation to right conduct is not Jewish but universal, and valid for all reasonable beings as creatures; and the contemplation of the one infinite cause of good takes the place of the contemplation of the idea of justice. The specially Jewish obligations are only binding on Jews, and the higher obligations of philosophic contemplation only on those gifted with exceptional mental powers. So that all men can be equally meritorious—the Jew, the heathen, the philosopher, and the fool or slave—since each perfectly fulfils the will of God as it applies to him, and pays in full his debt of gratitude, small or great.
The ethical system of Bachye is distinctly Oriental. All the impulse to virtuous conduct springs from the point of contact between the human soul and the unseen soul of the universe. It is the individual in communion with God, the creature bowed in awesome gratitude before the Creator, who recognises the obligations of ethical conduct; not the citizen seeking the best way to become a good citizen and preserve the State. Moreover, the development is not from the outer circle of sociological duties to the inner circle of the family, and the centre, the individual soul, as in Greek ethics; not from the circumference of deeds to the centre of ideals and soul perfection;
but from the centre, the soul, to the outward act.
It is interesting to note that, although Bachye is an orthodox Rabbi, his ethics is not a Jewish theological work, but sets forth a motive to right conduct, starting from universal reason, and appealing, not only to the Children of Israel, nor even to the wise and intelligent alone, but to all mankind. Human reason is the ultimate test of conduct, of revelation, and of faith. The duties of the heart are more important than those of the body, because they are of universal application, and not limited by time, or place, or circumstance.
Feb. 1, 1904.
10:* By Jehudah Ibn Tibbon.