Sacred Texts  Judaism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. [1904], at


IT is a well-known fact that the philosophers, when they discuss in their works the order of the Universe, assume that the existing order of things in this sublunary world of transient beings depends on forces which emanate from the spheres. We have mentioned this several times. In like manner our Sages say, "There is no single herb below without its corresponding star above, that beats upon it and commands it to grow." Comp. "Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?" (Job xxxviii. 33). The term mazzal, literally meaning a constellation in the Zodiac, is also used of every star, as may be inferred from the following passage in the beginning of Bereshit Rabba (chap. x.): "While one star (mazzal) completes its circuit in thirty days, another completes it in thirty years." They have thus clearly expressed it, that even each individual being in this world has its corresponding star. Although the influences of the spheres extend over all beings, there is besides the influence of a particular star directed to each particular species; a fact noticed also in reference to the several forces in one organic body; for the whole Universe is like one organic body, as we have stated above. Thus the philosophers speak of the peculiar influence of the moon on the particular element water. That this is the case is proved by the increase and decrease of the water in the seas and rivers according to the

p. 165

increase and decrease of the moon; also by the rising and the falling of the seas according to the advance or return of the moon, i.e., her ascending and her descending in the several quarters of her course. This is clear to every one who has directed his attention to these phenomena. The influence of the sun's rays upon fire may easily be noticed in the increase of heat or cold on earth, according as the sun approaches the earth or recedes or is concealed from it. All this is so clear that I need not explain it further. Now it occurred to my mind that the four spheres which contain stars exercise influence upon all beings on earth that come into existence, and, in fact, are the cause of their existence: but each of the four spheres is the exclusive source of the properties of one only of the four elements, and becomes by its own motion the cause of the motion and changes of that element. Thus water is set in motion by the moon-sphere, fire by the sun-sphere, air by the other planets, which move in many and different courses with retrogressions, progressions, and stations, and therefore produce the various forms of the air with its frequent changes, contractions, and expansions: the sphere of the other stars, namely, the fixed stars, sets earth in motion; and it may be that on this account, viz., on account of the slow motion of the fixed stars, earth is but slowly set in motion to change and to combine with other elements. The particular influence which the fixed stars exercise upon earth is implied in the saying of our Sages, that the number of the species of plants is the same as that of the individuals included in the general term "stars."

The arrangement of the Universe may therefore be assumed to be as follows: there are four spheres, four elements set in motion by them, and also four principal properties which earthly beings derive from them, as has been stated above. Furthermore, there are four causes of the motion of every sphere, namely, the following four essential elements in the sphere; its spherical shape, its soul, its intellect, by which the sphere is capable of forming ideas, and the Intelligence, which the sphere desires to imitate. Note this well. The explanation of what I said is this: the sphere could not have been continuously in motion, had it not this peculiar form; continuity of motion is only possible when the motion is circular. Rectilinear motion, even if frequently repeated in the same moment, cannot be continuous: for when a body moves successively in two opposite directions, it must pass through a moment of rest, as has been demonstrated in its proper place. The necessity of a continuous motion constantly repeated in the same path implies the necessity of a circular form. The spheres must have a soul; for only animate beings can move freely. There must be some cause for the motion, and as it does not consist in the fear of that which is injurious, or the desire of that which is profitable, it must be found in the notion which the spheres form of a certain being, and in the desire to approach that being. This formation of a notion demands, in the first place, that the spheres possess intellect; it demands further that something exists which corresponds to that notion, and which the spheres desire to approach. These are the four causes of the motion of the spheres. The following are the four principal forces directly derived from the spheres: the nature of minerals, the properties peculiar to plants, the animal faculties, and the intellect. An examination of these forces shows that they have two functions, namely, to produce things and to perpetuate them; that is to say, to preserve the species

p. 166

perpetually, and the individuals in each species for a certain time. These are also the functions ascribed to Nature, which is said to be wise, to govern the Universe, to provide, as it were, by plan for the production of living beings, and to provide also for their preservation and perpetuation. Nature creates formative faculties, which are the cause of the production of living beings, and nutritive faculties as the source of their temporal existence and preservation. It may be that by Nature the Divine Will is meant, which is the origin of these two kinds of faculties through the medium of the spheres.

As to the number four, it is strange, and demands our attention. In Midrash Tanḥuma the following passage occurs: "How many steps were in Jacob's ladder?--Four." The question refers to the verse, "And behold a ladder set upon the earth," etc. (Gen. xxviii. 12). In all the Midrashim it is stated that there were four hosts of angels: this statement is frequently repeated. Some read in the above passage: "How many steps were in the ladder?--Seven." But all readings and all Midrashim unanimously express that the angels whom Jacob saw ascending the ladder, and descending, were only four; two of whom were going up and two coming down. These four angels, the two that went up and the two that came down, occupied one step of the ladder, standing in one line. Hence it has been inferred that the breadth of the ladder in this vision was four-thirds of the world. For the breadth of an angel in a prophetic vision is equal to one-third of the world; comp. "And his body was like tarshish (two-sixths)" (Dan. x. 6); the four angels therefore occupied four-thirds of the world.--Zechariah, in describing the allegorical vision of "the four chariots that came out from between two mountains, which mountains were mountains of brass" (Zech. vi. 1), adds the explanation, "These are the four spirits of the heavens which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth" (ibid. ver. 5). By these four spirits the causes are meant which produce all changes in the Universe. The term "brass" (neḥoshet), employed here, and the phrase "burnished brass" (neḥoshet kalal), used by Ezekiel (i. 7), are to some extent homonymous, and will be discussed further on.

The saying of our Sages, that the angel is as broad as the third part of the Universe, or, in the words of Bereshit Rabba (chap. x.), that the angel is the third part of the world, is quite clear; we have already explained it in our large work on the Holy Law. The whole creation consists of three parts, (1) the pure intelligences, or angels; (2) the bodies of the spheres; and (3) the materia prima, or the bodies which are below the spheres, and are subject to constant change.

In this manner may those understand the dark sayings of the prophets who desire to understand them, who awake from the sleep of forgetfulness, deliver themselves from the sea of ignorance, and raise themselves upward nearer the higher beings. But those who prefer to swim in the waters of their ignorance, and to "go down very low," need not exert the body or heart; they need only cease to move, and they will go down by the law of nature. Note and consider well all we have said.

Next: Chapter XI