Category: Philosophical theories

Platonic influences on Jewish philosophy and theology (Middle Ages; the Renaissance; Modern era)

Jewish philosophy, as it began to take shape in the Christian era, was decidedly influenced by Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy was received in the Jewish world largely in a mediated manner, mainly by the Arabs. Platonic philosophy exerted an important influence on various phases of Jewish philosophy.

The first to attempt a productive amalgamation of Greek philosophy with Jewish thought, as crystallized over the course of many centuries, was Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–50 AD). Philo employed a combinatory method based on Stoic philosophy. His aim was to buttress Jewish monotheism by eclectically drawing on Greek philosophy and employing a combinatory method reliant on Stoicism. His work attracted greater interest among Christian writers than among Philo’s fellow Jews.

This closer relationship between Greek and Jewish thought became established during the Middle Ages. It can be safely claimed that Jewish philosophy begins between the late 8th and the early 9th cent. AD, and is heavily influenced by Arabic philosophy. The flurry of translations that appeared in Arab domains, as early as the time of the Abbasids (750-1258), combined with the predominance of Arabic in the lands under their control, rendered Greek philosophy, science, and medicine more accessible to Jewish intellectuals. Although there was no shortage of Greek original works in the wider Mediterranean in the Early Christian era, the dissemination of Greek thought, even among the circles of Jewish thinkers, occurred through Arabic texts. We need to note, however, that the original works of Platonic literature were never translated into Jewish, not even their Arabic abridgments. Studying Platonic literature was convenient only to those versed in Arabic or Aramaic. Exceptions were the Hebrew translation of Averroes commentary on Plato’s Republic and Al Farabi's trilogy on Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy; these works were instrumental in the dissemination and comprehension of Platonism in Jewish thought. Furthermore, especially important was the influence of the works of Arab philosophers, like Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes and others, as their works were widely studied in the Arab world and beyond. The first two show clearer and more pronounced signs of Neoplatonism’s influence, whose impact remains evident in later Arab philosophers as well. Still, the Aristotelian orientation of Arabic philosophy, and by extension that of Medieval Jewish philosophy, was palpable.

Saadia Gaon (9th cent.) is considered the first Jewish philosopher of note. At least two of his works, the Emunoth ve-Deoth (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions) and Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), are purely philosophical in content. The sway of Neoplatonism, especially in its Arabic version, is manifest everywhere, more so in matters pertaining to divine will. Broadly following the argumentation of John Philoponus, Saadia Gaon refutes both Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotelian cosmology so as to argue for the Biblical account of the creation of the world. Furthermore, he rejects Plato’s theory on the pre-existence of the soul, although he embraces the broad outlines of Platonic psychology.

Isaac Israeli (9th-10th cent.) and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (11th cent.) are considered the founders of Jewish Neoplatonism. We need to clarify that these two were not directly influenced by ancient Neoplatonism, their Neoplatonism being rather the offshoot of their study of Arabic texts discussing Neoplatonism. These were elaborate miscellanies and assemblages of texts deriving from various ancient philosophical traditions, and not translations of original works. Jewish Neoplatonism flourished in Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Its chief exponents opposed Plotinus’ views or produced far-flung permutations thereof. Jewish Neoplatonism remained vibrant over the course of several centuries, closely connected with Jewish mysticism, mainly in the form of Kabbalah.

Moshe ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides (1135/38–1204), was undoubtedly the most important figure of Jewish Medieval philosophy. His work acted as a catalyst on Christian Medieval philosophy and the thought of later Jewish thinkers. Although his philosophy has been considered Aristotelian in texture, recent studies have shown its reliance on Neoplatonism. The close interaction between Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism constitutes a commonplace in Arabic and Jewish philosophy. A reference occurring in a letter addressed by Maimonides to Ibn Tibbon is quite revealing: Maimonides mentions that studying Plato is rather superfluous, for Aristotelian works offer scholars all they need to know about ancient Greek philosophy. He claimed more or less the same about Neoplatonic texts. With respect to Plato, the sole verifiable influence of his philosophy on Maimonides can be traced in the latter’s political theory. Its core is purely Platonic, perhaps because Aristotle’s Politics were not available in Arabic. Maimonides held that the Mosean Torah constitutes the law of Plato’s ideal polity, without, of course, attempting to prove the validity of his thesis. The impact of Platonic philosophy was minimal on the work of Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), aka Gersonides, another eminent Medieval philosopher. Gersonides, however, admitted Plato’s influence of his views pertaining to the creation of the world. Rounding off this brief overview of Plato’s presence in Jewish Medieval philosophy we need to mention Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410/11); he embraced several of the principles of Jewish Neoplatonism, as already blended with the Kabbalah.

The most important Jewish philosopher of the Renaissance was R. Judah Abravanel or Leone Ebreo (1460–1521). He worked with the foremost Platonists of Florence, especially Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494). Abravanel was a Platonic philosopher par excellence, exerting significant influence during his time. He even composed his works in dialogue form, so as to be reminiscent of the works of Plato. Influenced by the general tenor of Renaissance Platonism, he argued that the main tenets of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy can be traced back to the Bible. Plato’s philosophy especially is, according to Abravanel, almost completely consistent with the Torah. Of particular interest to Greeks readers is also the case of Moses ben Baruch Almosnino (c. 1515–c. 1580), who was born and lived in Thessalonica. Almosnino argued that the partiality his contemporaries showed for Plato should be attributed to their aversion to the Medieval spirit, and not to Plato’s superiority vis-à-vis Aristotle. A similar distrust of Platonic philosophy is also exhibited by Elijah Delmedigo (c. 1458–1493), who was born and grew up in Candia of Crete, before relocating to Italy in c. 1480 to further his studies. Although he was a close associate of Pico della Mirandola, he opposed the latter’s attempt to revive the study of Plato. In terms of his philosophical output, Delmedigo broadly followed Maimonides’ course.

Πολλές δυσνόητες παράγραφοι μπορούν να βρεθούν στα κείμενα της Torah και άλλες με τις οποίες οι θέσεις του Πλάτωνα μπορούν να συσχετιστούν ή μέσω αυτών να αποδειχθούν. (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 2.25)

Εάν λοιπόν η δημιουργία εντός του χρόνου αποδεικνυόταν –με τον τρόπο που ο Πλάτων εννοεί τη δημιουργία– όλες οι υπερφίαλες θέσεις που έχουν διατυπώσει για το θέμα οι φιλόσοφοι εναντίον μας θα αποδεικνύονταν ψευδείς. Με τον ίδιο τρόπο, εάν οι φιλόσοφοι αποδείκνυαν την αιωνιότητα όπως την εισηγείται ο Αριστοτέλης, ο Νόμος θα αποδεικνυόταν ψευδής και θα αλλάζαμε γνώμη. Σας έχω ήδη εξηγήσει ότι τα πάντα έχουν σχέση με αυτό το πρόβλημα. Να το ξέρετε. (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 2.25)
Author: Georgios Steiris
  • Schweid, E. The Classic Jewish Philosophers, From Saadia through the Renaissance. Leiden, 2008.
  • Maimonides, MPines, S. ed. . The Guide of the Perplexed. Chicago, 1963.
  • Goodman, L. ed. Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought. New York, 1992.
  • Leaman, O., Frank, D. eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge, 2003.
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