Monotheism at bay: The gods of Maimonides and Spinoza

Kenneth R Seeskin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


There is much that Maimonides and Spinoza have in common. Both devoted their entire lives to trying to relieve humanity of its tendency to conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms. Both decry the use of the imagination to lead one to truth. Both argue that human beings are only a small part of a vast universe and have no reason to think that it has been designed to accommodate their needs. Both deny that God rewards virtue or punishes vice in a direct or obvious way. Both stress that the goal of human life is to weaken our attachment to temporal things and achieve a higher level of understanding culminating in the intellectual love of an impersonal God. In the introduction to Book I of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides says that his primary purpose is to explain the meaning of certain terms occurring in the works of the prophets. For the rest of that book he devotes over thirty-five chapters to examining words that seem to imply that God has bodily or personal qualities. When the Bible says that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26), Maimonides replies (Guide I.1) that all this means is that humans have intellectual apprehension. When the Bible says that God saw something, all that is meant is that God understood something (Guide I.4). When the Bible ascribes place to God, all that is meant is that God occupies a unique rank in the order of existence (Guide I.8). When the Bible says that God spoke to a prophet, what is meant is that the prophet understood something that pertains to God (Guide I.65). All of this is of a piece with the view that God is immutable and does not experience emotion (Guide I.35). It follows that when we say God is jealous or merciful, we are not talking about God himself but the consequences of divine activity as manifested in the created order (Guide I.54). Thus “God is merciful” does not mean that God is moved by prayers of entreaty but rather that God has provided each species with the resources needed to gather food and defend itself from danger.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSpinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139795395
ISBN (Print)9781107037861
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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