Neoplatonism Through the Renaissance
Why did philosophers love Maimonides?
Maimonides (1135–1204) provided a justification for philosophical thought in a religious context at a time when philosophers feared persecution from religious authorities. The problems Maimonides raised in reconciling Aristotelian philosophy—or the best conclusions of reason at that time—with religion brought into religion itself philosophical problems about the limits of knowledge and what ought to be concluded when reason has run out. That is, should we say that the limits of reason are the limits of human knowledge, or should we extend the limits of reason into the domain of religious faith and revelation? Strictly speaking, these are questions of how we ought to think about religion.
In the Middle Ages, which was the Great Age of Religion, philosophers were constrained to begin their philosophizing with basic assumptions that God existed and that he was good. But philosophers have always been motivated to push through to the limits of knowledge and seek certainty within those limits. By deploying Aristotle as the personification of philosophy, Maimonides was able to raise necessarily covert questions of whether reason could justify belief in the existence and teachings not only of the Judaic version of God, but also of the Christian (and perhaps Muslim) God.
We should remember that such questions, had they not been posed under the cover of the august and unquestionable authority of The Philosopher Himself—namely, Aristotle—would have resulted in loss of livelihood, excommunication (banishment or ostracism from the community of the devout and faithful) and also death itself. Philosophers were not stupid in the Great Age of Religion, not withstanding their apparent devotion to varied theological regimes and their leaders, who—it just so happened!—controlled all aspects of social, political, and economic life in Europe and the Middle East, at the same time that they upheld specific religious doctrines.