This is a July 2020 update to an earlier blog entry from 2018, updated in 2019, reflecting on Moses Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”, specifically reflections on the concept of the four types of perfection towards which mankind aspires, and the hierarchy in which Maimonides has placed them.
Four types of perfection.
What are the four types of perfection that people seek to attain, according to Maimonides? In order from lowest to highest, they are:
1. The attainment of material goods – the acquisition of property and things, including titles and power.
2. The attainment of physical strength or perfection.
3. The attainment of social ethics and principles.
4. The attainment of intellectual perfection, the search for truth and knowledge.
Perfection in a Material World.
The attainment of material goods is the lowest form of perfection, according to this famous philosopher and physician. He argues that he who acquires materials does not acquire anything that can be said to be his. For when he examines it:
“He will find that all these things are external, and their qualities are entirely independent of the possessor. ”
Or, as Yip Harburg once noted, “No matter how high or mighty the throne, what sits on it is the same as your own.”
I would add that perhaps the concept of “Fame” or “Celebrity” may be included among the items which are included in this form of perfection, which Maimonides included as the “titles” of a king. This would also include the power which one can wield over others through the possession of gold, wealth, and other properties.
Is our culture oriented towards material things as a measure of perfection?
Do I even have to ask this rhetorical question? Forbes magazine devotes a cover story each year to the richest people around, and one has only to turn on their 4K UHD TV to see example after example of this measure of “perfection.”
Next up from the bottom is the attainment of physical perfection, which seems to be a little closer to something that can truly be said to be one’s own. But Moses disagrees.
“Man does not possess it as man, but as a living being: he has this property besides in common with the lowest animal; and even if a person possesses the greatest possible strength, he could not be as strong as a mule, much less can he be as strong as a lion or an elephant; he, therefore, can at the utmost have strength that might enable him to carry a heavy burden, or break a thick substance, or do similar things, in which there is no great profit for the body. The soul derives no profit whatever from this kind of perfection.”
Although we can aspire to our personal bests, it is somewhat pointless for us to pursue perfection of a physical nature. Humans are by no measure the strongest, the fastest, or the biggest of all the animals, much less the most beautiful. Perhaps related to both material goods and power over others as well as to physical perfection, is our culture’s apparent obsession and glorification of violence and the “warrior” mentality. Popular media filled with pseudo-violence, whether staged in television or movies, or the all too real mass shootings that occur in the United States on an almost daily basis.
The third type of perfection that humans aspire to is that related to ethics:
“It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connection whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.”
Here I have to disagree with Maimonides – as John Donne noted, no man (or woman) exists alone. Indeed, for humans to exist, one has to come in contact with at least one other, and for the species to persist, and some sort of social ethics seems to be the overall arc of history, with a sense of perfection of social ethics aspired towards over the millennia.
So I would say that humans as a species require at least some attempt to aspire towards an ideal of moral perfection, and that it is essential towards valuing ourselves and others, and needs to be extended towards the other species and resources on this planet as well, if Homo sapiens is to become something more than an evolutionary dead end.
Perfection of intellectual faculties.
Finally, the fourth kind of perfection, according to Maimonides,
”… is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it…”
It would seem to me that the fruits of the perfection of the intellectual faculties do not truly belong only to oneself – consider Euclid, Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, to name a few in the fields of mathematics and physics. Certainly their attainment of perfection of the intellectual faculties in their fields of study were not limited to themselves, and has been expanded on and perfected even further, through the scientific method and the sharing of their knowledge with others. Once one has achieved the highest levels, though, others can learn from it, and incorporate that knowledge into their own knowledge. As far as metaphysics and God are concerned, Jesus is recorded as saying that the greatest commandment is to love God, the second is to love your neighbor as yourself, and that if you follow the second, you are fulfilling the first.
Other religions and philosophies have variations upon this same idea. Once stated, the commandment, or scientific principle is there for others to share and further develop. Science and religion (true spiritual perfection, and not the sectarian, divisive faux sort that passes for religion) are social endeavors, with the intent of sharing one’s discoveries with the rest of humanity.
How Many Kinds of Perfection?
Is Moses Maimonides correct in postulating four kinds of perfection attainable by humans? If we start from the fourth kind of perfection, we find that “true perfection” consists of the highest intellectual faculties. In our culture, at least, intellectual perfection has been measured in terms of math, logic and language (for instance by scores achieved on SAT, NMSQT, and GRE exams, and various academic and professional degrees and certifications).
But the psychologist Howard Gardner has put forth no less than nine types of human intelligence, of which math and language are but two of the suggested categories. Among the others are bodily – kinesthetic intelligence, which one might consider as similar to, if not equivalent, to Maimonides’ second type, physical perfection. None of the other forms of perfection fit as tightly to Gardner’s categories of intelligence, which are:
1. Naturalist (nature smart)
2. Musical (sound smart)
3. Logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart) (close to Maimonides’ perfection of intellectual faculties, without the metaphysical knowledge of God)
4. Existential (life smart) (perhaps similar to social-ethical perfection, perhaps not)
5. Interpersonal (people smart) (perhaps similar to social-ethical perfection, perhaps not)
6. Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart) (similar to Maimonides’ physical perfection)
7. Linguistic (word smart)
8. Intrapersonal (self smart)
9. Spatial (picture smart)
Certainly neither Naturalist or Musical have any direct relationship to any of Maimonides’ categories, and Existential might be tangentially related to Social and Ethical perfection, although Interpersonal would seem closest. In short, Maimonides’ ideas about intellectual perfection and Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligence seem irreconcilable. Even if we look at other theories of intelligence, whether 2,3,6,or 7 factored, there is no neat fit, especially since Maimonides talked about intellectual perfection leading to an understanding of God, which doesn’t figure into the equations of contemporary intellectual achievers such as the late Stephen Hawking.
Culture, Society, and lowest common denominators
Let us leave the question of the highest form of perfection unresolved.
Let’s start at the bottom. The acquisition of property, material goods, wealth, and titles, according to Maimonides, is the lowest of the forms of perfection to which humans can aspire. And yet it would seem obvious to even the most casual of observers that our society in general values this form of perfection very highly.
Next we have physical perfection. Some of us, born with certain variants in DNA, will never attain or even approach physical perfection. And yet we hold Special Olympics and publicize individual efforts to overcome their physical impairments, some caused by wars conducted to maintain the acquisition of power and materials by others. Ninja Warriors, Wounded Warriors, or Parkinson’s Warriors, the emphasis is on the challenge to be the best one can be in terms of physical achievement. One might note that this warrior mentality to fight against a disease has recently been addressed by physicians in the United Kingdom as counterproductive in the long run – resulting in failure to seek other ways of treatment and living life as well as one can until one reaches the eventual shuffling off of this mortal coil, to paraphrase one playwright. And a research study in Europe has found that a progressively challenging dance program is superior to mere repetitive physical exercise in helping to slow the progression of symptoms (more research needed, of course). And in general, hugs promote happiness and health more than running races does.
Social or ethical perfection is less highly prized in our (Western, Anglo culture). When it is given attention, it seems that it is usually tied to the donation of money or funding of foundations to perform social works, instead of the day to day performance of acts of social kindness or ethics. It has been said that Thanksgiving through Christmas is that time of the year when everyone takes care of the poor, the other eleven months of the year, it falls upon the social work agencies. (And the law, in its fairness, to paraphrase some philosopher or wit, forbids both the rich with many rooms in their mansions, as well as the homeless, with their lack of accumulation of wealth, from camping in parts of downtown Austin, Texas, where their visibility might detract from the highly lucrative tourist and hotel trade).
Finally, we come to Maimonides’ fourth kind of perfection, in which he combined intellectual faculties with metaphysics and the knowledge of God. Although there are prizes and recognition for attainment in the various sciences and arts, they do not receive the same priority or acclamation given to the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball playoffs, or even the baseball World Series. This author was told, back in 1967, by the registrar’s office at a member of the American Association of Universities (AAU) (now ranked in the top ten research universities in the USA), that scholarships were not given for academics, only athletics. Things have changed since then to a certain extent, perhaps because the technological advances of the last 50 years have created a need for knowledge skills in the business world. However, it would be difficult to argue successfully (and honestly) that our society values intellectual achievement above all others.
A report in the Chronicle of Higher Education published in 2014 showed that athletic coaches typically earned more than University Presidents. A more recent article on executive compensation showed that some executives in education are now being paid in the millions, but are still compensated at a lower level than athletic coaches. Professors, of course, typically earn even less, and college athletes are legally forbidden from accepting pay for their services (although alumni donors seem to be highly creative in finding loopholes).
Toward a “new” paradigm.
Without totally accepting Maimonides’s insights, one still can use his four types of perfection as a “Guide for the Perplexed.”
First, we need to find a way to make a living (as distinguished from seeing how much wealth one can amass).
Second, we need to keep ourselves in as good health as we can so that we can live relatively free from disease and illness. (of course, one might say, there will be exceptions due to genetic variation, but within the limits which individuals have, the general maxim holds true).
Third, we need to live among our fellow humans (and, I would argue, our non-human plant and animal fellow inhabitants) in a way that is socially and ethically responsible).
Fourth, we need to develop our mental and intellectual faculties and to seek truth, whether it is related to the physical world, the biological world, or the field of metaphysics, if that is our calling or our specific type(s) of intelligence. Part of our task in life is to find that calling, or meaning for our lives, as described by Victor Frankl.
One might suggest that balance is needed,
- Without the need to amass as much material goods as one can,
- To collaborate with others instead of seeking to have power over others,
- To seek to maintain one’s self physically, and to avoid abusing one’s body,
- To maintain ethical and compassionate relations with others, and
- To seek to maintain learning throughout life to the best of one’s abilities.
I, for one, am no longer impressed by public figures, whether elected or entertainers, for the amount of wealth, power or celebrity they attain, but by authenticity and honesty, and what they do with their wealth or power.
As a person with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), I have a great deal of respect for Michael J. Fox, who has turned his condition into a bully pulpit to advocate for and to fund scientific research to find a cure (or cures) for this progressive, degenerative, neurological disease for which there appears to be no cure (yet!).
Closer to home, the co-founders of Power For Parkinson’s used the common denominator of PD, which afflicted their fathers, to dedicate their efforts to providing free exercise and dance and now a singing group to help people with PD to get together and get the mentally challenging physical and vocal exercises that help to slow the progression of symptoms, not to mention the sense of community this provides. And the Parkinson’s and other communities have adapted to the restrictions of life with PD and the added threat of this virus to our highly vulnerable population with virtual meetings, instruction, and so on.
Life goes on, and Parkinson’s Disease is not yet curable, but we ain’t givin’ up hope – nope!