A Study of Ethics:  Aristotle and the Rambam

The definitive comparison of Rambam and Aristotle.

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Maimonides (illustration)
Maimonides (illustration)

It is normally accepted in philosophical discourse that the Rambam is greatly indebted to the systematic thought of Aristotle.  There is much truth in that understanding.  It seems to be especially true in the study of ethics.

Ironically, as we shall see, this is far more evident in the Rambam’s major work on Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, than it is in his major philosophical work, the Moreh HaNevuchim.      The study of ethics is found in the section in the Mishneh Torah called, Hilchot Deot, or the Laws of Ethics or Human Behavior. In this paper we will analyze the relationship between Aristotle and the Rambam. 


For Aristotle, the foundation of ethics is based upon virtuous acts or behaviors.  The importance of a life lived in accordance with the principle of virtue is expressed as follows:

For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities . . . and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are happy spend their life most readily and most continuously in these (activities).  For this seems to be the reason why we do not forget them.  The attribute in question (durability) then belong to the happy man and he will be happy throughout his life; for always or by preference to everything else, he will be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation.  And he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously. . .{Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1: Chap. 10, McKean Edition p. 947.)

Thus the crucial question to consider is the nature or foundation of virtue. “Since happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue.” Ibid. Chapt. 13, p. 950.  Virtue could be understood as belonging to two categories, intellectual and moral.  “ Intellectual virtue, in the main, owes both its birth and its growth to teaching. . .while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit whence, also its name, ethike, is one which is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos, habit.” (Ibid. Book 2, Chap. 1, p. 952).

It is clear to Aristotle that the source of virtue or any of the moral attributes are not rooted or based in nature itself.  Nature is not amenable to spontaneous change or even to training.  Rather, human beings are adapted by nature to the possibility of receiving virtue.

. . .It is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance, the stone which by nature moves downwards, cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up 10,000 times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves one way can be trained to behave in another.  Neither by nature then, nor contrary to nature, do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them and are made perfect by habit. (Ibid).

What does this adaptation really mean and how does it differ from nature itself? To understand the relationship between virtue and nature, Aristotle offers the following analysis which will allow to enter the essence of virtue. “Next we must consider what is virtue. Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds – passions, faculties, (and) states of character, virtue must be one of these.” (Ibid. Book 2, Chap. 5, p. 956.)   

Passions include traits like appetite, anger, fear, envy, joy, hatred things that are accompanied by pleasure or pain.  Faculties, are those aspects of the soul which give us the capacity to experience or feel the passions. (e.g. A structure of the mind that allows one to experience pleasure for some things, but not for others.) These two aspects of the soul cannot be considered virtues or vices.  They merely exist and cannot be designated as either good or evil.  The passions and faculties through which they are expressed have no moral content because they exist without choice.  A person cannot take responsibility for the passion or emotion which he feels nor for the faculty in his nature which allows him to feel it. Thus Aristotle concludes: “If the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character.”  (Ibid., p. 957) 

The element of freedom which exists in character development is the aspect of disposition.  A person can be taught or habituated to be disposed to act in a certain way despite his passion or faculty.  “In respect of the virtues and vices, we are said not to be moved, but to be disposed in a particular way.” (Ibid.)  

A person can be trained or disposed to modify his anger if he feels rage or to express empathy when he beholds tragedy and not be oblivious to it.  Both passion and the faculty for it exists in a continuum.  “In everything that is continuous and divisible, it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount and that either in terms of the thing itself or relative to us, and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect.  (Ibid, p. 957-8.) 

In the world of things, for example numbers, the intermediate or as it is better known, the mean, is absolute. With human beings, the mean is not absolute; other factors come into play.  In the intake of food, the mean for a large person is much greater than the mean for a small person. “thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us. (Ibid. p. 958). 

This principle of the intermediate is certainly true of moral virtue.  There are however, many more factors which are involved in discovering the intermediate in moral actions.  Not only the mean relative to the individual is necessary, but in order to discover that mean, other conditions must be included.  The right feelings are not sufficient.  One must, “feel them at the right times with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.” Ibid. 958.  This process can be applied to all activities which are called moral and what Aristotle calls, “voluntary passions and actions.”  (Book 3, Chap. 1, p. 964) 


In his Moreh HaNevuchim, the Rambam stresses that moral and ethical behavior is both a fundamental and ultimate goal of the Torah.  
It is without doubt that every one of the six-hundred and thirteen commandments is to provide the correct outlook or to remove an evil perspective or to establish just laws. . . Everything is based on three things: proper perspective, ethical traits, and social actions that govern society. ( Moreh HaNevuchim Book 3, Chapt. 31 Kapach Edition, p. 346.)

These are general principles necessary for society as a whole.  They are based upon the moral or ethical behavior of individuals within that society.  These behavior traits are presented in the following manner:  

It is also the goals of the perfect (complete) Torah (for us) to abandon (our) desires and (not) to be indulgent in them and to limit them as much as possible and to only pursue them out of necessity. . . The masses are primarily steeped in indulgence of food, drink and sexual activity and that nullifies their ultimate perfection . . .for by only pursuing desires as the fools do, the intellectual pursuits cease.  . . the fool regards physical pleasure as an end in itself.  Thus God directs us by giving us the commandments that nullify this end and diverts our attention from them in every way and this is a great goal . . .of this Torah. . . .(Ibid. 3:33 p. 351)

It is clear from the above presentation that the Rambam emphasizes the importance of the ascetic lifestyle.  Physical pleasure should be restricted as much as possible.  One should partake of what he absolutely needs for his physical survival, but anything beyond this is called indulgence.  Interestingly enough, he credits this to Aristotle.

The general principle is that every sense of pleasure which Aristotle explained in his book of Human Traits (The Nicomachean Ethics) and said that this sense (of pleasure) is shameful to us. And how beautiful is what he said and how correct that it is a shame. And this is because we have this trait (of pleasure) because we are only living things and not more, just like the other beasts.  And there is no human aspect to it at all.  (Section 3, Chap. 36, p. 247.)  

The Rambam does not tell us the process which one must undertake to enable him to lead this ascetic lifestyle, but refers us to his work of law, the Mishneh Torah, and specifically the section which is called Hilchot Deot for a fuller analysis and a much greater interpretation which he considers the ethical and moral basis for human interaction.  (See Ibid, chap. 38, p. 362.) 

When we look, however, in Hilchot Deot, especially the crucial first chapter, we notice a strange phenomenon.  Rather than discussing how an ascetic lifestyle establishes the moral foundation for human behavior, the Rambam actually describes a contradictory system which leads to this important goal.  

The ethics of Hilchot Deot are totally rooted in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle where asceticism is rejected. 

Every person has a different trait of behavior.  And one (trait) is different from the other and distant from the other in the extreme.  There is a person who is hot tempered and is always angry and there is one who is always calm and never becomes angry . . .there is a person who is extremely haughty and there is one who is very meek and humble.  There is one with great lust or desire who is never satiated, and there is one of a pure heart and does not desire even the few things which are necessary for the body.  (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 1:1).

What is crucial to understand about these various temperaments and traits is that, there is between every one of these temperaments and traits an intermediate position which is equidistant from each extreme.  Some of these temperaments are part of man from the beginning of his creation in accordance with the nature of his body.  And there are those (temperaments) which man’s nature is prepared and destined to accept more quickly than others.  There are those which are not part of man from the beginning of his creation, but he learned them from others, or he himself turned to them from thoughts that arose in his heart, or he heard that this trait is good for him and it is proper to go in its path and habituate himself in it until it was established in his heart. (Ibid. 1:2.)

What is crucial to understand is that,

The two extremes of every tendency are not a good path and it is not proper for a person to go by these, and teach them to himself.  If he finds his nature leaning toward one of these (extremes) . . .he should return himself to what is good and go in the path of the good.  This is the straight way.  (Ibid 1:3.) 

What is the good or the straight way?

The straight way is the middle way in every trait of all the traits which are available to man.  And this is the point which is equidistant from the two extremes and is not closer to one or the other.  Thus the early wise men commanded that a person should be constant in his behaviors and evaluate them and direct himself to the middle way in order that he should be whole in his body.  He should not be hot tempered and easy to anger or be as the dead who feel nothing, but should be in the middle. He should only be angry about great things worthy of anger in order not to be so at other times.  Likewise, he should only desire those things which the body needs and cannot be without. This is the way of the wise men . . .every person whose ethical traits are of the middle way, is called wise. (Ibid. 1:4). 

The Rambam credits the origin of this concept of the intermediate way, which establishes the perfect lifestyle, not to Aristotle, but to God.  
We are commanded to go on this intermediate path and this is the good and straight way as it says that you are to walk in His ways. (Devarim 26:17).  (Ibid. 1:5)

The Rambam continues,

This commandment has clearly been learned (in the Talmud) “just as He (God) is called gracious, so shall you be gracious, just as He is called merciful, so should you be merciful, just as He is called holy, so should you be holy.”  (Shabbat, 133b; Ibid. 1:6.)

Such is the case with all the Thirteen Attributes of God.  The Rambam does not explain, nor does he offer any proof, that walking in the ways of God actually means the Aristotelian concept of the intermediate way.  Is Aristotle’s formulation the basis of the Talmud’s understanding of the Thirteen Attributes? Is the Torah’s ethical system at heart Aristotelian?  If that is true, why then does the Rambam have a totally different viewpoint in the Moreh HaNevuchim?  

It appears from Hilchot Deot that Aristotle presaged the Talmudic Rabbis and their understanding of the Torah.  It was Aristotle who demonstrated that the highest example of any moral trait is the intermediate way.  To the Rambam, there is no greater demonstration of what could be better for the human being.  

Thus, by default, when the Torah and Talmud speak of man emulating God, there can be for the Rambam, no other understanding than that of Aristotle.  

Indeed the Rambam states this assertion:

Because the Creator is called by these names (attributes) and they are the middle way, which we are obligated to walk in them, this way is called the way of God.  . .and one who walks in this path brings goodness and blessing to himself . (Ibid. 1:7.)

Finally, how does one achieve this middle way? He does so exactly in the way Aristotle had demonstrated and defined,
through the process of habituation or habit. 

And how does a person habituate himself with these ethical behaviors until they become established in him? He shall do and repeat and repeat again the actions which he does according to the intermediate understanding and repeat them always until these activities will become easy for him and they will not impose any hardship upon him and these ideas will be rooted in his soul. (Ibid 1:7)

We must nevertheless conclude that there is a major difference between Aristotle and the Rambam.  That difference is the underlying reason, or the ultimate purpose for accepting this behavior.  To Aristotle, the goal for this behavior is achieving happiness.

 . . .we call final, without qualification, that which is always desirable for itself and never for the sake of something else.  Now, such a thing, happiness, above all else is held to be.  . . Happiness . . .no one chooses for anything other than itself . . .happiness then is something final and sufficient and is the end of action.  (Aristotle Ethics, Book 1, Chap. 7, 941-42).

To the Rambam, however, the ultimate goal of man is not his own happiness, but rather, it is to know God and to love and fear Him.  Without God, human life has no purpose and contains no truth.  God is the ultimate good whose duration is everlasting. (See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapters 1 and 2.)