Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker

By Sarah Stroumsa | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
A Critical Mind:
Maimonides As Scientist

MEDICINE AND SCIENCE

In modern consciousness Maimonides the physician is probably as famous as Maimonides the Philosopher. A search on the web, in either Hebrew or En glish, is likely to bring up first of all half a dozen hospitals and medical centers named after him. Of all the sciences, medicine was indeed the one in which Maimonides was most intimately involved. He was also interested in astronomy and in mathematics; he mentions his meeting with the son of the astronomer Ibn al- Aflah,1 and from the context it seems that the texts he read with a student of the Philosopher Ibn Bajja were also related to astronomy.2 Because of his view of the close relations betweem physics and metaphysics, astronomy can be seen, as noted by Tzvi Langermann, as “arguably the most important science for Maimonides.”3 He insists on the scientific value of astronomy, and recalls the Talmudic saying according to which it is the calculation of astronomical cycles that is intended in Deuteronomy 4:6, which refers to “your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.”4 Later in life, already in Egypt, he even tried his hand at correcting works on astronomy and mathematics, but only in medicine did he become a real practitioner.5

1See chap. 1, notes 28 and 49, above, and see note 2, below. For a general overview, see the
articles collected in H. Levine and R. S. Cohen, eds., Maimonides and the Sciences (Dor-
drecht, Boston, and London, 2000).

2Maimonides refers to the opinions of Ibn al- Aflah and Ibn Bajja regarding the respective
positions of Venus and Mercury; see Guide 2.9 (Dalāla, 187; Pines, 269). He also mentions
a rumor he has heard, that Ibn Bajja had invented an astronomical system in which no epi-
cycles exist, a rumor that was not confirmed by Ibn Bajja's students; see Guide 2.24 (Da-
lāla
, 226:3- 5; Pines, 323). A third reference to Ibn Bajja, which cites his commentary on
Aristotle's Physics, also relates to the heavenly spheres: see Guide 3.29 (Dalala, 375:23- 26;
Pines, 515); and see chap. 4, note 53, above.

3Langermann, “Maimonides and the sciences,” 159.

4BT Shabbat 75a; Letter on Astrology, Epistles, 482 (Lerner, 230); and see below, apud
note 80.

5Ibn al- Qifti mentions that Maimonides (perhaps responding to Joseph ibn Shimʿon's re-
quest) worked on Ibn al- Aflah's Kitab al- istikmāl fi'l-hay'a and on Ibn Hud's Kitāb al-
istikmal fi'ilm al- riyada
. According to him, the original manuscripts of both books were

-125-

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