Photo Credit:
School of Athens by Raphael (Aristotle on right holding his work, "Ethics")

Whenever we think of ideas originating in ancient Greece we are inclined to view them as having great conflict with Jewish thought. The association with Chanukkah events particularly re-enforce this this impression, notwithstanding, that some Jewish thinkers including the Rambam have carved out some exceptions. However, it may be shown that some of the parallels extend even astonishingly further when we consider the ideas of Aristotle. In this connection it is paramount to consider that Aristotle was regarded as out of the mainstream of Greek life, and in fact had become a rebel fleeing his nation state to avoid execution for subversive ideas to Greek thought.

We are, therefore, not dealing with prevailing Greek thought when considering Aristotle but rather with a rebellious outlook entailing a relationship common with the Jews who opposed the Seleucid Greeks. Further there is a revealing episode related by Josephus with some compelling reference documentation relating that Aristotle at one point in his life encountered a Jewish sage merchant who engaged in discussions with the latter that left an indelible imprint which appears mirrored significantly in his philosophical outlook. According to the notes of his student Clearchus reportedly obtained by Josephus, Aristotle described the sage as familiar with the same places and spoke with a wisdom that had a profound effect upon Aristotle where Aristotle reportedly commented “.. He had discussions with a large number of sages and imparted to us much (in some translations “more than we gave him” e.g. Samuel Kurinsky,) knowledge”. (Josephus, Against Apion, p176, also supported by such high standing scholars as Lobeck, Bernays and Von Gutschmidt). When we consider also the remarkable parallels between Aristotle’s outlook and certain Jewish perspectives the likelihood of this episode or something very similar becomes even more compelling.


Maimonides taps into the Aristotelian idea of a golden mean in sketching the out the notion of virtue in human conduct as a mean between two extremes, one an overabundance and the other a deficiency. For example courage in its true sense is the mean between cowardice and recklessness, or proper self-esteem represents the mean between total self-abasement and empty pride etc. The most outstanding of the example of the golden mean may be found in Hillel’s well known dictum,” If I am not for myself. who will be for me, if I am only for myself what am I? ”

It should be recognized in this connection that both Aristotle and the Rambam are emphatic in asserting that the mean point is not an arithmetic middle, but rather the point that sets the proper balance between the excess and the defect. Jewish values insofar as they are guided by compassion and egalitarianism or general equality entitlement would require a different point for balance in the line connecting defect and excess. For example in the case of proper concern for others or what may be regarded as other involvement, Judaism would require that much greater rootedness in the needs of others than would Aristotle. The standard 10 % of income for Tzedakah would clearly not represent the golden mean for Aristotle nor would the principle of love your neighbor as yourself figure into the moral agenda.

Two significant aspects of Aristotelian thought bear a most remarkable parallel in Jewish thought. The first of these is Aristotle’s involvement in this world or the created world which is sometimes rather inaccurately referred to as Aristotle’s naturalism. This represented a significant departure from earlier Platonic thought. Aristotle was involved through his studies in this world whose reality was undeniable and worthy of gaining both full understanding as well as living. It is from this aspiration that Aristotle devoted himself to diverse topics ranging through ethics, physics, psychology and politics. In Judaism humankind is encouraged to also focus upon this world whose creation is celebrated weekly by our dedicated observance of Shabbat. This priority stands in contrast to other faiths which emphasize other worldly preoccupations such as afterlife connections (Christianity) and nirvana (Buddhism). In fact Heaven by some measure is experienced weekly according to one Talmudic adage that the appreciation of creation that it opens up represents 1/16 of heaven.

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Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy