A Review of Diana Lobel’s The Quest for God and the Good

in Uncategorized
February 27th, 2013

Picture 46Diana Lobel’s

The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 312 pp.
$82.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-15314-0; $26.50 (paper), ISBN
978-0-231-15315-7.

Reviewed by James Diamond
(Fellow-in-Residence, Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization )
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

In the Beginning There Was the Quest

As the title suggests, Diana Lobel¹s sensitive study focuses on the
quest or the search for meaning as a value in and of itself rather
than the end result of any investigation into the ultimate goals of
those quests, such as ³God² or the ³good.² This is surely a worthy
project and appealing to my own sensibility and interests, as well as,
I am certain, to many readers of this review. More often than not I
have found the questioning, the struggle, the anxiety laden and
determined commitment to the ³truth² of those philosophers and
theologians I am accustomed to studying far more fascinating and
instructive than their ultimate answers. I am especially partial to
studies that concentrate on medieval thought, for it was an age when
ideas were a matter of life and death rather than some stray thought
that can, or must, be captured in 140 characters. After all, if the
final determination was really the sole end, what could I gain, for
example, from an ancient philosopher¹s or Maimonides¹ (d. 1204)
³answers,² which are anchored in an archaic cosmology populated by
spheres and intelligences and a long debunked medieval science?
Central to Lobel¹s entire project then is Charles Taylor¹s endorsement
of the enduring power of ancient myths and images, long abandoned for
more scientific descriptions of reality, to inspire and ³point toward
a moral source, something the contemplation, respect, or love of which
enables us to get closer to what is good² (p. 55).

Lobel deals with a wide spectrum of thinkers and schools of thought,
ranging from the ancient Greeks, to medieval, Jewish, Islamic, and
Christian philosophers, while stopping along the way to engage
seriously the Hebrew Bible, and the foundational texts of
Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Though clearly an
ambitious project that defies encapsulating in any single book, let
alone one of some two hundred pages of text, Lobel manages, in her
concentration on the quest, to capture a sense of each and the
connective thread that justifies a shared examination in one book.
More important is the book¹s success in placing these disparate
theologies, philosophies, beliefs, myths, and attitudes in some kind
of dialogue that illuminates what each was precisely after and how
each struggled to achieve it. The process thought of Alfred North
Whitehead meets Chinese thought; Augustine, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi
shed light on Maimonides, and, on each other; the Upanishads commune
with Plato; and the Bhagavad Gita conjures up shades of Aristotle.

There is a certain beauty and existential allure to a medieval cosmos
permeated by knowledge, worship of perfection, and existents that
overflow with knowledge to lower existents in an unfolding of
creation. If a ³false² cosmology engenders the kind of imitatio dei
that consists of acquiring knowledge, which, regardless of its being a
means or an end, translates into a way of life that ³will always have
in view loving kindness, righteousness, and judgment,² then perhaps
there is much to be valued in how that medieval quest for ultimate
knowledge is constructed.[1] Although debatable, as is every other
facet of the thought of someone like Maimonides, for Lobel what is
essential to its appreciation is the struggle to reconcile the
contemplative and active ways of life. As Lobel argues, there is a
continuum of thought and struggle with intellectual predecessors who
were not necessarily religious compatriots but shared an equal passion
for the attainment of the good life. Maimonides picked up on the
influential ninth-century Islamic philosopher al-Farabi¹s portrait of
the ideal prophet-philosopher, which did not simply involve
self-perfection by cultivating the intellect and realizing a
self-contained contemplative existence. The very highest of those
medievally conceived Intellects spurred human beings from their
potentiality to actuality. Thus, in a sense, they presented an ethical
as well as an intellectual paradigm where care for others, not
self-sufficiency, was a critical component of perfection.

Lobel¹s treatment of Maimonides is bookended by another Islamic
philosopher, al-Ghazali (d. 1111) whose purely intellectual life as a
student and teacher of theology and religious law was radically
disrupted by a Pauline-like revelatory experience which directed his
search for meaning toward the Sufis. Their experiential path of
mystical ascent led al-Ghazali toward a post-intellectual state where
an ³inner eye² was opened envisaging some ineffable supra-rational
form of knowledge (p. 171). However, he did not remain caught in an
otherworldliness with which one often identifies the mystic life. On
the contrary, he returned to the active teacher¹s life, but one
thoroughly transformed by his own mystical ascent. As with later
kabbalists in the Jewish mystical tradition, al-Ghazali¹s mystical
flight was not an escape at all, but consisted of a round trip
journey, returning home to a differently conceived landscape. His
involvement with others was now informed by an immediate experience of
God.

Lobel returns to Maimonides with what she purports to be a better
understanding of Maimonides¹ own ambiguous constructions of the ideal
life. The precise role of social, ethical, political, and pedagogical
activity in Maimonides¹ thought has been, and continues to be, the
subject of much passionate scholarly debate. The tenor of the debate
itself often mirrors what is at stake for the virtuous life when we
reflect on such issues. Yet Maimonides¹ exegesis of Jacob¹s ladder,
echoing Plato¹s allegory of the cave, seems to corroborate Lobel¹s
reading more than any other. The angel¹s, or prophet¹s, ascent toward
self-perfection, is followed by a descent back to a care for others
³with a view to governing and teaching the people of the earth.²[2] In
other words, intellectual perfection constitutes only half the quest,
remaining unfulfilled unless followed by channeling that perfection
outward for the benefit of others. The latter consummates the former.
Lobel follows this question into Aristotle¹s own balancing act on
eudaimonia as either pure theoretical contemplation or a combination
of theoretical and moral virtue. She argues persuasively, with the
assistance of Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre, for an integrated ideal.
For Macintyre there can be no proper conception of virtues without
placing them in the context of ³an overall life orientation, an
overarching good² (p. 148). Likewise, Taylor understands Aristotle¹s
definition of man as a rational being in terms of telos and
commitment. To be human is to orient oneself toward the good.

The only part of the book that I found a slight detour from the
exciting path along which Lobel guides us is the analogy between
Whitehead¹s metaphysics that accommodates key discoveries of quantum
physics and the Tao Te Ching of Chinese philosophy. Although I must
admit utter ignorance when it comes to subatomic particles (or even
atomic for that matter), my skeptical gene is aroused by any
synthesizing of post-Newtonian physics and ancient currents of
thought. Numerous apologetic attempts to do the same with the Hebrew
Bible or kabbalah have perhaps soured me to the enterprise. However,
among Lobel¹s brief excursions into territory foreign to the Western
philosophical tradition, such as Chinese and Indian ³philosophies,² I
found her excursion into Buddhism most, to use an apt term,
enlightening. In the midst of all this frenzied search for some
clearly delineated good, or aspiring for proximity to some ontological
reality of a supreme Being, Buddhism offers the humility of the
indeterminate. The Buddha does not commit to the ³right² position on
essential philosophical questions: such as is there a self or not? Is
there an ontological reality or is all an illusion? Is the world
eternal or created? Is nirvana existence or nonexistence? All these
issues are unimportant in regard to a truth that centers on a mode of
being characterized by ³flexibility, openness, wisdom, and compassion²
(p. 110). This conception of ³nirvana,² Lobel claims, functions like
those of the Good and God in other cultures. Though irreconcilable
with someone like Maimonides and his construct of a universe anchored
in a God, if only even as a first cause, Buddhism and Maimonides might
actually converge for all practical purposes on how to play out a
human mode of being. Moses can only advance toward God and the Good by
³hiding his face² at the burning bush in an act of extreme
intellectual restraint and humility.[3] His life is forever informed
by knowledge of a Being one can never know and by a self-effacing
posture that veers off from the Aristotelian golden mean to the
extreme of selflessness. In this sense, Moses may have qualified as a
disciple of the Buddha. After reading Lobel¹s searching quest for the
quest, those who grew up with the late Harry Chapin¹s ballads will
come to appreciate far more profoundly the concluding sentiment of one
of them, ³It¹s got to be the going not the getting there that¹s
good.²[4]

Notes

[1]. Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 638.

[2]. Ibid., 41.

[3]. Ibid., 29.

[4]. ³Greyhound,² http://harrychapin.com/music/greyhound.shtml.