Quae supra nos, ea nihil ad nos.
One modern scholar squarely stated that Del Bene’s thoughts on the subject of negating philosophy “possess neither depth nor originality and are a mere reiteration of earlier statements.” On the surface, indeed,
Indeed, why not come to such conclusions, in view of Del Bene’s following statement:
he opposes both philosophy and the sciences on account of the danger inherent to them to the integrity of faith. They undermine not only the belief in miracles, creation, and the revival of the dead, but also spread skepticism with regard to belief in revelation and the immortality of the soul. Moreover, they are neither truthful nor beneficial in themselves. False and pernicious to faith is, above all, metaphysics.…He therefore advises his readers to divert themselves from “speculative, natural, mathematical, or Divine studies” and dedicate themselves only to the Torah.
On more than one occasion he apparently draws straight lines leading, on the one hand, from ancient Greek thought to a contemporary skepticism of religion and a general libertinism and on the other hand from ancient traditional Jewish thought to contemporary fideistic rejection of modern approaches to science, particularly the implications of natural science for metaphysical knowledge. He even supports the latter continuity with the previously mentioned full citation of sources. This is also the clear-cut impression conveyed by Del Bene’s sermons as recorded by Ha-Kohen. In one of them, for instance, he is reported to have preached the dismissal of logic and other sciences, such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and natural sciences, on the grounds that all these are unable to lead to the ultimate bliss available only through the study of the Torah. He does not claim that the study of such sciences is pernicious per se. He even adds that “they are permitted to the Gentiles.” But as far as the Jews are concerned, it is written (Ps. 147:19), “He reveals His Words to Jacob.”
Study only this Torah and dispense with the multitude of Arabic, Chaldean, or Greek books which are full of assumptions, premises, and syllogisms—the invention of their authors’ sophistries.
A more thorough investigation of Kissot le-Veit David will eventually reveal that even for the Jews the rejection of Greek science is not as absolute as it might first appear from statements like the above. It will also reveal that the continuity with traditional Jewish thought, asserted by Del Bene, should not be taken at face value. In fact, as one might perhaps infer from the definition of “Arabic, Chaldean, or Greek books” as “full of assumptions, premises, and syllogisms—the invention of their authors’ sophistries,” it was the Aristotelian system of knowledge that Del Bene was specifically attacking. In order to understand this point, let us first remember the entire ensemble of symbolical meanings conveyed in contemporary discussions by the idea of that system. It symbolized primarily the culture of the establishment, of the Church and of the universities. Opposite this stood the Platonic system, as discovered by the Humanists, which only in Del Bene’s time appeared finally to have reached wide public circulation.
The way in which people understood the querelle between Aristotle and Plato, “his Master,” as Del Bene labels him in Kissot le-Veit David, illustrates quite well the complexity of the problem faced by contemporary thinkers. The official culture granted to Aristotle the seal of approval associated with learned, illuminated, and sound analytical rationalism in contrast with popular, obscurantist mythological thought associated with Plato. For average churchmen and university professors, Aristotle was then still the symbol of reason leading to progress, as well as of sane authority. Aristotle was representative of elite culture, of philosophical truth, that is of truth formulated in propositions of universal value. He was therefore a symbol of the order and stability that guarantees prosperity and, at least in the Thomistic adaptation to Christian theology, of ultimate bliss. By contrast, Plato represented popular thought obstructed by its irrational longing for myth, no less than by its sound ignorance, a consequence of the foolish rejection of learning. For average churchmen and university professors, Plato therefore symbolized anticonformist, indeed dangerously revolutionary rejection of authority.
For avant-garde anticonformists, the terms of reference should be turned upside down. For them, Aristotle would, of course, represent the tyranny of authority over reason, the repression of sane epistemological doubt as a result of a desire to hold power firmly in hand. Plato would symbolize fertility of imagination, creative stimulus leading to an illuminating free use of reason; without these progress would be unthinkable. The “historical” Plato, however, poorly fits such an anticonformist, almost revolutionary image. Attention was therefore drawn to Plato’s teacher, Socrates, whose ideas Plato allegedly adopted when describing them in his dialogues. As one modern author concisely put it, Socrates, viewed as anima naturaliter christiana, came to dominate Western philosophical tradition from Montaigne to Descartes, from Rousseau to Hegel, and even beyond. In that epoch of changing attitudes towards knowledge, what Carlo Ginzburg incisively called “the uneasy balance” between daring to know and the traditional warning against intellectual curiosity came to be represented in widely diffused emblem-books by the motto “quae supra nos, ea nihil ad nos,” and was ascribed precisely to Socrates.
As far as one can see, at least from the Jewish perspective, Socrates indeed became the hero of some in Del Bene’s time. He was a martyr of the struggle for the freedom of reason, a model for expressing epistemological doubt as a foundation upon which to conquer the truth. One may find eloquent words in praise of Socrates in Simone Luzzatto’s Socrate, overo dell ’humano sapere esercitio seriogiocoso (Venice, 1651). In this work, Luzzatto declares his intention to liberate the human soul from the nooses with which pretentious knowledge keeps it tightly tied. To this purpose, he engages in the intellectual exercise of reconstructing Socrates’ trial. He imagines the following plot: Reason is imprisoned and oppressed by human authority, begs to be liberated, and is tentatively released. A special box is installed, however, where people can place secret denunciations of the abuses of Reason and the diffusion of wrong doctrines. Socrates is subsequently accused of attempting to destroy human science and is brought to trial. During his trial, he demonstrates that the cause of his doubt concerning the certainty of human disciplines is rooted in reflection upon the controversies of the learned about the principles of natural things. The judges are uncertain of the verdict to be meted out to him. Plato argues that there should be no sentence. The decision is then finally deferred. Yet Luzzatto’s attack on authority is not a hymn to uncontrolled freedom of thought and action. According to him, history develops in the following way: in the far distant golden age, Reason was queen and Authority was her daughter. Authority’s task was then to control stupid people. Inebriated by her own power, she conspired against her mother, and with the assistance of Treachery she imprisoned her. In other words, in a world properly conducted, reason should rightly have authority at its service and exercise it against human stupidity. What in fact happened was an abuse of authority, which turned against its source of power. It thus undermined its own legitimacy. We shall not follow Luzzatto in the details of his exposition. For the purposes of our discussion, we should only add that among the few in Luzzatto’s text who argued in defense of Authority and against the liberation of Reason was Aristotle, while the main line of Socrates’ defence was the basic uncertainty of human knowledge and the inadequacy of the human senses to guide the intellect in its journey towards true knowledge.
Luzzatto’s work was printed five years after Kissot le-Veit David, where the same kind of elegy of Socrates is to be found, and as we may infer, not by chance. According to Del Bene, Socrates taught that the appropriate method for attaining knowledge in the realm of physics is not applicable to metaphysics. Aristotle’s improper use of gnoseology was then a rejection of his master’s teaching, for he was a pupil of Plato, who was in turn a pupil of Socrates. The true rebel of reason was Aristotle, while the Socratic teachings were in fact compatible with religion. Therefore any contemporary philosopher who advocated the excellence of empirical sensory knowledge and of natural science in order to draw conclusions in the metaphysical realm was guilty of a simplistic methodological fallacy equal to that responsible for the belief in magic. Such a philosopher was thus identified by Del Bene as a magician. The implication of such an identification in a century crucial for the shaping of European attitudes towards magic may hardly be overestimated. The sancta simplicitas of Aristotelian thinkers thus became the true equivalent of heresy and sorcery, not the poor women accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake by virtue of the verdicts of Inquisitors, followers of Thomist theology.
It could not be by mere chance that Del Bene calls the Aristotelian thinker philosof pashut, “a simple philosopher.” It is important to note here that Simplicius was Aristotle’s commentator and the nickname of Galileo’s discussant in his Dialoghi dei massimi sistemi. Del Bene even goes a step further. According to him, if metaphysical speculation, which is the domain of religion, is not to be thought of as an organic extension of physical knowledge, then natural science, the most praised aim of human knowledge in his time, should in fact be considered as melakha ve-lo ḥokhmah—an art, not wisdom. One may hardly miss the modernity of such a clear-cut statement, which in fact marks a decisive rupture with the medieval holistic epistemological view.
Perhaps we have overestimated the importance of Del Bene’s mention of Socrates; perhaps his attitude did not differ essentially from the antirationalistic stance of a typical medieval. Perhaps we should interpret his distinction between Socrates and Aristotle as a mere sophisticated rhetorical device to display awareness of contemporary intellectual trends; perhaps he, like a modern fundamentalist, exhibited knowledge of fashionable debates simply as a tactic to fight the enemy in his own field. Why should we not say that in declaring logic, the quadrivium, and natural sciences no longer necessary propaedeutic introductions to metaphysics, Del Bene, in fact, rejected the foundations of rationalistic thought, simply declaring allegiance to the anti-Maimonidean irrationalistic party, following the good old medieval tradition? Why should we look for a gap between the learned exposition of Kissot le-Veit David and the popular sermon recorded by Ha-Kohen? There is no simple answer to this question. But there are many indices pointing to the necessity of dismissing such simple harmonistic suggestions.
Let us begin by noting that Del Bene took great pains to underline that he did consider Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed as an integral part of the chain of Jewish tradition that opposed “Greek wisdom.” A quick look at the references listed at the end of the chapters of Kissot le-Veit David would immediately reveal that the Guide is cited more than frequently as one of the main sources of Del Bene’s essays. The same is true for his sermons. His attitude towards Maimonides’ works may hardly be explained by the fact that Maimonides was too much a revered figure for Del Bene to declare allegiance to his opponents. Even if he did hesitate to take a clear anti-Maimonidean position, Del Bene might simply have refrained from referring to Maimonides’ philosophical work. Many contemporary thinkers, especially kabbalists, acted that way. We must then conclude that Del Bene was sincere in referring to the Guide as an integral part of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, Del Bene could not simply agree with Maimonides’ teachings without first removing from them any element which might be inconsistent with his own Weltanschauung. This is apparently what he did. In preaching to his flock on the intellectual perfection which will be reached in messianic times, when the cosmic snake will finally be converted to the service of Good (the same sermon from which we drew our first example), Del Bene explicitly wanted his audience to believe that in Messianic times the obstacles encountered on the way to perfection will decidedly disappear, “as listed by Maimonides in the Guide.” (The reference is of course to chapter 34 of Part One.) Ha-Kohen, however, who apparently took no pains to check the reference, writes here about four kinds of such obstacles—not five, as stated in the Guide. These obstacles are nonetheless five: (1) insufficiency of mind, (2) profundity of matter, (3) length of the preliminaries, (4) bad natural aptitude, and (5) preoccupation with the necessities of the body. At first glance, one might of course think that this is a mere oversight, one based on his faulty memory. Yet it was hardly so. He not only states explicitly that “these four causes hinder attainment of wisdom,” but in explaining his text, he leaves no doubt that he did not forget anything: the fifth Maimonidean cause (that men are occupied with the necessities of the body) is in fact organically inserted within the third (the length of the preliminaries). The result of this apparently insignificant condensation of the Maimonidean text was so far-reaching that Maimonides would undoubtedly have disagreed with what Del Bene, as recorded by Ha-Kohen, encouraged his audience to believe that Maimonides wrote. According to Ha-Kohen Del Bene said that
In other words, the propaedeutic effort that Maimonides identified with the acquisition of the trivium and quadrivium was identified in Del Bene’s sermon simply as the material difficulty of constant study. It might be useful to recall here that when, some three hundred years before, Yehuda Romano, following Thomas, condensed the five obstacles into three, he wrote:
The length of preliminaries will no longer exist, because now we need preliminaries and lengthy preparations from books and teachers; the burdens of the necessity of eating will no longer be an impediment to study. In the time of Redemption, God will be the teacher, and there will be no more need of books, as it is written [Jer. 31:33]: “I will write it on their hearts.” People also will no longer be concerned by the necessities of their bodies, because everybody will be in possession of a house and a field, and will have enough to supply all his necessities.
For Del Bene, as Ha-Kohen recorded his sermons, logic and the quadrivium could simply be dismissed. But why? Are they totally pernicious for human knowledge? At first glance, again from the wording of the sermon as recorded by Ha-Kohen, it would appear that the answer is yes. However, from Kissot le-Veit David we know that Del Bene did appreciate knowledge of logic and the quadrivium for other purposes than for the sake of human perfection. In fact he has Socrates stating that “every science has its proper limit, which may be reached but not surpassed…therefore, one should leave metaphysical speculation and turn to human research and to useful activities aimed at the edification of the world.” There is no condemnation of studying logic and quadrivium. Del Bene’s concern is rather with those who insist in extending the Aristotelian categories of thought and the methods proper to the quadrivium to the realm of the divine.
Human perfection is impossible, except through [a knowledge of] all the sciences and their systematic study, that is, learning first things first and last things last. That which comes first is the study of logic, which teaches the way of all sciences. And after is the quadrivium.…And after the quadrivium comes natural science, which requires lengthy study, it being acquired through experience.…After natural science, practical philosophy which requires lengthy study, it being acquired through experience.…And after all the sciences here described must come the divine science which lies beyond the bounds of the senses and imagination and requires a strong and upright soul.
If so, in opposing “Arabic, Chaldean, or Greek books, full of assumptions, premises, and syllogisms,” Del Bene was not simply following the medieval antirationalistic stance. Contrary to what might be inferred from an uncritical understanding of the elaborate sentences of Kissot le-Veit David, as well as from their popular translation into synagogue sermons, rather than reject “Greek wisdom” in toto, Del Bene was reconsidering its significance in the overall structure of human knowledge. He was beginning to capture the essence of the humanist revolution in a way most humanists did not themselves yet realize: Del Bene was begin- ning to reject the medieval conception of the opposition between the secular and the religious in terms of mutual exclusion, in order to assign the first a thisworldly function, and the second an otherworldly one. He was also departing squarely from the belief in the harmonic congruence between reason and faith, which was one of the pillars of medieval thought. In showing an awareness of the humanist discovery of the structural opposition between Greek wisdom and religious perception, Del Bene was in fact proposing a way to overcome the impasse. Rather than reject Greek culture, he was releasing it from the tight embrace with religion and theology that was imposed upon it by the medieval mentality. Rather than reject Greek culture, Del Bene was rejecting the idea of the essential unity of the physical and metaphysical worlds. Indeed he felt that such an assumption, after having served medieval men in transforming everything into something religious, was now serving contemporary freethinkers, still prisoners of the medieval mentality, in their efforts to transform everything into the secular. If we are right in such an understanding, Del Bene’s views may well be considered as genuinely modern.
To be sure, departure from the Maimonidean system of thought, following the necessity of departing from the medieval Weltanschauung, had to be performed smoothly, indeed almost imperceptibly. If Ha-Kohen, who was an educated man, did not perceive anything unusual in recording Maimonides’ teaching as he did, we must say that in his effort to stress the orthodox continuity of his Weltanschauung, Del Bene was successful in stressing continuity when in fact he was contributing to a major rupture. As he was mediating between elite culture and popular culture, our preacher was also demonstrating his ability to mediate between the Middle Ages and the modern era. As we have said, it would perhaps stand to reason that he was not fully conscious of what he was formulating. And, if he was, he wrapped up his message in a cloak of obfuscation, typical of the baroque period. In any case, the deep change that was hesitantly going on in the minds of few, remained imperceptible to average people. Listening to Del Bene’s sermons, one might very well miss the point. Haziness and even obscurity were indeed necessary for the inception of the process.
Del Bene’s aesthetic literary ideal fits very well into its general framework. Besides his declared effort to demonstrate that Hebrew can effectively compete with Italian in richness and fluidity of expression, he displays in Kissot le-Veit David a clear consciousness of innovation. In fact he declares himself proud of the rhetorical and stylistical expressions he is the first to use. Consciousness of originality and novelty went hand in hand with the aesthetic ideal of obscurity. Such a writer could hardly be expected to overtly formulate a clear-cut system of thought. Yet he might be expected to formulate a hesitant beginning of real novelty in an obscure, almost metaphorical way. If double sense and obscurity in literary style may be considered characteristic elements of the Geist of Del Bene’s context, we should expect him to turn to them whenever he performs any significant literary activity. If so, it would certainly be wrong to give a univocal interpretation precisely to those statements which were of major importance for him. I would argue that this is also an argument in favor of our previous understanding of Del Bene’s views vis-à-vis secular studies.
We may then understand why many of the themes hinting at novelty and change in Kissot le-Veit David were apparently absent from the sermons Ha-Kohen recorded. It is not necessary to assume that Del Bene never mentioned them at all. For our limited purpose, it suffices to note that Ha-Kohen did not record them. One of these themes is the convergence of Judaism with Christianity. It emerges quite evidently from Kissot le-Veit David, and was in fact recently illuminated in scholarly research. It may be considered as the natural consequence of separating human secular activity and knowledge from the realm of faith. Should we be prepared to understand modern ecumenism as free of hidden missionary intentions, that is, as the cooperation of men of faith beyond diversity of religion who share a common desire to oppose the expansion of secularism, Del Bene’s message might, without exaggeration, be labeled as ecumenism ante litteram. Here too, proceeding outward from the center of the rabbinic establishment, a modern Jewish outlook was taking shape. Yet it was a very strange and ambivalent alliance, indeed, as were most baroque alliances between disparate contrasting elements. After having declared overt hostility to the Aristotelian official philosophy of the Church, this rabbi found himself now allied with churchmen in fighting the application of naturalistic methods to theology and in identifying them with sheer libertinism. In other words, this rabbi found himself allied with Counter-Reformation Catholic attitudes and fears. By the same token, he found himself allied with Counter-Reformation Catholic attitudes in many other fields; for instance, in favoring Inquisitorial censorship of books or in reacting to the apparently obsessive contemporary interest in sexuality. Yet, contrary to the theme of the convergence of Judaism with Christianity, the theme of sexuality is feebly present in Kissot le-Veit David, while it is heavily treated in the sermons. In other words, if we may be allowed to generalize from these two specific cases, the list of the themes usually dealt with in sermons may be expected to differ radically from that of the themes treated in learned books. If so, we might formulate some kind of rule and state that a comparison of sermons actually delivered with the literary production of the elite culture may provide a method for measuring the degree of diffusion of cultural change already noted in elite literary production.
We may now apply that rule to the different ways the two types of sources mention a departure from the medieval system of thought. After centuries of critique of Maimonidean thought, the dismissal of the propaedeutic necessity of logic and the quadrivium for the formation of a traditional religious outlook might be considered perfectly acceptable. This dismissal would consequently be offered without qualification to popular audiences, as if all secular studies were to be considered as harmful as the much despised Aristotelian philosophy. Yet in the learned essays of Kissot le-Veit David qualification was introduced, through the crucial distinction between the Aristotelian and the Socratic legacies, which constituted a real novelty in that epoch. This is why the rejection of logic and the quadrivium in the sermons appears differently from their rejection in Kissot le-Veit David. A more thorough analysis of Del Bene’s sermons as recorded by Ha-Kohen may provide more support for this conclusion.
One more point should be stressed. The inception of changing attitudes towards the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, was taking place in the mind of a rabbi, a representative of the established Jewish culture, and was organically linked to contemporary trends of thought. To put it boldly, revolution proceeded from the center of the Jewish establishment to the periphery. At least on the surface, Del Bene’s opposition to undisciplined learning also determined some kind of virtual alliance between the rabbi and the Catholic establishment. In a sense, rabbis such as Del Bene accomplished a function within Jewish society similar to that accomplished by Jesuits among Christians. They strove to cope with the inception of modernity and secularism without causing any damage to religious faith. They even acted as vehicles of modernity and secularism within Jewish society.
Comparative study of Del Bene’s works is only at its initial stage, yet it appears highly promising. It must be carried on in the near future, by me as well as by others. Should the emergence of other comparative studies of elite literary production and of sermons delivered to large audiences be added to the one hesitantly presented here, we will have taken a considerable step forward in understanding the mechanism of aligning popular culture with the achievements of elite culture. For this is ultimately the root of real cultural and social change.