Years ago I was blown away by Sherwin Nuland’s 1993 book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. Instead of being morbid on one hand or clinically dry and detached on the other, Nuland struck a fine and novel balance with his engaging, scientific and accessible approach to a subject that as the old saying goes, like taxes is one of life’s most unpleasant certainties. Therefore, when I spotted Nuland’s 2005 biography of the great medieval Jewish philosopher, scholar and physician Maimonides while strolling down the shelves in the biographies section of my public library, I decided to give it a chance. After finishing last night I have to say that unfortunately, when compared to Nuland’s How We Die, Maimonides comes up just a bit short. But that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior book, since Nuland has written a credible and fairly readable biography of one of the Middle Age’s most towering intellectual figures and while it’s probably unfair to compare this book to Nuland’s earlier book How We Die, unfortunately his biography Maimonides, unlike How We Die, lacks that certain “something” that makes me fondly remember books for years, even decades.
Nuland, a physician and fairly prolific author, after a slightly rambling and overlong prologue, begins with Moses ben-Maimon’s birth and early childhood in 11th century Moorish Spain and his family’s flight to North Africa. Blessed with a sharp mind and a near photographic memory, the young Moses ben-Maimon soon distinguished himself as one of the leading commentators on Jewish sacred law and scripture. An expert in not just the Torah, Talmud and their associated commentaries, he would also master the writings of Aristotle, Plato and other ancient philosophers. But what distinguished him from other past luminaries was his ability to creatively draw from this deep reservoir of classical and religious knowledge in order succinctly address the moral, philosophical and issues of his day. Writing in both Hebrew and Arabic, his words and ideas contained in his commentaries, epistles and treatises would resonate for centuries throughout the Jewish world. His Guide for the Perplexed, an attempt to reconcile religious belief with rational thought, despite its somewhat incomprehensible passages would not only alter the course of Jewish and even Islamic thought but would also influence such Christians as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart.
But as the infomercial pitchman says, “but wait, there’s more”. Forced by economic hardship into being the family’s breadwinner, the intellectually gifted and incredibly well-read religious scholar entered the field of medicine. Versed in the texts of Galen and other ancient Greek physicians, he would become a rising star in the 11th century medical world, eventually becoming a high-ranking court physician and expert on medical ethics and practice, (despite spending his early years expounding upon the finer points of the Talmud and Torah, he would later achieve notoriety as an expert in more earthy and less sacred subjects, as exemplified by his two medical best sellers: a sex manual and a guide to treating hemorrhoids).
Nuland’s book is good, but not great. Perhaps since he’s a physician, Nuland spends a bit too much time dwelling on Maimonides’ medical contributions as opposed to his more significant and lasting contributions in the areas of religious and philosophical thought. Thankfully, it’s not a hagiography since Nuland rightfully points out some of the less admirable aspects of the sage’s life, specifically his early lapse into religious dogmatism and his later somewhat slavish belief in the effectiveness of the theories of the ancient Galen. But like I said earlier, when compared to Nuland’s earlier book about the intricacies of death, this biography of a man who explored and explained the intricacies of life comes up a bit short.