Shiur #16: Prophets, Sages, Leaders

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        The Uniqueness of the Prophets


In the last few shiurim we have discussed prophecy as the Rambam understands it, the psychological mechanism behind the phenomenon, and its ramifications. We will now examine a question that the Rambam goes on to raise: having established that the prophets are endowed with both the theoretical wisdom of the philosophers and the social initiative and skills of political leaders, what differentiates a prophet from a philosopher or a political leader?


His answer is formulated as follows:


In some cases the influence of the [Active] Intellect reaches only the logical and not the imaginative faculty; either on account of the insufficiency of that influence, or on account of a defect in the constitution of the imaginative faculty, and the consequent inability of the latter to receive that influence: this is the condition of sages or philosophers. If, however, the imaginative faculty is naturally in the most perfect condition, this influence may, as has been explained by us and by other philosophers, reach both his logical and his imaginative faculties: this is the case with prophets. But it happens sometimes that the influence only reaches the imaginative faculty on account of the insufficiency of the logical faculty, arising either from a natural defect, or from neglect in training. This is the case with statesmen, lawgivers, diviners, charmers, and men that have true dreams, or do wonderful things by strange means and secret arts, though they are not wise men; all these belong to this third class. (Guide, II:37)


Each of these three classes receives some sort of divine influence. The sages, or philosophers, are influenced by the Divine in their intellectual faculty; their imaginative faculty is not involved. This is so either because their imaginative faculty is weak, or because it is constituted in such a way that it receives only a small measure of the divine influence, leaving the imaginative faculty unaffected. The prophets, as we have seen in earlier chapters of the Guide, have been granted perfection of both the intellectual and the imaginative faculties, and they receive the divine influence through both channels. Therefore, they are the only ones who possess both all-encompassing, true knowledge and the ability to translate it for the masses and to communicate it to them using simple images. The philosophers are not involved in political or social leadership, while the prophets are expected to fill these roles. (It should be noted that this is not the only difference between prophets and philosophers; we shall address others later on.)


The third group consists of people who possess a well-developed and sensitive faculty of imagination, but weak intellectual powers. These people are capable of absorbing real impressions, but since they absorb them directly through the imagination, without the intellectual infrastructure to support them, the result is opaque and obscure, and is reflected in tangible images rather than in a logical formulation. The Rambam describes this group as comprising two types of people. The first are political leaders and legislators. These people are not particularly wise, and their leadership is not necessarily good. However, they manage to hold on to their position through their well-developed power of imagination, by means of which they are able to communicate with the people and to draw them after their vision. The other type consists of people who experience various sorts of visions and dreams. The Rambam does not deny that a person may experience dreams that are real, even if he is not a prophet. This is not the result of any sort of witchcraft, nor is it a miracle; it is simply the product of a particularly sensitive imaginative faculty that lacks a corresponding intellect. This person experiences visions that are fragmented and indistinct, but do contain shreds of truth.


The Rambam found it especially important to emphasize the difference between these visionaries and dreamers, and true prophets. His commentators explain that he alludes here to the Muslim prophet Muhammad, who was not a true prophet, but rather was one of these visionaries. The Rambam formulates the difference between the two categories as follows:


It is further necessary to understand that some persons belonging to the third class perceive scenes, dreams, and confused images, when awake, in the form of a prophetic vision. They then believe that they are prophets; they wonder that they perceive visions, and think that they have acquired wisdom without training. They fall into grave errors as regards important philosophical principles, and see a strange mixture of true and imaginary things. All this is the consequence of the strength of their imaginative faculty and the weakness of their logical faculty, which has not developed and has not passed from potentiality to actuality.


In the last shiur, we discussed the complex dual role that the imaginative faculty plays in the spiritual life of the prophet. First, it is involved in receiving the prophetic message – and it blurs its clarity. Second, the imaginative faculty helps the prophet to translate his intellectual insights into everyday images – and hence is essential for the prophet's functioning as a political and social leader. In the paragraph cited above, we once again encounter this duality in the Rambam's approach to the imaginative faculty. On one hand, it plays an important role in mediating between the prophet and the people. On the other hand, when the imaginative faculty is stronger than the intellectual faculty, it distorts or confuses the intellectual perceptions and blurs the human consciousness.


B.        Divine Influence and Influencing Others


The divine influence that a person receives through his intellectual faculty also enables him to orientate himself outwardly and to influence others in turn. The Rambam maintains that only a person of great sensitivity and ability, who absorbs a particularly great degree of divine influence, is able to transfer it onward:


Each of the first two classes is again subdivided, and contains two sections, namely, those who receive the influence only as far as is necessary for their own perfection, and those who receive it in so great a measure that it suffices for their own perfection and that of others.


When a person receives such a great outpouring of divine influence, it "overflows" from within him and reaches others, too. This applies to philosophers as well as to prophets:


A member of the first class, the wise men, might have his mind influenced only so far that he is enabled to search, to understand, to know, and to discern, without attempting to be a teacher or an author, having neither the desire nor the capacity. However, he may also be influenced to such a degree that he becomes a teacher and an author. The same is the case with the second class. A person may receive a prophecy enabling him to perfect himself but not others; but he may also receive such a prophecy as would compel him to address his fellowmen, teach them, and benefit them through his perfection.


Here the Rambam comes back to the issue that is at the heart of his social philosophy: the popularization of knowledge. In his view, a wise person who teaches others, either by speaking to them or by writing books, does so not only as a result of his communicative nature (as opposed to his colleague who secludes himself in the library), but also because the divine influence fills him to such a degree and with such power that he cannot contain it all within himself; he is compelled to convey some of it onward in the form of output.


The characteristic of the intellect is this: what the intellect of one receives is transmitted to another, and so on, till a person is reached that can only himself be perfected by such an influence, but is unable to communicate it to others.


The populist sage, eager to bring his message to the people, is one who has actually received the greater measure of divine influence.


All of this is said with regard to sages, but the same applies to prophets. There are prophets who suffice with achieving their own perfection, while there are others who are dispatched to fill socio-educational roles, to help perfect the world. In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam writes:


A prophet may experience prophecy for his own sake alone - i.e. to broaden his perspective and to increase his knowledge, allowing him to know more about the lofty concepts than he knew before.


It is also possible that he will be sent to one of the nations of the world, or to the inhabitants of a particular city or kingdom, to prepare them and to inform them what they should do, or to cause them to desist from evil which they are doing. (“Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” 7:7)


It is those prophets who are entrusted with a social and educational mission whom the Rambam holds in the highest esteem. He writes admiringly of the devotion of these campaigner-prophets:


It is the nature of this element in man that he who possesses an additional degree of that influence is compelled to address his fellowmen, under all circumstances, whether he is listened to or not, even if he injures himself thereby. Thus we find prophets who did not leave off speaking to the people until they were slain…


In this context the Rambam cites the testimony of Yirmiyahu:


"For the Word of the Lord was unto me a reproach and a mocking all day, and I said, ‘I will not mention it, nor will I again speak in His name’; but it was in my heart as a burning fire, shut up in my bones, and I was wearied to keep it, and could not prevail." (Yirmiyahu 8:9)


The prophet who receives this outpouring of divine influence is overcome by an uncontrollable urge to convey the message further, using his intellectual and imaginative faculties.


C.        Courage and Intuition


In chapter thirty-eight of Book II, the Rambam goes on to describe the personality of the prophet, focusing on two particular traits. The first is courage. Every person possesses some degree of courage, but it varies from one person to the next. The prophet's social mission requires a very powerful degree of courage:


Their courage was so great that, as we know, a single individual, with only a staff in his hand, dared to address a great king in his desire to deliver a nation from his service. He was not frightened or terrified...


The second quality that characterizes the prophet is his intuition – the ability to intuit true knowledge from partial information. The Rambam does not regard this ability as any sort of supernatural miracle; rather, he views it as a cognitive personality mechanism:


By means of the intuitive faculty, the intellect can pass over all the preceding and surrounding circumstances and draw inferences from them very quickly, almost instantaneously. This same faculty enables some persons to foretell important coming events.


The intuitive faculty is depicted here as an efficient use of intellectual resources. A person with reliable intuition is someone who thinks quickly and efficiently, such that he is able to perceive partial data and very quickly draw sound conclusions from them. Prophets are endowed with a well-developed power of intuition, and this faculty – like the trait of courage – is further strengthened by the influence of the intellect. Thus the prophets, "through the excellence of their intuitive faculty, could quickly foretell the future." Here the Rambam adds the following important comment:


The true prophets undoubtedly conceive ideas that result from premises which human reason could not comprehend by itself; thus they tell things which men could not tell by reason and ordinary imagination alone.


Here we see a distinction between prophets and philosophers – not only in their social mission, but also in their actual knowledge. The Rambam explains the psychological mechanism that facilitates prophecy: this includes the intellectual faculty, the imaginative faculty, and the faculty of intuition. However, prophecy entails more than the combination of these abilities as we know them. The divine influence that comes to them is on such a high level that the intellectual faculty achieves its insight intuitively, rather than through the usual channel of rational thought and deduction. A regular person can intuit insights only through his intuitive faculty and through his imaginative faculty. A prophet can intuit knowledge through his intellectual faculty, too.


Here we must recall the metaphor of the flashes of lightning that the Rambam cites at the beginning of the Guide. The very image of lightning as a metaphor for prophetic insight suggests an intuitive flash, rather than knowledge that is acquired and accumulated through painstaking deductive thinking. Obviously, the intuitive insights of the prophet do not take the place of regular theoretical knowledge; rather, they are an additional dimension that goes beyond it.


Following his description of the intuitive nature of prophetic knowledge, the Rambam concludes chapter thirty-eight by coming back to the profound chasm separating true prophets from dreamers and visionaries. The tangible images that the latter experience sometimes also include elements of knowledge, but these were known to these dreamers previously; they do not come to them through any special inspiration from the outside. Only prophets are able to integrate precise, logical consciousness with intuition and inspiration.


Translation by Kaeren Fish