Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IN order to obtain a correct estimate of ourselves, we must reflect on the results of the investigations which have been made into the dimensions and the distances of the spheres and the stars. The distances are clearly stated in radii of the earth, and are well known, since the circumference and the radius of the earth are known. It has been proved that the distance between the centre of the earth and the outer surface of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of nearly eight thousand seven hundred solar years. Suppose a day's journey to be forty legal miles of two thousand ordinary cubits, and consider the great and enormous distance! or in the words of Scripture, "Is not God in the height of heaven? and behold the height of the stars, how high they are!" (Job xxii. 12); that is to say, learn from the height of the heavens how far we are from comprehending God, for there is an enormous distance between ourselves and these corporeal objects, and the latter are greatly distinguished from us by their position, and hidden from us as regards their essence and most of their actions. How much more incomprehensible therefore is their Maker, who is incorporeal! The great distance which has been proved is, in fact, the least that can be assumed. The distance between the centre of the earth and the surface of the sphere of the fixed stars can by no means be less, but it may possibly be many times as great: for the measure of the thickness of the body of the spheres has not been proved, and the least possible has been assumed, as appears from the treatises On the Distances. The same is the case with the substances which are between every two spheres. According to logical inference, as has been mentioned by Thabit, the thickness of these substances cannot be accurately stated, since they do not contain any star, which might serve as a means if obtaining it. As to the thickness of the sphere of the fixed stars, it is at least four years' journey, as may be inferred from the measure of the stars contained in the sphere. The body of each of these stars is more than ninety times as big as the globe of the earth, and it is possible that the thickness of the sphere is still greater. Of the ninth sphere, that causes the daily revolution of the whole system of spheres, we do not know the dimensions; it contains no stars, and therefore we have no means of finding out its magnitude. Now consider the enormous dimensions and the large number of these material beings. If the whole earth is infinitely small in comparison with the sphere of the stars, what is man compared with all these created beings! How, then, could any one of us imagine that these things exist for his sake
and benefit, and that they are his tools! This is the result of an examination of the corporeal beings: how much more so will this be the result of an examination into the nature of the Intelligences!
The following question may be asked against the opinion of philosophers on this subject: There is no doubt that from a philosophical point of view it would be a mistake to assume that the spheres exist for the purpose of regulating the fate of one individual person or community; but it is not absurd to think that they serve to regulate the affairs of mankind, since these mighty individual beings would serve to give existence to the individual members of the species, the number of which, according to the philosophers, will never come to an end. We can best illustrate this by the following simile: An artisan makes iron tools of a hundred-weight for the purpose of making a small needle of the weight of a grain. If only one needle had to be produced, we admit that it would certainly be bad management, though it would not be entirely a failure: but if with those enormous tools needle after needle is produced, even many hundred-weights of needles, the preparation of those tools would be a wise act and excellent management. In a similar manner the object of the spheres may be the continuance of successive genesis and destruction; and the succession of genesis and destruction serves, as has already been said, to give existence to mankind. This idea is supported by Biblical texts and sayings [of our Sages]. The philosopher replies thus: If the difference between the heavenly bodies and the transient individual members of the species consisted in their different sizes, this opinion could be maintained: but as the difference consists in their essence, it remains improbable that the superior beings should be the means of giving existence to the lower ones. In short, this question supports our belief in the Creation; and this is the principal object of this chapter. [It serves] besides [a second purpose]. I frequently hear from those who know something about astronomy, that our Sages exaggerated the distances [of the heavenly bodies] when they said that the thickness of each sphere is five hundred years' journey; the distance of the seven spheres from each other five hundred years' journey, so that the distance of the outer surface of the seventh sphere from the centre of the earth is seven thousand years' journey. Those who hear such statements consider them [at first thought] as exaggeration, and believe that the distance is not so great. But you may ascertain from the data proved in scientific treatises on the distances, that the centre of the earth is distant from the inner surface of the seventh sphere, that of Saturn, nearly seven thousand and twenty-four years' journey. The number eight thousand and seven hundred given by us, refers to the distance of the centre of the earth from the inner surface of the eighth sphere. The distance of the spheres from each other, mentioned by astronomers, is identical with the thickness of the substance that intervenes between one sphere and the other, and does not imply that there is a vacuum. You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or
accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.