Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The relationship of the rational, imaginative and emotional faculties in man. (continued)

In the preceding post, I discussed Rambam’s understanding of the functions of the imaginative and rational faculties. For man to act according to the conclusions arrived to by these two faculties he needs to avail himself of the third component of his Nefesh [psyche] – the emotional faculty. Without emotions, man will not feel compelled to act. Man has to want to act and the wanting itself is an emotion. He uses his body, his hands, feet and his physical abilities to satisfy the emotions triggered in him by either the imaginative faculty or the rational or both, when combined.

שמונה פרקים לרמב"ם פרק א

והחלק המתעורר - הוא הכח אשר בו ישתוקק האדם לדבר מה, או ימאסהו. ומזה הכח יבואו פעולות הבקשה והבריחה, ובחירת דבר מה או ההתרחקות ממנו, והכעס וההתרצות, והפחד והעוז, והאכזריות והרחמנות, והאהבה והשנאה, והרבה מאלו המקרים הנפשיים.

The emotional part: it is the faculty that makes a man desire things or be repulsed by them. This faculty is the cause for seeking out and fleeing, choosing something or distancing from it, anger and reconciliation, fear and courage, cruelty and pity, love and hate and other such feelings.

Emotions are therefore the transitional elements needed to go from cogitation to action. They are not independent but are a tool used by the imaginative and rational faculties in the process of acting on their cogitations. Rambam understand this faculty to be the snake referred to in the allegory in the story of Adam and Chava.

Another noteworthy Midrashic remark of our Sages is the following: "The serpent had a rider, the rider was as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Eve: this rider was Samaël." Samaël is the name generally applied by our Sages to Satan… There is a meaning in this name [Samaël]), as there is also in the name naḥash ("serpent").” (MN 2:30).[1]

Emotions, represented by the serpent, are always “ridden”. The rider, whatever it is, controls them and triggers them. Being ridden by Satan, who represents the physical needs of man, the part of man that is transient these emotions bring about actions that satisfy the urges.

Emotions are therefore a reflection of what triggered them. In addition to the type of action emotions trigger there is a different quality to them depending on where they come from. When the imaginative faculty triggers an emotion, a wish to act, it is limited to reenacting memories. Its creativity is confined to experiencing the past, possibly with new combinations and flavors. On the other hand when the rational faculty triggers an emotion, especially when the trigger is the part that allows for abstract thinking, it can be a completely new experience caused by a new insight. This is the meaning of Rambam that we quoted in the earlier post:

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים אלו, ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם וכיוצא בו, ויראה חכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא בכל היצורים וכל הברואים--מוסיף אהבה למקום, ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא

When a person gets an insight into the beauty of the universe and the great wisdom involved in its existence, he feels a surge of love and a thirst for even more love of God, the cause of all this greatness. This emotion makes one want to know more, learn more and do more.

Similarly, a prophet takes the insight that he was able to abstract using his rational faculty in his contemplation of the way God runs the world and filters it through his past experiences, through his imaginative faculty. In that process, he is able to apply the abstraction and transform it into a practical vision of what should happen. That triggers an emotion which compels him to do something about it, tell his people how to act to forestall a bad outcome or to bring about a good one.

“Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most Perfect development of the imaginative faculty.” (MN 2:36)


“The prophets must have had these two forces, courage and intuition, highly developed, and these were still more strengthened when they were under the influence of the Active Intellect. Their courage was so great that, e.g., Moses, 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, because he had been told, "I will be with thee" (Exod. iii. 12). The prophets have not all the same degree of courage, but none of them have been entirely without it.”

A prophet uses his imaginative faculty to translate the abstract concept into practical experience and this combined idea triggers an emotion that compels him to act on his vision.

My point is that “spirituality”, or the emotions like love, elation and awe have their place in a rational system of religion. It just depends on what action an emotion causes. When its “rider”, the trigger, is the rational faculty in charge of the other faculties, it can be the cause of great good and creativity. When a person is seeking the ultimate truth, the reason for existence, the emotion brought about by greater knowledge, is love and awe and a need for even more knowledge to get even closer to the beloved, God. On the other hand “spirituality” triggered by the imaginative faculty alone, the past experience of a man, puts him in touch with a mirage. It feels good but is far from reality.

“Those, however, who think of God, and frequently mention His name, without any correct notion of Him, but merely following a mere imagining or following a belief adopted because of his reliance on the authority of somebody else, are, in my opinion, like those who remain outside the palace and distant from it. They do not mention the name of God in truth, nor do they reflect on it. That which they imagine and mention does not correspond to any being in existence: it is a thing invented by their imagination, as has been shown by us in our discussion on the Divine Attributes.” (MN3:51)

[1] (I always had difficulties with this Rambam however, over Shabbat, I was learning Ralbag’s introduction to Breishit at the urging of Rabbi Sacks of www.rambamsystem.blogspot.com and decided to compare him with his quasi-contemporary Rabbi Levi ben Avraham in Livyat Chen and saw that he sees the serpent as the emotional faculty and a light bulb went off.)


  1. Great posts.See also Hilchos Teshuvah perek 10-'shogeh bah tomid'.

  2. Daat y thanks. Good reference.