What moral rights looked like in the 12th century—the story of "Guide of the Perplexed"

This Kat guesses that most Kat readers do not spend much time studying medieval philosophy. While not surprising, it is a pity, because like philosophers before and after, their medieval colleagues also addressed fundamental issues, with a religious overlay. On occasion, they even addressed matters that have a resonance with modern intellectual property.

Consider the exhortation that the renowned 12th century Jewish philosopher cum theologian Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), popularly referred to as "the Rambam", made to readers of his classic work, "The Guide of the Perplexed", completed in about 1190. He wrote in the Introduction:
I adjure—by God, may He be exalted!—every reader of this Treatise of mine not to comment upon a single word of it and not to explain to another anything in it save that which has been explained and commented upon in the words of the famous Sages of our Law who preceded me. But whatever he understands from this Treatise of those things that have not been said by any of our famous Sages other than myself should not be explained to another; nor should he hasten to refute me, for that which he understood me to say might be contrary to my intention. He thus would harm me in return for my having wanted to benefit him and would 'repay evil for good' [translation into English by Shlomo Pines, 1965].
What to make of this? Our underlining premise is that then, as well as now, authors were concerned with controlling how third parties use their work. The basic mechanism of the modern author is regulating reproduction of the work (the subject matter of copyright) and preventing affronts to the work and the author's connection with it (the subject matter of moral rights). Both these bundles of rights emerged from specific circumstances; for copyright they were technological and commercial changes, while for moral rights, developing philosophical views of the self.

Stated otherwise, none of these rights enjoyed by the author was preordained by, or inherent in, the nature of books and the conditions by which they are created and used. In the word so favored by the Academy, "contextualization" matters. This means that there was a time before the printing press changed the nature of the book and opened up commercial opportunities, and prior to the manner by which we understand personhood and individualism. The Rambam was creating his written tractate in one such pre-modern era.

The Rambam was born in 1138 in Cordova in Andalusia in modern Spain, which in the 11th and early 12th centuries was arguably the most fertile cultural and intellectual center in Europe, a melting pot of Muslim, Jewish and Christians, here. However, the arrival of the Almohads, a fundamentalist tribe of Muslim Berbers from North Africa, brought an end to that cultural flourishing. The Rambam and his family left Cordova, first to other places in Andalusia, and then to North Africa and a brief stay in Palestine before settling in Egypt.

All the while, he was composing works on theological and philosophical subjects (as well as on medicine) of import through to the present. They cemented his reputation as a scholar and magistrate while he was also serving as the personal physician to the Sultan and serving as the leader of the community. His reach extended from Yemen to Provence and beyond into Europe. Many regard "The Guide of the Perplexed", written in Arabic but in Hebrew script, as his crowning achievement.

More than his other works, the Rambam was preoccupied with who should be the audience of his tractate. Even in the context of the pre-printing press world in the 12th century, he stated that it was intended for an elite small circle who had mastered the astronomy, mathematics and logic of the day (poetic skills were also valued), but needed guidance on how to apply philosophical principles and thinking (primarily Greek in origin) in understanding the holy scripture.

The Rambam's greatest fear was that people would read the work but not understand it, causing irreparable harm to their analytical and confessional well-being. While he would not have likely used the following imagery, such readers would suffer the fate of Icarus, having come too close to the literary sun, they face a fatal plunge into destructive misunderstanding.

The tractate is addressed to a single student disciple, Joseph the son of Judah, with the express expectation that it would be read solely by him and an additional small group of suitable readers. How small a group the Rambam intended remains unclear, as the work was translated into Hebrew with the Rambam's active cooperation, here. It was soon translated into Latin and other languages. Whatever the number of readers envisioned by Rambam, his view of the relationship between the text and its readers is clear: the conditions by which it is to be read are being circumscribed by the author.

This means, first, that any explanation of the text given to another person is limited to that which has already been explained by Sages prior to the Rambam. This reader may explain and comment on the text to third parties, but only if such a comment or explanation is wholly grounded on what has been already authoritatively explained by Sages. Second, if the reader has an understanding of the text that is not grounded in the prior authority of the Sages, he may not explain such understanding to another person. Third, a reader "should not hasten" to seek to refute the text, because in so doing, it might lead to the reader's misunderstanding of the text.

No less than in modern copyright or moral rights, the Rambam sought to limit how a third-party reader may use the work, but in his own way, in the context of his own time, and for his own goals. As in moral rights, the Rambam was worried about the integrity and preventing distortions to his text, but the manner by which he sought to do so was different. Changes to the written text did not concern him (although he later would be vitally concerned about how the treatise would be translated, a form of control over the derivative work?) but rather how readers use the text.

One can view this as the Rambam seeking control over the ideational in connection with his work, but not in the modern sese of idea versus expression. For him, the restrictions are intended to go to how the reader may mentally process the text, something that might seem out of place to a modern reader.

But not to all modern readers: This Kat has encountered several modern books in connection with "The Guide of the Perplexed" where the respective author states that he is abiding by the Rambam's entreaty. For them, the Rambam's plea still has force as a binding self-enforcement mechanism.

Context, context, context—both then and now.

Picture on lower left by Notas de prensa and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

What moral rights looked like in the 12th century—the story of "Guide of the Perplexed" What moral rights looked like in the 12th century—the story of "Guide of the Perplexed" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, January 04, 2023 Rating: 5

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