Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stick Figures

Before the "words" there was the "stick-figure".

By 11th grade I was in RS's gemara class. I had heard about his "stick-figures" from some of my friends who had already attended his Talmud class the year before. When we would discuss an issue in the Talmud he would diagram out the issue on the board in the form of "stick-figures". Lengthy discussions were had on how to represent seemingly simple halakhic acts in a form akin to a choreographer's notation system. The major difference was that we also had to represent the mental states involved in each action. Much time was spent getting them just right. What I did not realize at the time was that "stick-figuring" was a method of exploring and becoming aware of our "souls".

Later in the year he introduced us to Maimonides' Eight (Introductory) Chapters to Pirkei Avot. Maimonides' main focus was the "soul". However, it read more like biology and psychology than the "philosophy" I was accustomed to. (I came to realize that "psyche" with its Greek etymology is much closer in connotation to what Maimonides was discussing - especially considering the Aristotelian philosophical tradition to which his work belongs. However, "psyche" with its modern positivist connotations does not capture Maimonides' conception of the mind as transcendent from matter.)

At the core of the Chapters is Maimonides' treatment of the "diseases" of the soul. He compares the diseases of the soul with physical diseases:
"just as when people, unacquainted with the science of medicine, realize that they are sick, and consult a physician, who tells them what they must do...so those whose souls become ill should consult the wise, the physicians of the soul..."
RS clearly took this statement to heart.

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