Maimonide’s View on Divine Providence, Acc. to Moshe Halbertal

From Maimonides: Life and Thought by Moshe Halbertal (Princeton, 2014) pp. 338-341

 

“Maimonides’ position departs in no uncertain terms from the traditional view of providence, which believes that God punishes the wicked and rewards the ordinary (that is, those who are neither wicked nor virtuous). According to Maimonides, the wicked and the ordinary, constituting most of humanity, are relegated to happenstance. But despite this dramatic divide, the concept he presents has an internal religious logic: providence is not a basic given and does not apply to all people; it is, rather, something achieved only by a few. Throughout existence, God attends only to species as a whole, but perfected human beings merit individual providence. How that individual providence operates, however, is subject to widely differing interpretations.

 

The conservative reading of the Guide offers one such interpretation. The causal structure is what controls all existence and the fate of most men, but perfected men are subject to God’s special attention, and He exercises His will to protect them from the harms and misfortunes that befall other creatures. On this reading, nature and wisdom are maintained with respect to reality as a whole, but when necessary, divine will bursts through and acts within it. If that is so, Maimonides rejected the [Islamic] Ash’arite position, according to which God’s willful providence governs every individual and event to the point of negating the entire causal order. But he also rejects the Aristotelian position, which sees the causal order as the exclusive principle governing all existence, wicked and perfected alike. According to the conservative reading, Maimonides’ view of providence parallels his views of creation and prophecy. With respect to creation, he preserved a necessary, fundamental element of creation in time-the creation of existence ex nihilo – and allows for the action of divine will when necessary. With respect to prophecy, he interpreted the phenomenon as a natural one but left room for a supernatural exercise of will in the case of Moses’ prophecy. The same structure can be seen in connection with providence. The causal order applies everywhere except with regard to perfected people, who are protected by God’s will. Accordingly, the principle of causal wisdom is not the exclusive explanation for what happens in the universe, and it is limited in areas related to the principles of religion-creation, prophecy, and  providence.

 

The Guide’s philosophical readers, for their part – that is, those who understood it as affirming eternal preexistence-took a very different view of the idea that perfected people were subject to divine providence on an individual basis. On their reading, which seems to have better internal, textual logic, perfected individuals are not providentially overseen by means of divine intervention volitionally bestowed only on them. Providential oversight is afforded them, rather, by reason of causal reality itself, and it can be accounted for in terms of wisdom, not will. The perfection of the individuals who enjoy providence is commensurate with their apprehension of God and the world, as Maimonides emphasized, and that apprehension affords them two advantages that distinguish them from other men and beasts. Those advantages are theirs without any intervention of the divine will.

 

The first advantage is that of a place in the world to come; their souls do not perish and they are not eliminated from the world. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believed that providence implies the possibility of eternity and stability inherent in the causal order. That capacity for eternity is granted to those who attain knowledge and become bound to the active intellect; accordingly, providence – bestowed, in Aristotle’s view, only on sorts whose eternity is ensured – pertains to perfected individuals.

 

Samuel Ibn Tibbon read Maimonides this way, understanding him to hold the view that individual providence did not involve willful divine intervention in an individual’s life. In a letter on providence that he sent to Maimonides (and that Maimonides never answered), he afforded a philosophical interpretation to the concept of prophecy as it appeared in the Guide. In his view, misfortunes befell perfected people in the same way as others, and God did not intervene to free them from poverty, illness, or travail. But because they adhere to the proper goal of apprehending the intelligibles, which assures them eternal life, they do not regard these events as troubles. They do not consider such things as loss of wealth, illness, or handicap to be losses, for they are bound to what truly matters and what assures a person eternal life. Accordingly, in addition to the eternal life these individuals are assured of, they experience providence in their day-to-day lives, expressed not in the form of events that happen to them but as a profound change in consciousness.

 

The second advantage that apprehension affords to individuals overseen by providence was formulated by Moses Ibn Tibbon, Samuel’s son. Unlike his father, Moses held that those perfected in thought were protected from troubles in a practical way, but not because God willfully directed reality to their benefit, as the conservative reading would have it. Rather, the knowledge of the world that these people acquired allowed them to live better-protected lives, and that is their second natural advantage: they know how to foresee risks and properly assess situations. Moreover, their focus on the higher goal of knowing God frees them from the mental and physical woes that ensue when a person’s life is controlled by his desires. Perfected individuals are distinguished, then, by being providentially protected from the afflictions of the world to a greater extent than other people, bur in the understanding associated with a preexisting universe, that distinctiveness does not entail a miraculous departure from the causal order. The protection and endurance simply reflect the fact that the causal order itself does well for the good.

 

Conservative and philosophical readers agree that Maimonides’ great innovation here was the idea that providence was something afforded only to individuals and that other people were given over to chance. He thereby rejected the position of the [Islamic] Kalam, which saw divine intervention in every event that transpired in the world, and dissented from the traditional Jewish view that individual providence governed all people. According to Maimonides, God’s presence and providence, for most people, are mediated via the causal order that He created, an order to which people are subject. The dispute between the conservative and philosophical readings pertains to how the providence extended to perfected individuals should be understood: is it effected through willful divine intervention, as the [Islamic]  Kalam understood it to be, or is it built into the causal order itself, to be understood in terms of eternity and immortality, as Aristotle understood providence with respect to other species? The philosophical reading affords Maimonides’ acceptance of reality, emphatically declared in the discussion of theodicy, a more profound meaning. Existence itself, structured through divine wisdom, corresponds to the varying degrees of human virtue, responding to differences among people without any need for willful divine intervention.”

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