Maimonides on divine providence

Divine providence (השגחה פרטית /Hashgachah Pratit)

“Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”

– Divine Providence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

How do Jews view divine providence? The existence of it is assumed in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and in all rabbinic literature, yet classical philosophy seems to allow little if any room for God to miraculously intervene in the world.  Divine providence thus became a topic of great discussion among the Jewish philosophers, including Saadya Gaon, Gersonides and Maimonides.

In the Guide for the Perplexed III:17, Maimonides mentions five possibilities for what divine providence could be. The first four possibilities he describes, and politely disagrees with.


e) The fifth opinion is Maimonides’ preferred one: “Divine providence in my personal view is a consequence of divine emanation. The species which is touched by this overflowing of the intellectual and thereby becomes itself endowed with intellect, through which it is made aware of all that intellect can reveal – that species is the one which is attended by divine providence, and all of its actions are accountable. [Maimonides then goes on to explain why animals are not covered by providence, and why Scripture shows that people are.] “Try to grasp my position in its full implications: I do not believe that anything is hidden from God, nor do I ascribe to God any incapacity. Rather, what I believe is that providence is a necessary consequence of intellect. For providence can only flow from a mind of consummate perfection – and all who are touched by that outpouring sufficiently to be reached by mind are reached by providence as well. This is the position which in my view is in harmony not only with reason but also with the texts of revelation.”

Maimonides’ preferred commentator and translator, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, explains that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only: Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significance.

– Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

Marvin Fox, one of the 20th century’s leading experts on Maimonides, writes that “I am inclined to think that Maimonides’ point is not that God actively intervenes in the natural order so as to protect the deserving from every misfortune, but rather that when one has achieved this very high level of intellectual fellowship with God no earthly misfortune is of any consequence. From a mature perspective the troubles of a child are childish and have little true importance. Men of true knowledge have a similar view of what ordinary men consider to be great misfortunes, and are thus protected from them. It is not that nothing happens to them that is from an ordinary scheme painful or injurious, but that such events are of little consequence in their scheme of values.”

– Marvin Fox, “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990, p.316

Charles M. Raffel, at Yeshiva University, agrees with the philosophical views above. Here are excerpts from his paper “Providence as Consequent upon the Intellect: Maimonides’ Theory of Providence”

AJS Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 25-71 (Association for Jewish Studies)

Maimonides’ own opinion on providence emerges at the end of chapter 17 and is further elaborated in chapter 18 of the Guide, Part III. The theory is encapsulated in the phrase “providence according to the intellect.” Aristotle had been presented by Maimonides (after Alexander) as denying individual providence in the sublunar sphere, but admitting a secondary “kind of providence” to the species of man and other animals. While Maimonides castigates Aristotle’s denial of individual providence, the majority of scholars see in Maimonides’ own opinion, “providence according to the intellect,” an affinity to Aristotle which Maimonides is not willing to admit openly. The most radical claim, namely, that Maimonides’ view is Aristotle’s view (and is in agreement with the hidden view of the Torah), was offered by Joseph Ibn Caspi and was reaffirmed by a modern scholar, Norbert Samuelson. Samuelson writes on Ibn Caspi’s analysis:
“… Maimonides’ real view agrees with that of Aristotle, the view of both agrees with the hidden meaning of the Torah, and the explicit or overt meaning of the Torah, which is the belief of the Jewish masses, is never affirmed to be a dogma or root belief of rabbinic Judaism.6 ”
While Ibn Caspi expresses this view on the three major theories in the Guide, creation, prophecy, and providence, Samuelson agrees definitively only on the last issue: “I am certain that he is right about the issue of divine providence.”7 A similar view, that Maimonides’ opinion is fully consonant with Aristotle’s opinion and, most probably, based on it, had been suggested by Samuel Ibn Tibbon in a letter written in 1199 to Maimonides, and argued for, independently, by Shlomo Pines.8
6. Norbert Samuelson, Review of Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi by Barry Mesch, Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (1976): 108.
Joseph Ibn Caspi, ‘Amude Kesef, ed. S. Werbluner (Frankfurt, 1848). On creation, pp. 98-101. On prophecy, p. 113. On providence, pp. 126-128. The comment on providence is as follows: “Undoubtedly, Aristotle’s and even his teacher Plato’s opinion on this matter are equivalent to the Torah’s view, according to the Guide’s interpretation” (p. 128). See also Barry Mesch, Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi (Leiden, 1975) p. 103.
For the alleged equivalence of Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ views, see also Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov, Commentary on the Guide (in standard Hebrew translation of the Guide) on III/18 27b: “For Aristotle’s view on providence is the Master’s [Maimonides’], no more, no less.”
7. Samuelson, “Review,” p. 108.
8. Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s position is reviewed below. For Pines, see “Translator’s Introduction,” pp. lxv-lxvii.
The identification of Maimonides’ view with Aristotle’s view involves a sophisticated reading of the text in III/17, for Maimonides both explicitly and implicitly denies that connection. The sophisticated reading of the text is ultimately connected to the view that Maimonides at times says what he doesn’t mean and at other times means what he doesn’t say. The champion of this view, which sees an esoteric-exoteric dualism in Maimonides’ thought, has been Leo Strauss. On this particular issue Strauss, however, sees Plato rather than Aristotle behind Maimonides’ treatment of providence.
Strauss’s initial comment on Maimonides’ theory, in his article on Maimonides’ and al-Farabi’s political science,9 is that, both in structure and content, Maimonides’ account of providence parallels Plato’s account. Both state a public doctrine which affirms God’s justice in rewarding and punishing all human behavior, and a private doctrine which restricts divine providence to an intellectual elite. Since Plato is unnamed and apparently unmentioned in Maimonides’ historical review of speculation on providence in III/17, Strauss takes as his task the rehabilitation of Plato as the prime influence on Maimonides’ thinking. Plato’s statement in the Laws that God knows individuals and rewards and punishes justly was voiced for its political utility (according to Strauss). This Platonic move parallels, and perhaps determines, Maimonides’ understanding of the biblical doctrine that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.

….Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s letter represents the most sustained and comprehensive treatment which Maimonides’ theory of providence received at the hands of his medieval commentators. The heart of Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s question is the apparent contradiction between the theory of providence expressed in the early chapters of Part III of the Guide (chapters 17-18, 22-23) and the treatment of special providence for the perfect man in chapter 51 of Part III.
This special providence is described by Maimonides in the following passage from chapter 51:
“If a man’s thought is free from distraction, if he apprehends Him, may He be exalted, in the right way and rejoices in what he apprehends, that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind. For he is with God and God is with him.”‘5
Ibn Tibbon reviews his own understanding of the earlier chapters and concludes that Maimonides’ own theory of providence as a function of intellectual perfection is expanded and clarified in the chapters (22-23) which deal with the interpretation of Job. After experiencing intellectual knowledge of God, Job’s attitude toward the evil and suffering of this world is transformed. After acquiring wisdom, Job’s earthly misfortune, loss of wealth, health, and family, is insignificant in comparison to the fortune of ultimate felicity and immortality, and he may accept his earthly misfortune now as something beyond his understanding.
Ibn Tibbon argues that Maimonides seems to contradict himself. The special providence for the perfect in chapter 51 involves physical immunity from evil, “that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind,” while providence for the perfected Job involves only an intellectual immunity from evil or suffering. Ibn
Tibbon poses the contradiction:
“Because [Maimonides] did not say that only before Job acquired certain knowledge of God was he susceptible to misfortune, while after he knew God it was impossible for misfortune to strike him. …. But he did say in the Guide III/22 if he [Job] had been wise he would not have been affected by any of the [misfortunes] which overcame him.’ 16”
Ibn Tibbon devotes the next section of his letter to an attempt to prove that Maimonides’ own theory of providence, as developed in chapters 17 and 18, is more consonant with general philosophic opinion than Maimonides himself admitted. Ibn Tibbon writes that Job’s view of providence after acquiring wisdom may be seen as equivalent to Aristotle’s own theory. (Maimonides himself identifies Job’s initial, pre-enlightenment view with that of Aristotle: “The opinion attributed to Job is in keeping with the opinion of Aristotle.”) 17 This attempt by Ibn Tibbon to stretch Aristotle’s limited notion of providence from the translunar to the sublunar, however tenuous, is based on the assumption that a universal framework of individual contingencies may be conceived as built into the natural world order.
While Maimonides distinguishes, against Aristotle, between the contingent fact of a ship’s sinking and the providential act of the sailors’ fate, Ibn Tibbon tries to prove that Aristotle himself could maintain this distinction.
Furthermore, basing his argument on other passages in Maimonides’ works and the citation of al-Farabi in chapter 18, Ibn Tibbon envisions a broad consensus of philosophers who share the notion that an individual’s providence is mediated by the development of his intellect.
Maimonides cites the following from al-Farabi: “Those who have the capacity of making their soul pass from one moral qualilty to another are those of whom Plato has said that God’s providence watches over them to a higher degree.” (18) For Ibn Tibbon, the identification of Maimonides’ theory with that of the philosophers is complete, if not total: “Apparently, all the philosophers agree that God’s providence over individual men is consequent upon the intellect.” 19
16. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” pp. 355-356.
17. Guide, 111/23, p. 494.
18. Guide, III/18, p. 476.
19. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” p. 357

…. After exploring three ultimately unsuccessful possibilities-miraculous intervention, physical immunity through divination, and intellectual immunity-Ibn Tibbon explores a fourth possibility. Perhaps Maimonides is contradicting himself on purpose, in order to hide an esoteric doctrine, and our text, therefore, contains a contradiction of the kind which Maimonides describes in his Introduction.
“The seventh cause. In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.” (24)
… [Maimonides writes in The Guide] “The purpose of all these things is to show that our intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them.” 79
The lesson to be learned, revealed to Job, is the disjunction in meaning between man’s providence and God’s providence, and between man’s governance and God’s governance.
[Maimonides continues] “But the notion of God’s providence is not the same as the notion of our providence; nor is God’s notion of the governance of the things created by Him the same as the notion of our governance of that which we govern. The two notions are not comprised in one definition, contrary to what is thought by all those who are confused, and there is nothing in common between the two except the name alone.” 80
79. Guide, III/23, p. 496.
80. Ibid.
81. Guide, III/23, p. 497.
…This is the knowledge which Job lacked, which he needed to end his suffering and which he received in prophetic revelation. This knowledge alleviates suffering, and rather than fostering man’s doubts of God’s knowledge or His providence, according to Maimonides’ terse statement, adds to man’s love of God. Job’s acquisition of knowledge involved knowledge of a specific kind, the “negative” understanding that God’s providence is not to be likened to man’s providence, that God’s ways are mysteriously incomprehensible. Job has become privileged to a kind of immunity from suffering, based on his understanding of the limits of human understanding….
… Considering the specific example of the fate of a passenger on a foundering ship, Maimonides argues that a man’s decision to board the ship is not due to chance, but is based on intellect. (96) I take this to mean that the man’s decision to board the ship or not is based on considerations and deliberations of the practical intellect, his appraisal of the ship’s construction, of dangerous wind currents, the competency of the ship’s crew, and given the “great dangers such as arise in sea voyages,” the validity of his need to take this voyage. In the general statement in which the intellectual overflow offers guidance over the actions of righteous men, (97) providential care would seem to be subsumed by one’s personal deployment of moral intelligence or practical wisdom. This interpretation understands providence to be a direct and natural result of the deliberations of one’s own practical intellect.
The Aristotelian notion of phronisis, translated variously as “practical reason,” “practical wisdom,” “practical intelligence,” and “prudence,” would seem to provide the springboard for Maimonides’ theory. Aristotle is the source of Maimonides’ distinction between the practical and theoretical components of man’s rationality. Phronesis is described by Aristotle in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics.
96. Guide, III/17, p. 472.
97. Guide, 111/18, p. 475: “For it is this overflow of the divine intellect that makes the prophet speak, guides the actions of righteous men, and perfects the knowledge of excellent men with regard to what they know.”
… In Maimonides’ base theory, providential man operates within the world of human concerns, of “contingent facts,” and strives to preserve himself, his family, and his community, and to maximize his own perfection. The nature of this sphere of activity ultimately determines the limitations of man’s possible success. While experience counts in negotiating well within the world of contingent events, error, either in understanding a general principle or in particular application, is not only possible but more than probable. While pain and suffering may be minimized, they may not be avoided, and death looms as inevitable
…The switch to theoretical wisdom, the knowledge of “everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know,”’06 as the source for ultimate happiness and, as a result, ultimate providence has a clear Aristotelian breeding. In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to outline and define a state of happiness for man that has permanence and completeness…
“The happy man will have the attribute of permanence which we are discussing, and he will remain happy throughout his life. For he will always or to the highest degree both do and contemplate what is in conformity with virtue; he will bear the vicissitudes of fortune most nobly and with perfect decorum under all circumstances, inasmuch as he is truly good and “four-square beyond reproach.”
…Aristotle continues to speculate to what degree misfortune and suffering can disturb supreme happiness. For the most part, a “noble and high-minded” man can bear “many great misfortunes with good grace.” The happy man may be dislodged from his happiness “only by great and numerous disasters such as will make it impossible for him to become happy again in a short time.” 108
The discussion is resumed and the ambiguities resolved in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle expresses the superiority of happiness as a result of theoretical wisdom (sophia) over the happiness of moral action and virtue…
…These Aristotelian concerns help flesh-out the background of Maimonides’ approach, for Maimonides has adapted the notion of happiness as the basis for his concept of ultimate providence. True and permanent providence is reserved for Job only after he has experienced the ultimate realm of theoretical wisdom and perfection. Maimonides’ implicit argument in the Job chapters for preferring the life of theoretical wisdom, aside from the immediate therapeutic value for a person in Job’s predicament, duplicates the range of Aristotle’s justifications: Job achieves immunity from suffering and misfortune, he realizes the ultimate value of theoretical intellect and its divine nature, and he has achieved a higher, if not the highest, degree of self-sufficiency.
…Maimonides attempted, it would seem, to attack the problem of evil from all angles, to surround it, if not solve it. It is my contention that a different theodicy also emerges from the body of the multidimensional treatment of providence. Within the discussion of providence, Maimonides abandons the refuge of a God-centered universe momentarily, and tries to argue for justice in the ordering of human circumstances from an enlightened human perspective.
This implicit theodicy is multidimensional and corresponds to the three stages of the providence account. At the beginning of chapter 16 of Part III, the question of God’s justice in the ordering of human circumstances is raised, and Maimonides does not refer the reader to his completed theodicy (chapters 8-12). Rather, his discussion of God’s providence (and knowledge) is an attempt to re-solve the question of the apparent suffering of the righteous and the flourishing of the wicked. This solution is composed of the following three stages:
1. In the world of actions and choices, one succeeds or fails in accordance with the successful deployment or neglect of one’s practical intellect.
2. As a response to probable and predictable results (which one does not desire), the intensity of pain or suffering is not absolute, but relative to one’s attitude and ability to maximize or minimize or transcend the particular pain or suffering.
3. Within the theoretical realm which is intellect, one’s own intellect may acquire an immunity from pain and suffering and transcend any and all evils.

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