Maimonides and the Epicurean Position on Providence

By Weber, Gadi Charles | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Maimonides and the Epicurean Position on Providence


Weber, Gadi Charles, The Review of Metaphysics


I

In A SENSE, Maimonides identifies his opinions on divine providence with Epicureanism. He does so in the Guide of the Perplexed III:23, (1) through a comparison of his typological analysis of possible opinions on the subject with the views of the speakers in the Book of Job. This analogy suggests an identity between the atheism of Epicurus and the supposedly correct opinion expressed by Elihu, the young sage who calls his elders to task when they fail to offer Job a convincing explanation for his suffering. Such a thought-provoking and potentially controversial textual device deserves serious attention. Apart from the cosmological ramifications which we will discuss in this article, the connection of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher whose name became synonymous with heresy in rabbinic parlance, with Elihu, the character singled out by Maimonides as a mouthpiece for the secret message of the Book of Job, has far-reaching implications. Taken at face value, it amounts to an endorsement by Maimonides of the Epicurean denial of providence and his ascription of that denial to the biblical author. To the extent that the underlying message perceived by Maimonides in Job can be understood as representing his view of Jewish theology as a whole, the identification of Elihu with Epicurus would mean that for Maimonides the public theological norms of the community were a masquerade, intended for the benefit of the nonintellectual masses and concealing an inner doctrine identical with the ideological nemesis of the public doctrine. (2)

Let us begin with a look at the chapters under discussion. In Guide III: 17 Maimonides lists five opinions on the subject of divine providence, each offering a different view of how God does or does not determine or interfere with the workings of the universe. These opinions are: atheism, or complete noninvolvement on the part of God (Epicurus), (3) partial involvement (Aristotle), (4) complete determination of all things (the Muslim Ash'ariyya school), partial free will for humans (the Muslim Mu'tazila school), and an exact and just correspondence between human behavior and subsequent human circumstances, determined by God (the Torah). Later, in Guide III:23, Maimonides summarizes the opinions expressed by the speakers in the Book of Job, and identifies these views with the approaches he discussed in Guide III:17. He explicitly connects Job with Aristotle, Eliphaz with the Torah, Bildad with the Mu'tazila, and Zophar with the Ash'ariyya. Conspicuous by their absence are Epicurus from the list in Guide III:17 and Elihu from the list in III:23. But if (I emphasize, if) each list is exhaustive and there are only five possible opinions on the subject of providence, and if Maimonides has already accounted for four opinions in each list, then there is no way to avoid the connection between Epicurus and Elihu. This constitutes a puzzle because Epicurus represents heresy and Elihu's opinion is supposedly correct. But more specifically, this is a puzzle because Epicurus's doctrine is atheistic and thus denies all providence, and Elihu's opinion ostensibly affirms the existence of God and of providence for individual human beings.

This puzzle is not unique in the Guide. Another similar juxtaposition involves the list of opinions on the creation of the universe (Guide II: 13) and the parallel list of opinions on prophecy (Guide II:32). Unlike the providence-Job puzzle, which we discuss in this article and which has largely been ignored, (5) the creation-prophecy puzzle has been the focus of much scholarly attention. Starting 500 years ago, with R. Isaac Abrabanel, commentators have offered competing solutions to that puzzle and continue to do so today. (6) And the creation-prophecy puzzle has something in common with the providence-Job puzzle, apart from their formal similarity as parallel lists: in both puzzles Maimonides introduces Epicurean views, only to dismiss them as irrelevant. …

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