Prophecy and Invulnerability

Consider Job. "Poor Job," we say. Why? It is on account of his unmerited suffering. He did nothing to deserve what he got. Implicit in this thought is the idea that one gets, and ought to get, (only) what one deserves. Maimonides does not disagree with the implicit idea, but vigorously denies that Job is blameless in his suffering—indeed, this is Eliphaz's (traditional) view, the view "in keeping with the opinion of our Law," according to Maimonides (Guide 3.23:494). We read the trial of Job as an exercise in theodicy, divine justice: How are divine knowledge, power, and goodness compatible with evil and misfortune, for the latter seem to offend against the former? But Maimonides doesn't read the parable of Job that way; he doesn't emphasize the divine wager. For him, as for the young Elihu, Job is not so much about God and divine justice, but rather about Job himself and human finitude, human arrogance, and the insufficiency of moral virtue to secure happiness and beatitude. To be sure, Maimonides takes himself to be illustrating his own view about divine providence—divine knowledge of human affairs—by the story of Job. But the role of God in the story is quite secondary. The real 'culprit' in the story, at least for awhile, is he who suffers, Job himself. Indeed, I shall argue on Maimonides' behalf that it is Job himself who is the (real) cause of his own undoing. His "innocence," understood aright, is far from exculpatory. Further, consonant with the general theme of this chapter, Maimonides' discussion of the trial of Job has everything to do with Aristotle, for, as I shall attempt to clarify, Maimonides' discussion of the parable of Job is grounded in Aristotle's discussion of the nature of moral virtue, and its relative insufficiency to secure permanent happiness. And though I wouldn't press the point too far, I think we might understand Job himself along the lines of Aristotle's phronimos, the morally virtuous individual, and Maimonides' exegesis as an implied critique of Aristotle's moral paradigm.

As Maimonides says early in his discussion of Job, "the most marvelous and extraordinary thing about this story is the fact that knowledge is not attributed in it to Job. He is not said to be a wise or comprehending or an intelligent man. Only moral virtue and righteousness in action are ascribed to him. For if he had been wise, his situation would not have been obscure for him, as will become clear" (Guide 3.22:487). For Maimonides, Job is good, but not wise. As a result, he suffers. He suffers on account of his innocence, i.e. lack, of wisdom. What sort of wisdom does Job lack? On a grand level, he lacks the kind of wisdom vouchsafed someone like the Stoic sage, knowledge of the rational order of the universe, that everything is in its place and as it ought to be. It is presumably the beginning of an insight such as this that God offers Job from the whirlwind. But we don't have to abstract to this rather grand level for purposes now. More locally, Job is bereft of the wisdom that would clarify and explain his predicament. Job follows common sense in imagining that his material possessions, health, wealth, and family, are constitutive of true happiness and that they are a sure sign of his goodness; this latter we might denominate Job's "Calvinism." Further, Job imagines that (his) moral virtue guarantees happiness—otherwise, why is he so utterly confused and embittered, imagining that "the righteous man and the wicked are regarded as equal by God" (Guide 3.23:491)? In following common sense Job shows himself both presumptuous and innocent of any understanding of what brings about true happiness and completely lacking in any sense of the real link between righteousness and its (purported) reward. For Maimonides, Job suffers precisely because he has no (real) understanding of what is truly valuable and because he cannot fathom what is happening to him, and why. Of course, these two are linked and an understanding of the former is key to unlocking the latter. But let us take the two separately for the moment.

Recall Aristotle. In outlining the human good Aristotle canvasses a variety of candidates for what constitutes human well-being. Pleasure, honor and esteem, and wealth are discussed and rather quickly dismissed from contention, being either too base, too instrumental, or too dependent on an external source to merit serious consideration (Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.5). Even moral virtue itself is called into question as being the summum bonum, for it is compatible "with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs" (NE 1.5, 1096a1-2). (Indeed, this latter comment reminds one immediately of Job, morally virtuous, but subject to misfortune.) Nevertheless, for Aristotle, each of the rejected candidates has a role to play in happiness, even though, by itself, none is sufficient to guarantee it. Each is a necessary condition of happiness, so much so that Aristotle can appeal to common sense to establish the point that happiness requires external goods such as wealth, good birth, physical beauty, etc. (NE 1.8, 1099a31-b8). Without these, the final goal is impossible of attainment and one is rendered an outcast. Interestingly, the very external goods that Aristotle deems so necessary are precisely the ones Socrates—poor, ugly, base-born—lacked, an indication of Aristotle's anti-Socraticism, his anti-anti-conventionalism.

Aristotle's position drives him to the following dilemma, a conflict between his (and our) deepest intuitions: either happiness (like moral virtue) is something in our control and not easily snatched from us, in which case external goods and moral luck play no role, or happiness is, at least in part, outside of our control, dependent on luck and good fortune.18

Aristotle does not resolve the dilemma. Nor I think does he want to, wishing thereby to indicate that happiness and the human condition hover between stability and fragility. On the one hand, happiness is attainable and sustainable by our own efforts and is (wholly) consequent upon actions chosen by the agent. On the other hand, as a student of tragedy Aristotle could hardly overlook the extent to which a life can be wrecked through no fault attributable to the agent. King Priam of Troy is his explicit example (NE 1.9 fin).

For Aristotle, then, contingency is woven into the fabric of human happiness and the human condition. Indeed, he even suggests that the virtue of the virtuous individual shines forth in adversity, in "bearing with resignation many great misfortunes" (NE 1.10, 1100b30-33). Again, one is reminded of Job and his misfortunes. But in being so reminded one must signal an important difference here between Aristotle and Maimonides.

In pointing out the importance of external goods in the achievement of happiness, and in the very doing of morally virtuous deeds, Aristotle imports contingency into the very notion of happiness, and in so doing shows a deep sensitivity to the ultimately tragic condition of humankind. Misfortune can snatch happiness from us, and moral luck counts for much. But Aristotle's tragic sense is matched by no parallel in Maimonides. Maimonides does not view the suffering Job, the righteous and morally virtuous man, as a tragic figure. Instead, he views him as a fool (Guide 3.22:487), one who, though morally upright, has no idea of what is truly valuable and who is perplexed and utterly uncomprehending of the meaning of his misfortune.

For Maimonides, Job represents common sense in holding material goods to be of ultimate value and, further, in imagining that righteousness and virtue do not go unrewarded and are themselves sufficient for happiness. In holding these beliefs, Job had, according to Maimonides, "no true knowledge and knew the deity only because of his acceptance of authority, just as the multitude adhering to a law know it" (Guide 3.23:492). Job is, from Maimonides' point of view, like those who, at a later stage of the Guide, countenance traditional authority, "but do not engage in speculation concerning the fundamental principles of religion and make no inquiry whatever regarding the rectification of belief" (Guide 3.51:619; cf. 3.23:492-3). Such individuals merit no praise from Maimonides, and Job and his friends are no exception. So long as one follows and lives in accord with traditional authority, the analogue to unreflective common sense, one shall be ensnared in contingency, and one's felicity shall be held captive to forces beyond one's control. Note that for Maimonides misfortune is a function of ignorance, perhaps even culpable ignorance, and, contra Aristotle, not an ineliminable part of the world, a function of the human condition. Let me stress this point. For Aristotle, as we have seen, happiness requires external goods and is consequent upon good fortune, with the result that to a degree happiness is beyond our control. The human condition is at root tragic. For Maimonides, true human happiness, the insight into which comes through philosophical speculation, does not require external goods for its fulfillment. Job's suffering depends upon himself, not upon forces outside him. If there is a tragic element inherent in Maimonides' view, it is that not all human beings can be philosophers, and hence must live a life mixed with contingency and suffering. But this latter point is not one that Maimonides stresses.

For Maimonides, the antidote to human suffering is knowledge, specifically knowledge of God. We need not worry now about precisely what such knowledge amounts to, save to be clear that such knowledge has the effect of putting everything into perspective, of clarifying what is truly of value and what is not. Heretofore, Job took happiness to consist in things such as health, wealth, and offspring—commonly-held goods—with the result that when these were taken away, suffering ensued. But with God's pronouncements from the whirlwind, and Job's (gradual) realization that his prior perplexity and suffering were grounded in a profound ignorance of the nature and (relative) value of things and a naive presumption about reward and desert, Job commences to understand that not even virtue guarantees felicity, only knowledge does. Only knowledge of God can guarantee that one possesses a sense of the relative value of things.

Maimonides is clear that if Job had been wise, "his situation would not have been obscure to him," and that ".when he knew God with a certain knowledge, he admitted that true happiness, which is knowledge of the deity, is guaranteed to all who know Him and that a human being cannot be troubled in it by any of all the misfortunes in question" (Guide 3.23:492-3). Clarity and knowledge bring with them invulnerability to fortune. This is a very strong claim. I suspect we think it palpably false. But why? Precisely because we have a view of the self that entails that the self is without remainder part of the material world. But Maimonides doesn't hold this view (Guide 3.54:635). Nor, finally, did Aristotle, with what effect this had upon his appreciation of moral luck we may speculate.19 Both link ultimate felicity with an activity akin to divine activity, a cognitive attainment (Aristotle: NE 10.7-8; Maimonides: Guide 3.54:635-6). It is enough for present purposes to underscore that for both thinkers, the true self is the immortal and divine part of "ourselves," and correlative to this metaphysical claim, we may understand their choice of philosophical understanding as the human good. For Maimonides, this entails that prophecy is the highest good and the prophet, paradigmatically Moses, the human ideal. Divine providential care is a function of intellectual apprehension of the divine. As Maimonides puts it, "providence watches over everyone endowed with intellect proportionately to the measure of his intellect.. Providence always watches over an individual endowed with perfect apprehension, whose intellect never ceases from being occupied with God. On the other hand, an individual endowed with perfect apprehension, whose thought sometimes for a certain time is emptied of God, is watched over by providence only during the time when he thinks of God; providence withdraws from him during the time when he is occupied with something else. and becomes in consequence of this a target for every evil that may happen to befall him" (Guide 3.51:624-5). Indeed, with God's appearance to Job from the whirlwind, Job's education commences: "I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee; wherefore I abhor myself and repent of dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6). Maimonides understands this latter to mean not merely that Job is humbled by the divine presence, but also that he comes to abhor what he used to desire, material goods, now evaluated as no more than "dust and ashes." Job has begun to see that true human happiness does not consist in material possessions, and with this realization, he begins to distance himself from the material, natural world, the realm of contingency. In this regard, Job will also come to understand that even moral virtue, ensnared as it is with external goods, is sullied with contingency, and hence cannot be the final good. Presumably, Job's arguments for this latter conclusion would parallel Aristotle's against moral virtue's candidacy as the summum bonum at the conclusion of the Ethics (10.7-8).

In sum, both Aristotle and Maimonides have a keen sense of the precariousness of the human condition. But they draw instructively different conclusions. Aristotle takes the human condition as ineliminably tragic, admitting of no exit from contingency. Maimonides does not draw this conclusion, because, as we see from Job's misfortunes, Job's suffering is his very own doing, a function of his ignorance, his lack of wisdom. For Maimonides, we are much more in control of our destiny than Aristotle imagined. Though prophecy, the summum bonum, is for Maimonides not wholly a natural occurrence, the first step is very much in our power. Knowledge has the power to vanquish the vagaries of fortune. My bet is that if God tested Job a second time, He would have lost the wager.

What I hope to have shown by my illustration of the story of Job is how Maimonides creatively works for purposes all his own against the backdrop of Greek wisdom, specifically Aristotle. As I have tried to show, Maimonides counters Aristotle on virtually every point. But more important, much more important than their disagreement, is the fact that we can construct a philosophically rich dialogue between the two. There is, I think, no better reason than this to consider Maimonides an Aristotelian.

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