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Maimonidean Providence & Stoicism

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Ariel Krakowski

Stoicism, the philosophical school popular in Greek and Roman times, has experienced a resurgence lately.[1] Its influence can be seen in cognitive behavioral therapy and in Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which emphasizes finding meaning in life in all situations.[2] More recently, many books, websites, and events have brought the teachings of Stoicism to a popular audience.[3]

This article explores the practical principles of Stoicism and how they relate to Rambam’s discussion of providence and theodicy in the Guide for the Perplexed. While Rambam may have differed with the Stoics on many theoretical issues, in their practical approach to life they share many similarities. Comparing them will shed light on each and show how their ideas are more relevant than ever.

Stoic Philosophy

The goal of Stoicism is to live according to nature and reason. The Stoics believed the most important trait people posses is their power of reason. Proper reason shows that one should live virtuously, which will lead to eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) and apatheia (equanimity). To achieve these goals, one must recognize the Dichotomy of Control, which is summarized at the beginning of the Handbook of Epictetus:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The Stoics believed that external events do not harm a person; only the individual’s impressions and interpretations of the events matter. People must learn to accept things beyond their control, and focus on changing things within their control. Once this mindset is achieved, events should no longer cause distress. People often desire unnecessary things and suffer needlessly when their desires aren’t fulfilled. Instead, the Stoics preached that individuals should consciously choose their goals and desires, such that they can achieve eudaimonia independently of external circumstances.

Furthermore, the Stoics taught that while people often assign great weight to external trivialities, we ought to counter this tendency by keeping the bigger perspective of existence in mind. The Roman emperor (and practicing Stoic) Marcus Aurelius emphasized this theme throughout his personal diary, Meditations, where he urges:

Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being, are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot—as if this was anything lasting or likely to trouble him for long.[4]

Finally, the Stoics also emphasized how people could use their reason to achieve their goals. By using one’s reason correctly, one may understand external nature and human nature, and live in accordance with them. Proper use of reason enables one to avoid mistakes.[5] In fact, the Stoics believed that an ideal sage might achieve perfect knowledge of nature, and even predict the future through a form of “rational divination.”

Maimonides on Evil and Providence

Rambam is famous for incorporating Aristotelian thought into his philosophy, but he is not usually associated with Stoic philosophy. However, there are numerous points of contact between Stoic philosophy and Rambam’s analysis of theodicy and divine providence in his Guide for the Perplexed. It is difficult to determine if and how much the Stoics directly influenced Rambam on these issues, since he differs with the Stoics on so many other issues. Yet seeing how such different philosophers came to similar practical conclusions helps to demonstrate the universality of their ideas.

To begin, in addressing the problem of evil, Rambam writes that the world is not as bad as people claim, people aren’t as important as they think, and most evil is self-inflicted:

Men frequently think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things… For an ignorant man believes that the whole universe only exists for him; as if nothing else required any consideration. If, therefore, anything happens to him contrary to his expectation, he at once concludes that the whole universe is evil. If, however, he would take into consideration the whole universe, form an idea of it, and comprehend what a small portion he is of the Universe, he will find the truth… The whole mankind at present in existence, and a fortiori, every other species of animals, form an infinitesimal portion of the permanent universe… It is of great advantage that man should know his station, and not erroneously imagine that the whole universe exists only for him… (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.12)[6]

Rambam, like the Stoics, points out that the evils on which people tend to focus are not so important in grand scheme of the universe. It can be disconcerting to contemplate that the whole Earth and all of humanity are just a speck in the vastness of the universe, but realizing this can help people adopt a more humble perspective toward the vicissitudes of life.

Rambam continues his discussion by noting how much really is in our control:

The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! (Guide, ibid.)

Rambam then divides the evils that befall humankind into three categories:

  • Natural evils, such as natural disasters and certain diseases. Rambam says these are relatively uncommon.
  • Evils that people perpetrate against one another. Violence committed by individuals is rare. Wars harm more people, Rambam grants, but are still rare if you take the “the whole inhabited part of the earth is taken into consideration.”
  • Evils that one causes to himself, such as overeating or desiring unnecessary things. Rambam argues that these are by far the most common category.[7]

By spelling out these categories, Rambam is reducing the problem of evil. In his opinion, most of the evils that people suffer are self-inflicted, so they have no complaint against God for causing them. Rambam discusses this third category of evil at length and emphasizes the same principle that the Stoics taught: people are in control of their conditions, and the evil a person suffers is usually what “one causes to himself by his own action.”

After pointing out that external evils are a smaller problem than people assume, Rambam turns to discuss the different aspects of providence itself (3:17). Rambam first discusses and rejects many different opinions on providence:

  • Epicurus’ view that “there is no providence at all.” Rambam claims Aristotle disproved this.
  • Aristotle’s view that providence operates in the heavens but not for individuals on Earth. Rambam says this goes against the Torah.
  • The opposite extreme, that nothing is due to chance: “each leaf falls according to the divine decree.” Rambam says this view contradicts the principle of free will.

Rambam then spells out his own view, namely that providence does not affect the natural events of the world, but can affect the decisions of rational beings and protect them from misfortunes:

Divine providence is connected with divine intellectual influence, and the same beings which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of divine providence… It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents… but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship… it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding… (ibid.)

According to many scholars, Rambam is explaining providence as a person using his “practical intellect” to avoid negative circumstances.[8] For example, a rational person will recognize that the journey overseas may be dangerous, and avoid getting on the boat in the first place. This emphasis on reason corresponds to the Stoic and Aristotelian emphasis on a person using reason to understand what is important and how to attain it. Thus the Maimonidean and Stoic sage are both protected from evils through the power of their reason.

In his discussion of Job a few chapters later, Rambam explains providence and happiness as dependent on one’s attitude to external events:

As soon as [Job] had acquired a true knowledge of God, he confessed that there is undoubtedly true felicity in the knowledge of God; it is attained by all who acquire that knowledge, and no earthly trouble can disturb it. So long as Job’s knowledge of God was based on tradition and communication, and not on research, he believed that such imaginary good as is possessed in health, riches, and children, was the utmost that men can attain… [but later] he abhorred all that he had desired before… On account of this last utterance, which implies true perception, it is said afterwards in reference to him, “for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” (3:23)

According to Aristotle, health, riches, and children are important to achieving eudaimonia. According to the Stoics, these external conditions are irrelevant to achieving eudaimonia, and can at most be “preferred indifferents.”[9] Echoing his comments in 3:12, Rambam’s position that external conditions are an “imaginary good” aligns with the position of the Stoics. Job’s realization of this truth, Rambam contends, is what made Job wise. Or, as Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.”[10]

Keeping this larger perspective in mind will help one live both with greater equanimity and virtue. For example, people often get angry due to inflating the importance of minor issues. Both Rambam and the Stoics (unlike Aristotle) emphasized the importance of never getting angry, and at most only displaying anger when necessary.[11] Similarly, Rambam says people wouldn’t take revenge if they recognized what was important:

Even though [revenge] is not punished by lashes, it is a very bad trait. Instead, a person should [train himself] to rise above his feelings about all worldly things, for men of understanding consider all these things as vanity and emptiness which are not worth seeking revenge for. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 7:7)

By maintaining the proper perspective, one can surmount both the internal and external evils one faces.

Rambam explained providence earlier as a connection to the “divine intellectual influence,” and he returns to this theme at the end of the Guide:

Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of divine providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine providence departs from them… Those who have their God dwelling in their hearts, are not touched by any evil whatever. (3:51)

According to this passage, the righteous are only protected by providence when they are contemplating God. Bad things can sometimes happen to good people, since their thoughts sometimes turn away from God. But if we have “God dwelling in[our] hearts,” we will “attain the influence of the divine intellect, providence is joined to us, and we are guarded against all evils.” This version of providence puzzled many rationalist Maimonidean commentators, such as Shmuel Ibn Tibbon[12] and Moshe Narboni, as this apparently miraculous depiction contravenes Rambam’s more limited view of miracles elsewhere,[13] and seems quite different than his depiction of providence in his discussion of Job. To resolve this contradiction, Narboni explains that the sage has such a strong connection to God that the physical world becomes irrelevant to him.[14] No miracles are necessary; external events are unimportant to the sage’s true essence. This parallels the Stoic depiction of a sage that “is utterly immune to misfortune… virtue is sufficient for happiness.”[15]

However one understands Rambam’s overall view on providence, one point is evident. Providence is not an absolute force from above, but something that depends on the individual, whether through one’s rational choices, attitudes, or ability to transcend this world. Accordingly, we may cite Charles Raffel’s succinct summary of Rambam’s approach to theodicy and divine providence:[16]

  • In the world of actions and choices, one succeeds or fails in accordance with the successful deployment or neglect of one’s practical intellect.
  • 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.
  • 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.[17]

Strikingly, all three points parallel the Stoic approach to life. The Stoics emphasized the power of reason to deal with challenges, the total dependence of eudaimonia on an individual’s attitude, and the ability of the sage to transcend everything external.

The Contemporary Relevance of Maimonidean Stoicism

In reflecting on how Stoicism extends to the current age, we may begin by noting that Rambam asserted that most evils are self-inflicted in an era when famines, plagues, and wars remained common; in fact, he had to leave both Spain and Morocco to escape persecution from the Almohad invaders.[18] The modern world, particularly in the West, has greatly improved external conditions: life expectancy is up, health has been revolutionized with modern medicine and sanitation, famine and hunger are increasingly rare, income has increased over two-hundredfold, wars and violent crime have decreased, and equality and knowledge have spread.[19] Moderns have used their practical intellect to improve the world in ways previously unimaginable.

Yet despite these improvements, we struggle to find happiness. People in the modern world often struggle with anxiety, depression and addiction; suicide rates[20] have risen recently. This seems paradoxical, but regardless of external circumstances, what matters most is one’s own perspective and actions. When the struggle to survive is diminished, the internal struggle to find the right “opinion, pursuit, desire [and] aversion” looms larger.

Rambam and the Stoics argued that even very harsh external circumstances should not affect a person’s happiness. Even if one isn’t willing to go that far, in modern times of prosperity, it is clear that one’s own attitude and actions are what is important. As the Mishnah in Avot (4:1) states:

Who is wise? One who learns from every man… Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations… Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot… Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows.

Many people think they will find happiness if only they had more money or fame. Yet as the Mishnah, Rambam and Stoics teach, happiness and meaning can only be found within.


[1] The author would like to thank Tzvi Sinensky, Eliyahu Krakowski, and Mindy Schwartz for their editorial contributions to this article.

[2] Massimo Pigliucci, “The best books on Stoicism”:

One of the reasons Stoicism came back in modern times is because these ‘tricks’ are useful. Some of them have been elaborated into fully-fledged psychotherapeutic approaches, such as Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy; cognitive behavioural therapy; Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behaviour therapy, and others. All of these therapies bear traces of Stoicism. Ellis and Frankl both read the Stoics, and used their ideas as a starting point.

[3] As a small indication of its popularity, the subreddit for Stoicism has over 100,000 subscribers, while the one for Epicureanism has 7,000. The number of searches for Stoicism have even overtaken searches for Hedonism recently.

[4] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Martin Hammond (Penguin Classics, 2014): 5:23.

[5] “According to the Stoics… we can always avoid falling into error if only our reason is sufficiently disciplined.”
Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[6] Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedlaender (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904).

[7] This class of evils originates in man’s vices, such as excessive desire for eating, drinking, and love; indulgence in these things in undue measure, or in improper manner, or partaking of bad food. This course brings diseases and afflictions upon body and soul alike… Those who are ignorant and perverse in their thought are constantly in trouble and pain, because they cannot get as much of superfluous things as a certain other person possesses. They as a rule expose themselves to great dangers, e.g., by sea-voyage, or service of kings, and all this for the purpose of obtaining that which is superfluous and not necessary… All the difficulties and troubles we meet in this respect are due to the desire for superfluous things: when we seek unnecessary things, we have difficulty even in finding that which is indispensable. For the more we desire to have that which is superfluous, the more we meet with difficulties; our strength and possessions are spent in unnecessary things, and are wanting when required for that which is necessary. (Guide, ibid.)

[8] For example, see Charles Raffel (“Providence as Consequent upon the Intellect: Maimonides’ Theory of Providence,” Charles M. Raffel, AJS Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1987):

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. 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, 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 deliberation of one’s own practical intellect.

See also David Shatz, “Worship, Corporeality, and Human Perfection: A Reading of Guide of the Perplexed, III:51-54,” in The Legacy of Maimonides: Religion, Reason and Community (ed. by Y. Levy and S. Carmy, Brooklyn, NY: Yashar Books, 2006), 217-262

Steven Nadler, “The Order of Nature and Moral Luck: Maimonides on Divine Providence,in The Divine Order, the Human Order, and the Order of Nature: Historical Perspectives. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[9] “Aristotle takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in eudaimonia but acknowledges also the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia and thus deny the necessity of external goods.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia)

[10] Meditations, Chapter 8.

[11] For a Stoic treatment of anger, see On Anger, by Seneca. Rambam’s general approach to personality traits is that one should follow the “golden mean” of Aristotle and not be too far to either extreme. However, when it comes to anger, he sides with the Stoics:

Anger is also an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it and adopt the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household – or within the community, if he is a communal leader – and wishes to be angry at them to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should present an angry front to them to punish them, but he should be inwardly calm. He should be like one who acts out the part of an angry man in his wrath, but is not himself angry. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, 2:3, trans. by Eliyahu Touger)

[12] Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the first translator of the Guide, wrote to Rambam to ask how to reconcile the above statements on providence. We do not have any reply from Rambam on this issue. The letter was published in Zvi Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon on Maimonides’ Theory of Providence,” Hebrew Union College Annual 11 (1936).

[13] Rambam in his commentary to Avot (5:6, and Eight Chapters Ch. 8) explains miracles as exceptions pre-programmed into creation, which implies miracles are extremely rare events, as opposed to happening to righteous people regularly (see also Guide 2:29). See also his Treatise on Resurrection where he says all events should be explained according to nature as much as possible, and only when there’s no other possibility should one admit something as a miracle.

[14] Commentary of Narboni on the Guide for the Perplexed, ch. 51. Also cited by David Shatz (ibid.)

[15] Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See also Wikipedia, Sage (philosophy).

[16] Raffel, ibid.

[17] Raffel does not take a firm stance on how far this level of providence extends. I think that as much as Rambam explained providence rationally, he still appears to believe in a level of providence that goes beyond Aristotelian explanation. He mentions multiple times how the individual is protected from actual evils befalling him, and emphasizes the difference between his view of providence and Aristotle’s. It appears that Rambam understood this divine intellectual influence as a natural outcome of a person reaching a certain intellectual/moral level, similar to how Rambam explains prophecy. Certain individuals at certain times can connect to a divine influence to guide them beyond the usual bounds of nature. This idea may have certain parallels as well with the Stoic idea of “rational divination”.

[18] Ben Zion Bokser, Moses Maimonides, Encyclopædia Britannica.

[19] These examples are documented by Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. While some of his claims are controversial, it’s clear that material prosperity has increased dramatically in modern times.

[20] nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html