In my previous post on Maimonides’s Letter on Astrology, I noted that Leo Strauss had implied that Maimonides had accepted the philosopher’s distinction between god as a remote cause the affects of proximate cause on human beings. I had thought to introduce Strauss’s mention of this problem in his very short essay on Maimonides’s Treatise on the Art of Logic. In that very short essay Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Strauss mentions, “In chapter 9 it is made clear that the philosophers—here mentioned for the first time—admit God to be the only the remote cause in particular also of what befalls human beings and seek in case cause for a proximate cause.”
One the problems in using the term “proximate cause” is that it has a very extensive explication in the use of American tort law. I have no idea whether Strauss deliberately elided the difference between the Maimonidean view with the legal view. The same problem arises with “remote cause” which is understood to be a cause that is so far removed that it really doesn’t provide a legal action in tort law.
Maimonides, as every school boy knows, was an Aristotelian thinker, and a man who has a Jew attempted to harmonize Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy. When Maimonides speaks of cause we must make the assumption, a safe one, that Maimonides places the discussion within the four metaphysical causes as put forth by Aristotle.
The four causes are: The efficient cause which is the agent and the instruments. For example, the efficient cause of a statue is the sculptor and his hammer and chisel. The final cause is the end purpose that moved the agent to do what he did. For example, Julius Caesar wanted eternal glory and to be a god; thus, his intention is first and at the same time it was his last execution. The material cause is that out of which it is made as a statue may be made of marble or bronze. The formal cause is the kind of thing into which it is made, .e.g., Caesar, Lincoln, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann.
The material and formal causes are intrinsic to what makes something what it is. To know something through a formal cause is to know its essence, i.e., that which makes something what it is without which it could not be what it is. In the human being, the formal cause is man’s rational animality (from animus, soul). The material cause of a human being, for example, is all that gives man’s organic being metabolism, supported by the formal cause, man’s soul. However man’s metabolism works, man remains the same throughout his life (and doesn’t become a tree or a bug), because of the persistence of the formal cause.
The context of this problem is the question of whether what happens to a man is a matter of luck and chance or a matter of judgment, i.e., that what happens to man is a matter of justice as presided over by god. The “remote cause” that is justice may be equivalent to the first or formal and the final cause. In the Aristotelian system, the first and final cause of all things is the theos who is the cause of all motion and the final end towards which all motions end. It must be remembered that Maimonides is not mutakallimum. For Maimonides, the elements and the entire corporality and immaterial constituents of the cosmos are either species or individual motions or they are the final and first causes. God or pure thought thinking itself is the first cause of all motion, because the noetic thought of god, perfectly spherical, is the motion imitated by corporeal motion that is supported by immaterial motion. For example, the motion of the planet Venus is directed by the perfect noetic motion of the separate intelligence governing the sphere of Venus.
The theos of necessity is the both the first and final cause of all things, but all things, material or immaterial, are the thought of the theos. You the reader here and I are both slices of the thought of the theos. But the fact that you are reading these words and that I have written these words have a more proximate cause. I, the writer, am the efficient cause and I use the electronic media as the material cause of my writing. The reason that I chose to write these words have a final cause, but, most critically, my final cause is not necessarily dedicated by or even inspired by the ultimate final cause that is the god.
That I have chosen to write about a particular subject and have done so at a particular time and place using a particular medium, the philosophers would say, is a matter of chance or luck. I have chosen to write this piece not because god’s justice demanded that I do so. I could choose, for example, to write something that is totally contrary to god’s laws and it would be very odd if god had chosen me to do so as what god wants for all men is the only the good. Underlying Maimonides’s understanding of god is that god has no imperfections and as such any acts of god cannot be anything else but perfect. To be perfect, god’s acts must be good, writ large. Hence, god would not use me to do anything bad. Anything bad that I choose to do is my own decision and a reaction to chance or inspired by chance. If, however, it is my intent to go only that which is good, then of necessity I would have to make the proximate cause of my actions to be in accord or to be the same as the first and final cause that is the theos himself. It is a way, so to speak, to be one with everything.
I, as a living being, am, as I said, a slice of the thought of the theos. That means that I as a being come out of “first things” that strictly speaking are not things, but out of nature. I may be a being that comes out of nature; however, that I write these words here is not strictly speaking a matter of nature. My words are not from nature, but from convention. The difference between nature and convention was once a paramount consideration, at least until modern times when Machiavelli and other moderns assumed that nature was not reasonable or well-ordered (there is no god) while at the same time chance could be controlled or even conquered.
Strauss explains elsewhere that the once-primary distinction between nature and convention became problematical through the effort to dispose of chance. Strauss writes:
The “explanation” of a chance event is the realization that it is a chance event: the fortuitous meeting of two men does not cease to be fortuitous when we know the whole prehistory of the two men prior to their meeting. There are then events which cannot meaningfully be traced to preceding events. The tracing of something to convention is analogous to the tracing of something to chance. However plausible a convention may appear in the light of the conditions from which it arose, it nevertheless owes its being, its “validity,” to the fact that it became “held” or “accepted” (The City and Man, 15).
One might say that in Maimonides, there is a distinction between the law that is conventional and the law that comes directly from god. To the extent that one does things according to the divine law directly given by god is the extent that someone lives by the first and final cause of all things. To the extent that one lives according to the laws that are merely accepted or held through chance events is the extent that someone lives according to the formal and efficient causes and through the dominance of chance and randomness in human life.
According to Strauss, Maimonides in the Logic apparently approves of a philosopher position: “In chapter 11 Maimonides quotes the saying of a philosopher according to which ‘everyone who does not distinguish between the potential and the actual, the essential and the accidental, the conventional things and the natural things, and the universal and the particular, is unable to discourse.'”
That list of dichotomies is apparently comprehensive.