Freedom in Ramchal

Freedom in Ramchal

In a previous post, I discussed how Moshe Luzzatto (also known as the Ramchal, according to the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) explained the kabbalistic doctrine of change in the spiritual roots of the world by appealing to human freedom: for man to be free, then not all things must be determined by spiritual causes, but somehow man’s material actions must themselves have an effect upon the roots of the world.

I want to expand on the subject of freedom in the Ramchal, because it is a very “productive root” so to speak in his philosophy. Thus in his catechism Derech HaShem,The Way of the Lord, he explains that the purpose of God in creation is to give Himself, the greatest good, to another. And yet He desires that this other be good in a manner similar to his own, and that means that he must be the possessor of his own good, that his good must not be something accidental to him, but a perfection he acquired through his own effort.

Such an insistence on meriting one’s closeness to God might raise concerns in a Christian Platonist about “Pelagianism”, that is, the error involved in making the human agent an independent source of good apart from the Good itself. These concerns might become a loud alarm when the Ramchal, in a tour de force, deduces from the Creator’s desire that His good be obtained by his creature, that this creature must contain elements of perfection and deficiency within him so that he might master his deficiency and cling to his perfection. Luzzato does not see the first human being as created entirely directed towards the good. Rather he sees him and the whole world as created in a state of equilibrium between good and evil, precisely so that the creature might overcome evil and cling to the good. Man is created with a lower element, the body, and a superior one, the soul, and an evil, bodyward tendency, the evil drive, and a spiritualizing, good tendency, the good drive. Such was the situation of Adam even before the fall! This certainly suggests a picture of freedom as a freedom to choose between two alternatives, and not as, for instance, the absence of obstacles to one’s natural activities. This would be a picture that requires some indeterminacy to exist in the world, one incompatible with an omnipotent God that determines all things.

However, it is important here to remember that Ramchal is not engaged in Christian debates about grace and free-will. And there is no need for the opposition between accidental and essential to be interpreted as with and without divine assistance. Indeed, it can simply be the insistence that one must develop virtues and not mere continence, that the good must become an ingrained disposition and not merely the control of one’s inclinations accoding to the good. In this connection it worth pointing out that Moshe Luzzatto is also the author of one of the most successful books of ethics in the Jewish tradition, the Path of the Just (Mesilat Yesharim).

Furthermore, one finds clear declarations of omnipotence in Luzzatto. He clearly states that all power comes from God and that nothing acts without God’s bestowal of power to act to it. Moreover he is clear that all good in the world is caused by God, through his self-revelation, and all evil, though not directly caused by God, is indirectly caused by him insofar as he hides himself and limits his revelation. There should, therefore, be some way of reconciling Luzzatto’s focus on freedom with a throughgoing commitment to omnipotence.

In another work of his, Dat Tvunot, “Knowledge of Reasons”, a dialogue between soul and intellect, intellect explains to the soul that freedom is not actually the principle of the existence of good and evil. For, he says, evil will be completely overcome in the world to come, so freedom to choose between the two cannot be ultimate object of god in creation. Rather, he dialectically roots the existence of evil in God’s self-revelation through his highest attribute namely his unity. Unity is unique amongst God’s attributes in that it is negative, and as such it can only be revealed through the overcoming of tis opposite. Therefore, forces of fragmentation and separation must exist in the world, and god acts through a complicated causal system so as to better reveal his unity, which is unlike the unity of any of the created beings.


Header image credit: Wall painting of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (aka Ramhal), at the wall of Akko's Auditorium, Israel.

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