Human Freedom and Divine Mutability

Human Freedom and Divine Mutability

“See, among the great principles that we possess on this matter, there is that for everything that is found among the inferior realities there are found above eminent powers, from which they descend and proceed…”

“And see according to this root, the beginning of all beings is found above in the superior powers and their end below among the lower entities. And thus, the beginning of every changing matter is above and their end is below. However, there is one particular that escapes this rule, and this is what touches upon human choice. For since the Lord may his name be blessed willed that the human being should have an ability to choose what he willed from good and from evil, see he made him independent from any other in this matter. On the contrary, he gave him a power to be an agent of change for the world itself and its creatures according to what he would choose in his desire.”

“And there are to be found in the world two general and opposite motions: the one natural and necessary and the other voluntary, the one from above down below and the other from below up above. The necessary one is the motion that the lower entities suffer from the higher ones, and this is the motion from above down below. The voluntary motion is what the human being moves by his choice, and lo, what he moves cannot be anything but a material thing amongst material things, as the human being is material and his actions are material. But in light of the connection and the participation that is to be found between the higher powers and the material things, lo, by the moving of a material thing there will arrive continuously an influence upon the higher power over it, and this motion goes from lower to higher, the opposite of the natural necessary one that was mentioned above.”

  • Moshe Luzzatto, The Way of the LORD, Chapter I.5 “On the parts of creation and their condition”

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the ideas difficult for a Platonist that one finds in kabbalistic discourse is the notion that our actions can somehow affect God. One of the best known features of the kabbalah is the doctrine of the ten sfirot or midot, ten divine “attributes” that emanate from each other and are somehow one with God. These attributes, despite their unity with god are presented as beings that can be affected by human action. They are currently in a bad state of disunity, but good deeds can “mend” their situation, whereas sins can further damage their connections. How is this to be understood? How can God said to change? How can our actions have any effects in this direction? From a Platonic point of view this is very weird – God is impassible!

Above I have translated some excerpts from Moshe Luzzatto’s “The Way of the LORD”, a kind of kabbalistic catechism from the eighteenth century. It does not include much in the way of arguments per se, but it is a very structured presentation of doctrine. And at times one can find an interesting implicit argument such as in the paragraphs above. Here we find a sensible motivation for the claim that our actions can somehow affect God – the defense of human freedom. If human freedom is to be real, and one also accepts a Platonic view that the bodily world is determined by prior spiritual causes, then if we are to be free we must also be able to a somehow the spiritual causes that are at the root of our situation. If causal influence is always from the Forms or the “higher powers” down to the material, then nothing material will ever be able to determine itself.

I think also a further motivation can be found if we consider the Thomist solution for how to reconcile the immutability of the divine will with the efficacy of prayer. It is not, Thomas explains, that our petitions actually cause God to change his plans: these are immutable and have been formed in his counsel from eternity. Rather, God has placed human prayers in the sequence of events so that there might be sufficient causes for the divine action in the world that takes place “in response to them”. There is her a kind of pre-established harmony between our prayers and their results. It is not that our prayers themselves change anything – it is rather that some things in the world would be incomprehensible if they had not been requested first, so God makes sure that we request them for the sake of the rationality of the cosmos.

I for a long time thought this was quite a satisfactory solution, but on closer inspection, it does not go far enough. For I propose that pre-established harmony is as dissatisfactory of supernatural phenomena as it is for natural ones. Indeed, if there is to be a rational connection between my prayers and some outcome, then the character of the prayer: their recollection of past action, their invocation, supplication and appeals to God, their rhetoric and symbolism, must somehow be rationally connected with their outcome. If it is merely a matter of pre-established harmony, if the prayers do not act on a rational agent who then responds to them, then the connection – even if orchestrated with the utmost care, even if the prayer is placed in connection with an effect that mirrors all these features – will be totally arbitrary.

If the world really is to be a rational cosmos, a coordination of prayers and answers is not enough – there must also be a mediating instance, a set of divine causes that responds to the prayers and produces the answer. These higher forces need not be God himself, but in order for the reaction of this system to the prayers to be truly a response to them, this system must be somehow united to God. It must be a kind of divine soul perhaps, a created world soul. But again, this world soul cannot be conceived as Platonic philosophy traditionally has – in a state of perfect equanimity and bliss, because then it will not respond to the prayers as it will always act in the same way.

Perhaps someone might object that such a hypothesis would collapse the difference between theurgy or prayer and magic. For it is supposed to be the mark of magic that it merely manipulates a rational system of forces to its own ends, whereas prayers and theurgic rites are supposed to invoke a “transcendent” or “vertical” response that comes from without the system. First of all, it is entirely plausible to explicate the manner of our influence on the divine soul in terms of a vertical response. A later kabbalistic work, the Tanya, the effect of fulfilling commandments on the sfirot is explained by the unity of the will of one who fulfills a commandment with the will of God – which implies that the will of God is manifest in the material level, and therefore a fortiori in all previous ones, where it produces unity amongst the prior spiritual causes. Second, I propose that the difference between theurgy and magic, if one insists n such a distinction can still be made in this case as a matter of attitude: it is one thing to manipulate the system of causes for one’s own ends and it is another to address God and supplicate him. The fact that a king has emotions and reasons we can understand and influence through our speech does not undo the difference between trying to manipulate him and addressing him as a king.


Header image credit: The Sanctuary as described in Exodus Numbers, in the Codex Amiatinus, 8th century

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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