Eleonore Stump and Saadia’s Theodicy
In her essay Saadia Gaon and the Problem of Evil, Eleonore Stump analyzes Saadia’s theodicy in relation to that of Thomas Aquinas. She concerns herself with the three forms that Saadia says suffering can take – character-building, purgative, and trial – and judges each of these categories in terms of their usefulness in a theodicy. She concerns herself especially with the notion of trial, since this category of suffering is the most controversial of Saadia’s and has provoked the most vituperative responses from figures such as Maimonides and Oliver Leaman. While she does not set out to offer a defense of Saadia’s theodicy per se, her explanation of what exactly it is serves to defend it against the claims of Maimonides and Leaman. Her defense takes the form of a brief exposition of what Stump sees as good qualities of Thomas Aquinas’s theodicy followed by her reading of similar elements in Saadia’s theodicy; her argument against Saadia’s critics is not that their arguments against what they take to be Saadia’s theodicy are poor – in fact, she largely agrees with Maimonides and Leaman against the position they claim to be Saadia’s – but that they have misread Saadia.
Stump is partially correct in her reading of Saadia as more concerned with a somewhat Thomist theodicy than Maimonides or Leaman seem to have considered him to be; she thus successfully refutes Maimonides’ claim that Saadia held merely a stupid and impious view of the reasons for human suffering. However, when her reading of Saadia’s theodicy is applied to the case of the suffering of Job, the parts of Saadia’s argument that she ignores (possibly because they do not fit her Thomistic model) become necessary for explaining this case, and her condensation of Saadia’s argument, only making theodicean use of suffering that wards off a greater evil for the sufferer, is in itself insufficient. We thus must look to other elements of Saadia’s theodicy that Stump does not make use of in order to combat the charges levied by Maimonides, Leaman, and Stump; I feel that Saadia is successful in rebutting these charges.
Stump correctly reads Saadia’s system as making use of three types of suffering, one for the wicked and two for the more righteous. The suffering of the wicked serves a purgative role for Saadia, serving to clear the guilt that the wicked person feels for doing evil and encourage the person not to do evil again. It is thus justified for God to inflict this suffering on an evil person; it is deserved as a function of God’s justice, and it can serve to encourage the evil person to repent and avoid worse punishment later on. This element of the theodicy is relatively noncontroversial and fits well with Stump’s use of Aquinas as a model, as we shall see later on.
One form of the suffering of the righteous that Saadia describes is for the purpose of character building. Good people could be better, and God encourages them to be so by sending them episodes of suffering. This suffering is much like that undergone when a student reads a long, arduous text in order to gain understanding, or when a musician practices intensely in order to learn a piece. In these cases, the suffering is justified as a necessary means to a good end; Stump sees Saadia as saying that the sufferings that God inflicts for this this purpose are similarly justified. This theory bears a resemblance to John Hick’s notion of the world as a “vale of soul-making,” which Stump alludes to. Like the purgative theory of suffering, this theory is relatively noncontroversial, if a bit more difficult because of the notion that truly innocent people suffer in ways they do not choose, and this suffering is justified because of its analogical similarity to a type of suffering that the individual does choose.
Saadia’s most controversial theodicean effort is his theory of suffering as a trial, which he uses to explain the suffering of innocent people to whom the character-building theory doesn’t seem particularly applicable. A trial is a situation in which God knows that a faithful servant will bear up under suffering, so he inflicts suffering on the person now in order to give the servant a reward later for responding faithfully to the suffering. Saadia uses this category to explain the story of Job, who did not sin or curse God in all his many sufferings, and as a result received greater wealth and prosperity. This is the most controversial of Saadia’s categories, and Stump, who objects to what seems to be Saadia’s notion of trial as an explanation for the suffering of infants in particular, also raises objections to this view that are drawn from the works of Maimonides and Leaman.
The central objection to Saadia’s notion of trial is that it seems that while a form of justice is served in the trial-reward interaction, there is no criterion by which the administration of suffering and a following reward to some righteous people and not others can feasibly be seen as non-arbitrary. Leaman claims that the trial structure is a characteristic of an all too human concept of God, in which God is a capricious judge who inflicts suffering on people for no reason at all; after all, why should one righteous person go through a trial to receive a greater reward and another not? Maimonides claims that to make God thusly arbitrary is to go beyond what the Torah says about him, and to contradict the authoritative Sages of Jewish history. In all, God’s apparent arbitrariness as described in what is purported to be Saadia’s view is a crime either against reason or against revelation, and Saadia’s theodicy is thus to be rejected.
To this objection, Stump adds two of her own intuitive claims about the problematic qualities of Saadia’s notion of trial. The first is that it seems that God could provide the benefit of prosperity to the sufferer without the suffering occurring. This possibility makes the suffering gratuitous, and a strong case can be made that the allowance of gratuitous suffering impugns God’s goodness. Stump’s second objection is based on the Thomistic notion that God allows suffering as a medicine in order to remedy the sickness in human wills that stems from sin. Suffering prepares humans to be united to God and thus wards off the evil of separation from him, rather than simply being the precondition for a greater good. This kind of suffering is more justified, for Stump, than suffering for a greater good is.
Stump’s reinterpretation of Saadia’s theodicy as more Thomistic seeks to rescue it from both the charge of arbitrariness and the charges she herself levies against it, but it does so at a cost. Important elements of Saadia’s theodicy that don’t mesh with the Thomistic reading that Stump provides get ignored, and as a result, Saadia’s theodicy is no longer able to account for the suffering of Job if Job is indeed innocent. Some relatively Thomistic elements that Stump reads in Saadia are to a degree present, if not as developed as Stump wants to say they are, but they don’t tell the whole story of Saadia’s theodicy.
Stump’s first problem is an unjustified inference from Saadia’s view of people in general to his view of Job. She quotes Saadia as claiming that he didn’t think anyone was actually, completely righteous, but merely that the state of total righteousness was theoretically possible; she then proceeds to explain the suffering of the righteous in terms of the sins they have committed and repented from, using the notion of a stain on the soul as the problem that suffering solves. If this is the justification that is to apply to Job’s suffering, then the accusation of his comforters must be true; he has sinned, and God’s judgment is a response to his sin, in some fashion, since every justification for suffering assumes that the sufferer is guilty of sin, on Stump’s Thomistic reading. This reading of trial is outright denied in Saadia’s Commentary on Job: “The tribulations are not on account of some past sin on the servant’s part.” In addition, the notion of suffering as what washes away the stain on the soul is absent in Saadia and is merely a guess by Stump, albeit a plausible one, that connects Saadia’s notion of the stain on the soul to his analogy of the trial as a refiner’s fire. Thus, if we are to salvage both the innocence of Job and the applicability of Saadia’s theodicy to Job’s situation, we must reject this aspect of the Thomistic reading of Saadia’s notion of trial, looking instead at what other elements in Saadia serve to defend this notion against the charges of arbitrariness levied by Maimonides and Leaman and the charge of gratuitous suffering levied by Stump.
Two elements of Saadia’s theodicy, in combination, serve to vindicate his notion of trial over against these charges: the notion of trial-suffering as revelatory of how we ought to suffer and the value of earned as opposed to given benefit. The charge of arbitrariness can be well rebutted by Saadia’s claim about the revelatory quality of trial suffering. God is not arbitrary in choosing people to suffer despite their righteousness; he chooses people who will suffer in a way that is a model for how other people ought to meet their own hardships:
“We have the record of the history of one righteous person who was tested and bore the test with fortitude… That was the prophet Job… God required all this to be set forth for us, so that we might learn from it, discover the proper view, see its cogency and discard the rest. Thus God caused the record of Job’s trials and afflictions to be set forth… with the purpose of revealing by this means what is in the hearts of people when they reach the limits of endurance in a trial”.
One benefit that Job’s suffering provides is to reveal to us how we ought to suffer. The Thomistic objection that follows is that this benefit is not for the sufferer, as benefits must be if God is to be just in inflicting suffering. However, we do see that Job receives a number of benefits by way of his suffering faithfully, without accusing God of wrongdoing. Here Stump’s objection of gratuitous suffering may be levied, for it was certainly in God’s power to simply give Job all the riches and children and years of life that he received after his sufferings without the suffering having to happen. This objection is answered in a section of Saadia that Stump cites elsewhere:
“According to the judgment of reason the person who achieves some good by means of the effort that he has expended for its attainment obtains double the advantage gained by him who achieves this good without any effort but merely as a result of the kindness shown him by God”.
Suffering is a means by which one earns a benefit, rather than it merely being given to a person without suffering, and the added value of earning the benefit provides a morally sufficient reason for the imposition of suffering as a means to its acquisition. The suffering in this case is an instrumental part of bringing about the good, answering the charge of gratuity.
While Saadia’s theodicy bears certain similarities in emphasis, at particular points, to that of Aquinas, Stump overreaches by identifying the two theodicies as strongly as she does. Saadia’s theodicy utilizes its own categories to great effect; it is not necessary to graft Thomistic standards of theodicean viability onto its robust argumentative edifice. Stump recognized this as a possibility in her paper, but she phrased it in terms of Saadia being confused and inconsistent, rather than having to deal with and account for both the suffering of the truly righteous Job and the suffering of the common sinner in his treatment of theodicy, which led him to appear questionably consistent at times. Stump appeals to the principle of charity in this endnote, but it seems that she has been relatively uncharitable with the aspects of Saadia that don’t make him sound like a proto-Thomist.