In this letter, many topics come together, on Rambam's view of Divine Providence and reward and punishment.
One thing that will be obvious from this letter is that Rambam here is not presenting his true view of reward and punishment. Here in this letter, Rambam states
The controversy lies in this, that the true religionists, and that is the religion of Moses our Teacher, maintain that what happens to individuals is not due to chance, but rather to judgment—as the Torah says: "For all His ways are judgment" (Deut. 32:4). The prophet explained: "Whose eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men, to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings" (Jer. 32:19). It is regarding this that the Torah warned and bore witness and told Israel: "But if you will not hearken to Me" (Lev. 26:14), I shall bring hardship upon you. If you maintain that that hardship is not an affliction brought on by your sins, but rather due to chance and one of those things that happen by chance, why then I Myself shall heap more of that chance upon you—as it is written: "And if you walk with Me in (the way of) chance, I too shall walk with you in the wrath of chance" (Lev. 26:27-28). This is a root of the religion of Moses our Teacher, that everything happening to human beings is a (just) decree and judgment. Hence, the sages maintained: "There is no death without sin and no affliction with transgression" (Shabbat 55a).
If a man says, "But look, many have acted in this way and yet have not succeeded," why, this is no proof. [For] either some iniquity of theirs caused this, or they are now afflicted in order to inherit something even better than this. [But not afflicted in the senses that they are sinners, and a subsequent good will be a "reward". Maimonides means they are dealt a trial through which they will emerge with a greater good. An example is when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This was not commanded as a means of suffering so that Abraham might thereby be "owed" a subsequent good. Rather, it was to actualize Abraham’s potential, for his own good.]
But already in Shemonah Perakim (chapter 8, according to the translation of Dr. Joseph I. Gorfinkle. All page numbers are according to the PDF's internal numbering), we see that Rambam holds that it is natural law that dictates what occurs, and not acts of G-d; G-d is the ultimate cause insofar as He created natural law in the first place, but not beyond that.
Rambam discusses this in his contention that there is free will, p. 86:
We, on the contrary, are convinced..[of]...the contention that man's conduct is entirely in his own hands, that no compulsion is exerted, and that no external influence is brought to bear upon him that constrains him to be either virtuous or vicious...
This, of course, is an unremarkable contention. Rambam's first proof is also unremarkable, p. 87:
[If there were no free will] ...then the commands and prohibitions of the Law would become null and void, and the Law would be completely false, since man would have no freedom of choice in what he does. Moreover, it would be useless, in fact absolutely in vain, for man to study, to instruct, or attempt to learn an art, as it would be entirely impossible for him, on account of the external force compelling him, according to the opinion of those who hold this view, to keep from doing a certain act, from gaining certain knowledge, or from acquiring a certain characteristic. Reward and punishment, too, would be pure injustice, both as regards man towards man, and as between God and man. Suppose, under such conditions, that Simeon should kill Reuben. Why should the former be punished, seeing that he was constrained to do the killing, and Reuben was predestined to be slain? How could the Almighty, who is just and righteous, chastise Simeon for a deed which it was impossible for him to leave undone, and which, though he strove with all his might, he would be unable to avoid?
This is not remarkable; Rambam has essentially said that the Torah's command for us to do this and not do that, and reward and punishment for those deeds, presumes free will. What is truly remarkable, nay extraordinary, however, is Rambam's next proof, p. 87:
If such were the true state of affairs, [viz. lack of free will] all precautionary measures, such as building houses, providing means of subsistence, fleeing when one fears danger, and so forth, would be absolutely useless, for that which is decreed beforehand must necessarily happen. This theory is, therefore, positively unsound, contrary to reason and common sense, subversive of the fundamental principles of religion, and attributes injustice to God (far be it from Him!). In reality, the undoubted truth of the matter is that man has full sway over all his actions.
And therefore, amongst other things,(p. 88):
It is also necessary to take all the precautionary measures laid down in the Law, such as, "Thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof; that thou bring not blood upon thy house", "lest he die in the battle", "wherein shall he sleep?", and "no man shall take to pledge the nether or the upper millstone", and many other passages in regard to precautions found in the Law and the Prophets.These are extraordinary words. Rambam takes it for granted that our actions have real concrete effects on this world, which can alter the course of history. Whereas Rabbi Yishmael in the midrash, for example, declared that a man who falls off a roof was destined from creation to do so, and had you built a parapet on your roof, he simply would have fallen off the roof some other way (or off someone else's roof), Rambam cannot accept such a notion. For him, it is imperative to believe that our actions have real consequences in this world; whether one will build a parapet on his roof will determine whether or not someone will fall off that roof; man's actions, and not G-d's will, determines what occurs in this world.
Moreover, Rambam says
Thus, for instance, when a stone is thrown into the air and falls to the ground, it is correct to say that the stone fell in accordance with the will of God, for it is true that God decreed that the earth and all that goes to make it up, should be the centre of attraction, so that when any part of it is thrown into the air, it is attracted back to the centre.What was the action which the man did? Clearly, his action was throwing the stone into the air. If Rambam wanted only to emphasize that man's actions are within his power, Rambam could have emphasized that man can freely throw the stone up, and stop there. Rambam had no need to mention the stone's falling back down, if all he is concerned with is that the initial deed is in man's control. Obviously, Rambam is extending even the RESULT of the deed to man's control.
Therefore, Rambam must dramatically interpret a saying of Hazal (pp. 88-90):
The statement found in the sayings of the Rabbis, "All is in the power of God except the fear of God" is, nevertheless, true, and in accord with what we have laid down here. Men are, however, very often prone to err in supposing that many of their actions, in reality the result of their own free will, are forced upon them, as, for instance, marrying a certain woman, or acquiring a certain amount of money. Such a supposition is untrue. If a man espouses and marry a woman legally, then she becomes his lawful wife, and by his marrying her he has fulfilled the divine command to increase and multiply. God, however, does not decree the fulfillment of a commandment. If, on the other hand, a man has consummated with a woman an unlawful marriage, he has committed a transgression. But God does not decree that a man shall sin. ... By the word "all" (הכל) [in saying "All is in the power of God except the fear of God"], the Rabbis meant to designate only natural phenomena which are not influenced by the will of man, as whether a person is tall or short, whether it is rainy or dry, whether the air is pure or impure, and all other such things that happen in the world, and which have no connection with man's conduct. ... As regards the theory generally accepted by people, and likewise found in rabbinical and prophetical writings, that man's sitting and rising, and in fact all of his movements, are governed by the will and desire of God, it may be said that this is true only in one respect. Thus, for instance, when a stone is thrown into the air and falls to the ground, it is correct to say that the stone fell in accordance with the will of God, for it is true that God decreed that the earth and all that goes to make it up, should be the centre of attraction, so that when any part of it is thrown into the air, it is attracted back to the centre. Similarly, all the particles of fire ascend according to God's will, which preordained that fire should go upward. But it is wrong to suppose that when a certain part of the earth is thrown upward God wills at that very moment that it should fall. The Mutakallimum are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course,...
These are incredible words. Rambam has dramatically limited the scope of "All is in the power of God..." by dramatically expanding the scope of "...except the fear of God". According to Rambam, "fear of God" includes not only the free choice to do the act, but even the eventual consequences of that act! Therefore "All is in the power of God" does not include ANY result of man's actions, leaving only natural law in G-d's hands! G-d ordained the laws of nature during the six days of creation, and insofar as this, insofar as He is the Ultimate Cause, does He cause events to occur today!
However, some may object. At http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol26/v26n047.shtml#01, Rabbi Micha Berger says, in effect, that even if all our deeds are in our hands, and even the results as well, and G-d controls our deeds and the results of our deeds only insofar as He controls natural law; nevertheless: nothing has been said about ad-hoc Divine interventions by G-d! There is an omission between the reisha (first clause, viz. "all" meaning natural law in His hands) and the seifa (second clause, viz. yirat shamayim, the deeds in our hands). Hazal neglected to mention ad-hoc Divine interventions; perhaps G-d performs these, or perhaps He does not (limiting Himself to natural law). The answer is found further on in Rambam's words in Shemonah Perakim:
The Rabbis expatiate very much upon this subject in the Midrash Koheleth and in other writings, one of their statements in reference to this matter being, "Everything follows its natural course". In everything that they said, you will always find that the Rabbis (peace be unto them!) avoided referring to the Divine Will as determining a particular event at a particular time.Rambam further says (ibid., and also in his commentary to Avot 5:5, about the ten miracles created during the twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation) that all miracles are pre-implanted by G-d at the time of creation, and that He does not perform volitional ad-hoc miracles nowadays. Rambam is clearly implying that if "Everything follows its natural course", then nothing is unnatural, nothing is due to anything but natural law and our free will.
See also Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin's article from Jewish Ideas ("Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart? An Alternative View"): ibn Caspi notes that Rambam claims in one place that G-d may cut off prophecy, but that elsewhere Rambam sets forth a fully naturalistic explanation of prophecy, that involves no act by G-d. Ibn Caspi there explains that Rambam is being misleading for the ignorant, and really, the wise are to realize that G-d cuts off prophecy only insofar as He initially created the laws of prophecy, that certain emotions, etc. cause one to cut his own prophecy off. Drazin proposes that when Rambam, in Shemonah Perakim (see pp. 92ff of Gorfinkle's translation, op. cit.) and Hilchot Teshuva, says that G-d hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to punish him as he deserved, really, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, with his obstinacy and vainglory. (And see the Hertz Humash, where R' Hertz says this, albeit without attribution of any source; he says only that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and thus the Torah's account interchanges between G-d saying He'll harden his heart, and the narration saying Pharaoh hardened his own; both are true, insofar as G-d's natural laws led Pharaoh to harden his own heart of his own free will.)
For some further discussion of Rambam's views on natural law, see David Guttmann's discussion of miracles in Rambam's thought (Rambam held miracles to have been part and parcel of the natural order, rare but nevertheless preordained as part of the fabric and course of nature), in "Miracles in Rambam’s Thought—a Function of Prophecy" in Hakira 3.
So it cannot be that Rambam really holds by the view of reward and punishment here in "The Letter to the Community of Marseille", that G-d really rewards and punishes directly for merit and sin. Rather, as David Guttmann shows in his article on Providence ("Divine Providence - Goals, Hopes, and Fears" in Hakira 5 - and cf. my blog post "Maimonidean Rationalism: Part 4 - "Divine Providence" by David Guttmann"), the view set forth here in the Letter to Marseille, viz.
But look, many have acted in this way and yet have not succeeded," why, this is no proof. [For] either some iniquity of theirs caused this, or they are now afflicted in order to inherit something even better than this.is EXACTLY that of the Mutakallimun and the apparent (i.e. most evident at first-blush, but not necessarily the correct) view of the Torah (and also the view of some of Hazal, with "afflictions of love"). But Rambam himself explicitly rejects this viewpoint in Moreh Nevuchim and holds that G-d only initially created natural law, and He lets it operate from there, similarly to what we saw in Shemonah Perakim. Divine Providence, however, is the intellectual suggestions and awareness given by G-d via the Active Intellect (with our without the recipient's awareness).
So what of reward and punishment? This too will be naturalistic. Olam haBa (the World to Come) for Rambam is of course naturalistic, and thus he holds even heresy b'shogeg (unintentionally, without awareness - for example, if someone erroneously but in good faith believes that the Torah believes G-d has a body) is heresy, for Rambam holds that Olam haBa is something mechanically and inevitably inherited by virtue of an achievement of intellect. But all the other Jewish authorities demurred that Olam haBa is achieved by a grace of G-d, and therefore, He will forgiven heresy b'shogeg (unintentional, without awareness), and He will punish only heresy b'meized (intentional, with awareness - for example, if someone declares that even though the Torah says this, he instead believes that). See Professor Marc B. Shapiro's The Limits of Orthodox Theology for an excellent discussion of this dispute.
As for reward and punishment in Olam haZe (this present temporal world), I had not seen anyone say the following, but it had seemed to me (I have since seen someone corroborate my understanding; see further) that Rambam would hold thatשכר מצוה מצוה שכר עברה עברה - "the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah; of an averah, an averah". This can either be rendered
(1) "the reward of a mitzvah is ANOTHER mitzvah, etc." (in the same sense as "mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah" - "a mitzvah drags a[nother] mitzvah [in its wake], an averah drags a[nother] averah [in its wake]", or it can be taken as
(2) "a mitzvah is its own reward, and an averah is its own punishment". In turn, that statement can be understood as either that
(2a) mitzvot and averot are themselves their own reward and punishment, being that the mitzvah brings one close to G-d, and an averah stains one's soul, even if nothing temporal ever happens (Rav Hirsch holds like this - just the knowledge that one has brought himself closer to or further from G-d is its own reward or punishment), or it can be interpreted as
(2b) meaning that a mitzvan and an averah will inevitably lead, of their own consequence, to good and bad events in this temporal world; for example, stealing destroys society and alienates others from the thief, culminating in his eventual downfall, etc.
Rambam will choose the very last possibility: G-d gave us the Torah such that what it commands and forbids are known to Him to be ultimately beneficial or detrimental, in and of themselves. So if one follows or disregards the Torah, he will get what he deserves, without G-d's having to intervene. Doing mitzvot in and of its improves the quality of one's life, and conversely with doing averot.
After all the preceding occurred to me, I saw that Professor Charles Manekin (On Maimonides, Wadsworth Publishing, 2004. Chapter 5, "Divine Governance and Providence") would agree:
Once Maimonides has interpreted individual providence along impersonalistic lines, i.e., as a function of the divine intellectual overflow, he is able to interpret divine reward and punishment accordingly: the world is created such that the consequences of acting wisely and prudently are a long and healthy life; this is what the Bible understands by “divine reward.” Similarly, if one lives foolishly and barbarously one becomes subject to the many ills that afflict the body, and this is what the Bible understands as “divine punishment.” We saw in chapter 2 that Maimonides views the destruction of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to be in accordance with God’s eternal will, i.e., the way the world operates. [There, Professor Manekin explains that according to Rambam, just as a fire exerts a constant force but causes different effects to different substances (whitens, blackens, melts, etc.), so too G-d; He exerts a constant, unchanging force on the world, and this force manifests differently on different subjects.] There is no need to picture God as a personal judge intervening within nature, since nature itself is identified with some of God’s actions. On this model divine reward and punishment are built into the stable nature of what exists.
However, Professor Manekin notes that Rambam does in fact hold by reward and punishment, when he says in his Letter on Resurrection (as quoted by Manekin, ibid.),
The Torah affirms it as a continuous miracle over the generations, that is, success in [Israel’s] activities if they obey God, and failure if they disobey…their success and failure are not the result of natural causes or customary existence, but are linked to their obedience and disobedience.…They are singled out by this great miracle: success or failure in their activities will always be linked to their actions.Manekin takes this at face value and explains,
So while all humans are rewarded or punished naturally according to their actions (cf. 3.17, p. 471), only Israel, it appears, has miracles performed on its behalf as part of divine recompense. Once again, this does not imply divine intervention but only the occurrence of certain non-natural phenomena according to the [eternal, unchanging, constantly active] divine will.However, I will simply reply that like I claim for his Letter to Marseille, so too the Letter on Ressurection; I will say that Rambam is being disingenuous. I am following the esoteric interpretation of Rambam, a reading which Manekin himself rejects, as he explains earlier in his book.
Guttmann, in "Divine Providence" (ad. loc.) thus summarizes (based on Moreh 3,17ff; see also Manekin ibid. for a summary of this chapter of Rambam) that according to Rambam, there are three kinds of "evil" in the world: What we consider "good" and "evil" is not reward and punishment, but rather, it is either
1) An essential part of nature, i.e. the laws of nature (floods, fires, etc.) must be given free reign, in view of some overarching good ("Evil 1");
2) The results of man's free will causing him to hurt others; i.e. G-d must allow man's actions to bear fruits, even if others are hurt, in order that free will is viable ("Evil 2");
3) One's hurting oneself by virtue of immature and selfish and shortsighted goals and efforts that ultimately cause one to shortchange oneself ("Evil 3");
It is "Evil 3" which is related to Divine Providence, for one who matures his intellect and achieves proper perspective and goals, will connect to the Active Intellect and receive Divine Inspiration, i.e. Divine Providence. It is "Evil 1" and "Evil 2" which allows someone to be hurt by something outside himself. These evils must be allowed to operate, due to an overarching good. In the process, individuals will be hurt, but this is unfortunately necessary.
Note that Rambam, in this prsent letter (the Letter to Marseille), says
This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them.Rambam says the Second Temple fell due to our not learning the art of war. But did it not fall due to sin, due to G-d's punishing us? Well, as we have seen, G-d would not have Himself intervened due to our sins; rather, our own sins themselves, being antithetical to a proper and intelligent lifestyle, would have caused the Temple to fall. And one of these sins was our relying on astrology, in lieu of effective and practice measures, such as learning the art of war. And indeed, David Guttmann has demonstrated in his essay on Rambam's view of avoda zara ("Avodah Zarah as Falsehood - Denial of Reality and Rejection of Science" in Hakira 6 - and cf. my blog post "Maimonidean Rationalism: Part 2: "Avodah Zarah as Falsehood - Denial of Reality and Rejection of Science" by David Guttmann"), that this is precisely why Rambam emphasizes that astrology and magic and not merely prohibited, but even false and senseless: for the belief in them stultifies the mind and interferes with one's taking life practically and realistically. Instead, one focuses his efforts on talismans and incantations, things which are vanity and of nought, to the detriment of his taking real practical steps for his livelihood and welfare. Had we followed the Torah's command to avoid astrology and magic, we'd instead have focused on energies on practical and rational measures, such as the art of war.
If one is not pleased with saying that our failure to learn war resulted in the fall of the Second Temple, one could just as well say that sinat hinam, "causeless hatred", caused the downfall (as the Talmud indicates), with the same philosophical explanation: not that G-d Himself directly punished us, but rather, that social disunity meant we could not effectively fight Rome on the battlefield. Again, we'd say that when G-d commanded us to love our neighbor and not factionalize, He ensured that observance or disobedience intrinsically, by natural law, led to its own reward and punishment.
I later saw that Professor Harry Wolfson, in "Maimonides and Halevi", might support my understanding of Rambam. Wolfson states that human perfection, according to the Rambam
is to be found in the perfection of the intellect, the development of the loftiest intellectual faculties, the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions about God. [Says Rambam]According to Professor Wolfson, not only are the mitzvot meant as purely sociological/naturalistic tools by which to shape conditions in this temporal world (a notion that rationalists such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch would be very much, although not entirely, in agreement with), which could very well preclude direct reward and punishment (except insofar as the mitzvot themselves intrinsically improve the quality of life), but moreover, according to Professor Wolfson, Rambam's reason for this philosophy is that according to Rambam, the purpose of the mitzvot is simply to ensure a state of existence for society that is conducive to philosophizing and intellectual contemplation in peace, tranquility, and security. Certainly, then, it is extremely reasonable that the mitzvot should intrinsically lead to a good quality of life, for only in this way will their observance be conducive to philosophical contemplation! Rationalists like Hirsch would say that the mitzvot work for a practical "tikkun olam" in this temporal world, for an ethical purpose and goal (i.e. an ethical world IS the goal and purpose), but Rambam is even more utilitarian, and says the practical "tikkun olam" is simply a means to another end, viz. a society in which philosophical contemplation can take place. Thus, for the mitzvot to themselves intrinsically affect life for the good or the bad, as their own intrinsic and mechanistic "reward" and "punishment", is very understandable within Rambam's framework.With this perception (the right view of God) man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perception; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality; and on its account he is called man. [Moreh Neb., Ill, 60]Thus the highest perfection of man consists in his becoming an "actually intelligent being." The acts conducing to that are the virtues. Acts are, therefore, in themselves neither good nor bad; their moral value is determined by their furthering or preventing the Highest Perfection. Hence there is no virtue in doing righteousness for its own sake.The multitude who observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant, never enter the royal palace. [Moreh Neb., Ill, 51.]Not only are virtues for their own sake unimportant, but they are not even the best means of reaching the Highest Perfection. Speculation and knowledge will lead to it sooner than practice and right conduct.Of these two ways knowledge and conduct the one, the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank."[Moreh Neb., Ill, 27.]For the Highest Perfection certainly does not include any action or good conduct, but only knowledge, which is arrived at by speculation, or established by research.[ibid.]But one cannot procure all this; it is impossible for a single man to obtain this comfort ; it is only possible in society, since man, as it is well known, is by nature social.[ibid.]Hence the object of society is to provide the conditions favorable to the production of "actually intelligent men." All mankind live only for the few who can reach the Highest Perfection, just as all earthly beings exist for men.Common men exist for two reasons; first, to do the work that is needed in the state in order that the actually intelligent man should be provided with all his wants and be able to pursue his studies; second, to accompany the wise lest they feel lonely, since the number of wise men is small.[Introduction to סדר זרעים; see alsoאחר העם, שלטון השכל in השלח XV.]It is on the basis of this ethical system that Maimonides evaluates the Jewish Law. In its speculative part the Law contains Aristotle's metaphysics couched in language suitable for the intelligence of the common people. In its practical part, it is a scheme of a social organization planned to produce "actually intelligent beings." That the practice of the Law will not alone conduce to the Highest Perfection, we have already seen. That must be reached by reason. But Maimonides argues that such practice is meant to prepare the environment favorable to the attainment of the perfection of self-sufficiency.