"The Spirit He Breathed In Man Is Free" – The Theodicy of Maimonides and Kipling

Prof. Menachem Kellner writes:

Rambam also made it clear that (just as traffic accidents don’t just “happen,” but are caused, so) most of the evil from which we suffer is the result of human stupidity and cupidity; the fires were started by stupid kids literally playing with fire, but they spread so disastrously because too many people were concerned with everything but fire prevention and fire fighting, and emergency response to challenges other than hostile attacks (earthquakes, for example – Israel sits on a major fault line).

The most brilliant – and hilarious – expression of this philosophical doctrine is unquestionably Rudyard Kipling’s Natural Theology:

Natural Theology


I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith:
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!


How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!


My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer–
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.


I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour–
Not to mention the L. S. D!
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!


Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.


We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!


This was none of the good Lord’s pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping.
Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!

Rambam’s version:

ורוב הרעות שיארעו באישיו הן מחמתם, כלומר: מחמת אחדי האדם החסרים.

וממגרעותינו אנו צועקים ומשוועים, ומרעות שאנו עושים אותה בעצמנו בבחירתנו אנו מצטערים ומיחסים את זה לה’, יתעלה מכך, כמו שביאר בספרו ואמר “שיחת לו לא בניו מומם” וגו’, וביאר שלמה את זה ואמר “אוולת אדם תסלף דרכו ועל ה’ יזעף לבו”. …

והמין השלישי מן הרעות הוא מה שיארע לאדם ממנו מפעולתו הוא עצמו, וזה הוא המצוי הרבה, והרעות האלה יותר מרעות המין השני בהרבה, ומרעות המין הזה צועקים כל בני אדם. וזהו אשר לא תמצא מי שאינו [רצה] חוטא בו על עצמו כי אם מעטים. וזהו אשר ראוי לגנות עליו את הנפגע באמת, ולומר לו כמו שנאמר, מידכם הייתה זאת לכם, ונאמר משחית נפשו הוא יעשנה.

ועל המין הזה מן הרעות אמר שלמה אוולת אדם תסלף דרכו וגו’, וכן כבר ביאר במין הזה מן הרעות שהם מעשה האדם בעצמו, והוא אומרו: לבד ראה זה מצאתי אשר עשה האלוהים את האדם ישר והמה בקשו חשבונות רבים, ואותם המחשבות הם אשר הביאו עליהם הרעות הללו.

על מין זה נאמר כי לא יצא מעפר און ומאדמה לא יצמח עמל וביאר מיד בסמוך, כי האדם הוא אשר ממציא את המין הזה מן הרע, ואמר כי אדם לעמל יולד וגו’.1

The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! Comp. “Is destruction his [work]? No. Ye [who call yourselves] wrongly his sons, you who are a perverse and crooked generation” (Deut. xxxii. 5). This is explained by Solomon, who says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way, and his heart fretteth against the Lord” (Prov. xix. 3). …

(3) The third class of evils comprises those which every one causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class. It is especially of these evils that all men complain, only few men are found that do not sin against themselves by this kind of evil. Those that are afflicted with it are therefore justly blamed in the words of the prophet, “This hath been by your means” (Mal. i. 9); the same is expressed in the following passage, “He that doeth it destroyeth his own soul” (Prov. vi. 32). In reference to this kind of evil, Solomon says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way” (ibid. xix. 3). In the following passage he explains also that this kind of evil is man’s own work, “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright, but they have thought out many inventions” (Eccles. vii. 29), and these inventions bring the evils upon him. The same subject is referred to in Job (v. 6), “For affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.” These words are immediately followed by the explanation that man himself is the author of this class of evils, “But man is born unto trouble.”2

[And see our survey of the tension in traditional Jewish thought between personal autonomy and responsibility on the one hand, and Divine Providence on the other.]

  1. מורה נבוכים (מהדורת קאפח) ג:יב – קשר []
  2. Friedlander’s translation, pp. 269-271 – link. I have previously drawn this analogy between Rambam and Kipling on the Avodah mailing list. []

3 thoughts on “"The Spirit He Breathed In Man Is Free" – The Theodicy of Maimonides and Kipling”

  1. That is indeed a well-known quote, but Maharshal’s comment must be taken in context He is protesting what he considers a supercilious, condescending Sephardic attitude toward the Ashkenazic sages, and criticizing Maran for what he deems an over-reliance on Rambam and an insufficient consideration of the positions of the Franco-German Rishonim.

    [The permalink, FTR.]

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