Arabic Sciences and Philosophy

Research Article

Stoic Physics in the Writings of R. Saadia Ga'on al-Fayyumi and its Aftermath in Medieval Jewish Mysticism*

Gad Freudenthala1

a1 Institut d'histoire des sciences, C.N.R.S., 13 rue du Four, 75006 Paris, France


R. Saadia Ga'on (882–942) of Baghdad sought to avoid anthropomorphism by arguing that scriptural phrases which seem to ascribe materiality to the Deity in fact refer not to God Himself, but rather to a created entity, God's Glory, which he described as a very tenuous “air.” This paper argues that Saadia's conception of a quasi-divine “air” through which God accomplishes His acts in the material world is heavily indebted to the Stoic theory of pneuma. It follows that the immanentist theology of xs1E24asidey Ashkenaz (German Pietists), which is known to have been substantially influenced by Saadia, in fine is also indebted to Stoic philosophy and physics.


R. Saadia Ga'on (882–942) de Baghdad tâchait d'éviter l'anthropomorphisme en avançant que les versets bibliques qui semblent attribuer des traits matériels à Dieu portent non sur Dieu Lui-même, mais sur une entité créée, la Gloire de Dieu, que Saadia décrivait comme un “air” extrêmement subtil. Cet article s'efforce de montrer que la conception saadienne d'un air quasi divin, par lequel Dieu accomplit Ses actes dans le monde matériel, est redevable à la doctrine stoïcienne du pneuma. Il s'ensuit que la théologie immanentiste des xs1E24asidey Ashkenaz (Piétistes allemands), que l'on sait avoir été trés influencée par Saadia, est un prolongement lointain de la philosophic et de la physique stoïciennes.


* Acknowledgements: A first version of this paper was presented at the colloquium on “Perspectives médiévales (arabes, latines, hébraïques) sur la tradition scientifique et philosophique grecque”, organized conjointly by the Centre d'histoire des sciences et des philosophies arabes et médiévales (C.N.R.S., Paris) and the Société internationale d'histoire des sciences et de la philosophie arabes et islamiques, held in Paris on March 31 - April 3, 1993. I am very grateful to the colleagues and friends who kindly read a draft of this paper and made important helpful suggestions: Haggai Ben-Shammai (Jerusalem), Bernard R. Goldstein (Pittsburgh), Menachem Kellner (Haifa), Y. Tzvi Langermann (Jerusalem), Sarah Stroumsa (Jerusalem), Mauro Zonta (Pavia), and an anonymous referee for Arabic Sciences and Philosophy. I also express my gratitude to the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for the material facilities put at my disposal during my regular stays in Jerusalem. The research underlying this paper was supported by an individual grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture during the years 1991/92 and 1992/93, for which I am very grateful.