Michael Dirda on 'The Best of All Possible Worlds'

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 30, 2008


A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil

By Steven Nadler

Farrar Straus Giroux. 300 pp. $25

Many are likely to know just two facts about the great polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716): first, that he and Newton independently discovered calculus at roughly the same time, then argued over who should get the credit (Newton won); and, second, that he maintained that ours was "the best of all possible worlds," a phrase much mocked in Voltaire's sparkling philosophical satire Candide. If people know anything further about this German thinker, it's likely to be that he spent his life trying to effect a reconciliation between Protestantism and Catholicism and that he postulated the existence of invisible, atom-like "monads" as the metaphysical building blocks of the universe.

Poor Leibniz! For all his genius, he seems destined to be overshadowed by others, whether Newton, Voltaire or Spinoza (whom he visited, admired and disputed with) or, as Steven Nadler shows in The Best of All Possible Worlds, even by half-forgotten French priests. Of course, Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) weren't simple provincial curates; they were, at least for the generation following the death of Descartes, France's strongest theological thinkers (excepting perhaps Pascal, who strangely enough barely figures in Nadler's book). Both Frenchmen knew the young Leibniz during his long stay in Paris, and all three corresponded with one another for decades afterward. Their lifelong, and sometimes heated, arguments about the nature of God form the basis of this engrossing book. Nadler makes clear the importance of their debate:

"What was at stake was nothing less than the meaning of existence, the understanding of why things are as they are. The choice was clear: either the universe is ultimately an arbitrary product, the effect of an indifferent will guided by no objective values and subject to no independent canons of reason or goodness; or it is the result of wisdom, intelligible to its core and informed by a rationality and a sense of value that are, in essence, not very different from our own; or (to mention the most terrifying possibility of all) it simply is, necessary through its causes and transparent to the investigations of metaphysics and science but essentially devoid of any meaning or value whatsoever."

The attempt to justify the ways of God to men -- theodicy, a term coined by Leibniz -- lies at the heart of the matter: "Why is there any evil at all in God's creation?" Essentially, Leibniz's answer is: Consider the whole. Explains Nadler, "It is not that everything will turn out for the best for me or for anyone else in particular. Nor is it necessarily the case that any other possible world would have been worse for me or for anyone else. Rather, Leibniz claims that any other possible world is worse overall than this one, regardless of any single person's fortunes in it." What is good for the whole isn't necessarily good for every one of its individual parts or components. As Nadler emphasizes, summarizing Leibniz, "all things are connected and every single aspect of the world makes a contribution to its being the best world."

That includes what we call evil. However, Leibniz offers no explanation of just how evil assists the overall goodness of things. (Sometimes he even seems to suggest that it serves to bring the good into greater relief.) We cannot penetrate so far into the Creator's mind or plan. Still "it is inconceivable . . . that an infinitely good and perfect God could choose anything less than the best." This conclusion may satisfy a devout Christian philosopher, but it offers scant consolation when we are in pain, or see the wicked succeed and the worthy fail, or when we face death.

Malebranche refined Leibniz's view by imagining that God needed to establish a world that wouldn't require constant adjustment or interference, one that ran on its own, following what He had determined were the simplest, most efficient general principles. Thus, "the actual world is not the most perfect world absolutely speaking; rather, it is only the most perfect world possible relative to those maximally simple laws." In other words, even God compromises. Our world could be better "but only at the cost of the simplicity of the means." Instead, Malebranche's Creator "wills to accomplish as much justice and goodness as He possibly can, not absolutely but consistent with the simplest laws." As Nadler emphasizes, to Malebranche "God . . . is more committed to acting in a general way and to a nature governed by the simplest laws than He is to the well-being of individuals." His "general volitions," as Malebranche dubs these cosmic rules, take precedence over "particular volitions," which are essentially those infrequent violations of the natural order that we call miracles. So it is in the established nature of things for it to rain, and sometimes the parched land receives needed water and sometimes rivers overflow. God isn't going to spend all his time constantly adjusting the weather and a zillion other phenomena just because the results aren't what the locals want or like.

What Arnauld objects to in Malebranche (and also in Leibniz) is the supposition that God's nature is like humankind's and that our human intellects can have access to the divine wisdom. God, Arnauld believes, is utterly alien to us -- "a hidden God," to use a Jansenist catchphrase -- and to imagine him making logical decisions, or weighing the pluses and minuses of contrasting worlds, is absurd, nothing but anthropomorphism. (As Spinoza once observed, "a triangle, if it could speak would . . . say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that God's nature is eminently circular.") In fact, men and women are by their lesser natures incapable of making sense of God or his mysterious ways, and all these presumptuous attempts at theodicy are doomed to failure. God wanted to make the world and so He did, and there's an end to it. In essence, Leibniz believes in God's goodness and wisdom, and Malebranche further emphasizes His rationality, but to Arnauld God is simply pure, omnipotent will.

Which God you believe in matters: "Do we inhabit a cosmos that is fundamentally intelligible because its creation is grounded in a rational decision informed by certain absolute values? Is the world's existence the result of a reasonable act of creation and the expression of an infinite wisdom? Or, on the other hand, is the universe ultimately a nonrational, even arbitrary piece of work? . . . Does the origin of things lie in an indifferent action -- an apparently capricious exercise of causal power -- by a Creator who cannot possibly be motivated by reasons because His will finds no reasons independent of itself? In short, does the universe exist by ratio or by voluntas, by wisdom or power?"

There's much more detail, and much greater subtlety, in Nadler's account of these differing theological views of God and His universe. (For instance, Spinoza contributes the further twist that "this is not the best of all possible worlds; it is the only possible world.") Of course, Leibniz, Malebranche and Arnauld all posit a Christian God of some sort, and their arguments may seem quaint to rationalists of a largely secular age. But to those who believe in, or simply wonder about, a God-governed universe, these three 17th-century thinkers raise serious and perennially fascinating questions: Is God moral and rational or completely arbitrary, even capricious? Is it wrong to kill only because God says so, or are there absolute moral values (as Kant would argue in establishing the categorical imperative, his variant on the Golden Rule)? And, to be almost bathetic, if God gives us grace to withstand temptation, why does he sometimes fail to give us enough?

Besides this new book, Steven Nadler is the author of a magisterial biography of Spinoza, which I have read and recommend, and of impressive-sounding academic books on Arnauld and Malebranche, which I've only heard of. I can't imagine a better guide to 17th-century philosophical thought. Aimed at the general public, The Best of All Possible Worlds is written simply and clearly, without condescension, flashiness or over-simplification. But it's a demanding book nonetheless, and you need to pay attention. You'll be amply rewarded if you do. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com

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