Superphysics Superphysics
Part 120

Fixing the Harshness of Descartes

by Leibniz
11 minutes  • 2215 words
  1. Descartes speaks somewhat crudely of the will of God in regard to evil. He says that God knew that:
  • our free will would determine us toward some particular thing
  • he also wished it, albeit he did not will to constrain the will thereto.

He speaks no less harshly in the 8th letter of the same volume. He says that not the slightest thought enters into the mind of a man which God does not will, and has not willed from all eternity, to enter there.

Calvin never said anything harsher.

All that can only be excused if it is to be understood of a permissive will. M. Descartes’ solution amounts to the distinction between the will expressed in the sign and the will expressive of the good pleasure (inter voluntatem signi et beneplaciti) which the moderns have taken from the Schoolmen as regards the terms, but to which they have given a meaning not usual among the ancients.

God may command something and yet not will that it be done, as when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son: he willed the obedience, and he did not will the action.

But when God commands the virtuous action and forbids the sin, he wills indeed that which he ordains, but it is only by an antecedent will.

  1. Descartes’ comparison is therefore not satisfactory. But it may be made so.

One must make some change in the facts, inventing some reason to oblige the prince to cause or permit the two enemies to meet.

They must, for instance, be together in the army or in other obligatory functions, a circumstance the prince himself cannot hinder without endangering his State.

For example, the absence of either of them might be responsible for the disappearance of innumerable persons of his party from the army or cause grumbling among the soldiers and give rise to some great disturbance. In this case, therefore, one may say that the prince does not will the duel:

he knows of it, but he permits it notwithstanding, for he prefers permitting the sin of others to committing one himself. Thus this corrected comparison may serve, provided that one observe the difference between God and the prince. The prince is forced into this permission by his powerlessness; a more powerful monarch would have no need of all these considerations; but God, who has power to do all that is possible, only permits sin because it is absolutely impossible to anyone at all to do better.

The prince’s action is peradventure not free from sorrow and regret. This regret is due to his imperfection, of which he is sensible; therein lies displeasure.

God is incapable of such a feeling and finds, moreover, no cause therefor; he is infinitely conscious of his own perfection, and it may even be said that the imperfection in creatures taken individually changes for him into perfection in relation to the whole, and that it is an added glory for the Creator.

What more can one wish, when one possesses a boundless wisdom and when one is as powerful as one is wise; when one can do all and when one has the best?

  1. Having once understood these things, we are hardened sufficiently, so it seems to me, against the strongest and most spirited objections. I have not concealed them: but there are some we shall merely touch upon, because they are too odious.

The Remonstrants and M. Bayle (Reply to the Questions of a Provincial, vol. III, ch. 152, end page 919) quote St. Augustine, saying, ‘crudelem esse misericordiam velle aliquem miserum esse ut eius miserearis’: in the same sense is cited Seneca De Benef., L. 6, c. 36, 37. I confess that one would have some reason to urge that against those who [227]believed that God has no other cause for permitting sin than the design to have something wherewith to exercise punitive justice against the majority of men, and his mercy towards a small number of elect.

But God had reasons for his permission of sin, more worthy of him and more profound in relation to us. Someone has dared to compare God’s course of action with that of a Caligula, who has his edicts written in so small a hand and has them placarded in so high a place that it is not possible to read them; with that of a mother who neglects her daughter’s honour in order to attain her own selfish ends; with that of Queen Catherine de Medicis, who is said to have abetted the love-affairs of her ladies in order to learn of the intrigues of the great;

Even with that of Tiberius, who arranged, through the extraordinary services of the executioner, that the law forbidding the subjection of a virgin to capital punishment should no longer apply to the case of Sejanus’s daughter. This last comparison was proposed by Peter Bertius, then an Armenian, but finally a member of the Roman communion. And a scandalous comparison has been made between God and Tiberius, which is related at length by Andreas Caroli in his Memorabilia Ecclesiastica of the last century, as M. Bayle observes.

Bertius used it against the Gomarists. I think that arguments of this kind are only valid against those who maintain that justice is an arbitrary thing in relation to God; or that he has a despotic power which can go so far as being able to condemn innocents; or, in short, that good is not the motive of his actions.

  1. At that same time an ingenious satire was composed against the Gomarists, entitled Fur praedestinatus, de gepredestineerdedief, wherein there is introduced a thief condemned to be hanged, who attributes to God all the evil he has done; who believes himself predestined to salvation notwithstanding his wicked actions; who imagines that this belief is sufficient for him, and who defeats by arguments ad hominem a Counter-remonstrant minister called to prepare him for death: but this thief is finally converted by an old pastor who had been dismissed for his Arminianism, whom the gaoler, in pity for the criminal and for the weakness of the minister, had brought to him secretly. Replies were made to this lampoon, but replies to satires never please as much as the satires themselves. M. Bayle (Reply to the Questions of a Provincial, vol. III, ch. 154, p. 938) says that this book was printed in England in the [228]time of Cromwell, and he appears not to have been informed that it was only a translation of the much older original Flemish. He adds that Dr. George Kendal wrote a confutation of it at Oxford in the year 1657, under the title of Fur pro Tribunali, and that the dialogue is there inserted. This dialogue presupposes, contrary to the truth, that the Counter-remonstrants make God the cause of evil, and teach a kind of predestination in the Mahometan manner according to which it does not matter whether one does good or evil, and the assumption that one is predestined assures the fact. They by no means go so far. Nevertheless it is true that there are among them some Supralapsarians and others who find it hard to declare themselves in clear terms upon the justice of God and the principles of piety and morals in man. For they imagine despotism in God, and demand that man be convinced, without reason, of the absolute certainty of his election, a course that is liable to have dangerous consequences. But all those who acknowledge that God produces the best plan, having chosen it from among all possible ideas of the universe; that he there finds man inclined by the original imperfection of creatures to misuse his free will and to plunge into misery; that God prevents the sin and the misery in so far as the perfection of the universe, which is an emanation from his, may permit it: those, I say, show forth more clearly that God’s intention is the one most right and holy in the world; that the creature alone is guilty, that his original limitation or imperfection is the source of his wickedness, that his evil will is the sole cause of his misery; that one cannot be destined to salvation without also being destined to the holiness of the children of God, and that all hope of election one can have can only be founded upon the good will infused into one’s heart by the grace of God.

  2. Metaphysical considerations also are brought up against my explanation of the moral cause of moral evil; but they will trouble me less since I have dismissed the objections derived from moral reasons, which were more impressive. These metaphysical considerations concern the nature of the possible and of the necessary; they go against my fundamental assumption that God has chosen the best of all possible worlds. There are philosophers who have maintained that there is nothing possible except that which actually happens. These are those same people who thought or could have thought that all is necessary unconditionally. Some [229]were of this opinion because they admitted a brute and blind necessity in the cause of the existence of things: and it is these I have most reason for opposing. But there are others who are mistaken only because they misuse terms. They confuse moral necessity with metaphysical necessity: they imagine that since God cannot help acting for the best he is thus deprived of freedom, and things are endued with that necessity which philosophers and theologians endeavour to avoid. With these writers my dispute is only one of words, provided they admit in very deed that God chooses and does the best. But there are others who go further, they think that God could have done better. This is an opinion which must be rejected: for although it does not altogether deprive God of wisdom and goodness, as do the advocates of blind necessity, it sets bounds thereto, thus derogating from God’s supreme perfection.

  3. The question of the possibility of things that do not happen has already been examined by the ancients. It appears that Epicurus, to preserve freedom and to avoid an absolute necessity, maintained, after Aristotle, that contingent futurities were not susceptible of determinate truth. For if it was true yesterday that I should write to-day, it could therefore not fail to happen, it was already necessary; and, for the same reason, it was from all eternity. Thus all that which happens is necessary, and it is impossible for anything different to come to pass. But since that is not so it would follow, according to him, that contingent futurities have no determinate truth. To uphold this opinion, Epicurus went so far as to deny the first and the greatest principle of the truths of reason, he denied that every assertion was either true or false. Here is the way they confounded him: ‘You deny that it was true yesterday that I should write to-day; it was therefore false.’ The good man, not being able to admit this conclusion, was obliged to say that it was neither true nor false. After that, he needs no refutation, and Chrysippus might have spared himself the trouble he took to prove the great principle of contradictories, following the account by Cicero in his book De Fato: ‘Contendit omnes nervos Chrysippus ut persuadeat omne Αξιωμα aut verum esse aut falsum. Ut enim Epicurus veretur ne si hoc concesserit, concedendum sit, fato fieri quaecunque fiant; si enim alterum ex aeternitate verum sit, esse id etiam certum; si certum, etiam necessarium; ita et necessitatem et fatum confirmari putat; sic Chrysippus metuit ne non, si non [230]obtinuerit omne quod enuncietur aut verum esse aut falsum, omnia fato fieri possint ex causis aeternis rerum futurarum.’ M. Bayle observes (Dictionary, article ‘Epicurus’, let. T, p. 1141) ’that neither of these two great philosophers [Epicurus and Chrysippus] understood that the truth of this maxim, every proposition is true or false, is independent of what is called fatum: it could not therefore serve as proof of the existence of the fatum, as Chrysippus maintained and as Epicurus feared. Chrysippus could not have conceded, without damaging his own position, that there are propositions which are neither true nor false. But he gained nothing by asserting the contrary: for, whether there be free causes or not, it is equally true that this proposition, The Grand Mogul will go hunting to-morrow, is true or false. Men rightly regarded as ridiculous this speech of Tiresias: All that I shall say will happen or not, for great Apollo confers on me the faculty of prophesying. If, assuming the impossible, there were no God, it would yet be certain that everything the greatest fool in the world should predict would happen or would not happen. That is what neither Chrysippus nor Epicurus has taken into consideration.’ Cicero, lib. I, De Nat. Deorum, with regard to the evasions of the Epicureans expressed the sound opinion (as M. Bayle observes towards the end of the same page) that it would be much less shameful to admit that one cannot answer one’s opponent, than to have recourse to such answers. Yet we shall see that M. Bayle himself confused the certain with the necessary, when he maintained that the choice of the best rendered things necessary.

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