Ubi bene, nemo melius
12 minutes • 2356 words
- One may say of M. Bayle, ‘ubi bene, nemo melius’, although one cannot say of him what was said of Origen, ‘ubi male, nemo pejus’.
I will only add that what has just been indicated as a maxim is in fact the definition of the possible and the impossible.
Bayle, however, adds here towards the end a remark which somewhat spoils his eminently reasonable statement. ‘Now what contradiction would there be if Spinoza had died in Leyden? Would Nature then have been less perfect, less wise, less powerful?’ He confuses here what is impossible because it implies contradiction with what cannot happen because it is not meet to be chosen.
There would have been no contradiction in the supposition that Spinoza died in Leyden and not at The Hague; there would have been nothing so possible: the matter was therefore indifferent in respect of the power of God. But one must not suppose that any event, however small it be, can be regarded as indifferent in respect of his wisdom and his goodness. Jesus Christ has said divinely well that everything is numbered, even to the hairs of our head. Thus the wisdom of God did not permit that this event whereof M. Bayle speaks should happen otherwise than it happened, not as if by itself it would have been more deserving of choice, but on account of its connexion with that entire sequence of the universe which deserved to be given preference. To say that what has already happened was of no interest to the wisdom of God, and thence to infer that it is therefore not necessary, is to make a false assumption and argue incorrectly to a true conclusion. It is confusing what is necessary by moral necessity, that is, according to the principle of Wisdom and Goodness, with what is so by metaphysical and brute necessity, which occurs when the contrary implies contradiction. Spinoza, moreover, sought a metaphysical necessity in events. He did not think that God was determined by his goodness and by his perfection (which this author treated as chimeras in relation to the universe), but by the necessity of his nature; just as the semicircle is bound to enclose only right angles, without either knowing or willing this. For Euclid demonstrated that all angles enclosed between two straight lines drawn from the extremities of the diameter towards a point on the circumference of the circle are of necessity right angles, and that the contrary implies contradiction.
There are people who have gone to the other extreme: under the pretext of freeing the divine nature from the yoke of necessity they wished to regard it as altogether indifferent, with an indifference of equipoise. They did not take into account that just as metaphysical necessity is preposterous in relation to God’s actions ad extra, so moral necessity is worthy of him. It is a happy necessity which obliges wisdom to do good, whereas indifference with regard to good and evil would indicate a lack of goodness or of wisdom. And besides, the indifference which would keep the will in a perfect equipoise would itself be a chimera, as has been already shown: it would offend against the great principle of the determinant reason.
Those who believe that God established good and evil by an arbitrary decree are adopting that strange idea of mere indifference, and other absurdities still stranger. They deprive God of the designation good: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well? And I have very often been surprised that divers Supralapsarian theologians, as for instance Samuel Rutherford, a Professor of Theology in Scotland, who wrote when the controversies with the Remonstrants were at their height, could have been deluded by so strange an idea. Rutherford (in his Exercitationes Apologeticae pro Gratia) says positively that nothing is unjust or morally bad in God’s eyes before he has forbidden it: thus without this prohibition it would be a matter of indifference whether one murdered or saved a man, loved God or hated him, praised or blasphemed him. Nothing is so unreasonable as that. One may teach that God established good and evil by a positive law, or one may assert that there was something good and just before his decree, but that he is not required to conform to it, and that nothing prevents him from acting unjustly and from perhaps condemning innocence: but it all comes to the same thing, offering almost equal dishonour to God. For if justice was established arbitrarily and without any cause, if God came upon it by a kind of hazard, as when one draws lots, his goodness and his wisdom are not manifested in it, and there is nothing at all to attach him to it. If it is by a purely arbitrary decree, without any reason, that he has established or created what we call justice and goodness, then he can annul them or change their nature. Thus one would have no reason to assume that he will observe them always, as it would be possible to say he will observe them on the assumption that they are founded on reasons. The same would hold good more or less if his justice were different from ours, if (for example) it were written in his code that it is just to make the innocent eternally unhappy. According to these principles also, nothing would compel God to keep his word or would assure us of its fulfilment. For why should the law of justice, which states that reasonable promises must be kept, be more inviolable for him than any other laws?
All these three dogmas, albeit a little different from one another, namely, (1) that the nature of justice is arbitrary, (2) that it is fixed, but it is not certain that God will observe it, and finally (3) that the justice we know is not that which he observes, destroy the confidence in God that gives us tranquillity, and the love of God that makes our happiness. There is nothing to prevent such a God from behaving as a tyrant and an enemy of honest folk, and from taking pleasure in that which we call evil. Why should he not, then, just as well be the evil principle of the Manichaeans as the single good principle of the orthodox? At least he would be neutral and, as it were, suspended between the two, or even sometimes the one and sometimes the other. That would be as if someone were to say that Oromasdes and Arimanius reign in turns, according to which of the two is the stronger or the more adroit. It is like the saying of a certain Moghul woman. She, so it seems, having heard it said that formerly under Genghis Khan and his successors her nation had had dominion over most of the North and East, told the Muscovites recently, when M. Isbrand went to China on behalf of the Czar, through the country of those Tartars, that the god of the Moghuls had been driven from Heaven, but that one day he would take his own place again. The true God is always the same: natural religion itself demands that he be essentially as good and wise as he is powerful. It is scarcely more contrary to reason and piety to say that God acts without cognition, than to maintain that he has cognition which does not find the eternal rules of goodness and of justice among its objects, or again to say that he has a will such as heeds not these rules.
Some theologians who have written of God’s right over creatures appear to have conceded to him an unrestricted right, an arbitrary and despotic power. They thought that would be placing divinity on the most exalted level that may be imagined for it, and that it would abase the creature before the Creator to such an extent that the Creator is bound by no laws of any kind with respect to the creature. There are passages from Twiss, Rutherford and some other Supralapsarians which imply that God cannot sin whatever he may do, because he is subject to no law. M. Bayle himself considers that this doctrine is monstrous and contrary to the holiness of God (Dictionary, v. ‘Paulicians’, p. 2332 in initio); but I suppose that the intention of some of these writers was less bad than it seems to be. Apparently they meant by the term right, ανυπευθυνιαν, a state wherein one is responsible to none for one’s actions. But they will not have denied that God owes to himself what goodness and justice demand of him. On that matter one may see M. Amyraut’s Apology for Calvin: it is true that Calvin appears orthodox on this subject, and that he is by no means one of the extreme Supralapsarians.
Thus, when M. Bayle says somewhere that St. Paul extricates himself from predestination only through the consideration of God’s absolute right, and the incomprehensibility of his ways, it is implied that, if one understood them, one would find them consistent with justice, God not being able to use his power otherwise. St. Paul himself says that it is a depth, but a depth of wisdom (altitudo sapientiae), and justice is included in the goodness of the All-wise. I find that M. Bayle speaks very well elsewhere on the application of our notions of goodness to the actions of God (Reply to the Questions of a Provincial, ch. 81, p. 139): ‘One must not assert here’, he says, ’that the goodness of the infinite Being is not subject to the same rules as the goodness of the creature. For if there is in God an attribute that can be called goodness, the marks of goodness in general must apply to him. Now when we reduce goodness to the most general abstraction, we find therein the will to do good. Divide and subdivide into as many kinds as you shall please this general goodness, into infinite goodness, finite goodness, kingly goodness, goodness of a father, goodness of a husband, goodness of a master, you will find in each, as an inseparable attribute, the will to do good.’
I find also that M. Bayle combats admirably the opinion of those who assert that goodness and justice depend solely upon the arbitrary choice of God; who suppose, moreover, that if God had been determined by the goodness of things themselves to act, he would be entirely subjected to necessity in his actions, a state incompatible with freedom. That is confusing metaphysical necessity with moral necessity. Here is what M. Bayle says in objection to this error (Reply, ch. 89, p. 203): ‘The consequence of this doctrine will be, that before God resolved upon creating the world he saw nothing better in virtue than in vice, and that his ideas did not show him that virtue was more worthy of his love than vice. That leaves no distinction between natural right and positive right; there will no longer be anything unalterable or inevitable in morals; it will have been just as possible for God to command people to be vicious as to command them to be virtuous; and one will have no certainty that the moral laws will not one day be abrogated, as the ceremonial laws of the Jews were. This, in a word, leads us straight to the belief that God was the free author, not only of goodness and of virtue, but also of truth and of the essence of things. That is what certain of the Cartesians assert, and I confess that their opinion (see the Continuation of Divers Thoughts on the Comet, p. 554) might be of some avail in certain circumstances. Yet it is open to dispute for so many reasons, and subject to consequences so troublesome (see chapter 152 of the same Continuation) that there are scarcely any extremes it were not better to suffer rather than plunge into that one. It opens the door to the most exaggerated Pyrrhonism: for it leads to the assertion that this proposition, three and three make six, is only true where and during the time when it pleases God; that it is perhaps false in some parts of the universe; and that perhaps it will be so among men in the coming year. All that depends on the free will of God could have been limited to certain places and certain times, like the Judaic ceremonies. This conclusion will be extended to all the laws of the Decalogue, if the actions they command are in their nature divested of all goodness to the same degree as the actions they forbid.’
To say that God, having resolved to create man just as he is, could not but have required of him piety, sobriety, justice and chastity, because it is impossible that the disorders capable of overthrowing or disturbing his work can please him, that is to revert in effect to the common opinion. Virtues are virtues only because they serve perfection or prevent the imperfection of those who are virtuous, or even of those who have to do with them. And they have that power by their nature and by the nature of rational creatures, before God decrees to create them. To hold a different opinion would be as if someone were to say that the rules of proportion and harmony are arbitrary with regard to musicians because they occur in music only when one has resolved to sing or to play some instrument. But that is exactly what is meant by being essential to good music: for those rules belong to it already in the ideal state, even when none yet thinks of singing, since it is known that they must of necessity belong to it as soon as one shall sing. In the same way virtues belong to the ideal state of the rational creature before God decrees to create it; and it is for that very reason we maintain that virtues are good by their nature.