Superphysics Superphysics
Part 182

God's Decrees

by Leibniz
12 minutes  • 2352 words
  1. Bayle has inserted a special chapter in his Continuation of Divers Thoughts on the Comet (it is chapter 152) where he shows ’that the Christian Doctors teach that there are things which are just antecedently to God’s decrees'.

Some theologians of the Augsburg Confession censured some of the Reformed who appeared to be of a different opinion; and this error was regarded as if it were a consequence of the absolute decree, which doctrine seems to exempt the will of God from any kind of reason, ubi stat pro ratione voluntas. But, as I have observed already on various occasions, Calvin himself acknowledged that the decrees of God are in conformity with justice and wisdom, although the reasons that might prove this conformity in detail are unknown to us. Thus, according to him, the rules of goodness and of justice are anterior to the decrees of God. M. Bayle, in the same place, quotes a passage from the celebrated M. Turretin which draws a [241]distinction between natural divine laws and positive divine laws.

Moral laws are of the first kind and ceremonial of the second. Samuel Desmarests, a celebrated theologian formerly at Groningen, and Herr Strinesius, who is still at Frankfort on the Oder, advocated this same distinction; and I think that it is the opinion most widely accepted even among the Reformed. Thomas Aquinas and all the Thomists were of the same opinion, with the bulk of the Schoolmen and the theologians of the Roman Church. The Casuists also held to that idea:

I count Grotius among the most eminent of them, and he was followed in this point by his commentators. Herr Pufendorf appeared to be of a different opinion, which he insisted on maintaining in the face of censure from some theologians; but he need not be taken into account, not having advanced far enough in subjects of this kind. He makes a vigorous protest against the absolute decree, in his Fecialis divinus, and yet he approves what is worst in the opinions of the champions of this decree, and without which this decree (as others of the Reformed explain) becomes endurable. Aristotle was very orthodox on this matter of justice, and the Schoolmen followed him: they distinguish, just as Cicero and the Jurists do, between perpetual right, which is binding on all and everywhere, and positive right, which is only for certain times and certain peoples. I once read with enjoyment the Euthyphro of Plato, who makes Socrates uphold the truth on that point, and M. Bayle has called attention to the same passage.

  1. Bayle himself upholds this truth with considerable force in a certain passage, which it will be well to quote here in its entirety, long as it is (vol. II of the Continuation of Divers Thoughts on the Comet, ch. 152, p. 771 seqq.): ‘According to the teaching of countless writers of importance’, he says, ’there is in nature and in the essence of certain things a moral good or evil that precedes the divine decree. They prove this doctrine principally through the frightful consequences that attend the opposite dogma.

Thus from the proposition that to do wrong to no man would be a good action, not in itself but by an arbitrary dispensation of God’s will, it would follow that God could have given to man a law directly opposed at all points to the commandments of the Decalogue.

That is horrifying. But here is a more direct proof, one derived from metaphysics. One thing is certain, that the existence of God is not an effect of his will. He exists not because he wills his [242]existence, but through the necessity of his infinite nature. His power and his knowledge exist through the same necessity.

He is all-powerful, he knows all things, not because he wills it thus, but because these are attributes necessarily identified with him. The dominion of his will relates only to the exercise of his power, he gives effect outside himself only to that which he wills, and he leaves all the rest in the state of mere possibility. Thence it comes that this dominion extends only over the existence of creatures, and not over their essential being. God was able to create matter, a man, a circle, or leave them in nothingness, but he was not able to produce them without giving them their essential properties.

He had of necessity to make man a rational animal and to give the round shape to a circle, since, according to his eternal ideas, independent of the free decrees of his will, the essence of man lay in the properties of being animal and rational, and since the essence of the circle lay in having a circumference equally distant from the centre as to all its parts.

This is what has caused the Christian philosophers to acknowledge that the essences of things are eternal, and that there are propositions of eternal truth; consequently that the essences of things and the truth of the first principles are immutable. That is to be understood not only of theoretical but also of practical first principles, and of all the propositions that contain the true definition of creatures. These essences and these truths emanate from the same necessity of nature as the knowledge of God.

Since therefore it is by the nature of things that God exists, that he is all-powerful, and that he has perfect knowledge of all things, it is also by the nature of things that matter, the triangle, man and certain actions of man, etc., have such and such properties essentially. God saw from all eternity and in all necessity the essential relations of numbers, and the identity of the subject and predicate in the propositions that contain the essence of each thing.

He saw likewise that the term just is included in these propositions: to esteem what is estimable, be grateful to one’s benefactor, fulfil the conditions of a contract, and so on, with many others relating to morals. One is therefore justified in saying that the precepts of natural law assume the reasonableness and justice of that which is enjoined, and that it would be man’s duty to practise what they contain even though God should have been so indulgent as to ordain nothing in that respect. Pray observe that in going back with our visionary thoughts to that ideal moment [243]when God has yet decreed nothing, we find in the ideas of God the principles of morals under terms that imply an obligation.

We understand these maxims as certain, and derived from the eternal and immutable order: it beseems the rational creature to conform to reason; a rational creature conforming to reason is to be commended, but not conforming thereto is blameworthy.

You would not dare to deny that these truths impose upon man a duty in relation to all acts which are in conformity with strict reason, such as these: one must esteem all that is estimable; render good for good; do wrong to no man; honour one’s father; render to every man that which is his due, etc. Now since by the very nature of things, and before the divine laws, the truths of morality impose upon man certain duties, Thomas Aquinas and Grotius were justified in saying that if there were no God we should nevertheless be obliged to conform to natural law. Others have said that even supposing all rational beings in existence were to perish, true propositions would remain true. Cajetan maintained that if he remained alone in the universe, all other things without any exception having been destroyed, the knowledge that he had of the nature of a rose would nevertheless subsist.’

  1. The late Jacob Thomasius, a celebrated Professor at Leipzig, made the apt observation in his elucidations of the philosophic rules of Daniel Stahl, a Jena professor, that it is not advisable to go altogether beyond God, and that one must not say, with some Scotists, that the eternal verities would exist even though there were no understanding, not even that of God. For it is, in my judgement, the divine understanding which gives reality to the eternal verities, albeit God’s will have no part therein. All reality must be founded on something existent. It is true that an atheist may be a geometrician: but if there were no God, geometry would have no object. And without God, not only would there be nothing existent, but there would be nothing possible. That, however, does not hinder those who do not see the connexion of all things one with another and with God from being able to understand certain sciences, without knowing their first source, which is in God. Aristotle, although he also scarcely knew that source, nevertheless said something of the same kind which was very apposite. He acknowledged that the principles of individual forms of knowledge depend on a superior knowledge which gives the reason for them; and this superior knowledge must [244]have being, and consequently God, the source of being, for its object. Herr Dreier of Königsberg has aptly observed that the true metaphysics which Aristotle sought, and which he called την ζητουμενην, his desideratum, was theology.

  2. Yet the same M. Bayle, who says so much that is admirable in order to prove that the rules of goodness and justice, and the eternal verities in general, exist by their nature, and not by an arbitrary choice of God, has spoken very hesitatingly about them in another passage (Continuation of Divers Thoughts on the Comet, vol. II, ch. 114, towards the end).

The Cartesians maintain that God is the free cause of truths and of essences. Descartes adds (p. 554): ‘I have done all that I could to gain true understanding of this dogma and to find the solution of the difficulties surrounding it. I confess to you quite simply that I still cannot properly fathom it. That does not discourage me; I suppose, as other philosophers in other cases have supposed, that time will unfold the meaning of this noble paradox. I wish that Father Malebranche had thought fit to defend it, but he took other measures.’

Is it possible that the enjoyment of doubt can have such influence upon a gifted man as to make him wish and hope for the power to believe that two contradictories never exist together for the sole reason that God forbade them to, and, moreover, that God could have issued them an order to ensure that they always walked together? There is indeed a noble paradox! Father Malebranche showed great wisdom in taking other measures.

  1. I cannot even imagine that Descartes could think so. Although he had adherents who found this easy to believe.

It was apparently one of his tricks, one of his philosophic feints. He prepared for himself some loophole, as when for instance he discovered a trick for denying the movement of the earth, while he was a Copernican in the strictest sense.

I suspect that he had in mind here another extraordinary manner of speaking, of his own invention, which was to say that affirmations and negations, and acts of inner judgement in general, are operations of the will.

Through this artifice the eternal verities, which until the time of Descartes had been named an object of the divine understanding, suddenly became an object of God’s will. Now the acts of his will are free, therefore God is the [245]free cause of the verities.

That is the outcome of the matter. Spectatum admissi. A slight change in the meaning of terms has caused all this commotion. But if the affirmations of necessary truths were actions of the will of the most perfect mind, these actions would be anything but free, for there is nothing to choose.

It seems that Descartes did not declare himself sufficiently on the nature of freedom, and that his conception of it was somewhat unusual: for he extended it so far that he even held the affirmations of necessary truths to be free in God. That was preserving only the name of freedom.

  1. M. Bayle, who with others conceives this to be a freedom of indifference, that God had had to establish (for instance) the truths of numbers, and to ordain that three times three made nine, whereas he could have commanded them to make ten, imagines in this strange opinion, supposing it were possible to defend it, some kind of advantage gained against the Stratonists. Strato was one of the leaders of the School of Aristotle, and the successor of Theophrastus; he maintained (according to Cicero’s account) that this world had been formed such as it is by Nature or by a necessary cause devoid of cognition. I admit that that might be so, if God had so preformed matter as to cause such an effect by the laws of motion alone. But without God there would not even have been any reason for existence, and still less for any particular existence of things: thus Strato’s system is not to be feared.

  2. Nevertheless M. Bayle is in difficulties over this: he will not admit plastic natures devoid of cognition, which Mr. Cudworth and others had introduced, for fear that the modern Stratonists, that is, the Spinozists, take advantage of it.

This has involved him in disputes with M. le Clerc. Under the influence of this error, that a non-intelligent cause can produce nothing where contrivance appears, he is far from conceding to me that preformation which produces naturally the organs of animals, and the system of a harmony pre-established by God in bodies, to make them respond in accordance with their own laws to the thoughts and the wills of souls.

But it ought to have been taken into account that this non-intelligent cause, which produces such beautiful things in the grains and seeds of plants and animals, and effects the actions of bodies as the will ordains them, was formed by the hand of God: and God is infinitely more skilful than a watchmaker, who himself [246]makes machines and automata that are capable of producing as wonderful effects as if they possessed intelligence.

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