Sämtliche schriften und briefe series II volume 2
Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed)
pp 300-303

Date: mid November - early December 1689

Translated from the French

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[A II 2, 300]

     I realised, Sir, from the brief conversation I had the honour to have with you, that you have profound thoughts on the nature of human freedom. And this is what obliges me to explain to you more distinctly what I touched upon in our discussion, in order to profit from your opinion of it.
     I hold that it is beneficial for piety and faith to reconcile the way our will acts not only with the dogmas of faith, but also with the great principles of reason, which hold good everywhere else, and which are the foundations of our knowledge. Otherwise it seems that we give in to the impious or atheists, or at least confirm them and strengthen them in their errors. This is why I could never appreciate the opinion of those who claim that the principle of contradiction can fail in the divine sphere, and that it indeed admits of an exception with regard to the Trinity of divine persons, as is acknowledged to some extent by those who introduce certain virtual distinctions. Now it is the same reason which makes me doubt whether it is fitting to say1 that another principle, which is hardly less used than that of contradiction, does not apply with regard to freedom, namely that nothing happens without there being some reason, which could be given by someone who knew everything, why it [A II 2, 301] happened rather than not. All the more since it seems to me that this principle is expressly of use to us in contingent matters as the principle of contradiction is of use to us in necessary matters. And it is for this reason that the laws of motion depend on it, because they are not of geometrical necessity, their source being God's will, regulated by wisdom. Now as the principle of contradiction is the principle of necessity, and the principle of giving a reason is the principle of contingency, it seems to me that freedom must not be excepted therefrom. Archimedes takes it for granted that a balance will not incline on one side more than the other when everything is equal on both sides, and likewise all those who reason about ethics and politics, to discover something about human actions, tacitly make use of this same foundation, that there is always a reason or cause that inclines the will. Also, a contrary example will never be found, and only the Scholastics, when they are deep in abstractions, are of a different view. To show that the will should be excepted there would have to be a way of determining the limitation of this principle a priori. This will never be found, and any foundation for the distinction that might be offered will always go further than is desired.
     It therefore seems to me that we do not even need to seek this exception, and that free choice is not incompatible with the general principle I have just established. And to explain myself more clearly, I say that Adam sinned without necessity, although he who knows all things could give a reason why Adam abandoned himself to sin rather than remained in innocence. It also seems that Holy Scripture itself, in telling of the method the serpent used to deceive Eve, insinuates that there was some reason or inclination which prevailed over Eve's will. And appearances are that the soul is [A II 2, 302] never in the state of pure indifference where everything is equal, both inside and out. There is always a reason, that is, a greater inclination, for what has in fact been chosen, which will come not only from good or bad arguments but also from passions, habits, dispositions of the organs and mind, external impressions,2 more or less attention, etc. Yet this inclination does not force freedom, although it inclines it.3 There is a great difference between a necessary cause and a concomitant that is certain.
     I also find that if the opposite were established, and it were claimed that the perpetual accompaniment of a stronger reason for choice destroys freedom, it would follow that the inclination or strongest reason would destroy freedom every time it accompanied it. From which it would also follow that we would almost never be free, since the cases of a pure indifference or use of metaphysical freedom are at least extremely rare, if indeed they ever occur. Therefore, when we choose the best because it is best, it would be by necessity. Consequently, the most perfect actions would be the least free and the least praiseworthy, since it is in freedom that the reason for praise and blame, or rewards and punishments, is sought. The more perfect and inclined to good one is, the less free and praiseworthy one would be, so much so that man would have to be reduced to a perfect nakedness and deprived of good [A II 2, 303] qualities and graces to give him any merit.4 This is a fancy which is preferred by some moderns who seek the notion of freedom in indifference, which is as far removed from good sense as are their doctrines about probability and about the knowledge of the malice of the action being necessary for sin. From this there has recently arisen that strange distinction between philosophical and theological sin, maintained by certain authors who claim that an assassination or an adultery is not a mortal sin when the man committing it does not actually consider that he is offending God, and this because they imagine that otherwise the action is not sufficiently voluntary, that is, according to them, sufficiently indifferent, when the man does not give sufficient thought to everything which could divert him from it.


1. say | that this other principle, which our reason uses in matters where the principle of contradiction or necessity is not sufficient to form the conclusion | deleted.
2. impressions, | and lack of attention, which also has its reasons. | deleted.
3. it. | And in order to draw disadvantageous consequences for freedom from that, one would have to demonstrate this proposition: whoever acts so that he would not have acted without an inclining reason, is necessitated by this inclining reason. | deleted.
4. merit. | This is one of the fancies of some new Scholastics, [which is] as far removed from good sense as are their doctrines about probability and about the knowledge (α) of God's law that they insist upon in order that a man can sin (β) of the malice of the action, and of the transgression of God's law, in order that it can be said that man has sinned and has freely offended God, | deleted.

© Lloyd Strickland 2018