Sämtliche schriften und briefe series IV, volume 3
Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed)
pp 204-212

Date: 1680

Translated from the French

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[A IV 3, 204]

On Controversies

     My plan to work on a precise examination of some controversies has long been interrupted by the variety of studies I have been obliged to undertake, [but] I think it is good I try to bring it before my mind again, since I have been asked to deal thoroughly with the important question of the marks of the true Church. I worked out for myself a very particular method, which had two great advantages: [A IV 3, 205] first, it could not be disapproved of by anyone, and second, it would lead to the end, giving a sure way to conclude. I once spoke about this to a great prince,1 who first objected that many others had already proposed supposedly new methods and that we were no further ahead as a result. I immediately pointed out to him the difference between my promise and theirs: for they always promise very easy methods, by whose means they hope to convince their opponents in a short time, whereas I declare that the method I am undertaking is very difficult, and that it needs great deal of application and a lot of time. So that there is as much difference between their promises and mine as there is between2 a Llullist, who claims to teach us Pansophia in a short time, and a geometer, who understands true analysis and will warn us that it takes a little more care to attain solid knowledge.
     This prince remained quite satisfied, but told me it would be good to have some visible sign of this method's advantage that was capable of winning over everyone, even before going into the details. I answered that he had anticipated what I wanted to say to him, and that indeed there was here a quite surprising sign of the excellence of my method, which showed that it was one of a kind. When I saw his impatience to learn what that sign might be, I said to him: "You will agree, Monsignor, that there is nothing that makes a dispute more commendable than the moderation of the disputants; now, I claim that this moderation will be apparent here in a very particular and indisputable way." He shrewdly replied that moderation could have the opposite effect on certain people. For those who devote themselves to controversies, he said, often get so carried away that they cannot tolerate someone speaking differently from them, believing it to be a betrayal of their party to be in any way tractable. To this I said that the objection was quite considerable, but that it did not apply [A IV 3, 206] to the method I wanted to use, because here, I said, the nature of the dispute forces people to speak moderately in spite of themselves. "What you say to me here," replied the prince, "is surprising, but it seems to me as difficult to get these people to change their language as it is to teach a raven to sing like a nightingale."3 Noticing that he took pleasure in the paradox I had put forward, I persisted, saying that there was quite another mystery here, namely that the combatants would have their arms tied so tightly that they could not move except by order and measure, and that they would be pulled by machines which would carry out all the work, as in a naval battle, where the movement of the vessel and the force of the cannon hold sway over the combatants. Moreover, anger would be out of question when one could not clearly distinguish friend from foe.
     "You speak in riddles," said the prince, "and I don't understand anything in what you say." "Your Highness will be satisfied by my clarification," I said to him, "because in short I am claiming to write down controversies in such a way that the reader cannot judge which party the author has embraced. If I manage to achieve this, of what can I be accused, and how can I be exposed to anyone's anger? We will be forced to acknowledge that the form of my proposal obliges me to moderation, and that I could not have disguised myself without softening things and without keeping a certain even-handedness throughout."
     "Although I don't yet understand the rest," said the prince, "I already find this device excellent. If you are successful in carrying it out, and if you are able to write down controversies without anyone being able to judge which party you favour, I promise you extraordinary success. People will be attracted by such an unexpected novelty and [A IV 3, 207] everybody will want to read your works for their rarity. Moreover, you can be confident [you will have] the readers' attention, since endeavouring to convict you of partiality, they will examine you very closely: picking out words everywhere to that end. And it will be enjoyable to observe the disagreements between those who will want to place you in one party or another, in spite of you or in spite of themselves. People will fight to claim you or not to claim you, just as in Greece,
Septem urbes certant de stirpe insignis Homeri."4

     "I see that Your Highness is gently mocking me," I replied, "but I rather fear that, far from fighting for me, they will condemn me by mutual consent, in order to keep themselves in business." The prince replied in an obliging manner that I should not worry about this and that he knew me well enough to judge that I would say things capable of arousing people. "Ultimately," he said, "what more do you want: I will take care of the danger; work on it for my sake; I know you can do what you promise us, if you apply yourself to it in the manner required."
     "After that, Monsignor, there is no reply," I said. "Your Highness' orders have the peculiarity of making people capable of obeying, provided they have the liberty to returning often to the source of your insight, in order to draw the necessary instructions therefrom."
     "Let us leave this," said the prince, "and let us see how you plan to undertake the task. For although I now well understand the great force of this obvious sign of your fairness, which will win over all honourable people to your side; and although I do no doubt that, having thus prepared minds by bestowing yourself so equally between them, you would then be able to touch their hearts in a very effective way, yet I would be glad to learn the details of your proposal."
     I replied that, by pointing out the difficulties encountered therein, I was afraid of forcing His Highness to give up all the hopes with which he had raised my courage. He reassured me very kindly, saying that I was wrong to imagine him [A IV 3, 208] so fickle and that he was quite convinced of what I could do. I thanked him with a deep bow, and continued like this: "if all men had the good will I have, and if all those of good will had the penetrating insights of Your Highness, we would not need a method for disputes. From the outset, disguised sophisms would be detected with solid arguments, and neither declamations nor quibbles could ever make trifles into realities. But just as ordinary men lack the penetration to discern good from bad at the outset, they also lack the necessary application and patience to overcome the defect of their nature over time; and in wanting to imitate the great geniuses through swiftness of judging, they find themselves entangled in the difficulty of matters, and if they ever encounter the truth, it is by chance. However, it is certain that judgement is common to all men, and that all they lack is the will to exercise it. The reason for this deficiency is that men are not used to focusing their minds and to meditating attentively on the same thing. For when they set out to prove their view, they offer up some reason which first falls into their mind as if by chance. But as this reason usually presupposes something as ill-grounded as what they wish to prove, most often they get angry when they are forced to prove this presupposition, and especially when the proof of the proof leads them to another proof: then they declare in all seriousness that they should not be pushed to the very end, and that their opponent is ungracious in always denying without ever proving anything of his own. And yet they do not recognize, or do not want to recognize, the utter disregard they show by putting forward as proofs things as uncertain as the one in question, in order to make out that they have provided some reasons and so obliged their opponent, by the law of equity, to provide some for his side. The opponent doesn’t fail to do the same. When examined closely, the arguments [they use] are only the conclusion expressed in different words; the audience and the disputants finally get bored by the length of the dispute, and speaking or writing stops without a conclusion having been reached. This is the method of the ignorant; as their mind or memory offers nothing of note, they twist the conclusion around in various ways in order to make out they have proved it.
     "I admit that learned and erudite persons advance further in the matter, saying [A IV 3, 209] a thousand fine and pertinent things on both sides. They have choice examples, testimonies from antiquity, the apparent contradictions of their opponents, and arguments called ad hominem. This is a field where fertile minds are free to amuse themselves; they will never come up short, and what is more, they will always find things where they will have reason on their side. For there are abuses and mistakes on both sides. They triumph loudly when they have caught out their opponents; they make the most of this advantage among their disciples or admirers; all insignificant writers copy this point for two or three lustrums,5 until some other valiant champion finds the subject matter for a new triumph. The old argument is then left aside and others are produced; quite often, those that have been neglected out of forgetfulness are revived; and in order to acquire a bit of reputation, religion is made light of, although more often out of habit than malice.
     "I have no doubt that there have often been perfectly well-intentioned persons seeking the pure truth with an eagerness worthy of the importance of the matter. But having followed the urgent movements of the zeal which prompted them [to begin with], but without reflecting sufficiently on method, they did not have the success they hoped for. For having also encountered zeal in their opponents, they clashed sharply, or, having had to deal with some subtle and adroit sophist, they had the misfortune of seeing someone evade the force of their blows by deflecting them, without being able to get the better of their opponent’s malice. They protested, they took heaven and earth as witness, their anger was taken advantage of, and finally the whole thing went up in smoke.
     "Here I must mention some of the ploys6 one learns by oneself and uses without thinking in the heat of the dispute. The first is that each of those who engages in dispute chooses his own order and arranges as he sees fit both the reasonings of his opponent and his own. This disrupts everything, for however many replications there are of the subject matter, there are often just as many new arrangements of it, which confuses the reader. He has difficulty bringing everything together, and must have a great deal of memory, or free time, and even judgement, to undertake it. The second is that the [A IV 3, 210] disputes at first get bigger and then expand into volumes; this drives to despair those who intended to examine everything carefully but realize the impossibility of seeing that through unless they renounce every other occupation. The third ploy is where one conceals or weakens in reporting the arguments of one’s opponent. This is often done without malice in the eagerness to turn everything to one’s advantage. The fourth is the repetition of the reasons adduced, without taking any account of the answers our opponent has given, which happens through forgetfulness or prejudice, for often these [answers] inspire our pity and strike us as unworthy of being reported. Nevertheless, the opponent believes quite the opposite. The fifth is digression, when one throws oneself headlong into a discussion of some incidental difficulty, where one thinks one finds some advantage over one's opponent. Every day this gives rise to new questions, peculiar, harsh and scandalous expressions, and condemnations and heresies, which had not come to mind at the beginning of the dispute, not a single one willing to give up, and authors priding themselves on supporting what had slipped out of them without thinking.
     "I dare say the method I claim to use removes these difficulties at once, and excludes them formally. For such a faithful representation of the reasons of both sides will be visible that any reader will need only common sense in order to judge, without the rapporteur being obliged to declare his inclination. But I see that Your Highness's affairs will make it necessary for me to defer the rest of this project until it pleases Your Highness to command me to complete it." Then the prince, turning around, saw a large bundle of letters had been brought to him, requiring his immediate attention. He showed his annoyance at this interruption: "you see," he said to me, "we are the slaves of our greatness and cannot enjoy what pleases us when we want. We will finish this conversation at the earliest opportunity. However, think about the execution of your plan, the effects of which, I promise, will be extraordinary."
     Thereupon I withdrew, but no sooner had I left than he called me back to say another word. "I want," he said, "to warn you seriously that it is not for the love of me but for the love of God that you must undertake this work, the importance of which you can appreciate. Since you will go about it in such an uncommon way, be aware that it might result in very considerable effects for [A IV 3, 211] the good of an infinity of souls hampered by the multitude and confusion of things to examine. May the world no longer allow itself to be dazzled, and may there be many fair-minded people who have fine opportunities, who will joyfully hold out their hands to the clarity of the truth, and who will not conceal the effect they will feel from this; [be aware] that these dispositions could one day serve for the reunion of minds, and that one does not always foresee the great events whose origins are small."
     I said I was not vain enough to promise myself any advantage other than that of some readers in particular. He replied that I should not put limits on the divine blessing, and that I should remember my own maxim, which I had often repeated, namely that after putting our own conscience in order, we should above all work at something important for the glory of God and the common good, which distinguishes us from those whose piety is languishing. And we are assured that the little trouble we take here for the interests of this great master of the universe, whose wisdom is so profound and justice so constant, will be infinitely relieved by the splendours of the future life. I replied that I did indeed recognize the maxim I had always preached, but that it was mainly for grandees, to whom God had given the means to contribute effectively to the advancement of the general good, so that it depends only upon them to shine as well in the next life as in this one; that indeed, we other men could have good thoughts but the sovereigns are the true instruments of divine glory, and that their very spiritual condition is far above that of other men, if they profit from their advantages. The prince seemed to me moved by these words, and he assured me that he would never lack good will and that he would make every effort to ensure the success of feasible things with which God’s glory seemed to be concerned. That was the end of the conversation. But God, who does everything for the best although his reasons are often hidden from us, having withdrawn this prince from the world,7 forced me to abandon all these projects until I thought I had again found in a prince,8 who is no less enlightened than the other, what I had then lost so unexpectedly.

[A IV 3, 212]

     It should be noted
     1. that this method will be applied first to the matter of the Church and what depends upon it, to make an experiment therefrom, because the resolution of this matter would provide a precedent for everything else.
     2. that he who uses this method will be neither judge, nor client, nor reconciler, but rapporteur.
     3. that the fidelity of the rapporteur will be apparent in that one will be unable to guess which party he himself belongs to, which is unparalleled in the matter of controversies, and can be taken as a palpable sign of moderation and even-handedness.
     4. that he will maintain a certain indisputable order which will bring clarity and perspicuity with it, and which must formally exclude the five difficulties noted above.
     5. that he will summarize the disputes as much as possible, so that their whole economy can be seen, even though quite often what makes these things protracted and difficult is not so much their nature as the awkward and ambiguous expressions of the authors, which one is obliged to unpack so that they cannot say that their arguments have been neglected.
     6. that it will usually be easy for a man of common sense to make a judgement on the report that has been drawn up, without the rapporteur having to declare himself.


1. Duke Johann Friedrich (1625-1679).
2. between | a Paracelist and an able doctor | deleted.
3. The prince is obliquely referring to La Fontaine’s fable "The Kite and the Nightingale" (book IX, fable 18). See The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, trans. Norman Shapiro (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 255.
4. "Seven cities compete over the lineage of the famous Homer." This is an ancient Greek epigram. The seven cities are Smyrna, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, and Athens.
5. A lustrum is a period of five years.
6. ploys | which have been put to use by the sophists | deleted.
7. Duke Johann Friedrich died on 18 December 1679.
8. Namely, Landgrave Ernst von Hessen-Rheinfels (1623-1693), whose correspondence with Leibniz began on 1 May 1680. See especially Leibniz to Landgrave Ernst 17/27 October 1680 (I, 3 246-248), and Landgrave Ernst to Leibniz (20/30 November 1680, A I 3, 250-255).

© Lloyd Strickland 2021