Die philophischen schriften von Gottfried Wilheim Leibniz, vol. III
C. I. Gerhardt (ed)
pp 656-660

Date: 4 November 1715

Translated from the French

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[G III p656]

Hanover, 4 November 1715.

     I have just received your package, and I thank you for the interesting articles which you have shared with me. I say nothing to you on the argument about Homer, but as, after the sacred books, he is the most ancient of all the authors whose works remain to us, I would wish that the historical and geographical difficulties, which their great antiquity give rise to in his works, and principally in the Odyssey, be clarified as regards the ancient geography: because fantastic as the voyages of Ulysses are, it is nevertheless certain that Homer sent him to the countries which were spoken of at that time, but which it is difficult to recognize nowadays.
     I move on to the philosophical articles which concern the Reverend Father Malebranche (the loss of whom I greatly regret) and which strive to clarify the natural theology of the Chinese. The Refutation of this Father's system, divided into three small volumes, is, without doubt, the work of a clever man, because it is clear and ingenious;1 I even approve of some of it, but one part of it is extreme. Too great a distance from the opinions of Descartes and of Father Malebranche is shown, even when they make good sense. It is time to give up these animosities, which the Cartesians themselves have perhaps attracted in showing too much contempt for the ancients and for the School, in which there are nevertheless also sound ideas that deserve our attention: thus one must do justice to both sides, and benefit from the discoveries of both: just as one has the right to reject what either side advances without foundation.
     (1) It is right to refute the Cartesians when they say that the soul is nothing other than thought, likewise when they say that matter is nothing other than extension. For the soul is a subject or something concrete which thinks, and matter is an extended subject, or one endowed with extension. [G III p657] This is why I hold that there is no reason at all to confuse space with matter, although I remain in agreement that there is, naturally, no empty space: the School is right to distinguish the concretes from the abstracts, when it is a matter of exactitude.
     (2) I grant to the Cartesians that the soul always actually thinks, but I do not grant that the soul is aware of all of its thoughts. For our great perceptions and our appetites, of which we ourselves are aware, are composed of an infinity of little perceptions [petites perceptions] and small inclinations, of which we cannot be aware. And it is in the insensible perceptions that the reason for what happens in us is found, just as the reason for what takes place in sensible bodies consists in insensible movements.
     (3) It is certainly right to refute the Reverend Father Malebranche in particular, when he maintains that the soul is purely passive. I believe I have demonstrated that every substance is active, and the soul especially. This is also the idea that the ancients and the moderns have had of it, and Aristotle's entelechy, which has caused such a stir, is nothing other than force or activity, which is to say a state from which action follows naturally, if nothing prevents it. But pure primary matter taken without the souls or lives which are united to it, is purely passive: also, strictly speaking, it is not a substance, but something incomplete. And secondary matter (as, for example, the organic body) is not a substance, but for another reason; because it is a plurality of several substances, just like a pond full of fish, or a flock of sheep, and consequently it is what one calls unum per accidens2 - in a word, a phenomenon. A true substance (such as an animal) is composed of an immaterial soul and an organic body, and it is the compound of these two that one calls unum per se.3
     (4) As for the efficiency of secondary causes, it is again right to support it against the opinion of this Father. I have demonstrated that every substance or monad (such as souls) follows its own laws, in producing its actions without being capable of being disturbed by the influence of another simple created substance; and that thus bodies do not change the ethical-logical laws of souls, just as souls do not change the physical-mechanical laws of the body either. This is why secondary causes truly act, but without any influence of one [G III p658] simple created substance on another; and souls agree with bodies and among themselves in accordance with the pre-established harmony, and not at all by a mutual physical influence, except the metaphysical union of the soul and its body, which makes them compose unum per se, an animal, a living being. It is therefore right to refute the opinion of those who deny the action of secondary causes; but this must be done without reviving the false influences, such as the species of the School.
     (5) Reverend Father Malebranche used this argument: that extension, not being a mode of being of matter, must be its substance. The author of the Refutation distinguishes (Vol. 1 p. 91) between the purely negative modes of being and the positive modes of being; and he claims that extension is one of the modes of being of the second sort, which he believes can be conceived by themselves. But there are no positive modes of being, they all consist in the variety of limitations, and all can only be conceived through the being of which they are the modes and ways. And as for extension, it can be said that it is not a mode of being of matter, and yet that it is not a substance either. 'What is it then?' you will say, Sir. I reply that it is an attribute of substances, and there is a great difference between attributes and modes of being.
     (6) Moreover, it seems to me that the author of the Refutation does not combat particularly well the opinion of the Cartesians on infinity, which they consider with reason to be anterior to the finite, and of which the finite is only a limitation. He says (p. 303 of the first volume) that if the mind had a clear and distinct view of infinity, Father Malebranche would not have needed so much reasoning to make us think of it. But by the same argument one would reject the very simple and natural knowledge that we have of the divinity. These sorts of objections are worthless: for there is need of labour and application in order to give to men the necessary attention for the simplest notions, and one can scarcely succeed in doing that except by calling them back to themselves from their dissipation. This is also why the theologians who have written works on eternity needed a lot of discourses, comparisons and examples, in order to make it better understood, even though there is nothing simpler than the notion of eternity. But the fact is that everything depends on the attention in such matters. The author adds (Vol. 1. p. 307) that in the so-called knowledge of infinity, [G III p659] the mind only sees that lengths can be placed end to end and be repeated as much as one would like. Very well, but this author might consider that knowing that this repetition can always be made already amounts to knowing infinity.
     (7) In his second volume, the same author examines the natural theology of Father Malebranche, but his beginning seems to me to be extravagant, although he claims to only represent the suspicions of others. When this Father says that God is being in general, this is taken to be some vague and notional being, as is the genus in logic; and he is not far from accusing Father Malebranche of atheism; but I believe that the Father meant not a vague and indeterminate being, but absolute being, which differs from particular limited beings as space, absolute and without limits, differs from a circle or a square.
     (8) It is more reasonable to combat the opinion of Father Malebranche on ideas. For there is no necessity (so it seems) to take them for something which is outside of us. It is sufficient to consider ideas as notions, that is to say, as modifications of our soul. This is how the School, Mr Descartes and Mr Arnaud take them. But as God is the source of possibilities and consequently of ideas, one can excuse and even praise this Father for having changed the terms and for having given a more refined meaning to ideas in distinguishing them from notions and in taking them for perfections which exist in God, in which we participate by our knowledge. This mystical language of the Father was therefore not necessary, but I find that it is useful, because it allows us to better envisage our dependence on God. It even seems that as Plato talked of ideas, and as St. Augustine talked of the truth, they had similar thoughts, which I find very reasonable, and this is the part of Father Malebranche's system that I would be very happy to keep along with the phrases and formulas which depend on it, just as I am very happy to keep the most solid part of the theology of the mystics. And so far from saying, with the author of the Refutation (Vol. 2, p. 304), that the system of St. Augustine is a little contaminated by Platonic language and opinions, I would say that it is enriched by them, and that they give relief to it.
     (9) I can say almost as much as the opinion of Father Malebranche when he asserts that we see all things in God. I say that this is a expression one can [G III p660] excuse and even praise, provided that one understands it right, because it is easier to make a mistake over this than in the preceding article on ideas. It is therefore good to consider that, not only in the system of Father Malebranche, but also in mine, God alone is the immediate external object of souls, exerting on them a real influence. And although the common School seems to allow other influences by means of certain species, which it believes objects send into the soul, it does not fail to acknowledge that all our perfections are a continual gift of God, and a limited participation in his infinite perfection. Which is sufficient for us to think that what is true and good in our knowledge is also an emanation from the light of God, and that it is in this sense one can say that we see things in God.
     (10) The third volume refutes Father Malebranche's system of revealed theology, especially with regard to grace and predestination. But as I have not sufficiently studied the particular theological opinions of this author, and as I believe I have sufficiently clarified the matter in my Essays on Theodicy, I will refrain from entering into this at present.
     It now remains for me to speak to you, Sir, of the natural theology of the scholarly Chinese, according to what the Jesuit Father Longobardi and Father Antoine of Saint Mary of the minor orders tell us about them in the treatises you have sent to me in order to have my opinion on them, as well as on the way in which the Reverend Father Malebranche set about giving to an educated Chinese person some entry into our theology, but that requires a separate letter. The one that I have just written being already rather verbose, I am sincerely, etc.


1. Rodolphe Du Tertre Réfutation d'un nouveau système de métaphysique proposé par le Père Malebranche [Refutation of a new system of metaphysics proposed by Father Malebranche], (1715).
2. 'a unity by accident'.
3. 'a unity by itself'.

© Lloyd Strickland 2004
With gratitude to Elizabeth Vinestock for advice and suggestions