Sämtliche schriften und briefe series VI, volume 4
Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed)
pp 1384-1388

Date: 1678 - 1680 (?)

Translated from the French

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[A VI 4, p1384]

     There are two sects of naturalists in vogue today which have their source in antiquity: one revives the opinions of Epicurus, the other is in fact just Stoics. The former sect1 believes that every substance, up to the soul and God himself, is corporeal, that is, composed of extended matter or mass. From this it follows that there cannot be an all-powerful and all-knowing God, for how could a body act on everything without being acted on by everything and without being corrupted? This was recognized by someone called Vorst, who refused his God all the great attributes that other men usually give to theirs.2 Some have thought that the sun - which, judging by the senses, is without question the most powerful of all visible things - was God, though they did not know that all the fixed stars are suns too, and that consequently one sun alone cannot see or do everything. Every body is heavy and very active if it is large, and weak if it is small, or if it has a great power notwithstanding its smallness (like gunpowder) then it destroys itself when acting. This is [A VI 4, p1385] why a body cannot be God. Moreover, Epicurus in times past, and Hobbes today, both claiming that all things are corporeal, have adequately shown3 that there is no providence on their view.
     The sect of new Stoics believes that there are incorporeal substances, that human souls are not bodies, and that God is the soul of the world, or, if you like, the primary power of the world, that he is the cause of matter itself, if you like, but that a blind necessity determines him to act; hence he will be in the world what the spring or the weight is in a clock. [The sect also believes] that there is a mechanical necessity in things, that it is by the power but not by a rational choice of this divinity that things act, since, strictly speaking, God has neither understanding nor will, which are attributes of men. [And it believes] that all possible things happen one after the other, following all the variations of which matter is capable; that we must not seek final causes; that we are not certain of the immortality of the soul or of the future life; that there is no justice or goodness with regard to God, that it is his decision what constitutes goodness and justice, and consequently that he would not have acted contrary to justice if he had made the innocent always miserable. This is why these gentlemen admit providence in name only. And as for the consequence for and conduct of our life, everything comes back to the opinion of Epicureans, that is, that there is no other happiness than the tranquillity of a life here below that is content with how it is, since it is madness to oppose the torrent of things and to be discontented with what is immutable. If they knew that all things are ordered for the general good and for the particular happiness of those who know how to use them, they would not locate happiness in simple patience. I know that their phrases are quite different from some of those I have just given, but someone who examines their views thoroughly will agree with what I have just said. Indeed, these are Spinoza's views,4 and to many people Descartes seems [A VI 4, p1386] to be of the same opinion. Certainly, he made himself very suspect by rejecting the search for final causes,5 by maintaining that there is no justice or goodness or even truth except because God has determined them thus6 in an absolute way,7 and finally, by letting slip (albeit in passing) that all the possible variations of matter arise successively, one after another.8
     If these two sects of Epicureans and Stoics are dangerous to piety, that of Socrates and Plato, which (I believe) comes partly from Pythagoras, is all the more suitable for it. One need only read Plato’s admirable dialogue on the immortality of the soul to discover views completely opposed to those of our new Stoics.9 In this dialogue, Socrates speaks on the very day of his death, just before receiving the fatal cup. He pushes out sadness from the minds of his friends, replacing it with admiration through wonderful arguments, and it seems he departs this life only in order to enjoy in another the happiness prepared for excellent souls. He says: I believe that in departing I will find there better men than those here, but at the very least I am certain I will find the gods.10 He maintains that final causes are the principles in physics and that we must seek them in order to explain things. And it seems he makes fun of our new physicists when he makes fun of Anaxagoras. What he says about Anaxagoras deserves to be heard.
     He said:11 one day I heard someone reading in a book by Anaxagoras, in which there were these words, that an intelligent being was the cause of all things and that he had disposed and adorned them. That pleased me enormously, for I believed that if the world were the effect of an intelligence, everything would be done in the most perfect manner possible. This is why I believed that anyone who wanted to explain why things arise, perish, or subsist, must look for what would be fitting to the perfection of each thing. Thus man would have to consider in himself or in something else only what would be the best and most perfect. For anyone who [A VI 4, p1387] knows the most perfect could easily conclude what is imperfect from that, since the same knowledge includes both.
     Considering all this, I was delighted at having found a master who could teach the reasons for things; for example, whether the earth is round rather than flat, and why it was better for it to be this way rather than otherwise. Moreover, I expected that in saying the earth is or is not at the centre of the universe, he would explain to me why that was the most fitting, and that he would tell me as much about the sun, moon, stars and their movements. And that, finally, after having shown what was most fitting for each thing in particular, he would have shown me what was best in general. Filled with this hope, I obtained Anaxagoras’ books and poured over them with great eagerness, but I was very disappointed, for I was surprised to see that he did not make use of this governing intelligence he had put forward, that he no longer spoke of the ornament or of the perfection of things, and that he introduced certain improbable ethereal matters. In doing so it was like someone who, having said that Socrates does things through intelligence, then said (when coming to explain in particular the causes of his actions) that he is seated here because he has a body composed of bones, flesh and sinews, that his bones are solid but have gaps or junctures, that the sinews can be tightened or relaxed, and this is why the body is flexible and ultimately why I am seated. Or if, in wanting to explain this present conversation, he made reference to the air, the organs of voice and hearing and similar things, forgetting, however, the true causes, namely that the Athenians believed it would be better to condemn me than absolve me, and that I believed it better to remain seated here than to run away. For, upon my faith, without this, these sinews and bones would have been among the Boeotians and Megarians a long time ago, had I not found it more just and honourable for me to suffer the penalty imposed by my native country than to live elsewhere as a vagabond and exile. This is why it is unreasonable to call these bones and these sinews and their movements causes. [A VI 4, p1388] It is true that anyone who said that I could not do all this without bones and sinews would be right. But something else is the true cause, while what they say is the cause is only a condition without which the cause could not be a cause. For example, those who say that only the motion of bodies around keeps the earth where it is, forget that divine power arranges everything in the finest way, and do not understand that it is the good and the beautiful that join, form, and maintain the world. So far this is Socrates’ view, for what follows in Plato on ideas or forms is no less excellent though a little more difficult.


1. sect ǀ explicitly denies providence. ǀ deleted.
2. See Conradus Vorst, Tractatus theologicus de Deo, seu Disputationes decem de natura et attributis Dei (Steinfurt: Caesar, 1610).
3. shown ǀ that they admit neither God nor providence ǀ deleted.
4. See Spinoza, Ethics.
5. See Descartes, Meditations IV and Principles of Philosophy, I.28; English translations: René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, eds. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoof, and Dugald Murdoch, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), II: 39, and I: 202.
6. thus ǀ by a will (or rather by a necessity or absolute impulsion) ǀ deleted.
7. See Descartes, Sixth Set of Replies, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, II: 293-294.
8. See Descartes, Principles of Philosophy III.47, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, I: 258, and also Descartes' letter to Mersenne of 9 January 1639 in Oeuvres de Descartes, eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Vrin), II: 485.
9. Namely, Plato's Phaedo.
10. See Plato, Phaedo, 63b4-9.
11. The remainder of the text, aside from the final sentence, is Leibniz's summary of Plato, Phaedo, 97b9-99b1.

© Lloyd Strickland 2019