Source:

Manuscript held by G. W. Leibniz Bibliothek, Hanover
Shelfmark LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 2-4



Date: 23 November 1697

Translated from the Latin



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LEIBNIZ: ON THE ULTIMATE ORIGINATION OF THINGS


[LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 2r]

23 November 1697
On the ultimate origination of things
 

     Besides the world or aggregate of finite things, there is a certain dominant unity, not only as the soul is dominant in me, or rather as the self is dominant in my body, but also in a much more noble way. For the dominant unity of the universe not only rules the world, but also constructs or makes it; and it is superior to the world and, so to speak, extramundane, and it is thus the ultimate reason of things. For a sufficient reason for existence cannot be found in any single thing alone, nor in the whole aggregate and series of things. Let us imagine that the book of the elements of geometry has always existed, one always copied from another; it is evident that, even if a reason can be given for the present book from a past one, from which it was copied, nevertheless we shall never come upon a full reason no matter how many past books we assume, since we would always be right to wonder why such books have existed from all time, why books existed at all, and why they were written in this way. What is true of books is also true of the different states of the world; for a subsequent state is in a way copied from a preceding one (although according to certain laws of change). And so, however far back you go to earlier states, you will never find in those states a full reason why there should be any world rather than none, and why it should be such as it is. Therefore, even if you should imagine the world eternal, because you still suppose only a succession of states, and because you will not find a sufficient reason in any of them, and indeed no matter how many states you assume you will not make the least progress towards giving a reason, it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere. For in eternal things, even if there is no cause, we must nevertheless realize that there is a reason, which in persisting things is their very necessity or essence, but in the series of changeable things, if this is imagined a priori1 to be eternal, it would be the very prevailing of inclinations, as will soon be clear, whereby reasons do not necessitate (by an absolute or metaphysical necessity, where the contrary implies a contradiction), but incline. From this it is evident that not even by supposing the eternity of the world can we escape the ultimate, extramundane reason of things, i.e. God.
     Therefore the reasons for the world lie hidden in something extramundane, different from the chain of states, or the series of things, the aggregate of which constitutes the world. And so we must pass from a physical or hypothetical necessity, which determines the later states of the world from the earlier, to something which is of absolute or metaphysical necessity, for which a reason cannot be given. For the present world is physically or hypothetically necessary, but not absolutely or metaphysically necessary. That is, by assuming that the world was ever in such and such a state, it follows that such and such states will arise in future. Therefore since the ultimate ground must be in something which is of metaphysical necessity, and there is no reason for an existing thing except from an existing thing, it follows that some single being must exist of metaphysical necessity, i.e. one whose essence is existence. And thus something exists that is different from the plurality of beings, i.e. from the world, which, as we have granted and shown, is not of metaphysical necessity.
     But in order to explain a little more distinctly how temporal, contingent, or physical truths arise from eternal or essential or metaphysical truths, we must first acknowledge, from the fact that something exists rather than nothing, that there is in possible things, i.e. in possibility or essence itself, a certain demand for existence or (so to speak) a straining to exist, or (if may so put it) a claim to exist; and, to sum up in a word, essence in itself strives for existence. From this it follows further that all possible things, i.e. things expressing an essence or possible reality, strive with equal right for existence2 in proportion to their quantity of essence or reality, or to the degree of perfection which they contain; for perfection is nothing other than quantity of essence.

[LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 2v]

     Hence it is very clearly understood that out of the infinite combinations of possibles, and possible series, there exists one through which the greatest amount of essence or possibility is brought into existence. There is always in things a principle of determination which must be sought in maximum and minimum; namely, that the greatest effect should be produced with the least expenditure, so to speak. And here the time, the place, or in a word the receptivity or capacity of the world, can be considered as the expenditure or the land on which a building is to be constructed as fittingly as possible, while the variety of forms correspond to the fitness of the building and to the number and elegance of its rooms. And the situation is like that in certain games where all the spaces on the board are to be filled according to certain rules, and where, unless you use some skill, you will in the end be excluded from certain spaces and forced to leave more spaces empty than you could have or wished to. But there is a definite rule through which the maximum number of spaces is most easily filled. For instance, if we were to suppose that a decision has been made to construct a triangle, without there being any other principle of determination, then it follows that an equilateral triangle is produced; and assuming that a move is to be made from one point to another, although nothing further determines the path between them, the easiest or shortest way will be chosen. Likewise, once it is assumed that being prevails over non-being, i.e. that there is a reason why something should exist rather than nothing, or that there is to be a transition from possibility to actuality, it follows that even if nothing further is determined, there exists as much as is possible in accordance with the capacity of time and space (or of the order of possible existence); in short it is just like tiles that are arranged so that as many as possible occupy a given area.
     From these considerations it is now wonderfully evident how a certain divine mathematics or metaphysical mechanics is employed in the very origination of things,3 and how a determination of the maximum holds good, just as, of all the angles, the right angle is the determinate angle in geometry, and as liquids placed in other liquids organize themselves into the most capacious shape, namely the spherical; but especially as in common mechanics itself, when several heavy bodies are struggling against each another such a motion finally arises through which occurs the maximum descent on the whole. For just as all possibles strive with equal right for existence in proportion to their reality, so all heavy things strive with equal right to descend in proportion to their weight, and just as in the latter case a motion arises that consists of the greatest possible descent of heavy things, so in the former case a world arises through which the maximum production of possibles takes place.
     And so we now have physical necessity from metaphysical necessity, for although the world is not metaphysically necessary, where its contrary would imply a contradiction or logical absurdity, nevertheless it is physically necessary, that is, determined so that its contrary would imply imperfection or moral absurdity. And just as possibility is the principle of essence, so perfection or degree of essence (through which the greatest number of things are compossible) is4 the principle of existence. From this it is also evident how there may be freedom in the author of the world, even though he does everything determinately: because he acts according to the principle of wisdom or perfection.5 Indifference, of course, arises from ignorance, and the wiser someone is, the more he is determined to what is most perfect.
     But (you will say) this comparison of a certain metaphysical determining mechanism with the physical mechanism of heavy bodies, elegant though it seems, is nevertheless weak insofar as striving heavy bodies really exist, but possibilities or essences before or beyond existence are imaginary or fictitious, and therefore no reason for existence can be sought in them. I answer that neither those essences, nor the so-called eternal truths about them, are fictitious, but that they exist in a certain region of ideas, so to speak, namely in God himself, the source of every essence [LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 3r] and existence of other things. The very existence of the actual series of things indicates that we seem not to have spoken gratuitously. For since a reason is not found in the series, as we have shown above, but must be sought in metaphysical necessities or eternal truths, and existing things cannot exist except from existing things, as we have noted above, it must be the case that eternal truths have their existence in some absolutely or metaphysically necessary subject, that is, in God, through whom these truths, which otherwise would be imaginary, are realized, to use a barbarous but distinctive word.
     But also we actually find that everything happens in the world according to the laws of the eternal truths, not only geometrical but also metaphysical laws, that is, not only according to material necessities but also according to formal notions;6 and not only is that true in general, with regard to that reason which we have now explained why the world exists rather than not, and why it exists thus rather than otherwise (which is to be sought in the striving of possibles for existence), but also when we come down to specific cases, we see the wonderful way in which metaphysical laws of cause, power, and action hold in the whole of nature, and that they prevail over the purely geometrical laws of matter, as I discovered to my great astonishment when giving an account of the laws of motion; indeed they prevail to such an extent that I was finally forced to abandon the law of the geometrical composition of endeavours, which I formerly defended in my youth (when I was more materialistic), as I have more adequately explained elsewhere.
     So now we have the ultimate reason for the reality of both essences and existences in a unity, which is of necessity greater, superior, and prior to the world itself, since through it not only existing things, which make up the world, but also possible things have their reality. But because of the interconnection of all these things with each another, this ultimate reason can only be found in a single source. Moreover, it is evident that from this source existent things are continually flowing and are being produced and have been produced, since it is not clear why one state of the world more than another, yesterday's more than today's, should flow from this source. It is also evident how God acts not only physically but also freely, and that there must be in him not only the efficient but also the final cause, and so in him we have the reason not only for the greatness or power in the mechanism of the universe now established, but also for the goodness or wisdom in establishing it.

[LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 3v]

     And lest anyone should think that moral perfection or goodness is confused here with metaphysical perfection or greatness, and should grant the latter while denying the former, it should be pointed out that it follows from what I have said not only that the world is the most perfect physically, or if you prefer, metaphysically, i.e. that that series of things has been produced which actually contains as much reality as possible, but also that the world must be the most perfect morally, because moral perfection is in fact physical perfection in minds themselves. Hence the world is not only the most admirable machine, but also insofar as it consists of minds it is the best commonwealth, through which there is conferred on minds as much happiness or joy as possible, and it is in this that their physical perfection consists.
     But, you will say, in the world we find the opposite of this, since the worst very often happens to the best, innocent beasts as well as innocent men are broken and killed, even with torture, and finally the world, especially if we look at the government of the human race, seems to be a confused chaos rather than something ordained by some supreme wisdom. So it seems at first sight, I admit: but on deeper examination the opposite is established. It is evident a priori from those very considerations which I have brought forward that there is in fact the greatest possible perfection of all things, and thus also of minds.7

[LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 4r]

     And indeed it is unreasonable, as the jurisconsults say, to judge unless the whole law has been examined. We know a small part of the eternity that stretches out to infinity, for how short is the memory of the several thousand years which history hands down to us. And yet out of so few experiences we rashly make judgement about the immeasurable and the eternal, just as men born and bred in prison or, if you prefer, in the subterranean salt mines of Sarmatia, might think that there was no other light in the world than that scanty light of their torches, which is scarcely sufficient to guide their steps. Look at a very beautiful picture, then cover up all but a small part. What will be evident in it, no matter how closely you look at it, but some confused chaos of colours, without selection, without art; indeed, the more you look at it the more chaotic it will seem. And yet when the covering is removed, you will see the whole picture from an appropriate position, and then you will see that what seemed to be thoughtlessly smeared on the canvas was in fact accomplished with the greatest skill by the author of the work. What the eyes discern in a painting is also what the ears discern in music. Indeed, distinguished masters of composition often mix dissonances with consonances so that a listener may be aroused and pricked, as it were, and as if anxious about the outcome, be so much more joyful when all is then restored to order. It is much like our taking delight in small dangers, or in the experience of misfortunes, our delight coming from the very sense of our own power or happiness or the act of showing off. Or it is like when we delight in the spectacle of tightrope-walking or sword-dancing because of the very fears that that they inspire, and we laughingly half-let go of children as if we were going to throw them away; it was for this reason that an ape carried off Christian, King of Denmark, when he was still an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, to the edge of a roof, and then, when everyone was anxious, the ape - as if laughing - put him back into his cradle unharmed. On the same principle it is insipid to constantly8 eat sweet things; sharp, sour, and even bitter things should be mixed in to excite the taste. He who has not tasted the bitter does not deserve the sweet, nor will he appreciate it in fact. This is the very law of enjoyment, that pleasure does not come from a uniform course, for this produces disgust and makes us dull, not joyful.
     But what we have said here, about a part which can be disturbed without on the whole harming the harmony, should not be taken to mean that no account is taken of the parts, or that it is sufficient, as it were, that the world be perfect as a whole although the human race is wretched, and that there is in the universe no concern for justice or no account taken of us, as some suppose, who judge incorrectly about the totality of things. For we must realize that, just as in the best constituted commonwealth care is taken that as much good as possible is bestowed on individuals,9 so also the universe would be insufficiently perfect unless it took individuals into account as far as is consistent with preserving the harmony of the universe. In this matter no better measure could be established than the law of justice itself, which dictates that everyone should take a part of the perfection of the universe and of his own happiness in proportion to the measure of his own virtue and the extent to which his will is disposed towards the common good. This is secured by what we call God's charity and love, in which alone the force and power of the Christian religion consists, according to the judgement of wise theologians. Nor should it seem remarkable that there should be so much deference to minds in the universe, since they bear the closest resemblance to the image of the supreme author, and their relation to him is not merely as machines to their maker (as it is with other things) but also as citizens to their prince. And they endure as long as the universe itself, and in a way they express the whole and concentrate it in themselves, so that it can be said that minds are total parts.

[LH 4, 1, 10 Bl. 4v]

     But with regard to the afflictions of men, especially of good men, we must hold for certain that they result in the greater good of these men, and this is true not only theologically, but also physically, just as10 a seed cast into the earth suffers before it bears fruit. And in general it can be said that afflictions are evil for a time, but in effect are goods, since they are short cuts to greater perfection. Likewise in physics, the liquids which ferment slowly also improve more slowly, but those in which there is a greater disturbance improve more quickly by throwing off impure parts with greater force. And this is what you might call stepping back in order to make a leap forward with greater force (one steps back11 for a better leap). Therefore these things must be considered to be not only pleasing and consoling, but also most true. And in general I think that12 there is nothing truer than happiness, and nothing happier and sweeter than truth.
     Furthermore, it must be recognized that there is a perpetual and most free progress of the whole universe towards a consummation of the universal beauty and perfection of the works of God, so that it is always advancing towards greater cultivation. Just as now a large part of our earth has received cultivation, and will receive it more and more. And though it is true that a certain part sometimes grows wild again, or is destroyed again and oppressed, this must nevertheless be taken in the same way as we interpreted affliction a little while earlier, namely that this very destruction and oppression is useful for achieving something greater, so that in a way we profit from our very loss.
     And as for the objection that could be made: that if this were so the world should have become a paradise before now, the response is at hand: although many substances have already attained great perfection, nevertheless on account of the divisibility of the continuum to infinity there always remain in the abyss of things parts that are still asleep, which are to be awakened and driven on to greater and better things, and in a word, to better cultivation. And hence progress never comes to an end.





NOTES:

1. Reading 'a priori' (which is written in the manuscript) in place of 'a priore' (which many transcriptions have).
2. Reading 'existientam' in place of 'essentiam' (M).
3. things, | exactly as we experience in ordinary mechanism | deleted.
4. Many transcriptions here omit the word 'est'.
5. perfection. | Obviously the wiser someone is, the less he is | deleted.
6. Reading 'notiones' (which is written in the manuscript) in place of necessitates' (which many transcriptions have).
7. minds. | ¶ And indeed it is unreasonable to judge unless the whole law has been examined; we have shadows in paintings in fact, and if one looks closer at just a part of it, with the rest covered up, a pleasing colour seems somewhat unfitting; but when the whole is observed first, there arises the most beautiful visual effect. And the dissonances that are permitted in a piece of music for its improvement make something more beautiful and more stirring than a sustained, uninterrupted consonance; and when mixed in properly, salts, acids and bitter things make something more pleasing than sweetness alone. However, this is not to be taken in such a way as if the whole at least is happy and perfect while the parts are imperfect, since that would be contrary to proper government, which is to obtain as much good as is possible, in each thing too. Therefore we should acknowledge that the afflictions of good men are temporary evils and in effect are goods, and are short cuts to greater perfection; just as in nature certain liquids which ferment slowly are improved, but those wherein there is greater agitation improve more quickly by throwing off impure parts with greater force. Therefore this point is to be held not only as true theologically but also physically, and not only as pleasing and consolatory but also as utterly true. And in general I think that there is nothing truer than happiness, and nothing sweeter and happier than truth.
     (α) And just as a part of a picture exhibits a sort of discordant mixture of colours when the rest is covered up; and when all things are seen at the same time (β) The objection is that therefore the world would have become a paradise, contrary to experience. In fact many substances have already attained great perfection, but countless substances remain, and there always will be substances ready to arise on account of the divisibility of the continuum to infinity, for as long as those small parts are gradually unfolded. | deleted.
8. Reading 'perpetuo' (which is written in the manuscript) in place of 'semper' (which many transcriptions have).
9. individuals, | so the harmony is not the best unless all things - on the whole and in the parts - are guided as fittingly as possible to their goal. | deleted.
10. as | it is necessary that a seed cast into the earth suffer | deleted.
11. Reading 'reculer' (which is written in the manuscript) in place of recède (which many transcriptions have).
12. that | it is most true for the happiness of good people, and for every kind of perfection of the universe, | deleted.


© Lloyd Strickland 2014
With gratitude to John Thorley for advice and suggestions on the translation.
Thanks also to Julia Weckend and Nora Gädeke for their assistance transcribing the manuscript.