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Index by Period

17th Century
(1600 - 1700)

All the Seventeenth Century was under the Influence of Descartes. Port-Royal, Bossuet, Fénelon, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibnitz.
CARTESIAN INFLUENCE.--Nearly all the seventeenth century was Cartesian, and in the general sense of the word, not only as supporters of the method of evidence, but as adherents of the general philosophy of Descartes. Gassendi (a Provençal, and not an Italian), professor of philosophy at Aix, subsequently in Paris, was not precisely a faithful disciple of Descartes, and he opposed him several times; he had leanings towards Epicurus and the doctrine of atoms; he drew towards Hobbes, but he was also a fervent admirer of Bacon, and so approached Descartes, who thought very highly of him, though impatiently galled by his criticisms. After the example of Epicurus he was the most sober and austere of men, and of the two it was Descartes rather than he who was Epicurean in the common use of the word. According to a tradition, which to my mind rests on insufficient proof, he was an instructor of Molière.

All the thinkers of the seventeenth century came more or less profoundly under the Cartesian influence: Pascal, Bossuet, Fénelon, Arnauld, and all Port-Royal. This influence was to diminish only in the eighteenth century, though kept up by the impenitent Fontenelle, but outweighed by that of Locke, to reappear very vigorously in the nineteenth century in France in the school of Maine de Biran and of Cousin.

MALEBRANCHE.--A separate niche must be made for the Cartesians, almost as great as Descartes, who filled the seventeenth century with their renown,--the Frenchman Malebranche, the Dutchman Spinoza, and the German Leibnitz. Pushing the theories of Descartes further than Descartes would himself in all probability have desired to, from what Descartes had said that it was only through God that we perceived accurately, Malebranche declared that it was only in God that we perceived accurately, and fundamentally this is the same idea; it can only be deemed that Malebranche is the more precise: "God alone is known by Himself [is believed in without uncertainty]; there is only He that we can see in immediate and direct perspective." All the rest we see in Him, in His light, in the light He creates in our minds. When we see, it is that we are in Him. Evidence is divine light. He is the link of ideas. (And thus Malebranche brought Plato near to Descartes and showed that, without the latter being aware of it, they both said the same thing.) God is always the cause and as He is the cause of all real things, He is cause also of all truths, and as He is everywhere in real objects, He is also everywhere in the true ideas which we can have, or rather in which we can participate. When we seek a truth we pray without thinking we do so; attention is a prayer.

In the same way, from the saying of Descartes that the universe is a continuous creation, Malebranche deduced or rather concluded that our thoughts and actions are acts of God. There can be no action of the body on the soul to produce ideas; that would be inconceivable; but on the occasion, for instance, of our eyes resting on an object, God gives us an idea of that object, whether in conformity or not we cannot tell; but at any rate He gives us that idea of the object which He wishes us to have.

There is no action of our soul on our body; that would be inconceivable. But God to our will adds a force having a tendency towards goodness as a rule, and to each of our volitions adds a force tending to its execution and capable of executing it.

Then, when our will is evil and we execute it, does God sin in our name?

Certainly not; because sin is not an act; it consists in doing nothing; it consists precisely in the soul not acting on the body; therefore it is not a force but a weakness. Sin is that God has withdrawn Himself from us. The sinner is only a being who is without strength because he is lacking in grace.

The principle of morality is the respect for order and the love of order. That makes two degrees, the first of which is regularity and the second virtue. To conform to order is highly rational but without merit (e.g. to give money to the poor from habit or possibly from vanity). To love order and to desire that it should be greater, more complete, and nearer to the will of God, is to adhere to God, to live in God, just as to see rightly is to see in God. All morality, into the details of which we will not enter, evolves from the love of order. The universe is a vast mechanism, as was stated by Descartes, set in motion and directed by God--that is to say, by the laws established by God; for God acts only by general dispositions (which are laws) and not by particular dispositions. In other words, there exists a will, but there are no volitions.

MIRACLES.--But then you will say there are no miracles; for miracle is precisely a particular will traversing and interrupting the general will.

To begin with, there are very few miracles, which therefore permits order to subsist; it would be only if there were incessant miracles that order would be non-existent. Next, a miracle is a warning God gives to men because of their weakness, to remind them that behind the laws there is a Lawgiver, behind the general dispositions a Being who disposes. Because of their intellectual weakness, if they never saw any derogation from the general laws they would take them to be fatalities. A miracle is a grace intervening in things, just as grace properly so-called intervenes in human actions. And it is not contradictory to the general design of God, since by bringing human minds back to the truth that there is a Being who wills, it accustoms them to consider all general laws as permanent acts, but also as the acts of the Being who wills. The miracle has the virtue of making everything in the world miraculous, which is true. Hence the miracle confirms the idea of order. Therein, perhaps alone, the exception proves the rule.

SPINOZA.--Spinoza, who during his life was a pure Stoic and the purest of Stoics, polishing the lenses of astronomical telescopes in order to gain his living, refusing all pensions and all the professorial positions offered to him, and living well-nigh on nothing, had read Descartes and, to conform to the principle of evidence, had begun by renouncing his religion, which was that of the Jews. His general outlook on the world was this: There is only one God. God is all. Only He has His attributes--that is to say, His manners of being and His modes, that is His modifications, as the sun (merely a comparison) has as its manners of being, its roundness, colour, and heat, as modifications its rays, terrestrial heat, direct and diffused light, etc. Now God has two attributes, thought and extension, as had already been observed by Descartes; and for modifications He has exactly all we can see, touch, or feel, etc. The human soul is an attribute of God, as is everything else; it is an attribute of God in His power. It is not free, for all that comes from God, all that is of God is a regular and necessary development of God Himself. "There is nothing contingent" [nothing which may either happen or not happen]. All things are determined, by the necessity of the divine nature, to exist and to act in a given manner. There is therefore no free-will in the soul, the soul is determined to will this or that by a cause which is itself determined by another and that by another, and so on to infinity.

Nevertheless we believe ourselves to be free and according to the principle of evidence we are; for nothing is more evident to us than our liberty. We are as intimately convinced of our liberty as of our existence and we all affirm, I am free,--with the same emphasis that Descartes affirms: I am. I am and I am free are the two things it is impossible for man to doubt, no matter what effort he makes.

No doubt, but it is an illusion. It is the illusion of a being who feels himself as cause, but does not feel himself as effect. Try to imagine a billiard ball which feels it moves others, but which does not feel that it is moved. What we call decision is an idea which decides us because it exercises more power over us than the others do; what we term deliberation is a hesitancy between two or three ideas which at the moment have equal force; what we name volition is an idea, and what we call will is our understanding applied to facts. We do not want to fight; we conceive the idea of fighting and the idea carries us away; we do not want to hang ourselves; we have the obsessing idea of hanging ourselves and this thought runs away with us.

HIS MORAL SYSTEM.--Spinoza wrote a system of morality. Is it not radically impossible to write a system of morality when the author does not believe in free-will? The admirable originality of Spinoza, even though his idea can be contested, is precisely that morality depends on belief in the necessity of all things--that is, the more one is convinced of this necessity so much the more does one attain high morality--that is, the more one believes oneself free the more one is immoral The man who believes himself free claims to run counter to the universal order, and morality precisely is adherence to it; the man who believes himself free seeks for an individual good just as if there could be an individual good, just as if the best for each one were not to submit to the necessary laws of everything, laws which constitute what is good; the man who thinks himself free sets himself against God, believes himself God since he believes himself to be creator of what he does, and since he believes himself capable of deranging something in the mechanism and of introducing a certain amount of movement. As a matter of fact, he does nothing of the kind; but he believes that he does it, and this mere thought, false and low as it is, keeps him in the most miserable condition of life; to sum up, a man who believes himself free may not perhaps be an atheist, but he is ungodly.

On the contrary, the man who does not believe himself free believes he is in the hands of God, and that is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of virtue. We are in the hands of God as the clay is in those of the potter; the mad vase would be the one which reproached the potter for having made it small instead of big, common instead of decorative. It is the beginning of wisdom to believe oneself in the hands of God; to see Him, to see Him the least indistinctly that we can, therein lies the highest wisdom; we must see His designs, or at least His great design and associate ourselves with it, thus becoming not only part of Him, which we always are, but a conscient part of Him.

This is the love of God, and the love of God is virtue itself. We ought to love God without consideration of the good He can do us and of the penalties He can inflict upon us; for to love God from love of a beneficent God or from fear of a punitive God is not to love God but to love oneself.

THE PASSIONS.--We have our passions as enemies and as obstacles to our elevation to this semi-perfection. It is they which cause us to do immoral acts. "Immoral," has that a meaning from the moment that we do nothing which we are not obliged to do? Yes, just as when led by our deceitful mind we have arrived necessarily at a false idea, the fact of this thought being necessary does not prevent it from being false; we may have been led by necessity to commit a villainous action, but that does not prevent its being immoral. The passions are our imperfections, omissions, gaps in a soul which is not full of the idea of God and of universal order and the love of God and of universal order, and which, in consequence, lives individually--that is, separated from the universe.

The passions are infinite in number and Spinoza, in a bulky volume, furnished a minute and singularly profound description of the principal ones alone, into the details of which we regret that we cannot enter. The Ethics of Spinoza is an incomparable masterpiece.

The study of the passions is very salutary, because in studying them one gets so detached from them that one can perceive their emptiness, their meanness, and their puerile, nay, even bestial character. It might even be added that the mere thought of studying them is already an act of detachment in reference to them. "Thou wouldst not seek Me, hadst thou not already found Me," said God to Pascal. "Thou wouldst not make investigations about us, hadst thou not already quitted us," the passions might say to the philosopher.

SANCTIONS OF MORALITY.--What are the sanctions of morality? They are necessary sanctions; just as everything is necessary and may even be said to be mechanical. There is neither merit nor demerit and the criminal is not culpable; only he is outside order, and everything must be in order. "He who is maddened by the bite of a mad dog is certainly innocent; yet anyone has the right to suffocate him. In the same way, the man who cannot govern his passions by fear of the law is a very excusable invalid; yet he cannot enjoy peace of mind, or the knowledge of God, or even the love of God, and it is necessary that he perish." Through death he has re-entered within order.

But does the sanction of beyond-the-grave exist, and is the soul immortal, and are we to be rewarded therein in another life? The conclusion of Spinoza on this matter is hesitating, but at the risk of misrepresenting it, which I fear to do, it seems to me that it can be thus summed up--The soul makes itself immortal in proportion as by the knowledge and love of God it participates more in God. In proportion it makes itself divine; and approaching perfection, by the same progress it also approaches immortality. It is conceivable that by error and sin it kills itself, and by virtue renders itself imperishable. This immortality is not or does not seem to be personal, it is literally a definite re-entry into the bosom of God; Spinozian immortality would therefore be a prolongation of the same effort which we make in this life to adhere to universal order; the recompense for having adhered to it here below is to be absorbed in it there, and in that lies true beatitude. Here below we ought to see everything from the point of view of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis), and this is a way of being eternal; elsewhere we shall be in eternity itself.

LEIBNITZ.--Leibnitz possessed a universal mind, being historian, naturalist, politician, diplomatist, scholar, theologian, mathematician; here we will regard him only as philosopher. For Leibnitz the basis, the substance of all beings is not either thought or extension as with Descartes, but is force, productive of action. "What does not act does not exist." Everything that exists is a force, either action or tendency to action. And force, all force has two characteristics: it desires to do, it wishes to think. The world is the graduated compound of all these forces. Above all there is the supreme force, God, who is infinite force, infinite thought; by successive descents those base and obscure forces are reached which seem to have neither power nor thought, and yet have a minimum of power and even of thought, so to speak, latent. God thinks and acts infinitely; man thinks and acts powerfully, thanks to reason, which distinguishes him from the rest of creation; the animal acts and thinks dimly, but it does act and think, for it has a soul composed of memory and of the results and consequences of memory, and by parenthesis "three-fourths of our own actions are governed by memory, and most frequently we act like animals"; plants act, and if they do not think, at least feel (which is still thought), though more dimly than animals; and finally in the mineral kingdom the power of action and thought slumber, but are not non-existent since they can be transformed into plants, animals, and men, into living matter which feels and thinks.

Therefore, as was later on to be maintained by Schopenhauer, everything is full of souls, and of souls which are forces as well as intelligences. The human soul is a force too, like the body. Between these two forces, which seem to act on one another and which certainly act in concert in such fashion that the movement desired by the soul is executed by the body or that the soul obviously assents to a movement desired by the body, what can be the affinity and the relation, in what consists their concurrence and concord? Leibnitz (and there was already something of the same nature suggested by Descartes) believes that all the forces of the world act, each spontaneously; but that among all the actions they perform there exists an agreement imposed by God, a concord establishing universal order, a "preestablished harmony" causing them all to co-operate in the same design. Well, then, between the soul, this force, and the body, this force also, this harmony reigns as between any force whatever in nature and one and all of the others; and that is the explanation of the union and concord between the soul and the body. Imagine two well-constructed clocks wound up by the same maker; they indicate the same hour, and it might appear that this one directs the other, or that the other directs the first. All the forces of the world are clocks which agree with each other, because they have been regulated in advance by the divine clockmaker, and they all indicate the eternal hour.

THE RADICAL OPTIMISM OF LEIBNITZ.--From all these general views on matter, on mind and on the mind, Leibnitz arrived at a radical optimism which is the thing for which he has since been most ridiculed, and by which, at any rate, he has remained famous. He believes that all is good, despite the evil of which no one can dispute the existence; and he believes that all is the best possible in the best of possible worlds. In fact, God is supreme wisdom and supreme goodness; that was quite evident to Descartes, who in the matter of evidence was not easily satisfied. This perfect wisdom and perfect goodness could choose only what is best.--But yet evil exists! Diminish it as much as you choose, it still exists.--It exists by a necessity inherent in what is created. Everything created is imperfect. God alone is perfect; what is imperfect is by its definition evil mingled with good. Evil is only the boundary of good, where God was compelled to stop in creating beings and things other than Himself, and if He had created only according to absolute goodness, He could have created only Himself. And that is the precise meaning of this phrase "the best of possible worlds"; the world is perfect so far as that which is created, and therefore imperfect, can be perfect; so far as what is not God can be divine; the world is God Himself as far as He can remain Himself whilst being anything else than Himself. THE THREE EVILS.--Let us distinguish in order to comprehend better. There are three evils: the metaphysical, the physical, and the moral. Metaphysical evil is this very fact of not being perfection; it is natural enough that what emanates only from perfection should not be perfection. Physical evil is suffering; God cannot will suffering, desire it, or cherish it; but He can permit it as a means of good, as a condition of good; for there would be no moral good if there were not occasion for struggle, and there would be no occasion for struggling if physical evil did not exist; imagine a paradise; all the inhabitants merely exist and never have cause to show the slightest endurance, the least courage, the smallest virtue. And finally, as to moral evil, which is sin, God can even less desire that it should exist, but He can admit its existence, allow it to be to afford men occasion for merit or demerit. Nothing is more easy than to criticize God whilst considering only a portion of His work and not considering it as a whole. He must have created it to be a whole and it is as a whole that it must be judged. And precisely because the whole cannot be comprehended by anyone, "hold thy peace, foolish reason," as Pascal said, and judge not or judge a priori since here it is not possible to judge by experience; and declare that the Perfect can have willed only the most perfect that is possible.

THE POSSIBLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE.--There still remains the fundamental objection: to reduce God to the conditions of the possible is to limit Him, and it is useless to say that God is justified if He has done all the good possible. He is not; the words "possible" and "impossible" having no meaning to Him who is omnipotent, and by definition infinite power could effect the impossible.

Yes, Leibnitz replies, there is a metaphysical impossibility, there is an impossibility in the infinite; this impossibility is absurdity, is contradiction. Could God make the whole smaller than the part or any line shorter than a straight one? Reason replies in the negative. Is God therefore limited? He is limited by the absurd and that means He is unlimited; for the absurd is a falling away. It is therefore credible that the mixture of evil and good is a metaphysical necessity to which I will not say God submits, but in which He acts naturally, and that the absence of evil is a metaphysical contradiction, an absurdity in itself, which God cannot commit precisely because He is perfect; and no doubt, instead of drawing this conclusion, we should actually see it, were the totality of things, of their relations, of their concordance, and of their harmony known to us.

The optimism of Leibnitz was ridiculed specially in the Candide of Voltaire, ingeniously defended by Rousseau, magnificently defended by Victor Hugo in the following verses, well worthy of Leibnitz:
 "Oui peut-être au delà de la sphère des nues,
  Au sein de cet azur immobile et dormant,
  Peut-être faites-vous des choses inconnues
  Où la douleur de l'homme entre comme élément."

Of or pertaining to Descartes, his mathematical methods, or his philosophy, esp. with regard to its emphasis on logical analysis and its mechanistic interpretation of physical nature

Philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience

Philosophers Related Articles
Pierre Gassendi
Baron von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz
Baruch Spinoza
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Philosophy
The English Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Philosophy
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The Idealistic Movement


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