Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Reasonings of Leibniz | Theodicy Essays

1 Background 

During the dawn of Modern thinking, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was surrounded by well-known peers such as, Descartes, Malebranche, Hobbes, and Spinoza. His name entered the history books as “the last great philosophical system-builder of the seventeenth century.”[1] And, he was called many things: “Mathematician;” “Physicist;” “Psychologist;” even “The Prince’s Librarian.” But, while he lived, he was never called a professional philosopher. Instead, he declined academic chairs when offered them.

He was too busy. As the Prince’s librarian, Leibniz naturally became his political secretary and a confidant of the House of Brunswick. In those days, politics and theology had become so intertwined that the policy of the man and his doctrine were one and the same. “He was incapable of looking at the objects of any special enquiry without seeing them as aspects or parts of one intelligible universe.”

His priorities toward a holistic worldview motivated Leibniz to become a skilled political and theological debater. One of his most notable negotiations was with Bossuet with whom he attempted to find a basis for Catholic-Lutheran concord. Yet, by seeing so many differences with Catholicism as “non-essentials” many wondered whether or not Leibniz could be called “a true Protestant” at all. His debates may have brought him admiration, but they also raised a common sense of mistrust towards the debater.

Still, this did not stop Leibniz from seeking the pleasure “to appreciate good wherever he could see it, and to discover a soul of truth in every opinion.” In his own way, he carried his torch of theology into every corner of his life in order to illuminate the darkest questions he had. This runs contrary to the gap in theodicy found in the common philosophers of today.[2]

2 Theodicy 

The only one of Leibniz’ works to be published in his lifetime was Theodicy Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil. It would add to his image in the public eye, reflecting his view of the world to them. It expresses the peak of metaphysical speculation explored in the first years of the eighteenth century, reforming scholasticism in the light of new physical sciences.[3]

2.1 Preface

Leibniz begins the preface of his writing by relaying that “we are impressed by what is outward, while the inner essence of things requires consideration of such a kind as few persons are fitted to give.” He recognizes the difference between seeing things from an outer light and an inner one. His book then becomes an attempt to bridge the gap, addressing the issues which effect both how we interact with the world and how we understand ourselves.

Perhaps the main reason for the necessity of his writing was the plague which had overcome the minds of the masses he entitled, “Lazy Reason.” According to Leibniz, “Lazy Reason” had perplexed men in every age. “It tended towards doing nothing, or at least towards being careful for nothing and only following inclination for the pleasure of the moment.”

This led to faulty logic such as assuming that it was unnecessary for one to act because God’s will would be done without the help. Christian determinism turned into an excuse for sloth much like it had been in some cases of the New Testament. The idea of inevitable fate “relieve[d] oneself of the need to reason properly.” Leibniz, on the other hand, hoped to show that “God himself, although he always chooses the best, does not act by an absolute necessity, and that the laws of nature laid down by God… [are what] keep the mean between geometrical truths.”[4]

2.2 Dissertation on the Conformity of Faith with Reason

Before Leibniz is able to discuss God, he must first address how we can actually know anything about Him. The rise of skepticism and reason in his era led to many assumptions against the compatibility of faith and reason. Yet, without reason, it would be hard to see how any man could understand anything. And, without faith, how could a man believe in his understanding?

This highly educated author realizes the contradiction in his time. The secularists clung to reason, renouncing faith while the liberal theologians threw out reason, grasping faith. Leibniz understands that reason is needed to understand truth. Even those who speak against reason have a certain type of “counterfeit” reasoning, “corrupted and deluded by false appearances.”

The writer realizes that it might help to step back for a bit, to put things into a bigger perspective. He begins a historical summary guiding the reader to the understanding of how we got to where we are today. First, the philosophers of antiquity realized that there were certain evident truths about the world around them as well as different ways to understand those truths. He discusses both a posteriori and a priori reasoning as well as their natural philosophy:

In “natural philosophy we explain up to a certain point sundry perceptible qualities, but in an imperfect manner, for we do not comprehend them. Nor is it possible for us, either, to prove Mysteries by reason… All that remains for us then, after having believed in the Mysteries by reason of the proofs of the truth of religion… is to be able to uphold them against objections.”

This concept of the Ancient Greek writers would lead them to what is now referred to as a “god of the gaps.” There was something or someone missing, a part of truth that escaped them, but at the same time they realized it must be there. Leibniz continues that the early church conformed faith with this sort of reason. The Christian God fit into the gap of Platonism.

But, the church fathers became too dependent on their use of Greek Philosphers. Scholasticism erupted, teaching the church to see faith through (mainly Aristotelian) reason. This reduced the study of God to a “scientific form,” putting it into The Ancients’ taste for systems creating a compound of theology and philosophy. It was not very long before philosophy found itself “burdened” by theology, “which in its turn was suffering from association with a philosophy that was very obscure and very imperfect.”

Leibniz’ current conflict between faith and reason grew out of avveroism, the understanding that theology and philosophy are incompatible. The Protestant Reformations renounced the influence of the patriarchs and tore apart the dependency of the one school of thought to the other. Some Protestants despised philosophy itself while others “flew into a passion with philosophy.”

2.3 Interpretation Vs. Logic

An error in the culture of the era that Leibniz was quick to point out is the falsity in assuming that the logical must be against the metaphysical and interpretation against logic. He understood that opposites do not necessarily imply contradictions. This is similar to many aspects of Lutheran Orthodoxy.

Yet, Leibniz took the view that all reason is compiled of a chain of truths. Anything can and will be understood if the correct chain is linked. He compares it to a tower such as the ones many German towns would have at the time. The tower in reality is rectangular. But, from a distance, it appears rounded. It is only when one moves closer to the tower that one can see its sharp edges and flat sides. False reason, then, is built upon false premises. This is in agreeance with the school of Logic and Aristotelean thought.

The difference is that Leibniz did not necessarily believe that the ways of God are above man’s comprehension. But, that man cannot see the linked truths. It is a minor difference compared to the thought-process assuming that the Mysteries of God are above our own reasonings. Still, it is a proper introduction to his theodicy and summarizes the main concepts and background needed for such a work to be seen as relevant in the day of Modernism.

It is disheartening that these aspects of such an astute scholar seem to be lost in the conflict of faith and reason we are familiar with today. If those who take theology, philosophy, and theodicy seriously spent the time to read a summation of even just the beginning of his life’s work, they may be able to take one another seriously once again.

[1] (Robert C. Solomon, Kathleen M. Higgins 1993, 5)
[2] (Wilhelm Leibniz, Freiherr von Gottfried 1996)
[3] (Wilhelm Leibniz, Freiherr von Gottfried 1996)
[4] (Wilhelm Leibniz, Freiherr von Gottfried 1996) 

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