This book is about three philosophers – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Antoine Arnauld, and Nicolas Malebranche – who happened to be together in Paris in the 1670s and their great debate over God, evil, and the meaning of life. The three were friends, at least until their intellectual and personal falling out, although they were very different personalities and came from very different national, religious, cultural and social backgrounds.
Leibniz was a German Lutheran, a natural genius and polymath – with religious, scientific, mathematical, philosophical, political, and even engineering interests – and still a young man when he arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission. Arnauld, a brilliant but very irascible theologian, was a Catholic priest. As the leading defender of the Jansenist reform movement in France, he was constantly in conflict with the ecclesiastic and political authorities; he eventually had to flee France and live the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands. Malebranche, also a Catholic priest, was a kind and patient intellectual, somewhat slower than Arnauld both in intellect and in temper, but also the most important follower of Descartes’s philosophy in the latter half of the seventeenth-century.
The debate on philosophical and theological matters between these three figures is a rich and fascinating one, giving us a glimpse into the intellectual life of early modern Europe and an understanding of why certain problems mattered so much at the time. Above all, Leibniz, Arnauld, and Malebranche disagreed on their solutions to the so-called “problem of evil.” Why is there sin, suffering, and other evils in a world supposedly created by a wise, just, and all-powerful God? Why are there droughts, floods, and other natural disasters that bring great suffering among many innocents? Why are there wars, murders, and other miseries brought about by human wickedness? Why do vicious people flourish while bad things happen to good people? A philosophical solution to this problem is called a “theodicy”, or explanation of God’s justice.
These three thinkers disagreed not only on how best to account for divine justice but also, correspondingly, on the proper way to conceive of God and His manner of acting. Is God a rational being like us, a kind of “person” who always acts for the sake of some good and according to objective values? Or is God ultimately an arbitrary being on whose incomprehensible will alone everything depends and thus who is not bound by any objective values independent of what He wills? And what does this mean for the intelligibility of the universe itself? Is God’s creation the product of a rational activity guided by what is good, or is it, at its most fundamental level, an arbitrary product governed by divine fiat? In short, is this the best of all possible worlds?
“Is God a rational being like us, a kind of ‘person’ who always acts for the sake of some good and according to objective values? Or is God ultimately an arbitrary being on whose incomprehensible will alone everything depends and thus who is not bound by any objective values independent of what He wills?”
In writing this book, I had in mind a number of audiences, and not just academic ones. I hope to reach people interested in European intellectual history and in early modern religious thought, as well as those who value philosophical and theological problems about God, the world, and humanity. But the book is also about the relationship between morality and religion. Can God’s will serve as the source of, or even as a guide to what is moral? Or is morality, good and bad and right and wrong, something completely independent of any religious or theological doctrines? Does God will something because it is independently good, or is it good for the sole reason that God wills it? This is a millennia-old debate, going back to Plato and his dialogue Euthyphro – in which Socrates argues against the view that something is pious just because the gods love it – but it continued to inform philosophical thinking throughout the Middle Ages and the modern period.
The Bible says that God looked at what He had created and saw that it was good. But did God create it because it was good, or was it good simply because God created it? The problem is no less relevant today, particularly as so many people believe that ethical principles and ethical behavior must be grounded in religious beliefs, and that without a God there can be no morality, which I regard as a dangerous conflation between two domains.
This book arises out of my ongoing research into seventeenth-century thought and especially the intersection of philosophy, science, and religion in the period and its relevance for our lives today – particularly since much of what we think of as “modern” first arises in the seventeenth century. Studying ideas in the seventeenth century is most definitely not of solely antiquarian or historical interest, for we are very much products of the Enlightenment, both its moderate version (Descartes, Locke, Voltaire) and its radical strain (Spinoza).
The opening of chapter one introduces the reader to Leibniz as he arrives in Paris, ostensibly on a secret mission to establish world peace – or at least to persuade the French king not to attack the German lands – but also (and more importantly to him) to immerse himself in the city’s cultural and intellectual riches. This chapter also presents the immediate historical and political context of the philosophical debate, as well as its ramifications for the deep differences that had been violently tearing Europe apart ever since the wars of religion of the sixteenth century. The subsequent chapters introduce the other players in the debate, Arnauld and Malebranche, and a later chapter is on Spinoza, the radical Jewish atheist whose audacious ideas on God, the human being, and society are lurking in the shadows. (Spinoza insisted that the whole project of theodicy is based on an anthropomorphization of God – God, he insisted, just is Nature, nothing more – and is a project of folly and superstition.) The epilogue indicates why all of this matters, why we should care about what a trio of thinkers from three hundred years ago had to say about the nature of God and of the world.
“Can God’s will serve as the source of, or even as a guide to what is moral? Or is morality, good and bad and right and wrong, something completely independent of any religious or theological doctrines? Does God will something because it is independently good, or is it good for the sole reason that God wills it?”
I have tried to write an accessible book on difficult but fascinating perennial philosophical ideas. The debate examined in the book may be an old one – although the setting is the seventeenth century, the roots of the debate lie in antiquity. But the ideas remain relevant for the way in which we think about good and bad, human happiness, the meaning of life, and, among religiously minded people, God. Even readers who are not religious believers should care about how to think about the nature of things, about what it is to be a rational being, and about the status of the values – moral values, political values, even aesthetic values – that inform our thinking.
Philosophy need not be confined to professional academics, and there is a real shortage of books that make philosophical discussions of these questions accessible to a general reading public without being either overly technical or “dumbing down” the issues.
Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has been teaching since 1988. His books include Spinoza: A Life (1999, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award), Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (2002), Rembrandt’s Jews (2003, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil (2008), The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy (co-edited, 2008), and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Modern Age (2011). He is also the editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy.