Leibniz on God and the World

The main outlook on God, by Leibniz, in his Discourse on Metaphysics, is given towards the end of his argument when he says that ‘we must think of God not only as the root cause of all substances and of all beings, but also as the leader of all persons or thinking substances, or as the absolute monarch of the most perfect city or republic - which is what the universe composed of the assembled totality of mind is’ (Leibniz 1686, 35). To this I have to add what he says at the beginning of his argument that ‘God is absolutely perfect being’ (Leibniz 1686, 1). The perfection of God applies to his power, knowledge, wisdom, and actions; they are of highest degree, he has them in ‘unlimited form’ (Leibniz 1686, 1). These three metaphors of ‘root cause’, ‘leader,’ and ‘absolute monarch’ give me the structure of the answer to the question ‘What is God?’ and the related terms of ‘all substances,’ ‘thinking substances,’ and ‘the most perfect city’ give me the elements of the answer to the second question of this assignment 'What philosophical problems is Leibniz working through his contemplation of God?'

What is God?

The main outlook of perfection of God is to be seen both as ‘metaphysical perfection,’ and ‘moral perfection’ (Leibniz 1686, 1), that is both his power, knowledge, and actions are ‘completely perfect’ (Leibniz 1686, 1).

God as 'root cause'

God as ‘root cause’ of all substances is understood by Leibniz in terms of the fact that ‘any act of will presupposes some reason for it’ (Leibniz 1686, 2), and this ‘involves his knowledge of what would be good’ (Leibniz 1686, 2). God’s ‘highest freedom to act perfectly, [is] in accordance with [his] sovereign reason’ (Leibniz 1686, 3). He ‘always acts in the most perfect and desirable way possible’ (Leibniz 1686, 4), ‘he does everything for the best’ (Leibniz 1686, 5). The world created by God is regular in that he choose ‘the most perfect order’; ‘there is a universal order to which everything conforms’ (Leibniz 1686, 6). This ‘most perfect order’ chosen by God is respected even by God when he does things (Leibniz 1678, 7; it can be seen Leibniz’s view on miracles as ‘orderly natural events’ (7)). Thus, in these ways God is the ‘root cause’ of all substances and all beings; everything starts with him and according to him.

God as 'leader'

God as ‘leader’ of all persons/thinking substances is understood by Leibniz starting from ‘God’s wills,’ and created substances. God is involved in his world, and in his general will he chooses to allow ‘actions of created being (especially rational ones)’, and in his particular will there are things ‘he can be said to want’ (Leibniz 1686, 7). ‘If the action is intrinsically good, we can say that God wants it’ (Leibniz 1686, 7), but if an action may be ‘intrinsically bad, […] we must say that God allows’ it (Leibniz 1686, 7). Each substance carries with it ‘the imprint of God’s infinite wisdom and omnipotence’ (Leibniz 1686, 9). God’s function as a ‘leader’ of all thinking substances is based on this ‘imprint’ on them; they imitate him. ‘They are as they are because it is as it is’ (Leibniz 1686, 9). God as ‘leader’ chooses freely and this is founded on ‘free decision to do what is most perfect’ and based on that, ‘his decision regarding human nature that men will always (though freely) do what seems the best’ (Leibniz 1686, 13).

God as 'absolute monarch'

This absolute monarchy of God is related to the universe composed of the assembled totality of mind. ‘The created substances depend of God,’ and each one is a ‘separate world, independent of every thing except God’ (Leibniz 1686, 14). All our phenomena ‘are simply consequences of our being,’ and ‘expressions of all substances correspond with one another’ (Leibniz 1686, 14); all of these are because of God. He is the cause of this correspondence in their phenomena. ‘Whatever happens to created substances is purely a consequence of their nature’ (Leibniz 1686, 16). In searching for the principle of all existing things we have to look ‘to the final causes’ (Leibniz 1686, 19). It is God that ‘always aims at the best of the most perfect’ (Leibniz 1686, 19).

What philosophical problems is Leibniz working through his contemplation of God?

If God is seen by Leibniz as ‘root cause,’ ‘leader,’ and ‘absolute monarch,’ what are the philosophical problems analyzed based on these? The immediate elements are those of all substances, thinking substances, and the totality of mind (Leibniz 1686, 35). Leibniz helps us at this point when he says that ‘I have thought appropriate to emphasize a little the relevance to bodies of final causes, incorporeal natures and an intelligent cause’ (Leibniz 1686, 23). The ‘relevance to bodies of final causes’ is the main philosophical problem worked through his contemplation of God (that is covered in the sections 1-23 of his Discourse). From section 24 onwards Leibniz returns to ‘immaterial natures, and in particular to minds’ (Leibniz 1686, 23).

The relevance to bodies of final causes.

‘Each substance is like a whole world.’ It has the beginning in being created and is ‘like a mirror of God’ (Leibniz 1686, 9). ‘It expresses everything that happens in the universe’ (Leibniz 1686, 9). We understand everything about us as ‘simply consequences of our being’ (Leibniz 1686, 14), so, we will choose freely to ‘do what seems the best’ (Leibniz 1686, 13). But the behavior of bodies ‘involves a concept that cannot be extracted from the concept of the body;’ it is additional, and it points in the direction of ‘immaterial beings,’ (Leibniz 1686, 18) it is our soul. ‘Our soul always expresses God and the universe, and all essences as well as all existences’ (Leibniz 1686, 26), and it has the ability to ‘represent to itself any nature or form’ forming ‘an idea of the thing’ (Leibniz 1686, 26). Our souls have ‘virtual knowledge’ of things (Leibniz 1686, 26), and for grasping truths they need only to have their attention drawn to them. ‘Our thoughts occur spontaneously and freely in the order laid down by the notion of our individual substance’ (Leibniz 1686, 30), but God determines our will to choose what appears to us the best, yet without necessitating it’ (Leibniz 1686, 30). When bad things happen it is because of ‘the lacks and limits of created things’ (Leibniz 1686, 30).

Leibniz, G. W. 1686. Discourse on Metaphysics.

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