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§2. Leibniz ’s Metaphysical Perfectionism
God is the absolutely perfect being (Discourse:§), and God would act imperfectly should God act less perfectly than God is capable of acting (ibid.:§).
Therefore, since God is omnipotent (omnipotence is a perfection of
God), and God knows which world is the most perfect (omniscience is
another perfection of God), God creates the best, that is, the most perfect,
of all possible worlds. Thus the world that exists is the best of all possible
worlds. Not to believe this is unworthy of faith, for it is not to believe that
God is perfect in wisdom and goodness.
. Leibniz occasionally states principles that characterize the best of all
possible worlds. For example, he says that in whatever manner God might
have created the world, it would always have been regular and in a certain
order. For any world must have laws: “God, however, has chosen the most
perfect [possible world], that is to say, the one which [of those possible] is
at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena,” as
illustrated by “the case [of ] a geometric line [consider, e.g., a circle], whose
construction was easy, but whose properties and effects are extremely remarkable and of great signiﬁcance” (Discourse:§).
Leibniz adds that the manner of the perfection of the world is conveyed
only imperfectly by such comparisons, but they help us to conceive in at
least some fashion what cannot be otherwise expressed. The world that
exists is the best of all possible worlds, best in the sense of the most perfect
that could have existed. This is so since God is absolutely perfect, and God
would have acted imperfectly if God had created a world different from
ours, even in the least manner.
. Now, besides being an ethics of creation, Leibniz’s metaphysical perfectionism has the following feature:
There exists a moral order in the universe ﬁxed and given by the divine
nature (in Leibniz’s case), an order prior to and independent of us that
ﬂows from the divine perfections, and this order speciﬁes the appropriate moral ideals and conceptions for human virtues, as well as the
grounds of the principles of right and justice.
Since God’s perfection implies the moral perfections, God is a model for
us and is to be imitated as far as this is possible and ﬁtting for free and
intelligent spirits like ourselves. The moral life is a form of the imitatio dei
(Discourse:§§, , ; and Nature and Grace: §).
In saying above that the moral order is prior to and independent of us, I
do not mean that it is, as in Hume, rooted in our given natural psychological
constitution. Nor is it, as we later discuss, an order implicit in and constructed by our pure practical reason, as I believe Kant holds.
In this respect, Leibniz’s doctrine is like the rationalistic intuitionism of
Clarke. Like Clarke, he maintains that the principles of perfection that specify the best of all possible worlds are eternal truths: they rest on and lie in
the divine reason. These truths are superior to and prior to the divine will.
Leibniz insists on this point (for example, against the Cartesians) and states
it early in section of the Discourse.
. A third feature of Leibniz’s perfectionism is this: it is pluralistic, that
is, there are two or more ﬁrst principles that specify certain perfectionist
values—kinds of good and evil—and each principle has a role in identifying
the best of all possible worlds. The best world (all things considered) is
speciﬁed by the most ﬁtting balance of all the various perfections. It is not
found by seeing which one maximizes the fulﬁllment of any one principle
(or value) taken by itself. The most ﬁtting balance of perfections, and so
the most perfect world among the possible worlds, is known to God, but
Leibniz would say that we cannot state, other than formally, how that balance is determined or how that judgment is made.
To illustrate by Leibniz’s remark cited a moment ago: two aspects of
the world’s perfection are that it is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena. Consider the two perfections:
(i) simplicity in hypotheses; and
(ii) richness in phenomena
How are these two aspects to be balanced against each other? Other
things being equal, both greater simplicity and greater richness (diversity)
add to perfection, but since neither alone is to be maximized, the best combination, among those possible, must somehow be identiﬁed. The most
perfect balance of perfections rests with God’s intuitive judgment. We can’t
say much about it.
The same problems of balance are brought out even more clearly by
this passage from Nature and Grace (§):
It follows from the supreme perfection of God that he chose the best
possible plan in producing the universe; a plan in which there is the
greatest variety together with the greatest order; the most carefully
used plot of ground, place, time; the greatest effect by the most simplest means; the most power, knowledge, happiness and goodness in
created things that the universe could allow. For, since all the possibles
have a claim to existence in God’s understanding in proportion to their
perfections, the result of all these claims must be the most perfect
actual world possible.
Here we have still further values to balance against one another, and
this includes balancing goods against evils in attaining the greatest total
perfection. Thus, Leibniz often appeals to an aesthetic analogy, as illustrated
in “Dialogue on Human Freedom” (); see also “The Ultimate Origination of Things” (Ariew and Garber:). “It’s a bit like what happens in
music and painting, for shadows and dissonances truly enhance the other
parts, and the wise author of such works derives such a great beneﬁt for the
total perfection of the work from these particular imperfections that it is
much better to make a place for them than to attempt to do without them.
Thus, we must believe that God would not have allowed sin nor would he
have created things he knows will sin, if he could not derive from them a
good incomparably greater than the resulting evil” (Ariew and Garber:).
None of this is intended as criticism of Leibniz. Pluralistic metaphysical
perfectionism is a possible moral doctrine. No doubt a natural setting for
it is the ethics of creation. To my knowledge, Leibniz never gives a careful
and reasonably systematic account of the principles of perfection, or of perfectionism’s basic values. The pressure of other work was always so great
that he never found time for this. We have to piece together his views
from scattered pieces and notes.3
§. The Concept of a Perfection
. Now we must ask: What is a perfection? One difﬁculty with perfectionism
is that while it seems quite evident that there is an intuitive idea of perfection, it is hard to make it sufﬁciently clear.
3. Some of these are in Patrick Riley, ed., The Political Writings of Leibniz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ).
Leibniz tries to characterize a perfection in the Discourse §. He says:
“One thing which can surely be said about [perfection] is that those forms
or natures which are not susceptible of it to the highest degree, say the
nature of numbers or of ﬁgures, do not admit of perfection.”
Leibniz says that number, with respect to its size (relative to others),
does not admit of perfection: there is no greatest number. The same is
true for area. However, the power and knowledge of God does admit of
perfection, since omnipotence and omniscience are the suitably deﬁned upper limits. Omnipotence is being able to create any possible world, say, and
omniscience is knowing all these worlds (their content and possible history)
down to the last detail, and knowing which world is best and why. Thus
omniscience and omnipotence are perfections of God.
The intuitive idea seems to be that the properties of a thing that render
it more or less perfect must at least be properties that have a natural upper
bound derived from the nature of the property and /or from the nature of
the thing. A property of a thing that may increase beyond any limit (as
given by the nature of that thing) cannot be a perfection. This gives a necessary condition for a perfection.
. Let’s try to get the feel of the intuitive idea by looking at some commonsense examples. First consider artifacts: a perfect watch or a perfect
ruler. A perfect watch keeps accurate (exact) time, down to the least unit
of time that counts for anything. As physics develops, it needs more accurate
watches (such as atomic clocks). A perfect ruler has, say, a perfectly straight
edge marked with perfectly accurate units of length (again modulo what we
can distinguish in practice). There is a concept of a perfectly straight edge
(line) as a limit, but there is not a concept of a perfectly long line, since
length, like area, has no intrinsic upper bound.
Consider next the roles that we assume in certain activities and these
activities themselves. A perfect shortstop makes no errors over a season,
completes all the double plays, and much else, and all this with a certain
grace and style, yet still within the limits of normal human capacity and
skill. A perfect shortstop does not have superhuman quickness, speed, or
throwing arm. Certain constraints and limits are given by the normal range
of human abilities.
We can also form some notion of a perfect baseball game; and this is
different from that of a perfect game of any kind, which is a much more