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§2. Leibniz ’s Metaphysical Perfectionism

§2. Leibniz ’s Metaphysical Perfectionism

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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: §).

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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

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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, ).

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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

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§2. Leibniz ’s Metaphysical Perfectionism

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