Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason

Leibniz is not exactly at the top of my list for comfort-reading – it’s stormy in Belgium today (and many days), and the apartment is a dwelling of invalids. It would be much easier to curl up with a familiar Salinger or Tolstoy or Hemingway. Besides the illness that’s been shared among my friends, I’m starting to feel consistently nervous and excited to leave for Kazakhstan. My Russian is horrible, Kazakh nonexistent, and there seem to be a million things I have to do before leaving — I still don’t have my passport back from the embassy -I ran out of visa pages! It would be so nice to just go to Kaz and not be worried any further about all the things that are consuming my waking thoughts. One thing I need to do on this Watson year is learn how to turn off the worry switch. If you know me, you’re probably laughing right now. It’s going to happen! It has to.

In a way, Leibniz is perfect. Not what I particularly want at the moment, but what I need. Leibniz himself is consuming, and since I am planning to read the Monadology by the end of the week, I needed to start with Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason.

Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason was (according to the wonderful Garber/Ariew Philosophical Essays compilation) written in Vienna in 1714, as was the Monadology. The former is a kind of “condensation of [Leibniz’s] philosophy.” This is one of those pieces that if I could choke up the courage to use a highlighter on a shiny new book, there would be more highlighted than not (which always seems to me to defeat the point).

Principles begins succinctly, with no literary flourish whatsoever, by introducing what could probably be called the ‘late Leibnizian metaphysics.’ There are substances, simple and compound. Simple substances are monads. Bodies are composite. Monads can only be distinguished by their “internal qualities and actions”. Monads have infinite degrees of life; monads make up the center of a composite substance and are the principle of unity. The monad that makes up the center “is surrounded by a mass composed of an infinity of other monads, which constitute the body belonging to this central monad.” Each monad is a living mirror that “represents the universe from its own point of view and is as ordered as the universe itself.” Let’s talk about spermatic animals. Ok, a sperm. It’s not a rational animal, and it has its own sperm-equivalent to which it looks like a grown animal, and so on to infinity. All of these things are, presumably, (made up of) monads.

So… huh? The first useless thing I can think of is a class I had the U. of Notre Dame where the professor tried to explain to us that a water bottle actually contained the universe. I’m probably destroying his words. Also I don’t think this is a particularly illuminating tangent. But this monad idea isn’t totally freaky… I’m not going to pretend like I have the faintest idea what a monad is, at least not at this point. However, this claim is worth considering: since everything in the world is connected by degrees of interaction relative to their distance to each other, in some way we know the center monad of a body has, however weak, a representation of the entire universe. This sounds very, very faintly like inverse Spinoza – instead of seeing the singular thing sub specie aeternitatis, or from the gaze of eternity, we see the universe in the singular thing. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here. Is the universe and eternity the same thing?

**By the way, if someone hasn’t started a drinking game to every time I flippantly bring up Spinoza, you are all missing out.**

What he gets at next is something that is very Spinozistic on the outside: there’s a monad perception/physical body disconnect: “there is perfect harmony between the perceptions of the monad and the motions of bodies, pre-established from the first… and in this consists the agreement and the physical union of soul and body, without the one being able to change the laws of the other.” I’m comparing this to Spinoza’s metaphysical picture which includes an idea under the attribute of thought that corresponds to every body, but (by my reading) the idea and the body are instantiations of the same thing (a mode as such), and by no means does the mind (collection of ideas) influence the body or vice versa. However, Spinoza doesn’t give us this concept of ‘pre-established harmony’, which for Leibniz is crucial. Back to the lecture hall, the professor’s example was two clocks that are set at exactly the same speed – one is the realm of physical motions, the other is realm of perceptions, of which monads are apparently the perceivers (I still don’t know what monads are).

God is the one who made and timed the clocks perfectly, and he did it in the best possible way. Leibniz seems to cruise through his ‘best of all possible worlds’ here, but basically, God made the best he could out of all the possibilities, and that means the world that has the greatest variety with the greatest order.

One of the ways I tend to read Spinoza is as a panpsychist, that is, every thing has a mind. A rock has a mind insofar as there is an idea of it (in God) which corresponds to the body. Leibniz doesn’t want to go here. He invokes reason as that which raises a ‘soul’ (the central monad of an animal + ?) to be what he calls a mind. A ‘mind’ is “something more sublime”. That is, a mind implies rationality. Here Leibniz also gives us something Spinoza never coherently seemed to: a theory of consciousness. The monad has ‘perceptions’ of external things and ‘apperceptions’, i.e. reflections on perceptions, or consciousness.

Spinoza scholarship has also recently, by Della Rocca‘s lead, seemed to come to the conclusion that Spinoza’s project is largely emerging from his dedication to the principle of sufficient reason. While I totally disagree with this trend, Leibniz leaves us no doubt of his stance: “now we must rise to metaphysics, by making use of the great principle, little used, commonly, that nothing takes place without sufficient reason…” This short treatise alone doesn’t give us much to work with, but I imagine looking deeper into his works, the significance of this principle will become obvious.

Much of the end of this work is very typical of early-modern writing: God is perfect, God has supreme wisdom, we should love God and it is our highest good (although perfect knowledge of God is not possible for Leibniz). Loving God is also incredibly pleasurable, not to mention useful to us. Since my interest at this moment is figuring out what the hell Leibniz’s metaphysics is, I’m mostly stuck pondering this picture of the world: harmony, monads, minds.

Monads are certainly confusing. If I was tied to a chair and forced to tell someone what a monad is or risk losing my fingers, I’d probably say a monad is a simple substance, and each body that is considered an animal has a ‘center monad’ which is what we could also call a soul. In animals with reason, this soul is called a mind. Souls know the infinite, but only confusedly. We imitate God on small scale when we do science – in fact, we are uncovering sciences as God regulated them “by weight, measure, number, etc.” A monad alone cannot explain what a rational soul (i.e. mind) is – “it is not only a mirror of the universe of created things, but also an image of the divinity”. Ok, so I maybe I wouldn’t get my fingers cut off, but if they asked me what a soul was… well, it was nice knowing you.

Leibniz has given us two kingdoms in harmony: the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of grace (bodies and minds respectively?). He writes: “nature itself leads to grace, and grace perfects nature by making use of it.” I’m not going to pretend I know what this means. I do know that the storm passed since I started writing this post, and the sun is shining in all its European-summer-evening glory. (I love Belgium!)

If you’ve enjoyed my careless sledge-hammering of Leibniz, come back again. There’s a whole list of philosophers ready to be misunderstood.

*It is not my intention to ‘do philosophy’ on this blog. I’m not sure blogs lend themselves to that. No, I don’t frequent any philosophy blogs, and in general I’m skeptical of what they add to the field. Also, I am no one and I do not know anything.


2 thoughts on “Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason

  1. “This sounds very, very faintly like inverse Spinoza – instead of seeing the singular thing sub specie aeternitatis, or from the gaze of eternity, we see the universe in the singular thing.” This is wonderful.

  2. Dear Erin,

    I am writing to you from the intensive care unit in Holy Cross Hospital. I tried the Erin Spinoza Drinking Game with this blog at 9AM today.* By 10:21AM I was in an ambulance sweating bullets of alcohol and muttering about pieces of God. There is a pattern of cirrhosis on my liver which vaguely resembles a map of Bucharest. I hope you’re happy.


    * Just joshing, we all know there’s no way in hell my ass is getting up at 9AM on a Sunday. Toodles!

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