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Gottfried Leibniz

German Philosopher

1646-1716

A selection from
ON THE ULTIMATE ORIGINATION OF THINGS

Narrated by Michael Prichard

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Besides the world or aggregate of finite things we find a certain Unity which is dominant, not only in the sense in which the soul is dominant in me, or rather in which the self is dominant in my body, but also in a much more exalted manner. For the dominant Unity of the universe not only rules the world, but also constructs or makes it; and it is higher than the world and, if I may so put it, extramundane; it is thus the ultimate reason of things. Now neither in any one single thing, nor in the whole aggregate and series of things, can there be found the sufficient reason of existence. Let us suppose the book of the elements of geometry to have been eternal, one copy always having been written down from an earlier one; it is evident that, even though a reason can be given for the present book out of a past one, nevertheless out of any number of books taken in order going backwards we shall never come upon a full reason; though we might well always wonder why there should have been such books from all time—why there were books at all, and why they were written in this manner. What is true of the books is true also of the different states of the world; for what follows is in some way copied from what precedes (even though there are certain laws of change). And so, however far you go back to earlier states, you will never find in those states a full reason why there should be any world rather than none, and why it should be such as it is.

Indeed, even if you suppose the world eternal, as you will still be supposing nothing but a succession of states and will not in any of them find a sufficient reason, nor however many states you assume will you advance one step towards giving a reason, it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere. For in things which are eternal, though there may be no cause, nevertheless there must be known a reason; which reason in things that are permanent is necessity itself or essence, but in the series of changeable things (if this be supposed to be an eternal succession from an earlier to a later) it will be, as will be presently understood, the prevailing of inclinations, in a sphere where reasons do not necessitate (by an absolute or metaphysical necessity, in which the contrary implies a contradiction), but incline. From this it is evident that even by supposing the world to be eternal we cannot escape the ultimate, extra-mundane reason of things, or God.

The reasons of the world then lie in something extra-mundane, different from the chain of states, or series of things, whose aggregate constitutes the world. And so we must pass from physical or hypothetical necessity, which determines the subsequent things of the world by the earlier, to something which is of absolute or metaphysical necessity, for which itself no reason can be given. For the present world is necessary physically or hypothetically, but not absolutely or metaphysically. In other words, when once it is determined that it shall be such and such, it follows that such and such things will come into being. Since then the ultimate root must be in something which is of metaphysical necessity, and since there is no reason of any existent thing except in an existent thing, it follows that there must exist some one Being of metaphysical necessity, that is, from whose essence existence springs; and so there must exist something different from the plurality of beings, that is the world, which, as we have allowed and have shown, is not of metaphysical necessity.

Let me explain a little more distinctly how out of truths that are eternal or essential or metaphysical there arise truths that are temporal, contingent, or physical. First we must notice, from the very fact that something exists rather than nothing, that there is in things that are possible, or in possibility of essence itself, a certain need for existence, or (if I may so put it) a claim to exist; and, to put it bluntly, that essence in itself tends towards existence. From this it further follows that all things which are possible, or express essence or possible reality, tend by equal right towards existence in proportion to the quantity of essence or reality which they include, or in proportion to the stage of perfection which belongs to them; for perfection is nothing else than quantity of essence.

Hence it is seen to be most evident that out of the infinite combination of possibles, and the infinite possible series, that one exists by whose means the greatest possible amount of essence or possibility is brought into existence. There is always, I take it, to be found in things a principle of determination which turns on considerations of greatest and least; namely, that the greatest effect should be produced with (if I may so put it) the least expenditure. And the time, the place, or (in a word) the receptivity or capacity of the world, may here be taken to be the expenditure or ground, on which a building is to be raised as fittingly as possible, while the variety of forms is in accordance with the fitness of the building and with the number and elegance of its rooms. It is very much like what happens in certain games, in which all the spaces on the board have to be filled in according to certain rules: unless you show some ingenuity you will find yourself at the end kept out of certain refractory spaces, and thereby compelled to leave empty more spaces than you need have done, and more than you wished. There is, however, a definite formula by which the greatest possible success in filling the spaces is easily obtained. For instance, if we suppose ourselves told to construct a triangle, there being no other principle of determination, the result is that we draw an equilateral triangle; and if we are required to go from one point to another, and nothing further is added to determine the way, we shall choose the path that is easiest or shortest. Similarly, once it has been granted that a being is better than a not-being, that is, that there is a reason why something should exist rather than nothing, or that transition from possibility to actuality is to take place, then, even if nothing further is determined, the consequence is that there exists as much as is possible in view of the capacity of time and place (or of the possible order of existing)—in very much the same way as tiles are fitted together so as to put in as many as possible within the given area.

From this it is now wonderfully clear how in the very origination of things a certain Divine mathematics or metaphysical mechanics is employed, and how the greatest quantity comes to be determined. It is on this principle that of all the angles the right angle is the determined angle in geometry, and that liquids when placed in heterogeneous media form themselves into the most capacious shape, that is, the spherical; but the best instance of all is that in common mechanics itself, when several heavy bodies are operating against one another, the result is that movement which secures the greatest descent on the whole. For just as all things that are possible with equal right tend towards existence in proportion to their reality, so in the same way all weights with equal right tend towards descent in proportion to their gravity; and just as in the latter case there results a motion involving the greatest possible descent of the heavy bodies, so in the former case there results a world involving the greatest production of things that are possible.

More information about Gottfried Leibniz from Wikipedia

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