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«1. Prefacing Radical Rationalism As its full title suggests, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal ...»

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Prefacing the Theodicy

[Christia Mercer, Essays on the Theodicy, eds. Larry Jorgensen and Sam Newlands, OUP,


1. Prefacing Radical Rationalism

As its full title suggests, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de

l'homme et l'origine du mal treats features of God, humanity, and the world. It offers a

lengthy discussion of the problem of evil and responds to Pierre Bayle’s claim that the

problem did not permit a rational solution. Many of the chapters in our present collection do the important work of explicating and evaluating Leibniz’s attempt to solve the problem and respond to Bayle’s skepticism about reason.

In this chapter, I ask that we step back from the main text of the Theodicy and attend to its Preface. I show that the latter performs two crucial preparatory tasks that have not been properly appreciated. The first is to offer a public declaration of what I call Leibniz’s radical rationalism. The Preface assumes that any attentive rational being is capable of divine knowledge. We will have the opportunity to discuss what constitutes such knowledge later. The basic idea is that it is knowledge about a divine perfection that can be understood more or less completely. In the Preface, Leibniz entices his readers to seek such knowledge and explains why doing so has been so difficult before now. What makes this rationalism radical is that divine knowledge is severed from any religion or set of religious beliefs. For example, a Chinese scholar who has never heard of Christianity is capable of such knowledge because its only requisites are reason and the capacity for divine love. While some Christian doctrines make it easier to approach God, they are neither necessary nor sufficient to do so. The author of the Theodicy thereby informs his readers that they have access to divine perfections, regardless of religious affiliation. To acquire such knowledge, they need only turn the page. The second task of the Preface is closely related to the first. It invites readers to seek divine love and virtue. To set themselves on the path to virtue, they need only avoid the pitfalls of religion and use reason in the right way to grasp a divine perfection. Once they enter the main text of the Theodicy, they have begun that journey.

The Theodicy looks importantly different when so prefaced. While it is surely true that the main text offers a sustained and detailed attempt to solve the problem of evil and rescue reason’s power from Bayle’s criticisms, neither the solution nor the rescue is its main concern. Rather, the goal of the Theodicy is to promote divine love and produce virtuous souls. Leibniz’s proposed solutions to the problem of evil and his response to Bayle cannot be properly evaluated outside that context.1 In this paper, Section 2 calls attention to the provocation implicit in the full title of the Theodicy and places the Preface in its wider methodological context. One of the As far as I can tell, previous scholars have not noticed the full significance of the Preface as preparation for the main text of the Theodicy. Paul Rateau refers to the Preface in passing as a place in the text where Leibniz defines some terms, but there is no discussion of the importance of these preliminary remarks as an introduction to the text. See Paul Rateau, Lectures et interprétations des Essais de théodicée de G.W. Leibniz, Studia Leibnitiana, Sonderheft, Band 40 (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011), passim.

implication of this section is that the commonplace name given to Leibniz’s text, namely, Theodicy [Théodicée], obscures the significance of its full title. Section 3 analyzes the Preface, especially its first few paragraphs, to reveal Leibniz’s views about the dangers of religion and the power of reason, independent of religion, to discover divine truths.

Leibniz’s views about religion and reason frame the discussion of the main text. Section 4 discusses divine knowledge and the means to attain it, and Section 5 applies the conclusions of the Section 2, 3 and 4 to the main text. By attending to the importance of the Preface, it becomes easier to understand the Theodicy’s methodology, evaluate its arguments, and see its point. Finally, Section 6 concludes the chapter by showing how the previous discussion helps us understand and evaluate the text better.

2. “Endeavoring” toward God: Naming the Endeavor The full title Leibniz gave to his longest published work, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal, is more significant than scholars have noted. It contextualizes the Preface, which itself frames the main text. For early eighteenth-century readers, the title would have seemed striking in three ways.

It is well known that Leibniz coined the word ‘théodicée,’ creating it out of the Greek ‘theos’ (god) and ‘dike’ (justice). Its rhetorical power however has not been discussed. By including this invented term in his book’s title, Leibniz was announcing to his contemporaries a new approach to the topic of God’s justice. Many of his readers must have been curious about a new treatment of this ancient problem. In this context, the Preface’s first sentence must have seemed striking: “It has ever been seen that men in general have resorted to outward forms for the expression of their religion: sound piety, that is to say, light and virtue, has never been the portion of many.” This sentence announces that the book’s innovation will involve religion and sound piety. We will discuss Leibniz’s views about these topics in the next section. The point to emphasize here is that by inserting a newly coined word into his title, Leibniz elicits a question whose answer begins the Preface.

The second feature of the title that would have provoked readers is the word ‘essais.’ When Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) applied the plural of the singular noun ‘essai’ -- the sixteenth-century French word for ‘attempt,’ ‘test,’ or ‘endeavor’ -- to a series of personal observations published in 1580, he coined a name for relatively short literary reflections and displayed what was often considered a new form of philosophizing.

His Essais contain personal comments on a wide range of topics with abundant quotations from an array of authors, especially ancient ones. There is no obvious overarching order to the topics discussed in the Essais. Montaigne seems to move randomly from one topic to another. Each individual essai is “an endeavor” in that it reflects on its topic, sometimes from a variety of perspectives. The essay, “On Experience,” is a case in point.2 It meanders around its topic provoking its author to notice that his “theme” has turned “upon itself,”3 but then forges ahead to endeavor on the theme some more. By asking his reader to Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais, published according to the “Exemplaire de Bordeaux” by Fortunat Strowski, Bordeaux 1906 and 1909 (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1981). For an English translation of classic essays, see Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin, 1958).

Strowski, 1069: Cohen, 349.

accompany him through the turns and twists of free-floating philosophical commentary, Montaigne exemplifies the difficulty of ever finding a stable certainty on any matter at all.

His goal however is not clarity but virtue. The virtue here arises from an honest assessment of human capacities and its resultant humility. As interesting as it would be to discuss the details of Montaigne’s overall project, the point to emphasize now is that his Essais ask readers to reflect on topics from a number of perspectives, often in conjunction with wellchosen historical views. By following Montaigne in his endeavors, readers learn how to be skeptical about authoritative claims, use historical texts to supplement contemporary discussions, and recognize the virtue in humility. In the end, Montaigne uses what I will call a ‘reflective methodology’ to train his readers to be innovative and honest thinkers and thereby to make strides toward virtue.4 Montaigne’s Essais were wildly popular, generating a rich array of editions and commentaries.5 The term ‘essais’ found its way into titles of philosophical works in which the author reflects on a series of topics and proposes innovative ways of thinking about them. Although an inventory of even the most important seventeenth-century works in this tradition is beyond the scope of this paper, a survey of a few prominent examples relevant to Leibniz’s Essais de Théodicée will be helpful.6 There is a rich and varied history of interpretations of the Montaigne’s Essais, beginning soon after their publication. In his classic work on early modern skepticism, Richard Popkin focuses on the Pyrrhonism of Montaigne’s late essay, Apology of Raimond Sebond, but does not discuss the influence of his methodology. See Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), Chapter 3. For a good introduction to the text and a list of classic commentaries, see Marc Foglia, Montaigne, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009. See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/. It is also important to acknowledge the connection between Montaigne and Bayle as skeptics. Scholars have disagreed about the form and extent of Bayle’s skepticism, but many have placed him in the tradition of modern skepticism going back to Montaigne. For classic studies, see, for example, Craig Brush, Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the theme of Skepticism (The Hague: M.

Nijhoff, 1966) and Frédéric Brahami, Le Travail du scepticisme: Montaigne, Bayle, Hume (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001).

For example, see John Florio’s The essayes or morall, politike and millitarie discourses of Lord Michaell de Montaigne, Knight of the noble Order of St. Michaell, and one of the gentlemen in ordinary of the French king, Henry the third his chamber. The first booke.

First written by him in French. And now done into English…, (London, 1603), which went through several editions; Jonatan de Sainct Sernin’s Essais et obseruations sur les essais du Seigneur de Montaigne (London, 1626), which went through several editions; and Charles Cotton’s Essays of Michael, seigneur de Montaigne in three books, with marginal notes and quotations of the cited authors, and an account of the author's life, the 3rd edition of which was published in 1700. For Leibniz’s references to Montaigne and to the Essais, see for example A VI iv 1850, 2253; A VI vi, 289, 557.

Scholars seem not to have recognized the connection between Leibniz’s use of ‘essais’ in his title and the tradition begun by Montaigne. As far as I can tell, only Paul Rateau, in his Lectures et interprétations des Essais de théodicée, has anything to say about the word One of the first and most significant responses to Montaigne’s Essais are the Essayes of Francis Bacon, published along with his Religious Meditations, Places of Perswasion and Disswasion, Seene and Allowed in 1597.7 Given the significance attached to Bacon as a natural philosopher and innovator of scientific methodology, it is noteworthy that the Essayes constitute the initial part of his first publication.8 In the original edition, there are ten short “Essaies,” ranging from “Of Studies” and “Of Regiment of health” to “Of Negotiating.”9 In the Epistle Dedicatorie of the first edition, he writes: “in these particulars I have played my selfe the Inquisator.” He admits that these endeavors are for him “medicinable,” though “small.”10 Bacon’s essays, which average about 300 words each, contain neither arguments nor neat conclusions. The second essay in the first edition is a good example of his approach. “Of Discourse” begins with a critique of the standard practice in which a discourser attempts “to holde all arguments” rather than to discern “what is true, as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and not what should bee thought.” Bacon ends this discussion with an epistemological pronouncement consistent with his essays as a whole: “He that questioneth much shall learne much, and content much” and “shall continually gather knowledge.”11 Bacon’s Essayes have a good deal in common with Montaigne’s, on which they are modeled. Like its French predecessor, the Essayes were widely published throughout the seventeenth century. Although Bacon is not as thoroughly skeptical as his French predecessor, he shares a desire to offer personal reflections on a series of topics with an eye to encouraging appropriate doubt about commonly held views. Both are explicitly critical of standard approaches to their chosen topics and both encourage their readers to take new and diverse perspectives on them. In short, both encourage readers to develop their own reflective approaches. Bacon goes beyond his predecessor in averring that such an approach will “continually gather knowledge.” But he agrees with Montaigne that the humility garnered from such essaying is tantamount to virtue.

Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680) is another English philosopher who takes up the cause of endeavoring toward “modest” proposals, humility, and its correspondent virtue. In his Scepsis scientifica, or, Confest ignorance, the way to science in an essay of The vanity of dogmatizing, and confident opinion….of 1665, he is quite clear about the importance of the ‘essais’ in Leibniz’s title, but he does not connect it either to Montaigne or the tradition of essayists discussed here.

Francis Bacon, Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion.

Seene and Allowed (London, 1597).

For a list of editions of the Essayes and references to standard literature on this importance texts, see the helpful Wikipedia page on the text at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essays_(Francis_Bacon). Historians of philosophy have often not paid sufficient attention to Bacon’s Essayes. E.g., The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Bacon includes no information on the Essayes.

A second edition, with thirty-eight essays, appeared in 1612; fifty-eight essays were published in an edition of 1625. See, e.g., The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (London, 1629).

Bacon, Essayes. Epistle Dedicatorie.

Bacon, Essayes, 2-3.

word ‘essay’ in his title. His dedicatory letter, addressed to the Royal Society, complains


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