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Leibniz on the Good Life

by Jurgen Lawrenz

As an apostle of 'the best of all possible worlds', Leibniz had much to say throughout his life on the notion that there is in Nature an undeniable tendency for maximisation of potential, or as he styled it, an 'increase in perfection'. Indeed, he goes further than simply observing this trend and stating it as a principle: existence itself is a consequence of this striving. Inasmuch, therefore, as God is himself the arch-epitome of perfection, it would be surprising indeed if his creatures did not exhibit this striving towards perfection — a striving, in a word, for the goodness and plenitude that are exemplified in the concept of a benevolent and omnipotent creator.

Whenever we speak of The Good, this platonic reification of an adjectival attribute, and of The Good Life, a close kin of Plato's 'examined life', we are moving on ground which can be illustrated from a Leibnizian perspective. Leibniz saw himself as the legatee of Plato's thought in these matters, even though that was a dubious self-ascription, because his own doctrines are much closer to the spirit of Aristotelian metaphysics. Indeed Leibniz, like Aristotle, was not above commonplace moralising on the goods which go hand in hand with the good life. If you detect a whiff of the pejorative in my way of phrasing this, it is probably due to an inner disharmony in the juxtaposition of the three 'goods' here assembled. The Good and the Good Life are moral concepts; but what shall we say of Goods? We have come around today to a pretty cynical appreciation of them as consumables, of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as a disease of capitalism. So there is a contrapost of sanity, apparently, in the words addressed by Leibniz to his fellow Germans, while reconstruction from the ruins of war was in progress:

... do you not enjoy abundance of all things that make living a pleasure? Do you not live under a grape vine and fig tree of your own?... Need I rehearse how the heavens are well-disposed, neither burning with excess of heat nor irking your with damnable cold; that infectious diseases are rare among us; that we know nothing of the earthquakes which affright Asia and other foreign parts; that our soil is criss-crossed with metals and covered with fruits and filled with livestock, so that, if you but grant and confess your own good luck, whatsoever serves to satisfy your needs, and your comforts and pleasures too, you will find it right here at home.[1]

But Leibniz's age had a different perspective on goods in any case. Goods are part of the social product: whether food, clothing, friendship, entertainment — or in general those things that make life easier such as today's kitchen appurtenances or microphones for speakers, or more enjoyable such as cars, computers and casinos.

There is no bargaining with the fact that a considerable portion of the science of the West has been devoted to its conversion into goods. Yet science, let me remind you, is geared to the discovery of the Truth, just as philosophy is: though science is also, in intention, value-free, except to the extent that truth is regarded as a value.

Elevating the culture of knowledge was one of Leibniz's most ardently pursued dreams. Many of his own inventions served this purpose; but he was tireless also in encouraging others to put their shoulders to the wheel, especially those with power or money. In 1671 he wrote his Grundriss eines Bedenkens towards the establishment of a German Academy of Arts and Sciences; in it he reminded his readers that

we may be certain that, so much as anyone knows of nature's wonders, his heart encloses so many portraits of God's majesty, if he but refer from those unto their originals.

You can't get closer the concept of 'value-free value' than this. For Leibniz, it goes without saying, God is best sought in his works; but equally, that what is good about life is nothing other than the enjoyment of the provisions made by the Almighty for our admiration and wonderment:

... on account of which I am of opinion that even the greatest moralists and politici, if they altogether lack of being naturalists and neither perceive nor attend the wonders of nature, of necessity forfeit the right amazement and the true cognisance and therewith the heartfelt love of God, that ought to vouchsafe the perfection of their souls.

Work pleasing to God must ipso facto be pleasing to us. Yet there follows a reminder that human weakness is prone to lapsing from even a mediocre standard of goodness:

every truth, every experiment or theorem, has its worth and commendation — even if you cannot make a problem out of it such as, whether it yield lucriferum, or perchance only luciferum? — as a new-found mirror of God's splendour.

A warning cry of a sort, to be sure. But perhaps all this has been said too many times — has it not become a platitudinous cynicism to believe in the perfectibility of mankind? What do we make today of Leibniz's penultimate paragraph, just before he comes down to the practicalities of how actually to set up an academy?

Happiness would be in the compass of the human race if a general conspiracy and comprehension were not reckoned as an inter chimaeras, alike to Utopia Mori and Civitate Solis Campanellae and Atlantide Baconi; and withal the great Lords consilia kept themselves at great distance from the common weal. Notwithstanding reason, with justice and good conscience, brings about that each man who works his best in his sphaera activitatis, be exculpate before God and the tribunal of his conscience.

Cold comfort, we should say. What happiness to people whose migraines persisted for lack of a Panadol; whose sphaera activitatis (work or leisure) was constrained to a radius of 5 leagues in all directions; whose survival in old age depended on the Gnadenbrot[2] of some princeling's whim? True: this is judging through the wrong end of the tube. But affluence exacts its price too. A society in which any person can earn 'rewards' before they do any work and pay for them for perhaps the rest of their lives are as imprisoned as the 17th century villager — they finish up being imprisoned by their 'goods'.

The question then is, do we really enjoy the plenitude of goods at our disposal or are they simply the clutter we need to deafen ourselves to the lack of genuine goods, namely the goods of which Leibniz speaks?

Goods are not in themselves a barometer of the Good Life. Comforts, yes — and the 'rewards', if that's how we wish to see them, for hard work and the unpleasantness of being vulnerable to bad health, accident, disappointment in career, love, excitement and the trimmings of whatever we may be pleased to regard as 'positive' aspects of life. Political freedom and, in recent ages, religious freedom, play their role in this as well. But one may well wonder if these freedoms are what they purport to be. Political and religious freedom means, for many, simply the freedom of non-participation in social responsibility. To be free in this way — and I'm tempted to include freedom from philosophy in this — is mostly nothing more than a refusal to engage with our conscience, which is another way of saying, a refusal to refer whatever we are doing or not doing to something higher than mere subsistence as humans. I'll be so brazen as to include Goods in this: for goods are to most of us just another way of organising our subsistence. They are not referred to anything higher, neither God nor conscience nor wisdom; and thus it is surely dubious whether Goods and the Good Life have the direct connection we tend to associate with them.

Leibniz would agree with this. In another of his German texts, dating from close to 1700 and entitled, Gluckseligkeit, often rendered into English as 'Wisdom', he starts with a series of axioms, of which the first states,

Wisdom is nothing other than knowledge of Happiness, inasmuch as it teaches us how to attain happiness.

A few lines further down, he tells us that pleasant and joyful thoughts are conveyed to us by our perception of a gift for perfection or excellence. We should note that for Leibniz (as indeed for all thinkers of that age), 'perfection' did not mean 'cannot be improved', but was a synonym for completeness. A thing or act may be complete, and yet improvable: hence the equivalence of perfection and excellence; and indeed Leibniz goes on to say that 'excellence ... is that feature by which a matter acquires more self-realisation... (i.e.) real being, strength, knowledge, rectitude, advantage, depth of thought'. Today we look askance at the word 'wisdom' and feel it embodies a somehow antiquated concept of knowledge. But this is not an impression which easily persists when you teach, say, adult education, when you are soon confronted with a genuine thirst for wisdom — and then, because of our helplessness vis-a-vis this strange, indefinable idea, we feed them more knowledge in the forlorn hope that wisdom will somehow precipitate by itself! Leibniz had no such scruples:

We do not notice at all times wherein the perfection of pleasant things consists, or to what kind of perfection they serve us; meanwhile however it is perceived by our humour, if not by our comprehension. We say, in general: 'I know not what it is' that makes me like this thing; we call it 'sympathy'; but those who seek the origin of things, may find its source and understand that underneath the surface of appearance there is something that though it escapes notice, is truly the essence of the matter.

He is talking about harmony here: the order and perfection of things that is hidden in the crinkled textures of phenomena. The insight applies unilaterally:

Perfection is what I call the elevation of any state of being; for just as sickness is so to speak a degradation and leave-taking from health, so perfection is an augmentation beyond it, while health itself occupies the middle ground and is the fulcrum and provides the platform for perfection.

Accordingly Leibniz never entertains the least doubt that happiness, ergo the Good Life, derive from a fuller understanding of the pleasures of the soul (mind); but this in turn can be achieved in no other way than by improving our understanding of nature, including human nature; for in the end 'a present joy will not make us happy if it will not persist; for he will surely fall into deprivation who seeks short-lived joy and suffers long-enduring grief in consequence.' From which it follows that 'nothing serves as well for happiness than the illumination of our reason and the training of the will to work according to reason.'

For Leibniz all this boils down to enquiring after the respective quantities of good and ill in life. What are the circumstances which we may associate with the good life? If we are healthy, but poor; or if we are wealthy, but bored: is the glass half full or half empty? Are we entitled to complain in either of these respects? Leibniz was not the first, nor the last, to propose that we err in looking on good health and middling comforts with a mind-set geared to deja-vu:

What we understand when we speak of physical ills is nothing other than the displeasure of pain, grief and all the other discomforts. But does this mean that a physical good consists altogether of pleasure?... In my view, it consists in a common condition, as for example good health. We are in possession of all the good we need when we are not in a bad way: just as it is one rung on the ladder to wisdom to be free of foolishness: 'Sapienta prima est stultitia carnisse.' And we earn praise if we have avoided blame: 'Si non culpabor, sat nihi laudis erit.' From this point of view, all those of our feelings which do not directly displease are physical goods, even if they are not productive of pleasure; for it is deprivation, that constitutes a physical ill.

In other words, there is a high preponderance of good in our lives, which we despise when we take it for granted. Our greatest error is amour propre, which makes us perceive distress as an insult and undeserved rebuke; and then, involuntarily and as a psychological necessity, we expect and demand overcompensation, instead of offering simple and sincere thanks for the return of normalcy. As Leibniz wrote:

Our ills excite attention much more than our good; but it stands to reason that therefore our ills must be but few in comparison... For although many people profess to despise human nature... yet by the same token self-love is highly prevalent and most people are only too ready to be satisfied with themselves.

There is also a quite unsavoury trait to be observed in this — what Plato refers to as pleonexia: wanting always more, especially Goods. Wanting, and the lack of having, impinge on feelings and distort our perception of the genuine Good, as Leibniz points out in his rebuke of Bayle:

Monsieur Bayle indicates that people who consider themselves unhappy, undoubtedly are — for in the end, our feelings furnish the criteria for good and ill. But I reply that a momentary feeling is the least reliable criterion for any past or present good or evil. I admit that one may be in pretty bad shape while such melancholy reflections endure; but this cannot obliterate a previous sense of well-being, nor that all in all the good we have exceeds by far all ills.

Passages like these remind us that, until quite recently, Leibniz was considered a representative of the brand of rationalist humanism which brought an immense optimism to bear on social and moral questions as well as a seemingly inexhaustible confidence in the perfectibility of life. Today we gaze on this optimism as a sphinx-like manifestation of innocent ebullience. We have lost the last shred of it in the calamities of the 20th century; and we trust reason no more than we trust trust (or faith) itself. That 'reason is the slave of passion', as Hume opined, seems a much apter motto than the hope and belief in the Good Life which Leibniz and his generation shared.

One might suspect that the diminishing affinity to the idea of benevolent (transcendent) powers lies at the roots of our recent pessimism in even the possibility of a Good Life, let alone that abstract notion of The Good. Instead, Goods have become substitutes for it.

But if one seriously engages with Leibniz, and his historical station, one can only wonder why the opinion holds that he and his generation should have had more cause for optimism than we. Leibniz was an offspring of the 30-years war, whose disastrous consequences matched the catastrophes of the Black Death and the First World War. But his answer, in the Theodicy, to all those complainants who whimpered, 'Why does God visit these calamities on us, on guilty and innocent, on good and evil alike, and seemingly indiscriminately?', was that God has laid the decisions affecting good and evil into our hands. If we want the Good, it is there for us to achieve. And God did not create evil, as its simple-minded personification seeks to persuade us: being a privation, it is up to us not to deprive ourselves of The Good. And he had the confidence, even amid the smoke of ruins and the still warm blood of the dead of the recent carnage, to look forward to the rationality of man asserting itself. He would do his bit to ensure that the world understood this message.


1. Quotations translated from Heer, F. (ed.): Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Auswahl aus seinen Werken. Fischer, Frankfurt/M 1950.

2. pittance or sufferance.

© Jurgen Lawrence 2005