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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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III

1. The Principle of Plenitude and the Plurality of
Worlds.
According to Lovejoy ([1936], Ch. IV), the
Renaissance idea of a plurality of inhabited worlds in
a physical universe infinite in space owes more to the
persisting force of the principle of plenitude than to
the new Copernican astronomy. The doctrine of an
infinity of worlds, as put forward most notably by
Giordano Bruno, is associated with his interest in the
new astronomy; but it is equally true that this doctrine,
as well as the hypothesis that there is life on these
worlds, could not be deduced from astronomical data
alone. The argument of which Bruno avails himself is
clearly a development of the principle of plenitude.
We may not think that a finite effect comes from an
infinite cause; in God, and therefore in the temporal
order that derives from Him, the possible and the real
coincide. Divine power cannot remain idle, divine
goodness cannot but be infinitely diffused, being infi-
nitely communicable. God, then, is a fertile father
(padre fecondo), endowed with an illimitable genera-
tive capacity (capacissimo di innumerevoli mondi),
as found in De l'infinito universo previous hit e next hit mondi (1584),
Dial. I.

Descartes' authority, in the course of the seventeenth
century, lends support to this rejection of the idea of
the universe as a finite and self-contained sphere; and
the idea of a plurality of inhabited worlds is given great
currency in Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des
mondes
(1686).

2. The Full Universe of Leibniz. The diffusion of
the idea of a Chain of Being in eighteenth-century
thought was certainly and decisively aided by the
success of Leibniz, a great advocate of the principle
of plenitude and continuity, which he posited as a
correlative of the principle of sufficient reason. Leib-
niz, in one of his letters to Samuel Clarke (1715-16),
writes:

The least corpuscle is actually subdivided infinitely, and
contains a world of other creatures, of which the universe
would be deprived, if that corpuscle were an atom, that
is, a body of one entire piece without subdivision. In like
manner, to say that there is a vacuum in nature would be


328

to attribute to God a most imperfect production; it would
be to violate the great principle of the necessity of a suffi-
cient reason...

(Leibniz Selections, p. 236).

And elsewhere (De synthesi et analysi universali) the
principle of sufficient reason, whence flows, among
other things, the fullness of the universe, is defined as
one of the greatest and most fertile truths of human
cognition, since it assures us that all truths, even the
most contingent, have an a priori proof, i.e., a reason
for which they are rather than are not. This bond had
already been established by Leibniz in the Elementa
philosophiae arcanae
(1676): the principle of the har-
mony of things requires that there exist the greatest
possible quantity of essence. There is no gap among
forms; it is not possible to find an empty space or time.
Every particle of matter contains infinite creatures (cf.
also the so-called First Truths, Primae veritates [1686]).

The argument is drawn out at length in two other
writings of Leibniz: De rerum originatione radicali
(1697) and the Principes de la nature et de la grâce
(1718, posthumous). “Not only in no one of the singular
things”—writes Leibniz in the first of these, “but nei-
ther in the whole aggregate and series of things, can
one find a sufficient reason for their existence (nam
non tantum in nullo singulorum, sed nec in toto aggre-
gato serieque rerum inveniri potest sufficiens ratio ex-
istendi
). The world's reasons must therefore be sought
in something extra-worldly, different from the succes-
sion of states, or series of things, the aggregate of which
constitutes the world (rationes igitur mundi in aliquo
extra-mundano, differente a catena statuum, seu serie
rerum, quarum aggregatum mundum constituit
).” We
must go back, then, from the physical necessity of
things to their metaphysical necessity—which would
be precisely their sufficient reason. Leibniz goes on:

In possible things, or in their very possibility or essence,
there is an exigency to exist, or (so to speak) claim to exist;
in a word,... essence of itself tends towards existence.
Whence it follows that all possible things... tend with
equal right towards existence in proportion to their quantity
of essence or reality, or according to the grade of perfection
they contain; for perfection is nothing but the quantity of
essence.

Thus, given only that there is a reason for the passage
from possibility to actuality, it will follow that a maxi-
mum of reality will be actualized. In other words every
possibility has an “impulsion (conatus) to be real”; and
the sole restriction in the passage from the possible
to the actual is that imposed by the criterion of “com-
possibility,” the reciprocal compatibility of possi-
bilities. From the conflict of all the possibilities which
severally seek existence, the result will be the existence
of the maximal series of all possibilities.

The argument is taken up again in the Principes,
in relation to the problem of the monads. All is full
in nature; every monad is a living mirror that reflects
the universe; and there is an infinity of degrees in
monads, les unes dominant plus ou moins sur les autres
(ibid., pp. 3-4). The sufficient reason for the existence
of the universe cannot reside in the series of contingent
things, but only in God, from whose perfection it
follows that from the impulse towards existence proper
to all essences, the most perfect of possible worlds will
result. Without that we should be unable to say why
things are, and why they are as they are (ibid., pp.
7-10).

3. Ethico-political Consequences of the Idea of the
Chain of Being in the Eighteenth Century.
It is Leib-
niz, as we know, who draws from the idea of a Chain
of Being, and particularly from the principle of pleni-
tude, those optimistic consequences already implicit—
consequences which for that matter did not escape
others before him, for example, Giordano Bruno (cf.
De immenso [1591], II, 13). Already in the De rerum
originatione radicali
(1697), Leibniz passes from the
principle of sufficient reason to the perfection of the
world:

... from what has been said it follows that the world is
most perfect, not only physically, or, if one prefers, meta-
physically, because that series of things has been produced
in which there is actually a maximum of reality, but also
that it is most perfect morally.... The world is not only
the most admirable mechanism but insofar as it is composed
of souls, it is also the best republic, through which the
greatest measure of happiness and joy is conferred upon
these souls, in which their physical perfection consists

(Leibniz Selections, p. 351).

Experience seems to show the opposite: particularly
if we consider the conduct of mankind, the world seems
rather chaotic than ordered by a supreme wisdom. But,
objects Leibniz, it is not fair to judge the whole by
the part. We know only a small part of an eternity
infinitely extended, namely the extent of the memory
of a few millennia handed down by history. And yet
from such scant experience we rashly judge what is
immense and eternal. It is as if we were to examine
a tiny portion of a painting and discern there nothing
but a confused mass of colors without design and with-
out art. In the universe, in short, the part can be
disturbed without prejudice to the whole, which will
inevitably escape whomever, like man, has only a
partial vision of things. The theme is taken up again
by Leibniz on many occasions in the Théodicée (1710)
and in the Principes (1718).

We have seen how the principle of plenitude—by
virtue of which all possible things pass into actual
existence (the criterion of compossibility being the only


329

limiting factor)—was connected, in Leibniz, with that
of sufficient reason. Of this latter principle Lovejoy
([1936], pp. 145-49, 165-80) gives an interpretation
intended to show its affinity with Spinoza's kind of
determinism. According to Lovejoy, the principle of
sufficient reason, with its criterion of compossibility as
sole restriction in the passage from the possible to the
actual, is not substantially different from the universal
necessity of Spinoza; and absolute logical determinism
would then be characteristic of the thought of both.

This interpretation of the principle of sufficient rea-
son and of the consequent justification of moral and
physical evil helps clarify the special nature of Leib-
nizian “optimism,” and in general of eighteenth-
century optimism of Leibnizian derivation; and also
helps explain how it could coexist with a description
of man's place in the universe which certainly does
not seem, at first, to encourage an optimistic vision
of the human condition. It was not a question of deny-
ing the existence of evil but rather of showing the
necessity for it—and this was done in the face of the
most dismal and grim descriptions of a natural and
moral reality in which this same passage from possi-
bility to reality shaped up as a struggle for existence.
This is a recurrent motif in the theological and moral
writings of the time, and there is an echo of it in Pope's
Essay on Man (1734), a great popularizer of the idea
of the Chain of Being and its implications. The contrast
between such avowed optimism and this taste for the
grimmest descriptions of the human condition did not
escape Voltaire, the most famous critic of the optimism
of his day: Vous criez “Tout est bien” d'une voix lamen-
table,
he observed; and he invited his adversaries to
cease proposing the immutable laws of necessity as
explanation of evil.

In this plan of a perfect universe in which outrageous
(and necessary) afflictions of individuals are embraced
and given a new value in the law of universal harmony,
a not inconsistent feature was the idea that man, far
from being the king of creation and the measure of
all things, was a mere link in the Chain of Being,
infinitely farther from the highest grades of creation
than he is above the lowest of creatures. This too is
a recurrent motif in the literature of the time.

An argument in favor of political conservatism fol-
lowed from all of this: if the perfection of the divine
plan requires a universe ordered in a hierarchy of
beings, each destined to occupy a place in the scale
of creatures so that all gradations are filled, then the
same law should prevail in the world of men, or the
moral universe: the norm of behavior should be to live
in keeping with one's condition, without subverting any
order of society which, like a microcosm, reflects the
very order of the universe.