|Evans Experientialism Evans Experientialism Evans Experientialism|
Athenaeum Reading Room
On God's Intervention and On Metaphysics
Nicolas de Malebranche
Nicolas de Malebranche was born in Paris in 1638. After early studies in his paternal home he studied philosophy in the college of Marche, and theology at the Sorbonne. In 1660 he entered the Oratory, where he came under the strong influence of the thought of St. Augustine which predominated there. But his enthusiasm for Descartes was stronger, and he became an admirer of the father of modern philosophy. He published De la recherche de la verite (On the Search for Truth) in 1674. It was well received, and caused considerable discussion. His other works can be considered as developments of the doctrine of this, his masterpiece. He died in 1715.
On God's Intervention
You cannot of yourself move your arm or alter your position, situation, posture, do to other men good or evil, or effect the least change in the world. You find yourself in the world, without any power, immovable as a rock, stupid, so to speak, as a log of wood. Let your soul be united to your body as closely as you please, let there come about a union between it and all the bodies of your environment. What advantage would you derive from this imaginary union? What would you do in order merely to move the tip of your finger, or to utter even a monosyllable? Alas! unless God came to your aid, your efforts would be vain, the desires which you formed impotent; for just think, do you know what is necessary for the pronunciation of your best friend's name, or for bending or holding up that particular finger which you use most? But let us suppose that you know quite well. what no one knows, about which even some scientists are not agreed, namely, that the arm can be moved only by means of the animal spirits, which flowing along the nerves to the muscles make them contract and draw towards themselves the bones to which they are attached. Let us suppose that you are acquainted with the anatomy and the action of your mechanism as well as a clockmaker is acquainted with his handiwork. But, at any rate, remember the principle that no one but the Creator of bodies can be their mover. This principle is sufficient to bind, indeed to annihilate, all your boasted faculties; for, after all, the animal spirits are bodies, however small they may be. They are, indeed, nothing but the subtlest parts of the blood and the humors. God alone, then, is able to move these small bodies. He alone knows how to make them flow from the brain along the nerves, from the nerves through the muscles, from one muscle to its antagonist -- all of which is necessary for the movement of our limbs. It follows that, notwithstanding the conjunction of soul and body in whatever way it may please you to imagine it, you would be dead and inert if it were not for the fact that God wills to adapt his volitions to yours -- His volitions, which are always effective, to your desires, which are always impotent. This then is the solution of the mystery. All creatures are united to God alone in an immediate union. They depend essentially and directly upon Him. Being all alike equally impotent, they cannot be in reciprocal dependence upon one another. One may, indeed, say that they are united to one another and that they depend upon one another. I grant this, provided it is not understood in the ordinary and vulgar sense of the term, provided that one agrees that they are so only in consequence of the immutable and ever effective will of the Creator, only in consequence of the general laws which He has established, and by means of which He regulates the ordinary course of His providence. God has willed that my arm shall be set in motion at the instant that I will it myself (given the necessary conditions). His will is efficacious. His will is immutable, it alone is the source of my power and faculties. He has willed that I should experience certain feelings, certain emotions, whenever there are present in my brain certain traces, or whenever a certain disturbance takes place therein. In a word. He has willed -- He wills incessantly -- that the modifications of the mind and those of the body shall be reciprocal. This is the conjunction and the natural dependence of the two parts of which we are constituted. It is but the mutual and reciprocal dependence of our modifications based on the unshakable foundation of the divine decrees -- decrees which through their efficacy endow me with the power which I have over my body, and through it over certain other bodies -- decrees which through their immutability unite me with my body, and through it to my friends, my possessions, my whole environment. I derive nothing whatever from my own nature, nothing from the nature imagined by the philosophers -- all comes from God and His decrees. God has linked together all His works, though He has not on that account produced in them entities charged with the function of union. He has subordinated them to one another without endowing them with active qualities. The latter are but the vain pretensions of human pride, the chimerical productions of the philosophers' ignorance. Men's senses being affected by the presence of objects, their minds being moved by the inner feeling which they have of their own movements, they have not recognized the invisible operations of the Creator, the uniformity of His mode of action, the fruitfulness of His laws, the ever-present efficacy of His volitions, the infinite wisdom of His providence. Do not say any more that your soul is united to your body more intimately than to anything else; since its immediate union is with God alone, since the divine decrees are the indissoluble bonds of union between the various parts of the universe and of the marvelous network of all the subordinate causes.
Theotimus: But let us return to metaphysics. Our soul is not united to our body in the ordinary sense of these terms. It is immediately and directly united to God alone. It is through the efficacy of His action alone that the three of us are here together; nay, more, that we all share the same opinion, are penetrated by the same truth, animated, it seems to me, by the same spirit, kindled with the same enthusiasm. God joins us together by means of the body, in consequence of the laws of the communication of movements. He affects us with the same feelings in consequence of the laws of the conjunction of body and soul. But, Aristes, how comes it about that we are so strongly united in mind? Theodore utters some words unto your ears. These are but the air struck by the organs of the voice. God transforms, so to speak, this air into words, into various sounds. He makes you understand these various sounds through the modifications by which you are affected. But where do you get the sense of the words from? Who is it that discloses to you and to myself the same truth as Theodore is contemplating? If the air which He forces back when speaking does not contain the sounds you hear, assuredly it will not contain the truths which you understand.
Aristes: I follow you, Theotimus. We are united in mind because all of us are united to the universal Reason which illumines all intelligences. I am wiser than you think. Theodore has already led me to the point to which you wish to conduct me. He has convinced me that there is nothing visible, nothing which can act upon the mind and reveal itself thereto, but the substance of Reason, which is not only efficacious but also intelligent. Yes, nothing that is created can be the immediate object of our knowledge. We see things in this material world, wherein our bodies dwell, only because our mind through its attention lives in another world, only because it contemplates the beauties of the archetypal and intelligible world which Reason contains. As our bodies live upon the earth and find sustenance in the fruits which it produces, so our minds feed on the same truths as the intelligible and immutable substance of the divine Word contains. The words which Theodore utters into my ears urge me, in consequence of the law of the conjunction of soul and body, to be attentive to the truths which he is discovering in the supreme Reason. This turns my mind in the same direction as his. I see what he sees because I look where he looks, and by means of the words whereby I reply to his words, though both alike are, in themselves, devoid of sense, I discuss with him and enjoy with him a good which is common to all, for we are all essentially united to Reason, so united that without it we could enter into no social bond with anyone.
Theotimus: Your reply, Aristes, surprises me extremely. How, knowing all that you are now telling me, could you reply to Theodore that we are united to our body more intimately than to anything else?
Aristes: I did so because one is inclined to say only what is present to the memory, and because abstract truths do not present themselves to the mind so naturally as those that one has heard all one's life. When I have meditated as much as Theotimus I shall speak no more in mechanical fashion, but regulate my words in accordance with the deliverances of inner truth. I understand then now, and I shall not forget it all my life, that we are united immediately and directly to God. It is in the light of His wisdom that He makes us see the magnificence of His works, the model upon which He forms them, the immutable art which regulates their mechanism and movements, and it is through the efficacy of His will that He unites us to our body, and through our body to all those in our environment.
Theodore: You might add that it is through the love which He bears to Himself that He communicates to us that invincible enthusiasm which we have for the Good. But of this we shall speak on another occasion. It is sufficient for the present that you are quite convinced that the mind can be united immediately and directly to God alone, that we can have no intercourse with created beings except by the power of the Creator, which is communicated to us only in consequence of His laws, and that we can enter into no social union amongst ourselves and with Him except through the Reason with which He is consubstantial. This once granted, you will see that it is of the highest importance for us to try to acquire some knowledge of the attributes of this supreme Being, since we are so much dependent upon Him; for, after all. He acts upon us necessarily according to His nature. His mode of activity must bear the character of His attributes. Not only must our duties tend towards His perfections, but our whole course of action ought to be so regulated in accordance with His that we may take the proper measures for the realization of our purposes, and that we may find a combination of causes which is favorable to these designs. In this connection, faith and experience teach us many truths by means of the short-cut of authority and by the proofs of very pleasant and agreeable feelings. But all this intelligence does not give us forthwith; it ought to be the fruit and the recompense of our work and application. For the rest, being made to know and love God, it is clear that there is no occupation which is preferable to the meditation upon the divine perfections which should animate us with charity and regulate all the duties of a rational creature.
Aristes: I understand quite well, Theodore, that the worship which God demands from minds is a spiritual worship. It consists in being full of the knowledge of Him, full of love of Him, in forming judgments of Him which are worthy of His attributes, and in regulating in accordance with His will all the movements of our heart. For God is spirit and He wishes to be worshipped in spirit and in truth but 1 must confess that I am extremely afraid lest I should form judgments on the divine perfections which would dishonor them. Is it not better to honor them by silence and admiration, and to devote ourselves solely to investigation of the less sublime truths and those which are more in proportion to the capacity of our minds?
Theodore: How do you mean, Aristes? You are not thinking of what you are saying. We are made to know and love God. Do you mean, then, to say that you do not want us to think of Him, speak of Him, I might even add worship Him? We ought, you say, to worship Him by silence and admiration. Yes by a respectful silence which the contemplation of His greatness imposes upon us, by a religious silence to which the glory of His majesty reduces us, by a silence forced upon us, so to speak, due to our impotence, and not having as its source a criminal negligence or a misguided curiosity to know, instead of Him, objects less worthy of our application. What do you admire in the Divine if you know nothing of Him? How could you love Him if you did not contemplate Him? How can we instruct one another in charity if we banish from our discussion Him whom you have just recognized as the soul of all the intercourse which we have with one another, as the bond of our little society? Assuredly, Aristes, the more you know the supreme Being, the more you will admire His infinite perfections. Do not fear lest you should meditate too much upon Him and speak of Him in an unworthy way, providing you are led by faith. Do not fear lest you should entertain false opinions of Him so long as they are in conformity with the notion of the infinitely perfect Being. You will not dishonor the divine perfections by judgments unworthy of them, provided you never judge of Him by yourself, provided you do not ascribe to the Creator the imperfections and limitations of created beings. Think of this, therefore. 1, too, shall think of it, and I hope Theotimus will do so likewise. That is necessary for the development of the principle which I think I ought to put before you. We shall meet tomorrow then, at the usual hour, for it is time for me to leave.
Aristes: Adieu, Theodore. I beg of you, Theotimus, that the three of us should meet at the hour arranged.
Theotimus: I am going with Theodore but I shall come back with him, as you desire it. Ah, Theodore, how changed Aristes is! He is attentive, he scoffs no more, he is no longer a stickler for forms -- in a word, he listens to reason and submits to it in good faith.
those which are more in proportion to the capacity of our minds?
Theodore: That is true, but his prejudices still come in the way and somewhat confuse his ideas. Reason and prejudice both have their turn in what he says. Now truth makes him speak, now memory plays tricks upon him. But his imagination dares no longer to revolt. This indicates that he is sound at heart and encourages me a good deal.
Theotimus: What do you expect, Theodore? Prejudices are not easily got rid of as an old coat which is no longer thought of. It seems to me that we have been like Aristes, for we were not born but became philosophers. It will be necessary to repeat to him the great principles ceaselessly, in order that he should think of them so often that his mind will obtain mastery over them, and that in the moment of need they may occur to him quite naturally.
Theodore: That is what I have been trying to do hitherto. But this makes it difficult for him, for he loves detail and variety of thoughts. I beg of you always to dwell upon the necessity of a thorough understanding of principles, in order to stop the vivacity of his mind, and please do not forget to meditate upon the subject of our discussion