No Comment, Quotation — June 12, 2010, 6:06 am

Leibniz – The Radical Origin of Things

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Picturam pulcherrimam intueamur, hanc totam tegamus demta exigua particula, quid aliud in hac apparebit, etiamsi penitissime intueare, imo quanto magis intuebere de propinquo, quam confusa quædam congeries colorum sine delectu, sine arte, et tamen ubi remoto tegumento, totam Tabulam eo quo convenit situ intuebere, intelliges, quod temere illitum linteo videbatur, summo artificio ab operis autore factum fuisse. Quod oculi in pictura, idem aures in Musica deprehendunt. Egregii scilicet componendi artifices dissonantias sæpissime consonantiis miscent ut excitetus auditor et quasi pungatur, et veluti anxius de eventu, mox omnibus in ordinem restitutis, tanto magis lætetur, prorsus ut gaudeamus periculis exiguis vel malorum experimentis ipso vel potentiæ vel felicitatis nostræ sensu vel ostentamento….

If we examine a beautiful picture, obscuring all but a tiny patch of it, more will appear in it, but the more we focus on that small patch the more it appears to be but a confused combination of colors lacking true beauty or artistic conception. Let us then remove the cover and examine the picture from a distance appropriate to its appreciation, and then what seemed but a meaningless blotch upon the canvas is revealed to be a stroke of great artistry done by the work’s author. And as the eyes experience a graphic work, so the ears appreciate a work of music. A great composer may incorporate a dissonant chord with his harmonies with the purpose of stimulating his listener, in a matter of speaking to sting him, so that he becomes engaged with the work and concerned about its resolution to proper order. In a like manner we may appreciate perils or even the experience of evil because of the very fact that they give us a sense of empowerment or indeed ostentation…

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, De rerum originatione radicali (1697) in Die philosophischen Schriften, vol. 7, pp. 306-07 (C.J. Gerhardt ed. 1978)(S.H. transl.)


When Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss mouths his signature line–”all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (“tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes“)–he is of course ridiculing Leibniz and his theory of theodicy. Like his contemporaries Malebranche and Arnauld, Leibniz was engaged in an effort to reconcile belief in God with the presence of evil in the world (including natural disasters, like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755). He seeks to answer the question why would a loving omnipotent God create a world so filled with pain and suffering? But Voltaire never really captures his answer, and certainly Pangloss doesn’t. Candide is a brilliant, entertaining work. It is a work of satire. And like much satire, it doesn’t treat its subject with much objectivity. Suggesting that a world filled with evil, misery and natural disasters is the “best of all possible worlds” seems ridiculous, and it is. It is also far from Leibniz’s meaning. His view about the natural role of evil and pain in the world is far more subtle.

Leibniz’s understanding seems to echo the thinking of classical philosophy–on the other side of the world. Consider the yin-yang (??) concept taken from classical Chinese philosophy and developed in texts like the Book of Changes, and particularly the taijitu (???) symbol: it presents a sphere divided between competing forces–which may, especially in the Confucian tradition, be seen as opposed moral forces, good and evil. The essence of this image lies in its notion of balance or harmony. The two forces can only be defined with reference to one another, and the idea that either of them can exist in a pure form is false (for this reason the image incorporates a dot of yin in the yang and vice versa). Classical Chinese philosophy does not of course present the yin-yang as a portrait of good and evil in the Western theological sense. By the same token, Leibniz does not see the world as a Zoroastrian struggle between good and evil; he takes a Christian perspective in which a divinely created world includes evil with the good. But the essential realizations of the Chinese classical approach can be found lurking deep in the folds in Leibniz’s writings, and they help us understand why Dr. Pangloss, the self-described disciple of Leibniz, obviously doesn’t understand his master very well.

One of the clearest demonstrations of Leibniz’s approach comes in his discussion of art in On the Radical Origin of Things, an essay from 1697. He talks about painting and music principally. In great art, he notes, a patch of a painting observed up close may look crude, dark or senseless. Only with the appropriate distance and viewed in the broader context of the entire artwork does the patch make sense. Similarly, he points to the use of dissonance in a musical composition. It is a means by which a composer can grab the listener’s attention, he argues, but it inspires a desire for resolution–for the restoration of a harmony.

The classical Chinese philosophers speak of “balance” but for Leibniz the governing concept is “harmony.” Steven Nadler, writing in his masterful book on the seventeenth century debates on theodicy, The Best of All Possible Worlds, puts it this way: “If God’s choice of a world results in a maximization of any single value, this is it: ‘Harmony is just this: a certain simplicity in multiplicity. Beauty and pleasure also consist in this. So for things to exist is the same as for them to be understood by God to be the best, i.e., the most harmonious.’”

Whatever its ultimate philosophical value (which in any event is far more serious than Voltaire seems to allow), these thoughts provide deep insight into the aesthetic theory of the Baroque era, for its very essence is simplicity in multiplicity.


Listen to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quartet No. 19 in C Major, KV 465 (“Dissonance”)(1785) in a performance by the Calder Quartet. This is the last of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and it reflects extraordinary attention to detail, rethinking and correction–as appears both from the heavily edited holograph and Mozart’s own notation, il frutto di una lunga e laboriosa fatica (“the fruit of a long and difficult work.”) Is the title “dissonance,” derived from the adagio introduction, really appropriate? In fact, Mozart produces a serious and complex harmony which only becomes apparent as the movement develops. This is precisely what Leibniz means when he talks about dissonance in a composition being resolved into harmony.

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