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Is ‘nothing’ relative? (IX): How Leibniz should have posed the ‘ultimate why-question’

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

The previous posts of this series:

In the first post of this series I had quoted Leibniz’s question in the “Principes de la Nature et de la Grace fondés en Raison” (1714) “[…] pourquoi il y a plus tôt quelque chose que rien”, why there is something rather than nothing. The subsequent posts have explored how the concepts of ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ were used before Leibniz in philosophical and theological theories of the creation. Now it is time to ask how the different perspectives on ‘nothing’ in creation can be applied to Leibniz’s question itself. The basic idea of my approach is to reconstruct how an ‘ideal reader’ of Leibniz’s text may have understood the range of options in interpreting the question.

For this, it should be noted that Leibniz adds an explanation, why this question may make sense: “Car le rien est plus simple et plus facile, que quelque chose.” ‘Nothing’ is more simple and ‘easier’ than ‘something’. In this post I want to (1) briefly summarise the main candidates for interpreting ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in the context of creation. I will then test (2), which of these options is compatible with asking the ‘ultimate why-question’ and (3) discuss, which of the remaining options fits with Leibniz’s explanation for why the ‘ultimate why-question’ is worth asking.

'Something' and 'nothing' in scholastic thought

For the Thomists, ‘nothing’ is just the starting point (terminus a quo) of creation, whereas ‘something’ refers to self-subsistent things (res secundum se tota). So there are no intermediary steps in creation. ‘Nothing’ is just a shorthand name for the fact that nothing existed before creation (nihil praeexistere ante productionem).

This view rests on the presupposition that everything that is neither God nor nothing has been created. This is true for first exemplars of natural kinds. Subsequent individuals of the same kind have been generated from these first exemplars. Then creatio ex nihilo is the only strategy to avoid an infinite ‘regress of generation’, since it allows to distinguish clearly between (natural) generation and (supernatural) creation.

However, the Thomist view neglects two alternative options: ‘Nothing’ in creation can itself be the result of an act of God. And there may be entities that have neither been created nor can they be identified with God, e. g. God’s mental or volitional states. The first option is explored by those thinkers who advance matter as a candidate for the ‘nothing’ before creation, the second option is taken up by Scotists.

Scotists hold that ‘nothing’ must be understood as the presence of the essence of created substances in the Divine mind (what they call esse cognitum or esse volitum of the respective substance). But then it is not obvious how to understand that the world is made ‘from’ (ex) this kind of ‘nothing’, i. e. how cognitional or volitional states of a Divine mind can be prior to created substances that are the object of such cognitive or volitional representations.

The Scotist argument for this is based on a distinction between God’s thought or will and His ‘creative potency’. This premiss leaves room for the following thought experiment: We can imagine a world in which God does not activate His creative potency: He chooses not to not operate ad extra. In such a world, there would be ‘non-being’, namely the being of possible substances in the Divine mind or will, but no ‘being’, i. e. the results of God’s creative potency making up a world independent of His thought.

The Scotist position is instructive for two reasons: (1) The same sort of reasoning can be applied to a world in which there is only matter and no form (because a world without form is a world without causality and vice versa, and such a world is not per se incoherent or logically impossible). (2) This ‘priority by nature’ allows for an atemporal, emanative understanding of creation. Both options were explored by ‘heterodox’ early modern theories of creation.

Matter as nothing

I concentrate on five thinkers from the late 16th and early 17th century who took a stance on the role of matter in creation and who were known to Leibniz, as a quick search in the Schriftenverzeichnis of the Leibniz-Forschungsstelle Münster shows.

Nicolaus Taurellus (1573) wants us to distinguish strictly between natural and supernatural aspects or explanations of the world. Supernatural agency in the world is no topic for natural philosophy. He uses the example of miraculous intervention after the world has been created: If God makes a mouse into an elephant, this miracle is no act of ‘supernatural generation’, relying on preexistent natural matter that is merely formed into a new individual. The additional matter required for ‘building’ an elephant out of a mouse must itself be created by God and did not exist before. It is created from ‘non-being’ in the ‘philosophical’ sense (Taurellus calls this the ‘nihil philosophicum’). The same distinction applies to the first stages of creation: Prime matter is itself created by God and then transformed into a world composed of self-subsistent substances.

For Taurellus, prime matter is a ‘theological nothing’ (nihil theologicum). Itis a theological nothing, because Theologians are interested in the creation of ‘visible and invisible things’ (visibilia et invisibilia). In other words, theologians, like Thomists, concentrate on the creation of self-subsistent, complete things. Prime matter does not fall into this category, it is neither visible nor invisible, so it is irrelevant in theological accounts of creation.

Prime matter is theologically speaking nothing, because it has ‘negative infinity’, i. e. it does not put up any resistance to being formed by God and it does not contribute causally to the creation of visible or invisible things. Even though it is ‘technically’ (i. e. philosophically) speaking not nothing, it can be regarded as such, because apparently the theologian is only concerned with causal efficacy in creation.

Einhard Lubinus (1599) agrees with the view that prime matter is nothing, but he refuses the distinction between philosophical and theological concepts of ‘nothingness’ and believes that prime matter is uncreated. This corresponds to his conviction that as such matter is evil which is the foundation of his theodicy.

Everything that is created by God is not perfectly self-subsistent: it retains ‘seeds of nothingness’ and must be conserved by God. So created beings are at the same time ‘something’ (because they are ‘more’ than prime matter) and ‘nothing’ (because they depend for their continued existence on Divine intervention and are by themselves ‘attracted to nothingness’). Absolute ‘nothingness’, i. e. prime matter, remains ‘active’ in finite beings, so they have an inherent tendency to be annihilated that must be balanced by conservation in God.

Clemens Timpler (1605) denies that creation is creatio ex nihilo. If the world has been created from pre-existent matter, it does not make sense to say that is has been created from nothing, because this would imply that, as we have seen in Taurellus’s example of the elephant and the mouse, some material things have no material cause. Nevertheless Timpler agrees with Taurellus that we must distinguish two steps in creation: ‘immediate’ and ‘mediate’ creation. For the question why God chose to create matter first, there cannot be an answer: this is what He wanted to do.

Bartholomäus Keckermann (1603) turns Timpler’s model upside down (both had been friends while studying in Heidelberg). He accepts that ‘mediate creation’ requires unformed matter. But unformed matter is just matter that is naturally unfit for the substance to be created. The prime example for ‘mediate creation’ is the clay Adam was made off. Other ‘run-of-the-mill’ substances are created ex nihilo.

Those who assume that prime matter plays a role in creation must face what one could call the ‘dough-objection’: God is no baker that is forced first to mix ingredients into an amorphous mass (dough) before making what He really wants (bread). God creates order, not confusion. Prime matter is created as a part of substances together with their form.

Athanasius Kircher (1660) seems to synthesise previous approaches to the problem of creation by describing it as a four-step process. He explicitly accepts Thomist radicalism about ‘nothing’, although he seems to think that it is compatible with the Scotist assumption that the world before creation does exist in the Divine mind. At a definite point of time God creates heaven and earth, presumably as mind-independent entities. Creation of the heavens is equivalent to the creation of empty space (spacium imaginarium). Creation of the earth is equivalent to the creation of chaos, prime matter. Earth contains everything that will come into existence in the further development of the world: Forms exist as seeds in matter that is endowed with a spiritual, but material ‘seminal power’ (virtus seminalis, panspermia) or principle. Chaos is (paradoxically) a rather structured affair.

Kircher agrees with Lubinus that matter is a ‘shadow’ (I read that as ‘representation’) of ‘nothingness’. So the complete void before creation, the existence of the world in the Divine mind, space, and prime matter all count in the eyes of Kircher’s contemporaries as ‘nothing’. However, this creatio nihili evolves gradually into states that are ‘less nothing’ than their respective predecessor: Space is ‘more being’ than the existence of the world in the Divine mind, ‘matter’ is ‘more being’ than empty space, ‘matter endowed with powers to evolve naturally’ is ‘more being’ than empty space.

'Emanative' creation

Emanative theories of creation can be found e. g. in the Kabbala denudata, a collection of translations from and commentary on the so-called ‘Lurianic Kabbala’, edited between 1677 and 1684 by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. The texts in this collection provides two models of ‘emanative creation’, one that seems to presuppose the spatial extension of God (Knorr), the other denying creatio ex nihilo alltogether (van Helmont). So either God creates a vacuous space in order to emanate creatures into this space, or emanation is non-spatial, leaving no room for creatio ex nihilo. Both views are criticised by Henry More.

Knorr argues for the doctrine of zimzum: In creation, God does not expand Himself, but retreats from his own center, leaving a spherical vacuum that is the location of all further creative or emanative processes. More’s main objection against this view is that it makes God an impenetrable (and not merely extended) entity, because it presupposes that a place where God is present cannot be at the same time filled with matter. This suggests that God is material, too.

Van Helmont endorses Spiritualism. Everything that is directly ‘created’ by God is a spirit, whereas matter is an aggregate of spirits in a state of ‘sleep’ (sopor). Spirits, however, do not have themselves a material cause. Hence it is misguided to assume that they are created ‘out of’ (ex) something, because the preposition ‘ex' refers to material causation.

For More, van Helmont’s spiritualism is self-contradictory, because it presupposes the ‘discerptibility’ of the Divine substance. Since spirits cannot have a material cause, they must be parts of the Divine substance. Since spirits can be in different places, this means that the Divine substance itself can be divided into pieces that occupy a place in the world. Van Helmont counters this objection by pointing out that spirits are ‘states’ of the Divine substance and therefore separable, but not fully separate.

If creation has no material substrate and if spirits are states of the Divine substance, emanation cannot be a succession of events in the temporal order: Both the process and its results are coeternal with God. Although God cannot be prior in time, He can be prior ordine naturae (whether this is to be read in the Scotist sense, remains, however, unclear).

The question whether there is an ‘absolute nothing’ in creation is highly controversial. The Thomists and Keckermann answer in the affirmative. For them, the result of creation (‘something’) consists in (an aggregate of) self-subsistent substances. Scotists disagree: the ‘nothing’ in creation denotes states of the Divine mind. A ‘something’ is the result of God’s creative potency that involves more than being present to the Divine mind.

Another candidate for ‘nothing’ in creation is matter. It is taken either to be created (Taurellus, Timpler, Kircher) or uncreated (Lubinus). It if is uncreated, this leads into paradoxes, because, as Taurellus points out, it must then undergo a change in creation. But a being that is both eternal and mutable is self-contradictory. If matter is itself creeated, we must accept that God is capable of creating ‘nothing’.

This conclusion is willingly accepted by Knorr: The first ‘nothing’ in creation is empty space. For van Helmont, ‘nothing’ is an empty concept. He denies that the world originates in creatio ex nihilo. Superficially, Timpler seems to agree, but this is a purely linguistic point: Timpler reserves ‘creation’ for processes leading to self-subsistent substances. But he accepts that matter is ‘created’ ex nihilo. Van Helmont takes the more radical position that there are only ‘somethings’ in the world.

Something, nothing, and the ‘ultimate why-question

Since we know now the range of options for understanding the dichotomy between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in creation, we are now in a position to clarify their relation to Leibniz’s formulation. The first interesting result is that is not possible to pose the question in terms of Kircher, Knorr or van Helmont.

In the case of Kircher, there are too many versions of the question why there is something rather than nothing and none of them is privileged. It could be asked why there is structured matter rather than empty space, why there are ‘real things’ rather than structured matter, why there is empty space rather than God’s representation of the world etc. So Kircher’s attempt to bridge the gap between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ prevents him from asking a question that opposes them without any intermediaries.

Knorr cannot ask why there is something rather than nothing, because the first creative act of God consists precisely in the creation of nothing, so the question should be reversed: Why is there (first) nothing rather than something? For van Helmont, ‘nothing’ is an empty concept. There never was ‘nothing’ at all. It is simply impossible that there ever should have been nothing, if creatio ex nihilo is denied and creation or emanation is understood as an eternal process that coexists with God.

This leaves six possible readings of the ‘ultimate why-question’ that we have to evaluate further. The Thomists have to ask, why self-subsistent substances exist rather than absolute non-being. Scotists must wonder why substances do not only exist in God’s mind or will, but as results of His creative potency. Taurellus, the philosopher, is required to wonder either why there is unformed matter rather than absolute non-being (the contrast between nihil philosophicum and aliquid philosophicum). Taurellus, the theologian, must ask why there are causally efficient substances (visibilia et invisibilia) rather than unformed matter (the nihil theologicum). For Timpler, the question is why there is unformed matter rather than absolute non-being. And Lubinus faces the question why being is more powerful than matter.

'Plus simple, plus facile'

This leads us to the second stage of our test which readings of the dichotomy are compatible with Leibniz’s formulation of the ‘ultimate why-question’, namely whether they are compatible with the argument Leibniz gives for a conceivable ‘universe of nothing’: Nothing is more simple and done more easily.

The first requirement is met by all theories, because creation involves for all of them an increase in complexity (being is less simple than non-being, real substances are less simple than mere matter, being a result of God’s creative potency is less simple than being in a state of the Divine mind or will). The second requirement is more difficult: The only way for me to make sense of it is to read it as ‘facile à faire’, ‘easy to achieve’. This would imply that, for Leibniz, a state in which there is nothing requires less ‘Divine effort’ than a state in which something exists. So ‘nothing’ as well as ‘something’ must be a result of Divine agency.

On this reading, the dichotomy between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ cannot be understood in the Thomist sense, because, for the Thomist, ‘nothing’ is not the result of something God wants or does. For the Scotist, this seems to be different, if we accept that God may want to have certain representations or volitional attitudes towards objects. But some doubts remain: What are we to make of God’s omnipotence, if to activate his ‘creative potency’ is ‘less easy’ than merely thinking of substances? A reading of the ‘ultimate why-question’ on Scotist terms reduces it to a problem of natural theology, namely the question why God chose to create things and was not content with merely representing them. If this is what Leibniz wanted to ask, it is what he should have asked rather than clouding his question in a dichotomy that is prima facie unrelated to the question.

Three versions of the dichotomy remain that allow to ask the ‘ultimate why-question’ in a meaningful way, namely the view of Taurellus, the philosopher, according to which God created first unformed matter out of absolute nothing, the view of Taurellus, the theologian, according to which causally efficient substances are created out of unformed matter, Timpler’s theory that God properly created only unformed matter, and the view expressed by Lubinus that both ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are present in finite beings. This leads to the following three valid versions of the ‘ultimate why-question’:

  1. Why is there unformed matter rather than absolute non-being?

  2. Why is there a world consisting of causally efficient substances rather than unformed matter?

  3. Why is ‘being’ more powerful in finite substances than ‘non-being’, i. e. uncreated matter?

Versions 1 and 2 look at the world taken as a whole, as it has been created by God. ‘Something’ in this reading is the totality of matter or a world composed of real substances. Version 3 focuses on individual finite substances, asking about the proportion between two opposite principles that allows them to exist. Versions 1 and 2 are ‘historical’: They ask for the reasons or causes of a determinate event in time, namely creation. Version 3 is ‘metaphysical’, wondering about the reasons for there being something here and now. Versions 1 and 2 are closely related, since they both rely on a distinction between properly philosophical and theological interpretations of creation. Version 1 is the philosophical view, proposed by Taurellus as philosopher and Timpler. Version 2 is the theological view, focusing on the creation of the world around us. The main difference between version 1 and 2 on one side and version 3 on the other side concerns the reading of “plus tôt”. Version 1 and 2 are close to the traditional way to render this phrase in English, ‘rather than’ (‘why there is smoething rather than nothing’). Version 3 relies on a literal understanding, ‘more’ (‘why there is more something than nothing’).

So if we read Leibniz’s version of the ‘ultimate why-question’ on the background of his contemporaries, it is vague in two respects: it does not clarify which meaning is to be given to the terms ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. And his way of putting the question hides an ambiguity related to this dichotomy, whether it is absolute, as the ‘rather than’ reading implies, or whether this contrast is in fact a matter of degree as the ‘more’ reading suggests.

Finally, two short remarks that are slightly off-topic: All theories I have discussed in this series agree in one point that is fairly alien to contemporary thought on the ‘ultimate why-question’. The fact that the world owes its existence to God is given. Early modern philosophers faced the task to find a way how to make philosophy of nature (expressed in the principle ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’) compatible with this central tenet of revealed religion. Today, this order seems to be reversed. The question is used as the ‘philosopher’s stone’ of theism. If it can be shown to be compatible with contemporary science, this is taken as a rational argument for theism. If it can be shown to be meaningless, theism seems to be refuted. I have a ‘gut feeling’ that both camps are misguided - but neither side can enlist Leibniz and his contemporaries as precursors to their own debate.

Another question is more pressing for the early modernist: If the early modern analysis of creation provides the conceptual ressources for asking the ‘ultimate why-question’, why was Leibniz, as far as we can know, the first post-mediaeval thinker to ask it explicitly? An adequate answer to this question might be almost as hard to find as an answer to the ‘ultimate why-question’ itself.

Is ‘nothing’ relative? (I): early modern Thomists on creatio ex nihilo

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

In his “Principes de la Nature et de la Grace fondés en Raison” (1714), Leibniz asks, “pourquoi il y a plus tôt quelque chose que rien”, why there is something rather than nothing. In the following series of blog posts I want to explore how this question would have been interpreted in early modern philosophy and theology before Leibniz (this is intended to grow into a paper to be published in a collection discussing the question historically and systematically). Since it is hard to find precursors to Leibniz’s question in early modern philosophy and theology (suggestions in the comments would be highly appreciated), I have decided to tackle this task somewhat obliquely: ‘quelque chose’ (latin: aliquid) and ‘rien’ (latin: nihil) are complementary terms. How we should understand Leibniz’s question depends on how we interpret these two concepts. And since I read Leibniz as wondering why something rather than nothing exists, it makes sense to examine the usage of these terms in theories of the creatio ex nihilo.


I start my analysis in this post with what most might take to be the orthodox view on the question, namely the Thomist position, as it is articulated e. g. in Vazquez’s influential commentary on the first part of the Summa theologiae: 1 For him, the nihil referred to in the phrase ‘creatio ex nihilo' denotes the 'starting point' (terminus a quo) of creation. Its end result is a complete and self-subsistent thing (res secundum se tota), the aliquid of creation, so to speak. The nihil must not be misunderstood as some sort of pre-existent ‘thing’ that has a role to play in the act of creation. The nihil merely signals that no element of the aliquid has existed before creation (nihil praeexistere ante productionem).2

Coming-into-being that is caused by another pre-existent thing is generation rather than creation proper, i. e. the composition of matter and form to bring about a hylemorphic whole:

Nam quando aliquid rei praecessit, et ea productione non fit, non est creatio; quod illa res non ex nihilo, sed ex aliqui fiat, sive illud sit forma, sive materia, res enim dicitur fieri ex omni eo quod constituitur.3

John of St. Thomas

John of St. Thomas agrees with Vazquez and provides additional arguments. The first is based on the premiss that every being is either caused by another, or it has been created from nothing, or it has not been created at all. If it has not been created at all, it is either God or nothing (because everything that is neither God nor nothing has been created) From this it follows that a more substantial notion of nihil risks either an infinite regress of cause and effect or the existence of an entity besides God that has not been created. Both options are unacceptable.4 The infinite regress arises, because for every given antecedent it can be asked, whether it originates in some other antecedent or whether it has been created ex nihilo:

[…] si omnis productio, et processio rerum est ex aliquo praesupposito, de quocumque praesupposito inquiram an sit ex alio, an ex nihilo, an a se: nec enim est dare medium. Si a se, non est factum, neque creatura; et sic vel erit Deus, vel nihil, quia omne ens vel est creatum vel increatum. Si ex nihilo, habemus intentum quod datur processio alicuius rei ex nihilo. Si ex alio, de illo alio ex quo est, rursus inquiram an sit factum ex alio, vel ex nihilo, vel habeat esse a se; et sic vel deveniemus ad aliquid, quod ex nihilo fit, vel procedemus in infinitum.5

It should be noted that this argument does not take into account that there may be things that are neither per se nor have they been ‘created’ by God. It is at least an open question whether the disjunction forming the premiss of the argument really is complete.

Nevertheless, the second argument is again based on a disjunction: anyone denying creatio ex nihilo must believe that there is a preexisting ‘thing’ that has not been created by God (the subiectum primum), which must be either finite or infinite. If it is infinite, it must be God and has esse a se (it exists without dependence on another thing). But it must be capable of physical change (transmutabilis). This trait is incompatible with infinity: ‘Transmutability’ presupposes a potency in the thing for physical change. Activities based on such dispositional properties are contingent. One example is solubility: A piece of sugar is water-soluble, if it will dissolve in H2O. The realisation of this disposition depends on bringing the piece of sugar into contact with H2O. In a world where there is no liquid solving sugar, solubility of sugar would not exist. In this dispositions differ from categorical properties which are always present in a thing.

God, however, is actus purus - there are no divine dispositions to act, because acts of God cannot depend on contingent circumstances. Hence, a first subject of physical change cannot be infinite, because it must have dispositions to act (or to be acted upon). Everything that is limited in this sense depends on other things for being real: Hence, it is a created thing, its coming-into-being must be based on Divine creation.6

So John of St. Thomas concludes that prime matter (for him the only candidate for a ‘something’ that may exist before creation) has its being from God (materiam primam esse a Deo), because it is no ‘pure nothing’ (purum nihil), but a ‘something’ (though a ‘something’ of limited value, because it only has ‘ens potentiale’).7

It should have become clear that ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ in the context of the discussion on creation from nothing are complementary concepts: For Thomists, ‘nothing’ is absolute, so everything there is is a ‘something’. ‘Nothing’ only states the fact of non-being. So on Thomist terms, the question why there is something rather than nothing must be translated into the question, why non-being in the most radical sense imaginable has been turned into being in the act of creation. A reconstruction of a Thomist answer to this question might have to elucidate the Thomist notion of God’s counsel (decretum dei) and Divine liberty in creating the world.

Answers to the ‘big question’, however, do not matter in this context. Therefore, the next blog post will address the question what candidates for ‘nothingness’ a Scotist may come up with. After that, we will return to the concept of matter, since some early moderns have discussed its role in in a completely different vein.

  1. Vázquez, Gabriel, Commentariorum Ac Disputationum In Primam Partem Sancti Thomae: Complectens Quaestiones A XXVII. Vsque ad LXIV. & super bis Disputationes CCXLV (Cardon, 1631), on Google Books

  2. Cf. Vazquez loc. cit., Disp. CLVVII, Cap. III, 257: “Est igitur creatio productio alicuius ex nihilo, non quia nihilum sit veluti materia, aut quid pertinens ad constitutionem rei productae; sed quia sit terminus a quo productionis; perinde autem est, rem ex nihilo, tanquam ex termino a quo produci, atque nihil praeexistere ante productionem, quod ad constitutionem illius rei quodammodo pertineat, vel quod idem est, atque rem fieri secundum se totam.” 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Cf. John of St. Thomas, Rmi. P. Ioannis a Sto. Thoma … Cursus theologici in primam partem D. Thomae: A quaestione vigesima septima ad finem vsque eiusdem partis (sumptibus Philippi Borde, Laurentii Arnaud, Petri Borde [et] Guilielmi Barbier, 1663), 241: “[…] si non poneretur aliqua productio ex nihilo, omnis productio esset ex aliquo ente praesupposito, sed ex hoc sequeretur vel processus in infinitum in causis et effectibus, vel quod aliquod ens extra Deum non sit factum, neque creatura, quorum utrumque est aperte falsum: ergo necesse est ponere creationem ex nihilo.” 

  5. John of St. Thomas, loc. cit., 242

  6. Cf. ibid.: “Et ulterius, illud subiectum primum [sc. quod a Deo non sit factum] vel esset ens potentiale, et limitatum, vel infinitum, et actus purus. Si hoc secundum, esset Deus, et a se, atque adeo non posset esse subiectum primum ex quo ali fierent, quia subiectum hoc debet esse transmutabile, et consequenter potentiale, et non actus purus. Si primum: ergo haberet esse limitatum, et finitum, et consequenter ab alio, et non a se: ergo esset ens creatum).” 

  7. Cf. ibid.: “Sequitur etiam materiam primam esse a Deo, et non aliquid non factum, et praesuppositum. Patet hoc quia necesse est ponere quod materia prima non sit purum nihil, sed ens reale, utpote susceptiva formarum substantialium, et compositiva cum forma, tanquam cum altera parte totius compositi, et capax existentiae realis mediante forma, necesse est etiam ponere quod sit ens reale extra Deum, et ens participatum, utpote ens potentiale, et non actus purus: et similiter quod a Deo in quantum primum ens, participatur et derivatur omne ens extra se limitatum, et creatum: […]” 

Early Modern Angelology (V): The Theology of Angels and Its Philosophical Relevance

PDF on Google Docs.

In this postscript to my previous posts on early modern philosophical angelology (on Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, and the ‘fundamental angelological problem’) I want to provide some theological context for the question of whether angels have a body. Early modern theology is written from the point of view of the Christian believe. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insights for the historian of early modern philosophcial angelology.

In this post, we will see that, for Christians, the idea that angels may be corporeal is not in itself heretical. If conversely the immateriality of angels is a tenet of religious belief, theologians that do not want to hold on to an Aristotelian view of the world must accept that there are created entities that exist nowhere in the world.

1. Why the corporeality of angels is not heretical

As far as I can see, historians of philosophy are by and large unaware of the fact that a minority of early modern theologians affirmed the corporeality of angels - an insight that may help to put the ‘naturalising’ tendencies of early modern philosophical angelology into perspective: The immateriality of angels is no theological dogma. To defend their corporeality is no heresy.

Both Hobbes and Leibniz accept what I have called the ‘principle of locality’: Only those things are part of the world (Leibniz) or universe (Hobbes) that are (Hobbes) or stand in a relation to (Leibniz) a body. Both, Hobbes and - to a lesser extent - Leibniz, deny the immateriality of angels. Descartes defends it.

For readers of Hobbes and Leibniz, the belief that angels are corporeal was in itself neither an indication of atheism nor of heresy. So Curley seems to be in error, when he reads arguments for the corporeality of angels as implicit arguments for a corporeal Deity (see e. g. his 'I durst not write so boldly' [Word DOC]). It certainly is true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels. But dissent did exist, so denial of angelic immateriality was not equivalent to denying the existence of immaterial substances alltogether.

Hobbes’ acknowledgement of the weakness of reason in this context is in fact quite close to the views of the Dominican theologian Sisto da Siena (Sixtus Senensis) who recommended an agnostic stance in this matter in his Bibliotheca Sacra (first published in 1566, cf. the 1610 edition, p. 329). And even in Britain, Hobbes’ views on angels were not heretical (see the 'Ordinance for the punishing of Blasphemies and Heresies, with the several penalties therein expressed' from  1648, which does not mention angelological matters at all).

The Reformed theologian Girolamo Zanchi (De operibus Dei intra spatium sex dierum, p. 62) agreed with Sisto that certainty in this question may very well be unachievable. Nevertheless the conflicting authorities are dutifully reported: Sisto mentions the Platonists, Aristotle, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Vives, Peter Lombard, Lactantius, Basile, Michael Psellus, Ficino, Caelius Rhodiginus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory of Nazianzen, Theodoret, Bede, John Damascene, and Dionysius the Aeropagite. Without further argument (ingenue) he concludes that the corporeality of angels may be more probable. But any error in this respect will not lead to heresy, because we do not know for certain what the right answer may be.

Cajetan had a less sceptical attitude. In his commentary on Ephesians 2,2 (fol. 260r) e argued that evil spirits (daemones) do have bodies. And this can be shown by sound philosophical reasoning (crediderim […] id consonare verae philosophiae rationi).

His argument is based on the assumption that corporeal spirits fill a lacuna in the order of being: There are living things that have only vegetative functions, but no sensitive capabilities (namely plants). Others, like sponges, are stationary like plants, but they are endowed with sensitive faculties (De part. an. 681a ff). At least one substance in the world has intellective, but no locomotive powers (namely God). Hence it makes sense to presume that there should be things that can change their place without requiring sensitive faculties: demons.

It is remarkable that Cajetan bases his argument on purely natural premisses. This suggests that, although he limits his argument to evil spirits, it should be applicable to angels as well: It would be difficult to accept that only evil spirits contribute to the perfection of God’s creation. So even though it is certainly true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels, there were dissenting voices in the debate even within theology - the most radical position being articulated by a very influential Catholic thinker arguing from a philosophical point of view which anticipates to some extent Leibniz’s later insights.

2. Why supernatural angels may be superfluous

Leibniz did know Senensis (A IV 465). And he did know that ecclesiastical authority in this matter was inconclusive (G II 319). Why then did he shy away from fully naturalising angels, as we have seen in the third blog post of this series?

One conceivable answer may lie in a letter by Des Bosses (G II 321) that quotes the Jesuit Martin de Esparza in order to suggest that there might be a way to make Leibniz’s angelology compatible with Jesuit teachings. Esparza’s Quaestio V deals with the question how to distinguish angels from each other. The details of this intricate problem are irrelevant here. Esparza states that angels on the lowest level of the angelic hierarchy stand in a relation to a determinate body, even though these angels are not the form of such a body (which distinguishes them from the hypostatic union between soul and body of a human being). Des Bosses quotes only selectively, and bravely states that the same should be true for the two higher-ranked groups of angels as well. This, however, is not what Esparza himself says:

Quia vero Angeli supremae, et mediae hirarchiae referuntur in ratione illuminantis ad Angelos tertiae hierarchiae, ad eum modum, quo dictum est, posteriores istos referri ad homines, et ad caetera corporalia in ratione directoris, ac motoris: concluditur, Angelos etiam supremae, et mediae hierarchiae posse similiter esse ediscernibiles invicem, atque logice indivuatos, […] (p. 109)

So in fact, the individuation of angels from the two highest ranks of the angelic hierarchy is based not on them standing in relation to a body, but rather on standing in a particular relation (‘illumination’) to angels which in turn stand in a relation to a determinate body. Hence, if Leibniz wishes to make his own angelology compatible with Jesuit doctrine, he must concede that it is supernaturally possible that there are angels which stand in a particular relation only to their prime matter, whereas their relation to bodies is mediated by other angels (leading to the difficulties mentioned in the third post of this series).

3. Why immaterial angels are nowhere

Even though Descartes’ angelology may have shown how immaterial angels can be efficient in space in spite of their immateriality, Descartes seems to avoid studiously any answer to the question where angels belong in the world: The fact that every region of space - i. e. the world at large - is susceptible to acts of angelic agency does not in itself give us any hint about the customary place of angels in the world. But the answer Descartes should have given is obvious: Since Cartesians must accept the ‘principle of locality’, they must acknowledge that angels as such (‘in themselves’) are in fact nowhere.

This consequence is discussed by the Dutch theologian Christoph Wittich in his Theologia pacifica (all quotes in the following can be found on p. 147).

For Wittich, angels can only be present in space, if they are bodies:

Substantialis praesentia angelorum non potest definiri spatio, nisi statuant angelorum substantiam esse corpoream; […]

The first argument brought forward for this thesis is an explicit formulation of the ‘principle of locality’:

[…] 1. quia locus sive spatium non differt a corpore, ergo posito corpore ponitur, negato corpore negatur: […]

The notions of space (or place) are coextensive with the concept of a body, so that everything present in space is a body and incorporeal entitities cannot be a part of space: The same had been said by Hobbes.

Even though this argument may suffice, Wittich brings forward a second one:

2. Angelorum tota natura consistit in cogitatione, unumquodque autem est praesens per id quod possidet, non autem per id quod non habet; cogitatione autem non potest esse praesens, nisi quando per cogitationem suam aliquid efficit.

Here we see why Wittich makes a claim about praesentia substantialis: Thought is the essence of an angel. When we ask, how an angel can be ‘substantially present’ in space, we want to know how thought can be spatially present. Thought can be present in space only insofar, as it has spatial effects. But all spatial effects are effects on bodies, because the principle of locality implies that body and space are identical.

So angelic thought can be present in space if and only if an angel acts on bodies (the reverse question, whether angelic minds can be present in space by being acted upon is not adressed by Wittich). In other words, anyone subscribing to the ‘principle of locality’ must accept that angels are only in a place, when they act on this place - a consequence Descartes apparently had chosen to ignore:

sunt ergo angeli in loco, quandocunque operantur in loco respectu istius operationis; sed quando non operantur, sed tantum cogitant intra se, opus non habent loco; […]

Angels are in a place, whenever they act in relation to a region of space. If they do not act in a region of space (i. e. if they are ‘just thinking’), angels are not in a place and hence no part of the world.

4. Conclusion

We have seen why early modern philosophical angelology can only be understood fully, if its theological counterpart has been taken into account: Whether a claim is heretical in a given confessional context, depends on this confessional context (Hobbes). What philosophers believe may depend on what theologians require them to believe (Leibniz). Theological writings may furnish insights into ‘rational theology’ that cannot be found in the philosophical texts themselves (Descartes).

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Early Modern Angels (IV): The ‘Fundamental Angelological Problem’

The previous posts in this series on Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz have shown that

  • early modern philosophy of nature must be troubled by angels, because mechanistic physics reaches an impasse when trying to integrate angels into its world view and that
  • some misconceptions about early modern angelology should be abandoned (Descartes was interested in angels, to believe that angels have bodies is in itself no indication for atheist or heretical tendencies).

The second aspect will be dealt with in the next and last post of this series. Now I want to dwell a bit on the ‘fundamental angelological problem’: How do we explain that supernatural beings can serve as the (efficient) cause of changes in the natural world.

Two approaches can be distinguished: Descartes proposes a partial ‘reenchantment’ of nature (if it is appropriate to borrow this term from John McDowell). Nature is thought as something that is to a certain extent susceptible to supernatural influence - matter has a (supernatural) receptivity for acts of the angelic will. Hobbes and Leibniz try to naturalise the supernatural by applying the ‘principle of locality’: Only those things are part of the world (Leibniz) or universe (Hobbes) that are (Hobbes) or stand in a relation to (Leibniz) a body. But for Hobbes, only the angels in the Old Testament can be explained away as supernaturally caused natural phenomena that are similar to spectres or delusions. Leibniz is closer to Hobbes than some may have suspected beforehand: Angels are natural phenomena (minds that can change their bodies more easily than humans).

Nevertheless, there are limits for such rationalisations: Hobbes must bow to the authority of Scripture. Spiritual embodied substances (angels in the New Testament) may exist. So we cannot be sure that all changes in the world can be explained by the movement of bodies. Leibniz has to take God’s omnipotency into account. He is forced to concede the possibility that angelic entelechies may exist even though they stand in no relation to a phenomenal body. Such angels may not be part of this world (depending on how we interpret the requirement that the activity of an entelechy must be limited by prime matter). Hence, we cannot deny that there may be ‘supernatural’ angels. Their status within the worldview of natural philosophy is as dubious as it is in Hobbes.

In sum, an integration of angels into a mechanistic philosophy of nature comes at a prize: Descartes’ approach seems to water down the explanatory force of mechanism, because matter is endowed with a receptivity for the supernatural. Hobbes must bow to the authority of Scripture and admit the possibility of embodied spiritual substances, even though his philosophy is built on the presupposition that the universe is but an aggregate of bodies.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Early Modern Angels (III): Natural and supernatural angels in Leibniz

PDF on Google Docs.

In 1706, Leibniz discussed his views on angelology in his a series of letters to the Jesuit des Bosses, giving him the opportunity to discuss his views with a correspondent who was thoroughly acquainted with orthodox Catholic teachings on the subject and at the same time sympathetic to Leibniz’s system.

In these letters, Leibniz gives two main reasons why angels require a body:

  • Angels need a body in order to be part of the universe.
  • Only if angels have a body, we can account for the specific differences between humans, angels, and God.

Angels and the ‘principle of locality’

In a draft that was not sent to des Bosses, Leibniz remarks that completely incorporeal substances would need a perpetual miracle in order to occupy a place:

…] et substantiae creatae a materia prorsus secretae meo judicio non nisi per miracula perpetua locum habere possent. (G II 316)

But what precisely would be the divine intervention needed here? Since, for Leibniz, all substances perceive the states of all other substances, all other substances in the universe would have to entertain a representation of the incorporeal substance in question as being in the place it is supposed to be in, even though ‘in fact’ this incorporeal substance does not occupy a place.

So, for Leibniz, incorporeal substances can’t be a part of the world, unless God produces corresponding representations in all other substances, namely the illusion that the incorporeal question is a part of the world, even though this is not the case. In other words, everything that is a part of the world needs a body, because only something that ‘has’ a body can be represented as being in space, unless God engenders the illusion in all beings that an incorporeal substance is a part of the world, even though it is not.

And this is exactly what Leibniz does state. Those who assume that there are incorporeal substances, deny that such substances can be in the world:

Has [sc. intelligentias] enim removere a corporibus et loco, est removere ab universali connexione atque ordine Mundi, quem faciunt relationes ad tempus et locum. (Ibid.)

Incorporeal substances have no body. Things that have no body are not spatial (i. e. they do not occupy a place). Things that do not occupy a place have no natural connection to other things. What has no natural connection to other things, is no part of the world.

The specific differences between humans, angels, and God

In order to be present in space, angels must be able to interact with their environment. For Leibniz, angelic interaction with other spatial objects is similar to how humans act in space. This must be so, because, as we have seen, angels are not pure spirits:

Angeli non sunt Entelechiae corporum, sed ipsi et Entelechias, nempe Mentes, et Corpora etiam, […] (Ibid.)

Hence, there is no difference in how angels and humans move around in the world (presumably because the link between mind and bodies is in both cases mediated by God, i. e. the relationship between mind and body is in both cases merely ideal rather than real):

Angeli ergo corpora movent prorsus, ut nos facimus, […] (Ibid.)

This is a risky statement, because angels are generally supposed to be present in a portion of space in virtue of what they can do in it rather than in virtue of what they are, whereas the human soul is present in a human body because of what it is, namely the substantial form of this body. Pre-established harmony suspends this common notion of how angels and humans differ.

Leibniz finds an ingenious alternative: The main difference between angels and humans is that angels can easily leave the body they are related to and migrate into another:

Arbitror enim cum naturaliter possibile sit […] esse Entelechias, quae facillime mutent corpus, seu de corpore in corpus transeant, […] (G II 320)

Interestingly, this ‘metempsychosis’ is itself a natural phenomenon, because humans can modify their body as well (i. e. add or subtract parts that thus are (or are no more) parts of their body). Leibniz illustrates this with a somewhat gruesome example: It is possible for  humans to cut of their foot and replace it with a wooden substitute (cf. ibid.).

So even though there is no difference in how humans and angels are present in space, this need not imply that angels are incorporated in the same way as humans are:

An vero necesse sit Angelum esse formam informantem seu Animam corporis organici eique personaliter unitam, alia quaestio est, et certo sensu in praecedente Epistola exposito negari potest. (G II 325)

If angels can migrate from one body to another with a higher degree of volatility than humans, angelic existence does not rest on a ‘personal unity’ of mind and body that is characteristic for humans. This is what makes angels different from humans.

We have contemplated how angels relate to the physical world at large, i. e. to phenomenal bodies that are aggregates of substances. But Leibniz points out that angels are in a more radical way dependent on matter. Like all other created substances, their entelechies require ‘prime matter’ (materia prima). This requirement is conceptual, so that even if we may concede that an omnipotent God may deprive angels of the phenomenal body they are related to, their relation to ‘prime matter’ would remain unaffected.

Etsi ergo Deus per potentiam absolutam possit substantiam creatam privare materia secunda, non tamen potest eam privare materia prima; nam faceret inde Actum purum qualis ipse est solus. (G II 324f)

An angelic entelechy must be limited by ‘prime matter’, because substances are always active. It is matter that serves as a passive counterpart to this persistent activity. If an entelechy was freed from this, it would be ‘pure act’. This however would imply that God would be able to create a second deity which is logically impossible. So whereas angels are distinguished from humans by their ‘metempsychotic’ capabilities, their difference from God consists in their dependence on ‘prime matter’.

This argument has interesting implications: The question is whether an angel that is supernaturally deprived of its relation with secondary matter, would be perceivable. If it is possible to perceive an angel that consists only of an entelechy and its prime matter, this angel is still a part of the world. But then prime matter (and the entelechy it belongs to) can be represented as a part of the world, i. e. as a phenomenon. This is in agreement with Leibniz’s view of angels discussed here, but it seems to run contrary to the strict separation of phenomena and the substances constituting these phenomena that is central to Leibniz’s thought.

But the alternative is even less palatable: If an angel that is supernaturally separated from the phenomenal world, is imperceivable, it stands in no relations to other substances. Then it is no more part of the universe. Such a being would then form a world of its own, dependent only on its creator. So if we want to save prime matter from being perceivable, this seems to be only possible, if we concede that God may create a multiplicity of actual worlds (the question being whether such a multiverse of actual worlds may not be more perfect than a universe containing only one such world).

Angels, for Leibniz, must be explainable as a natural phenomenon. As such, they must be minds which stand in a relation to a body. This relation differs only in degree from the relation between human minds and their body, since it is more tenuous: Angels can leave the body they occupy more easily than humans. Nevertheless, both human and angelic entelechies are bound to ‘prime matter’. Divine omnipotency may create supernatural angels which stand in no relation with phenomenal bodies. But their reliance on ‘prime matter’ is a conceptual necessity. Nevertheless, ‘supernatural’ angels pose a problem for Leibniz: If they are perceivable, ‘prime matter’ renders entelechies perceivable even though they stand in no relation to phenomenal bodies. If ‘supernatural’ angels are imperceivable, they are a world of their own.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

A good question on askphilosophers.org. »

Dear Philosophers,

I would like to ask whether there is any reasonable explanation why many after/today’s philosophers rather refer to Descartes than to Leibniz. Although Descartes had influenced significantly new modern era in philosophical thinking, so did Leibniz. Moreover, Leibniz proved some imperfections in Descartes’ metaphysics. I mean both of them deserve our attention, yet in my opinion Leibniz is somehow still in Descartes’ shadow. Why is that?

Does anyone have thoughts on the matter?

S. H.-W.