Truth and Morality in Ancient Greece: Plato vs. Aristotle


Does art deceive our eyes and corrupt our minds? Plato believed that it did. Image by jojo22

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC) advocated studying philosophy through empiricism, which is the idea that it’s only possible to determine any truth through actual experience.

For both Aristotle and his teacher, Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), there are two themes essential to their concept of truth in art – morality and reality.

Plato and Aristotle: Truth and Falsity in Art

The following definitions of the theory upheld by both Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, appear in Rosalind Hursthouse’s essay, “Truth and Representation.” 

  1. Can art be morally educative or formative by conveying moral truths, or by aiding our grasp and understanding of moral truths, and hence give us moral knowledge?
  2. Can art truly represent reality, and, in particular, can it represent moral reality (and hence convey moral truths and yield moral knowledge)?

Hursthouse points out that both definitions emphasise art in terms of mimesis, which means “imitation.” Sometimes this means, literally, to copy – while in other cases it may mean “representation,” “impersonation” or “mimicry.”

The Greeks lumped all these together, whereas today we would be specific about which kind of imitation we mean.

What Did Plato, Aristotle’s Teacher, Believe About Representation?

In the chapter: “Plato,” in his book, 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood points out that Plato is the first philosopher in the Western tradition whose work is still available to us intact, so we know exactly what he believed.

Plato (c. 427 BC – c. 347 BC) had plenty to say on the subject of representation. He is famous for his assertion that art is a third remove from the throne of truth. He reaches this conclusion through claiming that man-made objects must have an original form that God created. Therefore, life is just an imitation of this original form from God’s eternal plan.

This assumes that life is not a reality, but a representation. Therefore, art is an imitation of an imitation. These three removes are considered inclusively in Plato’s thinking.

Plato believed that the artist has the intention to deceive us because paintings deceive the eye. He also went to great pains to restrict the form that poetry could take.

In his book, The Republic, Plato set out his ideas of a Utopian society in which the society trained the rulers from birth for their role in controlling the state and attending to its good, and who were known as “guardians.” The rest of society were soldiers and the common people.

What Did Plato Believe About Censorship for the Moral Good?

Plato upholds arguments against art that invoke religious as well as moral and psychological aspects. To represent the gods as deceitful, or less than good in any respect, is wrong and false.

These representations corrupt the young and influence both their character and their behaviour, as Rosalind Hursthouse explains: “Plato argues that the only sort of character whose ‘representation’ can play a proper part in the education of the Guardians is that of a good man…”

In the society that Plato proposed, the above comment seems justifiable. However, for Plato, poetry is actually dangerous! According to Hursthouse, “… [H]e concludes, all dramatic poetry (whose recitation would necessarily involve impersonating or representing all sorts of undesirable characters) must be banned; and epic poetry must be written in such a way that ‘the proportion of representation will be small – limited to the direct speeches of good men,’ especially when the good man ‘is behaving with steadiness and determination, and only failing in a few respects and to a limited degree, owing to illness or love or drink, or some other misfortune.'”  

It’s clear that Plato was no democrat, and this restriction of the content of poetry and drama as an exercise to educate the young in moral values seem draconian to us today; but, in fact, Plato claims he is merely censoring what is false about what is important. In other words, the poems are untrue. Not only are they false, but they are also wicked and sinful and may corrupt the young.


Pleasure or pain is a thought accompanied by joy or grief. But several different emotions can cause the same feeling. Image by pedrojperez.

In short, The Republic is a political treatise and its central purpose is in educating and moralising to the young.

Plato Considers the Corruption of the Young and Impressionable

Hursthouse’s analysis of Plato concedes that sometimes children do not grasp the differences between play and reality, and that it is quite possible that in their play, they might form negative attitudes about killing, violence and gender-roles.

She points out, “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change.”

We know from experience that there have been many copycat killers or acts of extreme violence committed as a result of viewing a film or a news item. Impersonating bad behaviour is a common human failing and has been throughout history.

However, it is possible to produce emotional and literal interpretations in poetry, drama and other art disciplines which are not untruthful, yet evoke the imagination of the artist and the audience and from which learning can be achieved.

Aristotle Argues Against Plato about Emotion, Poetry and Universal Truth

Aristotle, however, believed that universal truths could be conveyed through poetry, truth that could be of benefit to human beings and to society. An emotion is, simply, a thought experienced with either pleasure or with pain, but different emotions can give rise to the same feeling. We might ask whether the sinking feeling in our stomach is jealousy or sorrow and to find out, we need to examine our thoughts.

While pity is discomfort at another’s misfortune, envy might invoke a very different emotion, that of pleasure at another’s misfortune. This is known today as “Schadenfreude” as explained by B. Rose Huber in the Princeton Journal Watch of Princeton University. Schadenfreude comes from the German language. “Schaden” means “harm” and “freude” means “joy.”

It seems we are biologically programmed to feel this way, so Aristotle was being most incisive about human nature when he wrote about emotions and how different emotions can produce similar feelings within us.

As Rosalind Hursthouse summarises: “The most significant background disagreements between them (Plato and Aristotle) concern the Theory of Forms and the role of emotion in moral education.”  

Another way of thinking about it would be to say that Plato’s approach is theoretical, rational, and upholds a suppression of our animal desires, while Aristotle’s empirical thought is less rigid and supports the correct training of those same appetites and emotions.

Aristotle: an Influential Moral Thinker and Philosopher

Jeremy Harwood says that Aristotle’s “advocacy of empiricism as the only reliable philosophical method  profoundly influenced medieval and later scholars.”

Aristotle also acknowledged that no one can devise a single, philosophical principle, as claimed by Socrates and his own teacher, Plato, claimed. As a result of this insight, he denied that the laws of nature could ever be exact. “…although he maintained that certain metaphysical categories, quantity, quality substance and relation, for example – could be used in devising descriptions of natural phenomena,” explains Harwood.

Harwood sets out the Four Moral Causes devised by Aristotle to help people to understand how to analyse empirically:

“…the Material Cause (what is it made of) the Formal Cause (what is it), the Efficient Cause (how it came to be) and the Final Cause (what is it for).” 

Aristotle was also the philosopher who posited “The Golden Mean” which means the “middle way between two extremes,” explains Harwood. We need to reason and to reason well, Aristotle believed, to attain our full potential.

Courage is the golden mean between being a crazy risk-taker and yet not being cowardly when action is required – while if we are truthful, we will avoid boasting and yet not employ inappropriate modesty.

Aristotle: One of the Greatest Moral Philosophers

From the careful and empathetic reasoning described above, it is clear that Aristotle was one of the greatest moral philosophers of all time.

Aristotle was not overly influenced by the arguments of his teacher, Plato, although both men agreed on certain metaphysical arguments, for example, that the soul was divided into two parts, the rational and the irrational. However, both men were, to a large extent, products of their own time and place.

Bertrand Russell says, in his Chapter, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in History of Western Philosophy:

“The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day. They are not, like Plato’s, impregnated with mystical religion, nor do they countenance such unorthodox theories as are to be found in The Republic, concerning property and the family.”

Russell says that any person with any depth of feeling would find Plato’s philosophy as set out in The Republic, “repulsive.” On the other hand, Aristotle’s beliefs about morality were entirely conventional and in agreement with the ideological systems of his day.

These beliefs were still a long way from how we think about morality today, with our concern for human rights and equality.

“Aristotle thinks that justice involves not equality, but right proportion which is only sometimes equality,” says Russell. These so-called proportions of equality account for differences between, say, a master and a slave, or a father and a son. A master could never take a slave to be his friend. Chillingly, Russell quotes Aristotle:

“There is nothing in common between the two parties; the slave is the living tool.”

Aristotle and Plato: Influence, Accusations, and Obscurity

Aristotle studied under the tutelage of Plato, and he remained at the Academy, first as a pupil and later as a teacher, for twenty years. After the death of Plato, Aristotle was engaged to teach Alexander the Great. When his teaching engagement with Alexander the Great came to an end some years later, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up his own philosophy school, The Lyceum.

On Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Aristotle fled into exile and died a year later.

Aristotle’s work fell into obscurity in Europe during the Dark Ages, although it was still prevalent in the Muslim world. In the Middle Ages, Aristotle became, once again, an influence in Europe and remains so to this day.

Plato, on the other hand is frequently accused of advocating totalitarianism, although some philosophers present arguments that dispute this. However, Plato too, had enormous influence on Western philosophical ideas and on the later development of Christian thought.

Philosophy of Art – Could a Hitler Landscape Be Great Art?

Barbed wire

Barbed Wire at Auschwitz – the legacy of a monster. Image by Pumpkin.

Hitler was a monster – but does that make his art monstrous too? Most people today probably wouldn’t care to have a Hitler landscape hanging on their wall, and would shudder every time they looked at it. I, for one, endorse and understand this.

As it happens Hitler’s art was not highly-rated, even at the time he was producing it, but if it was  extraordinary, if it was truly beautiful, if it had shown enormous artistic merit, can we rightfully devalue it because of its provenance?

After all, isn’t a work of art meant to stand alone, without reference to the artist, because it is, essentially, a “thing-in-itself?”

As Oscar Wilde once said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly-written. That is all.”

So surely the same applies to a painting.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937

In her article for BBC World News, “Degenerate Art: Why Hitler hated modernism,” Lucy Burns reported on a discovery of modern artworks in a flat in Munich which Hitler and the Nazi Party considered as an abomination.

An art exhibition held in July 1937, featured the kinds of paintings the Fuhrer admired; for example, fine paintings of blonde nudes, military paintings and attractive landscapes, including a number of works by Hitler himself, who was an artist before he began his political and military career.

Adolf Hitler considered all abstract, non-representational and modern art as degenerate, so to show this, he also, simultaneously, put on another Art Exhibition in order to disparage the establishment. According to Burns’ article:

“The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by some of the great international names – Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky – along with famous German artists of the time such Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Georg Grosz…The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to ‘reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.'”

Over a million people saw the exhibition, and a million more visited while it was on tour.

Ridiculing the Competition

As much as being a bizarre item of twisted Nazi promotional blurb, Hitler’s ire revealed his anger and jealousy at being sidelined by the establishment; indeed, his own works were largely disregarded as being of little merit by his peers. As a result he spared no effort in ensuring the presentation of this so-called degenerate modern art to the public in the worst possible way, as described by Lucy Burns when she spoke to Jonathan Petropoulos, Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College.

Petropoulos says: “The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous.”

Modern Art: An Evil Plot Against the German People

Included in the categories of painting exhibited was an “insanity room” which contained only abstract paintings, while Jewish art that was critical of the German military or dishonoured German women also had their special place. Burns quotes an entry from the exhibition handbook:

“In the paintings and drawings of this chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil.” 

Nazi dolls

A museum exhibit of Nazi dolls. Image by Mzacha

David Wilkes, in “Face of a Monster” for the Daily Mail Online, tells how Hitler approached the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907 and 1908; the Academy rejected him both times due to his lack of talent. As a result, he began copying pictures from postcards to sell to the tourists.

Richard Westwood-Brookes, a historical auctioneer, told David Wilkes that he found it strange that a man who could paint such bucolic pictures could have ended up being such a monster. However, Westwood-Brookes’ summary of his thoughts about Hitler’s artistic ability are hardly complimentary:

“One can see why Hitler didn’t exactly make a success of his career as an artist. These are at best the standard of a reasonably competent amateur and some might consider them downright crude in their execution.”

A British buyer purchased a pencil sketch for £1050 in 1999, according to David Wilkes. It seems that now the pictures have a historical fascination for art historians and collectors.

Beauty is No Longer a Necessary Condition for Great Art

Lucy Burns ends her article with a charming account of a young Jew, who was as baffled by The Degenarate Art Exhibition as Hitler and his henchmen professed to be, agreeing with the German regime that the artefacts were odd and distorted. Until much, much later, when he recanted:

“I can appreciate modern art much better now than I did then. It’s not meant to be beautiful is it?”

According to Grant Bartley in his editorial, “Angles on Art,” there has been a paradigm shift in art. Soon, some of us (certainly not all) learned to accept as authentic Duchamp’s Fountain, Emin’s Unmade Bed and numerous other bizarre creations which come under the name of “art” and which can hardly be described as “beautiful.”

These are now regarded as ideas or concepts, intended perhaps to force us to recognise that art can be whatever it chooses and to recognise there is creativity in everything.  No doubt the argument will continue, and we will continue to question and refute the validity of such works.

Angles on Art

Grant Bartley defines this shift in perspective as follows: “… the new art culture will come to be seen as pluralist. If modernism can be summarised as the rejection of traditional values, and postmodernism as the rejection of all values, perhaps we can define pluralism as the acceptance of all (sets of) values, anti-pluralism excepted.”

Bartley adds, however, that in the process the sidelining of beauty and skill is a loss to the art world.

“Instead, whether a work is good is a question to be decided by the individual – by you – for whatever reason and with whatever criteria you wish to use for your judgements; including many diverse ideals of beauty and skill. How much you might be able to sell it for is really beside the point.”

I suggest though, that art experts are unlikely to uphold Grant Bartley’s comment. After all, surely a work of art must stand alone, as a thing-in-itself, if we are to look at it from an objective, philosophical perspective.

Art, Hitler, and Philosophy

So – can a Hitler’s landscape be considered great art? The general consensus is no, it cannot, for the simple reason the artist had little talent according to his contemporaries, and also to modern informed opinion.

On the other hand,  if it was great art, would we regard it as such or would our subjectivity overcome our psychical distancing as defined by the philosopher Edward Bullough, that special moment of reflection on great beauty, when the “Aha” feeling overcomes our very sense of ourselves?

Gottfried Leibniz’s Proofs of God’s Existence

The heavens

While the God of the Old Testament is a God of power, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love, Leibniz’s God was the God of the theologians from Aristotle onwards, and this is truly a God of the intellectual. Image by Imelenchon.

The great 17th century German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, argued for the truth of God’s existence, as detailed in “Leibniz” in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. 

Here are his four proofs:

1. The ontological argument; 2. The cosmological argument; 3. The argument from eternal truths and 4. The argument from the pre-established harmony, which is more commonly known as the argument from design. (Immanuel Kant called this “the physico-theological argument.”)

Immanuel Kant subsequently claimed to demolish all the arguments for the existence of God but that didn’t stop many established philosophers from refuting those claims.

The Origins of Medieval Theology

Medieval theology is derived from the Greek intellect, so Leibniz’s metaphysical proofs of God’s existence have a complicated history. Bertrand Russell, in “Leibniz” says: “… they begin with Aristotle, or even Plato; they are formalized by the scholastics, and one of them, the ontological argument, was invented by St. Anselm. This argument, though rejected by St. Thomas, was revived by Descartes.”

We credit Leibniz, however, with developing the theory and presenting the arguments in detail in the best way possible.

The Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is an attempt to define the difference between “existence” and “essence.”

“Any ordinary person or thing, it is held, exists, and, on the other hand, has certain qualities, which make up his or its essence,” says Russell.

Russell uses an analogy from Shakespeare to demonstrate this. Hamlet, being a character in a play, certainly does not exist in reality. However, he does have a certain essence, and we find this among his characteristics; for example: “melancholy, undecided, witty.”

We can describe someone but this person may not be real, however minutely we dwell on the details, “…in the case of any finite substance, its essence does not imply its existence,” explains Russell.

Both St. Anselm and Descartes claimed that if we define God as the most perfect being, then that essence most certainly does imply existence. “…[A] Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if He does not He is not the best possible Being.”

Leibniz responds:

“There is, therefore, or there can be conceived, a subject of all perfections, or most perfect Being. Whence it follows also that He exists, for existence is among the number of his perfections.”

Bertrand Russell is not in the least convinced by this argument, but admits it’s difficult to see where the fallacy lies.

Immanuel Kant criticised the theory, maintaining that “existence” cannot be described as a “predicate.” As Existence-of-God.Com explains:

“Kant thought that because the ontological argument rests on the judgement that a God that exists is greater than a God that does not, it rests on a confusion… Existence is not a predicate, a property that a thing can either possess or lack.

“When people assert that God exists they are not saying that there is a God and he possesses the property of existence. If that were the case, then when people assert that God does not exist they would be saying that there is a God and he lacks the property of existence… both affirming and denying God’s existence in the same breath…

“To say that something exists is to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified in the world. Existence, then, is not a matter of a thing possessing a property, existence, but of a concept corresponding to something in the world.”

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument is a slightly more complicated version of the “First Cause” argument, which dates back to Aristotle and his claim for an “Unmoved Mover.” “Everything finite must have a cause, which, in turn, must have a cause, and so on…”  The possibility of causes cannot continue infinitely, and so the first in the series must be uncaused. Otherwise, how could it possibly be the first?

Therefore, the uncaused cause of everything must be God.

The original First Cause argument assumed that everything must have a first cause, which is false. Russell gives an example: “…the series of proper fractions has no first term.”  


The cosmological argument says there must be a First Cause. Image by Pippalou.

In an interview in Philosophy Now, Rich Lewis asks Simon Blackburn, the Vice-President of the British Humanist Association, how, as a non-believer, he accounts for the existence of the universe.

“The familiar infinite regress arguments that anything that exists needs a cause stop anyone from ‘accounting for’ the existence of something rather than nothing.

“To stop the regress you would have to postulate something that necessarily exists or is its own cause, and there is no real sense to be made of that,” says Blackburn.

He continues, “And as David Hume said, if there is some unknown, inconceivable quality of ‘necessarily existing,’ then for all we know it might belong to the cosmos itself.” Hume rejected any claim of certainty or truth that could not be proved by producing evidence for its existence through observational experience.

The Argument from the Eternal Truth

If we say, “It is raining,” or “It is sunny,” we may be stating a truth, or we may not. But, if we say 2 plus 2 equals 4, it is always true.

“All statements that have to do with essence not with existence, are either always true or never true,” says Russell.

We can describe statements that are always true as eternal truths. It’s a neat argument.

“The gist of the argument is that truths are part of the contents of minds, and that an eternal truth must be part of an eternal mind… There must be a reason for the whole contingent world, and this reason cannot itself be contingent, but must be sought among eternal truths.” 

This leads Leibniz to claim, “But a reason for what exists must itself exist; therefore eternal truths must in some sense, exist, and they can only exist as thoughts in the mind of God.”

Bertrand Russell disagrees, stating that truth cannot be said to “exist” in the mind that apprehends it, and this seems to be fair comment to our modern minds.

The Argument from the Pre-Established Harmony

Russell believes that this argument has little to recommend it, and is based on Leibniz’s theory about monads, which are souls that mirror the Universe. We know that clocks all keep time with one another, providing they are working properly and someone has set them to the right time. Therefore, according to Leibniz, “…there must have been a single outside Cause that regulated all of them.”

Here, the philosopher contradicts his own theory. This theory claims that the monads, or souls, are unable to interact with one another. If this is the case, how can they know there are others similar to themselves?

“What seems like mirroring the universe may be merely a dream. In fact, if Leibniz is right, it is merely a dream, but he has ascertained somehow that all the monads have similar dreams at the same time,” says Russell.

Russell makes an attempt to rescue Leibniz’s argument by transforming it into the argument from design, where we cannot explain what we see as something created by natural forces, but instead fall back on the concept of a divine benefactor.

Charles Darwin discredited the argument from design, although many people still believe that because something looks as though something designed it, then that must be so. Even Darwin himself, says Richard Dawkins in “Arguments for God’s Existence” was taken in by the argument from design when he was a Cambridge undergraduate. He read about the theory in a work of William Paley entitled Natural Theology.

Richard Dawkins says:

“Evolution, by natural selection, produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance. And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems which – among their more modest accomplishments – manifest goal-seeking behaviour that, even in a tiny inset, resembles a sophisticated heat-seeking missile…”

Tiger Lilies

Philosophers and theologians used to believe that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Then Darwin came along and challenged the argument. Image by Janet Cameron. All rights reserved.

But Maybe We Should Keep an Open Mind…

This delightful and thought-provoking story appears in Jostein Gaardner’s philosophical novel, Sophie’s World.

“A Russian astronaut and a Russian brain surgeon were once discussing religion. The brain surgeon was a Christian, but the astronaut was not.

“The astronaut said, ‘I’ve been out in space many times but I’ve never seen God or angels.’

And the brain surgeon said, ‘And I’ve operated on many clever brains but I’ve never seen a single thought. But that doesn’t prove that thoughts don’t exist.'”

Gaardner’s protagonist, Alberto, reminds us that there is an enormous difference between the material and the spiritual, because the material can be divided into small parts, but you cannot divide the soul.

“The soul cannot even be divided into two.”

Gottfried Leibniz: A True Rationalist

Leibniz was a true rationalist, who upheld the belief that the actual truth about reality could only be achieved through the exercising of pure reason. Bertrand Russell says:

“His philosophical hypotheses, though fantastic, are very clear, and capable of precise expression. Even his monads can still be useful as suggesting possible ways of viewing perception, though thy cannot be regarded as windowless.”

Even the critical atheist, Bertrand Russell, by the end of his chapter on Leibniz, felt compelled to remark on the extraordinary achievement of this great thinker.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Free Will


Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz, German Philosopher, 1644-1716, a rationalist thinker who believed that truth about reality could only be proved through the use of reason. Painting by Christophe Bernhard Francke. Image courtesy of Andrejj.

Gottfried Leibniz was born in Germany two years before the end of the Thirty Years War, the son of a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He became a pioneer in mathematical logic at a time when others did not recognise its importance.

Leibniz also invented the infinitesimal calculus during a period spent in Paris, which, at the time, was hub of philosophical thinking and mathematics. While in Paris, Leibniz met the Jansenist, Antoine Arnauld. Baruch Spinoza later also influenced him and the two conducted a number of discussions.

Parodied by Voltaire

However, Leibniz is best known for his belief that since God created the world, then it must be the best of all possible worlds. This is a dictum that inspired the critic and thinker, Voltaire, to create a comical caricature of the philosopher in his satirical novel, Candide, who went by the name of Doctor Pangloss.

Naturally, there was little love lost between these two great thinkers. Unfortunately for him, Leibniz, although in many respects, an optimist, attracted some fierce opposition from his contemporaries.

Yet, aspects of his teachings have influenced philosophy to this present day.

Is the Mind of Man Innate?

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker credits Leibniz with the original argument against the idea that man’s mind is, indeed, a blank slate at birth.

Pinker quotes Liebniz’s reply when countering an argument with John Locke:

“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses, except the intellect itself.”

Pinker explain how this extraordinary man was far ahead of his time in his thinking, refusing to fabricate occult qualities or demons to explain the inexplicable. On the contrary, Leibniz recognised that the intellect must accomplish a feat of information-processing for the complex learning mechanisms to carry out.

As an example, Pinker suggests that if we consider the function of computers, we must remember that they don’t roll off the assembly line fully programmed, Someone has to install the software first. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that challenges overcome by the human intellect are far beyond artificial intelligence, and that our brains are far from being empty vessels when we are first born.

“Something in the mind must be innate, if it is only the mechanisms that do the learning. Something has to see a world of objects rather than a kaleidoscope of shimmering pixels. Something has to infer the context of a sentence rather than parrot back the exact wording. Something has to interpret other people’s behaviour as their attempts to achieve goals rather than as trajectories of jerking arm and legs,” says Pinker.

Leipniz’s Two Systems of Philosophy

In his book, History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says that there is little to admire about Leibniz as a man. He was mean, and further, he makes a point that Leibniz was “a dull writer” and made philosophy “pedantic and arid.” However, it is well to bear in mind that Russell himself is a man capable of issuing biting criticism of his fellow-thinkers.

Russell claims there are two systems of philosophy that we can attribute to Leibniz. There is the popular, optimistic one, the one that Voltaire caricatured in his novel, Candide, which Russell regards as somewhat shallow. Then, there is the more important system of philosophy… “which has been slowly unearthed from his manuscripts by fairly recent editors … was profound, coherent… and amazingly logical.”

The Monadology is the work containing Leibniz’s most popular philosophy, which Principles of Nature and of Grace followed. However, his optimism rose to its highest level in Theodicy written for Queen Charlotte of Prussia.


Humans have a dominant soul and, therefore, possess free will, says Leibniz. Image by click


Leibniz: An Infinite Number of Substances

Leibniz based this optimistic philosophy on the idea of substance, but his thinking differed from that of Descartes and Spinoza, as follows:

Descartes allowed three substances, God, mind and matter.

Spinoza admitted only God. For him, both thought and extension are attributes of God.

Leibniz took a different view, says Bertrand Russell:

“Leibniz held that extension cannot be an attribute of a substance. His reason was that extension involves plurality, and can therefore only belong to an aggregate of substances, each single substance must be unextended.”

From this, he could only proceed to the following conclusion:

“He believed, consequently, in an infinite number of substances which he called ‘monads’… each monad is a soul. This follows naturally from the rejection of extension as an attribute of substance, the only remaining possible essential attribute seemed to be thought. Thus Leibniz was led to deny the reality of matter and to substitute an infinite family of souls.”

No Causal Relationships Between Monads

Leibniz’s belief leads to further complications. He thought that substances could not interact. No causal relation could be established between two monads. If it appeared there was a causal relation, then it must be false.

This presents two difficulties:

Firstly, dynamics – bodies sometimes appear to affect each other. This may happen due to impact. It may also be a consequence of the effect of a perception on the percipient. To counter this: “Leibniz held that every monad mirrors the universe, not because the universe affects it, but because God has given it a nature which spontaneously produces the result,” says Russell.

A fascinating conclusion to this thought process is that each human body must contain a number of monads, with souls, and which are immortal. One dominant monad it called the soul of the man in whose body is exists.

“The changes in a human body (in ordinary circumstances) happen for the sake of the dominant monad: when my arm moves, the purpose served by the movement is in the dominant monad, i.e. my mind, not in the monads that compose my arm. This is the truth of what appears to common sense as the control of my will over my arm.”

Space is Not Real

Space is not real; it is merely the counterpart to the arrangement of the monads that creates the three-dimensional perspective and each monad sees the world from its own perspective. “There is no such thing as a vacuum,” says Russell, “every possible point of view is filled by one actual monad, and by only one. No two monads are exactly alike; this is Leibniz’s principle of the ‘identity of indiscernibles.'”

In “Gottfried Leibniz” in 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood describes this principle, known as Leibniz’s Law, as follows: “Essentially it states that, if two objects are identical, they will be indiscernible; that is, they will not differ in their properties. It is a law that has retained its importance in philosophy right up to the present.”

The Principle of Sufficient Reason and Free Will

There is plenty of opportunity for free will in Leibniz’s system. Leibniz coined the phrase “The Principle of Sufficient Reason” and, although other philosophers pronounced on the theory, Leibniz is generally credited with being its main resource. The Principle of Sufficient Reason means that for everything that is the case, there must be a reason or a cause to make it so.

God owns the same kind of freedom, in acting for the best, but not having any actual compulsion to do so.

“Leibniz agrees with Thomas Aquinas that God cannot act contrary to the laws of logic, but He can decree whatever is logically possible, and this leaves Him a great latitude of choice,” concludes Russell.

Leibniz’s book Monadology, was not published until after his death in 1716.

This great German philosopher also made important contributions to technology, medicine and politics.

voltaire meme

Voltaire – Personal Liberty in the “Best of All Possible Worlds”


Voltaire painting

Francois-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, was a leading Enlightenment philosopher, who managed to upset most of the Establishment. Painting by Nicolas de Largilliere. Image by Thorvaldsson.

Voltaire, whose real name was Francois-Marie d’Arouet, was born in 1694 in Paris of well-off, educated parents. His father was an official in Louis XIV’s court. Voltaire was a freethinking individual, who believed in liberal policies and the right of every individual to enjoy personal liberty.

Voltaire was a great disseminator of scientific ideas and material, and was enthusiastic about the science of Sir Isaac Newton. He supported Newton in his stance against the philosopher Descartes.

The debates and arguments caused a great divide in the thinking of the French philosophers. Voltaire also acknowledged and approved the theories of John Locke on Empiricism.

His key philosophical works were Lettres Philosophique, Dictionaire Philosophique, and the satirical novel Candide.

A Vexatious and Confrontational Intellect

Voltaire seems to have had a number of issues with his fellow philosophers, and he was always, by nature, confrontational.

Voltaire was a playwright who adored the theatre, over which he quarrelled repeatedly with Rousseau when the Puritans banned drama in Geneva. Rousseau claimed that only savages acted in plays and pointed out that Plato disapproved of them. Furthermore, the Catholic Church objected to marrying or burying actors!

Rousseau called the drama “a school of concupiscence,” quotes Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy. As a result, the two eminent philosophers were at loggerheads over this – as well as various other political and religious issues.

When Rousseau wrote an essay concluding that man is naturally good when left to his own devices, and “at peace with all nature, and the friend of all his fellow-creatures,” he sent the piece to Voltaire, who responded with a scathing critique.

Bertrand Russell quotes Voltaire’s critique:

“I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, when reading your book, to walk on all fours.”

Voltaire was a deist, and studied with the Jesuits, although, claims Jeremy Harwood in “Voltaire,” 100 Great Thinkers,

“…he later claimed to have learned nothing from them but ‘Latin and the Stupidities.'” 


Voltaire was a deist, but although he believed in God, he was against religious superstition. Image by cbcs.

Criticism of “Philosophical Romances”

Voltaire attacked the supreme philosophical intellectual, Gottfried Leibniz, as Harwood explained, “...for what he saw as his fatuous philosophical optimism.” 

Voltaire is well-known for his famous work, Candide, whose central protagonist, despite numerous hardships and ordeals, believed that we lived in “…the best of all possible worlds.” However, as Bertrand Russell points out in “Leibniz” in his History of Western Philosophy:

“It was the popular Leibniz who invented the doctrine that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds'” and, in fact, Voltaire caricatured Leibniz as Doctor Pangloss in the book. (Leibniz lived from 1646-1716 so he was Voltaire’s elder contemporary.)

The novel Candide is a satire on the philosophical romances of the time – “in other words, philosophical explanations that, although supposedly systematic, ultimate overcame doubts only by appealing to the human imagination.” This, then, was his argument with Leibniz, the doctrine that a rational God created the world and that it was “the best of all possible worlds.” 

Rather, says Harwood, Voltaire believed that “often the most philosophical explanation is to offer no explanation at all.”

The Persecution of Voltaire

Voltaire’s unfortunate habit of falling out with a number of the giants of the Enlightenment, vexed the establishment, resulting in his persecution. He believed in God, but attacked religious superstition with a zeal that riled the authorities, “…religion does not consist either in the opinion of an unintelligible metaphysic, or in vain display,” quotes HarwoodRather, Voltaire upheld the notions of worship and justice over what he regarded as the trappings of religious superstition.

Constantly, he denounced the authorities, calling for reforms and making more enemies. In spite of this, he continued to follow his rationalist ideas and his denouncements of bigotry and intolerance throughout his long life.

Legacy of Voltaire

Statements by Voltaire challenged the people and authorities who lived in the time of the Enlightenment, including, for some time, Frederick the Great of Prussia. Many of these quotations seem as relevant today as they were in his time, for example, as Richard Dawkins quotes in The God Delusion:

“Voltaire got it right long ago. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

In the beginning of his essay in Literature in the Modern World, Asa Briggs quotes Voltaire: “Before you can rectify the disorders of a state, you must examine the character of the people.”  

Four pages on, Briggs has turned the argument on its head:

“There have been signs in recent years of an increasing challenge to such interpretations of history, reflecting social and cultural as well as economic and political changes… and in such circumstances, Voltaire’s dictum has in effect been modified to read: ‘Before you can rectify the character of a state, you must examine the disorders of the people.'” 

Voltaire is not widely regarded as an original philosopher. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important central figures of the “Age of Reason” and was committed to spreading the news of these new and exciting theories. His belief in the right to personal liberty and the freedom of the individual, and his denouncement of  what he saw as abuse of power by the elite, had enormous influence for future generations.

Today, his work and theories continue to challenge us.

According to the website of The European Graduate School, the name “Voltaire” was a nom-de-plume adopted by the philosopher after a spell in the Bastille, one of his many imprisonments due to his views on religious intolerance.

Francois-Marie d’Arouet, or Voltaire, died in his sleep in 1778.