Johann Gottfried Herder 1787
Source: God Some Conversations, Johann Gottfried Herder, translation by Frederick H. Burkhardt, published by Books-Merrill, 1940 (pp 95-114);
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
PHILOLAUS: Here I am with my Spinoza, but almost more in the dark than I was before. It is plain on every page that he is no atheist. For him the idea of God is the first and last, yes, I might even say the only idea of all, for on it he bases knowledge of the world and of nature, consciousness of self and of all things around him, his ethics and his politics. Without the idea of God, his mind has no power, not even to conceive of itself. For him it is well nigh inconceivable, how men can, as it were, turn God into a mere consequence of other truths, or even of sensuous perceptions, since all truth, like all existence, follows only from eternal truth, from the eternal, infinite existence of God. This conception became so present, so immediate and intimate to him, that I certainly would rather have taken him to be an enthusiast concerning the existence of God, than a doubter or denier of it. He places all mankind’s perfection, virtue and blessedness in the knowledge and love of God. And that this is not some sort of mask which he has assumed, but rather his deepest feeling, is shown by his letters, yes, I might even say, by every part of his philosophical system, by every line of his writings. Spinoza may have erred in a thousand ways about the idea of God, but how readers of his works could ever say that he denied the idea of God and proved atheism, is incomprehensible to me.
THEOPHRON: I am glad my friend, that you have found the same thing that I found. For I too scarcely trusted myself when I read this author and compared my impression with what others had said of him. This feeling was the more intense for me, since I did not read him as a novice in philosophy, nor with some subsidiary interest in mind, but entirely dispassionately, and if anything, with hostile prejudice, after I had not only read but studied the works of Baumgarten , Leibniz, Shaftesbury, and Berkeley, in addition to the ancient philosophers. However, let us not linger in this astonishment which will clear up of itself when we examine his system. What criticisms have you to make of it?
PHILOLAUS: Where shall I begin? Where end? The whole system is a paradox to me. “There is but one Substance, and that is God. All things are but modifications of it.”
THEOPHRON: Do not be mistaken about the word “Substance.” Spinoza took it in its purest meaning, and had to take it in that way if he wanted to proceed geometrically and set down a primitive notion as a basis. What is Substance but a thing which is self-dependent, which has the cause of its existence in itself? I wish that this pure meaning of the word could have been introduced into our philosophy. In the strictest sense, nothing in the world is a Substance, because everything depends on everything else, and finally on God, who therefore is the highest and only Substance. This geometrical conception could not have become generally adopted in a philosophy which must preserve its popular character, for we, in all our dependence yet consider ourselves independent, and in a certain sense, as we shall soon see, we may so consider ourselves.
PHILOLAUS: But we are not mere modifications, are we?
THEOPHRON: The word offends us and will therefore never win a place in our philosophy. However, if the Leibnizian school dared to call matter an “appearance of substances,” why should not Spinoza be allowed his more drastic expression? The substances of the world are all maintained by divine power, just as they derived their existence from it alone. Therefore they constitute, if you will, appearances of divine powers, each modified according to the place, the time, and the organs in, and with which, they appear. In his single Substance, Spinoza thus employed a short formula which certainly gives his system much coherence, but which sounds strange to our ears. Nevertheless, it was better than the “occasional causes” of the Cartesians, from whom Spinoza started, and according to whom God is supposed to effect all things, but only on occasion. A far more awkward expression, yet how long it was current! Even the Leibnizian philosophy could only do away with it by means of another hypothesis, which indeed sounds more pleasant, but which also has its difficulties. It is the “preestablished harmony of all things,” which we shall soon discuss.
You see, my friend, there is no heresy in any of these expressions. One is merely more awkward than another, and at bottom we understand equally little by any of them. We do not know what power is, or how power works. Still less do we know how the Divine Power has produced anything, and how it imparts itself to everything according to its nature. However, that all things must depend upon one self-dependent nature, in their existence, their relationships, as well as in every expression of their powers, no consistent mind can doubt. What are you smiling at, Philolaus?
PHILOLAUS: I see so many pathetic declamations against Spinoza, which quarrelled with nothing but his names “single Substance” and “modifications,” suddenly dwindling to nothing. They were all fighting merely with a fog of troublesome words. You know, Theophron, what a host of ridiculous contradictions and blasphemies were imputed to him, as for example that, according to his system, God had to do all the evil as well as the good in the world; that He had to commit all follies, think all errors, to fight against Himself, and in the person of Spinoza, to blaspheme and deny Himself, and so on. What is true of Spinoza’s “modifications,” is true of Descarte’s “occasional causes,” of Leibniz’s “pre-established harmony,” yes, and no less true of the influxus physicus. If these things happen in God’s world, they happen through the use and misuse of His powers, that is to say, the powers which He created in dependent beings and which He maintains in them. His providence or His concurrent activity may be conceived in one way or another. In general I have found that if one sets forth the meaning of a man too absurdly and preposterously, one usually does an injustice, or pronounces some absurdity oneself. Such formulas, indeed, give one an easy victory over the most difficult matters. It is, however, only the semblance of a victory.
THEOPHRON: Then you will also find it no blasphemy, when Spinoza calls the Independent Being the immanent and not the transitive cause of all things?*
PHILOLAUS: How could I find it so, when, on the contrary, it is impossible to think of God as a transitive cause of things?
How and when and to what is He transitive? A creature without His support is nothing, and how can He be transitive who has no place, leaves no place, in whom there can be no change nor alteration?
THEOPHRON: But what if God dwells out of the world?
PHILOLAUS: Where is there a place out of the world? The world itself, and space and time therein, the sole means by which we measure and count things, all exist only through Him, the Infinite One.
THEOPHRON: Excellent, Philolaus. For then neither will you wander in that labyrinth of questions, asking:
How lonely God erst spent Eternity in thought?
Why Now a world He made and not Before? Or:
. How the vast round
Of Birthless Time was checked upon its course?
How came that Timeless changed to Time,
That once again must lose its tide in Timeless Sea?
PHILOLAUS: Nor shall I add:
That this is not for me to comprehend, nor ask,
Such speculations may my foes alone disturb.
For I would not wish even upon my enemy such a phantom of the imagination as a fathomless object of knowledge. God spent no “Eternity” in solitary thought. There was no “now” and no “before” before there was a world. God’s eternity is not a “birthless time” and there is no “course” in it. The eternal can as little become time, as time become eternity, or the finite become the infinite.
THEOPHRON: You have not learned that for the first time from Spinoza, have you?
PHILOLAUS: On the contrary, it pleased me that he passed straight over the usual wholly unphilosophical confusions on this matter, and rightly distinguished between time and eternity, between the indefinitely unending and the infinite-in-itself. The eternity of God cannot be defined in terms of any duration or time, even though one assumes the latter to be without limit (indefinite). Duration is an indefinite prolongation of existence, but at every point it carries with it a measure of transitoriness. Thus it can in no way be ascribed to the intransitive and completely changeless.
THEOPHRON: Then it follows also that the world is not eternal like God?
PHILOLAUS: It cannot be because it is a world, that is, a system of things ordered in, and according to time, and to none of which absolute existence or immutable eternity without measure and duration of time ever accrues.
THEOPHRON: Then it does not cause you any confusion in ideas, that the eternal power of God created, and yet, none of His creatures acquired His eternity, not even in their totality as a system?
PHILOLAUS: The eternal power of God created necessarily because it could never be inactive. But no created thing is eternal like God. For its existence depends upon a sequence, and like everything of its kind, has a temporal measure of change in it. Thus, too, a continuous creation of the world, though it be prolonged forever, will never become eternal through that prolongation. Its measure is endless, but in our minds it is nevertheless a measure.
I understand all that easily, but I have another question on my mind, which I could wish answered. It concerns the attributes of this infinite eternal God of Spinoza. How can he who so rightly distinguished between time and eternity, be on the other hand so loose as to make “extension an attribute of God?” He cannot often and strongly enough say: “God is an extensum.” Yet what applies to time applies equally to space, and if time be entirely incomparable with the idea of eternity, then space is equally incommensurable with the idea of a “simple Substance,” which Spinoza however insists upon with rock-like firmness.
THEOPHRON: What you say is very true. But if you note where Spinoza propounds this error, the reason for it will be immediately obvious.
PHILOLAUS: He propounds it when he distinguishes spirit from matter, that is, thought from extension.
THEOPHRON: Are matter and extension then the same? There you see the Cartesian error from which the philosopher could not free himself, and which makes half of his system obscure. Descartes defined matter in terms of extension. It could just as well be defined in terms of time, for both the one and the other are external conditions of its existence in spatial and temporal relations. Thus both become also the necessary conditions of measurement for all thinking minds, which are themselves limited by place and time, but they never become the essence of matter.
Spinoza struggled for a long time against this Cartesian explanation, probably because he felt that something about it was not clear. He was not satisfied with his teacher’s sharp distinction between matter and spirit, but, since he lacked a unifying intermediate conception, what could he do? Unfortunately then, in his Ethics he still took matter for extension, that is space, and set it up beside thought, an entirely different kind of thing. Now he was indeed on the way to a very intricate confusion. For tell me, my friend, what have thought and extension to do with each other? And how can just these two, out of an infinity of other attributes whose totality is supposed to express a supreme reality, be the only two attributes through which the Infinite has revealed Himself? What sort of reality is there in extension even if you take it to be endless, that is to say, indefinitely continued like an everlasting duration? Without essence, without active forces, extension is empty. It is only the condition of a world, of a co-existence of various creatures. It does not appertain to the absolutely Infinite, to the Creator, any more than it expresses any of the inner essential perfection of His existence which occupies no space, not even an endless space, and which endures in no time, not even an endless time.
PHILOLAUS: There, my dear Theophron, you take a weight from my heart, for this infinitely extended God of Spinoza was wholly unthinkable to me, besides seeming unworthy of a geometrical philosopher. I saw very well how he wished to escape the divisibility of this infinitely extended and yet simple being by means of the notion of mathematical space, since one cannot get physical bodies out of mathematical lines and surfaces. But since mathematical space is only an abstraction of the imagination, that is to say a condition of the truths which cannot be thought of save in space, it still gives no solution when regarded as an attribute of God through which physical bodies should be explained. I wish Spinoza had escaped this error which now seems to me to be the weakest point in his otherwise well-reasoned system.
THEOPHRON: Do not blame him for that. Truth quietly marches on. Spinoza’s times were the childhood of natural science, without which metaphysics only builds castles in the air or gropes about in the dark. The more corporeal matter was physically investigated, the more active or interactive forces were discovered in it, and the empty concept of extension was abandoned. Leibniz, in whose mind were assembled fruitful ideas from every province of nature and the sciences, even in his time insisted that in the conception of bodies too, it was necessary in the end to come to simple substances, about which he had so much to say under the name of monads. Since this man’s active mind so readily conceived everything in a hypothetical manner and expressed it half-poetically, his monads, which Wolff himself does not seem to have understood rightly, were soon regarded as a clever fiction. Yet I am convinced that of the three significant hypotheses with which he enriched metaphysics, this is the soundest, and will certainly be duly recognized sometime. Boscowich, though from an entirely different angle, arrived at exactly the same indivisible active elements without which the nature of matter cannot be explained even physically. Do you now know what the intermediate conception between spirit and -natter is, which, in order to escape the Cartesian dualism, Spinoza sought in vain?
PHILOLAUS: Substantial forces. Nothing is plainer than this, and nothing gives the Spinozistic system itself a more beautiful unity. If his Deity comprises within Himself infinite attributes each of which expresses an eternal and an infinite essence, then we no longer have to assert two attributes of thought and extension which have nothing in common. We dispense with that offensive and inappropriate word “attribute” entirely and replace it with the doctrine: “That the Deity reveals Himself in an infinite number of forces in an infinite number of ways.”
Immediately that difficult barrier to his system is also lifted, namely the question, “In what attributes other than thought and extension, does the Deity of other universes reveal Himself?” For according to our philosopher, God is supposed to possess an infinity of similar attributes which express His essence, and of which he could only name us these two. In all universes He reveals Himself through- forces. Furthermore this infinity of forces in God which expresses His essence, has no limits whatever, although it reveals the same God everywhere. Thus, we must not enviously inquire of any other universe how the Deity has revealed Himself in it. Everywhere it is the same as here. Everywhere organic forces alone can be active, and every one of them makes attributes of an infinite God known to us.
You see, my friend, what a fine inference as to the inner unity of the world follows from this. The world is not held together by space and time alone as if by external conditions, but much more intimately by its very essence, by the principle of its own existence, since everywhere only organic forces may be at work in it. In the world which we know, the power of thought stands highest, but it is followed by millions of other powers of feeling and activity, and He, the Self-dependent, is Power in the highest and only sense of the word, that is, the primal Force of all forces, the Soul of all souls. Without Him none of them came into being, without Him none are active, and all in their innermost connection express in every limitation, form, and appearance, His self-dependent nature, through which they all exist and work.
THEOPHRON: It makes me happy, Philolaus, that you understand this idea so clearly and make such rich use of it. You have thereby already almost molded our philosopher’s system into a faultless unity which it lacked before. But do you not perceive still other consequences following from this conception intermediate between mind and body, namely the conception of substantial organic forces?
PHILOLAUS: A whole set of others. For example, there is an end to all the objectionable expressions of how God, according to this or that system, may work on and through dead matter. It is not dead, but lives. For in it and conforming to its outer and inner organs, a thousand living, manifold forces are at work. The more we learn about matter, the more forces we discover in it, so that the empty conception of a dead extension completely disappears. just in recent times, what numerous and different forces have been discovered in the atmosphere! How many different forces of attraction, union, dissolution and repulsion, has not modern chemistry already found in all bodies? Before the magnetic, and the electrical forces were discovered, who would have suspected their existence in bodies, and what countless others may still lie dormant and undetected in them? It is a pity that such a thinker as Spinoza had to leave our stage so soon. He could not live to see the enormous -progress of science which would also have improved his system.
THEOPHRON: We too must depart my friend, and shall not live to see what is reserved for questing posterity. It is enough if we now, so long as we are here, apprehend the presence and activity of the Deity where and however He reveals Himself to us. Spinoza says that every attribute, or as we called it every force of God revealed in creation, expresses an infinite. What do you make of that, since every part of the world has its limits, not only in time and place, but also by reason of its inherent natural or divine energies?
PHILOLAUS: Are not space and time infinite? What an uncountable multitude of divine forces and forms can thus reveal itself in them! And since no two phenomena can be alike in time and place, what an infinity springs from this ever-new and ever-renewed source of divine beauty! Look out into the heavens at those galaxies of suns and worlds. Even now the Columbus of our nation is perhaps discovering with his telescope new hosts of them in one tiny cloud of mist invisible to our eyes. In what remarkable times we live, when hitherto unheard-of, unbelieved revelations of God come down to us from heaven, every one of them expressing anew the majestic glory of the Primal Being who created and sustains all these worlds.
The One and the Eternal Infinite
In Infinity resides, in Being
And in Act, Sustaining and Creating,
Ever One and Same and Infinite.
Like timeless columns stand the laws He thought,
Fixed as the thought. Change issues from their plan,
Omnipotence within them rests ...
THEOPHRON: Excellent, my good Philolaus, and in that last passage you have also suggested the infinity that lies intrinsically in every force of nature, even without regard to its connections in an endless time and space. Think of the inner abundance of force which shows itself in every living thing, how it came into existence through an enormous activity implanted in it, and how it could not maintain and reproduce itself otherwise than through such a force. Consider the forces which work so secretly in the structure of an animal! With what strength its parts hang together! What a mechanism of wheels and springs it needs to move, to prepare its vital secretions, to perform all the functions for which it is determined, and finally to bring forth and generate its own kind, living and active images of itself issuing from its own nature through its own power and condition. In generation itself there lies the marvel of an implanted, indwelling power of the Deity who, if I may speak so boldly, has limited Himself, as it were, in the natural constitution of every organism, and in this nature, works according to eternal laws, constant and immutable as Deity alone can work. In what we call dead matter there converge at every point, no fewer and no lesser divine forces. We are surrounded by omnipotence. We swim in an ocean of omnipotence, so that the old metaphor still remains true: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere,” because neither in space nor in time, as in mere figures of the imagination, does the imagination find an end anywhere. Thus it seems to me that Spinoza’s expression that: “Time is only a symbolical image of eternity” is a very happy one. I wish with you, that he had considered space similarly as against the absolute infinity of the indivisible. The essence of the eternal is not immeasurable for us alone. By its very nature it is impossible to measure. In every point of its activity which is a point only for us, it carries all its infinity in itself.
PHILOLAUS: I am afraid, my friend, that few will understand this distinction between the infinite-in-itself and the endless conceived in the imagination in terms of time and space, a distinction which is yet true and necessary. As limited beings we swim in space and time. We count and measure everything by them, and rise with difficulty from figures of the imagination to the pure idea which excludes all spatial and temporal measure. If this distinction had been understood, there would certainly not have been so much said of the mundane and extra-mundane God. Still less would Spinoza have ever been accused of enclosing his God within the world and identifying Him with it. His infinite and most real Being is no more the world itself than the infinite of reason is the same as the endless of the imagination. And thus, no part of the world can also be a part of God, because the simple highest Essence has no parts whatsoever. I now see clearly that our philosopher has been as unjustly accused of pantheism as of atheism.
All things, he says, are modifications, or as we would put it less objectionably, expressions of divine force, products of an immanent eternal activity of God in the world. But they are not separable parts of an entirely indivisible, single Being.
THEOPHRON: However we do not wish to deny, Philolaus, that many of Spinoza’s difficult expressions afforded an opportunity for misunderstandings of that sort to his opponents who confined themselves to only a few of his words, and had no desire to explain these by others of his clearest principles. He had conceived his system too loftily, and in addition based it on an unusual meaning of the word “Substance.” Then since he could not lift himself above the Cartesian fog that matter is only extension, he had to elect abstruse expressions in almost half of his system. However one should not have charged him with the error of having confused the nature of God and the world. Many of his theorems are so awkward for the very reason that he continually wants to distinguish God from the world, and he cannot often enough repeat the expression: “God regarded under such a mode, under such an attribute.” (Al) If he had chosen the conception of force and activity, then everything would have been easier for him, and his system would have been much more clear and unified. But this easier unity of philosophical truths was only developed gradually, and Leibniz, that Proteus of science, a mind more apt in synthesis than a million others, has the honor of having contributed much to this easier unity, after so many awkward ways of representing it in Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes and others.
A happy facility in forming manifold combinations it seems to me, was Leibniz’s shining talent. In his most insignificant passages he often sowed seeds which were by no means all cultivated, much less brought to a full harvest, by his follower Wolff who resembled him so little. He himself lacked the time to exhaust his own riches because he spread his genius over too many things, and death at last overtook him.
PHILOLAUS: With this observation, dear Theophron, you anticipate a similar one which I wanted to make earlier when you referred me to the intermediate conception between spirit and matter, that of substantial forces. After the crude expressions of Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes and others who attributed to matter either everything or nothing, that is to say mere extension, you ascribed to our German philosopher the honor of being the first to introduce into metaphysics the ground of its appearances, immaterial substances. Then what of his very ingenious but, it seems to me, very strained hypothesis of the pre-established harmony between thought and matter, which work like two clocks in agreement, though entirely independent of one another? Was it necessary after the introduction of the former hypothesis? For there too, matter was animated by immaterial forces, and every higher kind of immaterial force could work in it. Thus his own system confirmed the so-called influxus physicus which nature shows us everywhere and against which no arbitrary hypothesis is effective. The whole of God’s world becomes a realm of immaterial forces in which none is unrelated to others, because it is only by reason of the relationship and reciprocal activity between them all that the appearances and changes of the world come about, And with what little sacrifice could Leibniz have taken this step! For his pre-established harmony was in fact already in Cartesianism (as one of its errors), and Spinoza, Geulinx and others founded their whole division of spirits and bodies on it. Thus he was not truly the discoverer of this hypothesis at all, or at most, it was such an easy discovery for him that he could well have sacrificed it for his own more beautiful truth.
THEOPHRON: And it was just this proximity to Cartesianism, my friend, that hindered him in using his better explanation, for it is the fate of even the most fruitful human mind, that it is encompassed by place and time and so to speak, is reared in certain ideas, from which it can free itself only with difficulty.
Spiritually Leibniz lived the most flourishing years of his philosophical life in France more than in Germany. It was there that he had so many connections, and from there that the light of his keen mind first shone over Europe. Because in France Descartes and Malebranche were most famous, whether they were being defended or attacked, it was to this field of honor that his attention was primarily drawn. He thus framed his hypothesis of pre-established harmony with such ingenuity that it seemed new and capable of making the occasional causes of Descartes as well as Malebranche’s direct influence of God entirely superfluous, although it was itself built upon the defective doctrine of the former philosopher. Leibniz liked to adapt himself to the comprehension of others, and it was in this way that he invented his most ingenious hypotheses. When later, through the doctrine of the “Monadology” he pointed out an entirely different direction in the metaphysics of matter, he let stand the older hypothesis which had become well-known and had contributed much to his fame, because to a certain extent it could still be defended in conjunction with this new hypothesis. Though there no longer remained any pre-established harmony between spirit and body but rather a harmony between forces and forces, there was nevertheless still a harmony. For who could, and who indeed can now, explain how force works upon force?
PHILOLAUS: You rescue your honored philosopher very nicely! Permit me to say, however, that in all of Spinoza, in whom there is enough difficulty in any case, I find nothing so strained as this very pre-established harmony, which he too used as a starting point.
THEOPHRON: Are you not aware, Philolaus, that there is much art in attaining an easy victory over difficult matters, that is, in the rare gift of giving a facile exposition to highly involved matters and exercising a pleasant deception with it? So Columbus stood his egg on end, so Leibniz formed this hypothesis, and so many another hypothesis is formed.
PHILOLAUS: These are arts the like of which I do not want in philosophy even though they come from the most ingenious mind. The course of nature should be followed honestly.
THEOPHRON: Honestly, but also warily, for nature is as rich as it is simple. What Leibniz could not do (for he wrote no metaphysical system), others will do, and many attempts have already been made. Philosophy never stands still, as some wrongly believe, and even though it does rest for a time, then this apparent halt is certainly to its advantage. Physics and natural history are meanwhile progressing with mighty steps and, since speculative philosophy is only metaphysics, that is, an after-physics, it will always be rewarding to the human mind if philosophy does not press on ahead of it as it has done for centuries and, unfortunately, was forced to ...
PHILOLAUS: But since Descartes’ time, it has sought to follow the purest and most exact science, mathematics.
THEOPHRON: It did follow mathematics, and has learned from its guidance all that the latter could teach it; definiteness in ideas and exactness in proof and organization. But if ideas are once arbitrarily assumed or defectively abstracted, then no mathematically pure exposition of them in the best methodical order is of avail. The proofs become sophistry, and the strict formalism itself can become a hindrance to the truth. We saw this happen in Spinoza. The one arbitrarily assumed conception of matter necessitated a host of other arbitrary definitions of attributes, modes, space, body and so on, which the mathematical method could not remedy. In criticism there is a test which says that what is nonsense in prose must also be nonsense in poetry. So, too, crude expressions which give offense in free prose, cannot be vindicated through geometrical form alone. Instead it is vexing to see such doctrines proved, and one has to take one’s bearings. ...
PHILOLAUS: A deceitful kind of philosophy that, in which one has to take one’s bearings! For philosophy itself, in its very method, should orientate us. it is sufficient however that Spinoza is neither an atheist nor a pantheist. There still remains a third hard knot in him for me.
THEOPHRON: I can easily see what it is. But what if we found the most precious coin enclosed in this bard knot?
PHILOLAUS: It would make me very happy, and I should welcome all the trouble of undoing it. But who, my friend is the author of the scholastic ode which you recently gave me?
THEOPHRON: An atheist who was burnt at the stake, Vanini. When he was even at the place of execution, he took up a straw and said that if he were so unfortunate as to have no other proof of the existence of God than this straw, then it would be enough for him.
PHILOLAUS: And he was burnt nevertheless? Perhaps it was for some other heresy?
THEOPHRON: He was a vain young man of many abilities and with a great passion for glory. He wanted to become a Julius Caesar in philosophy, and became its tragic victim. How do you like his ode?
PHILOLAUS: For Vanini’s times it pleases me very well. The expression is in the Latin of that day, and the theory of the Highest Being is scholastic. But the second part of the poem is very sincere and from the heart. The poet is so absorbed in his theme that he summons up all the wealth of his language in order to represent to us the One without whom we are nothing, but through whom we are all that we are, and can, and do.
THEOPHRON: Then perhaps this page of Oriental maxims on the Highest Being will not displease you either. They are thought and expressed in the spirit of the Oriental languages, and cannot be read except in that spirit. Tomorrow we shall continue our discussion of Spinoza.