Leibniz on the Universal Spirit 1702

The Philosophical Works of Leibnitz p. 139ff by Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz, 1646-1716

XXII. Considerations on the Doctrine of a Universal Spirit. 1702.


MANY ingenious persons have believed, and believe now, that there is but one spirit, which is universal and which animates all the universe and all its parts, each one in accordance with its structure and organs, just as the same breath of wind makes the various pipes of an organ give forth different sounds. And that thus when an animal has its organs well placed, it produces there the effect of an individual soul, but when the organs are spoiled, this individual soul again becomes nothingness, or returns, so to speak, into the ocean of the universal spirit.

Aristotle has seemed to many to hold a like opinion, which Averroes, a celebrated Arabian philosopher, has renewed. He believed that there was in us an intellectus agens or active understanding, and also an intellectus patiens or passive understanding: that the former, coming from without, was eternal and universal for all, but that the passive understanding was peculiar to each, and took its departure at the death of man. In the last two or three centuries, this has been the doctrine of some Peripatetics, as of Pomponatius, Contarenus and others; and traces of it are to be recognized in the late M. Naude, as his letters and the Naudseana, which have been lately published, show. They taught this in secret to their most intimate and best qualified disciples, while in public they had the cleverness to say that this doctrine was in reality true according to philosophy, by which they understood that of Aristotle par excellence, but that it was false according to faith. Hence have finally arisen the disputes over double truth which the last Lateran Council condemned.

I have been told that Queen Christina had a decided leaning toward this opinion, and as M. Naude, who was her librarian, was imbued with it, he probably communicated to her what he knew of the secret views of the celebrated philosophers with whom he had had intercourse in Italy. Spinoza, who admits only one substance, is not far removed from the doctrine of a single, universal spirit, and even the New Cartesians, who claim that God alone acts, establish it likewise without noticing it. Apparently Molinos and several other New Quietists, among others, a certain Joannes Angelus Silesius, who wrote before Molinos and some of whose works have recently been reprinted, and even Weigelius before them, embraced this opinion of the Sabbath or rest of souls in God. This is why they believed that the cessation of particular functions was the highest state of perfection.

It is true that the Peripatetic philosophers did not make this spirit quite universal, for besides the intelligences, which according to them, animated the stars, they had an intelligence for this world here below ; and this intelligence performed the part of the active understanding in the souls of men. They were led to this doctrine of an immortal soul common to all men, by false reasoning. For they took for granted that actual infinite multiplicity is impossible and that thus it was not possible that there should be an infinite number of souls, but that there must be nevertheless, if individual souls existed. For the world being, according to them, eternal, and the human race also, and new souls always being born, if these all continued to exist, there would now be an actual infinity. This reasoning passed among them for a proof. But it was full of false suppositions. For neither the impossibility of actual infinitude, nor that the human race has existed eternally, nor the generation of new souls, would be admitted, since the Platonists teach the preexistence of souls, and the Pythagoreans teach metempsychosis, and claim that a certain determined number of souls remains ever and undergoes changes.

The doctrine of a universal spirit is good in itself, for all those who teach it admit in effect the existence of the divinity, whether they believe that this universal spirit is supreme for in this case they hold that it is God himself, or whether they believe with the Cabalists that God created it. This latter was also the opinion of Henry More, an Englishman, and of certain other modern philosophers, and especially of certain chemists who believed in a universal Archseus or world-spirit; and some have maintained that it was this spirit of the Lord which, as the beginning of Genesis says, “moved upon the waters.”

But when they go so far as to say that this universal spirit is the only spirit and that there are no souls or individual spirits, or at least that these individual souls cease to exist, I believe that they pass the limits of reason, and advance, without grounds, a doctrine of which they have not even a distinct notion. Let us examine a little the apparent reasons upon which they rest this doctrine which destroys the immortality of souls and degrades the human race, or rather, all living creatures, from that rank which belongs to them and which has commonly been attributed to them. For it seems to me that an opinion of so much importance ought to be proved, and that it is not sufficient to have imagined a supposition of this kind, which really is only founded on a very shocking comparison with the wind which animates musical organs.

I have showed above that the pretended demonstration of the Peripatetics who maintained that there was but one spirit, common to all men, is of no force, and rests only on false suppositions. Spinoza has pretended to prove that there is only one substance in the world, but these proofs are contemptible or unintelligible. And the New Cartesians, who believed that God alone is active, gave no proof of it ; not to mention that Father Malebranche seemed to admit at least the internal action of individual spirits. One of the most apparent reasons which have been urged against individual souls, is the embarrassment as to their origin. The scholastic philosophers have disputed greatly over the origin of forms, among which they include souls. Opinions differed greatly as to whether there was an education of power from matter, as a statue is extracted from marble; or whether there was a traduction of souls so that a new soul should be born of a preceding soul as one fire is lighted from another; or whether souls already existed and only made themselves known after the generation of the animal; or finally whether souls were created by God every time there was a new generation.

Those who denied individual souls, believed that they were thereby freeing themselves from all difficulties, but this is cutting the knot instead of untying it, and there is no force in an argument which would run thus: the explanations of a doctrine have been various, hence the whole doctrine is false. This is the manner in which sceptics reason and if it were to be accepted, there would be nothing which could not be rejected. The experiments of our time lead us to believe that souls and even animals have always existed, although in small volume, and that generation is only a kind of growth; and in this way all the difficulties concerning the generation of souls and of forms, disappear. However we do not refuse God the right to create new souls or to give a higher degree of perfection to those which are already in nature, but we speak of what is ordinary in nature without entering into the particular economy of God in respect to human souls, which may have privileges since they are infinitely above those of animals.

In my opinion what has greatly contributed to incline ingenious persons toward the doctrine of a single universal spirit, is the fact that common philosophers gave currency to a theory, treating of separate souls and the functions of the soul independent of the body and of the organs, which they could not sufficiently justify; they had good reason for wishing to maintain the immortality of the soul as in accordance with divine perfections and true morality, but seeing that, in death, the organs visible in animals became disordered and finally spoiled, they believed themselves obliged to have recourse to separate souls, that is to say, to believe that the soul existed without any body, and did not even then cease to have its thoughts and activities. And in order to better prove this they tried to show that the soul, even in this life, has abstract thoughts, independent of material ideas. Now those who rejected this separate state and this independence, as contrary to experience and reason, were all the more compelled to believe in the extinction of the particular soul and the preservation of the single, universal spirit.

I have examined this matter carefully and I have proved that really there are in the soul some materials of thought or objects of the understanding which the external senses do not furnish, namely, the soul itself and its activities (nihil est in intelleotu quod non fuerit in sensu, nisi ipse intellects]; and those who believe in a universal spirit will readily grant this, since they distinguish it from matter. I find, nevertheless, that there is never an abstract thought which is not accompanied by some images or material traces, and I have established a perfect parallelism between what takes place in the soul and what takes place in matter, having shown that the soul with its activities is something distinct from matter, but that nevertheless it is always accompanied by organs which must correspond to it; and that this is reciprocal and always will be.

And as to the complete separation between soul and body, although I can say nothing beyond what is said in the Holy Scriptures of the laws of grace and of what God has ordained in respect to human souls in particular since these are things which cannot be known through the reason and which depend upon revelation and upon God himself, nevertheless, I see no reason either in religion or in philosophy, which obliges me to give up the doctrine of the parallelism of the soul and the body, and to admit a perfect separation. For why might not the soul always retain a subtile body, organized in its fashion, and even resume some day, in the resurrection, as much as is necessary of its visible body, since we accord to the blessed a glorious body and since the ancient Fathers accorded a subtile body to the angels?

Moreover this doctrine is conformable to the order of nature, established through experience; for the observations of very skillful observers make us believe that animals do not begin when the ordinary person thinks they do, and that the seminal animals, or animated seeds, have existed ever since the beginning of things. Order and reason demand also that what has existed since the beginning should not end; and thus as generation is only the growth of a transformed and developed animal, so death will only be the diminution of a transformed and developed animal, while the animal itself will always remain, during the transformations, as the silkworm and the butterfly are the same animal. And it is well to remark here that nature has the skill and the goodness to reveal its secrets to us in a few little samples, to make us judge of the rest, since everything is correspondent and harmonious. It shows this also in the transformation of caterpillars and of some insects for flies also come from worms to make us divine that there are transformations everywhere. Experiments with insects have destroyed the common belief that these animals are engendered through nourishment, without propagation. It is thus also that nature has shown us in the birds a specimen of the generation of all animals by means of eggs, a fact which new discoveries have now established. Experiments also with the microscope have shown that the butterfly is only a development of the caterpillar; but, above all, that the seeds contain the plant or animal already formed, although afterward it needs transformation and nutrition or growth in order to become an animal perceptible to our ordinary senses. And as the smallest insects are also engendered by the propagation of the species, we must judge the same to be true of these little seminal animals, namely, that they themselves come from other seminal animals, even smaller, and so began to exist when the world did. This is in harmony with the Sacred Scriptures, which imply that seeds existed first of all.

Nature has given us an example in sleep and swoons, which ought to make us believe that death is not a cessation of all the functions, but only a suspension of certain of the more noticeable functions. And I have explained elsewhere an important point, which not having been sufficiently considered has the more easily inclined men to the opinion of the mortality of souls: namely, that a large number of minute perceptions, equal and interbalanced, having no background and no distinguishing marks, are not noticed and cannot be remembered. But to wish to conclude from this that the soul is then altogether without functions is the same thing as when the common people believe that there is a vacuum or nothing where there is no visible matter, and that the earth is without motion, because its motion is not noticeable, being uniform and without shocks. We have innumerable minute perceptions which we cannot distinguish; a great deafening noise, as, for example, the murmur of a whole assembled people, is composed of all the little murmurs of particular persons which we would not notice separately, but of which we have nevertheless a sensation, otherwise we would not be sensible of the whole. So when an animal is deprived of the organs capable of giving it sufficiently distinct perceptions, it does not at all follow that there do not remain to it smaller and more uniform perceptions, nor that it is deprived of all organs and all perceptions. The organs are only folded up and reduced to small volume, but the order of nature demands that everything redevelop, and, some day, return to a visible state, and that there be in these changes a certain well-regulated progress, which serves to make things ripen and become perfect. It appears that Democritus himself saw this resuscitation of animals, for Plotinus says that he taught a resurrection.

All these considerations show how not only individual souls, but also animals, exist, and that there is no reason to believe in an utter extinction of souls nor a complete destruction of the animal, and consequently that there is no need to have recourse to a single universal spirit and to deprive nature of its particular and existing perfections which would be in reality also not to sufficiently consider its order and harmony. There are besides many things in the doctrine of a single, universal spirit which cannot be maintained and involve difficulties much greater than those of the common doctrine.

Here are some of them: you see, in the first place, that the comparison with the wind which makes various pipes sound differently, natters the imagination, but explains nothing, or rather implies exactly the contrary. For this universal breath of the pipes is only a collection of a quantity of separate breaths ; moreover each pipe is filled with its own air which can even pass from one pipe to another, so that this comparison would establish rather individual souls, and would even favor the transmigration of souls from one body to another, as the air can change pipes.

And if we imagine that the universal spirit is like an ocean, composed of innumerable drops, which are detached from it when they animate some particular organic body, but reunite themselves to the ocean after the destruction of the organs, you again form a material and gross idea which does not suit the subject and becomes entangled in the same difficulties as the breath. For as the ocean is a collection of drops, God would likewise be an assembly of all the souls, just as a swarm of bees is an assembly of these little animals; but as this swarm is not itself a real substance, it is clear that in this way the universal spirit would not be a true being itself, and instead of saying that it is the only spirit, we should have to say that it is nothing at all in itself, and that there are in nature only individual souls, of which it would be the mass. Moreover these drops, reunited to the ocean of the universal spirit after the destruction of the organs, would be in reality souls which would exist separated from matter, and we should fall back again into what we wished to avoid, especially if these drops retain something of their preceding state, or have still some functions and could even acquire more sublime ones in the ocean of the divinity or of the universal spirit. For if you wish that these souls, reunited to God, be without any function of their own, you fall into an opinion contrary to reason and all sound philosophy, as if any existing being could ever reach a state where it would be without any function or impression. For one thing because it is joined to another does not therefore cease to have its own particular functions, which joined with those of the other, produce the functions of the whole. Otherwise the whole would have none, if the parts had none. Besides I have elsewhere proved that every being retains perfectly all the impressions it has received, although these impressions may not be perceptible singly, because they are joined with many others. So the soul reunited to the ocean of souls, would always remain the particular soul it had been while separated.

This shows that it is more reasonable and more in conformity with the custom of nature to allow individual souls to exist in the animals themselves, and not outside in God, and so to preserve not only the soul but also the animal, as I have explained above and elsewhere; and thus to allow individual souls to remain always in activity, that is, in the particular functions which are peculiar to them and which contribute to the beauty and order of the universe, instead of reducing them to the sabbath in God of the Quietists, that is to say, to a state of idleness and uselessness. For as far as the beatific vision of blessed souls is concerned, it is compatible with the functions of their glorified bodies, which will not cease to be, in their way, organic.

But if some one wished to maintain that there are no individual souls, not even when the function of feeling and of thought takes place with the aid of the organs, he would be refuted by our experience which teaches us, as it seems to me, that we are a something in particular, which thinks, which perceives, which wills; and that we are distinct from another something which thinks and which wills other things.

Otherwise we fall into the opinion of Spinoza, or of some other similar authors, who will have it that there is but one substance, namely God, which thinks, believes and wills one thing in me, but which thinks, believes and wills exactly the contrary in another; on opinion of which M. Bayle, in certain portions of his Dictionary, has well shown the absurdity.

Or, if there is nothing in nature but the universal spirit and matter, we would have to say that if it is not the universal spirit itself which believes and wills opposite things in different persons, it is matter which is different and acts differently; but if matter acts, of what use is the universal spirit? If matter is nothing but an original passive substance, or a passive substance only, how can these actions be attributed to it? It is therefore much more reasonable to believe that besides God, who is the supreme activity, there are a number of individual active beings, since there are a number of particular and opposite actions and passions, which could not be attributed to the same subject; and these active beings are the individual souls.

We know also that there are degrees in all things. There is an infinity of degrees between any movement and perfect repose, between hardness and a perfect fluidity which is without any resistance, between God and nothingness. There is likewise an infinity of degrees between any active being whatsoever and a purely passive being. Consequently it is not reasonable to admit but one active being, namely the universal spirit, with a single passive being, namely matter.

It must also be considered that matter is not a thing opposed to God, but that it is rather opposed to the limited active being, that is, to the soul or to form. For God from whom matter as well as form comes is the supreme being opposed to nothingness; and the purely passive is something more than nothingness, being capable of something, while nothing can be attributed to nothingness. Thus with each particular portion of matter must be connected the particular forms, that is, souls and spirits, which belong to it.

I do not wish here to recur to a demonstrative argument which I have employed elsewhere, and which is drawn from the unities or simple things, among which individual souls are included. For this unavoidably obliges us not only to admit individual souls, but also to avow that they are immortal by their nature, and as indestructible as the universe; and, what is more, that each soul is in its way a mirror of the universe, without any interruption, and that it contains in its depths an order corresponding to that of the universe itself. The souls diversify and represent the universe in an infinity of ways, all different and all true, and multiply it, so to speak, as many times as is possible, so that in this way they approach divinity as much as is possible, according to their different degrees, and give to the universe all the perfection of which it is capable.

After this, I do not see on what reason or probability the doctrine of individual souls can be combated. Those who do so, admit that what is in us is an effect of the universal spirit. But the effects of God are subsistent, not to say that even the modifications and effects of creatures are in a way durable, and that their impressions only unite without being destroyed. Therefore, if in accordance with reason and experience, as we have shown, the animal, with its more or less distinct perceptions and with certain organs, always subsists, and if consequently this effect of God subsists always in these organs, why would it not be permissible to call it the soul, and to say that this effect of God is a soul, immaterial and immortal, which imitates in a way the universal spirit? Since this doctrine, more over, does away with all difficulties, as appears by what I have just said here and in other writings, which I have produced on these subjects.


The Philosophical Works of Leibnitz p. 139ff

Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz, 1646-1716