Book Reveals World of Philosophers

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" by Steven Nadler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Today, the term “religious conflict” might bring to mind the troubles in the Middle East and the culture clash between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Perhaps it might recall the rise of the Evangelical Right in America and the debate over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in schools. But in his book “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” Steven Nadler evokes a time when the greatest religious conflicts were located within the Christian Church itself, between Protestantism and Catholicism. Nadler relays the intellectual debate that took place between three 17th-century theologians: Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, Antoine Arnauld, and Nicolas Malebranche. Despite the dry, theological substance of their dialogue, Nadler’s lively narrative creates an engaging portrait of the 17th century that brings to life their philosophical conversation. Even though Nadler does not truly make an argument for any of the ways to view the world or fit them within a larger argument of his own, he offers the reader an introduction into the world as the three philosophers saw it.

The three philosophers focus on questions of God’s identity and his intentions in creating the world the way it is. Is this the best world that God could have created? If it is, why does evil exist? If God could have created better worlds, why would he have chosen to create this one? Liebniz argues that this is the best of all possible worlds, since it would be impossible that “an infinitely good and perfect God could choose anything less.” Malebranche believes that God first created a set of simple laws, and under them created the best world possible. A world with less evil might exist, he believes, but only if God made a world whose laws of nature were much more complex. Arnauld, taking a similar approach to that of Liebniz, believes that if the world is considered as a whole, the good and the evil included, it is—despite its imperfections—the best world God could have created.

While Nadler clearly lays out the argument of each philosopher, the strength of his book lies not in the particulars of his theological discussion, but in the vision he presents of intellectual life in the 17th century. Nadler opens his narrative with Liebniz’s visit to Paris as a young German diplomat, and his immediate and long-lasting fascination with the city. The evocative descriptions of the city—which was, at the time, beginning its transformation from a medieval town to a modern capital of the arts—immerse the reader in the landscape Liebniz came to love. Moreover, Nadler connects the architectural elegance to the philosophical eloquence that developed there. He opens one chapter with a vision of the Petit Pont, a bridge between the Left Bank and the Île de la Cité: “It is a nondescript bridge, nothing like the magnificent Pont Neuf that runs all the way across the narrow west end of the island and over to the Right Bank.” He adds, however, that “despite its modest appearance, the Petit Pont holds an exalted place in the intellectual history of Paris,” and goes on to explain that the bridge served as a place for philosophers to meet and debate in the open air.

Most importantly, Nadler draws a deft portrait of each philosopher, unearthing the intriguing personalities that lie beneath the verbose theological debates. His Liebniz is a slightly self-obsessed scholar, eager to impart his ideas and persistent in seeking out commentaries from the key philosophers of the day. “Not everyone was as impressed with Liebniz’s innovations as Liebniz himself,” Nadler writes. In contrast, Malebranche is the archetypical reclusive scholar, who is less concerned with credit than with finding the truth. Arnauld emerges as the most fiery of the three—unafraid to offend others and often hiding away on account of his controversial teachings.

By so carefully portraying the landscape, details, and characters of the 17th century, Nadler allows his reader to enter into the mindset of the period and therefore better understand the significance of the three philosophers’ discussions of good and evil. Set against the contrasting established views of the Church and the very beginnings of modern science, Nadler captures the intensity of their debate as they tried to understand the intellectual challenges of their day.

The landscape of Europe—and of the entire globe—has dramatically changed since the correspondence of Leibniz, Arnauld, and Malebranche took place; most ideas that were dangerous for them to disseminate, such as an adherence to Cartesian philosophy, no longer hold the same risks. But in reproducing the debate that was at the center of 17th-century scholasticism, Nadler not only recalls the arguments that the three philosophers made but also recreates the rigor and the intellectual curiosity with which they approached the fundamental questions of their time. After being carefully led through Nadler’s vision of the 17th century, the reader must return to the 21st—but perhaps with renewed attentiveness to the philosophical debates taking place today.

—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at rburns@fas.harvard.edu.