This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
May 27, 1988
Leibniz: Agape Embodies Natural Law
by Lawrence Freeman
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in a contemporary woodcut.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was one of the greatest universal thinkers the
human race ever produced. He was a consummate genius during a lifetime
which spanned the mid-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He made
major contributions in epistemology and philosophy as well as in many
individual fields of knowledge including physics, mathematics, economics,
engineering, history, and law.
Although qualified as the equivalent of a lawyer, Leibniz's contributions in
law were in advancing the concept of Natural Law. Leibniz enriched the
understanding of Natural Law (an area of law that is given little thought
today), building on the contributions of Nicholas of Cusa, Hugo Grotius, and
von Pufendorf. All of Leibniz's philosophy develops from his fundamental
outlook, that man's essential goodness, divinely given to him, is expressed in
its highest form by the notion of Christian charity.
This is so fundamental to all of Leibniz's contributions, that we could not
hope to understand any part of his life's work without first understanding
Refuting the Bestialist Thomas Hobbes
Leibniz, in developing his conception of Natural Law, was forced to deal
with Thomas Hobbes' completely degraded and bestial view of the human
species. Hobbes, an early contemporary of Leibniz, explicitly states these
views in his infamous book Leviathan. Here Hobbes boldly states that, from
inception, all human beings are in a constant state of war of each against all.
Ruled only by unbridled passions and emotions, man in this state barely
exhibits any human qualities and instead generally displays the characteristics of a talking beast. This is man in a state ruled by eros. Nominally eros
is equated with love, but in truth it is only erotic love, the same emotion that
drives lust, passion, rage, greed, and similar degraded desires that fuel
Hobbesian man's war of each against all. Hobbes says in Leviathan, "To this
war of every man against every man, this is also consequent: that nothing
can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no
According to Hobbes' world view, the only way mankind can survive this
condition is by establishing order through a more brutal force, a stronger
power, a supreme authority, that can impose its dictatorial will over the mass
of warring individuals. In this state, the only way to bring peace, so as to
enable society to exist, is by instilling the fear of death in each individual.
This body of authority, which Hobbes calls the Commonwealth, is brought
into existence to impose the necessary force to restrain the so-called natural
passions of man. In this Commonwealth, awesome power is given to one
individual, a tyrannical monarch who rules by force, to constrain the population from killing itself off. There are no real laws except the law of force.
For Hobbesian man, the notion of justice is absent and freedom is replaced
by the absolute rights of the individual ruled by eros to commit criminal and
sadistic acts against others—except those outlawed by the more powerful
and brutal monarch.
Leibniz attacks the heart of the matter—Hobbes' notion of man's relationship
to God. Hobbes' God is an unlovable tyrant who dictates without reason and
only through force. This God rules with, and for, absolute power devoid of
Goodness and Love, over a population of unhappy creatures he created to
live in misery and anarchy. This is not the same Creator we know in JudeoChristian culture, but is rather a force of pure evil.
In the appendices of Leibniz's most well-known book, the Theodicy, he says
in refutation of Hobbes,
After all, if God does not intend the good of intelligent creatures, if he
has no other principles of justice than his power alone, which makes
him produce arbitrarily that which chance presents to him, or by necessity all that which is possible, without the intervention of choice
founded on the good, how can he make himself worthy of love? It is
therefore the doctrine either of blind power or of arbitrary power,
which destroys piety: for one destroys the intelligent principle of the
providence of God, the other attributes to him actions which are
appropriate to the evil principle.
In this, Leibniz asserts that, without man's love of God—that God who
created man with reason—and without love of God's creation of intelligent
creatures, there can be no law. No law based on a just moral code can exist,
but only a law of arbitrariness, a law which serves only to delimit the power
of eros so man can survive in his Hobbesian, bestial state. This view of law,
and God the law-giver, is contrary to every principle of Christianity. In the
Gospel according to Saint Matthew, love of God and man is inextricably
linked to Natural Law: "Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is
the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hangs all law
and the prophets" (XXII:37-40.).
Raphael's The Holy Family of the Lamb
In this version of the theme of the "Holy Family in a Landscape" which he painted
over and over during the first decade of the 16th century, Raphael composes
interlocking gestures and glances to evoke the concept of "agape." While every
figure is in motion, the picture has great stability because this motion rotates
around Joseph's staff. The Virgin Mary encourages the Christ Child to develop by
his play with the Lamb, which stands for His future sacrifice. As Mary watches
Christ, Christ turns to look upward into the eyes of St. Joseph, who gazes past the
mother to the Child, closing the circle of the three figures. Thus Raphael endows
an image of loving relationships in a human family, with the higher meaning of the
divine mission of Christ, differently understood by each member of the group.
This painting is in Madrid's Prado Museum.
Leibniz's View of Natural Law
When Leibniz says, "Natural law is that which preserves or promotes natural
societies," he is clearly speaking of a conception of law that encompasses far
more than what we know as civil or constitutional law.
Leibniz's conception of natural law comprehends the following. Societies
are preserved through advances in technologically vectored economic
progress. With man's divinely given powers of creative reason comes man's
responsibility to increasingly perfect his knowledge of the lawfulness of the
universe, a process which leads to new great scientific discoveries. The
continual progressive advancement of society through successive
discoveries in understanding the laws of the universe brings man into closer
agreement with the lawfulness of the universe. Man's ability to constantly
reorganize his behavior in the physical universe in an improved manner, is
his uniquely human quality, and is possessed by man alone.
If we agree that the universe follows a lawful path of development, and if we
agree that it is susceptible to be understood less imperfectly over time, and if
we agree that the creative functions of the human mind are uniquely capable
of understanding this lawfulness through successive scientific discoveries,
then we understand the broad implications of Leibniz's statement on Natural
Law. The history of the development of the human species over several
hundred thousand years provides the scientific proof of the existence of
Since Natural Law is acted upon and acts on human beings in a unique way,
it is appropriate to examine the questions of what, under Natural Law,
should be man's relationship to man, and man and society's relationship to
the continuous process of creation.
Agape and Natural Law
In his Codex Iuris Gentium, Leibniz says, "The doctrine of law, taken from
nature's strict confines, presents an immense field of study. But the notions
of law and justice, even after having been treated by so many illustrious
authors, have not been made sufficiently clear."
For Leibniz, justice takes on a unique meaning: "Charity which follows the
dictates of wisdom." Charity, in this context, has nothing to do with the
common, everyday notion of charity as a liberal handout to the needy.
Clearly, if Leibniz were referring to that notion of charity, his notion of
justice would have no real content. The notion of charity that is being discussed, is the biblical notion of charity derived from the Greek word agape.
The meaning of charity-agape refers to divine love of God for man, human
love of man for God, and the love of man for his fellow man, mediated
through his love of God.
Leibniz defines it thus:
Charity is a universal benevolence and benevolence the habit of loving or of willing the good. Love then signifies rejoicing in the happiness of another, or, what is the same thing, converting the happiness of
another into one's own. With this is resolved the difficult question, of
great moment in theology as well: in what way disinterested love is
possible, independent of hope, fear and of regard for any question of
utility. In truth, the happiness of those whose happiness pleases us
turns into our own happiness, since the things which please us are
desired for their own sake. And since the contemplation of the beautiful is pleasant in itself, and a painting of Raphael affects a sensitive
person who understands it, although it brings him no material gain, so
that he keeps it in his mind's eye, as the image of happiness, this
affection passes over into pure love. But the divine love excels all
other loves, because God can be loved with the greatest result, since
nothing is happier that God, and nothing more beautiful or more
worthy of happiness can be conceived. And since He possesses
supreme power and supreme wisdom, His happiness does not simply
become ours if we are wise: that is, if we love him, but even creates
ours. But since wisdom ought to guide charity, it will be necessary to
define it wisdom. I believe that we can best render the concept that
men have of it, if we say that wisdom is nothing but the science of
Without this notion of charity, Natural Law cannot be efficiently comprehended. And it is this notion, charity-agape, that subsumes international law
among nations, constitutional law, and civil law.
Leibniz establishes three degrees of law. The lowest degree is ius strictum,
which means letter of the law or strict right. The next higher level is charity,
but in a more narrow sense of the term than previously discussed. The highest level is piety or moral excellence.
These three levels of law correspond to three notions of legal rights. The
first, lowest level corresponds to the restriction that one should not bring
harm to another. This is the level on which Hobbes' monarch rules. He uses
his power to prevent a war of all against all from destroying society.
The middle level corresponds to what most people expect from the state. To
be fair to each citizen, give each one their fair due. Each citizen is expected
to be as good as they understand what the good is, and to act on behalf of it
to the best of their ability. (Needless to say, our present government does
not even live up to these limited expectations.)
In Hobbesian law, which is at the level of ius strictum, there is no notion of
the good at all. This is simple Roman law. On the second level, the law of
equity expresses simple morality, in agreement with the golden rule: Do
unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It is on the third, and highest level, that universal justice exists. At this level,
the highest precept of law is that man is commanded to live honorably, but
needs no such commandment to do so. He chooses to live honorably not
from simple obligation or duty, but because only by living honorably,
piously, can man attain happiness, and live in accordance with Natural Law.
On the level of ius strictum, one can be commanded not to do evil, and
under the law of equity one can be encouraged to do good to others, but on
the highest plateau of law one locates one's actions only in how they contribute to the good of humanity—there is no other criteria or commandment
necessary. It is on this plateau that man lives in the imitation of the Creator
and acts with a universal identity.
Leibniz's own life was an example of one who lived this way and he describes it in the following way:
Thus he who acts well, not out of hope or fear, but by inclination of
his soul, is so far from not behaving justly, that on the contrary, he
acts more justly than all others, imitating, in a certain way, as a man,
divine justice. Whoever, indeed, does good out of love of God or of
his neighbor, takes pleasure precisely in the action itself (such being
the nature of love) and does not need any other incitement, or the
command of a superior: for that man the saying that law is not made
for the just is valid.
To such a degree is it repugnant to reason to say that only law or
constraint makes man just: although it must be conceded that those
who have not reached this point of spiritual perfection are only susceptible of obligation by hope or by fear; and that the prospect of
divine vengeance, which one cannot escape by death, can better than
anything else make apparent to them the absolute and universal
necessity to respect law and justice.
Leibniz's understanding that the law is not made for the just, it is not necessary for those who live piously, is found in the instructions of Paul the
Apostle to Timothy: "But we know that the law is good, if a man use it
lawfully: Knowing this, that law is not made for the righteous man, but for
the lawless and disobedient." (Tim.I:8-9.)
The Nation-State and Natural Law
To bring mankind into greater coherence with Natural Law, all members of
society must be encouraged to live the pious, honorable life. Thus, the state
needs to go beyond simple morality to a higher level of morality. Leibniz
follows Cusa's discussion of the microcosm—the individual—realizing itself
in the macrocosm—the universe—with his treatise, The Monadology. Leibniz says: ". . . that each simple substance (the monad) has relations which
express all the others and consequently, is a perpetual living mirror of the
universe." Man mediates his relationship to the universe through society,
organized in the nation-state. So the contracted macrocosm becomes the
nation-state for the microcosm—man, whose existence is given by the
Creator. Thus, the most effective way to guide man's behavior into greater
service of Natural Law is to alter the actions of the nation-state itself in that
In his concluding remarks on Natural Law, Leibniz suggests the light of
reason as the pathway to reach the good: "To summarize, we shall say in
general that: The end of natural law is the good of those who observe it; its
object, all that which concerns others and is in our power; finally, its
efficient cause in us is the light of eternal reason, kindled in our minds by
Acting for the good of others flows from the emotion of love identified as
agape-charity. To act for humanity in such a loving manner reflects the
highest moral standard for any individual in the conduct of his mortal life.
This action on behalf of the good proceeds according to the path of
development lit by "the eternal light of reason."
The relationship between morality, reason, and agapic love is realized in
each individual's contribution to the progress of society. Each and every
human being is created with the potential to act in this way. It has been
recognized throughout history, that the Judeo-Christian culture of the West
was conceived to foster this quality of morality, love, and reason in the
To help each citizen achieve this level of morality and to live the honorable
life, nation-states should consciously conduct themselves to act on behalf of
a higher legal code, going above simple encouragement to citizens to be
good and fair to others. Were our country to conduct its affairs on this level,
we would have a significant improvement over what we have today. But
that would still not be sufficient.
The nation-state should consciously act to uplift its citizenry, so they can
more perfectly contribute to the development of the human race in accordance with Natural Law. The right kind of educational process would
provide our youth with an appreciation of the force of Natural Law. And our
highest elected officials should be prepared to provide the moral leadership
necessary to guide our nation in the service of Natural Law. It would do
well for us all to learn at least this much from Leibniz.