III. MALEBRANCHE: 1638–1715

Against the infidel progeny of Gassendi and Descartes the faith found powerful defenders not only in Pascal, Bossuet, and Fénelon, but in one of the subtlest metaphysicians of modern times.

Nicolas de Malebranche was an almost exact contemporary of Louis XIV: born a month before him, dying a month after him. There was no further resemblance. Nicolas was gentle of spirit and pure of life. As his father was secretary to Louis XIII, and his uncle was viceroy of Canada, he had every advantage of birth and rearing except health; his body was feeble and deformed, and only a frugal regimen in the routine and peace of monastic life can explain his seventy-seven years. At twenty-two he joined the Congregation of the Oratory, a religious order dedicated to meditation and preaching. At twenty-six he was ordained priest.

In that same year he came upon Descartes’ Traité de p’homrne. He was transported by both its argument and its style. He became a Cartesian with a sublime faith in reason; and he at once resolved to prove by reason the Catholic creed in which he had rooted his life and his hopes. This was a brave move away from Pascal back to St. Thomas Aquinas; it showed the splendid confidence of youth, but it exposed the citadel of faith to the inroads of reason. After ten years of study and writing, Malebranche issued in four volumes (1674) one of the classics of French philosophy, De la Recherche de la vérité (The Search for Truth). Here, as by all the philosophers of France, the moral obligation to be intelligible was accepted, and philosophy became literature.

Descartes had not only begun his lucubrations with the self, but had set such a gulf between the body physical and mechanical and the mind spiritual and free, that no interaction between them could be conceived. And yet that interaction seemed indisputable: an idea could move an arm or an army, and a drug could muddle the mind. Half the puzzling of Descartes’ successors was devoted to bridging the gap between flesh and thought.

A Flemish philosopher, Arnold Geulincx, prepared for Malebranche—and for Spinoza and Leibniz—by denying the interaction. The material body does not act upon the immaterial mind or vice versa; when either seems to act upon the other it is only because God has created reality in two distinct streams of events, the one physical, the other mental; their synchronism is like that of two clocks, set to the same second and speed and striking the same hours simultaneously, but operating quite independently of each other except that both have one source—the intelligence that set and started them. So God is the sole source of both the physical and mental series of causes and effects; the mental state is the occasion, not the cause, of the apparently resultant physical motion; and the physical motion—event or sensation—is merely the occasion of the mental state that it seems to cause; in each case God alone is the cause.* At this point Geulincx, fearful of determinism, broke into his system by allowing that in conscious actions the human will, co-operating with God, can be a real cause of physical results.

Malebranche made this hesitant “occasionalism” complete. God is always the cause of both the physical act and the mental state; their interaction is illusory; neither ever acts upon the other. “God alone drives back the air which He Himself has made me breathe. . . . It is not I who breathe; I breathe despite myself. It is not I who speak to you; I merely wish to speak to you.” 9 God [the total energy of the universe] is the only power. Whatever moves or thinks does so because the divine power acts through the physical and mental processes. Motion is God acting in material forms; thought is God thinking in us.

In this apparently deterministic philosophy there are countless difficulties, which in later treatises Malebranche tried to resolve. He struggled to harmonize some degree of free will in man with the universal agency of God, and to reconcile evil and suffering and multitudinous deviltry with the sole and omnipresent causality of an omnipotent and omniscient benevolence; we shall not follow him into these labyrinths. But in the course of his wandering he leaves a helpful thread of psychology. Sensations, he thinks, are in the body, not in the mind; the mind has ideas, and knows objects only as bundles of ideas—of structure, size, color, odor, solidity, sound, temperature, taste. These idea complexes are built up not merely from the object; most of the qualities here named are not in the object; and many of our judgments about the object—that it is large, small, bright, dim, heavy, light, hot, cold, quickly moving or slow—describe the position, condition, and attitude of the observer rather than the attributes of the thing observed. We do not know things; we know only our prejudiced and transformed perceptions and ideas. (All this a generation before Locke and Berkeley.)

Despite his spiritualistic background, Malebranche, after Descartes and Hobbes, gives physiological explanations of habit, memory, and association of ideas. Habit is a readiness with which the animal spirits, as the result of similar experiences or actions often repeated, flow in certain grooves or channels of the body. Memory is the reactivation of associations created in experience. Ideas tend to be associated according to their past sequence or contiguity. Strength of character, power of will, are the force of animal spirits flowing along the fibers of the brain, deepening the grooves of association and the vividness of imagination.

Pious though Malebranche was, there were many elements in his philosophy that disturbed that alert watchman of orthodoxy, Bénigne Bossuet. In a clever move to divert the passionate pen of Antoine Arnauld from the logic of Jansenism to the succor of the proper faith, he persuaded him to comb Malebranche for hidden heresies. The philosopher defended himself in a series of treatises as eloquent and incredible as the first; and the controversy continued from 1683 to 1697. Bossuet brought Fénelon’s light artillery to the attack. Mme. de Sévigné, seeing that mice were devouring her crops and caterpillars her trees, complained that she found little consolation in Malebranche’s view of evil as a necessary element in the best of all possible worlds. 10

To offset these critics Malebranche had many fervent friends. Young men and old women found in his doctrine of God as the only agent in all actions a mystic pleasure of surrender and divine union. Frenchmen and foreigners wore a path to his cell; one Englishman said that he came to France to see only two celebrities, Louis XIV and Malebranche. 11 Berkeley came, all reverence, and engaged the old priest in a long discussion. Soon afterward Malebranche, seventy-seven, weakened; he grew thinner every day, until his mind had hardly any body left to serve as occasion for his thought. On October 13, 1715, he passed away in his sleep.

His fame faded rapidly after his death, for his religious philosophy was not in tune with the skepticism and revelry of the Regency, and still less with the ensuing tendency of the philosophes to replace divine Providence with a world machine. But his influence appeared in Leibniz’ attempt to show that the actual was the best possible world; in Berkeley’s view that things exist only in our perception or in God’s; in Hume’s destructive analysis of cause as an occult quality; in Kant’s emphasis on the subjective elements in the formation of knowledge; even in the determinism of the Enlightenment. For to say that God is the only cause of all motions, volitions, and ideas is not far different from saying that every change in matter or mind is the inevitable result of the total forces operating in the universe at that moment. In Malebranche’s ecstasy he had approached—though he denied it—a determinism that made man an automaton.

Above all, the system of occasionalism served as a halfway house between Descartes and Spinoza. Descartes saw mechanism in matter, but liberty in mind; Malebranche saw God as sole cause in every action of every mind; Spinoza, quite as “God-intoxicated” as the monk, agreed with him that the mental and physical series were parallel products of one creative force. Unwittingly the pious Oratorian, seeing God everywhere, had taught, even to the faithful, a pantheism that needed only the phrase Deus sive natura—God ornature—to become the philosophy of Spinoza, and of the Enlightenment.

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