Love as plenitude: A prelude

Theodicy (Leibniz’s coinage) is a justification of the ways of God to man. To “justify the ways of God to man” was Milton’s project in Paradise Lost. This justification can seem urgent, and especially fraught, when one cannot deny the existence of evil but at the same time believes wholeheartedly in the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent being. How could it be that such a benevolent being would allow for evil to exist?

Theodicy may seem to be about God–his nature and attributes–but, in truth, it is about man and his ownmost concerns. The problem is an intimation of an even greater rational commitment that most of us have. I am referring to reason’s plea that we be able to see ourselves in the cosmos, that we be capable of being at home in the world. The Principle of Sufficient Reason holds sway whenever we postulate the claim that for any being’s existence there must be a reason for its so existing. For if this were not the case, then a being’s existence would be a “brute fact,” something that is simply there but that belies further investigation. And in the face of a “brute fact,” we would have to be mum or turn to repeating tautologies of the form, “It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is….” However, to grant that reality, at bottom, is inexplicable (it consists in or is identical with brute facts) or to hold that most of reality is explicable yet that there are “gaps” in reality that must remain brute facts only throws us further into arbitrariness, contingency, quite possibly into the depths of despair. Staring at brute facts, we are frightened.

(To see why the problem has teeth, imagine your child dying, as we say, well before his time. Calling this a “brute fact” will not provide you with any consolation. Nor could it. The problem, therefore, has a strong ‘vitalist’ dimension: it grips us during our darkest hours.)

The claim that reality is shot through with brute facts would have awakened Hegel’s ire. For him, “to be is to be intelligible” (this formulation courtesy of Robert Pippin, a Hegel scholar). The copula”is” should be regarded as an urge, a plea, or a demand: reason is called to see the world as intelligible. And the world can only be intelligible once we have grasped not one part in isolation from another but the Whole as a Whole. At least since Plato, the answer to the desire for intelligibility in general and to theodicy in particular has been sought in the metaphysical distinction between an intelligible and a sensible order. There is some higher order “behind” the order we perceive, and this higher order, in some fashion or another, explains the existence and nature of finite entities.

Last night, I was rereading Arthur Lovejoy’s magnum opus, The Great Chain of Being. I would like to share to you what has struck me as an appealing and perspicuous vision of man’s place in the universe. I do not say that this Neoplatonic vision of things is true, only that it is gripping and beautiful.

Lovejoy says that the Neoplatonic vision is grounded in a “principle of plenitude.” As I understand him, there are three main conditions to plenitude. First, the creative being creates the sensible world out of fecundity: he engenders the sensible order in order to manifest himself entirely. The “act” is one of logical necessity, not one of choice. To say that it is not a choice is to say both that there is no modality of possibility (i.e., no sense in saying that he created world X but could have instead created world Y) and that he did not “select” the best world from among a suite of possibilities. Rather, the god simply realized himself in and through finite, albeit imperfect, beings.

Second, there is the immediate demand that essence or idea be embodied or engendered. An idea, whatever it is, only becomes itself once it is instantiated. There is no sense in which any idea can be “left hanging” as an idea only. If that were to be the case, then it would be as if the idea were nothing but a phantasm. And what good would there be to having extra ‘non-material’ cloth lying around if it weren’t to be made into an actual robe, the fabric of the cosmos, the fabric that is the cosmos? In this second condition, we comprehend a certain thriftiness in the operations of the creative being.

Third and most importantly, the creative being creates all conceivable kinds. To the question, “Why this crocodile?,” the answer would be, “Because god had to achieve maximum diversity so that there could be no gaps whatever in reality. Every being would have a place in the sensible order, every being would be realized, and there would be no sense in asking about croco-hippopotamuses or man-trees or whatever.” Hence, every being from the ‘worst’ and ‘grotesque’ and to ‘best’ and ‘most beautiful’ would be made actual. If we focus our attention solely on this finite being in particular, then we cannot see why it exists or what place it has in this world. Yet if we ascend to god’s point of view, we thereby comprehend that no conceivable kind could have been left out. Indeed, we must see that we are all here, for where else would we be?

I leave you in mid-breath with a thought to mull over throughout the day. Would not this characterization of the Neoplatonic god as plenitude be a phenomenology of love: of love not as scarcity but as potency, love as fecundity, a love without the possibility of jealousy or envy, a love so filling and full that this filling fullness would be beyond measure?