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Malebranche, Nicholas,

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a French Jesuit, distinguished for his peculiar philosophical views, and for the brilliancy and fascination of the style in which they were expounded. He was one of the most illustrious of the Cartesians, aiming by his speculations to correct the dangerous tendencies of Des Cartes's philosophy, (See SPINOZA), and occupies an eminent, though not a controlling, position in the history of the higher philosophy. Some knowledge of his system is required for the just estimation of the doctrines both of Locke and of Leibnitz, and for the illustration of the views of Berkeley.

Life. Malebranche was born of respectable parents in Paris, Aug. 6,1638. Feeble and sickly from his birth, and deformed by a curvature of the spine, he was reared with the tenderest care, and was educated mainly at home. His ill health and his deformity confirmed the natural shyness of his disposition. He avoided the companionship of robust, sanguine, and active playmates, and spent most of his time in solitary meditation. He found his world within himself. Eager for seclusion from the turmoil of life, he sought a refuge in the Society of Jesuits, and joined the Congregation of the Oratory in the twenty-second year of his age. His studies were at first ecclesiastical history and antiquities, but these he soon abandoned in consequence of the weakness of his memory. He was next induced by the learned Richard Simon to prosecute sacred criticism and the Oriental languages. They had few attractions for him. In this wavering mood he picked up the then recently published treatise of Des Cartes On Man. To this newly-acquired treasure he devoted himself assiduously, and sought the mastery of the Cartesian doctrines and of philosophical problems. Thus he busied himself for the next ten years of his life, and became one of the most earnest and eminent of the Cartesians. His perspicacity discerned the weak point of the Cartesian system; and he was too honest and too independent to be "addictus jurare in verba magistri." He meditated intently closing the windows of his room that he might not be distracted by the light and noise of the outer world; and he revolved in silence and solitude the arduous questions which presented themselves for solution. He read little, thinking the knowledge of man, of mind, and of God the all-sufficient realm of speculation; and considering that such knowledge was to be attained only by diligence, introspection, and abstract reasoning.

Fortified and enriched by such silent and solitary labors, Malebranche proposed his modifications of Cartesianism in a work entitled Reche-che de la Verite, the first volume of which appeared at Paris in 1673; the second and third were published in the course of the ensuing year. An improved and enlarged edition was brought out, towards the close of his life, in 1712. This is his principal work; it is that which determines his position in the history of philosophic opinion. Besides other interesting topics discussed, it, in a manner less open to objection, propounded his celebrated doctrine of Seeing all things in God. The treatise itself was an examination of the nature and characteristics of knowledge, of the origin of ideas, of the mode of avoiding error and arriving at truth, of the precautions required to guard against delusions of various kinds, and especially the fallacies which arise from the senses and from prejudice. Malebranche has been accused of unacknowledged obligations to Bacon. In this he only imitated the example of his illustrious master Des Cartes. Nor did he deviate from his exemplar in the attention bestowed upon the literary execution of the book. The style was so exquisite that it exercised an irresistible fascination over all its readers. Many who rejected his principles and deductions were charmed by their exposition; and many were beguiled into the acceptance of his reveries by the plausiblity of their presentation, and by the beauty of their expression. His ornate style disguised his dogmas even to himself. His language wanted philosophical precision, and offered many salient points for attack. His system was assailed by Foucher, by Antoine Arnauld, and by Locke. The Jesuit Du Tertre, at the instigation of his order, reluctantly impugned it. Hardouin, in his Atheists Unmasked, accused it of atheistic characteristics. Leibnitz, in defending it against such charges, admitted that the looseness of the brilliant presentation rendered it liable to misapprehension and misrepresentation, but maintained that the real opinions of the author were very different from those attributed to him by his opponents (Lettre a M. Remond, Nov. 4, 1715). The whole system of Malebranche, so far as it is a departure from Cartesianism, is centered in the doctrine of his "Vision in God," and this doctrine led by a logical development to those views of free will and grace which resulted in the controversy with Arnauld (1680). His inquiries were, however, actuated throughout by an earnest religious desire for the purification and elevation of his fellow-men, and were not confined to metaphysical speculation, but were extended to practical topics. With this design he composed his Consolations Chretiennes (1676), and his Traite de la Morale (1684). The latter is one of the landmarks in ethical philosophy, and has merited the high commendation of Sir James Mackintosh. Besides these noted treatises, Malebranche was the author of several essays, on various scientific topics, published in the Journal of the Academy of Sciences. Whatever opposition was excited by the peculiarity, or the extravagance, or the apparent peril of his metaphysical speculations, he was always held in the highest esteem for his amiability, his intelligence, his simple goodness, and his unaffected piety.

The life of a valetudinarian so retired, and bound by the restraints of a rigid religious order, offers few incidents for curious investigation. The calm and equable tenor of Malebranche's frail existence was prolonged till he had entered his seventy-eighth year, when, in another form of existence, he may be believed to have entered upon that "vision of all things in God" which, with pious enthusiasm, he had endeavored to anticipate on earth. He died in Paris Oct. 13,1715, a year and a month before his great contemporary Leibnitz.

Philosophy. The cardinal tenet of the philosophy of Malebranche, which contradistinguishes it from that of Des Cartes, of Spinoza, of Leibnitz, etc., of the reforming and of the acquiescing acolytes of the Cartesian school, is the doctrine of seeing all things in God, to which such frequent reference has already been made. The motive, the meaning, the genesis of this doctrine, and its relation to antecedent, contemporary, and subsequent speculation, are unintelligible, unless it is contemplated in connection with the dogmas of Des Cartes and their development. Des Cartes (q.v.) recognized only two essences in the universe, thought and extension, which with him were the equivalents of mind and matter.

The mystery, the enigma, which presents itself in such endless forms, and which inevitably returns with all the Protean changes of metaphysical speculationwhich cannot be evaded in the study of that strange microcosm, Man, in which body and soul are so intimately, and, apparently, so everlastingly united which cannot be overlooked in ascertaining the interaction of the mens sana or insane, and the corpus sanurn or insanum, or in determining the. grounds of moral obligation the wondrous riddle is, how can mind act upon matter, or matter act upon mind, and the one regulate or affect the other. The diversity of the unsatisfactory solutions will be seen by comparing the explanations propounded by Des Cartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, and Herbert Spencer. Des Cartes, recognizing the impossibility of any solution in the relations of the transitory creation, as he had arbitrarily conceived it, and with the absolute divorce of the two existences postulated by him, introduced a Deus ex machina, and imagined a divine interposition to effect concurrent action on every occasion where the joint operation of intellectual and physical nature was manifested. To this hypothesis has been given the name of the doctrine of Assistancy. This scheme is assuredly obnoxious to the sharp censure of Aristotle on some of his precursers, and renders the active intelligence of the human race a mere collection of intrusive episodes, like a miserable tragedy (Metaph. 11, 10- 13, 3). The explanation was soon discovered to be not merely a presumption, but utterly inefficacious, and of most pernicious tendency. Obviously, it made the creating and sustaining God the direct agent in man's actions in all cases where inward contemplation proceeded to outward act, and it made the universe a complicated piece of puppetry, whose motions were communicated by a hidden personage constantly jerking at the strings. The logical inconsistency of maintaining an entire separation between the grand constituents of human nature, and of requiring divine intervention for all effective manifestation of human thought, offended the acute perspicacity of Spinoza. He sought to restore harmony and congruity to the philosophical interpretation of the intelligible world, by considering thought and action, mind and matter, as only effluences, phenomenal coruscations, from the one, sole, independent, self- sustaining, eternal, all-embracing Existence, which did not so much support and regulate, as constitute and contain alike the whole creation and the Creator. This, of course, pushed Cartesianism to the absurdity of its logical extreme, but annihilated all moral responsibility, all distinctions of nature, annulled all individual existence, establishing, in short, a pure Pantheism. But Pantheism, whether Stoic, Platonic. Spinozistic, or Schellingistic, is the negation of a personal God, of all separable existence, and of all the duties, the hopes, and the fears that spring from human obligations to a heavenly Father, and to a divine Creator and beneficent Governor of the universe.

About the same time that Spinoza was secretly engaged in transmuting Cartesianism into Pantheism, and probably independently of any impulse from his investigations, Malebranche endeavored to uphold and enforce the obligations which were nullified by the Spinozistic system, to preserve all the dogmas of revealed religion, to fortify the sense of religious duty, to escape the hazards and aberrations of the Cartesian theory, are yet to uphold the Cartesian doctrine in its essential characteristics, by correcting its excesses, and by indicating the means of conciliation between the two widely separated constituents of his creation. The Cartesian fantasy of assistancy he supplanted by his own celebrated hypothesis of Occasional Causes. Instead of supposing all material motion, in accordance with the movements of the apparently moving mind, to be due to a mechanical impulse of the Divinity, disconnected from human intelligence, he imagined that all such phenomena were provoked by images of change reflected from the divine mind, and that human knowledge and action proceeded exclusively from seeing all things in God.

A half-truth is the most dangerous, because it is the most seductive form of delusion. The moiety of truth which is present usually precludes the suspicion of deception. Such a half-truth was Malebranche's devout imagination of the vision of the universe in the divine mind. It was, however unwittingly to himself, the Pantheism of Spinoza, contemplated from a different point of view, and disguised by. a brilliant but very translucent veil. It is an indubitable, because it is a revealed truth, that "in God we live, and move, and have our being;" that "there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding;" that "the Lord giveth wisdom, out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding;" but how this quickening and illuminating power of the Almighty is so exercised as not to infringe upon the independent action of the human mind, and the free agency of the human will, is one of the most bewildering problems of transcendental speculation. Our finite capacities can attain a definite solution only by a violent severance of the Gordian knot, and mutilation of the truth. We may throw aside one half, and accept the other half as complete and exclusive, thus welcoming Fatalism on the one side, and Pantheism, in all the various shades of idealistic subtlety, on the other. That every moment of our continuous existence must be ascribed to the unintermittent support of the original creating power; that all our thoughts and actions, and our capacity for thought and action, require the same upholding agency; that this is the divine action of grace on our will and conscience; the divine guidance and providence in shaping our ends and the issues of our conduct; the divine impulse and irradiation in our best decisions, and in our intuitive apprehensions of recondite truths-these are positions earnestly entertained and asserted by the clearest and strongest thinkers, of all schools and vocations, in every age.

A cloud of witnesses to these conclusions might be summoned, more numerous than those convoked by Sir William Hamilton in support of the doctrine of common- sense, and rendering much less questionable testimony. "Omnis sapientia a Domino Deo est;" "a Deo projecta et sapientia" (Sirach 1:1; Sirach 15:10). "Mihi autem Deus dedit dicere ex sententia, et prnesumere digna horum quae mihi dantur: quoniam ipse sapientiae dux est et sapientiam emendatur. In manu enim illius et nos et sermones nostri, et omnis sapientia, et operum scientia, et disciplina. Ipse enim dedit mihi horum qua sunt scientiam veram" (Wisdom of Solomon 7:15-17). "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights." "Nemo vir magnus sine aliquo afflatu divino umquam fuit" (Cicero, De Nat. Deor. 2, 66, § 167). This tenet may have been borrowed by Cicero from Plato, or even from Homer, but it has been recently approved by Whewell, Blackie, and Dallas. "Sacer intra nos spiritus sedet; malorum bonorumque nostrorum observator et custos. His, prout a nobis tractatus est, ita nos ipse tractat. Bonus vero vir sine deo nemo est; an potuit aliquis supra fortunam nisi ab illo adjustus exsurgere? Ille dat consilia magnifica et erecta. In unoquoque virorum bonorum, quis deus incertum est, habitat deus" (Seneca, Epist. Mol. 4, 12 [42], § 2). Similar declarations are to be found in Thales, Democritus, Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, and a very remarkable one in Clemens Alexandrinus (Stromat. v. 14). S. Augustin says," Initium ergo ejus figmentum est Dei: non enim est ulla natura etiam in extremis infimisque vestiolis, quam non ille constituit, a quo est omnis modus, omnis species, omnis ordo; sine quibus nihil rerum inveniri vel cogitari potest" (De Civ. Dei, 11, 15). The thesis has been amply commented upon, elucidated and expanded, by S. Thomas Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and the better half of the schoolmen. It is confirmed by lord Bacon, John Millis, bishop Berkeley, and many of the most distinguished moderns, out of Germany as well as in that land of golden mists. "In this, at once most comprehensive and most appropriate acceptation of the word, reason is pre-eminently spiritual, and a spirit, even our spirit, through an effluence of the same grace by which we are privileged to say, Our Father" (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection); and the same author cites with approval sa still stronger utterance to the like effect from that easily distinguishable personage. John Smith, 1660.

Leibnitz might well say that Malebranche's doctrine was no novelty. It was, indeed, both very old and very generally accredited, but in a form and with an application widely different from what was contemplated by him in its new presentation. The long citation of the evidences of its general acceptance and not the tenth part accessible has been given may be pardoned as being necessary to exhibit its familiarity to the greatest intellects, and its inclusion of actual and important truth. The doctrine is true, but it is most perilous. It must be received with habitual caution, and with most circumspect limitations. It runs along a sharp crest, with precipices on either hand stretching sheer down into unfathomable abysses. On this narrow path, at this giddy elevation, Malebranche was unable to preserve his balance, however pure and lofty was his design. His speculation topples over into the yawning gulf of Pantheism, and is distinguished from Spinozism rather by its motive and spirit than by its tendency or result. "The vision of all things in God" becomes a new because a changed doctrine in the hands of the philosophical Jesuit. He is carried away from all safe landmarks by his own noble but misguiding enthusiasm, and justifies the censure of Brucker, "non multum ab enthusiasmo, vel etiam a Quackerorum illuminatione immediata abesse videtur."

In the theory of Malebranche, body and spirit, being totally disjoined from each other, and incapable of intercommunication, can be brought into harmonious and, indeed, into possible co-operation only by the intervention of a higher nature. As knowledge, according to the postulate of Des Cartes, is the substance and the evidence of intelligible existence, supreme knowledge or omniscience must be the attribute and exclusive property of the only Absolute Existence. All things, therefore, primarily exist in the Divine Mind and in the Divine Contemplation; and their genuine, as well as their original, reality is as the archetypal idea of the Divine Intelligence. Temporal existences, with their alterations and combinations, proceed from the divine aspiration. All their forms, modes, habits, changes separately, and in the intricate dance of spiritual and material mutations and complications are presented and revealed to the gaze of other intelligences only in the mirror of God's mind. This is not very remote from the Pre-established Harmony of Leibnitz, but it is much nearer to the infinite effluxes of the Godhead in Spinoza. It is only in their divine types that we contemplate the marvels of sublunary change, receive impressions from without, and regulate our actions accordingly. We see all things in God-and all material motions concurrent with our will are produced, as on the Cartesian system, by divine intervention. All our perceptions and sensations, apparently excited by extrinsic stimulations, are due to divine action. The extrinsic object is perceived, not in itself, nor even in its sensible image; but the sensible image is only the reflection of the idea abiding in the mind of God. Thus man, and man's sensibilities, are not the cause, the immediate cause at least, of his perceptions or of his actions; but they are only the occasion of God's revealing that perception through the idea subsisting in himself, or of his impelling to the action which may ensue from the conception, but without actual dependence upon it. "Non sentement les hemmes ne sont point les veritables causes des mouvements qu'ils produisent dans leurs corps; il semble meme qu'il y ait contradiction qu'ils puissent l'etre. . . Il n'y a que Dieu qui soit veritable cause, et qui est veritablement la puissance de mouvoir les corps" (Traite de Morale, 54, 6, ptie 2, ch. 3).

The cardinal doctrine of Malebranche is all that preserves enduring interest, and that needs concern us here. It gained only a very limited and temporary acceptance. Its invalidity was almost immediately and intuitively recognised, and it was soon supplanted by other schemes of like character and of like frailty, or was hustled out of consideration by wholly contradictory doctrines. It may again return unexpectedly in other forms, but in its own Cartesian garb it has passed away forever. Its applications and developments, ingenious as they are, and animated as they are with a spirit of pure and deep devotion, have few special claims to attention. Many valuable counsels, many stimulating and comforting exhortations, many precious exhortations for the guidance of our investigations, our feelings, and our conduct, are presented in the graceful and perspicuous expositions of the serene-tempered and heavenly-minded philosopher, whose heart saw all things in God, if his metaphysics failed to prove that vision of the divinity to be the sole possible mode of finite thought and action. His moral system was directly founded on his cardinal tenet, and fell with it. He referred all virtue to the recognition and love of the universal order as it exists eternally in the Divine Reason, where every created reason contemplates it. There is some analogy between this view and the ennobling reflections of Donoso Cortes; but it is open to the objections made by Sir James Mackintosh, and to others which he has not made. Malebranche, however, merits the praise of the same just and discriminating critic, that "he is perhaps the first philosopher who has precisely laid down and rigidly adhered to the principle that virtue consists in pure intentions and dispositions of mind, without which actions, however conformable to rules, are not truly moral' "-a thesis developed, and perhaps degraded, by Paley.

The further criticism of Malebranche's writings is unnecessary, though they merited a formal refutation by Locke, a rectification and a partial acceptance by Leibnitz. "Quod ad controversiam attinet,utrum omnia videamus in Deo (quae utique vetus est sententia, et, si sano sensu intelligatur, non omnino spernenda), an vero proprias ideas habeamus, sciendum est, et si omnia in Deo videamus, necesse tamen est ut habemusus et ideas proprias"...(Meditationes, 1684; Operac Ed. Dutens. tom. ii, ps i, p. 12; comp. Lettre a M. Montmort, Nov. 4, 1715; ibid. p. 217).

Thus Malebranche is admitted into honorable and lasting conjunction with the illustrious names of Spinoza, Locke, and Leibnitz; and, sharing in the light in which they lived, he participated in molding the influences which formed the succeeding generation of bold and curious metaphysical inquirers, and left behind the memory and the example of an earnest, sincere, and irreproachable existence. The other productions of Malebranche were partly controversial and partly religious. Of the latter we may mention the Elntretiens d'un Piilosophe Chretien et d'un Philosophe Chinois sur la Nature de Dieu (Paris, 1708): De la Nature et de la Grace (Amsterdam, 1680): Entretiens sur elt Metaphysique et sur la Religion (Rotterd. 1688; of a mystical character, blending religion with metaphysics). A complete edition of his works was published at Paris, 1712, in 11 vols. 12mo; new edition by Genoude and Lourdoucix. 1837, 2 vols. 8vo.

Literature. The works of Malebranche are probably sufficient of themselves to supply all that is necessary to be known of the peculiarities of his system, and to be indicated in regard to its tendencies. Besides Brucker and the other historians of philosophy, the following may be consulted with advantage: Arnauld, Des Idees Vraies et Fausses; Bayle, Dict. Hist. et Critique; Norris, Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intellectual World (Lond. 1701, 2 vols. 8vo); Leibnitz, Examen des Sentiments de Malebranche, in Raspe, (Euvres Philosophiques de M. Leibnitz (Amst. 1765); Leibnitz, Theodicee and Epistola ad Remonlldum; Locke, Examination ofMalebranche's Opinion; Fontenelle, Hist. du Renouvellement Deuteronomy 1'Academie Royale des Sciences; Dug. Stewart, Philosophy of the iluman Mind, and Dissertation I, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica; Mackintosh, Dissertation, Supplem. Encycl. Britann.; Sir William Hamilton, Lectures on Metaphysics (Boston, 1859); Blakey, History of the Philosophy of Mind (London, 1850), vol. 2; Saisset, Pantheisme, 1:66 sq.; and the same in Revue des Deux Mondes, April 1, 1862; Herzog, Real-Encyklopä die, vol. 20, s.v.; Erdmann, Malebranche, Spinoza, die Skeptiker und Mystiker des Siebzehnten Jahrhunderts (1836); Relstab, Dissertatio de Malebrancho Philosopho (1846); Hallam, Introd. to the Lit. of Europe (Harpers' edition), 2:91 sq.; Blampignon, Etude sur Malebranche (Paris, 1862, 8vo). (G. F. H.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Malebranche, Nicholas,'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/malebranche-nicholas.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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