Saturday, November 10, 2012

More or Lessing

My second Leibniz gig is upon me - well, a week off. This one is a panel of the Philosophy of Religion Group at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Chicago, and our topic is "Leibniz and his Legacy in the Philosophy of Religion." My paper is called "Posthumous Sins: Lessing and the Legacies of Leibniz." It focuses on a sneaky little essay Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published in 1773 called "Leibniz von den ewigen Strafen" challenging the widely held view that Leibniz only pretended to support the doctrine of eternal punishment but really believed in universal salvation. Leibniz was not a hypocrite, argues Lessing. But he also didn't mean what the orthodox meant by eternal punishment. I'm introducing the debate but my main concern, like Lessing's, is with a broader question - how to read Leibniz - and an even broader one opening out from that one - how to be a philosopher of religion.

As it happens neither Lessing nor those he is criticizing think that Leibniz actually believed in eternal damnation in hell. All of them offer reasons why the arguments clearly in support of orthodox views of hell in Theodicy should not be taken at face value. But why the apparent endorsements at all? One Eberhard thinks Leibniz can't help himself, craving the approbation of all and so thinking of crafty ways of marketing his system as compatible even with the most errant views. Lessing thinks this sells Leibniz short. What Leibniz is really doing is what ancient philosophers did: meeting their interlocutors where they were, finding the grain of truth in their otherwise erroneous systems (for there is no view actually held be someone which doesn't have some truth to it), and guiding them with its help towards more truth.

Leibniz's own view, Lessing argues, is that the doctrine of eternal punishment contains a valuable truth: everything is connected, and so every act has infinite consequences. Since God has so arranged nature that evil is punished (the agent's perfection is diminished), every sinful act produces its own infinite series of punishments. That's it! No need for a hell at all, just immortality. And for all we know the infinite duration of punishment is compatible with, even constitutive of, a kind of restoration too. So you can have your universalism without giving up philosophical rigor if you work with rather than reject tradition. What's not to like?

Lessing's larger point, which is also mine, is the approach to religious ideas at work here. It is not sufficient to work out a philosophy of religion. You must engage with religious traditions, turning and turning them until you see the truth concealed in them - for every perspective contains a truth to be found nowhere else. We may wonder if Leibniz or Lessing really lived out this preachment in practice (Leibniz "struck fire from stones," Lessing concedes, "but he did not conceal his own fire in them") but the idea is appealing, compatible with dialogic understandings of knowledge and even of truth.

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