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Nicolas Malebranche

Philosopher and theologian, priest, b. at Paris, Aug. 6, 1638; d. Oct. 13, 1715

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Malebranche, NICOLAS, philosopher and theologian, priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri; b. at Paris, August 6, 1638; d. October 13, 1715. He was the youngest child of Nicolas Malebranche, secretary to Louis XIII; being slightly deformed in person and of a weak constitution, he received his early education from a domestic tutor, until he was old enough to enter the course of philosophy at the College de La Marche, whence he passed to the Sorbonne for the study of theology. On the completion of his studies, declining a canonry at Notre-Dame, he joined the Paris house of the Oratory, 1660. There he was first engaged on ecclesiastical history, but neither his talents nor his taste lay in this direction, and on the recommendation of Richard Simon he turned to the study of Scripture, only to find this study equally uncongenial. A chance reading of Descartes’ “Traite de l’homme ou de la formation du foetus” determined his future career, and he became an enthusiastic Cartesian. He published “Recherche de la Verite” in 1674, and his subsequent works represent developments or special aspects of the same doctrine. Sensation and imagination, he maintains, are produced not by the objects but by God, and are intended to serve man’s practical needs only, and not to reveal the nature of things, the essence of matter being extension and its only real property motion.

The real nature of the external world must be found in ideas. Now in accordance with Descartes’ divorce of mind and matter, matter cannot act on mind; and mind cannot produce its own ideas, for they are spiritual beings whose creation requires a greater power even than the creation of things material. Therefore we see all things in God. God Himself, he argues, sees all things in His own perfections, and He is so closely united to the soul by His Presence that He may be said to be the place of spirits, as space is the place of bodies. And so the mind may see in God all the works of God, supposing God willing to reveal them. That God should so will seems more in accord with His economy in nature, where He works by the most direct and simple methods. But the strongest proof of all, Malebranche finds in the idea we have of the Infinite; for it must be prior to the idea of the finite, and all particular ideas are participations of that general idea of the Infinite, just as God derives not His Being from creatures but all creatures have their subsistence from Him. Thus of all the things that come under our knowledge, we know none but God in Himself without the mediation of any idea—bodies and their properties are seen in God and by their ideas. As for our own soul, he adds, it is known only by consciousness, that is, by our sensations, so that, though we know the existence of our soul better than the existence of our body or of the things about us, we have not so perfect a knowledge of the nature of the soul. As for the souls of other men, we know them only by conjecture (Recherche, bk. III, pt. ii, cc. 1-8). It is obvious that Malebranche’s occasionalism not only makes our certainty of the external world depend upon God‘s revelation; it suggests the objection that there is no purpose in a material universe which is out of all contact with human thought and volition. What is peculiar, however, to his system is its Ontologism, and its consequences; for God is made not only the immediate cause of our sensations, but also the” place of our ideas”, and moreover our first idea is of the infinite. From this it would appear to follow that we see God‘s Essence, though Malebranche protested explicitly against this consequence. And, if, as Malebranche maintains, the essence of mind consists only in thought, as the essence of matter consists only in extension, there is at least a suggestion of the Pantheism which he so vigorously repudiated.

With regard to free-will also, the desire of Malebranche to emphasize the union of the soul with its Creator exposed him to many objections. The soul, he says, has the capacity of withholding its consent to a particular object, so that the intellect may recognize the lower as the higher good. But volition, according to him, being an effect of God‘s action on the soul, it was objected that God was thus the author of sin. To this Malebranche answered that sin was due to an intermission of activity; therefore sin is nothing and though God does all He is not the author of sin. This account of evil Malebranche utilizes to maintain a sort of Optimism in his account of creation. Finite creation as such would be unworthy of God; it is made a worthy object of God‘s will by the Incarnation; and as for the evil that is in creation, it is due to particular wills, and it does actually enhance the real good.

Antoine Arnauld was the first to attack Malebranche’s system, and he was supported by Bossuet who styled the system “pulchra, nova, falsa”. Naturally a chief topic of discussion was the question of grace, though the Jansenist and the Oratorian both claimed the authority of St. Augustine. The discussion gradually became very bitter, and ended not altogether to the credit of Malebranche’s orthodoxy, for it was Malebranche who had been on his defense, and his work had been censured at Rome. Among other opponents of Malebranche were Pierre Silvain Regis and Dom Francois Lamy, who attacked his explanation of pleasure and of good. His answer in “Traite de l’amour de Dieu” was well received in Rome and had the further good fortune of reconciling him with Bossuet. His “Entretiens d’un philosophe chretien et d’un philosophe chinois sur L’existence de Dieu”, in which he accused the Chinese of Atheism, drew from the Jesuits, Fr. Tournemine and Fr. Hardouin, a counter charge of Spinozism and Atheism against his own system. There can be little question of the novelty and dangerous character of his publications. But his own loyalty, his zeal, and piety are still less questionable. He led a simple and austere life, giving himself but little rest from his studies, and finding his chief relaxation in the company of little children. He was of an affable disposition, always ready to converse with the numerous visitors who called to see him. And during his lifetime his reputation as a thinker and writer was remarkably high. The following are his principal works:—”Recherche de la Write” (1674): two English versions; “Conversations chretiennes” (1677); “Traite de la nature et de la grace” (1680); “Meditations chretiennes et metaphysiques” (1683); “Traite de morale” (1684); “Entretiens sur la metaphysique et sur la religion” (1687); “Traite de l’amour de Dieu” (1698); “Reponses” (to Arnauld), published together, 1709, etc; two editions of his works by Jules Simon, 2nd (1871) not complete.


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