Leibniz's Political and Moral Philosophy in the Novissima Sinica, 1699-1999
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Leibniz’s Political and Moral Philosophy in the Novissima Sinica, 1699–1999

The Preface to Leibniz’s Novissima Sinica 1 contains an important but highly compressed and abbreviated quintessence of his theory of justice or jurisprudence universelle—a version so compressed and abbreviated that one must have a broader and fuller understanding of this universal jurisprudence before one can entirely appreciate what Leibniz has to say about Christian charity, Platonism, and geometry in the Novissima Sinica itself. Above all, one wants to know why Leibniz, in the key paragraph of the Preface to Novissima Sinica, should describe the Chinese emperor as just and charitable and as a (more or less) “Platonic” geometer who is as wise as he is charitable. And why should Leibniz contrast this “wisely charitable” Chinese ruler with the Pontius Pilate who irresponsibly asked, “What is truth?” and then permitted the judicial murder of the very Christ who did most to make charity and justice coextensive by saying, “A new law I give unto you, that ye love one another”? 2 The wise course, therefore, is to throw enough light on Leibnizian universal jurisprudence in general to make his moral-political utterances in Novissima Sinica intelligible in particular.

In 1693, four years before the publication of Novissima Sinica, Leibniz revealed the outlines of his jurisprudence universelle in the Codex Iuris Gentium:

a good man is one who loves everybody, so far as reason permits. Justice, then, which is the virtue which regulates that affection which [End Page 217] the Greeks call philanthropy, will be most conveniently defined ... as the charity of the wise man, that is, charity which follows the dictates of wisdom ... Charity is a universal benevolence, and benevolence the habit of loving or of willing the good. Love then signifies rejoicing in the happiness of another ..., the happiness of those whose happiness pleases us turns into our own happiness, since things which please us are desired for their own sakes. 3

Slightly later, in La véritable piété, Leibniz indicated what this view of justice entails:

those who ... reduce justice to [mere] rigor, and who fail altogether to understand that one cannot be just without being benevolent ... in a word, not only those who look for their profit, pleasure, and glory in the misery of others, but also those who are not at all anxious to procure the common good and to lift out of misery those who are in their care, and generally those who show themselves to be without enlightenment and without charity, boast in vain of piety which they do not know at all, whatever appearance they create. 4

The central idea of Leibniz’s “universal jurisprudence,” which aims to find quasi-geometrical, eternal moral verities equally valid for all rational beings, human or divine, is that justice is “the charity of the wise” (caritas sapientis), 5 that it is not mere conformity to sovereign-ordained “positive” law given ex plenitudo potestatis (in the manner of Hobbes); nor is it mere “refraining from harm” or even “rendering what is due” (the neminem laedere and suum cuique tribuere of Roman law). 6 The equal stress on “charity” and on “wisdom” suggests that Leibniz’s practical thought is a kind of fusing of Platonism—in which the wise know the eternal truths such as absolute goodness (Phaedo 75d), which the gods themselves also know and love (Euthyphro 93-10e) and which therefore deserve to rule (Republic 443d-e) 7 —and of Pauline Christianity, whose key moral idea is that charity or love is the first of the virtues (“though I speak [End Page 218] with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”). 8 Historically, there is nothing remarkable in trying to fuse Platonism and Christianity. Augustine’s thought (particularly the early De Libero Arbitrio) is just such a fusion. 9 But Leibniz was the last of the great Christian Platonists, and left the world just as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant were about to transform and “secularize” it.

I. If one decomposes caritas sapientis into its parts, charity and wisdom, the provenance of both elements is clear enough...