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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 447-464

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Virtue, Reason, and Cultural Exchange:
Leibniz's Praise of Chinese Morality

Franklin Perkins

I should regard myself very proud, very pleased and highly rewarded to be able to render Your Majesty any service in a work so worthy and pleasing to God; for I am not one of those impassioned patriots of one country alone, but I work for the well-being of the whole of mankind, for I consider heaven as my country and cultivated men as my compatriots.

—Leibniz (to Peter the Great), 1716 1

Diversity and Harmony

Leibniz worked tirelessly to promote tolerance, peace, and the exchange of ideas, perhaps most in his attempts to bridge religious factions in Europe, but also in his receptiveness to the past and his attitude toward other cultures. This accommodation of differences is rooted in the belief that the most perfect possible world maximizes both diversity and harmony. In a time of rapid globalization, as the imperative to maximize diversity and harmony grows, I believe it is worthwhile to turn our attention to Leibniz's philosophy, particularly as it is expressed in his writings on China. The ground of Leibniz's openness toward other cultures is different from the ground to which we are accustomed. Multiculturalism is usually grounded in skepticism. We should accept and tolerate others because we can never be certain that our own beliefs are correct. The ground of Leibniz's tolerance leads in the opposite direction—we should [End Page 447] accept others not because no one knows the truth but because everyone knows something of the truth. 2

The well-known metaphor of monads as perspectives on a city illustrates this approach. Leibniz writes, "Indeed, all individual substances are differentexpressions of the same universe and different expressions of the same universal cause, namely God. But the expressions vary in perfection, just as different representations or drawings of the same town from different points of view do." 3 The metaphor of different monads as different perspectives on a town captures what is needed for cultural exchange. What each of us "sees" is not wrong but partial or perspectival. Because our view is limited, we must learn from others whose views have different limitations, and we must be careful not to force our perspective on others. At the same time, each perspective is grounded in truth, which is what Leibniz intends when he says that each monad expresses the same universe.

That is said to express a thing in which there are relations [habitudines] which correspond to the relations of the thing expressed. But there are various kinds of expression.... What is common to all these expressions is that we can pass from a consideration of the relations in the expression to a knowledge of the corresponding properties of the thing expressed. Hence, it is clearly not necessary for that which expresses to be similar to the thing expressed, if only a certain analogy is maintained between the relations. 4

Leibniz gives many examples. An idea expresses its object. The perception of a monad expresses the universe, and the understanding of a mind expresses the understanding of God. Every effect expresses its cause. The senses and secondary qualities express their objects, as well as the body and its organs. Definitions express the essence of what they define. Paintings express the cities they represent. What do such dissimilar relationships have in common? The two things need not be similar but their conditions must be analogous. In the New Essays Leibniz writes that the resemblance is a relation of order, as an ellipse resembles the circle whose projection it is, "there is a certain precise and natural relationship between what is projected and the projection which is [End Page 448] made from it, with each point on the one corresponding through a certain relation with a point on the other." 5 In the Theodicy Leibniz says that the representation has a natural relationship to what is represented. If this representation is imperfect, then it...


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