Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy Mary, Mother of God and "the best of all possible worlds"

January 1st, The Feast of Mary the Mother of God
In the modern period, a most foolish philosophical theory came to be accepted by many, and even by many Christians. Gottfried Leibniz, one of those modern philosophers who will continue to be thought of as great until the Final Judgment, is credited for having coined the phrase “the best of all possible worlds.” He argued that the world in which we now live is the best of all possible worlds, a world which could not be better than it now is.
Leibniz’s primary reason for postulating this theory – that this world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds – is to attempt to build a theodicy: The Good God is not responsible for the evil in the world because the world is as good as it could possibly be, not even God could have made it any better or any less evil.
Against Leibniz’s theory, St. Thomas tells us that God could have created the world better than he did – though, of course, any particular nature cannot be better than it is without becoming a different nature; yet God could have created species of higher perfection than he did in fact create. Hence, “God can make something else better than each thing made by him.” (ST I, q.25, a.6) In this manner, the universe could have been better than it is, if God had willed it to be so.
There are three creatures, however, which could not be greater – the humanity of Christ, the beatific vision, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. On today's feast of the Mother of God, we consider this Woman, she than whom no greater creature could have been created. The Blessed Virgin is herself that “best of all possible worlds.”

The Divine Motherhood
St. Thomas tells us, “The humanity of Christ, from the fact that it is united to the Godhead; and created happiness from the fact that it is the fruition of God; and the Blessed Virgin from the fact that she is the mother of God; have all a certain infinite dignity from the infinite good, which is God. And on this account there cannot be anything better than these; just as there cannot be anything better than God.” (ST I, q.25, a.6, ad 4)
The intimate union between this Mother and Child is something than which nothing greater can be thought or created – there is no greater participation in the work of salvation which could be given to the human race than to be true Mother of God.
A reflection on today’s Feast
The Church celebrates today the august prerogative of this divine Maternity which was conferred on a mere creature, and made her the co-operatrix with Jesus in the great work of man’s salvation. Today the children of the Roman Church, must pour forth all the love of our hearts for the Virgin Mother, and rejoice with her in the exceeding happiness she feels at having given birth to her and our Lord. She has the right to call him her Child; and he, God as he is, calls her in strictest truth his Mother.
Let us not be surprised, therefore, at the enthusiasm and profound respect wherewith the Church extols the Blessed Virgin and her prerogatives. Let us on the contrary be convinced that all the praise the Church can give her, and all the devotion she can ever bear towards her, are far below what is due to her as Mother of the Incarnate God. No mortal will ever be able to describe, or even comprehend, how great a glory accrues to her from this sublime dignity. For, as the glory of Mary comes from her being the Mother of God, one would have first to comprehend God himself in order to measure the greatness of her dignity.
The same sublime Mystery overpowers the mind from another point of view: what were the feelings of such a Mother towards such a Son? The Child she holds in her arms and presses to her heart is the Fruit of her virginal womb, and she loves him as her own; she loves him because she is his Mother, and a Mother loves her Child as herself, nay more than herself: but when she thinks upon the infinite majesty of him who has thus given himself to her to be the object of her love and her fond caresses, she trembles in her humility. These two deep-rooted feelings – of a creature that adores, and of a Mother that loves – are in Mary’s heart.
A Mother of God! It is the mystery whose fulfillment the world, without knowing it, was awaiting for four thousand years. It is the work which, in God’s eyes, was incomparably greater than that of the creation of a million new worlds, for such a creation would cost him nothing; he as but to speak, and all whatsoever he wills is made. But that a creature should become Mother of God, he has had not only to suspend the laws of nature by making a Virgin Mother, but also to put himself in a state of dependence upon the happy creature he chose for his Mother. He had to give her rights over himself, and contract the obligation of certain duties toward her. He had to make her his Mother, and himself her Son.
[This reflection is taken from that given by Dom Prosper Gueranger, in The Liturgical Year]
I have written before on why we call Mary Mother of God but not Mother of Divinity.


Dismas said...

Wow, it's been many many years since I've read True Devotion or any works by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, but this article certainly brings to mind and rivals his work. I've never read or even heard of Dom Prosper Gueranger, thanks for this.

James Zahler said...

I'm hoping that you might expound on this part a little bit more: "any particular nature cannot be better than it is without becoming a different nature; yet God could have created species of higher perfection than he did in fact create." By nature, I understand you to mean something like human nature or the angelic nature. However, what do you mean by “species of higher perfection”? I’m used to seeing species being used to separate things which have different natures (dogs, humans, etc). Are you talking about separate individuals who share a nature? In other words, are you saying that God could have populated the world with human beings other than you, me and Adam who would not have chosen to sin? (Like the Virgin Mary) Or would they have to be something totally other than human beings?

I’m asking because the other day I was pondering the problem of evil, and I thought a response for why God would create such a broken world is because He loved me. If He didn’t make me, the sinner, He would never be able to save me and invite me into Heaven, where we will be united for eternity. I am not sure that He could make “me” and have it still actually be me if I was created already perfect… could He? I certainly wouldn’t have the same experiences, which seem to be an essential part of who I am as a human being. These experiences have affected my personality and make me a unique individual. Of course, we are talking about God. If there was a way to logically do it, I’m sure He could.

Peace and love in Christ,

Mark said...

Aquinas states in the article you cite (ST I 25 6 ad3):
"The universe, the present creation being supposed, cannot be better, on account of the most beautiful order given to things by God; in which the good of the universe consists. For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed; as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed. Yet God could make other things, or add something to the present creation; and then there would be another and a better universe."

So, contrary to what you seem to suggest, Aquinas doesn't hold that God could make *this* universe better; rather, God could make a better universe (but then, it wouldn't be *this* universe).

I think this is an important distinction to maintain.

Anonymous said...


That is an important distinction and one that Leibniz was quite aware of, having read Thomas' work. He writes: “I call 'World' the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, as one Universe.” In other words, we know that since God elected this world, it is either the best of all possible worlds or at least a part thereof. If God has created another, better, universe, He has not unmade this one, and so it remains part of that beautiful order of creation.

Leibniz, in fact, is in agreement with Thomas that (1) almost any thing in the universe could be improved considered only in itself or in tandem with any group of things not amount to the whole universe, (2) to actually elect for that improvement would actually be to create a less perfect universe. You already quoted Thomas. Here is Leibniz: “One may imagine possible worlds without sin and without unhappiness, and one could make some like Utopian or Sevarambian romances, but these same worlds again would be very inferior to ours in goodness.”

And since the article seems to suggest that no Christian should follow Leibniz on this point (even though, it is little else than the opinion of St. Thomas), I must add that Leibniz was Christian and that he follows up the portion I quoted by appealing to the Exsultet: “O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!”

Anonymous said...


Regarding Thomas' quote, he accounts for creating superior substances (“He can always make something else better than each thing made by Him.”) and for improving the accidents of substances (“God can make better the things He has made.”) In other words, God could have changed the world in either fashion you propose.

Regarding your second paragraph, see my note about the Exsultet in my previous comment. Also, Leibniz at least certainly believes that no substance could suffer the smallest change and retain its unique character. He asserts this at many points, especially in his correspondence with Arnauld, but what he says here of the world could be said just as well of a person. “Thus, if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world.” Of course, the world itself is the best possible world; you are not necessarily the best you there is, likewise for myself. But then again, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience that He might have mercy on all”, so I don't think you or me not being a marine (be the best that you can be) is a death sentence, but as you indicated, part of God's loving plan.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ Anonymous (6:50am) and Anonymous 7:10am,

I would ask all to please give some sort of tag or ID or something (at least at the end of your comment), so that we can engage in discussion without constantly referring to countless "anonymouses".

I will respond more fully to the discussion of Leibniz and Thomas sometime in the next 24 hours.

Happy New Year!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dismas, "The True Devotion to Mary" has had a great impact on my life. DeMonfort's Marian devotion has, in many ways, become my own.

I agree that Gueranger sounds a bit "Montfortian" in his reflection! I am quite sure that this French Benedictine will serve you as a good and trustworthy friend in the spiritual life.

Blessings to you!

Nick said...

Judaism is full of paradoxes - the paradox of redemptive suffering, for example - which Christianity has assumed, and Mary's Divine Maternity fits right in with the rest of them. In fact, Mary's Divine Maternity is, so to speak, after Jesus' Hypostatic Union, which is another paradox: The paradox of the Creator becoming creature, God becoming man. After this Mary's Divine Maternity is the paradox of the Creator taking on creaturehood from a creature, being concieved in a creature, being born of a creature, being cared for by a creature, and obeying and imitating a creature: That is, God assuming humanity from Mary, who's humanity He had created; God being conceived (by God) in Mary, who is finite while He is infinite; God being born of Mary, who's creation God caused to be; God being cared for - fed, warmed, bedded, guided, protected - by Mary, who is sustained, provided for, guided and protected by God; and God obeying and imitating Mary, who is full of grace because of Him and who imitates Him.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mark, I don't know what you are trying to imply -- you seem to indicate that I have been unfaithful in my presentation of St. Thomas, and that Thomas and Leibniz are of the same mind.

Leibniz (and others of his school) maintain that this world is the best world that could possibly be, that no better world could have been created, that it is the best of all possible worlds.

I have stated, following St. Thomas, that this world is not the best of all possible worlds, better worlds could have been created. Indeed, considering accidental perfection, even this world itself could be better (while still being substantially the same).
Yes, of course "this universe", supposing the present creation, cannot be essentially more perfect without ceasing to be "this universe" ... I admitted as much when I said that any particular nature could not be created better while still remaining itself (hence, the nature of a horse is such that it cannot be essentially better while still remaining the nature of a horse).

However, even "this universe" could be accidentally better or worse while still remaining "this universe" -- for example, the universe became accidentally better when Christ was born (while remaining essentially "this universe", one and the same).

I don't know what you are trying to do ... but I think you are muddying the waters, rather than clarifying with distinctions.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (6:50am),
I have already responded to some of this in my comment back to Mark; however, I will add just a bit more here.

You are trying to say that Leibniz and Thomas are of the same mind ... I will not go into Leibniz's theory any further, since it is not really what I am after; but let me present Thomas' mind more clearly, then it will be obvious that Leibniz is far off.

St. Thomas certainly maintains that there is a beautiful order in the universe -- here you and I are in agreement.
However, he does not claim that this order is the most beautiful order possible, or that nothing greater could have been created.
True, if God had created an essentially different universe, it would no longer be "this universe", but it could still be a greater world with greater order and perfection.

Moreover, even this universe itself could be accidentally more perfect -- God does not need evil in order to do good!
Even without sin, God could have brought about a good equal to the Incarnation. Even without evil, God can still bring about equally great goods.
As you present Leibniz, it seems that God NEEDS human beings to sin in order for him to have the ability to make something good. What impiety!

Indeed, God does bring good from evil, and some goods perhaps are such that they would not have been brought about without the previous evil (like the Incarnation).
Nevertheless, we must maintain that God could have brought about other goods, and even greater goods -- so that the universe could be either accidentally or even essentially greater than the universe which now exists.

So, to be very clear, St. Thomas differs from Leibniz on two points:
1) God could have made a different world greater than the one which he did in fact create.
2) Even this world which God did make, could have been greater (by having a higher degree of accidental goodness).

Thus, this is not the best of all possible worlds -- excepting in relation to the humanity of Christ (the hypostatic union), heaven (the created vision of God), and the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Mother of God).

Stephen said...

I am the poster of anonymous 6:50 & 7:10. I hadn't posted to a blog like this before, was a little overwhelmed with all the options, and settled on anonymous for ease's sake. Per your request, I've added my name. Also, sorry for the late reply, but I didn't have computer access yesterday. Anyway, I want to address the two points of divergence you posed (ignoring the point about God being able to do good without evil; a point on which Leibniz is agreed, and I see no reason to pursue), which I believe will resolve down to one, and then to look at that difference.

First, let me emphasize again that for Thomas the accidental "improvement" of this universe is actually a step backwards because it interferes with the order of this universe. "No other order would be suitable and good to the things which now are" (ST I.25.5 r3). Also, "The universe, the present creation being supposed, cannot be better, on account of the most beautiful order given to things by God; in which the good of the universe consists" (ST I.25.6 r3). Please note that for Thomas it is the beautiful order in which the good of the universe consists.

Thomas does allow for substantial changes. "God can do other things and impose upon them another order" (5 r3) "God could make other things, or add something to the present creation" (6 r3). For Leibniz, such changes are indeed possible, but they would not represent improvements, unless they are actual (because if they are better, God has chosen them. If God has not chosen them, that is so because they are not better). That is, if this is the only world, it is the best in itself and no accidental changes or substantial additions/subtractions could improve it. If there are other worlds, the one universe (i.e. all creation) is the best in itself--again without any possible improvement in its order--and our world is a part of that overall order.

On that point are Thomas and Leibniz agreed? No, and here we do see a difference. Their positions split as they consider the consequences of God's perfect power, wisdom, and goodness on His creation. For Leibniz, those attributes mean that God knows what is best (wisdom), elects it (goodness), and carries it out (power). Thus, we have full confidence that whatever the overarching order/narrative of the universe is, it is uniquely the best. For Thomas, concerning God's activity "God cannot make anything better than He makes it, because He cannot make it from greater wisdom and goodness" (6 r1), but concerning what God effects, He could have done differently since "the divine wisdom is not so restricted to any particular order that no other course of events could happen" (5). In other words, while God is best, as are the beatific vision, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the humanity of Christ, the universe as a whole is not the kind of thing that can be a unique best.

Now, whether Leibniz or Thomas is right, whether there is a uniquely best universe and so God has made it or whether there is no uniquely best universe but what God has created is still ordered as best as it might be, I don't know. On both accounts, God creates with perfect wisdom, goodness, and power. That is the important thing. Whether the universe can be a best and so it is or whether it can only asymptotically approach the best and so is doomed to have an infinity of betters, I am not particularly concerned.

(1) This world is perfectly ordered so no accidental change could improve it (although accidental changes could improve parts of it, that would throw off the perfect harmony orchestrated by God in His Providence).

(2) There may (Leibniz) or may not (Thomas) be a best of all possible worlds. If there is, God has chosen it. If there is not, then obviously God has not.

Let me know what you think. I'm quite convinced that (1) is right for both Thomas and Leibniz, and I'm pretty sure that my claims for Thomas on (2) are accurate, but maybe I'm reading him wrong there.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

First, thank you for entering into this discussion ... it is obviously a bit more philosophical than the post is aimed at, but I think find it most enjoyable none the less!
Also, thank you for using an ID ... it really does help a lot!

Regarding your points -- I agree with (2), Leibniz and Thomas are certainly of diverse opinions regarding whether or not there can be a best of all possible worlds ... Thomas certainly holds that there is not and that this world is not the better than all other possible worlds. Here we are in agreement.

Regarding (1), I think that we are somewhat in agreement and somewhat opposed.
I read Thomas as saying that this world, given the current order, cannot be improved ... that is, given the current state of affairs, simply adding another star or angel would mess things up.
However, I think he means to say that, even in this world, another order could be established (without essentially changing this world) which would accommodate a greater perfection.
Here I refer to words which you cite from St. Thomas: "the divine wisdom is not so restricted to any particular order that no other course of events could happen" ... there is room for many options, it is not as though only one outcome is possible. [I do recognize I have not proven from St. Thomas' words that these other possible options are better than the current state of affairs]

In fact, I am perplexed by the idea that accidental improvement is not possible ... the universe is constantly having accidental improvement, since new human souls are constantly being created. Thus, the universe we now live in is not as perfect as it could be, because it will become more perfect tomorrow when there are more human souls in it...
Indeed, there will be a certain point when this growth in perfection stops (at the end of time), but even then we will say that the universe would have been more perfect if we had not sinned -- for God surely could have given us the graces of the Incarnation through some other means, if man had not sinned.

Leibniz seems to me to have a ridiculous optimism -- though, perhaps, I am not giving his theory enough credit.
In any case, I don't think it is helpful for Christians to constantly claim that, whatever happens happens for the best. Sin is constantly at work, corrupting the good -- God does bring it back into perfect order, but it would have been better if we and all the angels had gone to heaven ...

I will very happily read any response you offer ... but I must confess now that I may not have time to respond to it. So, I will leave you with the last word, if you wish to take it.


Seraphim said...


Leibniz does have a kernel of truth in his "best of all possible worlds" argument. The reason he gives for his argument is that the world we live in now is "simplest in hypotheses and richest in phenomena" - which it is. Our world is the "best of all possible worlds" because it was created with the best laws of physics (and we can also point to the "fine-tuning" arguments that show how well it was designed for man). Where his argument doesn't work is when he tries to explain things by an exaggerated essentialism, arguing that God created the perfect number and kind of monads, etc. The argument works if all we're looking at is the laws of physics; it doesn't if we're concerned about substances and accidental perfections.

In Christ,


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