Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

6. Philosophical theology

Malebranche’s occasionalism takes on greater importance in the context of his theodicy, or justification of God’s ways in the realms of nature and grace. In his Traité de la nature et de la grace (1680), Malebranche undertakes the task of explaining how God’s omnipotence, benevolence and perfection can be reconciled with the persistence of evil and imperfections in the natural world (including human suffering and sin) and with the apparent unfairness and inefficiency in the distribution of divine grace and everlasting happiness.

Our concept of God tells us that God is infinitely wise, good, powerful and perfect. And yet the world which God has created certainly appears to us to be quite imperfect in its details and full of disorders of every variety. As Theodore, Malebranche’s spokesman in the Entretiens sur la métaphysique, exclaims, ‘The Universe then is the most perfect that God can make? But really! So many monsters, so many disorders, the great number of impious men – does all this contribute to the perfection of the universe?’ (1688: 211). Aristes, his interlocutor, is led thereby to wonder either about the efficacy of God’s will or the benevolence of God’s intentions.

The resolution of this conundrum, as presented in both the Entretiens and the Traité, is to be found in the consideration not just of the particular, superficial and obvious details of the universe, but also of the means undertaken to achieve and sustain the whole. God, according to Malebranche, looks not only to the final result of his creative act (that is, to the goodness and perfection of the world per se), but also to his work or ways of operation. And the activity or means most expressive of God’s nature are of maximum simplicity, uniformity, fecundity and universality. God does not accomplish by complex means that which can be accomplished by simple means; and God does not execute with many particular volitions that which can be executed by a few general volitions. This holds true even if it means that the world created by God could be spared some imperfections were God to compromise the simplicity and generality of his operations. Thus, the perfection of the world in its details as a product is completely relative to the mode of activity that is most worthy of God. God might increase the absolute perfection of the world, perhaps by decreasing the number of defects or evils therein. But this would entail greater complexity in the divine ways and constant departures from the general laws of nature established at creation.

Thus, the world that God has created is the one of the infinitely many possible worlds that best reconciles perfection of design with simplicity and generality of means of production and conservation. By a number of ‘particular volitions’ – that is, volitions that are ad hoc and not occasioned by some prior event in accordance with some law of nature – God could correct deformities of birth, keep fruit from rotting on trees, prevent physical disasters about to occur by the regular course of the laws of nature, and forestall sin and wickedness. But, Malebranche insists, ‘we must be careful not to require constant miracles from God, nor to attribute them to him at every moment’ (1680: 34). God, in other words, acts only by ‘general volitions’ – that is, volitions that are in accordance with some law and whose operation is occasioned by a prior event, as dictated by that law – and the most simple ways.

Similar considerations apply to the problem of grace. A benevolent God wills, with what Malebranche calls a ‘simple volition’, that sinners convert and that all humans should be saved. But clearly not all humans are saved; many are lost. And not all those who are saved appear to be worthy of salvation or ready to receive grace. The anomaly is again explained by the generality of God’s volitions. The distribution of grace is governed by certain general laws willed by God, and the occasional causes responsible for the actual distribution of grace in accordance with those laws are the thoughts and desires in the human soul of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus qua human has finite cognitive capacities, he cannot at any given time attend to all the relevant facts about the agent upon whom grace is to be bestowed – for example, whether they are ready to make the best use of it – or actually think of all who deserve to be saved. Thus, as with the distribution of evil and imperfection in the natural world, God allows grace to be distributed unevenly and even inequitably by the laws of grace in combination with the occasional causes that activate them.

It was the Traité, with its claim that God wills to save all humans and the implication that God’s volitions are not always efficacious (since not everyone is saved), that initially aroused Arnauld’s ire and occasioned his attack on Malebranche’s whole system. Arnauld, as a Jansenist, was committed first and foremost to a strong doctrine of predestination and to the efficacy of divine volitions, particularly in the matter of grace. Pierre Bayle rallied to Malebranche’s defence on this and other issues, and the pages of Bayle’s Nouvelles de la république des lettres in the 1680s became an important battleground for the debates instigated by Malebranche’s works.

Citing this article:
Nadler, Steven. Philosophical theology. Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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