“One world exists where a man follows the road scorned in the other by his copy.”
This is a quote from Auguste Blanqui’s treatise on the multiplicity of worlds, L’éternité par les astres (1872). Catherine Gallagher cited it at the close of a talk about counterfactual narratives that she gave this weekend at a conference I helped organize; something about the line made tears well up in my eyes.
As Gallagher observed in her talk, Gottfried Leibniz is the father of counterfactual thinking. Leibniz’s theology holds that, selecting from an infinite array of possible worlds, God chose to bring our world into existence because he deemed it the best of all possible worlds. For Leibniz, thinking about how the world might have been is a way to appreciate how much worse things might otherwise have been. (“You think our world is bad? Wait till you see these others!”). While Leibniz insists that overall all other possible worlds are inferior to ours, he acknowledges that a given individual may well fare better in many of these other worlds.
Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710) ends, strangely and compellingly, with a fable that speaks to this poignant incommensurability between divine and individual interests. The fable focuses upon Sextus Tarquinius, the infamous prince whose rape of Lucretia was said to precipitate the founding of the Roman republic. Leibniz tells the parable in order to try to explain why, although God permitted the rape of Lucretia to occur, God is not responsible for Sextus’s sin. According to Leibniz, God judged that it was worth sacrificing Lucretia’s life and happiness because of the greater good that would spring from Sextus’s crime. For Leibniz we have no choice but to endorse this decision as the right decision, because God’s goodness compelled him to create the best of all possible worlds; and therefore a world in which Lucretia was spared would have necessarily been a “worse” world.
What does “the best of all possible worlds” mean here? In another context (The Discourse on Metaphysics, 1686) Leibniz writes that a perfect world is “the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena,” and Leibniz scholars tend toward thinking that Leibniz imagines God to judge “bestness” by this or another metaphysical criterion rather than appealing to a more utilitarian criterion like “a world in which the most people are happy.” Leibniz admits, then, that God permits evil in the world; these individual instances of evil, Leibniz argues, are a necessary consequence of God fulfilling his duty to create the best of all possible worlds. In other words, God permits the rape of Lucretia because that instance of evil is necessary to creating the best of all possible worlds that subsequently emerges.
It’s difficult not to feel like Leibniz’s God is kind of an asshole. Not a Milton’s God kind of an asshole, who is assholey in a Bluebeardy kind of way (“don’t go into that closet to which I am giving you this key … you did? [Sigh] Now I have to kill you”) but a libertinish Valmonty asshole who plays life like a long game of chess, mowing down pawns without compunction.
The point of Leibniz’s fable about Sextus is to show that God does not bear responsibility for an individual’s choices. The fable begins with a scene, set in our world, in which we see Sextus seek out Jupiter at the temple of Dodona in Greece. Sextus has already heard of his fate from Apollo and he’s not happy about it, so he complains to Jupiter and asks for a new fate. Jupiter says he will give Sextus a new fate if he agrees to surrender his claim to the Roman throne. Sextus refuses and storms out of the temple, abandoning himself to his fate. In the rest of the fable, we are shown an array of other possible worlds “wherein shall be found, not absolutely the same Sextus as you have seen [in this world] (that is not possible, he carries with him always that which he shall be) but several Sextuses resembling him, possessing all that you know already of the true Sextus, but not all that is already in him imperceptibly, nor in consequence all that shall yet happen to him. You will find in one world a very happy and noble Sextus, in another a Sextus content with a mediocre state, a Sextus, indeed, of every kind and endless diversity of forms.”
After surveying all of these worlds, finally we arrive back in this world, where we re-witness Sextus storm out of the temple of Dodona in a fury and return to Rome where he rapes Lucretia and is subsequently driven out, bringing down the monarchy. Pallas (Jupiter’s daughter, who has been conducting our tour) then comments: “You see that my father did not make Sextus wicked; he was so from all eternity, he was so always and freely. My father only granted him the existence which his wisdom could not refuse to the world where he is included: he made him pass from the region of the possible to that of the actual beings.”
Whenever I read this story I get stuck pondering the same question: which properties are essential to Sextus’s character and which are not? From what I can tell, Leibniz’s position is that there are certain essential properties a given individual has (like being human); and there are also contingent properties, like being the kind of human who chooses to rape Lucretia. Those latter contingent qualities are essential qualities of the Sextus of our world, but not of the Sextuses in other worlds. But then what does it mean to say that Sextus was wicked from all eternity? I suppose it means that Sextus in our world always freely chooses to rape Lucretia, despite having abundant other opportunities. Yet at the same time there’s something deterministic about Leibniz’s understanding about a person’s identity in a particular world; Pallas says, recall, that a given, world-specific Sextus “carries with him always that which he shall be,” suggesting in some way that character is destiny.
I write at a moment when those other worlds feel closer than usual, as do the other characters I might be in them, the other plots I might live out. In another world I’d still be a duck-rabbit of course (Leibniz insists that species is an essential property), but perhaps there’s one world where I’m more steadfast, and another where I’m more impulsive, and yet another, most desirable of all, where I’m more decisive. There might even be one where I return my library books. The specters of the different choices I might have made, that I could make yet, haunt those I’ve already made and those that still lie before me.
Making lists of pros and cons, hypothesizing and conjecturing possible outcomes, feels like such a Leibniz’s-assholey-God thing to do, detached from the tangible sufferings of those, like Lucretia, who may be the collateral damage of my lofty choices. In Leibniz’s fable, all the various worlds that God has at his disposal are like macrocosmic lists of pros and cons; specifically, all of the worlds are represented as books in a divine library. God likes to come in sometimes and browse these other worlds in order to “enjoy the pleasure of recapitulating things and of renewing his own choice, which cannot fail to please him.” As the verbs “enjoy” and “please” suggest, this is not the tortuous exercise in second-guessing oneself it would be for a mere mortal. Being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good has its perks.
Due to a recent flare up of an allergy to something (mornings, I suspect) as well as a general propensity for weepiness, I seem to need tissues near to hand at all moments. Since, obviously, I am perennially out of tissues, I’ve taken to depositing rolls of loo paper on all available surfaces around the house. The other day a little fly was trying to get into my apricot jam while I was eating breakfast and I brushed it away and then unthinkingly picked up the roll of loo paper on the table and crushed the fly with it; that is, I stamped the roll of paper on top of the fly, as if I were crushing it with a mug. When I picked up the roll of loo paper and turned it over, there was the fly’s body, perfectly flattened against the plys of paper. It looked a bit like the flowers I used to press inside books when I was a girl. For some reason, I didn’t scrape the fly off; I didn’t want to touch it, so I just left it there. Now every time I reach for the roll, I see the fly’s dead body and think about how carelessly I slaughtered it. It’s a strange little momento mori. I see it and I think of Lucretia and all the other lives, big and small, that were not scorned in some other world.