Thoughts & Insights

The Best of All Possible Worlds

In his “Monadology” of 1714 Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz developed the argumentative basis for his thesis that this world is the best of all possible worlds. It is hardly surprising that this thesis has repeatedly aroused controversy and flat contradiction since it first appeared.

After all, there have always been more than enough examples of the anti-thesis at all times, including the present day.

OUBEY came across the Monadology at an early age and was fascinated by the metaphysics of Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz on which it was based. As a philosopher, mathematician, physicist, metaphysician, mastermind of what we now call the computer and much more, he is still regarded by many as the last true universal genius.

And so OUBEY dedicated one of his early paintings not to the celebrated Isaac Newton but to Leibniz and his Monadology which had long gone unrecognised, calling it “The Journey of the Monads”.

Over the past four months, as part of the “Art of Resonance” show in the Mind Museum in Manila this painting has been viewed and enjoyed by more people than ever before. This alone would be reason enough to take a closer look at Leibniz’s Monadology

Then recently I read a commentary that referred to the thesis of the best of all possible worlds, only to reduce it to absurdity in light of the abysses into which peoples and nations are still plunging in the 21st century – as though history were nothing to learn from for the future and with this justification at the same time to call into question the divine origin of the world.

I do not feel called upon to philosophise on the existence of a God at this point. But I will say this much: it is striking how easily the inadequacy or even non-existence of a God comes to mind when bad things happen to us whether individually or collectively, caused by natural forces or by the brutal violence people and entire nations inflict on other people and other nations, as we are experiencing directly or indirectly today. And this is especially true when even the most barbaric atrocities are committed in the name of a god.

What fascinated OUBEY about Leibniz’s monadology was less its associated theodicy (justification of God) than its inherent understanding of the freedom, uniqueness and indivisibility of every monad, i.e. every soul in this universe. Bold and still far ahead of even many of today’s thinkers, for Leibniz not only his own human species, but everything that exists in the universe belonged to the animated beings.

Humans – at least according to the current state of knowledge – are the only species on this planet with a free will that goes beyond innate instinctive and generic behaviour and enables decisions that no other being can make. And, if the situation requires it, human will can even go against its own instincts and drives. Decisions such as whether one is prepared to harm another person for whatever reason, whether one is prepared to kill one or even many people, or whether one is able to forego one’s own advantage in favour of another living being are just a few examples of decisions of the will.

According to Leibniz, this world is not the best of all possible worlds because it is perfect, i.e. perfect and flawless in every respect. Rather, it is because it has endowed humans with free will as the only species in this world. A perfect world and the free will of its inhabitants to choose one behaviour or another are mutually exclusive. The question of how free human will really is has also been debated down the ages.


Let’s just imagine the opposite: a truly perfect world. People have been dreaming of a perfect world, a paradise on earth, not just since Thomas More published his philosophical treatise entitled “Utopia” in 1516. Just how intelligent Leibniz’s view of the world and mankind was can be seen from the attempts to realise such utopias. Both in the form of small, sectarian communities and in the form of large social attempts at realisation, all ended with the greatest possible lack of freedom for the individual. The fact that these systems are repeatedly abandoned by individuals or overcome by the social collective is a very strong testimony to the strength and power of free will.

For Leibniz, there is no perfect, ideal or even paradisiacal original state of this world and there never was. Quite unlike the belief that human sin was the reason for the expulsion from such a former paradise – as a kind of punishment – and that every human being since then has been born with an “original sin”. I clearly prefer the idea of a universe that accepts human error and even catastrophes and crimes in favour of freedom. In any case, neither the one nor the other can be proven.

Freedom creates space for the possible, for crossing boundaries – in thought and in action, in both positive and negative ways. But freedom also always means responsibility. Everyone decides every day how they use their freedom to make this world a better place or not, and bears the responsibility for doing so. Be it on a small or large scale.

In the “best of all possible worlds”, freedom is a prerequisite. This was probably one of the reasons why an irrepressible free spirit like OUBEY dedicated a painting to Leibniz’s idea. And perhaps this spirit of freedom lives on so strongly in this painting that to this day it immediately casts a spell over almost everyone who sees it.

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