On the Monads of Leibniz

By Charles J. Ryan

Many people used to wonder why scientists paid so much attention to the excessively minute and seemingly unimportant particles of which this world and the stars are made; but the events of recent years have convinced nearly everyone that the study of the atom is crucial to man's future. The student, therefore, who loves nature follows with profound interest every increase in true knowledge about the structure of 'matter,' for it promises to lead to deeper wisdom, even to glimpses of regions of life and consciousness hitherto unknown; or if suspected, usually regarded as belonging only to the sphere of religious faith or hope, not to sober reality.

Along these lines, the views of the great German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz (1646-1716) are of profound interest. Leibniz shares the honor with Newton of perfecting the principle and mechanism of the differential calculus, though he came to it quite independently. However, he is perhaps better appreciated (outside of mathematical circles) for his daring penetration beyond the sense-world of matter in search of a superphysical reality, which he intuitively felt was concealed there. His researches led him to the formulation of his famous theory of the monad.

Leibniz had nothing but the very incomplete scientific equipment of the 17th century, but his marvelous insight pierced so far beneath superficial appearances that it is only within our own century that science has begun to catch up with his magnificent intuitions. There is a strong resemblance between his ideas and the philosophies of the Orient. Two main aspects are of special interest today in view of recent scientific discoveries: (1) the illusory nature of physical matter, and (2) the fact that every particle of which the universe is composed is a living, growing entity or being. He was a true evolutionist. He decided that 'matter' is not dead, but is the semblance or outward and visible appearance of an invisible (to us) superphysical reality composed of metaphysical or, we might say, spiritual points which he called monads. Each monad is a distinct individual possessing its own kind or degree of consciousness and existence. Life is everywhere, rising in grades of intelligence from the most primitive monad to the ineffable glory of the "monad of monads," the incomprehensible Divine Unity or One -- the word monad being derived from the Greek monas or one.

Leibniz was of course not the first European philosopher to accept the granulated structure of matter. The Greek Atomists held concepts in some ways similar, but their views seem quite materialistic compared with the subtle and highly transcendental content which so brilliantly distinguishes Leibniz's monadic theory. Holbach, a champion of materialism, who is often set up in contrast to Leibniz, argued that since man, "a material being," thinks, therefore matter is capable of thought! Leibniz, on the contrary, spiritualized matter instead of materializing the soul. But his monads are not within normal human perception, and in logically concluding that "pure reason" or thought is greater than sense perception, Leibniz went so far as to declare that interior thought-processes can truly reveal wider universes (or 'planes') of being than are available to the senses. He included time -- past, present and future -- in the same conclusion.

Leibniz's philosophical monads so closely resemble the modern scientific concept of the 'primary particles' which compose the visible universe that it is difficult to draw a vital distinction between them. Neither the monads nor the concourse of primary particles of modern research -- electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, etc., which combine to form the 'organizations' we call atoms -- can be adequately observed by our physical senses. But we can establish their existence by experiments which show the effects they produce. We can see what they can do, but this does not explain what they are in themselves.

In regard to the 'organizations' of the primary particles, beginning even with the simplest combination, and then moving on to the atom, the molecule, a combination of atoms, and onward to increasingly complicated structures, right up to our solar system and even beyond, each combination is composed of lesser and 'simpler' components, and each component in turn has its own unique place and function. But for all that, the smallest physical particles can no longer be regarded as the ultimate of simplicity. They may in turn have highly complex structures, which emphasizes the fact that the physical atom, etc., is an illusion -- the ephemeral appearance of the enduring monad, according to Leibniz. An important phase of this subject is that balanced organizations -- or perhaps we should say 'organisms'-- could hardly be formed by accident, but in order to establish themselves into an equilibrium and to maintain it, even the primary particles of science must have attributes which it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish from personality. There is obviously a plan which all the parts follow purposively -- an idea not as yet wholly welcomed by science, but one Leibniz would naturally approve of!

Modern philosophy-science has advanced so far towards Leibniz that it ought not to be difficult to adopt his monadic theory in its entirety. But this would mean that the popularly accepted classification of objects into organic and inorganic would be overthrown, for he was positive that the monadic host which stands behind the illusory mask of matter is entirely composed of living entities, intelligent in various degrees. And this principle of universal life, with no qualifications or exceptions, leads directly to a kind of hierarchical structure of the universe. Leibniz sums up his comprehensive idea of evolution in these words:

All the natural divisions of the World show one sole concatenation of beings, in which all the various classes of living creatures, like so many links, are entwined so perfectly that it is impossible to state, either by imagination or by observation, where any one either begins or ends. . . . Everything in Nature progresses by stages, and this law of advancement, which applies to each individual, forms part of my theory of unbroken succession.

In Leibniz's day the scientists followed Newton's principles as shown in his 'practical' laws of motion, space and time, which have no metaphysical content. Matter was regarded in its molar or mass aspect. Even Dalton's later theory of the indivisible, solid atom was nearly a century away, and although it was of great importance as a steppingstone, it could not last in the light of twentieth century physical, chemical and philosophical research.

As Sir Richard Tute once observed, the essentially metaphysical theories about natural phenomena which recent discoveries have actually forced on our scientists, provide the information or background which Leibniz needed but could not supply. Since Ms time, Dalton's individual, hard, material atom has been split into particles so mysterious that to demonstrate even their existence science, armed with all the latest knowledge and the most powerful mathematical resources, has been compelled to rise above practical or commonsense notions of matter, time and space! It has had to call upon strange principles such as the existence of higher dimensions, grades or planes of space beyond or within that with which we are familiar. The so-called 'other dimensional' entities cannot be measured by our yardsticks nor perceived by our senses. As Leibniz realized, they have no extension' in our familiar space, no comprehensible form or size, yet, paradoxically, they are very real.

Naturally Leibniz ran into difficulties with the dynamics of his day as accepted by Newton, Huygens, Halley, etc. But though be could not present final proof of his theory of the transcendental nature of matter, his insight was not to be denied, and be felt no reason to modify his magnificent hypothesis, but left its complete justification to the future. It was not until modern relativity and quantum theories were brought forward that a satisfactory way was found scientifically to rationalize the primary particles of physics, and therefore the monads of Leibniz. It is now fully understood that such concepts are not merely quaint and perplexing, if ingenious, mathematical speculations, but that they are actual approaches to the truth, though owing to our limitations they cannot be pictured in the ordinary way. Thus it might be said that modern research bases its studies on equations which imply the existence of a superphysical reality.

Long before Leibniz, in the Dark Ages of Europe, the scholars of the universities discussed with ardor such problems as those concerning space. We all know one of their famous questions, "How many angels can dance on the point of a needle?" This has often been held up to scorn as an example of an unprofitable waste of time, but it was means absurd, for it opened the important subject of the non-physical planes of space. Angels or spirits being disembodied, or as might say, immaterial and without Leibniz and modern science extension, there would be plenty of room for the whole, heavenly host on the point of a needle!

Leibniz as an intuitive philosopher ranks with his great contemporary, Spinoza, and if their teachings were judiciously combined, each modifying the other in certain directions, the result would be an excellent bridge between religion and science, between so-called physical matter and the realities that lie behind it.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, October 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Theosophical University Press)

  • World Spiritual Traditions Menu