He had himself come under the influence of Descartes, whose work he always regarded with the deepest respect. The cautiousness of the master had done much to disguise the insidious dangers of his thought, and it was in the hands of those disciples who developed his system and sought to reconcile it at all points with orthodoxy that his ideas displayed their true nature. Malebranche’s philosophy revealed the incompatibility of Providence—in the ordinary acceptation—with immutable natural laws. If the Deity acts upon the world, as Malebranche maintained, only by means of general laws, His freedom is abolished, His omnipotence is endangered, He is subject to a sort of fatality. What will become of the Christian belief in the value of prayers, if God cannot adapt or modify, on any given occasion, the general order of nature to the needs of human beings? These are some of the arguments which we find in a treatise composed by Fenelon, with the assistance of Bossuet, to demonstrate that the doctrine of Malebranche is inconsistent with piety and orthodox religion. They were right. Cartesianism was too strong a wine to be decanted into old bottles. [Footnote: Fenelon’s Refutation of Malebranche’s Traite de la nature et de la grace was not published till 1820. This work of Malebranche also provoked a controversy with Arnauld, who urged similar arguments.]
Malebranche’s doctrine of what he calls divine Providence was closely connected with his philosophical optimism. It enabled him to maintain the perfection of the universe. Admitting the obvious truth that the world exhibits many imperfections, and allowing that the Creator could have produced a better result if he had employed other means, Malebranche argued that, in judging the world, we must take into account not only the result but the methods by which it has been produced. It is the best world, he asserts, that could be framed by general and simple methods; and general and simple methods are the most perfect, and alone worthy of the Creator. Therefore, if we take the methods and the result together, a more perfect world is impossible. The argument was ingenious, though full of assumptions, but it was one which could only satisfy a philosopher. It is little consolation to creatures suffering from the actual imperfections of the system into which they are born to be told that the world might have been free from those defects, only in that case they would not have the satisfaction of knowing that it was created and conducted on theoretically superior principles.
Though Malebranche’s conception was only a metaphysical theory, metaphysical theories have usually their pragmatic aspects; and the theory that the universe is as perfect as it could be marks a stage in the growth of intellectual optimism which we can trace from the sixteenth century. It was a view which could appeal to the educated public in France, for it harmonised with the general spirit of self-complacency and hopefulness which prevailed