Leibniz: ‘matter can be conceived as like a garden full of plants, or like a pond full of fish.’ (Depositphotos)

If we keep dividing the world into smaller and smaller parts, will we eventually reach a stopping point? Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (b. 1646) pondered this question meticulously, answering: No, but there are simple ‘substances’ called ‘monads’. Monads do not halt the infinite divisibility of matter, which is ‘subdivided without end’, but things are ultimately woven from them.

Sufficient reason

Leibniz came up with his solution in 1714’s Monadology. With poetic imagery, he famously declared:

‘each portion of matter can be conceived as like a garden full of plants, or like a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each organ of an animal, each drop of its bodily fluids is also a similar garden or a similar pond’.

Nonetheless, he said, there are monads, which are basic units of being: ‘true unities’, from which things derive their reality. They are immaterial, indestructible, and created by the only necessary substance there is, God, who authorises being through them.

Specifically, things are presented according to the principle of sufficient reason: there must be reasons for things’ existence.

‘No fact can hold or be real, and no proposition can be true, unless there is a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise.’

The reasons are of God’s free choice; He is the language in which being unfolds.

We can keep on explaining contingent truths with other contingent truths. But this leads to an infinite chain of answers to why-questions. God, as a ‘necessary substance’, is needed outside of these chains, to providing the reasons for existence.


Monads are essentially logical subjects to which certain predicates ‘belong’. Thus examining a thing’s logical coherency will eventually reveal its reasons, its ‘necessary truth’.

The possibility of nothing is inconceivable, for God’s reasons fill the abyss. He is at the origin of things providing the maximum of being with the minimum of means. If something is struck by a logical contradiction, it is not a possible thing and does not reside in the infinite understanding of God.

By contrast, things that exhibit a tendency towards existence, a desire to exist (being-existent), a ‘striving to being’, are possible things. Their ‘striving’, born in God’s reasons, is why we have something instead of nothing and why ‘The present is always pregnant with the future.’

‘No windows’

The reason why matter is discernible (e.g. two electrons) is because God provides reasons for their discernibility. If, conversely, two objects share all their properties, they are one and the same thing: no sufficient reason, provided in monads, distinguishes them.

However, the ‘primitives’ (monads), in essence, are tautologies (identical propositions). They themselves cannot be explained, for their discernibility is internally concealed from us: ‘monads have no windows’.

Bertrand Russell labelled the whole thing a ‘fantastic fairy tale’.

Voltaire derided it:

‘Can you really believe that a drop of urine is an infinity of monads, and that each of these has ideas, however obscure, of the universe as a whole?’ (Oeuvres complètes)

What do you think?