BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

A

DISSERTATION

ON

Liberty and Necessity

London
MDCCXXV
(1725)



    Whatever is, is in itsCauses just
Since all things are by Fate; but purblind Man
Sees but a part o' th' Chain, the nearest Link,
His Eyes not carrying to the equal Beam
That poises all above
-DRYDEN

I. There is said to be a First Mover, who is called God, Maker of the Universe.

II. He is said to be all-wise, all good, and all powerful.

Those two propositions being allow'd and asserted by people of almost every Sect and Opinion; I have here suppos'd them granted, and laid them down as the Foundation of my argument; what follows then, being a Chain of Consequences truly drawn from them, will stand or fall as they are true or false.

III. If He is all-good, whatsoever He doth must be good.

IV. If He is all-wise, whatsoever he doth must be wise.

The Truth of these propositions, with relation to the two first, I think may be justly called evident; since, either that infinite goodness will act what is ill, or infinite wisdom what is not wise, is too glaring a Contradiction not to be perceiv'd by any Man of common Sense, and deny'd as soon as understood.

V. If He is all-powerful, there can be nothing existing or acting in the Universe against or without his Consent; and what he consents to must be good, because He is good; therefore Evil doth not exist.

Unde Malum?1...There is nothing in the Universe but what God either does, or permits to be done.2 This, as He is Almighty, is certainly true: But what need of this Distinction between doing and permitting?...We will reason thus: If God permits an Action to be done, it is because he lacks either Power or Inclination to hinder it; in saying he lacks Power, we deny Him to be Almighty; and if we say He lacks Inclination or Will, it must be either because He is not Good, or the Action is not evil. The former is inconsistent with his before-given Attribute of Goodness, therefore the latter must be true.3

It will be said, perhaps, that God permits evil Actions to be done, for wise Ends and Purposes.4 But this objection destroys itself; for whatever an infinitely good God has wise ends in suffering5 to be, must be good, is thereby made good, and cannot be otherwise.

VI. If a Creature is made by God, it must depend upon God, and receive all its Power from Him; with which Power the Creature can do nothing contrary to the Will of God, because God is Almighty; what is not contrary to His Will, must be agreeable to it; what is agreeable to it, must be good, because He is Good; therefore a Creature can do nothing but what is good.

...I would not be understood by this to encourage or defend Theft; tis only for the sake of argument, and will certainly have no ill Effect. The Order and Course of Things will not be affected by Reasoning of this Kind; and 'tis just and necessary, and as much according to Truth, for Bto dislike and punish the Thief who steals his Horse, as it is for Ato steal the horse.6

VII. If the Creature is thus limited in his Actions, being able to do only such things as God would have him to do, and not being able to refuse doing what God would have done; then he can have no such thing as Liberty, Free-will, or Power to do or refrain an Action.

...As Man is a Part of this great Machine, the Universe,7 his regular Acting is requisite to the regular moving of the whole...Is it not necessary then, that our Actions should be over-rul'd and governed by an all-wise Providence?--How exact and regular is every Thing in the natural world! How wisely in every Part contriv'd! We cannot here find the least Defect! All the heavenly Bodies, the Stars and Planets, are regulated with the Utmost Wisdom! And can we suppose less Care to be taken in the Order of the moral than the natural System? It is as if an ingenious Artificer, having fram'd a curious Machine or Clock, and put its many intricate Wheels and Powers in such a dependance on one another, that the whole might move in the most exact Order and Regularity, had nevertheless plac'd in it several other Wheels endued with an independent Self-Motion, but ignorant of the general Interest of the Clock[maker]; and these would every now and then be moving wrong, disordering the true Movement, and making continual Work for the Mender; which might be better prevented, by depriving them of that Power of Self-Motion, and placing them in a Dependance on the regular Part of the Clock....8


1. "Why is there evil?"
2. The distinction between the "permissive will" of God and the "preceptive will" had been a matter of controversy since the Scholastic period of the Middle Ages. Franklin, with Beza, here rejects the distinction.
3. I.e., that there is no evil action.
4. This doctrine has been evoked since the time of Augustine and is referred to as the "aesthetic theodicy."
5. i.e., Allowing
6. Franklin here is heading off the classical charge of "fatalism"--if everything is good, then how can criminals ever be punished; Franklin's answer is that although it was good for the thief to steal the horse, it is also good that the thief be punished.
7. Here Franklin's language is of typical Englightenment province, and his conclusion reminiscient of a Spinoza or a Leibniz, and a precursor to LaPlace. He invokes the "great clockmaker" metaphor and includes the human will as one of the gears in the clock.
8. The treatise continues and gets into the issue of pleasure and pain.

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