For all of the continental rationalists, including René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, God occupied a large and a systematic place. Much could be made of all that these thinkers owe to medieval theology, but the point is that they were centrally interested in the nature of God and God’s relationship to the natural world. The way in which this problem is worked out by Leibniz has much to do with his solution to other problems. Moreover, there is evidence that Leibniz looked upon himself (to a considerable extent) as a theologian and was most proud of his contributions there. He wished to bring peace between Catholics and Protestants, and his writing had some effect along this line. Particularly, Leibniz wanted to provide rational solutions for traditional theological issues, and he made it his major goal to provide a reconciliation between traditional religious views and philosophical thought through demonstrating their essential harmony.

The Theodicy has a unique place among the classical writing in philosophical theology, for it is one of the first attempts to “justify the ways of God to man” in straightforward and philosophical terms. Previous theological views had dealt with the issue of God’s choice and creation of this particular natural order, but many had bracketed this topic as being beyond rational scrutiny, and few had set out to answer it directly and in detail. Theodicy, the discussion of God’s orderings insofar as they concern human purposes, became a major part of philosophical theology after Leibniz’s treatise.

Leibniz was among those who considered Christianity’s merit to be its rational and enlightened nature, as contrasted with at least some other religions. Along with rationalism went a tendency to minimize the differences in nature between God and humanity. Leibniz shared in this tendency, stating that the perfections of God are those of the human soul, even though God possesses them in boundless measure. Leibniz was also an optimist about the essential goodness of humans and the possibility of their perfection, and it is probably this view of the nature of humanity that more than any other single factor led Leibniz into his “best of all possible worlds” doctrine.

The Nature of God

Human freedom and the justice of God form the object of this treatise, and Leibniz’s aim was to support both while minimizing neither. To do this would justify God’s ways to humanity; people would be more content to receive what God has ordained once the logic and harmony of God’s plan were grasped. God does whatever is best but does not act from absolute necessity. Nature’s laws allow a mean between absolute necessity and arbitrary decrees. In this way, both God’s and human actions were to be explained and reconciled.

God (for Leibniz) is deeply involved in the affairs of humanity, continually creating them, and yet God is not the author of sin. Evil has a source somewhere other than in the will of God; God permits moral evil but does not will it. Leibniz hoped that this view would offend neither reason nor faith. Consciously, Leibniz set out to modify the strictness of the necessity he found in the works of Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, and Descartes. These philosophers had not been interested in a Christian doctrine of evil, for such a doctrine requires that humanity be given greater freedom in order to remove evil from God’s immediate responsibility.

Reason Supports Faith

In Theodicy, Leibniz assumes that the truths of philosophy and theology cannot contradict each other. God acts in creation according to general rules of good and of order. Mysteries may be explained sufficiently to justify belief in them, but one cannot comprehend them. In explaining this, Leibniz distinguishes between logical or metaphysical necessity (whose opposite implies contradiction) and physical necessity. Even miracles must conform to the former, although they may violate the latter. Reason is the ultimate norm: No article of faith must imply contradiction or contravene proofs as exact as mathematics.

The Problem of Evil

When one considers evil, one asks what reasons, stronger than those that appear contrary to them, may have compelled God to permit evil. God is subject to the multitude of reasons and is even “compelled” by them. Leibniz infers that God must have had innumerable considerations in mind, in the light of which he deemed it inadvisable to prevent certain evils, for nothing comes from God that is not consistent with goodness, justice, and holiness. God must have been able to permit sin without detriment to his perfections; the weight of the reasons argues for it. Humans are essentially in the same circumstance in which God was in finding it necessary to permit certain evils.

Because reason is a gift of God even as faith is, Leibniz argues, contention between them would cause God to contend against God. Therefore, if any reasoned objections against any article of faith cannot be dissolved, then the alleged article must be considered as false and as not revealed. Reason and faith can be reconciled. Yet reason is still faced with its central problem: How could a single First Principle, all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful, have been able to allow evil and to permit the wicked to be happy and the good unhappy? Since Leibniz’s time, philosophical inquiry into theological problems has often begun with this question.

Leibniz did not attempt to make the connection between God and moral evil an indirect one, which has been the traditional method. An...

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Free Will vs. Predestination

God always chooses the best but is not constrained to do so. This is the extent of his freedom. Another natural sequence of things is equally possible, in the logical sense, although God’s will is determined in the choice it makes by the preponderating goodness of the natural order he chooses—that is to say, the natural order that actually exists. Everything is certain and determined beforehand in humanity’s action, although this is not the absolute necessity that would find any alternative logically contradictory. The necessity comes from the goodness of the object chosen.

The prevailing inclination always triumphs. In that sense, Leibniz cannot conceive of either God or humans acting irrationally, and hence the actions of both God and humanity are necessary. The whole future is determined. However, because people know neither what the future is nor what it is that God foresees or has resolved, people must still do their duty, according to the reason God has given them and the rules he has prescribed. In the midst of an expansive metaphysical doctrine of possible worlds and the infinity of possible choices open to God, Leibniz adopted a conservative theological view of predestination. A radical in metaphysics, he was almost a reactionary in his view of the fixed relation of God to the world.

Like many conservatives, Leibniz tried—and believed that he had succeeded—to reconcile absolute foreknowledge on God’s part with human freedom. His answer is as old as Augustine’s. People are free in that their actions flow from their own will, but the action of the will in turn is dependent on its causes, which ultimately run back to God. Notwithstanding this dependence of voluntary actions on other causes, Leibniz still believed that the existence within people of a “wonderful spontaneity” is not precluded. This makes the soul independent of the physical influence of all other creatures, although Leibniz was careful not to say that it is also independent of God.

Preestablished Harmony

The doctrine of preestablished harmony is introduced to reconcile the difficulty. It was predestined from the beginning that God’s design and humanity’s volition should coincide: to Leibniz this seems to be a satisfactory solution. It is the typical solution of the rationalist. A reason has been given, and the whole scheme is seen to fit into a logical framework in which there is no contradiction or ultimate disharmony. Whereas one might begin with the premise that human freedom must at all cost be allowed for, Leibniz begins with the idea that all factors should be accounted for by a rational framework.

Preestablished harmony again accounts for the coordination of the soul and body. Like Spinoza’s “parallel attributes,” God ordained at the time of creation a logical ordering in which the soul’s actions coincide with the body’s movements. Like Descartes and Spinoza, Leibniz was thoroughly convinced that there is no interaction but there is a rationally determined plan of agreement. God has arranged beforehand for the body to execute the soul’s orders. God has accommodated the soul to the body. Actually, the design of the world is simply an extension of God’s perfection. Just as the rationalists of this era saw God and the human soul as being very close by nature, so also they viewed the natural order as an extension of the divine nature through creation. Although it is less than God, the created order essentially exhibits the same...

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Christ and Salvation

In Theodicy, Leibniz takes up traditional and primarily theological questions concerning Christ and salvation. His answers here are not startlingly novel, except that Leibniz transferred miracles, belief in the nature of Christ, and a Christian doctrine of salvation into a thoroughly rational framework. Leibniz wanted the doctrines of traditional Christianity to be amenable to his philosophical scheme of metaphysics. In the process of demonstrating this mutual harmony, like all philosophical theologians, he was pushed into giving some rather far-fetched accounts of some difficult religious notions—for example, the assertion of the existence of all human souls in seed in their progenitors since the very beginning of...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Sources for Further Study

Adams, Robert Merrihew. Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. An important philosopher of religion explores Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophical theology and its views regarding evil, goodness, and the nature of God.

Aiton, E. J. Leibniz: A Biography. Boston: A. Hilger, 1985. A worthwhile account of Leibniz’s life, including his place in the scientific, philosophical, and religious worlds of his time.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964....

(The entire section is 464 words.)