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Leibniz’s effort to solve the “problem of evil,” to provide a rationale for the existence of evil in a world governed by an omnipotent and benevolent God, can seem overly acrobatic to modern audiences. It must be viewed in the context of a time period that not only recognized Christian doctrines as concrete but also afforded value to the human mind as being able to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Leibniz emphasizes the role of reason as a motive in God’s decisions. While earlier Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas had done this to an extent, Leibniz seems to assert that God’s mind might be understood clearly in the terms of human reason and logic, a notion that pre-humanist thinkers were undoubtedly less comfortable with. For early Christian philosophers such as Saint Augustine and Irenaeas, both of whom had produced influential theodicies of their own, the “problem of evil” was about finding a way of reconciling God’s perfect qualities with an imperfect world, while for modern thinkers, especially for atheists, “the problem” is showing that the world’s imperfection in fact proves that there is no God at all. Leibniz’s “theodicy” does not see the “problem of evil” as posing the danger of atheism but rather sees it as challenging the traditional view of God as a being who knew everything, could do everything, and willed good in everything—a notion he wanted to uphold.
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Leibniz’s logic relies heavily on the assumptions of a society still overwhelmingly Christian. Some of his arguments, for instance his assertion that God had created the “best possible world,” thus rely on the premises that “God exists” or “God is good,” which modern audiences might view with somewhat greater skepticism than their historical equivalents. Moreover, some of his linguistic choices, such as his insistence that God can create only one “universe,” a word he uses interchangeably with “world,” might seem alien to modern audiences, for whom universe connotes a limited physical and temporal space. For Leibniz, this term simply referred to everything in existence, or more specifically, to everything that God had created.
Leibniz breaks with earlier medieval thinkers, who asserted that while God was complicit with everything in reality, evil was not a reality but rather a lack or “privation” of reality. His argument is that God “permits” evil because evil is a necessary part of larger events that bring about good. For example, the closer cooperation and friendship between nations and the advancement in medical science means that the world wars are justified, with all their horrors. This seems a theological application of the utilitarian principle championed by theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century (the greatest good for the greatest number).
While for some this permissive conception of God detracts from God’s goodness, it was Leibniz’s only way of addressing the old argument that a metaphysically perfect being like God could not create metaphysically imperfect beings like humans. Leibniz has to subscribe to a certain interpretation of God’s omnipotence, namely that he can only do what is logically possible. To intervene and make humans perfect would, for Leibniz, not be logically possible for God if he wanted to maintain humans as separate beings. If humans were all perfect, we would become one and the same. Understanding omnipotence in this way is sufficient for many philosophers, but for others it does not equate to true omnipotence, since it limits God’s power by the very laws he is said to have put in place.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 evil will, he says, cannot exist without cooperation. An action, he asserts, is not, for being evil, the less dependent on God. Thus, Leibniz makes the solution to the problem of evil directly a matter of accounting for God’s action, because nothing can come to pass without his permission. God is the first reason of things.
The cause of this world, Leibniz writes, must be intelligent, for the First Cause has to consider all possible worlds and then fix upon one to create. Such an intelligence would have to be infinite, and united to a goodness no less infinite, it cannot have chosen other than the best of all possible worlds.
It may be, for instance, that all evils are almost as nothingness in comparison with the good things that are in the universe. Whence did evil come then? We must consider that there is some original imperfection, due to the creature’s limited nature, in the creature before sin. Leibniz adopts this view of “original sin,” that some error is unavoidable in principle in a creature that must be less perfect than the being who creates it.
Other reasons for evil may be given: There is evil in all of the possible worlds, and so no choice could avoid it entirely. Evil often makes us savor good the more because of it—evil in that sense is necessary to any good. Human will is responsible for its own actions; but this explanation simply leads Leibniz into a consideration of God’s foreknowledge and the question of divine predestination. Leibniz indulges in hairsplitting, distinguishing between what is certain and what is necessary. The will is inclined toward the course it adopts, and in that sense its action is and always has been “certain” in God’s knowledge. However, the action of humanity’s will is not necessary, although this means merely that its opposite does not involve a logical contradiction. Such “contingency” Leibniz allows to remain.
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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.
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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 qualities as does divinity itself.
God is inclined toward every possible good, in proportion to the excellence of that good. God, before decreeing anything, considered among all the possible sequences of things that one which God afterward approved. God grants his sanction to this sequence (the present natural order) only after having entered into all its detail. From such a description of God’s rational selective activity comes the doctrine of the best of all possible worlds.
In most traditional accounts of ultimate origin, the First Cause moves because it is good and outgoing, not grudging. However, in all classical and in most medieval schemes such a god has no real choices to make. Leibniz presents a modern metaphysical framework in that he stresses the infinitely wide range of alternatives open to God. The philosophical solution, however, is traditional. God selects according to fixed norms. It makes sense to say that classical thinkers also considered this world to be the best possible, but they believed that God had no alternatives. Leibniz simply set classical theory into a wider context of possibilities but continued to agree to God’s fixed goodness and to his necessary selection and creation.
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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. Copleston situates Leibniz in the history of Western philosophy and provides a helpful introduction to Leibniz’s major views.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. A significant French philosopher takes stock of the contributions and implications of, as well as problems in, Leibniz’s thought.
Hostler, John. Leibniz’s Moral Philosophy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1975. This study of the ethical dimensions of Leibniz’s metaphysics argues that the metaphysics is worked out in the framework of his systematic moral ideas.
Jolley, Nicholas. Leibniz. New York: Routledge, 2005. Includes extensive coverage of topics from the Theodicy such as free will and the problem of evil by a leading Leibniz scholar.
Jolley, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Contains interpretive and critical essays by leading scholars who assess Leibniz’s philosophical and theological doctrines. Includes essays on topics in the Theodicy.
MacDonald Ross, G. Leibniz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A short yet comprehensive account of Leibniz’s philosophy. Develops the objection that Leibniz’s thesis that this is the best of all possible worlds is meaningless.
Mates, Benson. The Philosophy of Leibniz: Metaphysical Underpinnings. London: Oxford University Press, 1986. A reliable introductory study that covers all aspects of Leibniz’s metaphysics.
Rescher, Nicholas. Leibniz: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979. Argues that Leibniz’s unorthodox metaphysical system ultimately aims at providing a formation for traditional views in ethics and religion.
Riley, Patrick. Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence: Justice as the Charity of the Wise. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. An exploration of Leibniz’s ethics and political theories and of his interest in international relations.
Rutherford, Donald. Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Concentrates on the rationalism of Leibniz’s thought, including the idea that ours is the best of all possible worlds.
Wilson, Catherine. Leibniz’s Metaphysics: A Historical and Comparative Study. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Wilson shows how Leibniz developed his distinctive metaphysical system, taking into account his historical context and his place within the philosophical debates of his day.
Woolhouse, R. S., ed. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1994. In this collection, Leibniz scholars take stock of his theories, their implications, and their lasting value.
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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 things. Obviously such an idea would be helpful in establishing a religious notion of original sin in Adam; but it is hardly likely to be confirmable by the microscopic observations Leibniz’s rationalism suggests.
Both Leibniz’s questions and his answers are repetitious. Theodicy sets out to refute certain doctrines that Leibniz opposed (particularly those of Pierre Bayle). Leibniz did this partly by reference to and elaboration of certain of his famous theories (preestablished harmony, the essential goodness of God’s choice), but primarily his weapon was the repetition of his own position. As a rationalist, Leibniz evinced the traditional irritation at finding that someone else did not find his reasoning as persuasive as he himself did and that his opponent continued to hold different theories. Despite this defect, Theodicy illustrates how important works do not always have the technical rigor and logical tightness that one might suppose. Leibniz repeats his maxims and principles; he does little to explore them in detail. Yet Leibniz is dealing with questions of great moment and common interest, and his proposed solutions are interesting and suggestive. More precise and cogent pieces of philosophical analysis have proved to be less interesting over the years, but Leibniz’s sometimes tedious and often loose reflections on the crucial issues of theology are still very much alive.
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The problem of evil obviously presents a severe problem for versions of Christianity that purport to be based on reason rather than faith. Leibniz’s attempt rationally to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil, while influential and ingenious, faces formidable objections. As noted above, Leibniz blocks the objection that there surely seem to be better possible worlds than this one, with his doctrine of the complete concept of the individual substance, arguing that a world without the Holocaust is also a world without Mother Teresa. However, even if the questionable complete concept doctrine is accepted for the sake of discussion, thus granting it is not possible to have the actual Mother Teresa without the Holocaust, this does not mean there could not be a very similar individual who ministers to the poor of Calcutta. What reason can Leibniz give for thinking that this alternate Mother Teresa is inferior to the actual one? In addition, Leibniz now has a problem making the complete concept doctrine consistent with the role free will plays in his solution to the problem of moral evil. According to Leibniz, Mother Teresa has a complete concept that includes the truth that she devoted her life to ministering to the poor of Calcutta. However, then this is a necessary truth about her, and so it was unavoidable that she would spend her life in this way—yet if it were necessary and inevitable that she would spend her life in this way, she cannot be thought of doing this of her own free will. Thus, in using the complete concept doctrine to solve one problem in his theodicy, Leibniz creates another.
One reason the phrase “best of all possible worlds” has entered the public consciousness is that Leibniz’s optimism was ridiculed in the French writer Voltaire’s eighteenth century comic novel Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). In that novel, Dr. Pangloss (the character representing Leibniz) keeps reassuring his naïve protégé Candide—as they endure natural disasters, disfiguring diseases, and unspeakable cruelty—that this indeed is the best of all possible worlds. At one point, a bewildered Candide exclaims, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?” Many modern readers of Theodicy, after the moral horrors and natural disasters of the twentieth century, no doubt have a similar reaction to Leibniz’s philosophy.
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