(from: Cottingham, p. 260, 263-264)
(from: G. W. Leibniz,
Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Liberty of Man and
the Origin of Evil
Essais de théodicée sur Ia bonté de Dieu, Ia Iiberté de I’homme et
I’origine du mal
, 1710], Part I, §~ 7—15, 19—26, with omissions. Trans. E. M Huggard
(London: Routledge, 1951)
The Problem of Evil:
One of the greatest obstacles to belief in a supreme and perfect deity has always
been what philosophers have come to call the ‘problem of evil’ — a problem neatly
formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus
(341—271 BC): if God is willing
to prevent evil but not able, then he is not omnipotent; if he is able but not willing, he is
not benevolent; if he is both able and willing, whence comes evil?’ In the following
extract from the
(‘A vindication of God’s justice’) published in 1710 by the
German philosopher G. W. Leibniz, we find a systematic attempt to resolve the issue.
Leibniz begins by introducing the concept of God as the supreme and perfect necessary
being who is the cause of all contingent things, and contains within himself the reason for
his existence (compare the third of Aquinas’s ‘five ways’, extract 2, above).
argues that the universe we live in must be the best
of all possible worlds: of all the
worlds capable of existence, the infinitely good and wise creator must have chosen the
best, or else there would be something to correct in his actions. The background to this
argument is that only certain combinations of things can exist together (or are
‘compossible’ as Leibniz puts it elsewhere); so there are logical constraints on what even
the most benevolent creator can bring into existence.
To suppose that one could simply
eliminate undesirable elements from creation ignores that ‘the universe is all of a piece,
so that if the smallest evil that comes to pass were missing, it would no longer be this
One may object that this does not explain why there should be any evil in the first place.
Here Leibniz makes a useful distinction between three
kinds of evil, metaphysical,
physical and moral.
consists in ‘mere imperfection’: some imperfection
must exist if there is to be a created universe at all, since if there was nothing but
complete perfection, only God would exist.
(for example disease and
natural disasters) Leibniz explains, perhaps somewhat glibly, as ‘often a penalty owing to
guilt, and often as a means to an end, to prevent greater evils or to obtain greater good’.
in the case of
moral evil (
the evil wrought by human beings), Leibniz deploys a
common line among religious apologists known as the ‘free will defense’: if men are to
be free agents rather than puppets, they must be able to act badly. Since God is all-
powerful, we must admit that he could prevent such evil, and hence that he permits it;
but Leibniz argues that