A History of the Problem of Evil - Modern Philosophy

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Calvin (1509-1564)

Calvin resolutely disregards human volition as a means of absolving God for evil’s existence, and thus rejects earlier mainstream theodicies. In Ockham, however, Calvin finds an agreeable response to the problem, and builds upon Ockham’s foundation—his conception of good. Calvin minces no words when describing the root of good:

The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.1

Calvin’s lofty view of God excels his concept of good as a standard. God is Himself the standard, and as in Ockham, the problem of evil, at least as formally conceived disintegrates. A new problem, however, rises in its place—the nature of divine justice. Calvin anticipates this, offering,

First, they ask why God is offended with his creatures who have not provoked him by any previous offense; for to devote to destruction whomsoever he pleases, more resembles the caprice of a tyrant than the legal sentence of a judge; and, therefore, there is reason to expostulate with God, if at his mere pleasure men are, without any desert of their own, predestinated to eternal death. If at any time thoughts of this kind come into the minds of the pious, they will be sufficiently armed to repress them, by considering how sinful it is to insist on knowing the causes of the divine will, since it is itself, and justly ought to be, the cause of all that exists. For if his will has any cause, there must be something antecedent to it, and to which it is annexed; this it were impious to imagine.

For Calvin, not only is God the standard of good, but also that of order. He supplies a teleological grounding based in His volition and acting as causative of all things. All things, then, work in accordance with His justice, and that justice imbues the cosmos with order much like paint encompasses the canvas and provides the implement for intelligibility of meaning and design in the resulting artwork.

Descartes (1596-1560)

Descartes follows Augustinian theory in two particular areas: (1) assertion of human volition, and (2) evil as a non-essence. But Descartes adds an important component to the discussion. To this point omnipotence was the attribute most commonly limited in efforts to construct a theodicy. Descartes focuses on this feature as well, but rather than limiting it he expands it to the degree that God can even perform contradictions if He so desires. This is related to the idea of contingency that Descartes supports, as Nussbaum explains,

For him, not only is it the case that causal laws could have been different, had God willed it so; more radically, the laws of mathematics and of logic themselves could have been different as well.2

Thus God could have chosen other permutations of organizing laws, but in accord with Anselm’s view of the perfection of God, Descartes recognizes that this world is the best possible, and that as God determines what laws will be, they then become necessary. Contingency, then, exists but with limits at the point where the contingent becomes the real. At this point the real becomes necessary. So while Descartes does utilize the free-will explanation in his theodicy, two additional ingredients are observable: (1) the possibility of contradiction due to superomnipotence, or the divine possession of power which can contradict without self-defeat, generates a course in which the problem of evil becomes a non sequitur, and (2) his concept of contingency which offers a teleological explanation for the presence of evil. It should be noted in this context that in addition to these specific theodical elements, Descartes also provides an intersection of philosophy and theology, as his theodicy is distinctly philosophical. Janowski observes that

Descartes’ prime concern is Certitude or Truth [emphasis mine], while the classical theodicies deal with the existence of moral evil…Although Descartes tried not to meddle with theological and moral issues, it is clear from his treatment of the good and the true—both of which, according to him, were established by God—that they are two aspects of the same problem.3

For Descartes epistemological consistency, grounded in reason, was central in his theodicy, thus expanding discussions of theodicy into the realm of epistemology.

Spinoza (1632-1677)

Spinoza adopts, as Nussbaum categorizes him, a primarily modal approach to theodicy, espousing causal determinism and advocating necessity rather than contingency. Whereas Spinoza acknowledges contingency in an epistemological sense, he categorically denies it in the natural sense. (Nussbaum, 2003) Spinoza’s affinity for necessity corresponds with his emphasis on plenitude (Lovejoy’s term)—the idea that all that can be must be. With a view toward a ‘greater good’ theodicy, Spinoza held that all that exists must do so of necessity. Evil exists in similar fashion to the Neoplatonic conception as privation rather than essence—on this point Spinoza agrees with Augustine. The point of departure for Spinoza is causation, whereas Augustine viewed evil as caused by wrongheaded choices, Spinoza perceives evil as that which is suffered due to external forces acting on the individual. Yet good and evil are not absolute, as he describes in The Ethics, they both emerge equally from the perfect nature of a (panentheistic) deity:

If all things follow from a necessity of the absolutely perfect nature of God, why are there so many imperfections in nature? Such, for instance, as things corrupt to the point of putridity, loathsome deformity, confusion, evil, sin, etc….the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend the human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.4

The elements of necessity and perfection are in view for Spinoza, and flowing from his panentheistic perspective of God—He does not make creative determinations but rather supports and sustains by way of omnipotence—Spinoza creates for himself tremendous latitude in defining of good. The principle of perfection when conjoined with necessity yields varying degrees of perfection including evil as privation of higher degrees of the same. He says in this regard,

To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence5

Here is a form of greater-good theodicy which must of necessity include each degree of perfection, even to the negative extreme. Spinoza’s theodicy, due to its emphasis on plenitude, invites aesthetic critique rather than purely rational assessment, thus affording a point of intersection between philosophical critique and theological dogma.

Leibniz (1646-1716)

For Leibniz, the problem of evil is a supreme inquiry. He seems particularly motivated to address the issue that a world containing evil seems a malfunction on the part of its creator if indeed that creator possesses perfection. Like Spinoza, Leibniz recognizes the principle of perfection as a reality, yet whereas for Spinoza the best possible world is a product of divine power, for Leibniz, it is a product of divine choice actuated in necessity. For both thinkers the actual world is the best possible one, thus while the path differs substantially the destination in this regard is the same. God as perfect is obligated to create the best possible world, He will to do so, and He in fact does so.

Leibniz’ theodicy also relies on plenitude, as demonstrated in part by his deployment of aesthetic illustration of the nature of evil as both necessary and as privation. He says,

[T]o say that the painter is the author of all that is real in the two paintings, without however being the author of what is lacking or the disproportion between the larger and the smaller painting…. In effect, what is lacking is nothing more than a simple result of an infallible consequence of that which is positive, without any need for a distinct author [of that which is lacking].6

In this case divine authorship is defended against the malfunction claim. Evil has a necessary role in what appears to be a less than ideal world, a role which Leibniz identifies as emerging in three manifestations: (1) metaphysical evil—the degeneration inherent in the limits of the substance(s) of which the world is made, (2) natural evil—the pain and suffering experienced in the world, and (3) moral evil—that which inevitably results in natural evil.7 Evil, then, completes the picture and is the result of no malfunction at all.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans., 3:23:2.

2 Charles Nussbaum, “Aesthetics and the Problem of Evil”, in Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No. 3, April 2003.

3 Zbigniew Janowski, Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers,2000 ), 13.

4 Spinoza, The Ethics, Part I, Appendix.

5 Ibid.

6 From Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe. (Darmstadt and Berlin: Berlin Academy, 1923), A6.3:151 as quoted in “Leibniz and the Problem of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

7 Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 22.

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mbruffey's picture

Dr. Cone, have you explored the origin of the term "theodicy"? Who coined the term as it is used in modern parlance? Mark

Aaron Blumer's picture


You got me curious so went a-googling.

Per Merriam-Webster.com

Origin of THEODICY

modification of French théodicée, from théo- the- (from Latin theo-) + Greek dikē judgment, right — more at diction
First Known Use: 1797

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (newadvent.org)....

Etymologically considered theodicy (theos dike) signifies the justification of God. The term was introduced into philosophy by Leibniz, who, in 1710, published a work entitled: "Essais de Théodicée sur la bonte de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal". The purpose of the essay was to show that the evil in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God, that, indeed, notwithstanding its many evils, the world is the best of all possible worlds (see OPTIMISM). The problem of evil (see EVIL) has from earliest times engrossed the attention of philosophers. The well-known sceptic Pierre Bayle had denied in his "Dictionnaire historique et critique" the goodness and omnipotence of God on account of the sufferings experienced in this earthly life. The "Théodicée" of Leibniz was directed mainly against Bayle. Imitating the example of Leibniz other philosophers now called their treatises on the problem of evil "theodicies".

There's quite a bit more on it at that site. Seems to be solid info.

josh p's picture

I understand John Feinberg wrote his dissertation (which later became a book) on theodicy that is supposed to be good.

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