English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms:

The general concept of "theodicy"

[Note:  if you are printing this off in one of the KSU public computer labs, you will need to open the "File" menu of your browser, choose "Page Setup," and make sure that the option "Black Type" is checked.  This will ensure that colored font in the document will print out.]

Our examination of the logical structure of the problem of evil was designed to demonstrate that the perfectionist monotheist who thinks out the implications of his commitments will experience a bind between what piety urges him to have faith in and what his eyes and conscience testify to:  how can a perfect Creator preside over an imperfect creation?  More specifically:  how can a just and loving God ordain or permit moral and physical evil?

There are two distinct ways thinkers have responded to this quandry.  (In the following discussion, references in parentheses refer to propositions as they appear in our laying out of the logical structure of the problem of evil.)

I.  One path takes the contradiction at its face value as a contradiction, and "dissolves" the quandry by rejecting one of the constituent premises that gives rise to it.  There are, in turn, different paths open for this response.

I. A. For instance, one can reject proposition (3), that God is perfect.

One can, for example, retain monotheism but surrender the perfectionist version of it, in favor of a limited supreme deity.  Notice how the contradiction vanishes if we deny either that God is (5) or (6) or (12).  (Stop and try this out!)  In effect, this is either to surrender piety (1) or to redefine the requirements of piety, breaking the link between (1) and (3).

Another way is to abandon monotheism altogether, whether by affirming atheism or by adopting some form of polytheism.  In the latter case, the evil of the world is seen as, at least in part, a reflection of an incoherence (various conflicts) among the gods themselves.

I.B.  Alternatively, one can deny proposition (17) as it was originally understood by reducing the force of the term "exhibits."  That is, one holds that, yes, the world exhibits evil, but not all appearance is real, and this one in particular is not.  And by undercutting (17) in this way, one avoids having to affirm (20).  There are various ways to get this result with (17).

This would amount to finding some way to convince us that we do not feel pain when we think we do, or that motion and therefore change itself is an illusion -- on, perhaps, Parmenidean grounds.  If all change is impossible, then in reality there can be no such things as lava flows, floods, progressive disease, death -- any more than there can be displacement of an object from one point in space to another.

One might maintain that "good" and "evil" are both sentimental illusions:  the world simply "is."  Note that if such an option did not entail also denying the omnibenevolence (and hence perfection) of God, it would at least require some proposal for redefining what "goodness" means when applied to God (as opposed to things of this world).

Evil, in the last case, is simply an illusion.  (Or:  the only real evil results from mistaken belief in the real existence of evil as commonly understood.)  The task then becomes to explain how this illusion has come to be generated, and how it (this illusory appearance of evil) can be overcome.

I.C.  One can also both reject theism and argue that evil is an illusion to be overcome by a form of spritual enlightenment.  This is the position adopted by some forms of Buddhism, where the goal is to obtain a state of nirvana or satori.

II.  The other path takes the quandry as a problem to be solved, namely, by showing that the contradiction is merely apparent (only a paradox), so that the premises -- (3) and (17) -- can after all both be true.  This aim is to show how one can consistently believe in a perfect God and in the reality of evil in the creation.

Note that I.B. and II. above have something in common:  each sets out to preserve premise (3), that God is perfect.  To respond to the problem of evil in either of these ways is to produce a theodicy.  The job of theodicy is to demonstrate the justice of God in ordaining or allowing the existence of moral and physical evil.  [The term comes from the Greek words theos <God> and diké <right, justice, judgment>.  Hence:  the defense of the justice of God in ordaining or allowing the existence of moral or physical evil.]  There are many theodicies, but here is one of each type (I.B. and II), from works we take up in this course.

II.A. Traditional Christianity looks to the Biblical story of the Creation and Fall of Mankind (Genesis 1-4) as God's pointing the way, through the prophet Moses, towards a theodicy.  That is, this story, if properly interpreted, will suggest a way in which people can understand how evil entered the creation without God's being responsible for its emergence.

But this explanation of the origin of evil -- this "first-order" theodicy -- itself gives rise to what we might call a "second-order" problem of evil.  And traditional Christianity develops a "second-order" theodicy to respond in turn to it.  This takes the form of a particular understanding of God's Providence.  Put in one way:  the problem of evil drives traditional Christian theology to devise a special theory of the structure and purpose of history.  Put the other way around:  the traditional Christian picture of history is to be understood as one response to the problem of evil.

This kind of theodicy will in fact be the central task of one of the poems we will explore in the course of the semester.  John Milton begins his epic Paradise Lost (1667/1675) with a prayer to his muse, the Holy Spirit (which, according to the New Testament, appears to man in the form of a dove) to inspire him to tell the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in a way that succeeds in just this purpose:

Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant:  what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,     [Argument:  subject, story]
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.  (Book I, lines 19-25)

For more on the general relation between theodicy and Christian theories of divine providence, see "Teleology and Theology."

II.B.  But not all theodicies are Christian.  A couple of generations after Milton wrote, Alexander Pope begins his verse Essay on Man (1733/1734) by asking his friend and patron, the statesman Henry St. John, to accompany him on a special kind of hunt:

Awake, my St. John, leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of Man;     [Expatiate:  wander]
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A Wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot;
Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Toegether let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature's walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the Maners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to Man.  (Book I, lines 1-16.)

As we shall see, Pope's theodicy departs in important ways from traditional Christian theodicies.  Paradoxically -- in view of the fact that the poet himself was a practicing Catholic (at a time in England when to declare oneself a "papist" was highly disadvantageous) -- his poem is "Deist," and the picture Pope develops of divine Providence (God's ultimate purpose in creating the universe and in administering it as He does) is quite at odds with what Christian theologians, Protestant or Catholic, had derived from a consideration of the Bible.  It was inspired, in fact, by certain aspects of Isaac Newton's achievement in formulating his three universal laws of motion and the law of gravity.  Pope's conception of what a perfect God would will excludes the idea that a concern for Man's welfare would be the focus of divine purpose.  On the contrary, Pope asserts, God is concerned with the good of the universe as a whole, a universe in which man (like any other creature) is only a part within the overall design.  As a result, though Pope takes over from the tradition of Christian theology many familiar statements about the discrepancy between human and divine conceptions of "greater good," the idea of what this greater good consists in, and the implications this has for human beings' sense of their own purpose in God's scheme, is radically different from the traditional Christian view.  And so are the implications about what people should do about the evil they confront in life.

Pope's picture of God's providence was not original with him.  It stems from the German philosopher Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton.  Leibniz's famous treatise Theodicy argues thus:  Since (fundamental axiom) the Creator is perfect (in respect of his power), therefore (1) whatever is must be conceived as willed by Him.  Moreover, since (same fundamental axiom) God is perfect (in respect of his knowledge), (2) He can contemplate all possible worlds -- that is, he knows in advance what all the different possible combinations are of the particular facts of existence being this way or that.  And, as well, since (the fundamental axiom once again) God is perfect (in respect of his goodness), He will always choose the best.  The logical consequence in turn of these three consequences of God's perfection is that "this is the best of all possible worlds."  As Pope formulates it (at the end of Book I of the Essay on Man):

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discourd, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is Right.

But if whatever is, is right because it is willed by a just God, then it is impious pride for human beings to resist evil as they understand it.  To try to improve the human condition (by reforming society to reduce injustice) is not only impossible, but sinful (if the concept of sin is retained at all, in the sense of "human willing at variance with God's will").  Put another way, it is not hard to understand that a theodicy like the one Leibniz and Pope declaim would be congenial to people whose position in society is such that more socially produced goods flow to them than to others, whose subordination to the existing order is necessary if those benefits are to continue disproportionately to flow to their "betters."  Deist theodicy -- or at least deist theodicy of this stripe -- is radically conservative with respect to whatever happens to be, in whatever place in the world, the existing social order.  Its only ethical counsel is:  patience.  The fundamental moral rule becomes non-resistance to evil as one sees it, because whatever one sees as evil is not really evil from the point of view of the unit (the whole) that God have in view.

When we turn to Voltaire's Candide (1759), we meet with an author who is out of patience with the entire enterprise of theodicy per se.  The character Pangloss, in this philosophical tale, is drawn as a savage caricature of Leibniz, and made the butt of outrageous ridicule.  The reason for this is twofold.  On the one hand, Voltaire is convinced that disputes in theodicy are fundamentally undecidable on any rational basis, since the parties end up disagreeing on premises that they cannot in turn rationally adjudicate.  They are, then, undeterminable and, as the history of religious controversy in Europe amply demonstrated (in his view) likely to end up being decided by bloody force (ranging from the Inquisitions to atrocious religious warfare), thus actually increasing the sum of human misery.  On the other, Voltaire is committed to taking experienced evil seriously as real and as something to be resisted and, to the extent possible, eliminated by human action.  As a result, Voltaire is committed to rejecting both Leibniz's and traditional Christianity's fundamental premise, that God is perfect.  The parable of the dervish at the end of Candide is designed to convince us that it is futile for human beings to waste their time trying to understand evil in terms of the purposes of any divinity.  Rather, the task is to get to work to remedy those evils it is realistically within one's power to correct. 

This is not the only approach to rejecting theodicy that Voltaire experiments with, however.  In the little parody of celestial dream visions he included in his Philosophical Dictionary under the title of "Dogmas," he entertains the possibility that there may indeed by a ruler of the cosmos who is powerful and concerned enough to administer justice in the many worlds that make it up ("this little ball of dirt" earth being only one of many), but whose sole criterion for rewarding or punishing the dead is whether they did good to their fellow creatures, and who judgment of the dead over to illustrious figures who taught and practiced this in their own lives (the list being remarkable for its complete absence of famous Christians, or even Christ) -- i.e., who doesn't deign to appear at the proceedings in his own person.  In this piece, Voltaire seems completely untroubled by the theological implication of this position, i.e., that such a God falls short of the perfection insisted on by traditional piety, thus giving rise to the problem of evil.  The author of "Dogmas" regards such a deity as is there imagined to be august enough to deserve the respect and admiration of men, despite the fact that he is either not powerful enough or not concerned enough to abolish the evil that pervades the worlds he presides over (and which he may have created).

An important part of the story during the period we are addressing (the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries) is the increasing call, from both sides, to separate the natural science and theology -- a fundamental change from the confidence of medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas in the complementarity and substantial overlap between truths available from human reason's reading of the Book of Nature and devout faith's reading of the Revealed Book (the Bible).  After Newton's stunning vindication of the Keplerian version of the Copernican system, some thinkers approaching the question of the relation between the theology and science came to regard a mutual isolation to be advisable from the perspective of theology, as a way of making it invulnerable to refutation by science.  And Newton himself had explicitly disconnected the two -- despite his intense interest in both -- because he saw no way that teleological explanation (including explanation of the laws of nature in terms of divine intentions) could contribute to the particular kind of knowledge of nature that science aims at. 

For more on the shift, within natural philosophy (i.e., "natural science"), from a welcomed imbeddedness in theology to a setting aside of theology as irrelevant to its proper purposes, see Teleology and Science.

To note these developments is not, however, to say a divorce between theology and science is finalized in the course of the 18th Century.  Other thinkers found themselves brought to wonder by the combination of intricacy and complexity of the regularity the progress of science increasingly revealed at work in the non-human world, and were led to an intensified conviction in the "argument from design" for the existence of an ingenious creator.  And still others, likewise working from the premise that the natural sciences and the Bible were to be understood as offering at least some propositions about the same orders of reality (nature and history), insisted that science increasingly exposed the Bible as a tissue of primitive misconceptions, and despaired or delighted in the conclusion that the authority of that text was undermined in respect of its communications on other, directly theological issues.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 01 February 1999.