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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Greek Theodicy. The first philosophical resolution
of the problem of evil is found in the dualism of the
early cosmologists, which separated the good from the
bad—a separation which was retained by Plato and
Aristotle, however much these may have shifted the
reference of the two poles. In each case, whether in
Anaximander's separation of bounded order from
unbounded matter (apeiron), or the Pythagoreans'
dualism of even and odd, or Plato's and Aristotle's
distinction between form and matter, the two are
assigned distinct metaphysical statuses, even though the
latter, the evil, is in some way subordinate or subject
to the former, the good. In Heraclitus, on the other
hand, and the Stoics, who appropriated his theory of
the eternal logos-fire, the two poles are absorbed into
a unity which transcends both but is in some higher
way good, requiring submission by the individual to
this ultimate order which determines his destiny. To
oversimplify somewhat, the philosophic tendency is to
resolve the problem of evil, either through a dualism
in which the good is free of evil yet controls it, or
through a pantheism in which evil is somehow less real
and existent than the “truly” good, though inseparable
from the apparent good. The two movements are fully
synthesized by Plotinus and those who follow him;
following both the Stoic doctrine of the One and the
logic of a hierarchical scale of being, Plotinus makes
matter the source of evil, but places it also at the outer
extreme of nonbeing, removed from the One, the
ineffable source of all goodness and harmony. In every
case, evil is either reducible to some source other than
the good (dualism), or it is merely a limitation of the
good (negation), and the problem of a theodicy (which
involves culpability of the good) is avoided.

In the Hellenistic period, however, there were two
distinct approaches to a theodicy, which established
precedents for later discussions. One was the challenge
which Epicurus directed at God's power or goodness.
According to Lactantius (A Treatise on the Anger of
Ch. 13) he reasoned as follows:

God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he
is able and is unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able;
or he is both willing and able. If he is willing but unable
he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character
of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which
is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing
nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not
God. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable
for God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he
not remove them?

The argument has been repeated by skeptics until
today and various consequences drawn from it; one
possibility, of course, is Epicurean deism or atheism.

The second contribution to a theodicy in late classi-
cism is Plutarch's criticism of the Stoic ethics of obedi-
ence to the universal reason governing the world, on
the charge that Stoicism makes God the source of all
evils (De Stoicarum repugnantiis, Secs. 32-37; the
criticism is levelled against Chrysippus, Treatise on the
). Plutarch's own solution is Plato's; God cannot
be identified with nature as the Stoics hold; God can
only be good, and evil must have some other source,
whether in lesser powers or in matter.

2. Christianity and Saint Augustine. It is only when
the Western theistic religions, all of them influenced
by the Hebrew scriptures and by Greek thought, seek
a clarification and defense of faith in the face of
paganism and heresy that the problem of theodicy
becomes vital. The retributive theory of suffering re-
mains strong in these faiths, although protests were as
old as the Book of Job and the teachings of Jesus and
Paul. The eschatological hope of a final judgment and
promise of eternal life with rewards for the faithful
and good, and punishment for sinners, was the ultimate
justification of a moral world order. But the questions
of why a creator of perfect power, wisdom, and good-
ness can create a world containing evil, and how his
foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom,
developed as foci for discussion. A tough-minded
orthodoxy (Tertullian, for example) turned to the
paradoxes of the gospel as justification for theoretical
skepticism and an affirmation of faith in the impossible.
But, for most thinkers, Platonism provided an antidote
for doubt and for the dualistic heresies of Gnostic and
Manichee. A universe which is the creation of a perfect
being must, to adequately reflect his greatness, be as
full as possible of all degrees of finite goodness and
thus also contain levels of evil as their negation; in
such a world, Greek thought supports revelation in
holding man to be free and therefore capable of evil,
yet destined also to find his way from the lower level
of sense and matter to the higher level of grace.

It was Saint Augustine who, after passing through
Manichaean and Neo-Platonic phases of thought, pro-
vided that complex synthesis of doctrines about evil
and the justification of God which came to prevail in
Western Christian orthodoxy; it was adapted by
Thomas Aquinas to the Scholastic tradition and by
Leibniz to the context of the modern scientific and
rationalistic moods.

Augustine's theodicy is eclectic and resists sys-
tematization. He modified Plotinus' theory of evil as
negation by making it a matter rather of privation—
in each created being that is evil which deprives it


of the particular form or purpose which is natural to
it. To this must be added Augustine's concern about
the inwardness of experience, the motive rather than
the external consequence of action. Evil is deficiency,
therefore no cause can be found for it (City of God
XII, 7). Hence evil has no independent status; it is
always parasitic on the good (Enchiridion, Chs. 13, 14).
But since being and goodness must be defined in terms
of the particular final cause inherent in each created
being, only free creatures can experience evil.

When the will abandons what is above itself and turns to
what is lower, it becomes evil, not because that to which
it turns is evil, but because the turning itself is wicked

of God
XII, 6).

So man's fall brought evil into the world, and it is
relative to man and to other free creatures.

To this theory of evil as privation, Augustine adds
analogical arguments of an aesthetic and part-whole
nature. What appears to be evil seen in isolation or
in too narrow context could be seen as a necessary
component in a larger context. Thus evil can be under-
stood in relation to good as ugliness stands to beauty;
it provides the contrast (darkness, disharmony) which
lets the good (light, harmony) stand out more brightly
and perfectly. Thus death, to which everything tran-
sitory is subject, itself enhances the degrees of perfec-
tion in creation. Likewise the atonement provides a
completely just balance for sin, preserving the harmony
and goodness of the whole.

The wide range of arguments by which Augustine
sought to exonerate God from any charge of moral or
metaphysical imperfection and to derive all evil from
man's sin were the foundation for theological optimism
in the first centuries of the modern world. Thomas
Aquinas used both his theory of privation and the
so-called aesthetic argument, and although there were
departures from it in such Scholastics as Ockham, it
established the tradition of philosophical theology.
(Summa Theologica I, 4-49; On Free Will III, 9, 26.)

The theory that evil is necessary to the total good
because it serves as discipline to the moral and spiritual
life is neglected in Augustine, but has been traced to
another church father, Irenaeus, by John Hick in Evil
and the God of Love
(1966). The “Irenaean type of
theodicy,” also indebted to aspects of Platonism, holds
that the evils of the world are required by a God of
love who seeks the development of his free creatures
from their original innocence into full spiritual beings.
Hence, as in Augustine, there is no intrinsic or surd
evil; evil is justified as the means of developing man
from bondage to self-conscious participation in the
Kingdom of God. This disciplinary view, which Hicks
argues was eclipsed by the Augustinian arguments, was
revived after Kant by Schleiermacher and others, and
found support in theistic interpretations of evolution
in the nineteenth century.

3. Theodicy in the Reformation and Leibniz. In the
theological conflicts of the Reformation another critical
reaction to the Augustinian theodicy developed. Both
Luther and Calvin followed Augustine's doctrine that
all evils follow from the sin and fall of man. But Luther
in particular, in the tradition of voluntarism, stressing
faith as independent of reason, repudiated the entire
conception of a philosophical theodicy on fideistic
grounds. Not God is to be justified, but man. To raise
the speculative question of a theodicy merely reveals
the entire sinful condition of man. Only faith has the
assurance that God will use the evil of the world for
his own ends. Faith exceeds our present understanding
as does the justice of God in accepting sinners.

This skepticism of the intellect, which shifts the
problem of theodicy from philosophy to revelation and
faith, is, of course, as old as Job, and has continued
until now, in the Neo-Orthodoxy of our times (Karl
Barth, Die kirchliche Dogmatik, Munich [1932], Vol. 3,
Parts 1-3). But theological controversy made inevitable
a revival of metaphysics and natural theology, particu-
larly the Neo-Platonic view that evil becomes mean-
ingful in the larger and higher context of the purpose
of creation. Nicholas of Cusa argued that since all
creation is an image of the divine, the world is as good
as it possibly could be, given its status as contingent
and finite (De ludo globi, I). In the argument for the
goodness of the world, teleological or “physico-
theological” arguments eventually assume a priority
over the other traditional forms, so that by the seven-
teenth century nature has been freed from the curse
of Adam, and its newly discovered mathematical and
organic harmonies appear as empirical evidence for
the justice of God. The preoccupation of the early
Boyle Lectures with teleological considerations marks
a high point of this development.

The defense of God against the attacks of atheists
and “libertines” was a prominent concern of thinkers
of the seventeenth century, and the problem of man's
freedom in its relation to God's omniscience and power
became an important issue in the theodicic argument.
In his apologetic work, left incomplete as the Pensées,
Pascal attributed evil to man's sin, to be overcome by
the redeemed in mystical revelation through faith.
Spinoza, by contrast, had exonerated God from both
good and evil, these being relative to what is useful
or harmful to man, and capable of being understood
through an adequate grasp of God and the active
emotions which arise from this.

Like Spinoza, Leibniz had a sharp sense of the reality
of the problem of evil, particularly the historical evils


which beset Europe. The task of theodicy was therefore
to show that the reality of evil is compatible with,
indeed, follows from, the creation and providence of
a God whose attributes are perfections. In addition to
the great Theodicy of 1710, he wrote many briefer
ones, including “Von der Allmacht und Allwissenheit
Gottes und der Freiheit des Menschen” (“Of the
Omnipotence and Omniscience of God and the Free-
dom of Man”); from the early Paris years the Confessio
(“Confession of a Philosopher,” edited by
I. Jagodinski, Kazan [1915]); the Discours de la méta-
(“Discourse on Metaphysics,” 1686), espe-
cially section 30 (Wiener, pp. 331-34); and the Causa
already mentioned. To the Theodicy, written
discursively for a wide circle of readers, he added as
an appendix, an “Abridgment of the Argument Re-
duced to Syllogistic Form” (the Abrégé, Gerhardt VI,
376-87; trans. Wiener, pp. 509-22), which set the
arguments against God in twelve syllogisms, and
refuted them in counter-syllogisms—a logical process
which Hume and Kant adopted in their refutations.

Leibniz repeated, in general, the Augustinian-
Thomistic arguments, with some adaptations to fit his
analytic logic of propositions, his monadic theory of
substance, and a quasi-mathematical conception of the
principle that of all possible events, the best possible
always occurs. His analysis is aided by clear definitions
of justice (as the love of the wise man), of freedom
as self-determination, and of will, anticipatory and
consequent. As Thomas had done before him, he
discusses three kinds of evil: metaphysical, moral, and
natural. Metaphysical evil is essentially finiteness or
privation in the law of individual natures. Moral evil
or sin is real; it is based on unclear and inadequate
knowledge; and God, who determined the law of each
individual nature as the best possible in itself and in
the harmony of the whole universe, is not responsible
for it. Natural evil is determined by laws which also
define the best possible consequences. Thus in every
case evil must be judged teleologically in terms of the
best possible whole. God is justified because evils are
used to achieve greater goods than would otherwise
be possible; evil historical events are processes of
retrenchment and of the clearing of obstacles for a
better future (reculer pour mieux sauter); on the same
grounds suffering is justified as retribution for evil
actions. The indestructibility of the monads is the
assurance of an immortality in which the greatest
harmony and justice will continue to be achieved. Since
truths of fact lie beyond the range of any finite analysis,
we cannot now completely comprehend the place of
any event in the total harmony.

4. Criticisms of Theodicy in the Enlightenment and
in Kant.
The wide influence of the Theodicy is shown
not only in the spirit of intellectual optimism of the
Enlightenment, but also in the clarity and depth of
the criticisms which it evoked. In spite of the harsh
conflicts between Newtonians and Leibnizians, Samuel
Clarke's Boyle Lectures show a great agreement on
teleological and theological principles. Pope's Essay
on Man
is widely regarded as having been influenced
by the Theodicy, perhaps through conversations with
Bolingbroke. Appearing in many editions in France,
Leibniz' work supported a popular optimism which
Voltaire, stirred by the destructive fury of the Lisbon
earthquake, satirized in Candide and helped to dispel.
It was this theological current whose logic Hume
exposed with relentless analysis in the Dialogues con-
cerning Natural Religion
(1779); in it Philo states
Epicurus' old dilemma in the simplified form (it cannot
be true, both that evil exists, and that God is both
omnipotent and perfectly good) in which the problem
of theodicy has recently been revived.

Immanuel Kant criticized all previous attempts at
a theodicy in his short essay “Ueber das Misslingen
aller philosophischen Versuche in der Theodicee” (“On
the Failure of All Philosophical Attempts at a
Theodicy”). It was written in 1791, after the three
Critiques but before his work on “Religion within the
Limits of mere Reason.” In his precritical period he
had still been intent upon settling the “distinctness of
the fundamental principles of natural theology and
morals” by placing teleology at the center of his argu-
ment. Now, having placed the problems of theology
beyond the range of theoretical reason, establishing the
primacy of the practical reason and the moral law,
defining its postulates, and, finally, reconciling the two
through teleological judgments involving feelings of
perfection, he applies these insights in a revision of
the problem of theodicy in a style reminiscent of
Leibniz' Causa Dei..., not only in its syllogistic
structure of defense and rebuttal, but in his tripartite
ordering of the divine attributes: goodness, omniscience
and omnipotence, and holiness. These, he holds, must
be challenged by the empirical fact of disteleology or
anti-purpose (Zweckwidrigkeit). Moral anti-purpose
(das Böse) refutes will as means; physical anti-purpose
(Evil) refutes will as end; and a third anti-purpose, the
disproportion of physical suffering to moral evil, refutes
the holiness of God's justice. Hence all previous
theodicies, resting upon the intellect, have failed.

Yet there is the demand for cosmic justice, with
inadequate support from experience, and Kant pro-
poses that “more effective grounds may be found,
which will absolve the wisdom which has faced
accusation, not ab instantia since we can never be
certain that our reason can arrive at the insight through
experience alone of the relationship in which the world


stands to the highest wisdom” (Academy ed., VIII, 263).
Following the insight of Job's triumph over his friends,
he finds these grounds not through speculative wisdom
nor through moral wisdom alone, though both assure
us of the possibility of a teleology, but through “truth-
fulness” (Wahrhaftigkeit)—not truth, which is un-
available—and a sense of moral uprightness and formal
conscientiousness. This is not a simple justification
through faith, but through the cosmic demands implicit
in the moral uprightness of the individual, which are
possible but not justifiable theoretically.

5. Theodicies after Kant. Kant's emphasis upon the
inward, moral basis of theodicy had lasting conse-
quences upon followers and opponents alike. The in-
tense moralism of Fichte is shown in his view that
nature is the battle-ground on which man achieves
freedom. Condemning Leibniz for undertaking a
theodicy with “indeterminate abstract categories,”
Hegel finds one in history. At the conclusion of his
Philosophy of History he wrote, “That the history of
the world is this process of development and the actual
coming-into-being of spirit, underneath the variable
dramas of its histories—this is the true theodicy, the
justification of God in history” (Glockner ed., 11, 569;
see also 11, 42). The attainment of freedom in the state,
and the process of self-conscious assimilation by men
of the absolute justify the sufferings of history. Leaning
upon Hegel's dialectical logic, later Hegelians showed
that this was a return to the Neo-Platonic theory that
evil is a more complete good seen partially. (See also
Josiah Royce, for instance, in Studies in Good and Evil
[1898], passim.)

Another type of post-Kantian inversion of the prob-
lem of theodicy is found in the work of the French
personalist, Henry Duméry, author of The Problem of
God in Philosophy of Religion
(Evanston, 1964), who
reflects also the influence of such Kant-inspired thinkers
as Henri Bergson and Nicholas Berdyaev. God cannot
be objectified; to find the answer to the place of evil
we must discover the immanence of God as the
transcendent unity, the radical spontaneity, the power
to change, within man. The internal dialogue of the
person with the absolute within him is the path to the
resolution of evil and the vindication of God. This is
Kant with some Bergsonian support.

In the nineteenth century there were other attempts
to overcome the problem of theodicy by reinterpreting
the nature of God. Scientism absolved nature from all
good or bad, and the growth of social injustices and
concern for their reform emphasized moral evil and
human responsibility rather than the justice of God.
The conception of a God perfectly good but without
absolute power was revived with effectiveness by John
Stuart Mill, William James, E. S. Brightman, and
others, who thus vacated the theodicy problem rather
than solved it. Darwin's theory of evolution intensified
the meaning of evil in nature by stressing the role of
struggle, but also invited a positive but hardly justified
argument by the Social Darwinists that nature supports
progress and the improvement of forms of life.
Thinkers like R. A. Tsanoff have found natural evil to
arise from the disharmonies and disturbed relations
which take place between old and new orders of life,
while Henderson and others offered statistical evidence
of a teleological principle in nature. Thus encouraged,
theistic and idealistic thinkers revived the Irenaeian
theodicy, holding that evil and freedom are the
divinely chosen conditions by which men are disci-
plined to become members of the Kingdom of God.

In the face of the great moral and historical catas-
trophes of this century, and the decline of philosophical
theology which accompanied them, the problem of
theodicy has been largely absorbed through the rise
of religious humanism, or a fideism which distrusts
intellect, or a secular skepticism. Yet there is renewed
evidence that the problem is still alive, in recent dis-
cussions by thinkers of an analytic type who have
restored and given rigorous formulation to the objec-
tions of Hume and Kant, with what must be admitted
to be still inconclusive results. Since these discussions
move from the question of theodicy to the question
of evidence for the existence of God, they need not
be discussed here. The works by Hick, Flew and
MacIntyre, and Pike listed in the Bibliography will
introduce the reader to these recent studies.