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The ‘Problem of Evil’ in the context of the French enlightenment: Bayle, Leibniz, Voltaire, de Sade

Lhost, Claudine (2012) The ‘Problem of Evil’ in the context of the French enlightenment: Bayle, Leibniz, Voltaire, de Sade. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The ‘problem of evil’ in its most general form concerns the question of the consistency of the mere existence of ‘evil’ in the created world with the characteristics attributed to its creator. Theists recognize this problem, and every major religion has produced a theodicy, ‐from the Greek theos (God) and dikē (justice)‐, the technical term for the attempt to understand and reconcile the relationship of God to a cosmos that comprises ‘physical, and moral evil,’ and thereby to justify the ways of God to humans. The decades preceding and following the beginning of the eighteenth century saw the ‘problem of evil’ at the center of philosophical and theological debates. Bayle, Leibniz, Voltaire and de Sade’s sometimes ambiguous responses toward the ‘problem of evil,’ and even religion in general are, I believe, excellent avenues to understanding the multiplicity of attitudes in the period of the Enlightenment in regard to the issues surrounding the ‘problem of evil,’ such as the question of the existence of God, the relation between human beings and God, the doctrines of providence and moral freedom, the veracity of the Bible and of faith in general, and ultimately, the divine sanction for ethical values.

For Bayle, theodicy was impossible. Christian theologians could not reconcile God’s attributes of omnipotence, justice and benevolence with the fact of ‘evil’ in a world that God has created, ‐and thus responsible for its conditions‐, without exposing themselves to great difficulties. Indeed, if we had to find an explanation, dualism was the most rationally satisfying explanation of ‘evil’ on offer as it explains the misery of human existence, and somehow manages to reconcile the belief in the existence of a ‘good God’ with the presence of ‘evil’ or imperfection in the cosmos. For Bayle, if we do affirm God’s goodness, it can only be through an act of faith, never as the result of a rational deduction.

Bayle's work on the ‘problem of evil’ was closely followed by Leibniz who wrote his Theodicy largely as a response to Bayle, as he feared that Bayle’s dilemma represented a crisis in religious thought because not only a philosophical problem was at stake but also the very rationale for the existence of the Christian faith. Leibniz was confident that through the use of human reason, he could offer a coherent understanding of the world in which we live and of humanity’s place in it, thus provide an adequate, even though in some way incomplete explanation to the dilemma posed by the presence of ‘evil’ in the world. For Leibniz, God’s goodness and justice can be justified logically before the ‘evil’ of the world in light of a certain understanding of how God created the world: the omnipotent and rational God created the best of all possible worlds, ‐ metaphysically speaking that is‐, hence even ‘evil’ and suffering have their rightful place in a good order; however as finite beings, we are not capable of understanding the goodness of the totality.

In Candide, Voltaire parodied Leibniz’s ‘best possible world theory’ and tried to ridicule Leibniz’s views. For Voltaire, the amount of unhappiness in the world makes it ludicrous to believe that this is the ‘best possible world.’ While, in Candide, Voltaire does not offer an alternative solution for the ‘problem of evil,’ one truth is certain: Optimism is a false answer; while ‘evil’ is incomprehensible, any minimization is an offense against those who suffer in the world. And if human beings are the victims of forces beyond their control, it is experience, not philosophical discussions that taught Candide that the potential for limited, but effective action, still lay within humanity’s grasp: Candide’s garden must be cultivated.

De Sade’s Justine or Good Conduct Well chastised can be read as a parody of Voltaire’s Candide. In his novel Justine, de Sade’s libertines appeal to the world’s ‘evil’ as a demonstration that belief in God’s goodness and in God’s providential care, ‐as traditionally conceived‐, is no longer viable. Arguing the atheist’s case from the existence of ‘evil,’ de Sade will then attempt to explain ‘evil’ from a materialist and nihilistic view of the world with all its terrifying metaphysical and ethical implications. Without a supposedly perfect creator, there is no problem of trying to make sense of all the terrible things that happen in the world. There is just cause and effect and the laws of nature. There is no value‐system at work behind the scenes, no force for ‘good or evil,’ and no altruistic concern for others working through the basic natural forces. For de Sade’s libertines, the ‘problem of evil’ is a liberating one: if there is no God and the material world is all that exists, human beings can free themselves from all idols, from all illusions concerning the original cause of things, and by doing so they can thus succeed in ordering and establishing the world according to their own ideas.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): McDonald, Paul
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