Debating the value of God at a time of crisis: Leibniz vs Voltaire

Is the concept of God useful at a time of crisis? German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and French writer and philosopher Voltaire had different views on that question.

How an 18th century critique of trusting a 'divine plan' in times of crisis has relevance today

In 1759, François-Marie Arouet (R) — known by his nom de plume, Voltaire — published Candide, ou l'Optimisme. The French satire is based on German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's (L) philosophy of optimistic determinism. (Wikipedia/Public Domain)

By Aaron James Wendland

On the morning of November 1, 1755, the city of Lisbon was almost entirely destroyed by a violent earthquake. A tsunami, fires, and civil unrest followed the initial tremors. Tens of thousands of people were killed.

In the aftermath, it was discovered that many died when their churches collapsed in the midst of All Saints Day mass.

News of untold devastation in Lisbon quickly spread across Christian Europe, and the French poet and philosopher, Voltaire (1694-1776), found himself asking: How could God let such an evil event come to pass? 

With a deadly pandemic on our hands, we may equally be wondering what good God is to us at a time of crisis.

This 1755 copper engraving shows the ruins of Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbour. (Unknown author/ The Earthquake Engineering Online Archive/Wikimedia)

According to Voltaire, God isn't good for much. And in his satirical coming of age story, Candide, Voltaire uses the so-called 'problem of evil' to poke fun at and critique religious believers.

The problem of evil refers to an apparent inconsistency between God's attributes and the existence of evil. Briefly, believers need to explain how their all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God could permit evil incidents like the Lisbon earthquake or a deadly pandemic. 

The best possible world

The tension between God's greatness and the existence of evil vexed thinkers in Antiquity. But in the 17th Century, the Christian mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), wrote Theodicy to show how a wise, powerful, and good God could nevertheless allow a world with suffering and evil in it. 

Gottfried Leibniz's book, Theodicy, published in 1710, introduced an optimistic approach to the problem of evil. (Wikipedia)

According to Leibniz, God had to choose between various possible worlds before creating the world that we live in today. And since God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, God necessarily chose to create the best possible world. 

Yet the best possible world evidently has evil in it. 

"When Leibniz says God chose to create the best possible world, he does not mean that every single thing is best. But rather that this is ultimately the best possible world," Leibniz scholar Sean Greenberg told CBC IDEAS.

From a practical standpoint, God's choice of the best world means the evil we experience is all part of God's divine plan.

While we humans may not understand why there was an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 or a deadly pandemic today, these events are an essential feature of the best possible world and believers ought to have faith that everything will work out in the end.

Having faith in God's divine plan, for Leibniz, offers us consolation in a time of crisis. Losing a loved one during an earthquake or a pandemic is devastating, but, in his view, there may be comfort and relief in knowing that this loss is God's will and ultimately done for the best.

Optimistic parody

Similarly, Leibniz believed that faith in God can be a source of hope when tragedy strikes. Following his logic, your home may be destroyed in an earthquake or your business closed due to covid restrictions, but there are clearly better days ahead and trusting in God can help get you through your despair.

Despite the consolation and hope Leibniz found in faith, Leibniz's optimistic account of evil was too much for Voltaire. So, he parodied Leibniz in Candide via the fictional character of Pangloss.

Pangloss is a teacher of 'Metaphysico-theologico-cosmolooniology' and he is charged with educating the young Candide. As Candide grows up and explores the world, he and his teacher are beaten, tortured, maimed, starved, burned, and drowned.

But through it all, Pangloss comically maintains that everything is for the best. 

A photo of an original 1759 copy of Candide by French writer Voltaire taken at the Taylor Institute in Oxford. (Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)

Voltaire was a deist who believed God created the world but did not intervene in it. And Voltaire wrote Candide to ridicule the idea that God is somehow a source of consolation and hope in the face of terrible suffering. 

Instead of praying to God and wishing for the best, Voltaire wants us to do what we can to eliminate the evil around us. In the modern context, this would imply using earthquake-resistant materials when building a church or following public-health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19, suggests Eric Palmer, professor of philosophy at Allegheny College.

Returning to Candide, Palmer tells us: "Pangloss often attempts to explain to a suffering character how their suffering is bound up with the good. Pangloss sees this as a form of consolation. Yet the suffering character is always bewildered by this alleged consolation and wonders why Pangloss doesn't just lift the rock off their broken leg!"

This means Voltaire sees little value in religious belief in a time of crisis. In fact, he wants us to focus exclusively on alleviating the concrete suffering of others.

So, Voltaire ends Candide with an injunction to stop all metaphysical speculation about God and simply "tend to our own garden."

Guests in this episode:

Sean Greenberg is an associate professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine.

Eric Palmer is a professor of Philosophy at Allegheny College and editor of a Broadview Edition of Candide: and other Poetic and Philosophical Writings.

This episode was produced by Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto, and by Nahlah Ayed.

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