When Leibniz coined the phrase “theodicy” for the title of his landmark 1710 work, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal (Essays on Theodicy, Concerning the Goodness of God, The Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil), the meaning of the term seemed pretty much nailed down. “Theodicy”, in its classic, technical sense is fairly straightforward: the philosophical attempt to demonstrate that God is both just and good, despite the simultaneous existence of evils. A theological variation of the problem of evil, Leibniz’s argument gave technical heft to a discourse already well travelled across the continent; almost a half-century earlier, the bard in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) had famously invoked the muse:
What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. (1.22-26)
Although fundamentally different in their sensibilities, not to mention their modes of employ, both texts offer paradigmatic examples of our technical version of the term, thinking through the co-existence of God and evil, providence and suffering.
But in the process of one of the more mundane tasks of this summer’s research, I have been revisiting the question of terminology. As I catalogue the notable and forgettable attempts at theological meditation on the problem of evil during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I’ve been struck by the descriptive plasticity of the category, causing me to reconsider the scope of my project and, in fact, my usage of this key term.
In other words, while theodicy often self-consciously takes the form of the meditative treatise in which God is figuratively put to trial (i.e. the treatise on divine attributes and their relation to metaphysical evil), it also appears in decidedly more abstracted manifestations. This first “official” version we might call the “hard” or even “theistic” version of theodicy, since it takes as its starting point a fairly coherent sense of who exactly is in need of justification (i.e., the Christian God). The problem of evil is thus equally wrapped up in imagining divine attributes like omnipotence and omnibenevolence.
But a softer or “deistic” tradition, it seems, fairly quickly rivals these, preferring to speak in a much more attenuated religious idiom about Providence and Fate. How could Providence, Voltaire asks, allow the Lisbon earthquake? This is a Newtonian version of the order of things, not often anti-Christian, but nevertheless more concerned with the mechanisms of the watch, rather than the watchmaker who set it in motion. What is interesting here is that the concern shifts to conceptualizing design, and the theodicies of this sort (if we may still call it that) attempt not precisely a justification of God, but rather a penetration into the mysterious laws of the natural world (here theologized). Evil is thus quite often conceived in terms of inefficient design, and hence crucially, both conceivable and perhaps, manipulable. Most importantly though, theodicy has definitive answers at hand; “why?” has been transmuted into “how?” But ought we to consider any treatise that treats evil in light of providentialism a theodicy? It is not at all clear to me that we should, even though they are not easily discursively separable.
And in fact, this only scratches the terminological surface. Softer versions spin off from this (theodicy as progressive history, theodicy as economics), but that will have to wait. We might only note, however, that it is a small leap from the soft account to a theodicy imagined expansively, as any discourse in which evils are balanced precariously against abstract, unseen goods. But if that is indeed the case, is theodicy still a useful category?