By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Let’s think about a debate carried out centrally in the works of Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In thinking about the proper scope of reason’s applicability to struggling with the problem of evil, probably the provocation that strikes people most profoundly is this debate that has been carried out centrally in the work of these two great people: a debate about the proper ambition of the human intellect.
Bayle and His Historical and Critical Dictionary
Bayle was a persecuted Calvinist, a religious minority from France. He offered a series of profound and troubling arguments about evil. Most famous of his many works was a book that was known as the Historical and Critical Dictionary, a massive text that was, in fact, a dictionary offering definitions of a number of important words, but the definitions themselves were loaded with philosophical arguments in interesting ways.
Bayle thought that people’s deepest religious convictions and other convictions were effectively immune from rational assessment and critique. He believed that debate and philosophical analysis are particularly pointless when it comes to religious belief because people’s choices are simply too individually-colored, too idiosyncratic; judgment calls wherein subjective perspective, personal history, and sheer individual taste combine to make it impossible to bring people’s views out onto the surface and figure out ways of deciding which are the best and which are the worst.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Bayle’s View on Evil as a Fideist
While Bayle was a pessimist about reason, he was interestingly a stout defender of religious toleration. He thought that people should be allowed to have their own beliefs. But in terms of philosophy, he thought that philosophy had a far smaller scope, a far narrower compass, than many of the more optimistic rationalists of his time thought.
He famously argued in the dictionary that “Evil is a problem that reduces all philosophy to hopelessness,” and in defining the word “Manichaeism,” he argued that Manichaeism was the most straightforward philosophical account of evil, considered without appeal to Christian revelation. His sly suggestion in his definition of the Manichean view is that a Manichean view “would be rather difficult to refute if it were maintained by pagan philosophers skilled in disputing.”
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Among all the people who were provoked by Bayle, almost certainly the most far-seeing and insightful and the most acute philosophical mind of his age was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz, who overlapped with Bayle a bit—he lived from 1646 to 1716—was a brilliant polymath.
Leibniz was the son of a university professor who became a cosmopolitan diplomat, used to dealing with complicated international issues through deliberation and reason, talking to the authorities of any number of different religious beliefs or political affiliations.
He was an epoch-making mathematician and rival actually to Newton—both Newton and Leibniz separately invented the mathematical structures we know as calculus today—and a philosopher who as philosopher knew no rival, though he published very little in his life. Leibniz’s most famous work is, in fact, called the Theodicy—it was published in 1710—and it’s the first use of that word in any language because Leibniz invented the word.
Learn more about Pierre Bayle, the French Protestant fideist.
Theodicy and the Way It Explains Good and Evil
Theodicy means “the justice of God,” and the book is an extended defense of abstract philosophizing about evil that does not presume any of the assumptions that Christian faith allows believers to work from without demonstrating them.
The Theodicy is a defense of the idea that the world that we inhabit can be seen to be, can be proved to be, the work of a just and perfectly good God who creates only the best. That’s a very complicated mathematical formulation there.
What Leibniz is actually trying to say is that God has chosen to create a world with free beings who were able to sin, and probably would sin, because freedom, even if it was infected and affected by sin, is still a better thing considered on its own than if we had no freedom in the world at all.
Learn more about evil as “privation” of fundamental good.
Two Different Approaches by Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz
We are touching on the basis of two rival approaches to the Enlightenment. Bayle is quite skeptical of theoretical approaches and wants to emphasize the empirical facts of the matter. He thinks reasons can’t access the ultimate reality, and so it’s best for people to leave it be.
Leibniz is more rationalist in his view. His view is more confident of the power of the human mind to make clear the structure of reality even when such intellect seems at a remarkable distance from our everyday perceptions of reality.
Much of this theory is not so much known by direct knowledge of reality, by an immediate acquaintance, as it is by a form of knowledge or conviction that the theory, as it were, backs into a sort of by derivation or implication or deduction of other aspects of the theory.
A lot of the thinking of a thinker like Leibniz is not a matter of simply pointing and seeing in the world about where reality is, but rather saying that if reality is this way, you have to deduce that standing behind it is this other fact about reality.
Common Questions about the Enlightenment Debate on Evil between Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
The Theodicy is a defense of the idea that the world that we inhabit can be seen to be, can be proved to be, the work of a just and perfectly good God who creates only the best.
Pierre Bayle was a stout defender of religious toleration. He thought that people should be allowed to have their own beliefs.
Pierre Bayle thought that people’s deepest religious convictions and other convictions were effectively immune from rational assessment and critique. He believed that debate and philosophical analysis are particularly pointless when it comes to religious belief because people’s choices are simply too individually-colored, too idiosyncratic.