Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Roger Ariew


Evil, God, Problem of Evil, Providence


Evil poses a particular problem to early modern thinkers. Late scholasticism, while itself variegated, provided a number of resources for dispelling concerns about the justice of God raised by the existence of evil. With much of the metaphysics of the scholastics rejected, the new philosophers needed either to find inventive ways to make the old solutions fit into their new systems, to come up with new resources for dispelling the difficulties, or to accept the difficulties as insurmountable, likely via fideism or atheism. Leibniz, I claim, provides a provocative mixture of the first two approaches.

Many readers think Leibniz's solution to the problem of evil can be summed up in as little as a page, perhaps even a compound sentence, that sentence being, "God created the best possible world, and so He cannot be blamed for the existence of evil." My primary purpose is to show that this conception is false. Not only does Leibniz offer a complex response to the problem of evil which involves a unique combination and reinterpretation of components from the history of philosophical thinking about evil, but his solution changes a number of times throughout his career. And how could it not? It is nearly uncontested that Leibniz's metaphysics underwent important changes between the early 1670s and the mid 1680s. The thesis that Leibniz's metaphysics changed significantly at least once between the mid 1680s and the end of his life is becoming more and more accepted among scholars. Given the importance of theology to Leibniz's metaphysical thinking and the importance of metaphysics to Leibniz's theological thinking, it could hardly be the case that Leibniz's thought on the problem of evil could remain unchanged throughout these changes.

What follows is structured as three developmental stories each revolving around the role of one conceptual tool used by Leibniz as a part of a solution to the problems posed by evil--these conceptual tools being the doctrine that God created the best possible world, the distinction between willing and permitting (in particular as it relates to God's relationship to evil), and the doctrine that sin is a privation. Each chapter highlights the way Leibniz's conception and use of the particular tool changed throughout his life and the differing ways these concepts interact with each other.

I begin by examining the doctrine that this is the best possible world. Early in his career (in particular in the Letter to Magnus Wedderkopf of 1671) Leibniz thought that this doctrine was sufficient for explaining the goodness of God in spite of the evils in the world. In that letter he explicitly denied that divine permission was possible, and within a few years explicitly denied that the doctrine that sin is a privation was of any use in securing the goodness of God. The doctrine that God created the best possible world itself went through a few changes as Leibniz's thought developed. Of most significance is the change from seeing God's creation of this world as necessary to holding that it is a contingent fact that God created the best possible world. Shortly after this change occurs and, I argue, partly because this change occurs, Leibniz begins to see the problem of evil split in such a way that it is no longer sufficient for procuring divine goodness to point out that God has a good reason for bringing evils about. It must now be argued that God brings evils about for a good reason and remains morally upright in doing so.

Regarding the other two doctrines--divine permission and the privative nature of sin--Leibniz's thought undergoes radical change. Once Leibniz feels the need to go beyond giving a reason why God choose to create a world that contains evil, he reverses his opinion about whether God can be said to permit anything. Regarding privations, Leibniz's thought undergoes a number of changes. Around 1678, He reverses his opinion about whether there is any value to holding that sins are privations. Further, the phrase `sins are privations' takes on different meanings as Leibniz develops. In 1686, he takes the phrase to mean that sins are the result of the limitation of the creature. By the time of the Theodicy(1710), however, he thinks of sins both as the result of limitations of creatures and as having a privative aspect (i.e., there is a defect in the action itself, and thus a double-role of the concept of privation). These changes require changes in Leibniz's metaphysics and in particular a change in the way Leibniz thinks of the causal interactions between God and human actions, and substances and human actions. This lends support to the still controversial but increasingly accepted view that Leibniz's metaphysics undergoes a significant change between the Discourse on Metaphysics and the Monadology.