The centuries old debate about the existence of suffering and evil in the world

Philosophical Optimism was an attempt to solve the problem of suffering and evil in the world- a question which has been discussed by philosophers and theologians for centuries.  The basic question can be expressed in the following way:

"If the creator is benevolent and all powerful why is there evil and suffering in the world?"

Christianity offers two explanations

1. The first explanation was that Man had fallen from God’s grace. He had abused the free will which God had given him and had chosen evil.

The objection to this was that suffering was often not proportionate to any possible sin and many of those who were made to suffer were evidently innocent, undeserving of their cruel fate

2. The second explanation was that an alternative, negative, destructive force was active in the world.  It was difficult, however to reconcile this explanation with the existence of the benign all-powerful God of traditional Christianity, because:

a) If God was all-powerful but allowed his people to undergo such hardships, he could not be benign.

b) If God was benign but could not protect his people from these hardships, he was not all powerful

In previous centuries some Christians were prepared to accept that the good God that they worshipped was not able to fully protect them from suffering and evil and formed the conclusion that there was a second malignant power active in the world.  This was the Devil, who was sometimes portrayed as a fallen angel.

The church condemned those that put forward these views as heretics, labelling them  “Manichaeans” to associate these deviant Christians with the dualistic theology of a Persian religion by this name which was strong from 300 to 600 AD.

(In the book, it is Martin who recommends Manichaeism.  In Chapter 10- page 112, Candide consoles himself that a violent thief had drowned with all his ill-gotten gains and justice was done, Martin reminded him of the deaths of the innocent)
«Vous voyez, dit Candide à Martin, que le crime est puni quelquefois; ce coquin de patron hollandais a eu le sort qu'il méritait..
« Oui, dit Martin; mais fallait-il que les passagers qui étaient sur son vaisseau périssent aussi? Dieu a puni ce fripon, le diable a noyé les autres.»


During the monarchy of Louis XIV (1643- 1715), when the King and the Church formed together one absolute and unshakable authority, there was no room for questioning either political or theological. 

Under the Regency that followed the death of Louis XIV and after 1723, when the new king, Louis XV, came of age, a freer atmosphere began to prevail and 18th century France became a period of new thinking, political, philosophical, moral and religious. The monolithic structure of monarchic rule, which had reached its height in the previous reign, was beginning to weaken and fall apart. The Monarchy and the Church maintained their resistance to change and this was reflected in the constant threat that Voltaire and his fellow reformers lived under.  It was to take the Revolution of 1789 to remove the Old Order.

During the repressive reign of Louis XIV, nevertheless, a French theologian. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), had raised again the controversial question of the existence of evil. Having found asylum in Holland, he forcibly argued the case for Manichaeism.  He stated unequivocally that God could not be both all-powerful and all-good, since if He were, there would be no evil in the world, and it was obvious that evil abounded.  Bayle’s view was therefore pessimistic.

At the same time in Germany, the eminent German rationalist philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), confronted these questions and came to conclusions more compatible with conventional Christianity.  His metaphysical ideas were complex, subtle and not very amenable to popular interpretation, but there was drawn from them an assertion of one single God, in conflict with the ideas of the Manicheans.  His ideas in general supported an Optimistic view of creation.

Voltaire was acquainted with the ideas of Optimism through his friendship with the English poet Alexander Pope, whom he got to know during his period of exile in England (1726-1728).  Pope was a great admirer of Leibnitz and in his verse he expressed the creed of Optimism at its most simplistic.

All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, “Whatever IS, is RIGHT

Voltaire admired Pope but had little patience for all the abstract complexities of Optimist theory.  He confided that:
….tout l'ouvrage de Pope fourmille de pareilles obscurités

However, at this stage of his life, Voltaire, in spite of setbacks he had suffered, still showed the optimism of his early years.  As long as he had the feeling that life was good, the ideas Philosophical Optimism did not offend him.  

For the next ten years or so of his life, circumstances allowed Voltaire to continue in this mainly optimistic frame of mind. He was now rich and famous.  He had the love of his mistress the very talented Mme Du Châtelet.  He found favour in the French royal court, where he was given honours and posts of importance.

It was during this period that Voltaire learned more about the ideas of Leibnitz.  He had started a correspondence with King Frederick the Great of Prussia., a great admirer of the works of Christian Wolf, who explained and popularised the Optimist theories of Leibnitz.  Frederick sent Voltaire French translations of two of Wolf’s books.

As with Alexander Pope’s interpretations, Voltaire found the writings difficult to understand and he had little patience to struggle through the intricacies of their metaphysics.  Now his reaction to Optimism was beginning to turn from tolerant bemusement to hostility.   This change in outlook coincided with the moment when good times for Voltaire began to draw to an end, in the middle of the 1740s.  He fell totally out of favour with the King and had to retire into semi-exile. There was disappointment and sadness in his personal life. Mme Du Châtelet took a new lover and tragedy struck when she died in childbirth.  His stay with Frederick the Great ended in acrimony and Voltaire’s final humiliation.  France was no longer a safe home for him because he had offended both the State and Church authorities.  He eventually found a refuge outside France which allowed him some respite.  Then a terrible human catastrophe made him see life in totally pessimistic terms.

In November 1755, Lisbon was shattered by an earthquake in which between thirty and forty thousand people lost their lives. Voltaire was profoundly affected.  Now Optimism appeared to him as a cruel deception.  He asked:
Si Pope avait été à Lisbonne, aurait-il osé dire, tout est bien?”

He could see no other explanation but the Manichaeism of Bayle, with his doubts about the divine power that controlled our lives:
“La balance à la main, Bayle enseigne à douter »

Candide was written four years later.  In this book Voltaire presented his view of a world, where Optimism was revealed as pure fantasy. However during these intervening years, he had found the calm and security of his retreat at Les Délices and had attained the detachment that permitted him to clothe his attacks in entertaining fiction.  His book is filled with mischievous irony and humorous comment, presented through rapidly developing adventures.  It is the work of a man still in love with life.

Optimistic philosophy continued. Go to Direct references to Optimism in "Candide"