Steven Nadler
The Best of All Possible Worlds

Leibniz does not have in mind what Voltaire accuses him of claiming. Candide believes that to say that this is the best of all possible worlds means that everything in this world turns out for the best for him, and, presumably, for any other creature. One may suffer through pain and misfortune, but only because they eventually lead to felicity. This is not Leibniz's view, however. On his account, it is not that everything will turn out for the best for me or for anyone else in particular. Nor is it necessarily the case that any other possible world would have been worse for me or for anyone else. Rather, Leibniz claims that any other possible world is worse overall than this one, regardless of any single person's fortunes in it.

Leibniz does not think that in the best of all possible worlds every creature will ultimately experience happiness and well-being, although the path thereto may be rocky. On the contrary, Leibniz concedes that in the best world many will know nothing but suffering. He denies that 'what is the best in the whole is also the best possible in each part.' Not every particular evil or series of evils will, in the end, lead to a particular good result. Sometimes a miserable life will end miserably. But without the specific evils that the world does contain, without the physical suffering and moral sins that we experience and inflict on one another, this world would not be the world that it is. And if this world were not the world that it is, it would, for just that reason, not be the best of all possible worlds, and God would not have chosen to create it.
God has ordered all things beforehand once for all, having foreseen prayers, good and bad actions, and all the rest; and each thing as an idea has contributed, before its existence, to the resolution that has been made upon the existence of all things; so that nothing can be changed in the universe (any more than in number) save its essence or, if you will, save its numerical individuality. Thus, if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found the best by the Creator who chose it.
The desirability of the world from God's perspective is determined by its contents. Among those contents are many actions and events that are evils, either because they involve the suffering of some creature or the violation of God's commandments. There are infinitely many possible worlds that have fewer such things; but it is, among other reasons, just because these worlds have less pain or sin than the actual world that they fall short of being the best, and therefore are unworthy of God's choice. 'It is true that one may imagine possible Worlds without sin and without unhappiness, and one could make some like Utopian or Sevarambian romances: but these same worlds again would be very inferior to ours in goodness.' For God to have chosen a world with even one less instance of evil would mean creating a world with less overall goodness, because all things are connected and every single aspect of the world makes a contribution to its being the best world. Similarly, for God to step in even on one small occasion miraculously to forestall a natural disaster from happening to one person (or to prevent human evil from destroying six million people) would represent an abrogation of this world's laws of nature or an interference with human freedom; it would be to change the world, a world whose principles and their results God is committed to sustaining. 'Shall God not give the rain, because there are low-lying places that will be thereby incommoded? Shall the sun not shine as much as it should for the world in general, because there are places that will be too much dried up in consequence?' God, foreseeing everything that will unfold over time as a result of His choice, opted to create this world precisely because it includes these items that, from our perspective, are imperfections, but which from His eternal and penetrating point of view go toward making it the very best.

Sometimes, Leibniz seems to mean that the bad elements (those things that have a lesser degree of perfection) accentuate the good, and that particular evils are required to bring into relief particular goods. Like chiaroscuro in painting or dissonances in music, the contrast makes those goods shine even brighter, thereby also rendering our appraisal of the whole more positive. 'Is it not most often necessary that a little evil render the good more discernible, that is to say, greater?' In an essay of 1697, Leibniz gives an elegant statement of this version of the 'consider the whole' approach.
If we look at a very beautiful picture but cover up all of it but a tiny spot, what more will appear in it, no matter how closely we study it, indeed, all the more, the more closely we examine it, than a confused mixture of colors without beauty and without art. Yet when the covering is removed and the whole painting is viewed from a position that suits it, we come to understand that what seemed to be a thoughtless smear on the canvas has really been done with the highest artistry by the creator of the work. And what the eyes experience in painting is experienced by the ears in music. Great composers very often mix dissonances with harmonious chords to stimulate the hearer and to sting him, as it were, so that he becomes concerned about the outcome and is all the more pleased when everything is restored to order. Similarly, we may enjoy trivial dangers or the experience of evils from the very sense they give us of our own power or our happiness or our fondness for display.
This kind of aesthetic contribution that evil makes to our evaluation of the whole by heightening our perception of the good and enhancing the overall beauty of the world does have an important role in Leibniz's thinking. But it is not the main point of his theodicy. And while Leibniz sometimes plays with the quantitative version of the 'consider the whole' approach, what makes this world the best is not the fact that good outnumbers evil. The best-ness of the world is not a straightforward empirical matter, accessible to anyone with a superior appreciation of the light and the shadows or a direct grasp of thenumber of good things. Nor, finally, are evils justified by good consequences that may follow them in the course of events, as when the end is claimed to justify the means; for sometimes there are no such good consequences, and a good person will end his days in grief and sorrow. Rather, the evil, like the good, makes a positive contribution to the overall optimality of the world by constituting a part of its contents. It belongs to the conception of the best of all possible worlds that it involves a large number of wonderful, good things. But it also belongs to the conception of that world that it involves a determinate number of evils, including certain human beings committing certain sins; these, too, contribute to the fact that this world is 'found to be the best by the Creator who chose it.' Because God is compelled by His goodness and wisdom to create the best world. He must also allow—with what Leibniz calls a 'permissive will'—those sins to come into existence. 'For God, having found already among things possible, before his actual decrees, man misusing his freedom and bringing upon himself his misfortune, yet could not avoid admitting him into existence, because the general plan required this.' 'God having found among the possible beings some rational creatures who misuse their reason, gave existence to those who are included in the best possible plan of the universe.' In short, there is sin and suffering in a world created by an all-wise, all-powerful, all-good God because that God can achieve His will to create the best of all possible worlds only by allowing the sin and suffering it contains to come into existence with it. As Leibniz puts it, God may in a sense be the ultimate physical cause of evil, but He is not the moral cause; the sinner is the author of his own sins.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.