What is Leibniz’s Theodicy, and Why Is There Evil in the World?

If God exists, why does he allow evil to happen? A closer look at Leibniz’s response to this influential problem, also known as the Theodicy.

Jul 18, 2023By Antonio Panovski, BA Philosophy
leibniz theodicy god evil exist
Lucifer torturing damned souls by anonymous, c. 1460, via British Museum; with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke, 1695, via RKD


In monotheism, God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnigood. However, this very sort of characterization of God lays the biggest problem religion faces: the problem of evil. If God is always just, right, and good, how can evil in the world exist? Isn’t it God that created the world? If so, how did evil get created? The doctrine attempting to vindicate God’s actions in such a world is called a theodicy. In this article, we’ll take a look at the theodicy of Leibniz, and take a brief look at how other thinkers did it as well.


1. Leibniz’s Metaphysics: The Monadology

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke, 1695, via RKD


To understand Leibniz’s theodicy, it’s essential to take a look at his Monadology—his most comprehensive approach to metaphysics. That’s why we’ll explore Leibniz’s study of Being first. According to Leibniz, the monad is the fundamental Being, the primordial principle, and the very beginning of the universe. It is the Supreme Being, says Leibniz. However, Leibniz states that there exists an infinite number of monads. Thus, there exists a multiplicity of beings, i.e., monads. They represent the basic and immaterial elementary particles, or simplest units, that make up the universe.


Leibniz defined the monad as “…a simple substance, which enters into the composition of complex ones; simple, that means without parts.” (Monadology,1714) The monads have consciousness according to Leibniz, and each of them represents entelechy—that which realizes or makes actual what is otherwise merely potential. That is “Because they carry in themselves a certain perfection; their self-sufficiency makes them hotbeds of their inner actions, and so to speak, disembodied automatons” (Monadology,1714).


Furthermore, Leibniz explains that there exists a certain hierarchy in the arrangement of monads in the universe. On the very top of the hierarchy is located the monad above all monads, and he identifies it as God. God, says Leibniz is the supreme monad. He is superordinate relating to all other monads that lie below it. Leibniz defines God as “A necessary substance which represents the final cause of things: there is only one God and that God is sufficient” (Monadology,1714). He further says that “Only God possesses the privilege of having to exist if He Himself is possible” (Monadology,1714).


2. Leibniz’s Justification of God’s Actions: His Theodicy

Portrait of Leibniz, via Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Now, let’s see how Leibniz tried to justify God’s actions and show why his Monadology was important in understanding his theodicy. God, says Leibniz, created the world by giving existence to a certain combination of substances – to a certain hierarchy of the monads. The substances can be combined in countless ways, but God chose one specific combination. This combination is the best one because He is perfect. That’s why Leibniz thinks that our world is the best of all possible worlds.


It’s important to note that it is clear to Leibniz that the world is not perfect. In fact, according to his philosophy, the world could not even possibly be perfect, because in a universe in which no two identical substances exist, there can only be one perfect substance, or rather a monad (God), and all the others possess a different (smaller) degree of perfection. From these assumptions God made as much as he could, says Leibniz. But even He could not abolish what Leibniz calls “metaphysical evil.” This means that in God’s world of creation, there are certain principles and limitations that even God cannot overcome. But what God can do is combine all substances (monads) in the best possible way.


Evil is justified by the fact that it is a necessary part of every possible whole. Since God always acts on the principle of sufficient reason, of course, he chose the best among an infinite number of possible worlds. If a world without moral and natural evil would have been better than this one, then God would have created a world without these evils. But such a world does not exist. Hence, moral and natural evil exist because they contribute to the realization of a greater good or the prevention of a greater evil, says Leibniz.


3. Other Popular Theodicies

St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645, via LACMA


It is important to note that in addition to Leibniz’s defense and his attempt to vindicate God’s actions, there are many other theodicies as well. Here we’re going to mention some of them.


a.) Theodicy of the Whole: It can be said that the argument of the whole was first presented by Plato in his work Timaeus, but the central meaning was given to it by St. Augustine. In his Confessions, St. Augustine claims that God uses human evil for good purposes. Everything that exists and can look like evil is actually good because it is a necessary part of the whole that is good.


Following his thought, Boethius, a philosopher of the Early Middle Ages, said that whatever is apparently evil is actually good because it obeys the laws established by God. It appears otherwise only to the limited human capacity for understanding.


b.) Free Will Theodicy: This type of theodicy holds that the evil in the world, especially moral evil, originates from man’s free will. Free will, according to this kind of theodicy, is the main culprit for the existence of evil in the world. Thus, Plato says in the second book of his Republic that “The gods are not to blame for evil, and the cause of evil must be sought elsewhere.” In the tenth book of Republic, he says that “The blame for evil belongs to the one who chooses, not to God.”


Saint Bernard Vanquishing the Devil, Anonymous, German, Upper Rhine, 15th century, via the Met Museum.


St. Augustine elaborates on that thought further. In Confessions, he says that evil deeds come from an evil will, but an evil will has no cause. However, in The City of God, he says that evil is not what the will turns to, but it’s the turning away from God that’s actually evil. Namely, when the will turns to something lower, it becomes evil. But this does not happen because it turns into something that is evil, but because what it turns into is good, only to a lesser degree. He also raises the question of why humans do this. Augustine says that the reason for this should be sought in the dogma of original sin.


Thomas Aquinas is also another thinker who advocates such a view. He states that moral evil must be attributed entirely to man’s free will. If that is so, then it could be said that the world would be better if men did not have that ability—the ability to choose freely, to have free will. However, Aquinas disagrees with such a conclusion. Rather, he says that the world would be imperfect if men did not have the possibility of error. So, the very possibility of committing sin is necessary for the perfection of the world, not the actual sins. Therefore, it is men who are responsible for all sins and evil, says Aquinas.


Depiction of Plotinus, via Wikimedia Commons.


c.) Theodicy of Privation: This kind of argument was first systematically presented by Plotinus in the eighth book of the Enneads. The One, says Plotinus, is the highest form of existence. There is no knowledge of the One, it has no qualitative or quantitative determinations. Creation occurs as the One “pours out,” “flows out,” or “emanates.” Through this outpouring, all beings are created, from the highest spiritual to the lowest material ones. The starting point of the One is good, but the further a being moves away from it, the closer it approaches evil. Matter (as the emanation furthest from the One and good), for example, is pure evil.


From here, it may seem strange that evil comes into the world at all, since everything that exists in the world is created by an emanation from good, and all emanations are good. The answer to this objection is that evil does not have its own being, but rather it represents a lack of good. However, that lack is necessary, because there must be a “last step” in emanations, and the last step—matter—has nothing good in itself.


Thomas Aquinas also takes this position in another one of his books. He says that evil consists entirely of non-being, and defines evil as a “lack of perfection.” According to Aquinas, evil should not be understood as a general lack. For example, it is not evil that man does not have wings because wings are not part of human nature. But it would be evil if the wings are missing from the bird.


Pseudo-Dionysius gives the most radical form to this theory. He points out that evil is not a being, nor does it come from a being, nor does it participate in it. Evil simply isn’t!


4. Overview of the Theodicies

Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 1476, via the UK National Gallery.


From this brief overview of Leibniz’s theodicy, we’ve actually shown what the biggest problem of monotheistic religion is—the problem of evil. Although there are many other issues that religion faces, the problem of evil remains the most prominent problem religion has faced since its very beginning. Various religions have also proposed their own theories about the existence of evil in the world. For example, in the Christian Gospels, we can stumble upon various explanations about God’s actions in the Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.


Still, it seemed necessary for thinkers and philosophers to step in and try to clear God’s blame for the existence of evil as well. As shown, it was not only Leibniz that contributed to this project with his theodicy. There are many other theodicies that existed even well before Leibniz. However, the theodicy of Leibniz is something that is very notable in his philosophy, as well as in the history of philosophy as a whole, and is still regarded as one of the best attempts at explaining the apparent contradiction between God’s and evil’s existence.

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By Antonio PanovskiBA PhilosophyAntonio holds a BA in Philosophy from SS. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. His main areas of interest are contemporary, as well as analytic philosophy, with a special focus on the epistemological aspect of them, although he’s currently thoroughly examining the philosophy of science. Besides writing, he loves cinema, music, and traveling.