What is the cause of moral evil?

by Leibniz
  1. What is the cause of moral evil?

Physical evil, that is, sorrows, sufferings, miseries, will be less troublesome to explain, since these are results of moral evil. Poena est malum passionis, quod infligitur ob malum actionis, according to Grotius. One suffers because one has acted; one suffers evil because one does evil.

Nostrorum causa malorum

Nos sumus.

It is true that one often suffers through the evil actions of others; but when one has no part in the offence one must look upon it as a certainty that these sufferings prepare for us a greater happiness. The question of physical evil, that is, of the origin of sufferings, has difficulties in common with that of the origin of metaphysical evil, examples whereof are furnished by the monstrosities and other apparent irregularities of the universe. But one must believe that even sufferings and monstrosities are part of order; and it is well to bear in mind not only that it was better to admit these defects and these monstrosities than to violate general laws, as Father Malebranche sometimes argues, but also that these very monstrosities are in the rules, and are in conformity with general acts of will, though we be not capable of discerning this conformity. [277]It is just as sometimes there are appearances of irregularity in mathematics which issue finally in a great order when one has finally got to the bottom of them: that is why I have already in this work observed that according to my principles all individual events, without exception, are consequences of general acts of will.

  1. It should be no cause for astonishment that I endeavour to elucidate these things by comparisons taken from pure mathematics, where everything proceeds in order, and where it is possible to fathom them by a close contemplation which grants us an enjoyment, so to speak, of the vision of the ideas of God. One may propose a succession or series of numbers perfectly irregular to all appearance, where the numbers increase and diminish variably without the emergence of any order; and yet he who knows the key to the formula, and who understands the origin and the structure of this succession of numbers, will be able to give a rule which, being properly understood, will show that the series is perfectly regular, and that it even has excellent properties. One may make this still more evident in lines. A line may have twists and turns, ups and downs, points of reflexion and points of inflexion, interruptions and other variations, so that one sees neither rhyme nor reason therein, especially when taking into account only a portion of the line; and yet it may be that one can give its equation and construction, wherein a geometrician would find the reason and the fittingness of all these so-called irregularities. That is how we must look upon the irregularities constituted by monstrosities and other so-called defects in the universe.

  2. In this sense one may apply that fine adage of St. Bernard (Ep. 276, Ad Eugen., III): ‘Ordinatissimum est, minus interdum ordinate fieri aliquid.’ It belongs to the great order that there should be some small disorder. One may even say that this small disorder is apparent only in the whole, and it is not even apparent when one considers the happiness of those who walk in the ways of order.

  3. When I mention monstrosities I include numerous other apparent defects besides. We are acquainted with hardly anything but the surface of our globe; we scarce penetrate into its interior beyond a few hundred fathoms. That which we find in this crust of the globe appears to be the effect of some great upheavals. It seems that this globe was once on fire, and that the rocks forming the base of this crust of the earth are scoria remaining from a great [278]fusion. In their entrails are found metal and mineral products, which closely resemble those emanating from our furnaces: and the entire sea may be a kind of oleum per deliquium, just as tartaric oil forms in a damp place. For when the earth’s surface cooled after the great conflagration the moisture that the fire had driven into the air fell back upon the earth, washed its surface and dissolved and absorbed the solid salt that was left in the cinders, finally filling up this great cavity in the surface of our globe, to form the ocean filled with salt water.

  4. But, after the fire, one must conclude that earth and water made ravages no less. It may be that the crust formed by the cooling, having below it great cavities, fell in, so that we live only on ruins, as among others Thomas Burnet, Chaplain to the late King of Great Britain, aptly observed. Sundry deluges and inundations have left deposits, whereof traces and remains are found which show that the sea was in places that to-day are most remote from it. But these upheavals ceased at last, and the globe assumed the shape that we see. Moses hints at these changes in few words: the separation of light from darkness indicates the melting caused by the fire; and the separation of the moist from the dry marks the effects of inundations. But who does not see that these disorders have served to bring things to the point where they now are, that we owe to them our riches and our comforts, and that through their agency this globe became fit for cultivation by us. These disorders passed into order. The disorders, real or apparent, that we see from afar are sunspots and comets; but we do not know what uses they supply, nor the rules prevailing therein. Time was when the planets were held to be wandering stars: now their motion is found to be regular. Peradventure it is the same with the comets: posterity will know.

  5. One does not include among the disorders inequality of conditions, and M. Jacquelot is justified in asking those who would have everything equally perfect, why rocks are not crowned with leaves and flowers? why ants are not peacocks? And if there must needs be equality everywhere, the poor man would serve notice of appeal against the rich, the servant against the master. The pipes of an organ must not be of equal size. M. Bayle will say that there is a difference between a privation of good and a disorder; between a disorder in inanimate things, which is purely metaphysical, and a disorder in rational creatures, which is composed of crime and [279]sufferings. He is right in making a distinction between them, and I am right in combining them. God does not neglect inanimate things: they do not feel, but God feels for them. He does not neglect animals: they have not intelligence, but God has it for them. He would reproach himself for the slightest actual defect there were in the universe, even though it were perceived of none.

  6. It seems M. Bayle does not approve any comparison between the disorders which may exist in inanimate things and those which trouble the peace and happiness of rational creatures; nor would he agree to our justifying the permission of vice on the pretext of the care that must be taken to avoid disturbing the laws of motion. One might thence conclude, according to him (posthumous Reply to M. Jacquelot, p. 183), ’that God created the world only to display his infinite skill in architecture and mechanics, whilst his property of goodness and love of virtue took no part in the construction of this great work. This God would pride himself only on skill; he would prefer to let the whole human kind perish rather than suffer some atoms to go faster or more slowly than general laws require.’ M. Bayle would not have made this antithesis if he had been informed on the system of general harmony which I assume, which states that the realm of efficient causes and that of final causes are parallel to each other; that God has no less the quality of the best monarch than that of the greatest architect; that matter is so disposed that the laws of motion serve as the best guidance for spirits; and that consequently it will prove that he has attained the utmost good possible, provided one reckon the metaphysical, physical and moral goods together.

  7. But (M. Bayle will say) God having power to avert innumerable evils by one small miracle, why did he not employ it? He gives so much extraordinary help to fallen men; but slight help of such a kind given to Eve would have prevented her fall and rendered the temptation of the serpent ineffective. I have sufficiently met objections of this sort with this general answer, that God ought not to make choice of another universe since he has chosen the best, and has only made use of the miracles necessary thereto. I had answered M. Bayle that miracles change the natural order of the universe. He replies, that that is an illusion, and that the miracle of the wedding at Cana (for instance) made no change in the air of the room, except that instead of receiving [280]into its pores some corpuscles of water, it received corpuscles of wine. But one must bear in mind that once the best plan of things has been chosen nothing can be changed therein.

  8. As for miracles (concerning which I have already said something in this work), they are perhaps not all of one and the same kind: there are many, to all appearances, which God brings about through the ministry of invisible substances, such as the angels, as Father Malebranche also believes. These angels or these substances act according to the ordinary laws of their nature, being combined with bodies more rarefied and more vigorous than those we have at our command. And such miracles are only so by comparison, and in relation to us; just as our works would be considered miraculous amongst animals if they were capable of remarking upon them. The changing of water into wine might be a miracle of this kind. But the Creation, the Incarnation and some other actions of God exceed all the power of creatures and are truly miracles, or indeed Mysteries. If, nevertheless, the changing of water into wine at Cana was a miracle of the highest kind, God would have thereby changed the whole course of the universe, because of the connexion of bodies; or else he would have been bound to prevent this connexion miraculously also, and cause the bodies not concerned in the miracle to act as if no miracle had happened. After the miracle was over, it would have been necessary to restore all things in those very bodies concerned to the state they would have reached without the miracle: whereafter all would have returned to its original course. Thus this miracle demanded more than at first appears.

  9. As for physical evil in creatures, to wit their sufferings, M. Bayle contends vigorously against those who endeavour to justify by means of particular reasons the course of action pursued by God in regard to this. Here I set aside the sufferings of animals, and I see that M. Bayle insists chiefly on those of men, perhaps because he thinks that brute beasts have no feeling. It is on account of the injustice there would be in the sufferings of beasts that divers Cartesians wished to prove that they are only machines, quoniam sub Deo justo nemo innocens miser est: it is impossible that an innocent creature should be unhappy under such a master as God. The principle is good, but I do not think it warrants the inference that beasts have no feeling, because I think that, properly speaking, perception is not sufficient to cause misery if it is not accompanied [281]by reflexion. It is the same with happiness: without reflexion there is none.

O fortunatos nimium, sua qui bona norint!

One cannot reasonably doubt the existence of pain among animals; but it seems as if their pleasures and their pains are not so keen as they are in man: for animals, since they do not reflect, are susceptible neither to the grief that accompanies pain, nor to the joy that accompanies pleasure. Men are sometimes in a state approaching that of the beasts, when they act almost on instinct alone and simply on the impressions made by the experience of the senses: and, in this state, their pleasures and their pains are very slight.

  1. But let us pass from the beasts and return to rational creatures. It is with regard to them that M. Bayle discusses this question: whether there is more physical evil than physical good in the world? (Reply to the Questions of a Provincial, vol. II, ch. 75.) To settle it aright, one must explain wherein these goods and evils lie. We are agreed that physical evil is simply displeasure and under that heading I include pain, grief, and every other kind of discomfort. But does physical good lie solely in pleasure? M. Bayle appears to be of this opinion; but I consider that it lies also in a middle state, such as that of health. One is well enough when one has no ill; it is a degree of wisdom to have no folly:

Sapientia prima est,

Stultitia caruisse.

In the same way one is worthy of praise when one cannot with justice be blamed:

Si non culpabor, sat mihi laudis erit.

That being the case, all the sensations not unpleasing to us, all the exercises of our powers that do not incommode us, and whose prevention would incommode us, are physical goods, even when they cause us no pleasure; for privation of them is a physical evil. Besides we only perceive the good of health, and other like goods, when we are deprived of them. On those terms I would dare to maintain that even in this life goods exceed evils, that our comforts exceed our discomforts, and that M. Descartes was justified in writing (vol. I, Letter 9) ’that natural reason teaches us that we have more goods than evils in this life’.


  1. It must be added that pleasures enjoyed too often and to excess would be a very great evil. There are some which Hippocrates compared to the falling sickness, and Scioppius doubtless only made pretence of envying the sparrows in order to be agreeably playful in a learned and far from playful work. Highly seasoned foods are injurious to health and impair the niceness of a delicate sense; and in general bodily pleasures are a kind of expenditure of the spirit, though they be made good in some better than in others.

  2. As proof, however, that the evil exceeds the good is quoted the instance of M. de la Motte le Vayer (Letter 134), who would not have been willing to return to the world, supposing he had had to play the same part as providence had already assigned to him. But I have already said that I think one would accept the proposal of him who could re-knot the thread of Fate if a new part were promised to us, even though it should not be better than the first. Thus from M. de la Motte le Vayer’s saying it does not follow that he would not have wished for the part he had already played, provided it had been new, as M. Bayle seems to take it.

  3. The pleasures of the mind are the purest, and of greatest service in making joy endure. Cardan, when already an old man, was so content with his state that he protested solemnly that he would not exchange it for the state of the richest of young men who at the same time was ignorant. M. de la Motte le Vayer quotes the saying himself without criticizing it. Knowledge has doubtless charms which cannot be conceived by those who have not tasted them. I do not mean a mere knowledge of facts without that of reasons, but knowledge like that of Cardan, who with all his faults was a great man, and would have been incomparable without those faults.

Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas!

Ille metus omnes et inexorabile fatum

Subjecit pedibus.

It is no small thing to be content with God and with the universe, not to fear what destiny has in store for us, nor to complain of what befalls us. Acquaintance with true principles gives us this advantage, quite other than that the Stoics and the Epicureans derived from their philosophy. There is as much difference [283]between true morality and theirs as there is between joy and patience: for their tranquillity was founded only on necessity, while ours must rest upon the perfection and beauty of things, upon our own happiness.


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