“The best of all possible worlds” is central to Leibniz’s metaphysical philosophy, however the claim is perhaps one which out of context is trivialised and dismissed as misplaced optimism; this essay will argue that it is not the platitude that Voltaire makes it out to be. This essay will show Leibniz’s argument in a way that demonstrates that Voltaire’s cunning satire fails to philosophically address the argument. To do this, the essay will look to Leibniz’s metaphysics, with the aim to show that this really is the best of all possible worlds.
The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is key to Leibniz’s thought, “nothing happens without its being possible for someone who understands things well enough to provide a reason sufficient to determine why it is as it is and not otherwise” (PNG §7 p262). PSR entails that this is the best of all possible worlds, there is a reason why this world exists rather than any other striving compossibles, this reason is that it is the best. “God created the best world that it was possible to create” (Woolhouse, R. 2010, p134). “The best”, links to the Euthyphro dilemma, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Euthyphro,10d). For Leibniz goodness is not dependent on man or on the divine; “what counts as the best is not a matter of God’s choice” (PNG §7 p262), “why should we praise what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy having done quite the opposite” (DM §2 p55). If goodness was dependent upon God, then it would make God an arbitrary dictator. A young Kant supports Leibniz’s: “God chose this world…of all the possible worlds…He must for that very reason, have regarded it as the best. And since God’s judgment never errs, it follows that this world is also in fact the best” (Meerbote & Walford, 2003 p75). Is it not possible that there were two equal worlds? Woolhouse shows via the PSR that this is impossible: if two worlds were identical, God could have no reason to pick one world over the other meaning God would have created nothing.
There are several factors that contribute to God’s choice, and two ways in which this the best world. The first is The Metaphysically perfect world; according to Leibniz it is “the one that is simultaneously the simplest in hypotheses and richest in phenomena” (DM §6 p58). These yardsticks are important in demonstrating that this is the best possible world. Known as the Principle of the Best, this is the perfect balance between economy and variety. In this sense, God is an architect balancing money available for a building against its size and beauty. Newtonian Laws of Gravity are a good illustration, because the laws are relatively easy to grasp, but they also account for vast amounts of phenomena. An initial retort could be: why not create a world with only one thing in it? Or make a world that consists of just single celled organisms rather than complex humans? Leibniz would respond by claiming that economy and versatility are not simply to be valued individually, it is when combined together they are at their best. Further, Leibniz follows the Aristotelian understanding of reality: reality has a notion of “thingness” which is superior metaphysically, thus the more reality you have the better, and as Leibniz argues God is a perfect being and by extension does all things perfectly He will strike the optimal balance. Though a world with minimal substances would be simpler, Leibniz would perhaps think this would insult God’s abilities, and our abilities as God’s creations to cope with a degree of complexity. In fact, a web of beautifully intricate monads is an apt refection of God’s supreme capabilities. These capabilities are demonstrated with Pre-Established Harmony: not only is it Leibniz’s solution to the mind-body problem but it ensures that the complex web between substances works continuously in harmony.
Leibniz claims that God created the best world morally; we are made in His image, thus God is primarily concerned with the happiness of human minds and the best world Morally means minds are bestowed with the “greatest possible amount of felicity and joyfulness” (Woolhouse, 2010, p139). Humans are capable of true happiness due to self-reflection, meaning that humans can freely choose to worship God. Humans have capabilities to understand the metaphysical, and this understanding results in true happiness. Thus the best metaphysically allows us to have the best morally, as Jolly puts it “Leibniz’s dominant view thus seems to be that the best possible world is the one that achieves the optimal balance between moral and physical perfection.” (Jolly, 2005 p165). However, this is problematic and links to the problem of evil, if the world is to make humans happy, has Leibniz not made it even harder to justify evil because evil counters our “joyfulness”? In Discourse on Metaphysics Leibniz writes the happiness of spirits is at its maximum, but modifies his view in Theodicy, claiming when we come across things that counteract “joyfulness” we must realise that the world is not just for us.
Lessening the anthropomorphic God does not defeat the “Problem of Evil”, empirically we know there is suffering, which prompts people to think this world isn’t the best possible. Leibniz provides a solution: God permits evil for a good reason, however “it is beyond our finite minds to have detailed knowledge of the particular reasons” (Woolhouse, 2010, p135). A Gods-eye view would see all time in an instant, revealing evil has to happen, as in the long term this is the best way forward. Monet’s water lilies provide an analogy: looking up close, we just see a smudge, but when we stand back we see the entirety. In the same way, we should not judge the whole universe from our tiny perspective. Suffering is permissible as it results in good; this appears consequentialist, for God uses someone as a means to ends. To respond, God has not arbitrarily picked one person to suffer over another in fact God’s cognitive abilities show him that this individual suffering is good for the sufferer too.
Leibniz accounts for three different types of evil and dismisses them. Firstly Metaphysical evil holds no problem because it is simply a lack of absolute perfection: “it is metaphysically necessary that any created universe should contain some metaphysical evil” (Broad, 1975 p160). If there could be a world that was metaphysically perfect, it would not be created, it would exist and its reason would be contained within itself. Leibniz does need to respond to the other evils in the world: Moral evil, which is humans committing sin and Physical evil, which is the suffering caused by moral or natural evil. These present much more of a problem, as Broad says that there could be worlds that are devoid of moral and physical evils (ibid). Moral and physical evil stem from humans, as humans sin and feel suffering, thus it seems the most comprehensive and simple way to have no evil is to have no humans. However for Leibniz this is not conducive to the best possible world, as Rutherford notes “in aiming for the greatest possible perfection God necessarily also creates…minds with the greatest potential of happiness” (Rutherford, 1995 p49) so this means the best possible world must “exist within it minds with the potential to realise…the highest degrees of perfection accessible” (ibid p53). This shows how minds have to exist in order for this world to be the best morally.
Leibniz runs the argument that evil is a necessary condition of the good, and that we need the bad to appreciate the good, the “familiar ploy” (Jolly, 2005 p167) as it were, but Leibniz draws upon his metaphysics to justify evil. When we examine the world often we are inclined to think that improvements could be made: it is this objection that runs through Voltaire’s Candide. We could ask: why did God with his absolute benevolence not alter Hitler for example? Leibniz exploits his complete notion of individuals to get around this objection. God could not alter Hitler and leave the world intact because of monads’ interconnectedness. Changing Hitler would impact upon my complete concept, as one of my predicates is that I was born 48 years after Hitler’s death, so it cannot be a process of “editing” just Hitler alone, it would involve all substances. Altering Hitler would change the balance of economy and plenitude and it would cease to be the best. Humans’ limited perspective fails in showing us the connections between evil events and the other events in the world. It is true that if we could remove or edit Hitler and leave the world as it is, we would have a better world, but the point is that we cannot know if a change to Hitler would leave the world unchanged, there is a chance a world with no Hitler may have made the world worse. This justification of evil shows how we cannot look at events in isolation, as no event from a Gods-eye view is isolated and therefore the worst plays a part in the best.
In conclusion, even though the problem of evil does pose a threat to “this is the best of all possible worlds” and to many it does seem intuitive to ask how this world can be the best when it is far from utopia, I however consider it to be a superficial wound. I would hold that Leibniz knows evil is in the world but has accounted for it and draws upon his methodical metaphysics to show that the world cannot have been any other way, and how a perfect God acting with the PSR could only choose the best world. Thus Leibniz is correct when he says this is the best of all possible worlds, as the best requires evil, not an absence of evil.
Broad, C.D. 1975, Leibniz: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jolly, N. 2005, Leibniz, London: Routledge
Meerbote, R and Walford, D. 2003 Theoretical Philosophy, 1755 – 1770 (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Plato (author) G. M. A. Grube (Translator), 2002, 2nd edition, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co
Rutherford, D 1995, Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Woolhouse, R. and Francks, R. 1998, G. W. Leibniz Philosophical Texts, New York: Oxford University Press
Woolhouse, R. 2010, Starting With Leibniz, London: Continuum