Spinoza’s Theodicy and the Problem of Imperfection. The Dutch Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy. July 2018
Most readers of Spinoza have supposed that the very notion of theodicy is incompatible with his thought. And on the surface of things, he does indeed seem to reject the conceptual structure that typically motivates theodicy: he denies the real existence of evil in the world, along with the goodness and omnipotence (in the usual Christian sense) of God. I argue here, however, that Spinoza presents a theodicy at the end of Ethics I, although it is (as the literature on the subject has demonstrated) very difficult for many modern readers to recognize it as such. The problem Spinoza addresses is the question of how a perfect entity (God) is able to bring about imperfect effects, where perfection is understood in Spinoza’s sense: namely, the degree of reality that a thing possesses. Spinoza’s solution to the problem, I argue, draws on one proposed by Thomas Aquinas. In order for God to express himself fully, Spinoza thinks, it was necessary for him to create a multitude of finite entities embodying various degrees of reality, since no single finite creature can express God’s essence fully on its own. Despite the imperfection of individual entities, then, the whole of which they are parts turns out to be a perfect expression of the divine essence. Many will find it odd to see imperfection as a form of evil; I argue here, however, that this shows only that we have a very limited, and likely problematic, conception of what counts as an evil. In particular, I argue that our conception of the problem of evil turns on the assumption that God is something like a utilitarian; and if we find utilitarianism problematic, we will need to recover some broader conception of evil in order to continue to pose the problem of evil.
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