Leibniz’s Metaphysical Evil Revisited

In Samuel Newlands Larry Jorgensen (ed.), New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy. Oxford University Press. pp. 112-134 (2014)
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The category of metaphysical evil introduced by Leibniz appears to cast a sinister shadow over the goodness of creation. It seems to imply that creatures, simply in virtue of not being gods, are to some degree intrinsically and inescapably evil. After briefly unpacking this difficulty and outlining a recent attempt to deal with it, this paper returns to the texts to propose a novel and multilayered understanding of Leibniz’s category of metaphysical evil by reading it against the backdrop of the traditional typologies of evil with which he was unquestionably familiar. It comes to the conclusion that metaphysical evil plays two key roles for Leibniz. First, it captures what Aquinas and especially Suarez meant by ‘natural evil’. Contrary to the common assumption that it is Leibniz’s category of physical evil that holds the place of natural evil, the paper shows that Leibniz’s physical evil corresponds to Augustine’s category of evil of punishment for sin whereas natural evil – intended as a kind of evil which is not related to moral responsibility -- is subsumed under metaphysical evil. Secondly, the category of metaphysical evil covers also the notion of original creaturely imperfection. In classifying creaturely limitation as a kind of evil Leibniz breaks from the Augustinian-Thomist-Scholastic tradition and its distinction between negatio and privatio. On the other hand, notwithstanding this important break, Leibniz’s notion of metaphysical evil is intended to account for something which is firmly within the broadly Augustinian-Scholastic tradition, namely the ascription to all creatures of a limitation that stems from their being created ex nihilo. Finally, the paper returns a verdict of non-guilty to the charge that Leibniz’s metaphysical evil implies that creatures qua creatures are to some extent necessarily intrinsically evil. More generally, in typical Leibnizian fashion, the notion of metaphysical evil will appear to be a complex mix of indebtedness to tradition and bending of received doctrines into something significantly different.



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