As some of you may know, I’m hoping to do a thesis this year which focuses on the problem of evil in some form or another. With an eye towards that, I’m currently researching a history paper on the Lisbon earthquake and the decline of philosophical optimism in the eighteenth century.
One of the most scathing indictments of Enlightenment optimism was Voltaire’s Candide (1759) which was a direct attack on a popular theodicy of the time, articulated by Leibniz, which held that the amount and variety of evil in the world was necessary because God, being perfect and wise, would not create anything less than the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment was famously expressed in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1732):
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee; All chance direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
The horror and carnage of the 1755 earthquake led Voltaire to conclude that this was absurd—the evil witnessed there was not and could not be a necessary element of God’s finely-tuned divine system. The bare existence of something did not make it right. To say so represented a callous disregard for human suffering and was unworthy of God.
Candide is at times humorous, at times gruesome and grim, and at times hopeless. The main character, Candide, travels around the world, meeting circumstance after circumstance of random and senseless evil. His life is one of unrelenting despair, misery, and hopelessness, but he resolves to continue to believe his travel companion, the philosopher Pangloss, that all is for the best, in this the “best of all possible worlds.”
The story is meant to highlight the absurdity of such a claim in the light of all the evil we see in the world. For Voltaire, the only solution—the only proper human response to an existence characterized by such absurd —is to “work without theorizing” for it is “the only way to make life endurable.” Candide famously ends with the protagonist’s statement, after listening to an eloquent description of how all the evil that had led to the present was justified and demonstrated God’s wonderful providence, that we must simply “cultivate our gardens.”
I couldn’t help but think of Candide as I read this article over the weekend. A young woman from New York made the choice to take a test to see if she was carrying the gene for Huntington’s disease knowing full well that if the test came back positive she would live the rest of her life in the full knowledge that she was certain to be afflicted by this horrible disease at some point around mid-life. The article goes on to discuss what it’s like for this young woman to live with this knowledge. It’s a very sad story—it is a decision I could not imagine making, and a life I could not imagine living. She has, understandably, thrown herself into fund raising and various other tasks. She is doing her best to plan for a future whose horizon is suddenly much nearer than she expected.
This story does not have the kind of grim macabre character of Candide, yet I was struck by the similarities of the endings of the two stories. The article ends with a simple description of this courageous young woman going about an ordinary, everyday task. She knows that she will be faced with what I would call genuine evil—something that is but is not right. She knows that she will be faced with a disease that causes its victims to jerk and twitch uncontrollably, rendering them progressively unable to walk, talk, think and swallow. She knows this, and she knows that she cannot avoid it.
And she is tending her garden.
Part of me resists the kind of hopelessness I see in stories like this and, even more so, in Candide. Is this all we can do? Tend our gardens in a world where so much unnecessary and unredeemed suffering is faced by so many people? Of course immediately all sorts of philosophical and theological arguments and rationales pop into my head, some partially convincing, many not. I suppose the one theme that sustains my thinking in matters such as these is that of redemption. I agree with Voltaire—the suffering we see in the world is too random, too plentiful, too wasteful and tragic for it to all be a part of a carefully designed “divine system.” But this should not really be news to the Christian.
The biblical narrative certainly doesn’t present evil as necessary—it is an unwelcome intruder, an enemy whose defeat is promised. In a sense, the Christian is actually prohibited from considering this to be “the best of all possible worlds” for we are summoned to work towards and live according to what we believe will be a redeemed and renewed world. In the person and life of Christ I see, primarily, a figure of redemption.
Ultimately, of course, he redeemed his people through his death and resurrection. But in his life he was constantly bringing goodness out of evil, and he called his followers to do the same. I do not get the sense that Jesus sees every specific instance of evil as a necessary component of “the best of all possible worlds.” The price that was paid to redeem God’s creation allows us no illusions about the necessity of evil.
And so we tend our gardens. But we do not do so as an act of helpless resignation in the face of the absurdity of life. We do so in the hope that the glimpses of redemption that we see and participate in right now will ultimately be validated and consummated in the future God has promised.