[Milton-L] theodicy and critique

jfleming at sfu.ca jfleming at sfu.ca
Thu Jul 27 13:02:27 EDT 2006


The remarkable persistence of the Romantic view of PL is evident in the
current discussion. Romantic Miltonists, it seems, are (1) attached to the
idea that PL is a "theodicy," and (2) convinced that theodicy entails a
justification of God -- in a sense that includes the possibility of a
"critique of God." It seems to me, however, that "theodicy" and "critique of
God" are fundamentally incompatible.

The term "theodicy" originates with Leibniz. It is the name for his account
of the extant world as "the best of all possible worlds." In making this
out, Leibniz (like most pre-modern Western philosophers) assumes a version
of the ontological argument for the existence of God. This is the medieval
logicians' proof that, since God can be defined as "that than which nothing
greater can be thought," he must exist outside our thoughts. For existence
outside our thoughts (ie, in reality) is greater than existence only in our
thoughts (ie, in fantasy). Therefore, to propose that God does not exist (in
reality) is to posit a contradiction. 

To this conventional view, Leibniz adds the so-called "Principle of
Sufficient Reason," according to which nothing can exist without there
being, in principle, a sufficient reason why it has to be the way it is and
not any other way. Note that the explicability of  everything is _assumed_,
as a matter of principle -- even though, and again as a matter of principle,
Leibniz says that relevant explanations may perennially and necessarily
escape us. Leibniz also asserts the supreme goodness of God, an assertion
sometimes formalized as the "Principle of the Best": since God, qua God,
could only have created the best of all possible worlds -- otherwise he
would be lesser than a God on whom we could thus rely (and thus not God at
all) -- the extant world must be understood as the best of all possible
worlds. Note, again, that Leibniz is not proposing theodicy as an attempt to
_argue_ the Principle of the best, on moral or ethical grounds. He is
proposing it, rather, as a _response_ to the Principle of the Best, the
latter being posited solely on logical and theological grounds. 

One sees, I hope, how "theodicy" is incompatible with "critique of God." In
Leibnizian terms, theodicy is not at attempt to explain why God has to be
the way he is. It is not even an attempt to explain why the world has to be
the way it is. It is, rather, an attempt to explain how we can come to
understand the excellence and perfection of the world, as it is; and how
this attempt can to understand can be predicated on the necessary excellence
and perfection of God. 

The latter point, indeed, removes us from Leibniz' account per se, and
returns us to a literary consideration of the ontological argument. Let us
propose, with Shelley et al, that Milton's God (whether as represented or
not) is a cruel, vindictive, mendacious tyrant. That is as much as to
propose that Milton's God is not God. For a tyrant-God is, presumably,
lesser than a non-tyrant God. But any being lesser than a being than which
nothing greater can be thought is not God. It follows that if Milton's God
is a tyrant, PL is not a theodicy. For it is not about God at all; yet a
theodicy must be about God. Conversely, if PL is to be approached as a
theodicy, notions of critiquing or otherwise judging God must be laid aside
in advance.

JD Fleming

James Dougal Fleming, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English,
Simon Fraser University,
(604) 291-4713
cell: 778-865-0926

Laissez parler les faits.


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