This post is the third in a three-part series on Rousseau’s “Letter to Franquières.” This letter reveals Rousseau’s theodicy and apologetic for belief in God. The first part of the series reviewed Rousseau’s philosophic method. The second part examined his treatment of the problem of the “hiddenness of God.” This part discusses his treatment of the so-called “problem of evil.” Again, page number references are to the eighth volume of The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Dartmouth University Press, 2000).
After a digression on his philosophic methodology, which was discussed in a previous post, Rousseau abruptly changes tone and begins to talk about the “problem of evil.” As he puts it: “But if all is the work of an intelligent, powerful, and beneficent being, from where does the evil on earth derive?” (265). He writes that this “terrible” problem “has never struck me very much, either because I have not conceived it well, or because in fact it does not have all the solidity it appears to have” (265). Still, he agrees to address it because Franquières had raised it in his letter.
His first attempt to deal with the problem of evil is to invoke the system and order of the universe. Things live and die by a regulated, orderly rules, and things are “renewed” and come into being by the same process (265). “I do not see any evil in all that,” Rousseau concludes (265). This order though, will hardly be enough to deter a questioner outraged by the death and pain in the world. Why do the regular and orderly laws of nature produce such horrible consequences? What about death and pain? Aren’t they evils?
Rousseau anticipates this potential objection. He argues that death must be accepted as part and parcel of the life cycle. One comes with the other, and eternal life is not “owed” to us by God. “There was only one means for not dying; it was to have never been born” (265). We can no more complain of this, he might say, than complain of urination even though we enjoy drinking. Rousseau admits that pain is an evil, but defends its existence in the world on the grounds that it is necessary and valuable in certain respects. To be more specific, “pain and pleasure were the only means for attaching a sensitive and perishable being to its own conservation, and these means are managed with a goodness worthy of the Supreme Being. … Pain is only an importunate but necessary warning, that this good which is so dear to us is in peril” (265). If we didn’t fear heights, might we not jump off of cliffs to get to the bottom? If we didn’t feel pain, might we not touch a burning stove? Pain is a warning sign to alert us to danger. Given that it serves a good and necessary purpose, Rousseau concludes, God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing it.
At this point, a serious objection could be raised. God could have made us so that nothing could ever hurt us, in which case pain would be unnecessary as a danger warning. That is what Jews and Christians imagine the Garden of Eden to have been: a place free of pain and death. Adam and Eve needed no “warnings” to preserve their “perishable” bodies because they were immortal and nothing could harm them. But Rousseau at first takes our physicality and susceptibility to harm as givens. He does not question why we were made “sensitive and perishable” beings in the first place. By way of comparison, Jewish and Christian theology, as expressed in the first chapters of Genesis, finds it necessary to explain the origin of death and pain. For Jews and Christians, pain is clearly said to be the result of punishment for sin, something that Rousseau’s quasi-Deist theology does not permit. He might conceivably respond that God wanted to make a world that would run like a clock according to regular rules, whereas a “garden of Eden” world would require constant supervision. (C.S. Lewis makes a similar argument in The Problem of Pain: free human action requires that there be a stable, orderly world in which humans can make meaningful choices, but such a world cannot come about without many obstacles to our movement.)
In any case, Rousseau does provide a metaphysics that purports to explain the origin of most pain and death while getting God off the hook. He holds to the “opinion” of “the eternal coexistence of two principles: the one active, which is God, the other passive, which is matter” (266). God did not create matter and cannot destroy it; he can only shape or fashion it. The indestructability of the physical is why God made humans perishable and susceptible to pain and death: he had no choice. Matter is matter, and even God cannot do anything about that. It is no surprise that Rousseau writes that he “found in [this opinion] the advantage of explaining without difficulty and clearly to my liking so many questions in which [the philosophers] get entangled” (266). This doctrine of the eternal existence of matter conflicts with the biblical teaching of creation out of nothing, but attempts to perform the same function in Rousseau’s theodicy as the doctrine of the fall does in Christianity.
However, Rousseau invokes another strategy to minimize the problem of evil. Humans have added to the evils resulting from nature, making them far more severe than they ought to be. The presence of pain is more acceptable if it hurts us only mildly and occasionally. Rousseau argues that “the sentiment of death and that of pain is almost nil in the order of nature. It is men who have sharpened it” (265-66). In other words, humans have, through their corrupt wills, magnified something that originally was negligible. One way we do this is through what he calls our “senseless refinements,” by which he means our accumulation of things that are not necessary, the absence of which causes us pain. As described in the Second Discourse, he believes that humans originally were self-sufficient and hardy, sleeping outside, barely noticing the weather, rarely getting sick, and so on. But, modern people have become soft, sickly, needy, and dependent on things outside ourselves. This was our own doing. We whine when the water is too cold in our shower not because God is not generous but because we have become used to hot water and can no longer bear a cold shower. We are pampered, spoiled brats.
Another source of “added evil,” so to speak, is moral evil, or intentional acts of harm done by one person toward another. Unlike his praise of primitivism in the previous paragraph, modern apologists also talk about this type of evil. Moral evil, Rousseau stresses, is done by our own free will (265). “Will it then be necessary to blame God for the crimes of men and for the evils that they draws to them? On seeing a field of battle, will it be necessary to reproach him for having created so many broken arms and legs?” (266).
But why, Rousseau asks, did God make us free? He suggests that free will is inherently valuable for several reasons. For one thing, having freedom makes humans “in this respect similar to himself” (266), what Christians call “made in God’s image.” Moreover, he continues, the virtue of virtuous people is better and more desirable than the evil of evil men is bad. In other words, it is worth having many bad men in order to get a few good men. “[I]f ever there existed a mortal who did not abuse [free will], this mortal alone honors humanity more than all the scoundrels who cover the earth degrade it” (266). Next to Fenelon, Cato, or Socrates, he asks, “What will the rest of mankind matter to me? I shall not blush for having been a man” (266).
For Rousseau, it was the overcoming in virtue that made it so beautiful and glorious. Thus, it would be no good if virtue was easy and universal. It is precisely its rarity and difficulty that magnifies it. “This word virtue signifies ‘strength.’ There is no virtue at all without struggle” (267). If one is just without any pain, it is not as admirable as when someone is just despite losing a great deal. To illustrate this principle, he gives two historical examples. One is of Brutus, the legendary Roman who executed his own sons after they committed treason: “Brutus having his children die might have been only just. But Brutus was a tender father; in order to do his duty he lacerates his insides, and Brutus was virtuous” (267). So a world in which the highest peak of virtue exists must be a world in which a lot of pain exists alongside it, because not everyone will conquer their feelings to achieve the virtues. Yet the magnificence of virtue makes up for the pain and justifies God’s decision to create.
Finally, Rousseau argues that God will ultimately punish evil and reward good. In other words, eventually the experiences of men will match their moral worth. In the afterlife, beyond death, the good will find satisfaction and the wicked will suffer pain. Rousseau objects to the doctrine that “everything end[s] for us with death,” stating that it “cannot be if God is just, and consequently if he exists” (268). The existence of a morally perfect God implies the existence of an afterlife in which people will get what they deserve, a view which anticipates Kant’s writings on religion. This position extricates God from the charge that pain and death are meaningless and undeserved by arguing that underneath the seemingly random exterior is a quasi-providential order.