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Evils of Imperfection.



On Evil in general.


HAVING enjoyed the pleasure of many accidental conferences with you on metaphysical, moral, political, and religious subjects; on which you ever seemed to converse with more sagacity, as well as more candor, than is usual on the like occasions; I imagined it might not be unentertaining either to you, or myself, to put together my sentiments on these important topics, and communicate them to you from time to time as the absence of business, or of more agreeable amusements may afford 35this life; apprehensive of still greater in another, and can give no probable account of this our wretched situation, what sentiments must we entertain of the justice and benevolence of our Creator, who placed us in it, without our sollicitations, or consent? The works of the Creation sufficiently demonstrate his existence, their beauty, perfection and magnificence, his infinite power and wisdom; but it is the Happiness only, which we enjoy, or hope for, which can convince us of his Goodness.

It is the solution therefore of this important question alone, that can ascertain the moral Characteristic of God, and upon that only must all human Virtue eternally depend.


If there's a power above us, (And that there is all Nature cries aloud Thro' all her works) he must delight in Virtue,

And that, which he delights in, must be happy.

But shou'd this divine reasoning of the philosopher be at last inconclusive; cou'd we once entertain such blasphemous notions of the Supreme being, as that He might not delight in Virtue, neither adhere to it himself, nor reward it in others; that He could make any part of his creation miserable, or suffer them to make themselves so, without a just cause, and a benevolent end; all moral considerations must be vain, and useless; we can have no rule by which to direct our actions, nor if we had, any kind of obligation to pursue it; nor in this case 37can any Revelation in the least assist us, the belief of all Revelation being in its own sature subsequent, not only to the belief of God's existence, but of his justice and veracity; for if God can injure us, he may also deceive us; and then there is an end of all distinctions between good and evil, truth and falsehood, and of all confidence in God or man.

I mean not by this to insinuate the least possibility of a doubt concerning the Justice or Goodness of our Creator, but only to shew the importance of this Inquiry, and the utility of it towards settling our notions of his Attributes, and the regulation of our own behaviour in conformity to them. I intend not by it to prove the benevolence of God, but to reconcile the miseries we see and suffer, with that uncontrovertable benevolence: 38I design not to shew that God approves Virtue; but that the admission of moral Evil is not inconsistent with that undoubted approbation: nor would I be understood to assert, that our obligation to be virtuous depends on this abstruse Speculation, but only that our right understanding it will remove all doubts concerning the nature of virtue, and our obligation to pursue it, and fix them on the most firm, and immoveable Basis.

To find out therefore, how Evil of any kind can be the production of infinite Goodness, joined with infinite power, should be the first step in all our religious inquiries; the examination into which wonderful paradox will lead us into many useful and sublime truths; and its perfect comprehension, was that possible for our 39narrow capacities, would, I doubt not, make as surprising discoveries in the Moral World, as mathematical and physical knowledge have in the Natural.

To clear up this difficulty, some ancient Philosophers have had recourse to the supposition of two first Causes, one Good, and the other Evil, perpetually counteracting each other's designs. This system was afterwards adopted by the Manichæan Heresy, and has since been defended by the ingenious Mons. Bayle but as the supposition of two first Causes is even in itself a contradiction, and as the whole scheme has been demonstrated by the best metaphysical Writers to be as false as it is impious, all further arguments to disprove it would be needless.


Others have endeavoured to account for this by the introduction of a Golden Age, or Paradisiacal State, in which all was innocence and happiness.

Pœena metusque aberant, nec verba minacia fixo

Ære legebantur, nec supplex turba timebant
Judicis ora sui; sed erant sine vindice tuti

When Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew, And with a native bent did Good pursue;

Unforc'd by punishment, unaw'd by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere:
Needless was written law, when none opprest,
The law of Man was written in his breast:
41 No suppliant crowds before the Judge appear'd,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard,
But all was safe, for Conscience was their Guard.

Ver erat æternum, placidisque tepentibus auris
Mulcebant Zephyri natos sine semine flores;
Mox etiam fruges tellus inarata ferebat,
Nec renovatus ager gravidis canebat aristis,
Flumina jam lactis, jam flumina nectaris ibant,
Flavaque de viridi stillabant ilice mella

The flow'rs unsown in fields and meadows reign'd,

And Western Winds immortal Spring maintain'd.

In following years the bearded corn ensu'd

From Earth unask'd, nor was that Earth renew'd.


From veins of valleys milk and nectar broke,

And honey sweated from the pores of oak

Amusing dreams! as absurd in philosophy as in poetry delightful! For though it is probable, from the most ancient history as well as from analogy drawn from the Nature's productions, that the World be more happy and more innocent in its fancy, than in more advanced Ages; it could ever be totally free from Vi.., Misery, may easily, I think, be impossible, both from the nature of the terrestrial Globe, and the nature of its inhabitants. So that these inchanting ... can in fact never have existed: but, had, the short duration of this period... is equally incontinent with infinite joined to infinite Wisdom and Good... 43as any original imperfection whatever. Fables then of this kind can never in the least account for the Origin of Evil: they are all but mean expedients, which will never be able to take away the difficulty, and can at most but obscure it, by shifting it a little backward into a less clear light; like that Indian philosophy, accounting for the support of the World, which informs us, that it is sustained by a vast Elephant, that Elephant by a Tortoise, and then prudently drops any further inquiry.

The Divines and Moralists of later ages seem perfectly satisfied that they have loosed this Gordian knot, by imputing the source of all Evil to the abuse of Free-will in Created Beings. God, they say, never design'd any such thing should exist as Evil, moral or natural; but that giving to 44some beings, for good and wise purposes, a power of Free-agency, they perverted this power to bad ends, contrary to his intentions and commands; and thus their accidental wickedness produced consequential Misery. But to suppose in this manner, that God intended all things to be good and happy, and at the same time gave being to creatures able and willing to obstruct his benevolent designs, is a notion so inconsistent with his wisdom, goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence, that it seems equally unphilosophical, and more evidently absurd than the other. They have been led into this error by ridiculously judging of the dispensation of a Creator to his creatures, by the same rules which they apply to the dealings of Men towards each other; between which there is not the least proportion or similitude. A Man who endeavours, 45to the utmost of his power, to make others virtuous and happy, however unsuccessful, is sufficiently justified; but in a Being omnipotent and omniscient, the Cause of all causes, the Origin of all thought, will, and action; who sees all things past, present, and to come, in one instantaneous view, the case is widely different; his active and permissive will must be exactly the same; and, in regard to him, all consequential and future Evils, through every moment of time, are actually present.

Since therefore none of these pretended solutions can, I am certain, give such satisfaction to your comprehensive understanding, let us now try to find out one more rational, and more consistent with the analogy of every thing around us.


That there is a Supreme Being infinitely powerful, wise and benevolent, the great Creator and Preserver of all things, is a truth so clearly demonstrated, that it shall be here taken for granted. That there is also in the universal system of things, the works of his almighty hand, much misery and wickedness, that is, much natural and moral Evil, is another truth, of which every hour's fatal experience cannot fail to convince us. How these two undoubted, yet seeming contradictory truths can be reconciled, that is, how Evils of any sort could have place in the works of an omnipotent and good Being, is very difficult to account for. If we assert that he could not prevent them, we destroy his power; if that he would not, we arraign his goodness; and therefore his power and goodness cannot both be infinite.


But however conclusive this argument may seem, there is somewhere or other an error in it; and this error I take to arise from our wrong notions of Omnipotence. Omnipotence cannot work contradictions, it can only effect all possible things. But so little are we acquainted with the whole system of nature, that we know not what are possible, and what are not: but if we may judge from that constant mixture of pain with pleasure, and of inconvenience with advantage, which we must observe in every thing around us, we have reason to conclude, that to endue created beings with perfection, that is, to produce Good exclusive of Evil, is one of those impossibilities which even infinite Power cannot accomplish.

The true solution then of this incomprehensible paradox must be this, that all Evils 48owe their existence solely to the necessity of their own natures, by which I mean they could not possibly have been prevented, without the loss of some superior Good, or the permission of some greater Evil than themselves; or that many Evils will unavoidably insinuate themselves by the natural relations and circumstances of things into the most perfect system of Created Beings, even in opposition to the will of an almighty Creator, by reason they cannot be excluded without working contradictions; which not being proper objects of power, it is no diminution of Omnipotence to affirm that it cannot effect them.

And here it will be proper to make a previous apology for an expression, which will frequently occur in the following pages, which is, that God cannot do such and such 49things: by which is always to be understood not any retrenchment of the divine Omnipotence, but only that such things are in their own natures impracticable, and impossible to be performed.

That the Almighty should be thus limited, and circumscribed by the nature of things, of which he himself is the Author, may to some seem not very intelligible: but surely it is not at all difficult to conceive, that in every possible method of ordering, disposing, and framing the universal system of things, such numberless inconveniencies might necessarily arise, that all that infinite Power and Wisdom could do, was to make choice of that method, which was attended with the least and fewest; and this not proceeding from any defect of power in the Creator; but from that imperfection 50which is inherent in the nature of all created things.

This necessity, I imagine, is what the Ancients meant by Fate, to which they fancied that Jupiter, and all the Gods, were obliged to submit, and which was to be controuled by no power whatever. The Stoicks seem to have had some dark and unintelligible notions of this kind, which they neither understood themselves, nor knew how to explain to others; that the untractableness of Matter was the cause of Evil; that God would have made all things perfect, but that there was in Matter an evil bias, repugnant to his benevolence, which drew another way, whence arose all manner of Evils. Of the like kind is a Maxim of the same Philosophers, That Pain is no Evil; which, if asserted with regard to the individuals who suffer it, is downright nonsense; 51but if considered as it affects the universal System, is an undoubted truth, and means only that there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness. How many soever of these Evils then force themselves into the Creation, so long as the Good preponderates, it is a work well worthy of infinite Wisdom and Benevolence; and, notwithstanding the imperfections of its parts, the whole is most undoubtedly perfect.

Hence then we may plainly see that much Evil may exist, not at all inconsistent with the power and goodness of God: and the further we pursue this clue, the more we shall at every step discern new lights break out; which will discover clearly numberless examples, where the infinite power and goodness of God is fairly reconcileable 52with the misery and wickedness of his Creatures, from the impossibility of preventing them; and if, in the very small part of the universal System that lies within the reach of our imperfect capacities, many instances of this kind appear, in which they are visibly consistent, we ought with the utmost assurance to conclude, what is undoubtedly true, that they are really so in all, tho' we are not able to comprehend them. This is the kind of Faith most worthy of the human understanding, and most meritorious in the sight of God, as it is the offspring of Reason, as well as the Parent of all Virtue and Resignation to the just, but unscrutable, dispensations of Providence.

But, in order more clearly to explain this abstruse speculation, it will be necessary to divide Evils into their diffeent species, and 53bestow on each a separate confederation. This I shall do under the following heads: Evils of Imperfection, Natural Evils, Moral Evils, Political Evils, and Religious Evils, which, I think, will comprehend most of those to which human Nature is unhappily liable. And now, Sir, lest I should add one more Evil to this melancholy Catalogue, which is that of a long and tedious Epistle, I shall reserve the examination into each of these particulars for the subject of a future Letter; and conclude this by assuring you, that I am,

S I R, &c.

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