Where do theology and philosophy intersect, and at what points can they be observed as doing so? For Aquinas, theology was a subset of philosophy – a part, actually. He describes the relationship saying,

…all things which “are” are dealt with in the philosophical sciences, which treat even of God, wherefore one part of philosophy is called theology, or the science of divine things…[1]


But is this assertion of proximity justified? If yes, then the further question may arise as to whether or not theology need be relegated to mere component of philosophy, or whether it is deserving of higher billing. The latter question will go unanswered here, for the task at hand will be limited in scope to arguing in favor of Aquinas’ assertion of interconnectedness, even though I would not find his organizing hierarchy to be fully adequate.

vangoghFor purposes of the discussion here, the theological-philosophical connection will be discussed in the realm of aesthetics, and specifically so in the context of the problem of evil as it relates to both disciplines. In short, the problem of evil provides a point of entry for both philosophical and theological inquiry, impacting several aspects of both disciplines, of which aesthetics will be the focal point here.



What is the Problem of Evil?

Epicurus is generally credited with uncovering the problem, as evidenced by Lactantius’ polemic against Epicurus’ findings:


What happiness, then, can there be in God, if He is always inactive, being at rest and un-moveable? if He is deaf to those who pray to Him, and blind to His worshippers? [lacking omniscience] What is so worthy of God, and so befitting to Him, as providence? [lacking omnipotence] But if He cares for nothing [lacking omnibenevolence], and foresees nothing, He has lost all His divinity [note: Epicurus’ necessary conclusion]. What else does he say, who takes from God all power and all substance, except that there is no God at all? [notes mine][2]


And again, he says – in direct response to Epicurus,


God, says Epicurus, regards nothing [premise 1: lacking omnibenevolence]; therefore He has no power [conclusion: lacking omnipotence]. For he who has power must of necessity regard affairs [premise 2: inferential relationship between omnibenevolence and omnipotence]. For if He has power, and does not use it, what so great cause is there that, I will not say our race, but even the universe itself, should be contemptible in His sight? [notes mine][3]


From Lactantius’ comments, Epicurus’ trilemma can be deduced. Hume later states the problem in simple form, offering an excellent base for defining the problem. Hume says,


Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?[4]


The problem of evil revolves around certain assumed perfections in the character of God, that seem to be contradictory to observed reality – specifically the reality of evil. While Epicurus deals with the incompatibility of each of the three perfections (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) with the existence of evil, Hume simplifies the issue, focusing on only two horns of the dilemma – namely the incompatibility of omnipotence and omnibenevolence with the existence of evil, yet the more complex form is more useful for purposes here, since it presents the problem in more complete form. The more complex form of the argument can be framed in propositional form as follows:


Premise 1: If G is X then G is A (If God is existent then God is omniscient)

Premise 2: If G is X then G is B (If God is existent then God is omnipotent)

Premise 3: If G is X then G is C (If God is existent then God is omnibenevolent)

Premise 4: If D is X then G is not A (If evil is existent then God is not omniscient)

Premise 5: If D is X then G is not B (If evil is existent then God is not omnipotent)

Premise 6: If D is X then G is not C (If evil is existent then God is not omnibenevolent)

Premise 7: D is X (evil is existent)

Conclusion: G is not X (God is not existent)


Given the positive truth value of the premises, the conclusion necessarily follows. This obviously creates a very significant theological conundrum which can only be resolved if it can be shown that any one of the premises is false.

If Premise 1 is false, then omniscience is not prerequisite to the existence of God. God theoretically could possess omnipotence and omnibenevolence and yet lack omniscience, the lacking of which allows for the existence of evil without logically nullifying His existence. In this case, God is powerful enough to eliminate evil, and he is morally perfect enough to want it eliminated, but He does not have the knowledge either that it exists, or of how it should be eliminated. If Premise 2 is false, then God has the necessary knowledge and the desire to eliminate evil but lacks the power to do so. If Premise 3 is false, then God has both the knowledge and the power to eliminate evil but does not desire to do so. If Premises 4, 5, or 6 is false, then the existence of evil does not constitute a contradiction to one or more of the perfections asserted of God. If Premise 7 is false, then there is no problem at all, since evil is non-existent.

Theodicy, then, will rely upon the faultiness of one or more of the premises. It is beyond the scope of this present discussion to deal with proposed theodicies, rather the matter at hand is to demonstrate that this is not a purely theological issue, but that instead it extends deeply into the philosophical realm.


How is the Problem of Evil a Philosophical Problem?

As a foundational principle in his ontological argument for the existence of God, Anselm argues that existence is a necessary element of perfection. His argument is as follows:


…certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.[5]


Closely akin to Anselm’s assertion of the importance of existence is the notion of plenitude, the idea that in order for the universe to possess perfection it must also be necessarily full.

Leibniz describes this as follows:


…there is obtained as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is to say, it is the way to get as much perfection as possible…[6]


The greatest possible variety is the only way to achieve the greatest degree of perfection, and thus for Leibniz, the best possible world is one which must of necessity contain evil, but would contain as little as is necessary and as little as is possible. His idea of nature as a plenum which then connects the variety (and possibility) resulting in a sweeping sort of cause and effect. He describes it thusly:


For all is a plenum (and thus all matter is connected together) and in the plenum every motion has an effect upon distant bodies in proportion to their distance, so that each body not only is affected by those which are in contact with it and in some way feels the effect of everything that happens to them, but also is mediately affected by bodies adjoining those with which it itself is in immediate contact. Wherefore it follows that this inter-communication of things extends to any distance, however great.[7]


Plenitude, for Leibniz, is a theodicy based on necessity and possibility, and can be simply elucidated as follows: all that can be is, and what is, is the very best that can be. This principle – even if it can be shown to be a failed theodicy – still demonstrates the interrelationship between philosophy and theology.

Charles Nussbaum sums up plenitude as providing that “…the evil in the world is a necessary ingredient in the world’s overall perfection or degree of reality.” (Nussbaum, 2003).  But for Nussbaum there is present an additional aspect which draws, in itself, a connection between the two disciplines, as this aspect places the problem of evil squarely on the philosophical doorstep: he views plenitude as a theodicy and asserts that the principle of plenitude is aesthetically motivated (Nussbaum, 2003).

Regarding metaphysical cosmology, Nussbaum underscores three perspectives on dealing with the opposing ideas of necessity and contingency: (1) Spinoza, as operating within a modal framework – emphasizing strict causal determinism – the present world is from necessity due to His omnipotence, and is not a matter of divine choice; (2) Descartes as representing a teleological framework, on the underlying premise that God’s will provides the origin of provenance of laws of nature, and since based upon God’s will, they (laws of all kinds) could have been different had he willed it so, yet due to moral perfections of God the best possible world has been chosen; and (3) Leibniz as representing a mediatory approach, combining elements of necessity and contingency – even though God, due to moral perfections must act for the best[necessity], there remains opportunity for choice within the framework of a divine teleology [contingency].

Nussbaum suggests that, while Leibniz and Descartes offer theodicies here (Spinoza’s does not, as his definition of evil is more akin to a secondary quality than a primary one), these fall short because they belong to a tradition of explanatory rationalism which attempts “to accomplish what only a type of art and perhaps revealed religion can accomplish: the complete rationalization of its object.” (Nussbaum, 2003) But from whence comes this desire for ‘thoroughgoing intelligibility’? Elsewhere Nussbaum cites Pascal’s concern regarding the possibility of life’s meaninglessness as the grounding for not only of religious belief, but also of “elaborate metaphysical cosmologies like those of Spinoza and Hegel that purport either to eliminate contingency as an illusion, or to subflate (aufheben) it into necessity.”[8]

While it is perhaps quite clear how the opposing of contingency could impact religion, resulting in certain metaphysical conclusions, how is it that aesthetics is also so influenced?


In the World as Art

Kant associates the perceiving of order in nature with the feeling of aesthetic pleasure. He says in his Third Critique:


The conceived harmony of nature in the manifold of its particular laws with our need of finding universality of principles for it must, so far as our insight goes, be deemed contingent, but withal indispensible for the requirements of our understanding, and, consequently, a finality by which nature is in accord with our aim…[9]


That aim being pleasure, nature’s finality is seen, in one sense, as teleological, and quite important to our own understanding of it.  For Kant, art is production through freedom.[10] But it is also one that is formulated by rational deliberation and not mere instinct. A Kantian bit of humor demonstrates, at least, that art is purposed:


If, as sometimes happens, in a search through a bog, we light on a piece of hewn wood, we do not say it is a product of nature but of art. Its producing cause had an end in view to which the object owes its from. Apart from such cases, we recognize an art in everything formed in such a way that its actuality must have been preceded by a representation of the thing in its cause…[11]


For Kant, art is purposed by way of rational deliberation yet is enjoyed aesthetically when it brings pleasure unrelated to utility or (perhaps) even telos. But for the perceiver of art to enjoy art in a properly aesthetic way, the perceiver must rightly reckon the object as belonging to the proper category that is art. While Kant distinguishes between nature and art, environmental aestheticians Carlson and Berleant assert that appreciation for the natural world should (and can) be as “emotionally and as cognitively rich as is that of art”.[12] This perspective is not a novel one, as it is reflected by many in theistic. As goes the first stanza of Babcock’s 1901 hymn, “This is My Father’s World”:


This is my Father’s world

And to my listening ears

All nature sings, and round me rings

The music of the spheres


Nineteenth century English poet Philip James Bailey notably asserted that “Art is a man’s nature; nature is God’s art”, and nearly three thousand years before Bailey or Babcock, the Israelite King David describes the telos of nature in Psalm 19:


The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

Day to day pours forth speech,

And night to night reveals knowledge.


There is no shortage of evidence that throughout history, nature has been perceived quite regularly as, at least in some form, divine art. And despite Kant’s differentiation between nature and art, it is asserted in theistic traditions that nature is both possessing telos and formulation by rational deliberation. It is this rationally devised telos which Pascal was seeking. This is the root of plenitude utilized by Descartes Spinoza and Leibniz.

It is against this backdrop that Nussbaum argues contrary to plenitude as having anything but aesthetic or religious motivation, saying,


…there are no longer any grounds to claim that the cosmos is perfect or even “excellent”…for without the principle of plenitude and Spinoza’s allegedly self-evidently true axioms and self-evidently acceptable definitions, such judgments have no basis. (Nussbaum, 2003)


If the perfect or excellent cosmos has indeed perished, then what remains is not teleologically intelligible, and such things as suffering, for example, cannot be seen then as the product of design. Describing the art of the tragedy, Nussbaum says


…the hallmark of tragedy is a certain rationalization of suffering, suffering rendered somehow meaningful and understandable. The details all fit in with the whole, the senseless surd is eliminated, and contingency is vanquished by necessity (Nussbaum, 2003)


It is in this rationalization of suffering that plenitude has an aesthetic appeal. It is also at this point that the problem of evil can begin to be described in less theological terms and take on a more philosophical color. What was previously a trilemma regarding the character of God and the existence of evil can now be connected with the telos of nature and the suffering of its components. Perhaps the problem can now be stated in naturalistic terms as follows:


Premise 1: If N is P then N is G (If nature is purposed then nature is good)

Premise 2: If N is P then N is O (If nature is purposed then nature is orderly)

Premise 3: If S is R then N is not G (If suffering is a reality then nature is not good)

Premise 4: If S is R then N is not O (If suffering is a reality then nature is not orderly)

Premise 5: S is R (suffering is a reality)

Conclusion: N is not P (nature is not purposed)


As in the theological formulation, the conclusion here follows necessarily from the premises, and plenitude offers a theodical means of explanation – if any premise can be shown to be false, then the argument is invalid.

Premise 1 makes inherent goodness synonymous with purpose. It could be argued that nature is good regardless of whether it is purposed or not. But as previously cited, an argument can be made that nature is not perfect nor is it excellent. On the other hand, the defense of purpose in nature would lie in a more Platonic definition of goodness which would indeed require at least some degree of telos. Premise 2 relies on order as the outflow of purpose. It can be argued that there is no underlying order, and thus no purpose, but yet it cannot be demonstrated that there is a complete absence of order. Premise 3 introduces the variable of suffering, asserting that its presence in nature would constitute a contradiction between the good and the natural. In premise 4 suffering has the same negating impact on order. Premise 5 seems a certain truism, hence the conclusion against the teleological – and against plenitude.

Plenitude, therefore, is a means whereby, as in the form of tragedy, in the realm of naturalistic philosophy suffering can be defined and explained in a way so that purpose in nature is not negated, and in the realm of metaphysical philosophy evil can be defined and explained in such a way so as not to contradict the existence of a certain kind of deity. Plenitude thus serves as a point of contact between philosophy and theology, offering an intersection of both problem and solution.


The Impotence of Theodicy vs. the Explanatory Construct

For Nussbaum, theodicy is inappropriate and ineffective as explanatory of reality as it is based on the flawed grounding of rationalistic metaphysics. His argument strikes perhaps at a more central nerve to present ethical discussions – the reality or non-reality of objective morality. Note Nussbaum’s semi-concluding comment:


Once rationalistic metaphysics and theology lose their grip, we may be less inclined to see the ideal objects of morality (the right and the good) as given or imposed and more inclined to see them as constituted by the practical principles we adopt. In this way, essentialism and theodicy can be said to find their proper places and assume their proper functions as disguised practical ideals… (Nussbaum, 2003)


In this perspective, theodicy is an application of convention. It has a philosophical place in underlying a particular ethical grid and operating as a narrative tool for (e.g.) divine mandate ethics. Thus, for those holding to this perspective, theodicy – by way of plenitude – profoundly imprints ethics and morality by using aesthetic device to ground and proliferate the tradition.

But what if theodicy is not grounded purely in aesthetic motivation? The device of tragedy does not negate the historicity of events which may fit its pattern simply on grounds that they do indeed fit the pattern. Must all tragedy fall into the fictional category because it is tragic? In the case of theodicy, inquiry can be made as to whether or not the parallel to tragic form can be attributed to life imitating art or whether indeed it is vise versa. Either way the aesthetic ties would be undeniable – either as descriptive or prescriptive, and thus the intersection between philosophy and theology would remain intact (not to mention the metaphysical and ethical intersections that can also be recognized here). But if theodicy can be asserted as more than an instance of mere metaphysical art or ethical art, then the intersection between the two disciplines possesses a heightened fecundity. If this be the case, then theodicy and the principle of plenitude can provide the grounding of a significant source of information. As an explanatory construct a potent theodicy would impact perhaps every area of philosophy. Aesthetics would prove to be just a minor point of contact in light of the impact to be had on metaphysics and ethics, for example. Perhaps most obviously, the right and the good would be seen as given, and thus not as conventions. It is likely that this degree of impact is precisely why the interconnectedness between philosophy and theology seems to encounter firm resistance – often from both sides.

In this case, philosophy assigns motivation to theology: namely, seeking aesthetic device to justify ethical mandates. One wonders if philosophy might have its own preconditions on the matter. Guthrie characterizes the rise of philosophy as being related to the Presocratics’ naturalistic motivation, saying,


The conviction began to take shape in men’s minds that the apparent chaos of events must conceal an underlying order, and that this order is the product of impersonal forces.[13]


Naturalistic motivations cannot be attributed to the Presocratics alone, however. Note Well’s characterization of Platonic thinking as


…a landmark in this history; it is a new thing in the development of mankind, this appearance of the idea of willfully and completely recasting human conditions. So far mankind has been living by traditions under the fear of the gods. Here is a man [Plato] who says boldly to our race, and as if it were a quite reasonable and natural thing to say, “Take hold of your lives. Most of the things that distress you, you can avoid; most of these things that dominate you, you can overthrow. You can do as you will with them.”[14]


In a sense, Plato’s explanations of suffering and means of avoidance of the same provide a kind of naturalistic theodicy. Suffering must be explained. It is far too jolting to simply ignore, and if philosophical inquiry were to avoid attending to such an issue, then how could it justify discussion on issues of lesser import? The question then is how does philosophy ground the inquiry regarding the existence of and nature of suffering. It is evident that while theology chooses to ground the dialogue with a metaphysical construct, philosophy generally evades this grounding in favor of a more materialistic one. Whether suffering can be addressed as forming a component of telos or whether it is mere happenstance is a crucial discussion for both disciplines, and if either fails to offer reliable answers one has to wonder of the trustworthiness of the mode of inquiry.

The problem of evil provides not only an example of the pervasive interconnectedness of philosophy and theology in the realms of aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, etc., but it also provides unique opportunity to lay bare both the motivation and methodology of each course of study.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, On Nature and Grace, A.M. Fairweather, ed., (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1954), 35

[2] Lanctantius, On the Anger of God

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays on the Immortality of The Soul and Suicide, Richard Popkin, ed., (Hackett Publishing, 1980), 63

[5] Anselm, Proslogion, David Barr, (trans.), Ch. 2

[6] G.W. Leibniz, The Monadology, Robert Latta (trans.), 58

[7] Ibid., 61

[8] Charles O. Nussbaum, The Musical Representation: Meaning, Ontology, and Emotion (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 260

[9] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, Part I, James Creek Meredith, trans. (Stillwell, KS: Digireads, 2005), 19

[10] Ibid., 89

[11] Ibid., 89-90

[12] Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, Eds.,  The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (Canada: Broadview Press, 2004), 15

[13] W.K.C. Guthrie, The History of Greek Philosophy Vol. I: The earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 26

[14] H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Vol. I (Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1949), 331-332

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