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Natural evil and God: from Voltaire’s “Candide” to Camus’ “The Plague”

Every age has its cataclysm and every generation asks how a loving God can permit suffering. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed just under 700,000 people worldwide and brought untold suffering by way of sickness, death, financial distress, and hunger. This prompts us once again to ask: Where is God? Patrick Giddy introduces two philosophers from different generations who grappled with this age-old question.

There is nothing like a pandemic to arouse the age-old question of God’s relationship to humankind amid human suffering. The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire struggles with the concept of natural disasters in a perfectly ordered universe in which God allows all things — both good and bad — because all things contribute to the common good. His 20th century counterpart Albert Camus faces a more existential battle, and judges that for his own part, belief in God is not compatible with a world of inexplicable human suffering. But he points us to the importance of solidarity.

At the heart of this debate is the problem of evil. It seems as if, when the cause of the evil is “natural” – the tsunami of 2004, COVID-19 – Christians are faced with a real problem. Either God is unable to prevent this large-scale unjust suffering, or God chooses not to. The conclusion then, is that either God is cruel or God is incompetent.

The part of theology that examines this problem is termed “theodicy”. It helps to begin by noting the difference between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is wrought by humans themselves on the world and is readily accepted as a consequence of the gift of free will: it is sinful men and women who are responsible for the evil done, not God. God is good and always acts for the good. This answer becomes problematic when confronted with natural evil, when bad things happen beyond human action.

The God of polite society

In his satirical novel Candide or Optimism (1759), Voltaire responds to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which more than 20,000 citizens died, Voltaire makes a mockery of attempts to justify the ways of God. When it was published in 1759 it was an immediate success. It had struck a chord among the thinking public.

In Voltaire’s novel the representative of faith in God is Pangloss, the tutor for the young Candide. Pangloss states his point of view at the start, that everything has its proper place in God’s design for the world.

Pangloss states his point of view at the start, that everything has its proper place in God’s design for the world.

It is demonstrable that things cannot be other than they are. For, since everything is made for a purpose, everything must be for the best possible purpose. Noses, you observe, were made to support spectacles: consequently, we have spectacles…

So far so good. But what about things that are clearly evil, arising out of someone’s bad will? Pangloss has his answer. “All that had to be… Private ills make up the general good. It therefore follows that, the more numerous the private ills, the greater the general good.”

Within this paradigm, everything — even evil — is for the best. The world runs on smooth wheels in an unavoidable pattern. This is Isaac Newton’s picture of the physical universe. It is also how economics works in Adam Smith’s theory of the wealth of nations: private, self-interested motives (getting the best of the deal for myself) lead to the general wealth of the nation, through the “invisible hand” of the market.

British economist John Maynard Keynes took it one step further: “We must pretend that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not”.

This model makes no space for virtue. There is no mention of old-fashioned things like the need for courage, patience, solidarity, self-sacrifice. And we must trust God as the author of the system, both the physical world and economics. What we have here is a God that is determined by a philosophical function, to preserve the mechanical world of science.

God also guarantees the well-run society, with each individual pursuing their own benefit by means of reason and discipline while respecting that of others. It would be wrong for God to intervene in particular cases, showing favoritism and upsetting the rules of the game. If God intervened, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson wrote, “this would immediately supersede all contrivance and forethought of men, and all prudent action.” So, no miracles, please.

But this is a very thinned-out God, as French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal noted: “The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements … but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob … a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses.”

Blaise Pascal noted: “The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements.”

What is left is the God who will come to the aid of decent folk, ensuring crime is punished (in the next world, if not in this). It is the idea of “polite society”, promoting economic progress and manners that leads you to treat the other person as independent, with their own aims, for mutual benefit. The French Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson describes this kind of religion: “a vague feeling of religiosity, a sort of trusting familiarity with some supremely good fellow to whom other good fellows can hopefully apply when they are in trouble: the God of respectable folk.”

However, the “contrivance” and “prudent action” of people in this picture of polite society clearly fail in the face of massive natural disasters, where people are rendered helpless. Even conscientious entrepreneurs flounder and may drown. Natural evil, therefore, calls into question the whole of religion, the whole well-designed system.

Suffering and purpose

In Camus’ novel, The Plague (1947), the character of the Jesuit priest, Fr Paneloux, expresses the problem well. Even after catching the plague, Fr Paneloux says to Dr. Rieux : “It’s illogical, for a priest to call in a doctor”! In our picture sketched above it is the Christian view that God helps decent folk. In the face of evidence to the contrary, you must just keep on believing.

Carlos Franco-Paredes (2020) writes in Clinical Infectious Diseases:

“Camus’s narrative reveals our contemporaneous familiarity with the concept of how our lives and our sorrows become instantly meaningless in the face of an epidemic that spreads rapidly and unexpectedly, inconveniently interrupting our daily routines. But more than anything, Camus reminds us that the gifts of the Enlightenment and the advances of civilization are pointless when a pandemic removes the safety bumpers of our lives.”

But that safety bumper is guaranteed, isn’t it, in our faith? (Or so you must believe!)

On the other hand, one could simply do away with the “optimistic” picture of the world-without-suffering” and accept what science and common sense tells us. This is that human beings are parts of an evolving physical universe with general laws that are necessary to produce human persons. Those same laws will also produce earthquakes, periodic extinctions of life, and volcanic eruptions. Human beings have to exist in a universe in which suffering and death are necessary. This is how philosopher and Anglican priest Keith Ward has put it.

Camus takes this for granted and moves on to his greater interest in the question of human solidarity. This is the question that comes to the fore as the COVID-19 pushed the world into lockdown.  It is the question raised by the author writing about the quarantined Algerian town of Oran.

In the story, Fr Paneloux offers two very different sermons. At the outset, he speaks of the plague in terms of divine retribution. It is a wake-up call to the people to lead a more just and charitable life in common. This gives meaning to the existence of suffering: “This same pestilence which is slaying you works for your good and points your path.”

After the death of a child, with great suffering, Paneloux changes. He now gives a much more humane sermon, speaking not of “you” but of “we”. He still avers that we have to trust in the mysterious ways of God, without trying to explain them. He must retain his idea of a good and just God at all costs, even if it means allowing the evidence of human suffering.

Fr Panelous tries to bully Dr Rieux, a non-believer, into accepting that all is well-designed by God, and you must love God’s ways even if you can’t understand them. Dr Rieux is silent. He has already explained that he doesn’t see the question of God as of real importance. Now he replies: “No, Father, until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” The real question for him is that of solidarity with the victims. Anything else is a distraction.  

Camus thinks of the plague as a metaphor for Nazi Germany’s invasion of France, the Vichy government’s compromise, and the choices facing the French population in the light of this situation. And it seems to work: there is no ultimate gap between evil caused by natural disasters and that caused by humans.

We can see this in Trump’s action, or lack thereof, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Human responsibility is always a factor in the face of natural evil. As another character in the novel says, “What is natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will.” What is key is your attitude to yourself, as responsible.

The God of surprises

What can we learn from our own experience of the plague? Camus was not a Christian, but a humanist. A mistaken view of humanism would see it as what emerges when people are freed from the old myths of religion and the ‘infamous’ ancién regime. Religion is simply something belonging to the past. This would be what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story”.

Humanism can point us to where God is to be found in a world-view marked by evolution and history.

No, rather these new human potentialities had to be created. “The subtraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be at this achievement – or as admiring of it, because it’s after all one of the great realizations in the history of human development, whatever our ultimate views about its scope or limitations.” In fact, humanism is the expression of a whole new set of values, individual freedom, equality, and so on. And doesn’t this suggest that what is at work is human transcendence?

Humanism can point us to where God is to be found in a world-view marked by evolution and history – not perhaps ‘above’ but in human transcendence.  “Surprise” at transcendence is key to understanding meaning, depth, religion, and humanism.

It is “surprise” that is the mark of the great religious stories. How surprising to see, to take one example, the event of Jesus, the transformation of a small group, then larger, of very ordinary Middle Eastern folk, reworking an ancient tradition. Making wine out of water. This can continue (embracing new elements) to give inspiration to struggle against the pandemic. To surprise ourselves.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.