Optimism. The doctrine that the universe, being created by perfect
Wisdom and Goodness, must not only be good but the best possible. "A
less good compared with a greater is evil," a position which it would be
hard to prove. Optimism was the creed of Malebranche and of Leibnitz,
and is thrown into poetical form by Pope in the "Essay on Man," the
philosophy of which was imparted by Bolingbroke. Its tendency it is
shrewdly suspected was not understood by the accomplished artist
himself. Here moral evil itself is brought into the net of optimism.
"If plagues or earthquakes break not Heaven's design,
Why then a Borgia, or a Catiline?
Who knows but He, Whose hand the lightning forms,
Who heaves old ocean, and Who wings the storms;
Pours fierce ambition in a Cæsar's
Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind?"
This creed was turned into ridicule by Voltaire, in his Candide. I am
not aware that the question is now frequently raised, and it is in some
degree an idle one. Both parties will frequently intend the very same
thing. One man may say, "The universe, being the work of perfect Wisdom
and Goodness, must needs be the best possible." His antagonist may say,
"Perfect Wisdom and Goodness may have had reasons for not making it the
best possible;" to which the first might rejoin, "If
so, it is the best possible, for nothing can be possible except what
perfect Wisdom and Goodness decrees, and nothing could have such reasons
in its favour as those which dictate such decrees." There is also a
considerable ambiguity in the very term optimism, the kind of goodness
in question being left undefined.
The utmost, I think, which we can venture to say is that the universe is
the best possible, in a conflict with moral evil, and that all the
temporary turns of that conflict will be overruled for good, so that
perfection will be the final issue. Why moral evil has been permitted is
a deep and difficult question. Whether or not we think that we can
answer it, we must never allow ourselves to regard it as other than