PHIL 239 On Evil

PHIL 239 On Evil: Short Paper 2 (due Oct 25)


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Please choose two (2) of the following three questions/tasks and write about them. (500-700 words)


  1. Interpret the following passage from Rousseau’s “Letter to Voltaire on Optimism”:


Let us go back, sir, to the system that you attack [Leibniz’s thesis of the “best of all possible worlds”]. I believe one cannot properly examine it without distinguishing with care harm suffered by an individual, the reality of which has been denied by no philosophical system, from evil in general whose existence is denied by optimism. It is not a question of knowing whether each one of us suffers or not, but of knowing whether it is god that the universe exists, and whether our sufferings were inevitable aspects of our existence. Thus the addition of a definite article would make the proposition more accurate, and instead of saying “All is well,” we would perhaps be better to say “The whole is well,” or “All is well from the point of view of the whole.” At once it is apparent that nobody could produce direct proofs either for or against this proposition, for such proofs would depend on a perfect knowledge of the construction of the universe and the purposes of its author, and this knowledge is unquestionably outside the grasp of a merely human intelligence. (117)



  1. Descartes doubts everything he has ever learned and believed he knew with certainty. Rousseau also could be said to doubt everything in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, namely everything he has ever taken for granted about human civilized society. Which institutions does he call into doubt; which “civilized” human traits does he question? What is the role of the “state of nature,” which he hypothetically assumes? What is the character of “natural man,” of the “noble savage”?



  1. Interpret the following passage from the second part of Rousseau’s Discourse:


Behold then all human faculties developed, memory and imagination in full play, egoism interested, reason active, and the mind almost at the highest point of its perfection. Behold all the natural qualities in action, the rank and condition of every man assigned him; not merely his share of property and is power to serve or injure others, but also his wit, beauty, strength or skill, merit or talents; and these being the only qualities capable of commanding respect, it soon became necessary to affect them.


It now became the interest of men to appear what they really were not. To be and to seem became two totally different things; and from this distinction sprang insolent pomp and cheating trickery, with all the numerous vices that go in their train. On the other hand, free and independent as men were before, they were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need to the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another. Man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own. Thus he must have been sly and artful in his behaviour to some, and imperious and cruel to others; being under a kind of necessity toill-use all the persons of whom he stood in need, when he could not frighten them into compliance, and did not judge it his interest to be useful to them. (28-29)

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