On Behalf of Cleanthes: Hume’s Problem of Evil

David Hume

“The whole earth” contended Philo, one of the three characters, together with Demea and Cleanthes in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindle among all living creatures.”

In part 10, Philo and Demea contended against Cleanthes’ idea of God. They laid out the problem from undeniable pain and suffering. Philo listed fear, anxiety, terror, hunger, distress, agony and horror among other similar bad things that we face from the moment we enter into this world. He said,

Consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or flying about infix their stings on him. These insects have others still less than themselves, which torment them. And thus on each hand, before and behind, above and below, every animal is surrounded by enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction.(Hume 1991, 153)

On top of natural evils, the misery and destruction inflected by animals to man, Philo unceasingly pressed on to add moral evils; “Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other”(ibid 154) Demea joined Philo, as he too fired a list of horrors we face. He said,

Were a stranger to drop, on a sudden, into the world, I would show him a specimen of its ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strowed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. To turn the gay side of life to him, and give him a notion of its pleasures; whither should I conduct him? to a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think, that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow. (ibid 155)

According to Philo and Demea, Cleanthes’ concept of God, namely a God resembling morally good human beings, seems very unlikely to be true, since good human beings would want to stop or prevent such amount of pain and suffering. Philo reminded Cleanthes what he judged to be unanswered Epicurus’(ca. 342- 270 BC.) old questions. He asked Cleanthes,

Is he[God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but, not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?(ibid 157)

According to Hume qua Philo, pain and suffering cast doubt that a wholly loving and maximal perfect being with respect to power exists.

How could Cleanthes have responded? He was probably familiar with Epicurus’ questions as quoted in Lactantius’ (ca. 260 – ca. 349) Patrologia Latina, 7, 121:

God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able, and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and able, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with character of God; if he is able and unwilling he is malicious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both malicious and feeble and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them? (Aherm 1971, 2)

Since Hume did not give him the last words, I pondered how, if I were Cleanthes, would I have began my answer to Demea’s and Philo’s objection. Unlike, Cleanthes, I hold to a revised Anselmian concept of God, viz., “a person who is aliquid quo nihil maius aut aequaliter magnum cogitari possit. ” (Inwagen 2006: 158)

God, if exists, is a morally perfect being with maximal excellence with respect to power, thus able and willing to remove pain and suffering. Why He does not remove them, I do not know. But what I know is that it is possible that God has morally good reason(s) not to remove them.

If it is possible, not necessarily true, that God have morally good reason(s) not to remove them, then pain and suffering do not necessarily cast doubts that a wholly loving and maximal perfect being with respect to power exists.

On behalf of Cleanthes, I would have asked Demea and Philo: Is it possible that God could have morally good reason(s) not to remove this copious amount of pain and suffering?


Ahern,  M. B.(1971)  The, Problem of Evil. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.

Hume, David (1991) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, publish first in 1779. I used  Standely Tweyman’s ed.  Routledge: London and New York.

Inwagen, Peter van (2006) The Problem of Evil. Oxford Press Inc., New York.


7 thoughts on “On Behalf of Cleanthes: Hume’s Problem of Evil

  1. Keep up the excellent work, Prayson! Certainly from a scriptural standpoint, trials (i.e. suffering of various stripes and degrees) are necessary. I’m thinking of Acts 14:22 and, obviously, Romans 8:28. Also, don’t sweat myatheistlife. It’s difficult to see gain perspective when you’re goal is to win instead of discover truth.

  2. One of the claims that atheists like to make is that the existence of pain and suffering eliminate the existence of God. This claim assumes that there is no purpose in our existence, and that there is no positive purpose in the struggles that we have.“Survival of the fittest” may sound good as long as you are fit; but when old age, disease, and injuries set in, “survival of the fittest” is a destructive and pessimistic mantra. Atheism offers nothing. It has no encouragement to give, and no solution to offer.

    Some facts about life must be taken into account before we try to form a judgement:

    1) Man lives in a universe of cause and effect and the consequences of certain causes are inescapable. Fire burns, water drowns, disease germs destroy. These facts have moral implications. Men live in a universe in which the consequences of what they do are inescapable, and therefore their responsibility for what they do is equally inescapable. Without this burden of ‘natural law’ man could do as he liked with impunity, and there would be no responsibility. God made the universe this way because He is a moral God who makes men responsible beings with freewill to choose how they will act.

    2) Man’s neglect and misuse of his own life has corrupted the stream of human life itself, and left evils which fall on succeeding generations. These, again as part of natural law, may manifest themselves as hereditary weaknesses and tendencies to disease. The very stuff of life may be affected as it is passed on from generation to generation.

    4) The consequences of man’s acts are not only directly physical. The social and political evils which they have created throughout history have left a gathering burden on the generations following. People today are caught in a net of the consequences of past history, and even when they try to right one evil, another is brought to bear: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22).

    A worthwhile study is the suffering of Job. Job’s faith in God was put to the test under trial, and by trial it was tempered as steel. It was by his final acceptance of the wisdom of God, and by learning that faith could be developed through suffering, that Job came at last to the fuller knowledge of God. Only by loss and suffering could Job know that he did not serve God for the sake of houses, lands, flocks and herds, or even children. He did not even serve for the sake of his own skin, his health and wellbeing. He worshipped God for Himself, and in spite of all the wild words which came from his stress of mind and body he had an ultimate belief in God’s righteousness and faithfulness. It was only when stripped of everything that he really knew that God was did he find his only refuge, and in that discovery he was triumphantly vindicated against the slander of the Adversary epitomized by the three friends.

  3. Hey Prayson,

    You do know the problem with what you’ve said, right?

    From the beginning you’ve made presuppositions that make the rest of the discussion moot.

    “God, if exists, is a morally perfect being with maximal excellence with respect to power, thus able and willing to remove pain and suffering.”

    “God, if exists… ” This is strong indication that you have no proof of the existence of a god, nor does anyone else. It follows that any discussions about such gods or their characteristics is hubris and presuppostion.

    You then follow with deduction that is not supported in fact or fantasy: “…is a morally perfect being with maximal excellence with respect to power, thus able and willing to remove pain and suffering.”

    You have no definition of morality, nor moral perfection to judge this statement with… it is a subjective statement without evidence or even minimal support.

    You also do not define maximal excellence with respect to power. Without definitions these are all subjective statements without supports.

    Now, supposing that you are simply arguing philosophically here, you still make presuppositions about a god for which you clearly have no evidence. Then you waffle a bit about how it might be morally okay for such a god to not remove evil. You state this as if you do not know what moral behavior is or as though god’s morality is not the same as human morality. That god’s morality might be beyond our comprehension. This punches holes a mile wide in the idea that there is objective morality. For if a god has morally good reasons to not remove evil then it is true that humans do not understand morality -OR- there is no such thing as objective morality. If a god has moral reasons to not remove evil then they are not evil for by definition of objective morality given to humans by a god, all that god does is moral and so the evil we percieve must not be against morality.

    But hey, I’m sure it sounded good when you wrote it.

    • Thank you for your concern. I used “if exists” simply to avoid what I did not aim to address in this post, viz., what you raised, evidence that God exists. It is not because I do not know He exists.

      There are no proof, in philosophy as in mathematics, to show something is the case but there are good reasons from cosmology, teleology, ontology, morality, historical resurrection of Jesus and more to hold that the probability that God exists is high.

      But this post is not addressed to the existence of God, but to answer Hume, who hold that given evil it is doubtful that God exists.

      So by using “if God”, I hope to help atheists and agnostic see that “if God” exists, then problem of pain and suffering is not really a defeater. What I had in mind is:

      1. If God exists, then natural and moral evil would not exist
      2. Natural and moral evil exists
      3. Therefore God does not exist

      My aim was to show that (1) is false. Would you agree that problem of evil is not a defeater for existence of God, if He exists?

      • Wait, first you say that this is not about whether god exists but then state that your point is to show that god exists? what?

        You, in this response, talk about all the arguments that god might exist and still provide no actual evidence that god (any god) exists. Without evidence, it’s all mental masturbation.

        You’re just guessing and claiming that your guesses are good. Without real evidence, there is no discussion so when the non-believer says I don’t believe you… where is the evidence, well, then the discussion is over. Argue and philosophize all you wish. Until there is evidence there is nothing more to talk about. You are simply being delusional and trying to justify your wrong belief.

      • Thank you for questions that pushes me to clarify more. I would be so glad if it is possible to use appropriate language. You are super intelligent person, you do not need obscene language to make your point.

        To clarify, my aim was not to show whether God exists but to show that problem of pain and suffering does not show that God does not exist. Example: John and Jane contend whether there is gold on planet Mars. John thinks that existence of chemical X cast doubts on existence of gold on planet Mars. Jane contended that chemical X does not show that gold does not exists on Mars. John arguments is:

        4. If gold exists on planet Mars, then chemical X does not exist on planet Mars
        5. Chemical X does exist on planet Mars
        6. Therefore gold does not exist on planet Mars.

        Jane, as I did with (1), aim to show that (4) is false.

        I would be delusional if the problem of pain and suffering was a defeater of existence of God. But if it (1) is false, then I do not think I am worthy to be called delusional, yet 🙂

        Food for thought: Do you have “evidence” that there is “no evidence”? and if not, should the discussion, of “evidence”, be over?

    • “hubris and presuppostion”? Hmm. I don’t think it is hubris to appeal to that which is supra-logical. Seems like a tacit admission that there’s something bigger than ME, and my employment of the skills of reason. Seems like hubris to claim that one’s own use of reason answers all questions, removes all doubts. That’s a huge problem for the confines of materialism. The demand for “evidence” reveals an unadmitted, unselfconscious appeal to something transcendent and universal in scope and nature – laws of reason that are grounded outside of ourselves.
      Like the laws of morality, we grasp to interpret them as being revelatory of something outside of ourselves, the conscious violation of which we use to our own peril.
      Our comprehension of all such transcendent, outside-of-ourselves laws in very inexact, and subject to the flaws and failings of our human predicament.
      Still we must seek, search, reason… But in the end we bow to mystery.
      As a materialist, you hate that idea. I think THAT’S hubris.

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