Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil

Atrocity & Theodicy

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Jill Graper Hernandez
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     158 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This little book—Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil—takes on the large issue of theodicy. Key to understanding how Jill Graper Hernandez addresses this topic is the atrocity paradigm, devised by Claudia Card. The atrocity paradigm is an atheistic outlook that posits atrocious, foreseeable—and this is central—preventable, harms can be utilized to demonstrate God’s non-existence. Subtle differences exist between concrete, particular harms and concrete, atrocious harms. Starting with G. W. Leibniz’s Theodicy, Hernandez focuses on atrocious harms, and what women in the early modern period had to contribute to the debate between theodicy and pernicious harm. Harms that emanate from systemically evil institutions or practices are the kinds of worries with which holders of the atrocity paradigm concern themselves. The naturally arising question—why Leibniz is privileged here—is answered when Hernandez points out that her project is consistent with some of his ideas, although hers arises from early modern women writing on problems of evil.

Chapter two goes into more detail on these women writers. The main interlocutors are Mary Hays, Catharine Macaulay, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Astell, and Mary Wollstonecraft. They aren’t dealt with individually, but topically. The discussion begins with systems of evil, given that the atrocity paradigm is less concerned about specific, isolated incidents than it is with systemic ones. These must remain rooted in the concrete, however, to address the argument of atrocity. The first such evil addressed is patriarchy. The early modern women address this in various ways, recognizing it is a system that keeps women suppressed through concrete practices. The second evil, political power, systemically keeps women under established social hierarchies. The third systemic evil is rape. All of these systemic evils of the early modern period might have been redressed had education been freely available to the women of the period. A system that denied access to education ensured female rights were suppressed. Noting that the response of these women to evil is similar to the atrocity paradigm, Hernandez makes the point that this does not imply that evil is “gendered.” Nor does it rationally necessitate a lack of belief in a good God.

Shifting to a discussion of narrative as a potential avenue of theodicy, chapter three raises the question of whether or not second-person narratives are the best means of employing narrative. Narrative itself may express ideas that are difficult to conceptualize otherwise. Hernandez explores three avenues whereby second-person narratives may be effective: ethics, moral epistemology, and philosophy of religion—each with representative figures. She determines that, while second-person narrative intends to bring the discussion to impersonality, it really becomes constrained in the language of authority, preventing it from reaching the impersonality stage. Her suggestion is that the use of first-person plural narrative better reaches this goal of impersonality. Moreover, it helps fit what early modern women were doing within theodical discourse.

Now that a means of bringing theodicy into discussion with her interlocutors is in place, Hernandez turns to three forms of theodicy among these women in chapter four. This is a reconstructive enterprise given that the early modern women had not set out to write theodicies proper. The three forms of theodicy Hernandez considers are virtue accounts, natural balance accounts, and transmuted accounts. Before she gets to these forms, she considers why theodicy is needed. Noting that, if these women were writing today, they would fall under the atrocity paradigm’s perspective. She also observes that they do not dismiss God. Virtue accounts address the problem of evil with completion and virtue in mind as possible outcomes. Natural balance accounts suggest that, although good may not necessarily outweigh evil, the balance itself is, on the whole, good. Transmuted accounts take into consideration that atrocities may be changed—transmuted—to positive results in the end. These three ways of accounting among the early modern women may be considered theoditic. Another characteristic that these female scholars have in common is their belief in universal redemption, in essence following David Hume’s understanding that an infinitely good God cannot punish sinful mortals infinitely for finite sins.

Anticipating that her conclusions will be controversial, Hernandez’s final chapter is a consideration of the challenges for theodicy that will come from the atrocity paradigm. She addresses the “What Counts?” criticism—what counts as an atrocity?, the “Why Be Moral?” criticism—if good and evil are free human choices, what is the motivation to be moral?, and the Standpoint Worry, which seems—philosophically—to be the most challenging, and to which we will return. Hernandez then considers theist critiques, such as worry over the elimination of redemption. She also discusses concerns from early modern philosophy—her choice of interlocutors, the fact they lived in different times and wrote in different formats, and that none of them wrote theodicies. Finally, she discusses the issue of personal disappointment in the light of transmuted goods.

This subject is a massive one to take on in just 130 pages. Hernandez acknowledges that there will be objections to her argument. The “Standpoint Worry” is difficult to answer from her perspective. Briefly put, it is the criticism that “grounding theodicy in someone’s lived experiences … undermines the objectivity required for knowledge claims” (118). The reason that this is the most challenging argument is that the only way to answer it seems to be by redefining theodicy. Indeed, that issue arises repeatedly in the book as theodicy is presented as a means of engaging atheists who hold to the atrocity paradigm. The question is why. Theodicy is largely an exercise among those who believe in a good God. The question is not whether God exists—although this may be the following question—but whether God can be both good and all-powerful. Even this is a set of small parameters for a question that has been addressed from many angles. Why try to engage atheists in the discussion unless bringing them “back to” theism is a desideratum? Hernandez does not shy away from large questions. More space, however, may be required to answer them sufficiently.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steve A. Wiggins is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jill Graper Hernandez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.



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