Optimism (from Lat. optimus, best) is the doctrine that the existing order in this universe, notwithstanding the possibility of imperfection and sin, is nevertheless, as a whole, the most perfect that could have been ordered by a wise Creator, and the best which it is possible for man to conceive. In other words, optimism looks upon existence as a great good; but the advocates of this school have differed, one class contenting themselves with maintaining the absolute position that, although God was not by any means bound to create the most perfect order of things, yet the existing order is de facto the best; because it is by contact with evil that we learn the value of good, just as the child's consciousness to good, to duty, and to what is ethically right is roused by the preceptor through painful punishments; in short, that the blessedness of optimism man must attain for himself through suffering and by his own efforts. Another class of Optimists, however, contend not only this, but, in addition, that the perfection and wisdom of Almighty God could produce none other than the most perfect order of things possible; and that, though God foresaw the suffering and moral evil of the world as inevitable, it was yet more consistent with his goodness to create than not to create, supposing the latter possible; in other words, it appears to be in unison with his perfection, and especially with his goodness, to call beings into existence to confer on them as far as possible the enjoyment of life and the capability of attaining perfection, and that therefore the motive for creation appears stronger than for non-creation. SEE NECESSITY; SEE WILL.
The philosophical discussions of which this controversy is the development are as old as philosophy itself, and form the groundwork of all the systems, physical as well as moral, whether of the Oriental or of the Greek philosophy; of Dualism, Parsism, and of the Christian Gnosticism and Manichaeism in the East; and in the West, of the Ionian, the Eleatic, the Atomistic; no lessthan of the later and more familiar Stoic, Peripatetic, and Platonic schools. In the philosophical writings of the fathers, of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and above all of Augustine, the problem of the seeming mixture of good and evil in the world is the great subject of inquiry, and through all the subtleties of the mediaeval schools it continued to hold an important and prominent place. During the Middle Ages it was ably discussed by the schoolmen St. Anselm and St. Thomas. In times comparatively modern Optimism was embraced by Descartes and Malebranche. Spinoza may also be accounted an Optimist. But the full development of the optimistic theory as a philosophical system was reserved for the celebrated Leibniitz (q.v.). It forms the subject of his most elaborate work, the Theodicea, the main thesis of which may be briefly stated thus: Among all the systems which presented themselves to the infinite intelligence of God as possible, God selected and created, in the existing universe, the best and most perfect physically as well as morally. The Theodicea, published in 1700, was principally designed to meet the skeptical theories of Bayle, by showing not only that the existence of evil, moral and physical, is not incompatible with the general perfection of the created universe, but that God, as all-wise, all-powerful, and all perfect, has chosen out of all possible creations the best and most perfect; that had another more perfect creation been present to the divine intelligence, God's wisdom would have required of him to select it; and that if another, even equally perfect, had been possible, there would not have been any sufficient determining motive for the creation of the present world.
The details of the controversial part of the system would be out of place in this work. It will be enough to state that the existence of evil, both moral and physical, is explained as a necessary consequence of the finiteness of created beings; and it is contended that in the balance of good and evil in the existing constitution of things, the preponderance of the former is greater than in any other conceivable creation. The optimism of Leibnitz has been misunderstood and misrepresented by Voltaire and others. But the doctrine which Leibnitz advocated is not that the present state of things is the best possible in reference to individuals nor to classes of beings, nor even to this world as a whole, but in reference to all worlds, or to the universe as a whole — and not even to the universe in its present state, but in reference to that indefinite progress of which it may contain the germs. The great argument of the optimists is the following: If the present universe be not the best that is possible, it must be either because God did not know of the (supposed) better universe, or because God was not able to create that better one, or was not willing to create it. Now every one of these hypotheses is irreconcilable with the attributes of God: the first; with his omniscience; the second, with his omnipotence; and the third, with his goodness. See Leibnitz, Theodicea; Baumeister, Historia de Mundo Optimo (Corletei, 1741); Wolfart, Controversiae de Mundo Optimo (Jena, 1743); Creuzer, Leibnitii Doctrina de Mundo Optimo sub Examine denuo Revocata (Leipsic, 1795); Contemp. Rev. May, 1872, art. v. SEE PESSIMISM; SEE THEODICY.