The Problem of Good

a Petrarchan sonnet

If there’s (the armchair philosopher maintains)
A God (most likely writing in his blog),
Then why’s the world in such a dismal fog
Of evil will and endless human pain?
Each day the whole thing just gets more insane
And sad. No god made such a senseless slog.
Our fervent prayer is but a monologue
Still rattling in our prehistoric brain.
The bigger question though to pose by far
Is how without God good exists at all;
What source by which small kindnesses accrete
To train us in a loving repertoire?
Why tend to someone with no wherewithal
Or even help some poor old thing across the street?



Jeffrey Essmann is an essayist and poet living in New York. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, among them Agape Review, America Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review, U.S. Catholic, Grand Little Things, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, and various venues of the Benedictine monastery with which he is an oblate. He is editor of the Catholic Poetry Room page on the Integrated Catholic Life website.

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8 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a good representation of the Theodicy Question, which has bedeviled mankind for ages, and more acutely after the coming of monotheistic religion. In a polytheistic society evil could always be explained as rooted in arguments and disputes among non-omnipotent divinities with differing interests (the Trojan War is a prime example). But if there is a single Omnipotent and Benevolent God, then we have the Mysterium Iniquitatis looming before us. Explanations for it are endless.

    I like how Essmann has a traditional Petrarchan volta at line 9 (marked by the word “though”), and uses it to present a parallel problem: if there is no God, how do we account for kindness, love, charity, selflessness, affection, and all the other welcome blessings of life?

    It doesn’t really answer the Theodicy Question, since one has to posit the existence of God before the question can even be asked. Atheists and agnostics are not the ones who ask the Theodicy Question. Only believers do.

  2. Paul Buchheit

    Very nice, Jeffrey. That’s pretty much what God told Job: don’t focus on what you can’t understand, but instead appreciate the majesty of the world around you.

  3. Margaret Coats

    Lines 9 and 10 are the simply stated center of the sonnet. This corresponds to the French variation on the Petrarchan sonnet, with rhyme scheme abbaabba cc deed. You, Jeffrey, use the most common Italian rhyme scheme, but the logic is French. Those two central lines comprise the sonnet’s turn, dividing it effectively into three parts, rather than an octave and sestet. The Problem of Good is a large one to address in a sonnet; perhaps you suggest it rather than address it. The octave seems to represent the overwhelming exhausted disdain of unbelievers. Th final quatrain represents rather disorderly bits of evidence that just might lead somewhere else. The treatment is a suitable one for a fallen world.

  4. Joshua C. Frank

    Wow, what a great use of the Petrarchan sonnet structure! This could be used as an example to show someone how the Volta works in a sonnet.

    It’s true: atheists cite the problem of evil as proof that the Christian God is a religious fiction. Of course, even if this were true, it would not preclude the pagan gods, who could be and do evil. The argument from design is proof enough even for the pagan who only knows the natural law; just as I don’t have to see the poet who wrote this poem to know that he exists (as opposed to the poem being generated by random letters… but even if that were the case, I would know that a programmer exists), I don’t have to see the Creator of the universe to know that He exists, either.

    Before I became serious about the Catholic faith into which I was baptized as a child, I cited the problem of evil against the faith… but then I saw that people who really believed the faith and lived according to its teachings lived such great lives that I had to wonder where they got it all. I thought it was just because evolution favored cultures that believe these ideas… that’s true (notice how similar the beliefs of successful pagan cultures are to Christianity), but once I became serious about my faith, I came to see that it all comes from God—His teachings and their faithful preservation, and His help to all of us to obey them, whether directly or through blessings and sufferings. Your sonnet expresses all this in just 14 lines!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It’s true that atheists or agnostics will sometimes quote the Theodicy Question in their polemical arguments with religious believers, but that is just a weapon of convenience for them. They themselves (being pure secularists and naturalists) are not troubled by it in the slightest. For them, existence is simply what it is, warts and all.

      Leibniz formulated the Theodicy Question precisely because he was arguing about God’s goodness and providence. He was uncertain about the two best traditional explanations of evil: 1) God created both angels and men with free will, knowing and accepting that it would be misused by both creations; or 2) Evil does not exist per se, but is merely the absence of good.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Jeffrey, I love this poem. The intrigue of the title frames the subject matter beautifully and the smooth, mellifluous subtlety of the lines deal with the heavy subject matter perfectly. I too am impressed by the spot-on use of this form which serves as a superb medium for delivering the closing questions… this wonderful poem has given me a lot to think about on the Petrarchan sonnet front and the theological front. Thank you.

  6. Jeffrey Essmann

    Thanks so much, everyone, for your very kind reading of my work. The inspiration for the poem came from a revisit to “The Consolation of Philosophy”. Boethius, of course, had every reason to be meditating on the Problem of Evil, as he was waiting to be clubbed to death at the whim of an Ostrogoth emperor when he wrote the book. But in that meditation he touches on the idea that the source of Goodness is far more mystifying, far more intriguing for philosophical reflection. A footnote told me that he was drawing on ideas originally put forward by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, which I found fascinating. Then I wondered if I might make all of this rhyme…
    Thanks again,

  7. David Paul Behrens

    Very good poem, Jeffrey. It reminds me of something I wrote years ago. (Sorry if I break any poetry rules.)

    God and Devil

    Good people have at their core,
    Standards to be held on high.
    A religion can be nothing more
    Than a set of rules to live by.

    Only the insane are truly atheistic
    Or agnostic, and without any rules.
    We all must strive to be realistic.
    Those without any rules are fools.

    Remove an O from the word GOOD.
    Add a D to evil and it spells DEVIL.
    GOD can then be fully understood
    And religion may be on the level.

    God and Devil are Right and Wrong,
    Philosophical symbols in the mind.
    Only good people will ever belong
    To the Universal Church of the Kind.


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