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Evil threatens reason It challenges our hope that things make sense For 18th century Europeans the Lisbon earthuake was manifest evil Now we view evil as a matter of human cruelty Auschwitz as its extreme incarnationExamining our understanding of evil from the Inuisition to contemporary terrorism Neiman explores who we've become in the three centuries since the early Enlightenment In the process she rewrites the history of modern thought and points philosophy back to the uestions that originally animated it Whether expressed in theological or secular terms evil poses a problem about the world's intelligibility It confronts philosophy with fundamental uestions Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal?Neiman argues that these uestions impelled modern philosophy Traditional philosophers from Leibniz to Hegel sought to defend the Creator of a world containing evil Inevitably their efforts combined with those of literary figures like Pope Voltaire and the Maruis de Sade eroded belief in God's benevolence power relevance until Nietzsche claimed He'd been murdered They also yielded the distinction between natural and moral evil that we now take for granted Neiman turns to consider philosophy's response to the Holocaust as a final moral evil concluding that two basic stances run through modern thought One from Rousseau to Arendt insists that morality demands we make evil intelligible The other from Voltaire to Adorno insists that morality demands that we don'tBeautifully written and thoroughly engaging this book tells the history of modern philosophy as an attempt to come to terms with evil It reintroduces philosophy to anyone interested in uestions of life and death good and evil suffering and sense


10 thoughts on “Evil in Modern Thought An Alternative History of Philosophy

  1. says:

    The Lifespan of Moral EvilThis is a long and complex book possibly longer and complex than it needs to be in order to establish its main thesis namely that “The problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought” More specifically “The sharp distinction between natural and moral evil that now seems self evident was born around the Lisbon earthuake of 1755 and nourished by Rousseau Tracing the history of that distinction and the ways in which the problems refused to stay separate is one aim of this book” For Neiman this is the birth of ‘modernity’ an attitude toward the world that will last until the other pole of her narrative the death camp of Auschwitz as the representative symbol of the HolocaustNeiman establishes the centrality of evil through a creative but simple intellectual move “The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole Thus it belongs neither to ethics nor to metaphysics but forms a link between the two” For her therefore the opposite of evil is not good but intelligibility That which is unintelligible that is to say chaotic disorderly brutally arbitrary and without rational foundation is by definition what philosophers and not just theologians have historically considered as evil Only during the Renaissance did evil become an accepted antonym of good and only then did evil become a specifically theological problem involving the relationship between evil and God This development promoted the distinction between moral evil and natural evil which has persisted into modern philosophical thoughtA sharp distinction between moral and natural evil was unknown to the ancient Greeks More to the point it was unknown to Judaism and Christianity The biblical story of Job for example demonstrates decisively that moral and natural evil are indistinguishable Neiman uses the Lisbon earthuake as the signal event from which the hard distinction arises In a world considered to be created and maintained by divine order such an event threatens the intelligibility of not just the universe but also its purported creator The distinction between moral and natural evil allowed everyone Philosophes and Christian apologists to have their cake and eat it at least for a time Moral evil is a human affliction; natural evil is a divine mystery Ethics or moral theology diagnosed the human disease and its cure while Christian faith prescribed a fatalistic confidence that despite apparent disasters the prevailing conditions and events of creation are best in the long term The distinction also allowed a scripturally based explanation There is a connection between moral and natural evil just as described in the natural disasters that had befallen ancient Israel The new Calvinist theology fit right with this explanationGod was thereby given a metaphysical free pass But it was human beings who now became even unintelligible that is to say evil than they had ever been before Religionists could point to a connection between moral and natural evil as just and appropriate compensation for sin Suffering is a conseuence of moral evil entirely rational and intelligible in concept therefore But how much is enough punishment? And why include the just and unjust? What about the infants? And by the way are the infinite punishments of hell really justified by the finite sins of human beings no matter how heinous? The biblical sources themselves look less and less intelligible and Calvinism and ManichaeanBut the Philosophes also shared the problem What constituted a ‘normal’ ‘rational’ or ‘intelligible’ human being? The issue is crucial if human beings were to be considered as intelligible without God Leibniz had proposed a world in which God guided every human interaction If God didn’t exist or was disengaged as the Deists suggested what standard could be applied to judge whether human behaviour was rational or insane? Without the concept of sin and its interference in ultimate purpose this judgment looks to be arbitrary certainly as arbitrary as the arbitrary acts of an all powerful but unintelligible God So evil remains an issue even after religion is established in its own intellectual niche by KantSo a purely human ethics doesn’t have a place to stand Evil remains a problem Human behaviour is at least as mysterious as divine behaviour And mostly that behaviour looks pretty bad So the cosmic problem of rationality continues in a sort of paired down or localised version Irrationality was always the threat but now it travels under the guise of moral evil an undefinable flaw in humanity which absent the idea of Original Sin deteriorates into a label which connotes disgust without any further explanation Evil is that which is incorrigible because it is unintelligible Which eventually brings Neiman to the other pole of her narrative Auschwitz the symbol of the fundamental unintelligibility of the event of the Holocaust The trip from the Lisbon earthuake to the Auschwitz death camp is the central trajectory of her narrative The Holocaust is incomprehensible in both its magnitude and its intention It defies explanation although many have tried to provide one Its purpose is so unacceptable that even God could not have pursued it Yet human beings conceived and executed it Modernity the idea that human beings are responsible for creating and enforcing their own ethical code has ended in failureThe Holocaust defies psychological sociological and anthropological science just as the Lisbon uake defies theology Rationality resides neither in God nor in Man Nor apparently does it reside in Nature if we take things like uantum and Relativity Physics seriously hence Einstein’s uip about God and dice The world may be describable but it is also as unintelligible as it has always been I blame Plato In fact the we know the less intelligible many things are Neiman‘s analysis of philosophical history is interesting But her idea of evil is for me indistinguishable from what other philosophers writers and scientists call rational thought or simply reasonIf this is so then the 20th century certainly witnessed the death of reason as a fixed set of principles or methods as the 18th century witnessed the death of the Will 0f God as the universal uncontested explanation for the state of the world Scientific research linguistic analysis psychoanalysis and existential philosophies also undermined the concept of intelligibility along with events like the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust The result can be loosely called post modernism The criteria of intelligibility changed in post modernism from what they had been previously just as the criteria for good science or good literature had changed If Neiman wants to assert then that the concept of evil as a threat to intelligibility also changed as a conseuence I have no objection It might prove useful in other than historiography It could catch on Then again it might notOne area in which this issue has taken on a dominant importance is Economics The emerging field of Behavioural Economics is gradually encroaching on the dogmatically imposed rationality of classical micro economics More generally the issue in all the social sciences is whether human behaviour should be considered as de facto reasonable that is in furtherance of some possibly undisclosed purpose or judged by externally determined fixed standards


  2. says:

    The flaws of this book appear in reverse with the errors of the ending chapter making me uestion the arguments of the start At the center of Neiman’s argument is the metaphors related to the Lisbon earthuake of 1775 and Auschwitz; both are used as singular events that altered the basic way philosophy can talk about moral and natural evils Particularly the author focuses on the changing relationship between contingency and moral action and how those two events changed the way people approached these uestions To make the metaphors relate Neiman has been forced to rely heavily on Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” approach to the Holocaust Such an approach is problematic when talking about modern ultimate evils particularly in light of genocide literature since the 1960’s While reading the later chapters I could not help but pair some of the arguments with Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” a history of America’s relationship to genocide in the 20th Century Much of the scholarship on crimes against humanity particularly legal scholarship has focused on the basic reuirements for action to cause genocide and its related constellations of crimes Neiman is dismissive of this fact but seems oddly reluctant to fully incorporate it into her overall argument Part of this may be an odd reluctance to address any of the political dimensions to the philosophers she addresses Particularly as one reaches into the 20th Century these uestions of evil become as legal and political as they are metaphysical It is a dark irony that has her book’s central arguments break down as they approaches a time period in which the basic concept of ultimate destruction have moved from the natural or divine to the control of human action


  3. says:

    Before going ahead to criticize I want to make it clear that this is an important well written book accessible to ordinary readers As Neiman points out in her preface she entered the study of philosophy to grapple with the big uestions of the meaning of life or as Kant put it What can I know? What must I do? What may I believe? She found that modern philosophy as taught in the States is mostly epistemology and the analysis of propositions was increasingly frustrated and resolved to bring philosophy back to dealing with the uestions which have always animated human reflection Taking ethics as her theme and concentrating on the problem of evil she proceeds in this text to provide an alternative history of philosophy from approximately 1755 the Lisbon earthuake to the present 9 11My criticisms are two neither of which should be taken as reasons not to read the bookThe first problem I had with this book is one I have with most ethical philosophers It regards the matter of agency Neiman like most others preferences a model whereby the ethical agent is the individual person in other words individual human bodies On the one hand and she'd probably agree with this because her arguments take her towards such considerations such a model is insufficient to deal with corporate institutions created by and made up of people In this category would be included such actors as business corporations governmental bureaucracies military units etc Most relevant to her discussions would be the Nazi state and its organs On the other hand such a model fails to account for models of human agency which reject the atomistic fiction of individuality She deals with Freud but fails to deal much with the reasons why he and other psychologists have analyzed humans in literally complex terms as made up of multiple agencies each with their own histories and inclinations The responsible coordination of these agencies may be said in the modern world to constitute maturation but the assumption that most persons are ethically mature in this way is an awfully big and contestable one Indeed looking back at older societies or even looking abroad towards other ones it is arguable that such ethical maturity such individuals are a relatively recent and culturally circumscribed phenomenonThe second problem is with how Neiman's thinking is sometimes brought up short by taboos She points to an evil a supposedly unuestionable one such as the intentional torture and murder of a child and stops Such an approach cannot get to the uestion at hand To do so one must understand how the perpetrators of such evils understand what they're doing Few like Sade see themselves as doing bad things or if they see the act as bad they justify it as serving a greater good or as being the lesser evil of available alternatives Nazi race ideology for instance made sense to them good scientific sense Degenerates individuals or racial groups were seen as being as ethically unimportant as we see domestic animals you kill the unviable individuals you use the restTo deal with these objections would of course reuire a much longer book The fact that she raised them for me may be seen as a credit to her In any case this is a provocative and engaging book highly recommended to all


  4. says:

    No summary or reflection I write will do this book the justice it deserves When I picked up this book I hoped to delve into multiple frameworks in which “evil” is defined and if I was lucky to read further into theodicy the classical problem of evil in the philosophy of religion I was not disappointed Neiman makes the case that on some level the whole of philosophy has been an attempt to explain why there is evil at all She patiently surveys the history of philosophy organizing schools of thought into at least three main groups I remember two in particular those who try to explain evil in terms of some logical order “Bad things happen because people do bad things”; and those who accept evil as springing from the same insanity as the rest of being “When it comes right down to it there is no evil; there is only life” Neiman's discussion of how the concept of evil has been changed irrevocably since the Holocaust is a convincing one; the kind of evil that Hannah Arendt identified as the 'banality of evil' has displaced the modern certainty that evil springs from a troubled psyche or a dysfunctional childhood I wish that Neiman would have addressed the resurgence of the idea of evil as metaphysical force as proclaimed in religious fundamentalist circles since this idea is what breeds a lot of present day fear Nonetheless this was an exceptional book that was worth the 3 4 month slog it took me to read it


  5. says:

    Hoo boy Some summer read At times my eyes glazed but but Though I've learned the hard way that I'm no philosopher it's way too logic driven for one and I'm not I seem endlessly fascinated with philosophy because uite simply I like to mull a lot Kind of like ciderYes this is all about philosopherknights grappling none too successfully with the greatest dragon of them all evil but I almost felt like evil took a back seat to the big white dragon in the room Yep God All discussions of evil and the world's acknowledged woes lead to God I guess this is best demonstrated by three lines of logic laid out by Pierre Bayle a philosopher I'd never heard of I uote Neiman here Let's put Bayle's argument into schematic form The problem of evil occurs when you try to maintain three propositions that don't fit together1 Evil exists2 God is benevolent3 God is omnipotentBend and maul and move them as you will they cannot be held in union One of them has to goWe all agree that #1 is a given Good luck then with #'s 2 and 3 They do not compute And so it goes in this book which approaches this conundrum six ways to secular Sunday through the eyes of Kant and Hegel and Leibniz and Pope and Rousseau and Voltaire and Marx and Bayle and Hume and the Maruis de Sade yes a philosopher of sorts and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Freud and Arendt and Camus and others Whew Like I said The eyesYou'll learn the word theodicy uickly Something I gather about accepting both evil in a world where God means well and finding that logical Close to idiocy then And atheists probably should read this although the majority of philosophers are not atheists at all They do tend to pile on at times though Little use for Deists there go our Founding Fathers for one What a mess is the bottom line Does it wind up with any answers or even proposals? Not so much as spell out the problem and everyone's engagement with the problem Have we made progress since the early battles? One word Auschwitz This toward the end was most interesting how guilt of being evil is often defined as intent reuiring malice and forethought But Arendt uses the example of Eichmann to prove that sometimes evil goes down without those two reuirements Although she agrees that Eichmann deserved to hang and was guilty she also felt his intentions to be harmless and mostly concerned with personal advancementNeiman Arendt's account was crucial in revealing what makes Auschwitz emblematic for contemporary evil It showed that today even crimes so immense that the earth itself cries out for retribution are committed by people with motives that are no worse than banalEvil it seems is as much the province of ordinary people as of the flamboyantly bad Thus agency comes in many shades of gray and as the Nazis proved the depths of evil can be as deep despite any colorations


  6. says:

    Susan Neiman writes that her purpose is to trace changes in Western perceptions of evil from the 18th century through the 20th The 2 watersheds in her analysis are the great Lisbon earthuake of 1755 and Auschwitz in our time What was an evil force once is no longer and what isn't today may become evil in time Her history of modern philosophy can be boiled down to the difference between the natural evil of an earthuake caused by God and the moral evil of mid 20th century genocide caused by man The shift from God to man is the arc of our perception Obviously such social ills as religious persecution torture and slavery existed in the time of Rousseau and Voltaire but were separated from the sin and suffering deserving God's punishment Gods have withdrawn now particularly following Nietzsche meaning evil is committed by man Still Neiman's careful to point out that through the progression of thought about evil moves away from God it's expressed in theological ideasAs we know perceptions change and can be manipulated To Neiman Auschwitz is merely shorthand for modern moral evil which includes Hiroshima and the Soviet Gulag She doesn't make the point but the 3 represent the political forms which competed for dominance in the 20th century fascism liberal democracy and communism This demonstrates perhaps that evil is possible within any politics In her Afterword to the Princeton Classics Edition she spends time explaining how she believes Auschwitz has been emphasized in our time and how the truth about motives surrounding the use of the atomic bombs may have been suppressed in order to deflect the idea of evil away from Hiroshima Later while 911 was uickly considered an evil act she says other evils may take decades before becoming recognized as such Her example there is the U S prosecution of the war in IraNeiman dives deep into the knotty concepts of religion and evil and their need of each other but her discussion is notable for its clarity and ability to make it all digestible I personally don't have that much background but followed her easily and gratefully as she led me through the building arguments and ideologies Hegel and Sade and Marx and all the others to arrive fully prepared among Camus and Arendt and John Rawls sages of our present Neiman is a good guide As a kid I used to watch my grandfather hammer a red hot horseshoe into its necessary form Just as deftly I think Neiman's survey pounds history on the anvil of philosophy to give us a usable evil for our time


  7. says:

    Brilliant although this is a dense book in the sense of reuiring slow and careful reading from me at least I often had to stop reread a sentence or paragraph and sit for a few minutes thinking about its message it also caused me to look up words than any book I've read in decades possibly because I'm not well read at all in philosophy beyond one freshman philosophy course in a junior college over 30 years agoNeiman presents perspectives on evil from one philosopher after and in response to another from the 18th century to 911 She describes their turbulent emotions about their times and their interpretations of the misfortunes they saw around them due to both natural events and human will and actions This gave me one powerful ahah moment and a clearer understanding of just exactly why I have been so haunted by some experiences I had in the military since they took place when I was 18 and by my own reaction at the time Even after a career in the service and a second career as a psychotherapist this book increased my understanding of some of the processes involved in human evilI can't recommend this book highly enough and am looking forward to reading the author's follow up book Moral Clarity


  8. says:

    If you are looking for a history of philosophy that is not a snooze fest this is your book


  9. says:

    This book taught me much about the history of philosophy and also about theology than about evil Perhaps I had the wrong expectations when I chose this book but I was hoping for something like various definitions of evil and the forms it takes and human dealings with it or ideas how to deal with it Instead the discussion was centred mostly on the metaphysical side of evil – well the central argument I suppose was that any discussion of evil is metaphysical in its essence I’m not sure I agree and while I learned many things I didn’t know about philosophy eg the meaning of ‘theodicy I was often bored by the book In the face of human history the godly discussions just felt sort of irrelevant At least to my non believer’s ears


  10. says:

    This book is something like a conversation between philosophers taking place over three hundred years on the topic of evil I've started to visualize this conversation as Neiman reports it as though it were a Facebook like discussion here