NPJ Book Review: Evil in Modern Thought – an alternative history of philosophy by Susan Neiman

Evil in Modern Thought – an alternative history of philosophy by Susan Neiman (2004)

My read – this is an intellectually profound inquiry. Sitting on my bookshelf and consulted from time to time, more so as of late. How much time do we have? What is evil? Where can meaning be found? In a post–truth world sliding irrevocably into varied forms of authoritarianism how do we get a handle on the moral and seemingly natural evil that envelops us. There is no escaping evil. The study of evil perhaps is the beginning of philosophy itself as the author observes.

But what is evil? We can point to evil people in history such as Adolph Eichmann in terms of human cruelty like Auschwitz. We can then proceed through history with endless examples in every country and place on earth.

Professor Neiman’s thought provoking study lies with the philosophical challenge of evil. In other words, evil threatens if not negates human reason in a world that might otherwise make sense.

For Neiman “evil is not merely the opposite of good but inimical to it. True evil aims at destroying moral distinctions themselves. One way to do so is to make victims into accomplices.” Listening to recent events in Jerusalem and the violence brought about by the United States moving its embassy there and blaming victims as accomplices for their plight may be considered as an example of one form of a moral evil. Other examples include slavery, torture, terrorism, starvation, nuclear bombs, greed, etc…each thought of what is evil leads to another example.

The author reviews the thoughts of the philosopher Pierre Bayle, among numerous others. “And to imagine a God who judges many forms of life He created to be sinful, then tortures us eternally for our brief participation in them, is hardly to imagine a solution to the problem of evil. Positing a God who may permit infinite and eternal suffering is of little help in stilling doubt about a God who clearly permits finite and temporal suffering.”

The pages of human history overflow with evil in all cultures and the people who are punished and left unpunished. The Spanish inquisition, the Holocaust, terrorist acts like those that occurred on September 11, 2001, and the thousands of obscene acts of cruelty throughout history or major natural events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and surges in the oceans. Nether God or nature appears to be concerned. Why do people suffer from evils? Is evil, like sin, merely a word invented by humans to arrive at some understanding of human suffering and misery?

Professor Neiman considers “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’t.”

Neiman describes Hannah Arendt’s reporting of the Eichmann trial concerning Auschwitz. “For Arendt, neither German war crimes alone nor possible Jewish complicity in them was on trial. What was under indictment was Creation itself.”

The author goes on to observe, “evils can be acknowledged as evils without insisting that evil has an essence. Our inability to find something deep that is common to the mass murders committed by terrorists and the starvation furthered by corporate interests does not prevent us from condemning both. Thinking clearly is crucial, finding a formula is not…Debates about which blend of moral and natural evil is worse will lead us nowhere. “ The author adds, “I write this in the fear and knowledge that either could destroy us all.”

This “alternate history of philosophy,” is not a fast read. It’s a long-term study balanced with self-examination and question, digested within both historical and contemporary knowledge. It’s a necessary read for anyone wanting to know more about the nature of evil in modern thought.

Upon reading Neiman’s work I’m reminded of Voltaire’s words in the final paragraph of Candide. “That’s well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.” Is it that simple or that complex?