Evil in Modern Thought:
An Alternative History of Philosophy
By Susan Neiman
Princeton, 358 pages, $29.95.
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As any reader of the Book of Job knows, evil is no stranger to humanity, nor to God. How odd, then, that over the past two centuries so few philosophers have wrestled with the devil’s presence among us. Instead, questions of moral iniquity have been relegated, for the most part, to the realm of theology. When it comes to the thorniest issues of making sense of life’s most irrational events, it seems, few rationalists have the desire to apply.
That is the historical backdrop to former Yale University and Tel Aviv University associate philosophy professor Susan Neiman’s provocative and engaging new book, “Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy.” And yet, as she cogently argues, after Auschwitz — and now, post-September 11 — philosophy’s most urgent task is to return to where it began: a confrontation with suffering, cruelty and malicious acts of violence.
How, when and why did philosophy turn its focus from the probing of ethics to what seems today a cold measuring of utility? Neiman’s goal, in tracing that history, is to reposition contemporary philosophy on the solid moral ground on which the discipline was originally founded.
Neiman, who is director of the Einstein Forum, in Potsdam, Germany, and author of “Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin” (Schocken, 1992), begins with a provocative comparison: “The eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today,” she writes. What the massive 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon and the Nazi genocide share, she suggests, is the shock of wanton destruction. Each horror marked the end of an era’s innocence; after Lisbon, as after Auschwitz, it was no longer easy to trust in the goodness of man — or God.
In both cases, history seemed to have proved the impossibility of philosophy’s “demand that truth and goodness coincide.” But after Lisbon, at least, philosophers continued to attempt to reconcile the blunt suffering of the victims of natural disaster with the idea of a just world designed by a merciful God.
Enter Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), the German philosopher and mathematician best known for his belief that ours is the “best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire famously ridiculed this sunny view in “Candide,” his savage meditation on the futility and fragility of the attempt to find any source of goodness. But, Neiman argues, Leibnitz was not as optimistic as we think; it would be more accurate to state that, upon reflection, he concluded that it wasn’t that this world was perfect but that other worlds held the possibility of being far more evil than what we already knew. Witness Marquis de Sade, who dramatized his brand of philosophy in novels that reveled in raw brutality.
Eventually Neiman comes to Hannah Arendt, whom he calls “the twentieth century’s most important philosophical contribution to the problem of evil.” The much maligned author of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is misunderstood, she contends. In Arendt’s classic works of political philosophy, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” “The Human Condition” and “On Revolution,” Arendt identified, with an unflinching gaze, the amoral political calculations and immoral valuations of human worth that fed the rise of Nazism. Arendt’s first mistake was to subtitle her widely read journalistically flavored meditation on the Eichmann trial, “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Her second was to underestimate the power of conven-
tional wisdom: the assumption that the commission of evil is always preceded by the intention to do evil.
And that was Arendt’s main point: The absence of forethought (that is, the mindless “banality” of evil) did not mitigate guilt or responsibility. In fact, Neiman argues, “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 banal… the most unprecedented crimes can be committed by the most ordinary people. It is this factor that Auschwitz shares with other contemporary cases of mass murder.”
The recognition of terrors committed without meaning, suffering endured without reason — these are the horrors that have left modern philosophy (not to mention contemporary theology) speechless. But perhaps more than philosophy, this bleak territory is the realm of tragedy. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/ They kill us for their sport,” Shakespeare wrote in “King Lear.” In the quest to redeem meaning from suffering, only Job is Lear’s true companion.
Despite the pessimism of so many of the thinkers whose work she invokes, Neiman concludes with cautious optimism: “Between the adult who knows she won’t find reason in the world, and the child who refuses to stop seeking it, lies the difference between resignation and humility.”
Some might even call it faith.