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Evil threatens reason. It challenges our hope that things make sense. For 18th-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Now we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Neiman explores who we've become in the three centuries since the ea Evil threatens reason. It challenges our hope that things make sense. For 18th-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Now we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition 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 questions 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 questions: 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 questions 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 more literary figures like Pope, Voltaire and the Marquis 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't. Beautifully 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 questions of life and death, good and evil, suffering and sense.


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Evil threatens reason. It challenges our hope that things make sense. For 18th-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Now we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Neiman explores who we've become in the three centuries since the ea Evil threatens reason. It challenges our hope that things make sense. For 18th-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Now we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition 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 questions 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 questions: 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 questions 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 more literary figures like Pope, Voltaire and the Marquis 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't. Beautifully 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 questions of life and death, good and evil, suffering and sense.

30 review for Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    The Lifespan of Moral Evil This is a long and complex book, possibly longer and more 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 earthquake [of 1755] and nourished by Rousseau. Tracing the history of that distinction, and the ways in which the problems refused to stay separat The Lifespan of Moral Evil This is a long and complex book, possibly longer and more 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 earthquake [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 Holocaust. Neiman 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 thought. A 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 earthquake 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 explanation. God was thereby given a metaphysical free pass. But it was human beings who now became even more unintelligible, that is to say, more 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 consequence 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 more and more Manichaean. But 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 Kant. So 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 earthquake 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 failure. The Holocaust defies psychological, sociological and anthropological science just as the Lisbon quake defies theology. Rationality resides neither in God nor in Man. Nor, apparently, does it reside in Nature if we take things like Quantum and Relativity Physics seriously (hence Einstein’s quip 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 more 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 more simply, reason. If 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 consequence, I have no objection. It might prove useful in other than historiography. It could catch on. Then again it might not *One 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. 5 out of 5

    Raquel

    Este livro é muito bom! Merece os prémios que conquistou, sem dúvida! Em primeiro lugar, está escrito numa linguagem que não é hermética nem encriptada. O livro flui muito bem e confronta-nos com questões éticas, religiosas e filosóficas importantes. De Leibniz a Arendt, passando por Kant, Hegel, Voltaire, Marx e Engles, Sade, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Dostoievski, Freud (entre outros) o livro aborda de uma maneira didáctica, honesta e sem ferir quaisquer susceptibilidades o problema do Mal. Analisando Este livro é muito bom! Merece os prémios que conquistou, sem dúvida! Em primeiro lugar, está escrito numa linguagem que não é hermética nem encriptada. O livro flui muito bem e confronta-nos com questões éticas, religiosas e filosóficas importantes. De Leibniz a Arendt, passando por Kant, Hegel, Voltaire, Marx e Engles, Sade, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Dostoievski, Freud (entre outros) o livro aborda de uma maneira didáctica, honesta e sem ferir quaisquer susceptibilidades o problema do Mal. Analisando a repercussão que o terramoto de Lisboa de 1755 teve na Europa (enquanto momento que registou uma passividade divina incompreensível ), os horrores de Auschwitz, e o 11 de Setembro, a autora tenta perceber a repercussão destes acontecimentos na compreensão do papel do Mal na história humana. Será o Mal um castigo divino imposto ao Homem? Ou será o Homem, nas escolhas que faz, o grande arquitecto do Mal? Qual é a génese do Mal? Divina ou humana? Devemos suportá-lo como Job ou combatê-lo? O livro (como qualquer bom livro) não pacifica esta controvérsia. Dá-nos uma motivação para continuarmos a pensar neste assunto. O Mal é um assunto de todos nós (estará em todos nós? desde quando e até quando? Valerá a pena perguntar: porquê?). ___ "Tenho pena dos Portugueses, como vós, mas os homens continuam a fazer mais mal uns aos outros no seu pequeno montículo de terra do que a natureza lhes faz a eles. As nossas guerras massacram mais homens do que a terra engole em terramotos. Se neste mundo apenas tivéssemos de temer o inesperado acontecimento de Lisboa, ainda estaríamos numa situação tolerável." [ carta de Voltaire, escrita em 16.12.1755 a um pastor protestante]

  3. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

    The flaws of this book appear in reverse, with the errors of the ending chapter making me question the arguments of the start. At the center of Neiman’s argument is the metaphors related to the Lisbon earthquake 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 approa The flaws of this book appear in reverse, with the errors of the ending chapter making me question the arguments of the start. At the center of Neiman’s argument is the metaphors related to the Lisbon earthquake 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 questions. 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 requirements 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 questions 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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    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 questions 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 bri 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 questions 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 questions 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 earthquake) to the present (9-11). My criticisms are two, neither of which should be taken as reasons not to read the book. The 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 phenomenon. The second problem is with how Neiman's thinking is sometimes brought up short by taboos. She points to an evil, a supposedly unquestionable one such as the intentional torture and murder of a child, and stops. Such an approach cannot get to the question 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 rest. To deal with these objections would, of course, require 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.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Louie

    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 school 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.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    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, quite simply, I like to mull a lot. Kind of like cider. Yes, this is all about philosopher/knights 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 discu 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, quite simply, I like to mull a lot. Kind of like cider. Yes, this is all about philosopher/knights 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 quote 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 together. 1. Evil exists. 2. God is benevolent. 3. God is omnipotent. Bend and maul and move them as you will, they cannot be held in union. One of them has to go. We 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 Marquis de Sade (yes, a philosopher of sorts) and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Freud and Arendt and Camus and others. Whew. Like I said. The eyes. You'll learn the word "theodicy" quickly. 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 requiring malice and forethought. But Arendt uses the example of Eichmann to prove that sometimes evil goes down without those two requirements. Although she agrees that Eichmann deserved to hang and was guilty, she also felt his intentions to be harmless and mostly concerned with personal advancement. Neiman: 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. Evil, 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.

  7. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    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 earthquake 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 earthquake caused by God and the moral evil of mid-20th century genocide caused by 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 earthquake 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 earthquake 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 ideas. As 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 9/11 was quickly 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 Iraq. Neiman 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    James

    Brilliant, although this is a dense book, in the sense of requiring 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 more 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 ago. Neiman presents perspectives on evil from one philosopher after, and in Brilliant, although this is a dense book, in the sense of requiring 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 more 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 ago. Neiman presents perspectives on evil from one philosopher after, and in response to, another, from the 18th century to 9/11. 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 evil. I can't recommend this book highly enough, and am looking forward to reading the author's follow-up book, Moral Clarity.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Adam

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

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lee Kofman

    This book taught me much more 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 This book taught me much more 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 (e.g. 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Gross

    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: http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index5.... 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: http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index5....

  12. 5 out of 5

    J

    Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought offers a compelling reexamination of the rise of modern philosophy, arguing that traditional historical accounts that focus on the epistemological turn do not explain the material that they narrate. It is true but uninteresting, Neiman thinks, to describe the changing content of philosophical systems, because such expository accounts “lack a compelling motive.” The engine behind the turmoil in early modern to modern periods, Neiman thinks, is the problem of evil, Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought offers a compelling reexamination of the rise of modern philosophy, arguing that traditional historical accounts that focus on the epistemological turn do not explain the material that they narrate. It is true but uninteresting, Neiman thinks, to describe the changing content of philosophical systems, because such expository accounts “lack a compelling motive.” The engine behind the turmoil in early modern to modern periods, Neiman thinks, is the problem of evil, which underwent successive iterations after the medieval period due to the increasing scientific and technological mastery over the natural world and due to the changing scale and scope of the problem. The responses to two traumatic events orient Neiman’s discussion: the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 and the Holocaust, symbolized by the death camp at Auschwitz. The tenor of the discussions around these two events signify for Neiman the changing dimensions of the problem of evil and the manner in which certain solutions that were plausible in one cultural milieu became impossible for others. Although Neiman recognizes heuristic similarities between the responses produced after both events, her work is broadly historicist since she believes that the similarities between these responses are complicated by the narrowing definition of evil. In the most basic sense, responses to these two events cluster around (1) explanations that claim that morality requires that evil be rationalized and (2) explanations that claim that morality requires a refusal of all rationalizations of evil. The divergent responses of Rousseau and Voltaire, however, differ greatly from those of Arendt and Adorno, however, because, somewhat paradoxically, the scope of evil had narrowed while the scale of evil had massively expanded. In the early modern period, when traditional religious responses to evil retained some degree of plausibility, physical or natural evil could be conceived of as divine retribution for the moral evil committed by human beings. In that intellectual and cultural milieu, the auto-da-fé of the hereticated Pombal was the most natural response to the Lisbon earthquake. But as Neiman argues, Lisbon was the terminus ad quem of this type of religious response: “The daylong auto-da-fe in which [Pombal] died was also the end of a form of explanation.” As Kant’s response to Lisbon indicates, naturalist accounts of natural disasters were already plausible and were becoming more so. Final causation is precluded from naturalist accounts; only efficient causation is coherent given thoroughgoing naturalism. On such a supposition, to speak of natural evil is an oxymoron. In a disenchanted universe, only human beings can have moral qualities because only human beings have the requisite rationality to make morality meaningful. Neiman frankly admits her sympathy with naturalist accounts of evil. She is thoroughgoing in her secularity. With Freud, she believes that religious responses to evil are childish. They are not disprovable a priori or a posteriori, but because they can be plausibly construed as a type of wish fulfillment or projection, they are embarrassing to secularists and should probably embarrass those that advance them. Presupposing a thoroughgoing naturalism, Neiman also refuses teleological explanations of natural evil. However, to her great credit, she recognizes the great loss she suffers in embracing this view. She is not triumphalistic about the aporias faced by secularists in the attempt to say something intelligible about evil. For if human beings are simply part of the natural order, it seems that plausible physicalist accounts can be given of all human behavior, such that ostensibly immoral behavior is subsumed under natural evil and therefore is therefore no longer intelligible qua evil. Even granting, as Neiman allows that Arendt does, that the indeterminacy of human behavior vis a vis one’s background opens space for genuine moral responsibility, one still must contend with the brute facts of natural disasters and the banality of bureaucratic evil. Natural disasters can only be explained in terms of their efficient causes and therefore resist categorization as evil. In bureaucratic evil such as that which was carried out at Auschwitz, all sense of proportionality between one’s intent and actions and the evil that results is lost. Auschwitz was engineered and executed not by demons but by ordinary Germans who wanted to please their superiors. The sheer quantity and quality of evil in light of Auschwitz make inaccessible to secularists like Neiman the post-theistic theodicies and anti-theodicies offered by figures like Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel’s loathing of contingency and his insistence upon progress and reconciliation were all made implausible by the scale of evil at Auschwitz. The limits of Nietzsche’s obiter dicta that one should will the real rather than the ideal and that one’s capacity for suffering is the measure of one’s nobility were reached at Auschwitz. The contemporary responses to evil that seem most plausible to her, while remaining inadequate, are the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer and the neo-liberalism of Rawls. Given the lessons that Neiman has learned from Lisbon, Auschwitz (and in a sort of postscript to the book, from Sept. 11), Neiman advances an argument for vigilance as an insufficient, non-triumphalist answer to contemporary moral evil. Although Lisbon forecloses theistic options for Neiman, the denial of the divine does not negate the project of theodicy. Although meaning is a human category, it nonetheless requires some kind of appeal to the transcendent. One such form is the language of providence, as advanced by Leibniz and Rousseau, but since the transcendent is a principle internal to reason (and therefore meaning itself), it is not the only form it can take. As rational creatures, we expect that the world will make sense. When it fails to conform to our expectations (or, as Neiman puts it, when is does not conform to ought), we exercise our mental and moral creativity to bridge the gap. Since this principle is internal to reason, however, it cannot be rationally justified. It is simply the condition of reasoning. Thus, the principle that “the real should become the rational” itself is the transcendental term for Neiman and requires no justification beyond it. The principle is only partially Hegelian, because it places no confidence in teleology immanent to history and is painfully aware of history’s contingency. Hegel was optimistic because he believed that the reconciliation was the invariable telos of history, but Neiman is frankly realistic about the probability of reason’s success. Nonetheless, Neiman sees in this principle the source of the drive to understand and combat evil. Post-Auschwitz, this means that not only patently villainous individuals (a la Sade’s Juliette) must be stopped, but that our civilizations must guard against garden-variety, mundane kinds of evil as well. Given Neiman’s starting place as a neo-liberal secularist, her historicist account of modern philosophy offers a focused vision of how her position became both cognitively possible and plausible in the modern era. In general, her erudition and command of the sources make her claim that evil is the principal motive behind the major shifts in modern philosophy seem more compelling than other explanatory accounts. However, she makes some dishearteningly elementary errors of interpretation on Leibniz and Newton in her first chapter that tend to reduce the confidence one has in her intellectual project. Leibniz and Newton are obviously not central characters in her narrative, but they are manifestly central in any account of the rise of modern philosophy. Thus, she feels compelled to mention them, especially since she wants to begin the narrative in 1697 with the publication of Bayle’s Dictionary, and one of Bayle’s principal critics was Leibniz. That she makes glaring errors of interpretation so early in her account tends to weaken one’s confidence in her narration of the other figures she addresses at greater length. By treating Leibniz as a trivial figure in the history of philosophy, Neiman both over- and under-estimates his innovativeness and influence. First, she attributes too much innovation to him when she claims that “in defending God against voluntarism, Leibniz did just that of which rationalism is traditionally accused: he put reason above God himself.” Neiman makes two key mistakes here: (1) she links rationalism with voluntarism, thereby implicitly asserting that Leibniz is not a rationalist, which he patently is; (2) she claims that Leibniz somehow makes reason prior and extrinsic to God, which again, he patently does not. First, rationalism and theological voluntarism are separate categories. To put it crudely, rationalism asserts (1) that certain principles of reason and ideas are knowable a priori, that is, independent of experience, (2) that these principles and ideas are knowable universally, that is, by all people capable of sustained reflection; (3) that the highest kind of freedom is not the ability to do otherwise but the ability to act in accordance with one’s essence, that is, in accordance with reason. In this sense, Leibniz is most certainly a rationalist. Voluntarism, by contrast, is a specific view of God’s freedom, which one may affirm whether or not one is a rationalist. In its most robust form, theological voluntarism affirms that God is utterly unfettered in his freedom, such that even the laws of geometry or mathematical operations are only necessary ex hypothesi (i.e., contingent upon God’s unconditioned decree that they be so). Leibniz is clearly not a voluntarist, and he does not place reason above God, as Neiman asserts, but rather he states that God is maximally free and therefore wills what is most reasonable. He posits a real rather than a nominal (contra Descartes) distinction between God’s understanding and His will and claims that God does not will independently of his understanding. This distinction is perfectly orthodox and appears, for instance, in Thomist-leaning Reformed scholastics like Herman Witsius. Neiman does not pick up on the distinction because Leibniz makes it most clearly in his unpublished treatises (none of which are listed in her bibliography) such as the Discourse on Metaphysics. What is more difficult to understand is her apparent failure to pick up on the standard scholastic distinction that Leibniz makes in the Theodicy between the necessity of consequence and the necessity of the thing consequent (styled elsewhere as the distinction between antecedent and consequent will or between absolute necessity and necessity ex hypothesi) within the Godhead. Leibniz resuscitates a scholastic mode of reasoning in order to distinguish between God’s decision to create, which is necessary not absolutely (as Spinoza claims) but rather ex hypothesi, and the manner in which he creates or actualizes the real world, which is determined by his perfect udnderstanding of the myriad possible worlds that he might have actualized. Thus it is not that God is limited by reason, but that he is reason itself, and therefore He only wills what is in accord with it. Again, although much about Leibniz appears unorthodox (especially the fact that the Trinity seems absent in most of his writings), these distinctions are simply inherited from the writings of medieval and Protestant scholastics. Neiman also misrepresents Newton’s cosmology. In so doing, she overlooks one of Leibniz’s most important innovations, which contributed to one line of modern thought (the line from Rousseau to Arendt, which seeks to make evil intelligible) that she wants to examine in the book. She argues that in Newton’s understanding of the universe, “Once the system is set in motion, it runs more or less on its own. Later it would seem clear that a God whose only task was to create a perfect world might be in danger of disappearing from it, but at the time Newton’s vision was a vision of God’s greatness.” In stating Newton’s contribution this way, she has actually conflated the Leibnizian and Newtonian positions. Newton’s position, as defended by Samuel Clarke in his correspondence with Leibniz, analogizes the universe to a watch which periodically “winds down” and which at those points must be recalibrated through a miraculous intervention. Leibniz, by contrast, as part of his belief in the ultimate rationality of God, posited what he terms “the law of pre-established harmony.” God foresees all future contingents in each possible world and, at the moment of creation, he establishes all the relations between these contingencies and the solutions to the evils that will emerge from these interactions in the real world. On this view, it seems likely that Newton’s and Leibniz’s views would suggest the absence of God for different reasons. From Newton’s account, one might infer the non-existence of God because the universe suggests a poor designer, whereas it is Leibniz’s account that does what Neiman wants Newton’s to do, namely to suggest that the world is such a well-oiled machine that a divine artificer becomes unnecessary. Neiman’s misinterpretations of Leibniz and Newton at such an early point in her book casts some doubt upon the rest of her narrative. If she has misread figures this early in her account, it is difficult for one to be certain that she has not done the same for a figure to whom she gives more attention. A second difficulty in Neiman’s work is that a certain pessimism and despair rests heavily on the account. As she examines and discards one framework after another and then attempts to describe her own approach to evil, one senses the fragility and thinness of her strategy. If God is absent and there is no teleology immanent to history, it seems to beg the question to suggest that our desire to merge is and ought should control our interpretation of the phenomena of history. Neiman’s fear, which emerges from time to time in her narrative, that naturalist accounts of the world tend to collapse moral into natural evil and thereby preclude the intelligibility of evil altogether is probably a defeater for her argument. If human beings operate similarly to animals, then at least one rational way to explain history is that the strong should prey on the weak. The phenomena of history are open to more than one interpretation. Neiman is correct, however, that most people for most of history have not been social Darwinists or Sadists, and it is probably a safe bet that, if merely for the sake of self-preservation, people will continue to have at least some concern for the other. The question, however, is how robust this concern will be and what level of responsibility for the welfare for the other it will engender. Given the banality of bureaucratic evil in the 20th century, a nominal level of concern has not and will not be enough to prevent atrocities. Thus, Neiman must press her claim a good deal beyond the condemnation of the manifestly evil intentions and evil actions of individuals. She states bluntly that “[c]ontemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.” This means that in every misanthropic sensation in every human being one finds the seeds of another Auschwitz. For Neiman’s neo-liberal account to prevent the kind of tragedies that have occurred continually since Auschwitz, every individual must be a precisianist, continually scouring his or her conscience for signs of bad intentions. Neiman’s account ultimately demands too much of people, for if history proves anything it all, it proves that individuals cannot be trusted to sustain this sort of heightened self-scrutiny. Moreover, there is some reason to suspect that the kind of naturalism advanced by Neiman can at least be correlated with flagging levels of responsibility for the other. An enchanted universe, in which natural evils are interpreted as signs of retribution for sin, has the effect of discouraging certain anti-social impulses, while (as has been well documented) encouraging others, e.g. xenophonia, religious and ethnic bigotry. A natural world that is emptied of sacred content, by contrast, can be approached in an instrumental way, as a danger to be overcome by technological mastery and a resource to be appropriated for societal gain. The instrumental reason applied to such a desacralized world is itself a source of the development of bureaucratic rationality, which is concerned with results and efficiency. Bureaucratic rationality, as Neiman argues, becomes the mechanism through which once relatively harmless bad intentions can become mass murder. So, somewhat paradoxically, the naturalism that Neiman proposes tends to defeat any hope for overcoming evil. Assessment of Neiman’s account is complicated, however, because the legacy of the Enlightenment is extremely ambivalent. On the one hand, it has made Auschwitz possible, something no pre-modern worldview could have accomplished. On the other, it is patently the case that naturalism and technological mastery has had a number of salutary results that few would want to repudiate. The question, then, is whether any religious narratives are (1) commensurable with the account of modern philosophy given by Neiman and (2) whether they offer, when coupled with her account, a more compelling hope that evil ultimately can be overcome. It is my assessment that the Christian narrative, which centers itself on what God has done about the problem of evil, is both commensurable with the account of evil given by Neiman and more compelling than the subtle despair about intractability of evil that she offers. To the extent that Neiman engages with Christian responses to the problem of evil, she focuses on those responses that lean upon the doctrine of providence rather than Christology in their explanation of evil. Rousseau, Leibniz and Falwell have little in common with each other, but what they do share is the use of a providential framework in their theodicies. Given the scale and scope of atrocities in world history, but especially in the 20th century, Neiman is probably correct to condemn theodicies that lean upon the doctrine of providence. From any anthropological perspective, the scale of the devastation wrought and the number of bystanders and putatively innocent victims punished in the 20th century is massively disproportionate to the crimes committed. From the mass graves at Auschwitz, the world appears graceless and Godless. The Christian narrative, however, centering on the work of the Trinity in redemption, places more weight on Christology than on general providence. Christianity insists, as Neiman does not, that humanity is in no position to do anything about our condition, even to properly understand it. We are locked into a destructive pattern, and our attempts at self-help are unsustainable and unavailing. The answer—and I say answer because it is already and not yet a solution to the problem—is the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ God identifies with the manifold, unintelligible sufferings of humanity. In raising Christ from the dead God promises that not even torture and death are final words. Our hope as Christians is a risen Christ who says: 'Behold, I hold the keys to death and to Hades' (Rev. 1:18).

  13. 4 out of 5

    David

    I admit from the outset that I cannot possibly do this book justice in a review. I can at best offer a stream of consciousness review of its brilliance in weaving together centuries of philosophical thought and the evolution of the question of evil. This book explores centuries of philosophical thought, starting with Bayle and Liebniz, and going through Rousseau, Pope, Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Foucault, Voltaire, Descartes, Hume, De Sade, Schopenhauer, Arendt, Adorno, Horkheimer, Ca I admit from the outset that I cannot possibly do this book justice in a review. I can at best offer a stream of consciousness review of its brilliance in weaving together centuries of philosophical thought and the evolution of the question of evil. This book explores centuries of philosophical thought, starting with Bayle and Liebniz, and going through Rousseau, Pope, Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Foucault, Voltaire, Descartes, Hume, De Sade, Schopenhauer, Arendt, Adorno, Horkheimer, Camus, Sartre, and Rawls to name just a few. The book is divided into four voluminous chapters, beginning with the definitions of evil, metaphysical, natural, and moral, described in their historical context. This begins the explanation of theodicy, essentially the defense of God in a world that is sharply different in what 'is' versus what 'ought' to be. One of the main arguments of this era was that we simply could not understand God's methods, and ironically, at this point, science was seen as a reinforcement of divine creation and order. Many thinkers hoped that this trend would continue, particularly Liebniz. It was also debated at this point whether evil was truly 'genuine,' or if evil was used to fulfill an eventual greater purpose of God that could not be understood at the time. This would become an extremely contentious debate, as we will soon see. The book fluidly explains how thought changed as time passed and great minds continued to ponder evil in the world, and how gradually natural evil was dismissed as 'evil,' and explained away as simply the natural course of events of the world as designed. Of course, there were opponents to theodicy at his time, but given historical circumstances their opinions were voiced cautiously for fear of exile or worse. Theodicy began to lose favor in philosophical salons in lieu of the question if evil was truly 'genuine,' which would shatter many of the ideas of previous thinkers. The orthodoxy of the church, particularly the arbitrariness and cruelty of Calvinism would draw a great deal of ire from philosophers at this point. The second chapter discusses the rejection of theodicy in favor of empiricism, an admittedly bleak worldview and a hard chapter to read, both as a believer in God as well as a human being well aware that the in unfathomable masses of people in our time and in history suffered mightily for no purpose. (Hence the view that history is merely a collection of mans atrocities). The thinkers of this era were realists; and accepted the world for what they thought it to be: nasty, brutish, and short. There was significant argument at this time over what evil is the 'responsibility' if man in comparison to nature or God in this era. Furthermore, the question of evil in this time seemed to morph into something altogether new and unique. If there is no God, or if God evil or simply the 'divine watchmaker,' and all creation is born merely to be sentenced to death, why extend our suffering? If all things lead to death and life is meaningless, why not simply commit suicide? (Yet we do not, as a species). I found Schopenhauer to be the most depressing, yet profound of the thinkers in this chapter of Weltschmerz. De Sade, in his attempt to absolutely separate any connection between virtue and good and assert the connection between vice and worldly gain perhaps created the most poisonous and virulent arguments against 'evil being used through God to serve a greater purpose,' essentially stating the question: 'if evil is not genuine, better to be evil and profit from life.' Later on we will find that though De Sade's Juliette is truly vile, she provides a view of villainy that we WISH we could apply to wrongdoers... But the issue becomes even murkier. The third chapter focuses primarily on Nietzsche and Freud, crossing into the line of psychology for a bit. This chapter was necessary as it was essentially to explain the enigma that is Nietzsche, as well as to explain the similarities (whether admitted to or not) between philosophy and psychology. Freud asserted that humanity's need for religion stemmed from childlike fear, and was a worthy addition in my opinion. Neitzsche, perhaps because he was admittedly a bit mad, danced between the lines of theodicy and empiricism in his body of work. I found it deeply ironic that the man who is most famously attributed to the phrase "God is dead" proved humanism to be a worse substitute than religion, as it would lead to utter nihilism. In his opinion, the idea that current suffering is necessary for future good was just as foolish as Marx's 'god that failed,' and that the past can never be repaired... The only way it can be 'redeemed' is through a deity. (As an aside, Marx's treatment in this book was novel, in that he was a philosopher to who refused to accept things merely as they are, but to postulate that mankind must take the onus on itself to change the nature of humanity to redeem the past. His views on religion were also more nuanced than I was lead to believe in college). The final chapter is fittingly titled "Homeless," and attempts to explain how thought concerning evil changed as a result of the two world wars, and in particular, Auschwitz and systematized, industrialized, bureaucratic killing, a beast that once unleashed from Pandora's box, could never again be contained. The true terror and crime of the Nazi regime was to force complicity of their victims in their crimes, attempt to separate intention from mass murder, and attempt to 'lessen' the malice of genocide by the utilization of gad chambers, which were supposedly more 'humane,' and attempted to spare the psychological qualms of the executioners. The idea that evil can be committed without intent or malice is deeply troubling, and goes against out core ideas of jurisprudence. Naturally, Arendt makes a strong showing in this chapter with her magnificent work Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has been a source of controversy since it's creation. The Nazis and their methods made us yearn for the villains of De Sade, who were clear-cut and malicious; now one could be evil by merely being silent, or functioning as a bureaucratic cog in a machine. At this point, evil had become banal... And we are left to pick up the pieces. It is yet to be seen how these pieces will be picked up, if it is possible at all. This book was a heavy read, but an absolutely worthy one. It manages to synthesize and present the works of dozens of philosophers in a user-friendly and comprehensible manner, and I don't believe I have ever marked a book for further reading so extensively, perhaps with the exception of The Brothers Karamazov. I highly suggest reading it, even if it provides no comforting answers, be you a believer in God, a Humanist, or an atheist. Everyone is likely to walk away feeling the oppression of Weltschmerz on their shoulders. Once again I wonder if ignorance is bliss, or if I would suffer more from not knowing more of the world. And thus, I will end my stream of consciousness. Hopefully it will be comprehensible to those who attempt to read it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Yuni Amir

    [DNF] I read half through the book. Suffice to say, the second half is harder to grasp the idea. First half resonates better with what was I looking for. I will give it another try in the future for the second half.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND POSTED ON AMAZON IN NOVEMBER 2010 ... This highly readable survey of the past three hundred years of Western philosophy explores how our attempts to explain evil events - both those inflicted upon us by nature (e.g., earthquakes), and those generated by our own devices and thus self-inflicted (e.g., terrorist attacks) - have evolved over time. Even more importantly, it seeks to reveal what our modern interpretation of such events says about us collectively at this moment in ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND POSTED ON AMAZON IN NOVEMBER 2010 ... This highly readable survey of the past three hundred years of Western philosophy explores how our attempts to explain evil events - both those inflicted upon us by nature (e.g., earthquakes), and those generated by our own devices and thus self-inflicted (e.g., terrorist attacks) - have evolved over time. Even more importantly, it seeks to reveal what our modern interpretation of such events says about us collectively at this moment in our history. As author Susan Neiman puts it in her introduction, with particular reference to the events of 9/11, "Even though such visceral, collective moments may be vulnerable to media manipulation, they also provide an index of the deepest judgments we share in common. What's decisive is the reaction rather than the event itself." Nearly a decade after the attacks of 9/11, in our current politically polarized times, it is still unclear that a consensus understanding of those events has been achieved, and accordingly it is all but impossible to articulate decisively what our reaction to them tells us about our collective selves. Neiman wisely avoids attempting to do so. What she does point out, helpfully, is that despite philosophy's long and so far unsuccessful struggle to articulate a theory of evil, contemporary philosophers continue to undertake the effort. It is in this stubborn refusal to give up on what might appear to be a hopeless task that Neiman actually finds hope. That we continue to search for meaning in the face of such daunting odds is perhaps the very essence of the humanity that evil calls into question, but fails to extinguish.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jack Wolfe

    Neiman's history is "Alternative" because unlike what seems to be the vast majority of contemporary and 20th century philosophers (if my stint running philosophy books at Half-Price Books is any indication), she is interested in things that actually matter, like the classic question of how unspeakable atrocity can occur in a seemingly reasonable world. WHOOPS. I mis-spoke, as a central tenet of Neiman's book is how even philosophers who seemed unconcerned with the "problem of evil" have been for Neiman's history is "Alternative" because unlike what seems to be the vast majority of contemporary and 20th century philosophers (if my stint running philosophy books at Half-Price Books is any indication), she is interested in things that actually matter, like the classic question of how unspeakable atrocity can occur in a seemingly reasonable world. WHOOPS. I mis-spoke, as a central tenet of Neiman's book is how even philosophers who seemed unconcerned with the "problem of evil" have been forced to address it. So her locus for philosophical study here, one far more compelling to me then "is this pencil REALLY a pencil?," or whatever, is actually a very old locus, one that has united thinkers ranging from Sade to Hume, Freud to Rawls. I didn't understand a lot of the book-- I majored in Engerlish-- but Neiman's passion made me want to understand. (I plan to seek out many of her choice texts in the future, particularly Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem.") The final portion in particular, "Homeless," is spellbinding, successfully weaving three very different catastrophes-- the Lisbon earthquake, the Holocaust, and 9/11-- into a tapestry of intellectual challenges and counter-challenges. Just amazing stuff, really... Even if I might have dozed off a few times during the discussions of Leibniz and his contemporaries. Cuz I'm a jerk.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dane

    I'm not really very kind to history of philosophy books. While I enjoy a good history, philosophy for me is more a discussion of ideas and I'm not really interested in out-dated or factually wrong ideas. Suffice to say this book is mostly a history of the idea in Western European philosophy. I'm much more interested in reasonable ideas, and the idea that natural disasters are an act of god/punishment for evil just didn't fly well for me. The book moved quickly from that medieval idea to the Enlig I'm not really very kind to history of philosophy books. While I enjoy a good history, philosophy for me is more a discussion of ideas and I'm not really interested in out-dated or factually wrong ideas. Suffice to say this book is mostly a history of the idea in Western European philosophy. I'm much more interested in reasonable ideas, and the idea that natural disasters are an act of god/punishment for evil just didn't fly well for me. The book moved quickly from that medieval idea to the Enlightenment, but for me it never really fulfilled its potential. (Which may be too high a bar, but I was really interested when the book's introduction included the Holocaust.) Overall this book may entice people who enjoy histories of philosophy, but for myself I wanted more the author's own views about Evil in modernity and the way we define evil in a pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-faceted society.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    A good read for philosophically-minded atheists interested in how philosophers since the Enlightenment have dealt with the "problem of evil" outside of a purely theological framework (though it should be stressed this is not an atheist book). Neiman is at least convincing that it is, and has been treated historically, as a serious subject for contemplation beyond a mere club to bash theists with. Even if theodicy is rejected as ultimately a failure, there still remains the secular concept of "Th A good read for philosophically-minded atheists interested in how philosophers since the Enlightenment have dealt with the "problem of evil" outside of a purely theological framework (though it should be stressed this is not an atheist book). Neiman is at least convincing that it is, and has been treated historically, as a serious subject for contemplation beyond a mere club to bash theists with. Even if theodicy is rejected as ultimately a failure, there still remains the secular concept of "The Principle of Sufficient Reason", first fully developed by Leibniz and Spinoza, that shows the problem of evil is not quite so easy to dismiss.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maurizio Manco

    "Le anime possono uscire rafforzate da un male che le riconosce. Il male che cerca di negare alle proprie vittime le condizioni necessarie ad avere un'anima, non può in alcun modo riconoscerle. Non possiamo essere che grati a quei pochi che hanno trovato la forza per resistere a un simile attacco alla loro umanità. Non possiamo aspettarci da loro niente più che il mistero della libertà umana." (p. 253) "Nel male contemporaneo le intenzioni individuali raramente corrispondono alla portata del male "Le anime possono uscire rafforzate da un male che le riconosce. Il male che cerca di negare alle proprie vittime le condizioni necessarie ad avere un'anima, non può in alcun modo riconoscerle. Non possiamo essere che grati a quei pochi che hanno trovato la forza per resistere a un simile attacco alla loro umanità. Non possiamo aspettarci da loro niente più che il mistero della libertà umana." (p. 253) "Nel male contemporaneo le intenzioni individuali raramente corrispondono alla portata del male che sono capaci di causare." (p. 259)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Curby Graham

    Read this for a master's level course on the problem of evil. Neiman's work is a very thorough overview of how the problem of evil developed from the time of the Lisbon disaster forward. I found her notion that Nietzsche's philosophy could be described as slave-morality for the modern skeptical set. Neiman is not a Christian but I did find it odd she didn't interact with modern thinkers like Plantinga on this subject. Worth having in your library if you are interested in the problem of evil.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Maurais

    Is there an underlying logic to the world or is it all random? The limitations of our logic are made painfully obvious in its occasional clashes with reality. It seems more like there's icebergs of reason that float freely in a greater chaotic ocean, occasionally making collisions with one another. Ice will melt under then heat of the sun but nor will the best reasons sustain under prolonged periods of doubt. And all for the best too; it's the icebergs that sink our vessels.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Liedzeit

    An alternative history of philosophy it says on the cover. And it is. Very nicely done. Not enough, I think, on Leibniz who has said everything that needs to be said on theodicy. But I might be biased.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lady

    4.5 out of 5 stars.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sean

    a "i couldn't get into that book" book

  25. 4 out of 5

    Clay Kallam

    Philosophy doesn’t so much “solve” intractable problems as just leave them behind. For example, the issue of what universals really refer to (what qualifies as a table, say, or a horse) was paramount in the Middle Ages, but has been pretty much ignored ever since, even though no satisfying definition has been developed. A much more crucial issue – especially given the rise of terrorism and the greater opportunities for mass murder – is the nature of evil. Though Susan Neiman doesn’t delve too dee Philosophy doesn’t so much “solve” intractable problems as just leave them behind. For example, the issue of what universals really refer to (what qualifies as a table, say, or a horse) was paramount in the Middle Ages, but has been pretty much ignored ever since, even though no satisfying definition has been developed. A much more crucial issue – especially given the rise of terrorism and the greater opportunities for mass murder – is the nature of evil. Though Susan Neiman doesn’t delve too deeply into the definition in “Evil in Modern Thought,” she focuses even more on the central question, which is why there is evil at all. She begins her survey by citing the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which occurred on All Saints Day, when most people in the very Catholic country of Portugal were in church. When the earthquake struck, the falling stone of the churches killed thousands; had the people been in their homes, or working in the fields, the casualty list would have been much shorter. Neiman then moves through modern history, culminating with the Nazi death camps and subsumes all of the similar modern horrors under the category of “Auschwitz.” In the end, her case that evil exists is impossible to refute, forcing the inevitable next step of trying to account for it. The reaction to evil, in the 21st century at least, creates two responses: one from those who are materialists, and another from those who believe there is a spiritual aspect to the world (primarily, a belief in god). The material search for the nature of evil means that there’s no cause beyond that which we can see and understand. So evil could be an integral part of the human DNA, say, and thus unavoidable, which is the thesis Neiman first examines. This is somewhat depressing, of course, but referencing Hannah Arendt, Neiman offers the more hopeful explanation that evil is like a fungus or a disease (see Albert Camus’ “The Plague”) which might not be eradicated but at least can be limited. Those who believe that a monotheistic god created or shaped the world have a much tougher time, however – and the Lisbon earthquake is a case in point. If the Christian god had some hand in the tragedy, then how would he have let it happen when the maximum number of Christians would die? And if the Christian god had no hand in the tragedy, then how can he be considered either omnipotent or omniscient? This singular event, though, is just one example of what all worshippers of monotheistic gods must confront: We all see evil every day, and yet these various manifestations of monotheistic gods allow it to happen. And the claim that the punishment for evil will occur in the afterlife also has issues, as in Christianity, for example, unbaptized infants and those who were never exposed to the teachings of Christ supposedly burn in eternal torment because Eve took a bite of an apple. Where is the justice there? Neiman’s argument is much more developed than that simple example, and it is depressingly difficult to refute. And the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, which would justify that which went before, is also carefully deconstructed by Neiman as well. So the existence of evil clearly remains a central question for those who believe a single god is responsible for the world, and the existence of two or more gods – which allow at least one to be responsible for the evil we see – is problematic as well. “Oh, but that’s philosophy,” some will say, “and what does that have to do with real life?" In this case, I believe, quite a bit. If evil is like malaria, say, then we should do all we can to drain the swamps where it breeds, and we should start by identifying the swamps. This is a task we can work at, a job we can apply resources to. If evil is bred in our bones, then our approach must be different, seeking ways to identify those who manifest it most clearly, or to make its impact as small as possible. But if we want to claim that a god or gods are responsible for its existence, then the task becomes much harder. We are reduced, Neiman argues, to simply having faith that it will all work out, and that god is good, even though the death camps, to name just one example, make it so very difficult to figure out how they fit in god’s grand plan. And if all we are left with is faith, and the hope that god’s grace will keep evil from knocking on our front door, then we are essentially helpless – and helpless to make the world a better place. The fault, then, lies not in us but in our stars in this line of thinking, and all we can do is endure the pointless pain and suffering that god has decided is our fate. “Evil in Modern Thought” does not shrink from these difficult positions, and neither should we. If we want to make the world a better place, all would agree eliminating or limiting evil would a wonderful starting point. If, however, we are unwilling to consider evil’s origins, we will get no further than the ubiquitous and worthless “thoughts and prayers” that seem all the 21st century has to offer as a solution to this age-old problem.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Valenfore Alestreneon

    A rather good exploration and demystification of the "problem of evil" and why "evil" doesn't truly exist.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    Traditionally the central issues of philosophy have been seen to be ontology and epistemology: what is really real and how do we know? Debates were between rationalists and empiricists, idealists and materialists. According to Neiman the history of philosophy can better be understood as attempts to make sense of evil in the world. Here the debate is between people who search for ultimate reasons or explanations why evil things happen, and people who say everything is just contingency and complet Traditionally the central issues of philosophy have been seen to be ontology and epistemology: what is really real and how do we know? Debates were between rationalists and empiricists, idealists and materialists. According to Neiman the history of philosophy can better be understood as attempts to make sense of evil in the world. Here the debate is between people who search for ultimate reasons or explanations why evil things happen, and people who say everything is just contingency and completely without meaning. Long ago people considered natural disasters to be evil, and they didn’t doubt there was always a reason for them. Often they were considered to be divine punishments for human actions. But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was a turning-point. A large number of innocent people were killed. Why? There was no reason for God to do this. The question became: why does God allow such things to happen if he is omnipotent and benificent. Leibniz’s answer was: even the best of all possible worlds must necessarily contain a certain amount of evil, given the laws of nature and free will. This he called the theodicy, or the defense of God, who couldn’t have created the world better than he did. Leibniz was later much ridiculed by people who argued that the world was in fact very evil. So either God is evil himself, or he has left his creation to fend for itself, or he doesn’t exist, and everything just happens for no reason. Voltaire, de Sade and Hume are examples of this viewpoint. Rousseau rehabilitated Leibniz. The world does have a moral order, just as it has a physical one, and it's essentially good. Just like the physical order the moral one can in principle be understood, and it's the task of people themselves to prevent natural evils by increasing knowledge and developing better technology. Humanity is not a passive victim but has itself a role and a responsibility in the moral order. In the same line of thinking Hegel later argued that evil is a matter of growing pains in a project that eventually leads to a full and perfect expression of the cosmic consciousness or world spirit. But from Lisbon onwards the idea grew that natural disasters were to be recognised as not really evil at all. They were just contingent acts of nature. Real evil is moral evil. This meant that not only are human beings responsible for not protecting themselves adequately against (natural) evil, they are the ones who perpetrate real evil, because they actually have a choice. Of course a materialist might argue (Neiman doesn't do this), that humans are also a part of nature, as biological mechanisms who ultimately act according to the laws of nature. So what appears to us as moral evil is from a completely objective viewpoint really just a matter of natural disasters too. Not even disasters, just events. Then again, it's impossible for us to occupy such an objective viewpoint, because as soon as we try, it's just our own viewpoint again. Maybe this is why philosophy decided to focus on ontological issues instead, and to leave the problem of evil to religion. Auschwitz was the second turning-point, which spectacularly put this moral evil on display, including the banality of it. Not only evil or ignorant people, but ordinary people committed evil acts, even from their desk, as part of a bureaucracy. Neiman added an epilogue to her book that deals with the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Surprisingly and disappointingly, because I had agreed with her so much up to that point, in such a clear-cut case of evil Neiman takes a view associated with certain American liberals who push a narrative in which 'the West' is to blame for causing so much trouble for downtrodden and exploited peoples from elsewhere that they have no other option than to retaliate in such a desperate way. In a sense, she takes a Rousseau-like position in seeing 9-11 as a kind of natural disaster that is our own fault. The perpetrators being a kind of force of nature, like animals driven into a corner by us. A more realistic view would be that the perpetrators simply hate us for what we are in their eyes: infidels who are succesful and occupy a position of power in the world that rightfully belongs to Islam. Anyway, apart from the epilogue I found this a very well-written and thoughtful book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Pavlo

    OK, I have to read this... Seems promising so far, and not really a "why is evil?" book. "Does the presence of this sort of old-fashioned evil cast doubt on the analysis of its more banal and subtle forms? Only for those who believe that evil has an essence which stays constant through its appearances. This book argues that it does not. Our understanding of evil has changed sharply over time. Attempts to capture the forms of evil within a single formula risk becoming one-sided or trivial. Neither OK, I have to read this... Seems promising so far, and not really a "why is evil?" book. "Does the presence of this sort of old-fashioned evil cast doubt on the analysis of its more banal and subtle forms? Only for those who believe that evil has an essence which stays constant through its appearances. This book argues that it does not. Our understanding of evil has changed sharply over time. Attempts to capture the forms of evil within a single formula risk becoming one-sided or trivial. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Adolf Eichmann is uniquely paradigmatic, and an account of evil cut solely to fit one or the other will leave out something we ignore at our peril. While both men represent forms that evil can take, neither man exhausts them."

  29. 5 out of 5

    Wu Shih

    La storia della filosofia moderna riletta come risposta alla domanda: perchè esiste il male?

  30. 5 out of 5

    Andy Huber

    SarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasm... There is no Sarkasm :d She is beautifull :* I was playing with the thought about to study philosophy, than i read the book, and all was fine :d I didnt go there LOL She is perfekt, who she did in explaining and writing about what philophs do. And a bit of history and a bit there... It was not so easy to understand for me. Hard reading. Thank SarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasmSarkasm... There is no Sarkasm :d She is beautifull :* I was playing with the thought about to study philosophy, than i read the book, and all was fine :d I didnt go there LOL She is perfekt, who she did in explaining and writing about what philophs do. And a bit of history and a bit there... It was not so easy to understand for me. Hard reading. Thanks for the understanding what phylosopy is. For me - it is the roadway under vienna, a tree where the leaves starts Also you can see the breakdance, phylosopical mirrored.

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