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Toronto Globe & MailNeiman's book is a welcome contribution to a philosophical conversation too long neglected.
— Barry Allen
Evil threatens human reason, for it challenges our hope that the world makes sense. For eighteenth-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Today we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, and Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Susan Neiman explores who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from 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 human 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, and relevance, until Nietzsche claimed He had 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.
"Neiman's book is a welcome contribution to a philosophical conversation too long neglected."--Barry Allen, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Neiman argues that when we ask why the world is the way it is, rather than the way it ought to be, that's the same as thinking about evil. . . . If there is only a single standard of good behavior, then no matter how honestly we believe in our causes--in democracy, for instance, as opposed to tyranny or religious totalitarianism--we are never allowed to stop worrying about our own morality when we march forth to defend them."--Judith Shulevitz, New York Times Book Review
"Neiman argues that, confronted with the enormity of the Holocaust, 20th-century thinkers found new grounds to conclude that what we call evil reflects nothing so much as the unintelligibility of the world. . . . [Her] conclusion is that we should neither abandon reason nor demand the impossible from it but rather rely on it as much as we can to identify the forms of suffering and acts of cruelty that we have the power to prevent, remedy or diminish."--Peter Berkowitz, Washington Post Book World
"Superb... Neiman's claim to have written an alternative history is not an empty boast."--First Things
"Neiman's audacity and occasionally morbid wit are a welcome addition to contemporary philosophy. If there is any hope after Auschwitz, we may find it in the fact that human minds will not stop trying to make some kind of meaning out of it."--Alan Wolfe, Books & Culture
"Neiman's narrative . . . sheds light not just on the writings of particular thinkers, but also on their relation to one another. And it helps us begin to understand certain facts about the modern period that current philosophers find baffling."--Thomas Hibbs, The Weekly Standard
"Neiman's book is written with considerable flair, as many critics have already noted, but it possesses a far rarer and more valuable quality: moral seriousness. Her argument builds a powerful emotional force, a sense of deep inevitability. . . . It is not often that a work of such dark conclusions has felt so hopeful and brave."--Mark Kingwell, Wilson Quarterly
Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus: "In one word, I hate all the gods," is its very own confession, its own sentence against all heavenly and earthly gods who refuse to recognize human self-consciousness as the supreme divinity-by the side of which none other shall be held.
He may be the first Enlightenment hero. Alfonso X became king of Castile in 1252, and his reign was full of trouble from the start. He repudiated his wife, on the ground that she was barren, then sent to Denmark for another. By the time the princess of Denmark arrived in Spain, the queen was pregnant with the first of nine children she would bring into the world. Neither woman ever forgave Alfonso, though his brother, archbishop of Seville, gave up his seat to marry the Danish princess. The learning and eloquence that gave Alfonso a splendid reputation in other countries did not impress his Castilian contemporaries, who seemed to resent him. Though he was the first king of Castile who caused public acts to be written in the Spanish tongue, and commissioned a Spanish translation of the Bible, it didn't lead to the flowering of local culture that translations into the vernacular produced in neighboring France. Rather, many later historians held the works he sponsored to be responsible for the ignorance and barbarity that they claimed spread over Spain. The children he had longed for turned out to be ingrates. One of them, Sancho, tired of waiting to inherit the throne and conspired with the king of Granada to overthrow his father. Alfonso's death in 1284 put an end to the ensuing civil war but not to his misfortune, for his will was entirely ignored: the rebel Sancho remained on the throne, and his own heart, which he had ordered buried on Mount Calvary, was left to molder with his other remains in Seville.
Medieval and early modern thinkers viewed this saga as a confirmation of Providence. All Alfonso's troubles were punishment for one nearly unspeakable sin, and hence were confirmation of God's presence, justice, and even capacity for irony. For Sancho's rebellion, in particular, was the fitting response to the rebellion his own father instigated against the Heavenly Father Himself. Alfonso's revolt began as an act of scholarship. He sent to Toledo for learned Jews to instruct him in astronomy and commissioned one Rabbi Isaac Hazan to draw up astronomical tables, known thereafter as Tablas Alfonsinas, at considerable expense. After several years of intensive study, Alfonso remarked, "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better."
This little sentence, or some variation of it, expressed the essence of blasphemy for close to half a millennium. Bayle said no one was ignorant of Alfonso's astronomical studies and their consequences, and was scrupulous in footnoting numerous variants of the story. In several of them, even the rebellion of his son wasn't considered sufficient punishment. One who presumed to judge the heavens should be answered more directly, so a number of commentators had Alfonso or his family hit by lightning. A certain Rodericus Sanctius wrote that an angel appeared in a dream to convey a message from the celestial council warning Alfonso to repent.
But Alphonsus laughed, and repeated his blasphemy.... The Night following there were such horrible storms, accompanied with Thunder and Lightning, as if Heaven was falling. The Fire from Heaven burned, in Alphonsus' chamber, the King and Queen's Cloaths; then the Prince in Distress sent for the Hermit, confessed his Sins to him, cried, humbled himself, and retracted his Blasphemy. The more he wept, the more the Storm diminished, and at last quite ceased. (Bayle 2,380)
Bayle contested this account and other versions involving lightning. Such a wonderful accident, he argued, would be confirmed by more sources, particularly if it took place in Spain, whose inhabitants were always delighted to find evidence of miracles. Bayle wished to naturalize the story and may thereby be Alfonso's first defender. The king, in Bayle's account, committed prosaic sins: he neglected domestic political interests in favor of astronomical learning, preferring to "make a Noise" in foreign countries by cultivating his knowledge rather than attending to relations with his family and other subjects. Here we see ordinary, not criminal, narcissism. Though the former might render his subsequent downfall more comprehensible, Bayle still did not think he deserved it. On the contrary. Bayle devoted several footnotes to the infamous sentence and gave it a modern and more charitable reading. Alfonso's belief that the heavens look remarkably disordered may be a comment not on God's workmanship but on the defects of Ptolemaic astronomy, which were all too apparent by 1697. It all depends where the emphasis falls. Had Alfonso asserted "If I had been of God's counsel at Creation ...," it would indeed sound like scandalous conceit. But, Bayle proposes, the claim could be read as follows: "If I had been of God's counsel at Creation...." In that case the object of derision is not the Creator but the sorry medieval astronomers, whose ridiculous system did no honor to Him.
Whether or not we sympathize with such nascent deconstruction, we are likely to support Bayle, and to go several steps further. Alfonso's remark will strike modern readers as so harmless that the wrath it provoked for centuries, much less the possible judgment of heaven, will be hard to understand. Even those who take patience and humility to be primary virtues can view Alfonso as manifesting them. He might, after all, have left the cosmic order to divine jurisdiction and devoted his attention to the business of earthly kings, like falconry and wenching. It would have been simpler, and brought simpler rewards: all Alfonso got for the years spent learning to calculate epicycles was the dubious blessing of posthumous notoriety. Since it wasn't even good science, not even a glimpse of the truth crowned his efforts. His life, by all counts, looks a model of failure. Yet apart from the vanity that might afflict anyone, his motives were perfectly good ones. Alfonso sought to learn the secrets of the science that was viewed as the very highest so as better to understand and revere the Creation. And in uttering the remark that made him famous, there was no wish to blaspheme, just to point out the truth: an ordinary, hardworking Spanish king could design a better world than the one received wisdom ascribed to an omnipotent Creator.
His fate, therefore, will seem hardly more just than Job's, whose story of endless suffering was also paradigmatic for writers concerned with the problem of evil. It is important to note that, like Alfonso's misfortunes, Job's were not viewed as unfair until a very late date. Sometime during the Enlightenment, commentators stopped looking for ways in which Job's torments could be justified. According to Kant, who wrote a wonderful essay on the subject, they had previously done so in the hope that God would be eavesdropping. Having lost that hope, they had less motivation to try out variations on possible theodicies, which showed either that Job was secretly guilty of something after all, so that loss of all he had was justified punishment, or that he was being tried today to be rewarded the more surely tomorrow. Earlier writers identified with Job's friends, the theodicy-makers who found justification. Later ones identified with Job, who found none. Tracing this development might be an interesting way of spending a lifetime, which wouldn't be long enough to examine the vast literature the Book of Job inspired. But let us return to Alfonso, whose remark hardly reached the presumption of his biblical predecessor. Job did not go so far as to follow his wife's suggestion that he curse God and die, but he did curse the day he was born, close enough to cursing Creation itself. Alfonso only suggested that it could be improved.
I will argue that Alfonso was less harmless than we think. Medieval observers were not entirely mistaken in reading his wish to advise God as the first step in a process that led to something they could not have imagined: not only the nineteenth century's wish to displace God but Nietzsche's announcement that the deed had been done and was no longer even shocking. Let's begin by considering the functions Alfonso performed in the Enlightenment.
God's Advocates: Leibniz and Pope
Leibniz wrote that everyone condemns Alfonso's opinion that the world could be better. He joined in the general condemnation and wondered why, despite it, the world of philosophers and theologians contained so many latter-day Alfonsos. For anyone who thinks God could have made the world better and chose not to do so thinks that God is not as good as He could be. Leibniz put the point gently. His Theodicy is one long response to the work of Bayle, who minced fewer words. History, said Bayle, is the history of the crimes and misfortunes of the human race. A God who could have created a world that contained fewer crimes and misfortunes, and chose not to do so, seems nothing but a giant criminal Himself.
Leibniz invented the word theodicy to describe the defense of God in categories taken from legal discourse. Before we examine his defense, let us look at the attack that provoked it. Bayle's work will be examined on its own terms in chapter 2. Here I wish simply to mark what was exceptional in the charges he laid at God's door. God had been on trial since the Book of Job, at the latest, and if the framers of that text pressed any point with clarity, it's that He had it coming. For we, the readers, can see that things are even worse than Job suspects. He begs for understanding. Suppose he had known that the death of his ten children was the result of a bet God made with Satan, like two thuggish schoolboys contesting for power? One who undertakes to try the righteous in such ways will be called to account sooner or later Himself. Job, who cannot read the prologue to his story, might be satisfied by God's mere appearance as a witness, but later ages would demand more in the way of defense. As the crimes He was charged with looked graver and graver, and He seemed unwilling even to appear to address the accusations, modern writers felt bound to condemn him, in absentia, to something like death.
Bayle argued that Christianity made the problem worse. Before Bayle it was easier to view Christianity as a sensible solution to the problem of evil. As one believer put it, "Job is the question, and Jesus is the answer." The details of the solution are as various as the differences in Christian doctrine, but the statement marks the belief in messianic redemption, and the hope for eternal life, at the core of any Christian view. God Himself, in those views, took on as cruel a set of punishments as any human ever suffered. Indeed, they were made all the crueler by the fact of his utter innocence. His miraculous resurrection, which would make the agony on the cross seem a fleeting nightmare, is a prototype of that open to anyone who chooses to believe in the miracle.
Belief in miracles, for Bayle, was not a problem. He regarded the world as generally mysterious. One more break in a rather incomprehensible natural order would pose no great difficulty (Bayle 1, 194). The problem lies, rather, in the internal structure of the Christian solution itself. The torments of the damned, even without the doctrine of predestination, are the block on which reason stumbles. For however bad a sin may be, it has to be finite. An infinite amount of hellfire is therefore simply unjust. To imagine a God who judges many of the 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.
Matters were far worse for those who accept the doctrine of predestination. Though neither Bayle nor Leibniz did so, both took it very seriously. Manichaean heresies viewed the world as ruled by good and evil principles forever engaged in conflict. Bayle thought Manichaeism would be far more prevalent had it developed in an age that took predestination as seriously as did his own. Anyone who believes that our worldviews have become less heartening over time should recall the basic elements of that doctrine. According to Calvinism, the number of those who will be eternally damned is much larger than the number of those who will be eventually saved. Who shall be redeemed is decided by God at, or before, the moment of birth. Any action you perform may reflect your prospects of burning forever, but nothing you can do will affect them. Sade himself made an effort, but was unable to invent something worse, and no modern tyrant even tried. Death is a mercy here entirely lacking. Torture without limit falls on unbaptized babies, noble princes, and brutal gangsters alike-and its author is the Creator we are bound to revere.
The doctrine is the logic of omnipotence gone mad. Is the Creator all-powerful? But of course. Then He can do what He wants? Just the meaning of power. Can He break all the laws? Well, He made them. Laws of reason? We should judge Him? Laws of justice? Laws of justice? Ditto, likewise. Any justice? If He chooses. Every step is unexceptionable, till we are led to a system choked with evil so inscrutable that we turn to modern worldviews for relief. Sheer randomness will be a respite.
It is just the randomness of guilt and punishment, along with the presence of good as well as evil, that creates philosophical problems. For even Bayle knew that life contains something besides vice and pain. The fact that we sometimes meet up with virtue and happiness is just what's confusing. If all of humankind were wicked and miserable, we could conclude it to be the creation of a wicked and miserable deity, who created in his own image and for his own perverse pleasure. If the justice of such a world weren't obviously apparent, it would be hard to find anyone who might care. But this is not the world we live in. Bayle says it's the mixture of happiness and suffering, wickedness and virtue, that leads us to reflection and makes Manichaeism seem the most reasonable of views. The picture of a world ruled by good and evil principles locked in perpetual struggle preserves belief in God's benevolence. Far from being the Author of sin and misery, God is always attempting to prevent it. He is simply hindered by the strength of His opponent.
Excerpted from EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT by SUSAN NEIMAN
Copyright © 2002 by PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 24, 2012
This is a book of remarkable scope and style. As an assessment of the essential problems of philosophy (in this case, the singular problem of evil), it qualifies as a modern classic. After a first reading, one is struck with the breadth and precision of her vision of the history of the Western mind. Subsequent reading and review only further impress. Sometimes I like to open a random page, and meditate upon a passage or a single sentence-gem. Few books can offer us such an experience. Among modern philosophers, her prose stands alone in its clarity and elegance. After reading this book, one has a panoramic view of Western thought that few other books can offer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 30, 2009
Me and my daughter had interested reading in the matter. She thinks it is quite good and she doesn't usually do that to other books she read and she's only a junior high school student.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 25, 2009
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