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In Out of Eden, Paul W. Kahn offers a philosophical meditation on the problem of evil. He uses the Genesis story of the Fall as the starting point for a profound articulation of the human condition. Kahn shows us that evil expresses the rage of a subject who knows both that he is an image of an infinite God and that he must die. Kahn's interpretation of Genesis leads him to inquiries into a variety of modern forms of evil, including slavery, torture, and genocide.
Kahn takes issue with Hannah Arendt's theory of the banality of evil, arguing that her view is an instance of the modern world's lost capacity to speak of evil. Psychological, social, and political accounts do not explain evil as much as explain it away. Focusing on the existential roots of evil rather than on the occasions for its appearance, Kahn argues that evil originates in man's flight from death. He urges us to see that the opposite of evil is not good, but love: while evil would master death, love would transcend it.
Offering a unique perspective that combines political and cultural theory, law, and philosophy, Kahn here continues his project of advancing a political theology of modernity.
"Kahn makes a powerful case for the reality of good (which he calls 'love') as a form of self-sacrifice, and of its opposite, evil, which constitutes a denial of one's finitude."—Whitley R. P. Kaufman, Philosophy in Review
"Brilliant and essential. . . . [Kahn] establishes an enormously clarifying political theology of modernity, one that investigates the limits of our contemporary imagination."—Igor Webb, Common Review
"In Out of Eden, Paul W. Kahn . . . argues that the human condition—rather than political or social conditions—is the locus of evil. Using the lenses of political and cultural theory, law, and philosophy, Kahn takes a hard look at modern forms of evil, namely slavery, torture, and genocide. Evil, Kahn posits, in an existential problem."—Yale Law Report
Evil terrorizes, but not all that terrorizes is evil. We may be terrorized by illness, but we do not describe it as evil. Evil characterizes an actor, a group, or a regime; it is not simply a bad or frightful experience. Without a perception of agency, there can be terror but not evil. When the collapse of the sun replaced the Last Judgment in our imaginations, cosmology replaced eschatology. Imagining the end of the universe, we lose our moral bearings. We may feel terror, but there is no one to blame-whether ourselves or others-and so there is no demand that we do anything. With that, a subject of intense moral significance was replaced by one of scientific interest.
Evil is connected to death but not just as an expression of the scale of injury. The morally bad actor does not become evil when he moves from maiming to killing. Moreover, whatever the connection of evil and death not all that is evil arises out of a literal killing. Conversely, not every killing-not even large-scale death-has its origin in evil. Both the Final Solution and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration embody administrative rationality, but even if both envision large-scale death, only one is evil. A world without evil would be one in which we would still have to worry about bad actors, just as we would still have to worry about accidents. While all that is evil may be unjust and harmful, not every injustice and harm is evil.
Part of the problem of evil lies in its attraction. We see something of ourselves in evil; we are not always repulsed by what we see. We imagine ourselves as both terrorized and terrorizing. To grasp this double character of evil, we need to understand the nature of sin and not just bad events, of which unjust human action might be one source. After the Fall, the evil Adam confronts is not a threat from outside himself but one that arises from within. Evil, I argue, is not sin but a response to the condition of sin in which man finds himself. Stripped of the language of myth, we can say that evil is a response to the self-consciousness of death. The account of original sin is an effort to make comprehensible the terror in the face of our universal fate. Evil arises when and where man finds his own finitude an intolerable burden. Enlightenment promised to relieve man of the burdens of the sacred and the polluted, by putting reason in the place of faith. But enlightenment had no answer to the crisis of consciousness that arises with the awareness of death. Accordingly, enlightenment left open the space for evil but left us without the conceptual tools to understand the character of evil.
The terror of death is linked to the terrorizing of evil. Joseph Conrad vividly portrays this link in The Heart of Darkness. The protagonist, Kurtz simultaneously perceives the terror of existence-"the horror"-and expresses evil in his own life. Terror arises from an experience of powerlessness. The inevitability of death does not merely represent man's powerlessness; it is, rather, the very substance of that powerlessness. A world characterized by death-and Kurtz lives in a world surfeit with death-is one in which we all are susceptible to the perception of horror. Kurtz's evil is an assertion of power in the face of this horror. Formally, he occupies the ambiguous moral position of colonial commerce, which had the double mission of advancing one civilization and destroying another. Kurtz, however, turns on the intended beneficiaries-the natives-of this cultural gift. He becomes a kind of god to them because he has power-indeed, the power over life itself. He is, we might say, demonic.
Kurtz has become ineffective-powerless-from the perspective of his Western employers, but he is an image of power to those he lives among. Evil is at home in this simultaneous experience of powerlessness-the horror-and of power-the terrorizing. Because power and powerlessness can coexist in the same person, one can be evil and yet see oneself as a victim. Suffering from the terror of powerlessness, the subject asserts a power to master death.
Just here the inquiry into evil is as much metaphysical as it is psychological. We are asking how a finite being overcomes the experience of his or her own finitude. This question points to the intimate connection between love and evil: Kurtz is simultaneously an object of love and an expression of evil. The juxtaposition of love and evil was at the center of Freud's later work, in which he saw eros and thanatos as equiprimordial forces shaping the individual and civilization. It is hard not to see this antinomy when one looks at the dual, Western inheritance of "carnage and culture." Yet love and evil are not simply forces set in opposition to each other. Rather, they express ways of understanding the self in the world, ways that have an intimate and complex relationship to each other.
Already the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, presents an image of this relationship. The children go before God once they have mastered the culture of the earth in agriculture and husbandry-the labor to which Adam's sin condemned all his descendants. Abel finds favor with God; Cain does not. We are not told what God's acceptance means, but there is a suggestion that Abel is recovering some of what his parents lost, whereas Cain remains condemned to a life of labor and death. When God rejects Cain's offering but takes Abel's, He says to Cain, "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" Cain, however, turns on Abel. He could have embraced Abel's good fortune in an expression of fraternal love; instead, he kills Abel. Cain's power to kill is matched with God's power to protect. Thus, after killing Abel and suffering exposure of his crime, Cain cries to God, "Whoever finds me will slay me." But God marks Cain "lest any who came upon him should kill him." Although the text turns quickly to a generational account, marking births and deaths, there is no mention of Cain's death. This is not to suggest that the evil do not die. We know that Cain dies, but his death is pushed off into an indefinite future that remains out of sight. This is an apt characterization of the power of evil over death: a pushing off, a delay of recognition, a flight.
The biblical story goes further. Cain does not exactly wander the earth. Instead, he founds a city, Enoch. The biblical narrative turns from Cain's generational and political accomplishments to the genealogy of Seth, the child Adam and Eve had in place of Abel. But in a textual confusion, the genealogy of Seth merges with that of Cain, leading to Enoch and finally to Noah. This confused history suggests a deeper point. Love and evil are not just equiprimordial, and they are not just in opposition. They are equally productive in the same dimension of human activity. The men of Noah's time are all judged by God to be evil-they are the descendants of Cain. But they are also the descendants of Seth, so there is among them love as well-Noah and his family. To eliminate evil requires a second, divine intervention: the flood. Neither love nor evil can do away with the other.
Here, then, in archetypal form, is an account of evil. Cain experiences again the terror of Adam's condemnation. Without God's acceptance, Cain remains destined to a life of labor and then death. He is condemned to this life for no apparent reason: like his brother, he, too, made an offering, but it was not accepted. Every person's death appears undeserved and irrational in just this way. Failing to receive divine acceptance, Cain asserts his own power over life and death: he kills his brother. The power of evil, moreover, is genuine: he does avoid his own death at the hands of others. Death is put off. But the power of evil is never separate from the experience of terror. His punishment is worse than the one for Adam's sin: "When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength." Cain declares, "My punishment is greater than I can bear." But bear it he does, for man's capacity for suffering is virtually endless. His suffering is matched by his power over other men: he builds a city and founds a line. Men would kill him if they could, just as they would kill countless, later rulers. They do not, and we cannot help but suspect that it is not the mark, but love, that saves him. For founders are loved even as they are feared.
Together Cain and Abel tell us that we cannot identify evil with man's fallen state, not if we want the concept to do any work for us. After the Fall, all have the potential for evil; there is nothing special about Cain. It could have been Abel who killed Cain. Evil is not the condition in which we find ourselves but a form of response to that condition. For that reason, evil is deeply intertwined with that which is creative or constructive in our nature. Satan is often represented as possessing knowledge and culture. Again, consider Kurtz, the agent of European civilization. Seeking to overcome death, we are never far from evil even as we build those deathless products of human creativity: culture, polity, family. Evil is disturbingly close to love.
Evil seems to threaten from without-to terrorize-but to come from within. Focusing on either the inward or the outward aspect alone misses the phenomenon. Viewed from the outside, evil becomes just another source of terror, that is, a part of the horror of it all. Among the horrors of the world are evil men: Abel is killed by his brother. Viewed from the inside, evil becomes just another form of psychological pathology. Evil is to be explained by jealousy, ambition, or rage: Cain is jealous of Abel. Both these accounts appeal to the logic of causal representation. Evil is categorized alongside other phenomena, whether internal or external. Implicit in these accounts is the assumption that we can master evil once we understand it, which means to assign it a cause. Either we can avoid it through oppression and containment-the outside perspective-or we can treat it-the inside perspective. Avoidance and treatment characterize our attitudes toward disease. Not surprisingly, some theories of evil speak of it quite openly as a kind of disease.
But evil is not a disease; it is not even analogous to a disease. Every effort to treat evil as if it were a disease fails, because it is not possible to identify the cause or set of causes that leads to evil. Where and when evil will appear is always unpredictable. There is no constellation of factors, whether psychological or sociological, from which we can confidently predict the appearance of evil. We cannot say that the well-off are less likely to be evil than the poor or that culture and education protect us against evil. There is an implicit acknowledgment of this when people warn, "If the Holocaust could happen in Germany, the center of European culture, then it could happen anywhere." We see the phenomenon of Cain and Abel repeated endlessly within families: children raised by the same parents turn out to have completely different moral characters. Again the analogy to love is exact: we cannot identify the conditions in which individuals will realize a love of others, whether individuals or communities. This is not to say that we cannot offer an explanation, point to patterns of causation in particular individuals or groups. But we cannot generalize from any such narrative of an individual or a community. Christianity, with its faith in love, arose within conditions of misery and destitution. That hardly means that we should pursue suffering to find love, although certainly some Christians have done just that.
THE TERROR OF OEDIPUS
We can get a better sense of evil by looking first in a direction from which evil does not appear. The Greeks had myths of terror and powerlessness. They, too, thought about the possibility that man's labor could fail, that it could produce the opposite of its intended aim. Nevertheless, theirs were not myths of evil. Oedipus's experience terrifies; he, too, can speak of the horror. Even blind and old, he terrorizes others. He is polluted, but he is not evil. He only becomes evil on a modern rereading. To make him evil, we have to replace the Greek idea of pollution with a Judeo-Christian idea of sin. We have to assign Oedipus an agency that he lacks in Sophocles' account. Indeed, the very point of Sophocles' play is to say that Oedipus is incapable of such agency. To make Oedipus evil, we first have to kill the Olympian gods and then invest Oedipus with a subconscious.
What terrorized the Greeks was the world, not the inner life. When the Greeks thought about the terror of human existence, they produced tragedy. Tragedy gives the audience just what subjects lack in their ordinary lives: knowledge of the reality that is creating the appearance on the stage. The audience sees what the actor cannot see. Seeing both the actor and the context, the audience understands the drama to represent a gap in knowledge. The play's action is the overcoming of that gap-a direction and goal that the audience perceives as necessary from the moment the play begins. In this sense, the audience knows the whole from the beginning, and experiences a reduction in tension as the perceptions of actor and audience converge at the end. To the extent that the audience identifies with Oedipus onstage, it shares in his experience of terror. But to the extent that the spectator reminds himself that he is not onstage, that he has a comprehensive view of both the stage appearance and its cause, he has some control over that terror. Oedipus may blind himself, but the audience is never blind. The audience can thereby experience a kind of catharsis that is not available to the actor, whether on the stage or in real life. Greek tragedy reveals the terror of life itself-a terror rooted in what we cannot know-but does so in a context within which it is cabined, allowing some temporary relief from the horror of it all.
To see the causes of appearances-to see what men literally cannot see-is to be beyond terror. For this reason, there is nothing of terror in Greek philosophy, which strives to penetrate appearances and to see the real. Plato's cave-the most famous metaphor in all classical philosophy-is all about shifting positions such that one sees fully the context within which the human drama is set. Still today, this is the ambition of reason. If reason can grasp the real, it can provide a firm ground for practical action, whether of social construction or individual therapy. The philosopher turned therapist takes up the position of the classical playwright who brings together, if only temporarily, appearance and reality at the play's conclusion. Psychoanalysis is the construction of just such a drama in which the patient becomes the audience to his own performance. Plato, who would banish the poets from his ideal city, is only the first of a long line of philosophers, psychoanalysts, economists, and others who would drive illusion from the society: they rally to the cry, "To the facts themselves."
Plato's Republic, for example, is a profound psychological work, but the psychological problems with which it deals are political problems with political solutions: how to educate a military class, how to produce leaders who will not abuse public power for private ends, how to produce a stable relationship between feelings of familial love and feelings of political identity. Even when the psychological concerns advance beyond the possibilities of ordinary politics, the goal remains pedagogic: how to train philosophers who can see the ultimate unity of being and the good. This is a world in which mistakes will be made, in which there are plenty of human deficiencies to be overcome, but not a world in which terror makes any appearance.
To the degree that concerns with death do appear in the Republic, they are met by myths designed to meet the same pedagogic goals. Within the city, death is, first of all, a problem of courage: one must hold to politically appropriate beliefs even under the stress of battle. Elsewhere the message of Plato's dialogues broadens to the relationship of death to other virtues: given what we know about justice and the good, it is irrational to fear death. Indeed, in the Phaedo, Socrates goes so far as to say that philosophy itself is a practice of dying, by which he means that the philosopher takes no notice of death. He takes no notice, because he has already withdrawn from that special concern for the self that others associate with dying. To the thinking mind, death makes no appearance because death, in and of itself, has no meaning. Meaning is located in the objects of reason, which are quite independent of any individual's existence or nonexistence. Plato's point is clearer to us if we consider a discipline like mathematics. Death makes no appearance in mathematics because the individual makes no appearance. Only in such disciplines of pure reason does the thinking soul truly find itself, for it overcomes the separation between thought and the object of thought. The terror of Oedipus, Plato suggests, rests upon a gap between appearance and reality. The philosopher forsakes appearances; his truth is not of this world. With that, the gap is to disappear.
Excerpted from Out of Eden by Paul W. Kahn Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Introduction: The Study of Evil 1
Chapter 1: A Preliminary Meditation on Oedipus and Adam 16
Chapter 2: Evil and the Image of the Sacred 53
Chapter 3: Love and Evil 106
Chapter 4: Political Evil: Slavery and the Shame of Nature 143
Chapter 5: Political Evil: Killing, Sacrifice, and the Image of God 174
Conclusion: Tragedy, Comedy, and the Banality of Evil 211