Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy

Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy

by Susan Neiman


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ISBN-13: 9780691168500
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Series: Princeton Classics , #17
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 567,408
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. Her books include Why Grow Up? and Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Princeton).

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Evil in Modern Thought

An Alternative History of Philosophy

By Susan Neiman


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7366-1



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. — Marx, Dissertation

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 upastronomical 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 workmanshipbut on the defects of Ptolemaic astronomy, which were all too apparent by 1697. It all depends where the emphasis falls. Had Alfonso asserted "If Ihad 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'scounsel 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 stepin 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 problemworse. 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 helpin 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 lessheartening 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? Ditto, likewise. Any justice? If He chooses. Every stepis 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. If this view makes God into a large and long-living parent, well-meaning but bounded, it does less violence to our intuitions than do other options. It may be hard to acknowledge God's limits, but it's less frightening than denying His goodwill. Manichaeism may not explain experience, but it certainly seems to reflect it, by underlining the bewildering alternation between good and evil that structures human life. Alfonso would have been unlikely to mutter if the natural world presented nothing but flawed machinery. It is just the presence of some matchless order, along with the existence of other parts without rhyme and reason, that caused his complaint. Some experience of understanding creates expectations of more. To be sure, the belief in such order long preceded modern science. Kant thought it was manifest in the change of the seasons. The fact that delicate flowers are preserved through winter storms should suffice to convince any skeptic that the world was designed by an awesome Creator. And if the coming of spring may seem more of a miracle in East Prussia than in the south of Spain, it's an event that can evoke wonder anywhere.

Ordinary wonder at the world's bits of order makes ordinary experience fractured. Discontinuity between understanding and blind groping, decency and horror, frames the texture of our lives. Thus, Bayle concludes, Manichaeism is the most reasonable response to experience. Let us take his conclusion at face value. Reason's response to experience is a demand for Manichaeism. Faith's response is affirmation of Christianity. In 1697, even in the progressive Holland where Bayle was writing, it is not hard to guess which of the two will be condemned.


Excerpted from Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition xi

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

Chapter One: Fire From Heaven 14

God’s Advocates: Leibniz and Pope 18

Newton of the Mind: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 36

Divided Wisdom: Immanuel Kant 57

Real and Rational: Hegel and Marx 84

In Conclusion 109

Chapter Two: Condemning the Architect 113

Raw Material: Bayle’s Dictionary 116

Voltaire’s Destinies 128

The Impotence of Reason: David Hume 148

End of the Tunnel: The Marquis de Sade 170

Schopenhauer: The World as Tribunal 196

Chapter Three: Ends of an Illusion 203

Eternal Choices: Nietzsche on Redemption 206

On Consolation: Freud vs. Providence 227

Chapter Four: Homeless 238

Earthquakes: Why Lisbon? 240

Mass Murders: Why Auschwitz? 250

Losses: Ending Modern Theodicies 258

Intentions: Meaning and Malice 267

Terror: After September 11 281

Remains: Camus, Arendt, Critical Theory, Rawls 288

Origins: Sufficient Reason 314

Afterword to the Princeton Classics Edition 329

Notes 351

Bibliography 361

Index 369

What People are Saying About This

Michael Walzer

This is a splendid book; it will be widely read and much discussed. Working from the assumption that philosophers ought to attend to 'the questions that brought us here,' Susan Neiman has given us a brilliant reading of those who have done just that. Her history of philosophy is also a philosophical argument: that evil is the central question driving the best modern philosophy, and that it is not only a moral question but a metaphysical one. The book is written with grace and wit; again and again, Neiman writes the kind of sentences we dream of uttering in the perfect conversation: where every mot is bon. This is exemplary philosophy.

J. B. Schneewind

A brilliant study of changes in our understanding of evil from the book of Job through the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and on to the Holocaust and September 11. Neiman makes a powerful case for taking that problem as central to the history of modern philosophy, and her analysis of our present resources for coping with evil are provocative as well as profound. It's an immensely illuminating book.

Clifford Geertz

In tracing the responses to the problem of evil from the Enlightenment, when the question was why the Lisbon earthquake and the engagés were Voltaire, Leibniz, Pope, and Rousseau, to the present, when it is why Auschwitz and they are Améry, Arendt, Camus, and Adorno, Neiman has made an original and powerful contribution to the analysis of an intractable moral issue: how to live with the fact that neither God nor nature seems concerned with our fate. Succinctly, steadily, and relentlessly written, the history of philosophy as philosophy could hardly be better done.

Todd Gitlin

Even—or especially—to a nonphilosopher like myself, Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought offers intellectual adventure of a high order. The audacity of her recasting of Western philosophy is matched by its profundity—and frequent wit. Its challenges are as bracing as they are essential. Her intellectual fearlessness deserves the closest and widest attention.

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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
ShaneTierney on LibraryThing 10 months ago
To judge the author by her work, Nieman seems well-read and well-studied. Too much seemed filtered through Kant. Generally a pretty big lean toward German philosophy, which isn¿t bad in itself but it is supposed to be `modern thought¿ --though the subtitle of the book is `an alternate history of philosophy¿ so maybe that's how she considers it alternate... And really, no Spinoza? Seems disjointed, disorganized, from sometimes from section to section but especially from sentence to sentence, especially the first half of the book. Occasionally found myself reading and thinking `how does that sentence follow from the previous two?' And then a third that had me deciphering its relation to the last three. Or a controversial statement hanging with little (or not enough) relation to previous argument and no further explanation (¿When white southern Americans lynched their black neighbors, there was still hope for the idea of civilization. When Germans deported their Jewish neighbors, there was not even that.¿) Chapter 3 on Nietzsche and Freud begins with review of previous chapters evolving over 3 pages to how Nietzsche is hard to classify with historical designations, fine. Then page 206 heading `Eternal Choices: Nietzsche on Redemption¿, begins with the question `would you live your life over if given the chance¿ (as if Eternal Recurrence could be simplified thus?), and takes up with Oedipus at Colonus, then Liebnitz, and into Voltaire through page 207, then Hume and Kant through 208, Schopenhauer and Goethe 209-210, Voltaire and Rousseau 210-211, most of whom already had sections in chapters 1 and 2. When Nietzsche arrives 6 pages later it¿s almost a surprise.Annoyingly, especially in the first two chapters, Nieman would wax philosophical on a point and then give a quote (usually more brief and consice than her exegesis) from the philosopher being considered as though the quote somehow validates her point, when really she was explaining the philosopher¿s point in a preemptive way. She should instead make a statement, provide the quote, and then give her theory and explanation on how it fits her theme and proves her point. Nieman¿s message is too tied up in her convoluted method. Pg 253 ¿Before trying to elucidate the claim that Auschwitz represents new forms of evil, it is important to mention two common ways of rejecting it.¿ Wouldn¿t the normal method be to make the claim, elucidate it, mention objections, over come them? Had high expectations, so disappointed. Erudite and maybe, maybe ultimately worthwhile, but disorganized, scattered and frustrating. To say I disagree with some of her conclusions in the final chapter (yet another misinterpretation of eternal recurrence, and its application to Auschwitz; philosophical mechanisms and ramifications of Auschwitz, disengagement of evil and intention) would not ordinarily be to condemn the book, but again, the methodology and organization of ideas are so haphazard that annoyance with the author constantly got in the way of enjoying the book on almost any level. Guess a review would never be this long if I liked the book.
rgstinson More than 1 year ago
Neiman again proves she is among the best philosophers working today. The book is a rare combination of classical philosophical review and innovative interpretation. She is able to expound upon complex philosophical arguments within a thematic structure that makes the material accessible to those only modestly familiar with the primary works while still providing depth that will both enlighten and enthuse readers well-grounded in the Western philosophic traditions. I have used this book in several classes and find students engaged by her writing. Her examination of the philosophical problems of evil are particularly important in our modern era where issues of mass violence and suffering appear to be the norm.
Guest More than 1 year ago
"Evil in Modern Thought" is a well-written and thought-provoking review of Western philosophy's struggles with the problem of Evil. Susan Neiman views this problem "as the guiding force of modern thought." Recognizing the controversiality of her contention she sub-titles her book, "An Alternative History of Philosophy." Neiman takes us along on her philosophical journey into the writings of important 17-20th century Western thinkers. She groups these thinkers under chapter titles that neatly summarize their attempts at understanding evil. While presenting the salient features of their ideas, she asks them questions you'd want to ask yourself. Neiman states that what constitutes evil has changed - evil today stands for "absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation." The author asks: "How can human beings behave in ways that so thoroughly violate both reasonable and rational norms"? Chapter 1, "Fire From Heaven" includes the thinkers who stole God's fire for man: Leibniz; Pope; Rousseau, Kant; Hegel and Marx. We start with the words of an 11-th century Castilian king embodying man's growing urge to independent thinking: "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better." At first, faith reigns supreme; we meet Leibniz, who thinks God has ordered all things for the best. His work, the "Theodicy" attempts the conformity of faith with reason. But the poet, Pope, nudges God aside with: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man. Rousseau was the first thinker to treat the problem of evil as a philosophical one. He states evil "is a catalog of mistaken acts that can be rectified in the future." Knowledge, not penance is needed. His account of evil was naturalistic because it required no reference to supernatural forces or sin. Kant followed through on Pope by setting limits to mortal reasoning about God: questions about God and his purposes are out of bounds and speculating on God is idolatry; he believed in the existence of a "Moral Law" that is supreme - and that we are duty-bound to obey. Purpose is not in nature but in Reason (we define our purposes). For Hegel and Marx there are forces at work that drive humanity - not God but the force of History (Hegel) toward greater freedom and knowledge and the forces of human creative work (Marx). Mankind must take responsibility for the world rather than explain it. God is man (Marx). Hegel wanted to eliminate the contingent; perhaps he epitomized, better than any other philosopher, man's quest for certainty. Chapter 2, "Condemning the Architect" posits that God's creation is flawed. We are introduced to Bayle; Voltaire; Hume; de Sade and Schopenhauer. Voltaire railed against a benevolent world-view that tried to explain away the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which several thousand people died. Bayle said faith requires a crucifixion of the intellect and that God is responsible for all evil - Reason thus leaves God condemned. We commiserate with Voltaire's plaint: "we miserable little animals have the right to wonder about our misery!" When we reach David Hume we're told the emperor has no clothes: reason is not up to the task its been assigned (reasoning about God and evil is doomed to frustration). And what to make of de Sade: an original thinker who wrote violently pornographic works - and who rather than merely state that man is capable of horrifying and despicable acts, bestowed upon us horrifying human specimans as though to show God himself what his "wonderful" creation was capable of. As Neiman states: "he tried very hard to stop at nothing." And by doing so, he condemned the Creator himself: for how could a benevolent God create creatures the likes of those de Sade depicted. Chapter 3, "Ends of an Illusion" recounts the condemnation of man's religious-based rationalizations by branding them anti-life (Nietzsche) and infantil
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the kind of book you want to buy for all your friends so you can argue about it. It's the kind of book you want to get an extra copy of so your spouse can read it at the same time and you can talk your way through it. It's the kind of book that will be a required text of most philosophy 101 classes in ten years' time, and the one text you reread ten years after graduating. It is witty without being glib, accessible without being remotely condescending. It's both brilliant and brave because it dares to remind us why anyone was interested in philosophy in the first place and why we need it.