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As long as we care about suffering in the world, says political philosopher Simona Forti, we are compelled to inquire into the question of evil. But is the concept of evil still useful in a postmodern landscape where absolute values have been leveled and relativized by a historicist perspective? Given our current unwillingness to judge others, what signposts remain to guide our ethical behavior?
Surveying the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western philosophical debates on evil, Forti concludes that it is time to leave behind what she calls "the Dostoevsky paradigm": the dualistic vision of an omnipotent monster pitted against absolute, helpless victims. No longer capable of grasping the normalization of evil in today's worldwhose structures of power have been transformedthis paradigm has exhausted its explanatory force.
In its place, Forti offers a different genealogy of the relationship between evil and power, one that finally calls into question power's recurrent link to transgression. At the center of contemporary evil she posits the passive attitude towards rule-following, the need for normalcy, and the desire for obedience nurtured by our contemporary mass democracies. In our times, she contends, evil must be explored in tandem with our stubborn desire to stay alive at all costs as much as with our deep need for recognition: the new modern absolutes. A courageous book, New Demons extends an original, inspiring call to ethical living in a biopolitical age.
About the Author
Simona Forti is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Italy.
Read an Excerpt
Rethinking Power and Evil Today
By Simona Forti, Zakiya Hanafi
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore
All rights reserved.
The Dostoevsky Paradigm
He was a very handsome young man, about twenty-five years old, and I confess I found him striking. I expected to see some dirty ragamuffin, wasted away from depravity and stinking of vodka. On the contrary, this was the most elegant gentleman of any I had ever happened to meet[....] I was also struck by his face: his hair was somehow too black, his light eyes were somehow too calm and clear, his complexion was somehow too delicate and white, his color somehow too bright and clean, his teeth like pearls, his lips like coral—the very image of beauty, it would seem, and at the same time repulsive, as it were.
The analogy that Dostoevsky implicitly suggests in this presentation is difficult to miss. The resemblance between Stavrogin and Lucifer is only too obvious. Like the highest fallen angel, Stavrogin is endowed with all the contrasting qualities that make him not only the greatest of the damned, but also the most magnificent. Dazzling and statuesque, even his beauty hides the power of a demonic charm that attracts and repels at the same time. Too full of himself to love anyone else, too smart to be a fanatic, too disillusioned not to be aware of his own faults, everything about him is hallmarked by excess. And, as many Dostoevsky critics have suggested, with Stavrogin what barges in is more than just the most disturbing protagonist of the novel. Along with him comes the ghost of the next century: the specter of nihilism makes its appearance, in all its multiple facets. In Dostoevsky's view, nihilism was the last era of humanity when Nothingness insinuated itself into history to take the place of God, whose place had already been usurped by man, deified in his turn by positivist optimism.
With this young man who grew up without roots, with no father and no fatherland, the writer dramatizes the extreme consequences of what he saw as the ultimate fate stemming from the loss of meaning. Conceived by Dostoevsky as the main character of the novel, he is the point toward which all the other characters converge and, at the same time, the hub from which the force of negation radiates out along all its possible trajectories. His reason has gone beyond all bounds and touched on nothingness; his senses have run the gamut of excesses and plumbed the void. Stavrogin is not, therefore, simply a well-crafted synthesis of Dostoevsky's remarkable psychological acuity. The writer's intention is much more ambitious: to condense a philosophical vision into a credible phenomenology of the human subject. Indeed, he already knows what Nietzsche would later make clear: nihilism goes far beyond the suppression of traditional moral values and their religious foundation. For this reason, Dostoevsky's writing also seeks to come to terms with the ontological rupture that has imprinted itself on the human realm and history. Beginning with Notes from Underground (whose protagonist he develops and puts into action as Stavrogin), all of Dostoevsky's characters bear the signs of a "revolution of the spirit."
Now, this is not to take sides in the age-old debate on the philosophical status of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: that is, whether it represents, for philosophy as well, the final victory of a profound, authentic form of Christianity over the persistence of sin and guilt; or whether his work is instead perpetually dominated by an irrevocably tragic vision. Nor am I interested in taking sides for or against those who, from Lev Shestov to Sergio Givone, through the masterful interpretation of Luigi Pareyson, see the Russian author as the great thinker who anticipated Nietzsche, in some ways even "bypassing him" and successfully avoiding Heidegger's deviations. It suffices to recall in this connection that the young Georg Lukács had already noted "the smallness of Nietzsche" compared to the stature of Stavrogin. What the Hungarian critic saw in this character, and in Demons generally, was a decisive step without which the West would never have gained full self-awareness. All this is to say that there are many influential thinkers who have shared, and continue to share, the emphatic view expressed by Nicolas Berdyaev: "We now philosophize about the last things under the aegis of Dostoevsky. Philosophizing about the next-to-last things alone is the task of traditional philosophy."
But even leaving these questions open for discussion, without getting caught up in the interpretative conundrums about Dostoevsky's work that challenge its most philosophically demanding readers, there is no doubt that it marks a crucial change. Precisely for this reason, I think it legitimate to transpose the literary fictions that it has given voice to into philosophical categories, categories that, I believe, helped to reformulate the question of evil in European culture by linking it in two ways to the problem of nihilism. Going well beyond the traditional conception of the doctrine of original sin, Dostoevsky's radical position not only made an impact on ethics and religion, it also "ontologically" tied together evil and nothingness, freedom and will, into a single node. This is why "Stavrogin's ghost," pars pro toto, continued to waft around philosophy for a long time. Even today, it continues to inspire evocative, albeit impressionistic, interpretations of Islamic terrorism in the vein of Demons.
In the second part of this book, I will explain why we need to let go of the one-sidedness of this approach in order to understand our present times; why, as a hermeneutic lens, in some ways it is still too dependent on a theological vision of the relationship between evil and freedom. For now, however, let us stick to one of its truths that can hardly be disputed: the figures that allowed philosophy, from Nietzsche on, to venture into the unexplored territory of evil took form from Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, his thoughts, his actions, and his "friends." When expressed as concepts, these figures formed the horizon in which much of the philosophical culture of the twentieth century believed it could reveal something about the idea of evil in its connection with power that the earlier tradition had passed over. For this reason I believe that we can talk quite confidently of a genuine Dostoevsky paradigm: that is, an arrangement of concepts, a relation between categories, aligned according to a clear nexus, that for a long time was established as a condition of conceivability for evil—though never directly and explicitly. It is a paradigm that Nietzsche and Freud participated in no less than Heidegger, although in different ways: these are the thinkers who, more than anyone else, marked a contemporary turning point in a possible genealogical history of the idea of evil. But, to be more accurate, we should say that only specific aspects of the thought of Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger are pertinent to this paradigm, because, as we shall see, I am convinced that there often opens up an alternative perspective from their writings from which to view the question.
Let us start, then, by asking: What does Stavrogin personify? What is he emblematic of, along with Stepan and Pyotr Verkhovensky, Kirillov, and Shatov? But also, what about the three Brothers Karamazov, who are so glaringly "livid" in comparison to the disarming "glow" of Alyosha—what do they tell us? What are we to make of all these demons? What philosophical understanding are we led to by their lives, which even today represent one of the most monumental phenomenologies of evil? First of all, the expressive power of their roles dug up the ground in which the traditional philosophical and theological concepts had been rooted. Their characters played an exemplary, paradigmatic role. But although they have a name and a surname and their individuality is deeply anchored in the narrative context, the moment their complete uniqueness is expressed, a human typology becomes visible that can be transposed into a theoretical matrix. Each character corresponds to a mode of being that evil may assume, fitting together to form a complex phenomenology that can be broken down into its separate parts and yet also reassembled into a coherent, structured whole.
In a nutshell, evil can be expressed in many ways for Dostoevsky, but all these ways fall under the same paradigm, whose structure, I would argue, he himself suggests to us. Although subsequent philosophers were able to reframe the question of evil as a question of nihilism—in the inextricable link that he posited between freedom and nothingness—in order to work within this paradigm those who followed did not need to share the same beliefs and aims as the Russian writer, and even less his religious, Christian Orthodox leaning. Embarking on the path opened up by Demons, before defining any content, meant breaking with the strategies that had served philosophy up to that point. It meant, first, sealing off access to any sort of naïvely dualistic, metaphysical resubstantialization; and, second, opposing all possible versions of the Platonic schema of the nonexistence of evil. It meant rejecting both theological and philosophical theodicy. And most importantly, it meant leaving behind the strategies that modern rationality had tried to use to circumvent or neutralize this question. We could go so far as to summarize Shestov's thesis—for whom "the true Critique of Reason" was performed not by Immanuel Kant but by Fyodor Dostoevsky—with the claim that the genuine "radicality of evil" was conceived not in the arguments put forward in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone but rather in the plot of Demons.
What Kant Dared Not Think About: Kant and Schelling
Perhaps it would be truer to say that Dostoevsky radicalized Kant's notion so far as to take Kant well beyond himself—or, rather, against himself. There is no doubt that, in the tortuous path along which philosophy attempted to think about evil, eventually restoring it to the freedom of the subject, the author of the Three Critiques marked a milestone.
Paul Ricoeur maintains that by naming evil, myths were the first instrument of symbolic and linguistic mediation to define and objectify the sense of a fear-inducing, confused, and speechless experience. If this is true, what sort of activity did philosophical reason perform? How did it go about leaving behind that primary, naïve sort of "spontaneous Manichaeism" that separates an experience of the good from an experience of evil by rigidly opposing them? The idea that Being is coextensive with the Good, thus relegating Evil to Non-Being, was introduced by Plato, as we know, and developed by Augustine. It proved to be the most tenacious response put forward by metaphysics: a relation of identity that would hold firm in the face of many lexical and conceptual changes. However, there is an obvious danger associated with deconstructing dualistic substantialism: such a powerful downplaying of evil can turn the force of the negative into something that exists purely to serve the positive. Poised perpetually on the brink of this double risk—of a "realist" dualism on the one hand, and of an idealist or historicist reductionism on the other—philosophy tenaciously sought to avert the danger at several key moments. It did so by resorting to a "revolutionary" force, so to speak: one that posits a close relationship between evil and freedom, going so far as to make evil the very condition of freedom. Except that, when faced with the "absurdity" of Being and God that such a prospect seemed to invite, on every occasion it retreated in fright to return to its ranks, as it were. This is the alternation that the question of evil continued to repeat, both in theology and metaphysics, until the end of the modern era. It oscillated constantly between dualism and its neutralization, between a vision of evil as a substance and a vision that denied its reality. Only occasionally did philosophy escape from this alternation, by arguing for a moral evil that implies an irreducible freedom.
In his own personal journey, Augustine seems to have foreseen how the possible future solutions would play out. As we know, in the battle against the Manichaeism of his past—against a temptation that was perhaps never completely put to rest—he accepted the legacy of Plotinus in order to give a sense to evil that was also logically consistent. Because thought about Being is equivalent to thought about the One—and therefore, to thought about the Good—evil cannot be a substance. In addition to this perspective, in Augustine there appeared a new notion of "nothingness"—the nothingness associated with creation ex nihilo that is connected to the idea of an absolute origin. This sets up negativity as a sign of the distance between creator and creature, and marks the ontological deficiency of creation as such. So alongside the belief that metaphysical evil is an error of the perspective from which human beings judge the world, due to our finitude, comes the idea that moral evil is the result of guilt, sin, or a perversion that deviates the upright will. Along with the Apostle Paul, Augustine knew that human beings have the ability to transgress or disturb the order of being. And he knew that once we are opened up to that order, when we participate in the reality of God, the fullness of our own being that we experience can only make the return to our normal state seem like a lack. This is the first sign that nothingness—out of which human beings were brought into being—leaves imprinted on the creature. Though the ontological approach of the privatio boni (the privation of good) and the moral approach of a subjective perspective were still logically indistinguishable at this point, in the modern era they began to gradually separate.
It was Kant who took the decisive step of restoring moral evil to human freedom. Under the blows to rational theology, which considered theodicy a "transcendental illusion," the Kantian critique laid down the first, foundational cornerstones for the deconstruction of onto-theology. From then on, it would be very difficult to go back to talking about evil in and of itself. The term had previously embraced a diverse set of phenomena and concepts—from natural disasters to suffering, from a metaphysical principle to individual death—but starting with Kant, moral evil achieved its own philosophical autonomy. As Richard Bernstein points out, Kant's thought created the schism that made it possible to begin distinguishing clearly between physical evil, metaphysical evil, and moral evil. Consequently, the problem ceased to be purely a theological and metaphysical concern, while the relevant question shifted from "Where does evil come from?" to "Why do we commit evil deeds?"
For some, Kant's "radical evil" was a step backward with respect to his critical perspectives, while for others it was a coherent and innovative development. Either way, the concept laid down the foundations for modern and postmetaphysical thought on the question. Ricoeur is right in suggesting that the problem of evil has always functioned as a theoretical device for reforming philosophical systems. In other words, philosophy has used the appearance of a new question about evil as a tool to undermine the coherence of the previous philosophical system, in a catand-mouse game of structuring and destructuring. However, with Kant there came about a decisive transformation: although both the concept of malum metaphysicum (metaphysical evil) and the idea of privatio boni negate personal responsibility and imputability, for him the doctrine of original sin also restricts exploration of the link between freedom and evil.
Excerpted from New Demons by Simona Forti, Zakiya Hanafi. Copyright © 2012 Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part I Absolute Demons: The Power of Nothingness
1 The Dostoevsky Paradigm 15
Stavrogin's Ghost 15
What Kant Dared Not Think About: Kant and Schelling 19
Demons: Or the Delusion of Freedom 30
The Power of Nothingness 50
2 Instincts, Drives, and Their Vicissitudes: Nietzsche and Freud 55
Reversals and Wills: Nietzsche for the Many 55
The Interiority of Evil (Nietzsche Continued) 64
The Freudian Scandal: The Death Drive 69
Beyond Morality and Beyond Pleasure: In the Footsteps of Nietzsche and Freud 80
3 Ontological Evil and the Transcendence of Evil 89
Malice as a Trait of Being: Heidegger 89
Nothing Is Said in Many Ways 105
Evil as Excess: Levinas 109
The Sacred Aura of the New Radical Evil 115
Interlude: Hypermoral Biopolitics
4 Thanatopolitics and Absolute Victims 125
In the Name of Life: Arendt and Foucault 126
The Absolute Victim: Biologization or Moralization? 142
Parasites, Souls, and Demons 152
Beings Devoid of Their Own Nature 164
Part II Mediocre Demons: Toward a New Paradigm
5 The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor Reinterpreted from Below 183
The Pastoral Power of the Grand Inquisitor 183
The Crime of Obedience and the Normality of Evil 189
The Antinomy Between Ethics and Life, and Between Ethics and Law 195
6 A Different Genealogy: The Evil of Docility 209
Subjection as a Remedy for Pride 209
A Relationship Between Forces: The Nietzsche of a Few 215
Obedience Has Never Been a Virtue 218
Goodness as Inner Anarchy 231
7 Strategies of Obedience and the Ethos of Freedom 237
Power in Itself Is Not Evil (Foucault) 237
The Instance of "Pure Obedience": The Government of Men 242
The Ethos of Freedom 255
Socratic Demons 261
8 Parrhesia Put to the Test: Practices of Dissidence Between Eastern and Western Europe 267
Socrates in Prague 267
The Double Movement of the Heretical Soul (Patocka) 273
Shirting the "Front Line": The Revolutionary Power of an Ethos 284
"Living in Truth" and the Opposition to Kitsch 294
9 Poor Devils Who "Worship" Life: Us 307
Index of Names 383