Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman
An Alternative History of Philosophy

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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.


About Susan Neiman

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Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. She is the author of "Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin," "The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant," and "Evil in Modern Thought" (Princeton).
Published August 25, 2015 by Princeton University Press. 388 pages
Genres: Law & Philosophy. Non-fiction

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''If we don't believe in ordinary, knowing wickedness,'' Rosenbaum wrote, ''we can't condemn Hitler for anything more than a well-meaning ideological mistake or bin Laden for anything more than a well-meaning religious mistake.'' The key term here is ''well-meaning.'' Rosenbaum's point is that we...

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Project MUSE

Because the very categories of natural and moral evil tend to break down as a result of the development of psychology as a "science of nature" (to the extent that human motives are regarded as natural processes subject to empirical explanation, they cease to manifest a unique ontology), Nietzsche...

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Project MUSE

Moral evil refers to our crime for which natural evil is the just punishment (22).

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