Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative
History of Philosophy
by Susan Neiman Princeton University Press, 358 pages, $29.95

René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, begins his Meditations (1641) on the self and its place in the world by supposing that a demon, no less powerful than God, controls reality and subjects humanity to the terror of illusion. Imagine, says Descartes, that “the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things” cannot be trusted to be true; nor does the human body and its senses convey the actual state of things to the mind. In the seventeenth century, wracked by religious warfare and the witch craze, such a claim was not idle speculation, but spoke to real fears that preoccupied the cultured elite.

Today we commonly reinterpret Descartes’ proposal as a thought experiment removed from reality. But should we? What if Descartes’ metho­dological idea is not an intellectual exercise meant to free the mind from reliance on tradition, but a serious analysis of the predicament of philosophy in the modern age? In her superb new book, Evil in Modern Thought , Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, explores this possibility. She asserts that “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought.” Neiman defines evil as “absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation.” Evil is more than crime: “A crime can be ordered, fit in some manner into the rest of our experience. To call an action evil is to suggest that it cannot.” The content of what is perceived as evil may vary from one age to the next. What counts is less the particulars of evil than its effect. Evil threatens our ability “to act in the world and to understand it.” It raises the fundamental human question of intelligibility. If we cannot order evil, then both practical and theoretical reason are threatened. Evil is just like Descartes’ demon: it “shatters our trust in the world,” throwing us back on ourselves to try to make sense of things that are senseless.

Before the Enlightenment, Christian theology in the Augustinian tradition provided the dominant paradigm for interpreting evil. Calamities that befall us, whether they are acts of nature or deeds of men, are to be understood as punishment for sin-or a result of disorder that entered into creation with the Fall. Ultimately, the purpose of evil was to drive us to repentance and reliance on God. “When men or devils cause us suffering,” says Martin Luther, it is the alien work of God “to teach us to have patience and peace.” No Catholic of the time would object to this explanation. “Nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine,” writes Pascal, “and yet, but for this mystery . . . we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.”

Certainly there were those who protested theological acquiescence. But they were few in number and frequently condemned. Neiman cites the example of Alfonso X, king of Castille in the thirteenth century. Instructed in astronomy by a Jewish rabbi, the king is reported to have declared, “If I had been of God’s counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.” “This little sentence,” writes Neiman, “expressed the essence of blasphemy for close to half a millennium.” The misfortunes that plagued Alfonso’s reign were offered as proof of his guilt. The story of his life became a morality tale that served as a warning.

In his celebrated Dictionary , Pierre Bayle took up Alfonso’s cause. Bayle thought Alfonso right to complain. Reality is badly designed, history little more than “the crimes and misfortunes of the human race.” Christianity makes things worse by teaching the torments of the damned. Evil, whether natural or moral, exposes the contradictions of Christian dogma concerning God. If God is benevolent, He must be weak. Otherwise the world would be better made. If God is omnipotent, He cannot be benevolent. Bayle made Alfonso “the first Enlightenment hero.” He also signaled a sea change in the understanding of evil. Acceptance of evil as a mystery was no longer adequate. Either evil must be explained according to human reason or defied by the human spirit.

Neiman’s account of the intellectual connections among those who sought to fit evil into an ordered explanation of reality, especially Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, is rich and detailed. Leibniz’s Theodicy (a term he coined) rationalized and defended the traditional view against Bayle’s attack. The experience of moral and natural evil is the just consequence of the imperfection of all created things. Evil is thus a metaphysical necessity. That the universe conforms to general natural laws, discoverable by science, indicates just how well the creation is made: it does not require special divine intervention to keep it working. Leibniz justifies God’s ways to man by declaring in essence “that God could not have done any better than He did.”

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 exposed Leibniz to ridicule and discredited the effort to explain natural evil as part of a rational scheme. The earthquake, Neiman says, shocked “western civilization more than any event since the fall of Rome.” No one could justify the arbitrary punishment of so many thousands of victims. In consequence, Rousseau argued that natural evil should be understood as having no inherent meaning. The purpose of nature is to provide the conditions within which man exercises the freedom to become human. This is an historical and psychological process that involves conflict and suffering and which is the proper subject of philosophy and theodicy. That human nature is not fixed but subject to development means that evil might, at least on occasion, have a constructive role to play. In any case, it is clear that evil (that is, moral evil) comes not from the hand of God but is our own doing. As Neiman summarizes Rousseau, we can do no more than “worry about the evils for which we are responsible.

Kant follows Rousseau in arguing that the only way to order the experience of evil in our lives is to examine our responsibility for the evils we commit. But he remains haunted by the awareness that humanity is subject to testing by an inscrutable will, often experienced as the vagaries of chance. This is the tragedy of human existence that “lives on wrong identifications, opportunities missed and grabbed in the split of a second . . . in short, the power of the contingent.” We have the deep desire to penetrate contingency, to know how God and world fit together, but that desire is never fulfilled. Indeed, according to Kant, “providence itself requires that we cannot know it.” If we did, then our actions would inevitably be determined by our effort to please God and obtain reward. “Goodness is genuine only if done for goodness’ sake. Attempts to give extrinsic reasons for virtue do not merely weaken virtue, they destroy its very essence.” The only answer to the agony of existence is the integrity of our good intentions. We must follow where they lead even if they bring no happiness, and even if they fail.

Hegel recoiled from Kant’s stark vision. “The sole aim of philosophy,” he declared in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History , “is to eliminate the contingent.” “For Hegel as for Leibniz,” observes Neiman, “eliminating contingency means showing this world to be necessary after all.” The historical process is an inevitable dialectic of human action in which evil as well as good pushes history forward.

Neiman also examines the rebellious tradition stemming from Bayle that defies the explanation of evil and instead protests the injustice of the human condition. In this line of thought stand Voltaire, Hume, Sade, and Schopenhauer. This is perhaps the least interesting chapter in the book because the story of modern skepticism is an oft-told tale and there are limits to what can be done with the expression of philosophical outrage. (I also remain puzzled by the continued fascination of intellectuals with the repellent ravings of the Marquis de Sade.) What marks these writers, according to Neiman, is their insistence on facing the world “raw”: “Experience is just what it seems.” The keynote is hopelessness: “Life presents itself,” says Schopenhauer, “as continual deception, in small matters as in great. If it has promised, it does not keep its word . . . . If it has given, it does so in order to take.”

More interesting is Neiman’s account of Nietzsche and Freud, who fit neither among those who seek to explain evil or those who defy it. The preoccupation with the problem of evil, asserts Nietzsche, enervates the human spirit. It saps intellectual and emotional energy by measuring the world in which we live by an ideal world of purity and goodness that does not exist, will not exist, and never did exist. “The problem of evil is . . . a problem humankind brought on itself by creating ideals that put life in the wrong.” Freud’s argument proceeds along similar lines, although couched in his psychological categories. The attempts to make sense of human misery “are fueled by childhood fantasies and feelings of love.” We want a secure world like the enchanted world of nostalgic youth. Thus “we project childhood structures on the universe at large.” To find a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil in one’s life is impossible.

If the problem of evil made for philosophical difficulties in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after the Lisbon earthquake delegitimated the traditional Augustinian paradigm, what is to be said today in light of the event we know by the name “Auschwitz”? Even to the reader suspicious of the exceptionalism accorded the Nazi Holocaust-after all, the twentieth century is filled with horrendous examples of intentional, systematic slaughter-Neiman’s treatment of the topic is undeniably powerful. Like Lisbon, Auschwitz is an event that grew in the intellectual imagination over time. It “acquired significance in relation to the web of beliefs in which it occurred.” Traditional religious explanations, such as those of pious Jews who see the Holocaust as a judgment on an unfaithful people, are put forward “in opposition to the modern world.” Like the arguments of priests in the eighteenth century who said the same thing about Lisbon, this argument about the judgment of God has generally sunk without a trace in serious intellectual commentary.

Neiman goes on to consider the work of a number of respondents to Auschwitz, but gives the most careful consideration to Hannah Arendt’s famous (and infamous) argument about the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem . She interprets Arendt as part of a conversation and dilemma that goes back to Leibniz but particularly involves Kant and Hegel: namely, the difficulty of dealing with the challenge posed to our trust in the world by the tragic and senseless force of contingency. There is nothing more frightening, more threatening to our place in the world, than the hammer-stroke of contingency. Contingency seems to envelop Auschwitz. Deportation and murder were carried out by gray bureaucrats who, like Eichmann, did their duty for petty and mundane reasons, neither looking at nor caring for the larger picture of what was going on. Attempts to ground Auschwitz in malice aforethought such as anti-Semitism do not finally satisfy.

For example, Neiman judges Daniel Goldhagen’s effort in Hitler’s Willing Executioners wanting because his condemnation of German society “derives less from historical accuracy than philosophical naiveté.” The fact is that “at every level, the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known.” To illustrate her point, Neiman makes a telling contrast between the Holocaust and World War I:

World War I now seems both intelligible and contingent, the lethal fruit of old-fashioned imperialism and early modern technology. From where we are standing, it remains within the outer limits of the normal . . . . We can mourn those who died at Flanders while wondering how their officers could have thought a horse and a good education equipment enough with which to face artillery. By contrast, there is nothing a trainload of deportees arriving at a Polish camp might have known. Auschwitz beggared expectation. To think about this is to enter into the heart of darkness.

The subtitle of Neiman’s book is An Alternative History of Philosophy . The book is an education in modern philosophical thought, attractive to the nonspecialist, because the challenge to understand evil is an issue that faces any thinking person. The existential relevance of the problem of evil has energized Neiman to tell the story of philosophy as that of a discipline that seeks wisdom about the most pressing human problems. In this, she stands apart. “Like many others,” she confesses, “I came to philosophy to study matters of life and death, and was taught that professionalization required forgetting them. The more I learned, the more I grew convinced of the opposite: the history of philosophy was indeed animated by questions that drew us there.”

Since the Second World War, philosophy in Great Britain and America, with few notable exceptions, has been beholden to an inbred academic culture obsessed either by a narrow construal of epistemology and methodology or the group-speak of left-wing ideology. This has made the ancient vocation of philosophy the domain of the logician or the politically engaged. Neiman rejects both of these alternatives. The result is a book that takes up the traditional canon of great modern thinkers, interpreting them in terms that they themselves considered crucial. The question of evil illuminates the thought of these figures in an original way, so much so that Neiman’s claim to have written an “alternative history” is not an empty boast. Hers is a book for mature people who do not expect pat answers, who are willing to be disturbed by arguments instead of having their prejudices satisfied.

Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Articles by Walter Sundberg