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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman (Princeton University Press, 343 pp., $29.95) 

It is not a good thing for philosophy to find it everywhere. Most of experience, and even most of thought, is decidedly not philosophical--which is precisely what makes philosophizing so valuable. Yet Susan Neiman's book errs in just this way. It treats a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, ubiquitous; but it then falls into the trap of believing that serious reflection on this phenomenon is similarly ubiquitous. As a result, Neiman's interesting book winds up making philosophy out of non-philosophy. In its insistence upon a theory of everything, it becomes a theory of nothing.

This is truly unfortunate, because Neiman takes up a most urgent subject. In the face of the abounding ugliness of our times, she urges us to wrestle with what evil means and with whether we might be reconciled to it as part of our worldview. She recognizes that the ancient philosophical inquiry into the justification of evil--the tradition known as theodicy--and the use of God language in general cannot be the only response to evil in an increasingly irreverent and disenchanted world. To that end, she charts the course of a more secular and philosophically sophisticated theodicy from Leibniz through Rawls. Indeed, she ambitiously tries to show that not just some modern philosophy, but all modern philosophy, is in essence a reckoning with evil. "One of the book's central claims," she writes, is to prove that "the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought." But this all-encompassing claim wildly overreaches; and so, while Neiman does perform a service by helping us to think about how to think about evil as moderns, she fails to help us think convincingly about the history of philosophy. Her "alternative history" ultimately falls short because it is born of a highly idiosyncratic construction of philosophy itself. She simply tries too hard.

Neiman positions her analysis of the question of evil between two devastating moments: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and Auschwitz. She argues that these two catastrophes were watersheds in intellectual history that transformed the way people perceive evil, not so much because of the uniqueness of their evil, but because of their timing. Neiman contends that both events struck at moments of extraordinary intellectual ferment, when Western confidence in understanding the world was ripe, and, consequently, most vulnerable to the shocks of history.

The first pillar of Neiman's two-pronged thesis is that Lisbon re-oriented thinking about evil by inaugurating the distinction between "natural evil" and "moral evil." It would be foolish to think that such periodizations of thought can really be accurate--ruptures of the public mind do not, after all, appear that crisply--but the general claim is worthy of consideration. Neiman argues that the earthquake that struck this most powerful and cosmopolitan of eighteenth-century European cities, killing at least sixty thousand people and destroying tremendous amounts of property, also shook the foundations of rationality itself. The historical period leading up to the Lisbon tragedy was marked by an increasing belief in the rational transparency of the world. Natural sciences had combined to confirm the Enlightenment conviction that the universe is, as a whole, intelligible; and changes in the social order, away from feudalism and toward egalitarianism, increased confidence in the idea that effort is met by reward. But the great earthquake, with its randomness and undiscerning devastation, shattered this emerging hope in the rationality of the world. It called into question all of the newfound stability, all of the faith in earthly order.

The initial explanations of the destruction indicated the magnitude of the mental rupture. The Marques de Pombal, the prime minister of Portugal at the time, insisted that there was no explanation to be had; there were only means of coping. Asked what could be done about the earthquake, he replied: "Bury the dead and feed the living." He accordingly set out to reconstruct the destroyed society, avoiding the spread of disease and re-building what was left of people's lives. Yet there were also those who strongly believed that an explanation could be given: that the earthquake was God's wrath made manifest, and hence sinners were to blame for it. One highly visible and insistent proponent of this view was an Italian Jesuit priest named Gabriel Malagrida, who widely preached the guilt of the Portuguese. In 1758, he was executed. Neiman makes much use of this public injunction, pitting it against Pombal's pragmatism. "Pombal's victory was a victory for the view that God's purposes have no public function," she writes. Malagrida's vindictive interpretation of evil had to be put to death. The transparency of the world had been lost. God's order was deemed inscrutable, and practical action was hailed as superior to speculation. 

Here, in the ruins of a natural disaster, the distinction between natural evil, brought about through the hands of nature, and moral evil, brought about by the hands of man, was born, in Neiman's account. The distinction indicated a shift away from the attribution of cosmic meaning to nature's whims. Their horror surely did not disappear, but their significance as statements about the nature of the world did."Since Lisbon," she writes, "natural evils no longer have any seemly relation to moral evils; hence they no longer have meaning at all. Natural disaster is the object of attempts at prediction and control, not of interpretation." The sphere of meaningful evil shrank through its naturalization. No longer would a philosopher ask "Why did this occur?," but only "What can be done in the face of it?" "Why?" could now only reasonably be asked about humanly induced evil, because only that sphere remained accessible to human understanding. It was this new awareness of the distinction between nature and morality that marked the beginning of modernity, according to Neiman, or at least the modern shape of the problem of evil.

In giving so much weight to the debate between Pombal and Malagrida--indeed, in characterizing it as a debate at all--Neiman already forces philosophy upon the unphilosophical. For Pombal was an official creating policy, not a thinker delineating the boundaries between natural and moral evil. He was acting as a prime minister and responding to a crisis. He was most definitely not articulating an intellectual response to the problem of evil. Yet Neiman wants to see in him a well-reasoned philosopher, and she builds the rest of her intellectual edifice on top of this rather shaky foundation. 

The second pillar of Neiman’s argument centers on Auschwitz. She argues that just as Lisbon undermined the conceptual framework dominant in Europe at the time, Auschwitz undermined the conceptual framework of its own time. The success of Nazism between 1933 and 1945 brought all prior speculations on moral evil into question. For in the face of six million corpses, could evil really be part of a progressive history, as Hegel had suggested? Or was it just our own construction, as Nietzsche urged? It certainly could not be part of the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz had famously claimed centuries before. "Twentieth-century events made systematic explanations of the whole seem not only impossible," Neiman writes, "but finally and decidedly wrong."

Why the philosophical shift? After Lisbon, when moral evil became the only kind of evil worth speculating about, evil came to be defined as a product of the will, a result of bad intention. But then came the Nazis. The factories of death, run by thousands of ordinary citizens, compromised the modern obsession with intention, because an unthinking conformity seemed more responsible for Nazi crimes than a thoughtful intention. The hero of Neiman's book is clearly Hannah Arendt and her notorious notion of the banality of evil. In a pure Arendtian spirit, Neiman observes that "at every level, the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known." The result was a shake-up as powerful as the Lisbon earthquake:

The problem of evil began by trying to penetrate God's intentions. Now it appears we cannot make sense of our own. If Auschwitz leaves us more helpless than Lisbon, it is because our conceptual resources seem exhausted.…

We should admit the extent of our losses. If Lisbon marked the moment of recognition that traditional theodicy was hopeless, Auschwitz signaled the recognition that every replacement fared no better. 

The face of evil shown in Auschwitz is inarguably devastating. But Neiman's analysis of it is eminently contestable. She seeks to periodize an uncontainable subject into neat parts, and in so doing she draws conclusions that are too broad and consequently too flimsy. Neiman's unmitigated adoration for Arendt is unfortunate. She fails to make a case for the new era of banal evil, to persuade us by means of argument that Arendt's characterization of Adolf Eichmann was correct and worthy of dislodging alternative understandings of his behavior. (There have been many important studies of the motivations of the Nazi perpetrators since Arendt wrote her report of the Eichmann trial, and they do not all bear out her speculation about the thoughtlessness of human evil.) Moreover, Eichmann's careerism hardly precludes the possibility of accompanying malice, since acting by rote does not itself negate a deep-seated motivation rooted in a perverse picture of the world. 

Neiman's enthusiasm for the Arendtian concept also leads her to make silly claims about what we once did know about evil and now no longer do. She writes that "Auschwitz embodied evil that confuted two centuries of modern assumptions about intention." Before Auschwitz, in her telling, we seem to have known that intentions alone constitute evil, and we found some comfort in that explanation. We knew that human-inflicted horror rests solely on conscious human choice, and we felt that we had satisfactorily taken care of the question of the origins of evil. But surely such an account is not true. There was never a consensus--not even among philosophers--about the nature of evil. There has always been a so-called deontological strain of moral philosophy that gives primacy to intention in determining the value of human action alongside a consequentialist strain that looks at behavior alone. Utilitarians, who emphasize actions above all in the moral calculation, have always counter-balanced the pure Kantians and their universe of transparent intentions. It is no wonder that Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, does not make it into Neiman's canon of theodicizers. His pragmatic approach to morality mirrored the Pombal-esque approach to nature, and so does not fit Neiman's tidy narrative of philosophical thinking before and after Auschwitz.

The narrative falters in other ways as well. Neiman breaks down her list of post-Lisbon philosophers on evil into two groups: those who claimed that appearances of disorder in the world are not final because heaven or history will have the last word, and those who claimed that appearances are exactly as they seem, thereby rendering the world inexplicably chaotic or downright cruel. In the first group she places Leibniz, Pope, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Marx; in the second, Bayle, Voltaire, Hume, Sade, and Schopenhauer. It must be noted that for all the emphasis on Lisbon as the breaking point, not all the philosophers on Neiman's list actually published after 1755. Leibniz died in 1716, Pope died in 1744, and Bayle's major work on theodicy came out in 1697. So much for the earthquake that shook all thinking. (The peculiar nature of Neiman's philosophical canon can also be seen in her long expositions on figures such as Pope and Sade. Pope was certainly an influential spokesman for Enlightenment optimism, but he was hardly a serious philosophical thinker. Sometimes Neiman cannot distinguish between intellectual significance and cultural significance.) 

In the section of her book dedicated to post-Holocaust thinkers, Neiman examines Camus, Arendt, Adorno, and Rawls. John Rawls, a thinker about evil? Neiman turns him into one by suggesting that his work on justice is really a kind of theodicy insofar as it is a mode of negotiating with the injustice around us. She quotes him: "I believe that the very possibility of such social order can itself reconcile us to the social world.… This alone, quite apart from our success or failure, suffices to banish the dangers of resignation and cynicism." Her gloss is indicative of her method as a whole: "The fact that this engagement was increasingly unavoidable almost in spite of personal inclinations suggests something about the problem of evil itself." Recognizing that Rawls himself would resist her characterization of him--he was deeply opposed to metaphysics, as a matter of philosophical principle--Neiman nevertheless insists on the centrality of evil to his theory of justice simply because it addresses issues of human contingency and reconciliation with the world. But theodicy is something much more specific, and much more difficult, than that.

If theodicy is everywhere, then it is nowhere. And if everyone is a philosopher of evil, then no one is. Pombal was a prime minister and Rawls was a political theorist, and it takes a large amount of fudging to turn them into metaphysicians. Neiman's book does open up room for philosophical reflection upon the subject, and so she has made a thought-provoking contribution. But how useful are her categories, really, in assisting us in the comprehension of our own evil-soaked time? Her brief section on the evil of September 11 attests to the inadequacy of her package. She argues that the destruction of the World Trade Center was not representative of the new era of evil that Auschwitz ostensibly ushered in, for the planning and the precision of the attack displayed much thought and a heavy load of malice, and hence cannot be placed in the Arendtian category of thoughtless evil. In fact, these horrors were "old-fashioned," "awesomely intentional" events. It is too bad that Neiman does not see what is before her eyes, as her own observations about September 11 show that intentional evil can live alongside unintentional evil, and we can recognize the difference between them and also attribute guilt to both. We are not living in a new era of banal evil after all. And so the framework for analysis built entirely around the catastrophes at Lisbon and Auschwitz must yield a little to the harsh complications of the real. A country at war had better be aware that evil is a messy business--the thinking about it as much as the fighting against it. Among the many things that are about to be tested are our categories.

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.