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WWII Poster -- Save Me From Evil
Society and Community:
The Evolution of the Idea of Evil
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As the terrorists struck on 9/11 philosopher and author Susan Neiman was putting the finishing touches on her book, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT: AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY. Bill Moyers recently spoke with Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany about 9/11 and the faces of evil in modern life. Neiman discussed how people and societies deal with present and past atrocities. Says Neiman, "The biggest mistake that people make in talking about evil is to think that it only has one form or one face." Below is a brief look at some of the thinkers and ideas discussed by Susan Neiman and Bill Moyers and other modern musing on the concept of evil.

St. Augustine

In the Middle Ages and the early modern era the idea of evil was inextricably tied to questions of faith. As Bill Moyers notes in his discussion with Susan Neiman, St. Augustine of Hippo reflected on the sacking of Rome by the Goths in THE CITY OF GOD with the following question:

Will some one say, Why, then, was this divine compassion extended even to the ungodly and ungrateful? Why, but because it was the mercy of Him who daily maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

St. Augustine, and other early religious thinkers answered the question with calls for repentence and for greater faith. When asking this question, St. Augustine reminded readers, "First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters."

  • THE CITY OF GOD, St. Augustine

  • Lisbon earthquake

    Neiman sees the reaction to the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as emblematic of changing ideas of the nature of evil. Many observers saw the event as a punishment by God for an evil world. Others, like the French philosopher Voltaire, questioned the nature of a God who would exact such arbitrary suffering.

    As Neiman notes in her book the question of how God creates a world full of innocent suffering was off-limits to philosophy since Immanuel Kant argued that God exceeded the limits of human knowledge. However, the environment of the Enlightenment began a new evaluation of evil which relied less on theology and more on philosophy.

    Neiman points to the musing of Russian writer Dostoyevsky as a sign of another crucial shift in the idea of evil. Dostoyevsky didn't argue that one couldn't know the nature of evil — rather that one shouldn't want to understand it. Neiman states "Dostoyevsky's response was that in a world, particularly in which children are tortured, he doesn't want to understand." His character Ivan in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV reflects on the nature of evil as follows:

    Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tearsówould you consent to be the architect on those conditions? --Fyodor Dostoyevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV

  • The Lisbon Earthquake, University of California, Berkeley
  • Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics
  • THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • WWII War Bond Poster

    Of course Dostoyevsky lived before the genocide of World War II. Those acts, in fact, gave birth to the word genocide and a whole new meaning to evil. The U.N. Convention on Genocide was ratified in 1948 as an attempt to prevent such atrocities in the future and the cry "Never Again" became part of the global vocabulary.

    Neiman, among others, believes that equating Auschwitz with absolute evil blinds people to the other faces its wears. Additionally, scholars of modern history like NOW's frequent guest Samantha Power, author of A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE, note that far from "Never Again," genocide is an ongoing international problem. The 1948 Convention on Genocide is at the base of a number of international tribunals today, and will figure in the search for justice for victims of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

  • International Criminal Courts
  • "Never Again," Samantha Power
  • FRONTLINE, The Triumph of Evil
  • Genocide Convention at Fifty
  • Scene from the Nuremberg Trials, National Archive

    Auschwitz figures prominently in another major development in modern thinking about evil. German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped Nazi Germany and spent years trying to understand what led to the genocide of World War II and the subsequent crimes of Stalin. Her work led to the immensely influential 1951 book THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, which grappled with the extreme difficulty of understanding what led to those regimes. In 1961 Arendt went to Israel as a reporter for the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. There her thought underwent a profound shift. Instead of a creature of unfathomable evil, Arendt found a bureaucrat — suggesting that ordinary people can participate in acts of extraordinary evil. The resulting book EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: THE BANALITY OF EVIL remains one of the most influential, and controversial works on the subject ever written.

  • Hannah Arendt Papers, Library of Congress
  • "Evil: The Crime Against Humanity," Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University
  • The Devil wearing a mask

    In their conversation Bill Moyers and Susan Neiman examine the idea that evil has many faces and many gradations. Is evil "localized on the heads of a couple of really awful guys who did really visibly awful things?" Or is evil also manifest in the way "that we become slowly but surely inured to as a result of living in the system that can produce enormous benefits for us without our knowing who are the victims of that system?"

    In 1945 Hannah Arendt noted that the problem of evil would be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe. The nature of evil will undoubtedly be examined for generations to come. Tell us what you think on our message boards.

  • Read the preface of EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT
  • Discuss the idea of evil in the modern world on the message boards.

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