Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum, Potsdam. Her works include SLOW FIRE: JEWISH NOTES FROM BERLIN and THE UNITY OF REASON: REREADING KANT. Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard University and the Freie Universitšt-Berlin, and was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. She is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.
In her conversation with Bill Moyers, Neiman talks about her most recent work, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT: AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY. From the beginning of time, writers, poets, and philosophers all over the world have struggled to define and even understand evil. It is perhaps the most basic struggle since evil fundamentally challenges our hope that the world makes sense. To trace how we have understood evil throughout history is to understand how we have conceived of our place in the universe.
Interestingly, what has been considered "evil" has changed dramatically over time. For instance, in 1755, when a cataclysmic earthquake killed more than 15,000 people and destroyed the city of Lisbon, Europeans considered this event the ultimate example of evil. Neiman observes that "the eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the
word Auschwitz today." We now tend to think of earthquakes as natural disasters without moral meaning or significance and instead view human cruelty as the ultimate evil, with Auschwitz and, even more recently, Osama bin Laden, as its most extreme incarnation.
By examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT explores who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from the early Enlightenment. Neiman looks at the writings of Hegel, Pope, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and others, to persuasively argue that the problem of evil is the primary concern guiding much of the history of modern philosophy.
Read more from Susan Neiman:
Read the preface of EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT
Read "Garlic," from SLOW FIRE
Listen to an interview with Susan Neiman from WBEZ's radio program ODYSSEY