Evil in Modern Thought

An Alternative History of Philosophy

by Susan Neiman

Princeton Univ. Press, 358 pp., $29.95

DEISM, wrote Pascal, is "almost as far removed from the Christian religion as atheism." Pascal had Descartes in mind, but he seems to have anticipated along the way much of the distinctively modern project of "natural religion," with its assumption of the easy transparency of nature and nature's God. The problem, as Pascal saw, is that pure reason demands lucid clarity, while the rational evidence for the existence of the God of Deism is decidedly mixed. The God of Deism inevitably becomes that God that failed.

In her interesting "Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy," Susan Neiman examines in detail the enduring preoccupation of modern philosophers with the God of Deism--which is to say, with the question of the rationality and goodness of the universe. For Neiman, this is a version of the problem of evil, a problem that resides at the juncture of metaphysics and ethics; it concerns "the intelligibility of the world as a whole." In its initial formulation, Neiman's thesis seems to bleed into every possible topic about the meaning of the universe. Yet her narrative of modern philosophy has a compelling, dramatic unity.

The now dominant way to tell the story of modern philosophy, she argues, is of "tortuously decreasing interest." As told in the dominant Anglo-American departments of philosophy, modern philosophy is a story about the quest for certainty, first in metaphysics and then in the more constrained arena of epistemology. The received interpretation of modern philosophy is flawed on "literary grounds alone," since it offers a "narrative of philosophers who act without intention." It seems that "philosophy, like some people, was prepared to accept boredom in exchange for certainty as it grew to middle age."

Neiman thinks she has discovered a hitherto unnoticed motive: the desire to solve the problem of evil. So peripheral had the problem of evil become by mid-century that Bertrand Russell's famous "History of Western Philosophy" contained more entries under "Egypt" than under "Evil." To this day, in analytic philosophy, the problem of evil is relegated to the specialized field of philosophy of religion. But Neiman's retelling of the history of philosophy claims that many modern philosophers are engaged in the quest for theodicy, the attempt to offer an explanation for the presence of evil in the natural world.

To test a thesis as broad and ambitious as this would require reading not just primary philosophical texts but also rival historical accounts. Neiman's "Evil in Modern Thought" is woefully short on the latter. She gives the impression that there is simply nothing available except the traditional story of the search for certainty, though, in fact, in the last decade or so, histories of modern philosophy have proliferated. And she ignores important twentieth-century treatments of evil, particularly that found in Paul Ricoeur's "The Symbolism of Evil."

But Neiman's narrative is nonetheless a contender. It sheds light not just on the writings of particular thinkers, but also on their relation to one another. And it helps us begin to understand certain facts about the modern period that current philosophers find baffling. Why was Kant so enamored of the thought of Rousseau? Why are so many modern philosophers obsessed with the question of providence in history? And why, even where they proclaim a defiant secularism, are so many moderns preoccupied with theological questions?

Contemporary scholars of Kant insouciantly ignore the influence on Kant's thought of Rousseau, whom they deem a soft, poetic sort of thinker. Neiman shows that Kant's admiration for Rousseau, whom he dubbed a second Newton, has to do with Rousseau's discovery of the "laws of providence" in the social world. Kant's elevation of Rousseau is explicable only on the supposition that the problem of evil--in Kant's terms, the problem of how apparently irrational evils in history can be reconciled with progress--is a fundamental issue for philosophy.

NEIMAN'S HISTORY also restores the prominence of Hegel, Kant's successor and the modern philosopher most devoted to the philosophical demonstration of historical development. Hegel seeks to redeem particular evils by treating them as moments in a progressive history. A few centuries earlier, Thomas Hobbes could discern in the state of nature only the expression of brute, purposeless power. But Hegel sees a battle for recognition that starts history and sets humanity on the path toward the modern, liberal state.

Even Nietzsche, the philosopher now alternately scorned as an incoherent loon and celebrated as a deconstructive liberator, finds an intelligible place in Neiman's narrative. Nietzsche once confessed that the problem of evil haunted him from the age of thirteen. Of course, his writing eschews all theodicy--precisely because he is so haunted by it. He wants to erase the problem, which he thinks is "not given but created by those unequal to life": those who cannot embrace the world as it is and insist that it ought to be otherwise. Recoiling from religious and humanistic doctrines that promise escape, release, and redemption, Nietzsche repudiates all justifications. This is the point of his famous--and to many, inexplicable--teaching on the doctrine of Eternal Return, the willingness to say yes to the whole of one's life, indeed to the whole of human history, over and over again. The goal is to replace negation with affirmation, to uproot resentment caused by pain already suffered and fear of the future.

ANOTHER WAY Neiman traces the history of the topic is in terms of the divide between "is" and "ought." Twentieth-century ethicists spent years debating whether a moral obligation, an "ought," could be derived from a factual claim, an "is." Neiman uses the distinction to account for the disagreement between Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel envisions overcoming "is" and "ought" through historical process: What ought to be will come to be, over time. Nietzsche abolishes the distinction: What is, simply is; any "ought" is an unwarranted imposition on phenomena that weak human beings find unpalatable.

For Neiman, this leaves us with Hannah Arendt's famous study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and her thesis that the evil of Eichmann--emblematic of twentieth century's evil--had neither depth nor grandeur, but was banal, arising from a failure to take thought.

Amid the flood of literature on Arendt, Neiman has something new and interesting to say. She argues that Arendt's banality thesis is in part a deliberate construct; Arendt deliberately takes an ironic tone toward Eichmann--because "comedy," Neiman suggests, "undermines evil more than tragedy." In this way, Arendt undermines the attraction of the aesthetization of evil, the temptation to see evil as more attractive, more complex, and more creative than goodness. The banality thesis is a kind of theodicy, Neiman concludes, a way of stressing that evil, as a form of thoughtlessness, is not "impenetrable to reason." Neiman stresses the theological character of the theory of Arendt, whom she quotes as saying, "the world as God created it seems to me a good one."

But what sort of God is this? Clearly not the watchmaker God of Deism. It is not surprising that some, including the contemporary political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain, have detected in Arendt's banality thesis the vestiges of the classical view--articulated most satisfactorily in St. Augustine's theological critique of Manichean dualism--that evil is the absence of good.

And yet, despite the theological tone of the interpretation of Arendt, and despite the repeated statements that modern philosophy is inseparable from theology, Neiman's book is surprisingly thin theologically. Even as it seeks to recover unduly neglected figures and topics, it contains some surprising exclusions of theological authors. There is, for example, only one passing allusion to Kierkegaard and a handful of references to Dostoyevsky. (Neiman does, however, make a nice point about the appearance of the devil to Ivan in the "Brothers Karamazov": The devil is shabbily dressed, a mere shell of a man, a depiction that deprives the devil of any hope for grandiosity.) The most egregious omission in "Evil in Modern Thought" is Pascal, who seemed to anticipate the entire trajectory of modern philosophy's attempt to reckon with evil on the basis of reason alone.

Neiman asserts that the modern crystallized with a single event, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Philosophers from Kant to Rousseau and Voltaire commented on the destructive natural event, and Goethe (at age six!) was alleged to have experienced "doubt and consciousness for the first time." What rendered the earthquake so important, Neiman argues, was not the "weight of the disaster but the increased expectation."

The Enlightenment rested on a conviction that the universe is intelligible, that its law-like behavior is, or soon will be, transparent to human investigation. A similar conviction about transparency was also beginning to be applied to the social order, in the nascent social sciences of economics and politics.

THE PECULIARLY MODERN PROBLEM of evil is thus a result, not of the revealed teachings of biblical religion, but of the natural religion of Deism. Neiman writes,

Both grace and atheism leave the connection of virtue and happiness up to chance. Reason demands that the connection be systematic. . . . If the link between virtue and reward were accidental, the watch wouldn't work--to use another favorite Deist metaphor. What watchmaker would design a mechanism with the wheels and cogs turned randomly one way then sometimes another, without any warning whatsoever?

Even at the moment the modern, scientific project of theodicy was first getting under way, Pascal insisted on the "hiddenness of God": Whatever evidence there is of God's presence points not to the truth of Deism but to a redeeming God who enters history to take evil upon himself. Like Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky after him, Pascal agreed in advance with Neiman's concluding note that "the picture of reason as inherently systematic is fatal to any form of philosophy we will want to preserve."

Contemporary Anglo-American philosophers, whose impoverished historical sense Neiman seems bent on enriching, are likely to voice objections about the overly synthetic character of the book. But the real problem with her work is not that it includes too much, but too little: Its exclusions continue to reflect the anti-theological biases of much of contemporary philosophy.

Thomas Hibbs is newly appointed dean of the honors college and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University.

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