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In 2015, Princeton University Press published a new "classics" edition of Susan Neiman's remarkable book, Evil in Modern Thought. This version contains a new afterword from Neiman that addresses terrorism and some criticisms of the 2002 edition.
One of the many virtues of Evil in Modern Thought is that it is a scholarly yet very accessible work. The writing is crisp, even rhythmic and witty in certain passages. The narrative Neiman constructs, moreover, is much more riveting and psychologically plausible than the 'standard' narrative of modern Western philosophy, where refuting scepticism and other epistemological issues drive the discussion.
On Neiman's alternative reading, a much more fundamental human concern animates modern philosophy: the severe challenge that horrific, senseless evil represents to our ability and even to our desire to make sense of the world and the human condition.
Many philosophers initially balk at this claim because they think the problem of evil is a strictly theological issue. Neiman forcefully argues, however, that it is ultimately a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole. As she puts it, "Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil." It is, she claims, "the point at which ethics and metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics meet, collide, and throw up their hands. At issue are questions about what the structure of the world must be like for us to think and act within it" (5). Consequently, Neiman divides up philosophers according to how they formulate and respond to this problem, not along rationalist vs. empiricist lines. As we shall see, this will make for some strange bedfellows.
For Neiman, modern philosophy begins with the shock and horror caused by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, and ends with Auschwitz and the utter degradation and depravity that it symbolizes.
Here we have two major historical events serving as bookends to the modern that illustrate the distinction between natural and moral evil. One common way to understand the relation between these two kinds of evil is to chalk up all natural evil to moral evil. The Pauline-Augustinian view of a primordial Fall as the cause of a curse on the entire world is a well-known example.
According to Neiman, this way of making sense of natural evil – as punishment for moral evil – as economical as it might seem, "could not survive the Lisbon earthquake" (217). As she explains, "Radically separating what earlier ages called natural from moral evils was thus part of the meaning of modernity" (4). So Lisbon comes to represent in a sense a loss of faith in the world, or its intelligibility. We no longer seek meaning in natural disasters, for instance, but simply to predict them and mitigate their effects (250). (Never mind that millions of human beings still do seek such meaning, not just the Pat Robertsons of the world.)
According to Neiman, Auschwitz, on the other hand, was "conceptually devastating" for a different reason. It "revealed a horrifying possibility in human nature that we hoped not to see. For the conditions in Germany should have led not to highly developed forms of barbarism but to genuine civilization" (254). To speak of inevitable progress through the use of reason in view of such events is ridiculous and obscene.
In addition, Neiman argues, "The death camps revealed nightmares of contingency" (259). Do your job, what's asked of you, and you might be spared from the gas chambers. Or you might just be shot. To speak of greater goods wrought by this sort of gratuitous evil seems not just illogical, but also immoral. Neiman concludes, "Souls may be strengthened in the confrontation with evil that acknowledges them. Evil that seeks to deny its victims all the conditions of having a soul cannot possibly further them" (267).
So Lisbon and Auschwitz bracket a period of deep and ongoing struggle with the profound challenge that evil – especially completely gratuitous evil – presents to a most basic goal of philosophy and reason: making sense of things.
Neiman's account of modern philosophy begins with an introduction that helpfully sketches out the basic philosophical issues of modernity, the usual story about what motivates them, and her alternative proposals. Then in four subsequent chapters she sorts out the major players in modern philosophy and how they converge and diverge in novel ways, on this reading.
With the exception of chapter three – "Ends of an Illusion" – that covers Nietzsche and Freud's distinctive contributions to the discussion, the chapters tend to be rather long. This feature of the book tends to detract from the cognitive ease of Neiman's prose otherwise. This brings to mind the advice of Daniel Kahneman for all scholars, in Thinking, Fast and Slow: if you want people to absorb your ideas, present them in a manner that is maximally responsive to the needs and limits of human psychology.
The first chapter, "Fire from Heaven" – a whopping 98 pages – begins with Alfonso X's declaration: "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better" (15). Neiman organizes her discussion around the contrasting responses to this quip and the sentiment behind it. The major figures discussed include Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. A main theme of this chapter is that "the demands of reason led to consequences that explode them" (109).
As Neiman has it, in responding to Bayle and taking up God's defense, Leibniz – famous (or infamous) for his 'best of all possible worlds' thesis – unwittingly inaugurates the long process by which "the wish to defend God with reasons would become the wish to displace God with reason" (28). Rousseau, the "first to treat the problem of evil as a philosophical problem," naturalizes the relations between sin and suffering, virtue and happiness – a further step in the direction of rendering God obsolete.
Neiman's nuanced and sympathetic reading of Kant emphasizes his view that behind metaphysics and theodicy is the desire to be God, to transcend completely the limits of human reason. Also, for Kant, it is decisive that reason and nature are not even on speaking terms, much less best friends, as Rousseau would have it. This world obviously doesn't consistently reward virtue or punish vice. Yet the "need of reason" for such rational harmony is so basic as to motivate every moral judgment that a particular evil should not have happened (65). However, as Neiman reads Kant, it would be "morally disastrous" for us to have knowledge of any necessary connection between happiness and virtue (67). We'd then choose virtue always purely out of self-interest. Neiman's Kant is indeed the Kant of breathtaking moral rigor.
Neiman sums up her reading of Hegel and Marx this way: "We saw Hegel announce God's death and his own willingness to replace Him, and Marx demand that the replacement become real" (110).
In chapter two, "Condemning the Architect," Neiman groups together philosophers "who rejected all attempts to seek transcendence and insisted on staying with the appearances," no matter how depressing and contrary to reason they may be (114). The lineup here includes Bayle, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Hume, and, surprisingly, the Marquis de Sade.
Neiman highlights Bayle's revelation of the terror implicit in orthodox religion and, more importantly, his revolting (at the time) lack of faith in human reason. Regarding Voltaire, Neiman notes that while Rousseau blamed the victims of Lisbon, "Voltaire heard them cry." Consequently, by the end of Candide, the notion of Providence is in tatters. As Neiman puts it, "What's left of sufficient reason is the barest sort of efficient causality detailed at length when Pangloss explains the genealogy of his syphilis" (138-9).
Hume is well known, of course, for his view that reason is impotent and for his devastating critiques of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, some of which rely on the reality and prominence of gratuitous evil. Still Neiman manages to give these themes in Hume a fresh reading and to show that they are central to Hume's thought. She not only links them tightly to her overarching narrative; she also demonstrates that Hume's ultimate target all along is reason. For Hume, the (absent) Providential God of Christianity simply has to be dealt with fully in order to get to this more fundamental critique of reason.
Neiman's reading of Schopenhauer is perhaps best summed up in her first line about the famous philosophical pessimist: "Consider Schopenhauer as exclamation point" (196). Schopenhauer rejects Providence, but also reverses it, according to Neiman. He offers the world as its own tribunal: if we want to understand how miserable a species we are, just observe what happens in the world to us and through us. There is no redemption here by God, reason, or anything else, just a kind of "consolation so black it begins to be funny" (199).
Neiman claims that both Schopenhauer and Sade's views imply that evil and suffering are so omnipresent as to make life itself in need of justification. But she spends more time exploring this idea in Sade's work, which may be puzzling to many philosophers. Nonetheless, it works. Sade seizes on the utter cruelty and disharmony of this world, sketched in part by Voltaire, and carries it to every limit he can imagine (179). As Neiman puts it, Sade "tortures" reason, while Hume simply sought to humiliate it. She concludes: "Hume coolly said that reason cannot comprehend why the world was constructed with so many evils. Kant argued that reason cannot stand it. In showing a world where crime always pays while virtue always suffers, Sade rakes reason over coals" (195).
Though he seems to haunt Neiman's discussion in chapter three of the philosophers who "condemn the architect," Nietzsche gets his own chapter, along with Freud, as noted above. Given the way Neiman divides up the terrain, this is a good idea. It helps Neiman to show that while Nietzsche has much in common with the philosophers noted just above, he also has to be considered exceptional, not least because of the psychological depth of his critique of reason and the unflinching, radical nature of his alternative perspective.
For Nietzsche, the problem of evil isn't "given." Rather it is a problem created by people who are "unequal to life" (213). Instead of joining the long line of philosophers who repeatedly condemn the real in light of the rational, Nietzsche critiques the demand for sense itself. Furthermore, Nietzsche would have us take responsibility for the concept of evil itself, not just the particular evils that occur.
We create ideals that (eventually) put life itself in the wrong. We do this in large part because we cannot bear meaningless suffering. So far, this is standard Nietzschean fare. Neiman's discussion shows that this is not a late addendum to a peripheral discussion in modern philosophy, however. Rather, it is a profound response to its most basic theme.
Neiman tops off her discussion of Nietzsche with a riveting take on the doctrine of the eternal return, viewed through the lens of Auschwitz. The upshot – an eternal return for the death camps – is grotesque and unimaginable.
Neiman's treatment of Freud is brief and sketchy. But on her reading, Freud has an important place in the history of modern philosophy. He continues the trend of naturalizing evil and makes us ashamed of the childish notion of Providence. But his way with evil ends up trivializing it, according to Neiman.
In the final chapter, "Homeless," Neiman discusses some contemporary philosophical accounts of evil, including those of Levinas, Camus, Arendt, Rawls, and the critical theorists. She also sets up her concluding sections with a searching discussion of the question: why Auschwitz? Then she brings together the various strands of her discussion to clarify the searing challenge to the principle of sufficient reason that unites them, and that remains for us to ponder.
Of course, many contemporary philosophers will question any bare notion of "reason." Whose reason? And what is meant by "reason" anyhow? Assaults on reason come in many forms, and often raise quite legitimate concerns.
Neiman is aware of these problems, even as she tries to offer a modified defense of a kind of principle of sufficient reason. She concedes that we bring the demand for sense – embodied in this principle – to the world; we don't derive it from the world. Contra Freud, Neiman argues we don't just hunger for security and protection at a most basic level. We also crave sense, order, or intelligibility. She refers to this as reason's narcissism: "the wish to see itself reflected wherever it goes" (323).
Neiman also argues that the demand to unite 'is' and 'ought' is behind not only every attempt at political progress, but also "every creative endeavor" (322). If this is true, consider what is lost in giving up the principle of sufficient reason – if this is even possible for us.
Yet this demand for sense should not, in Neiman's view, be conflated with a demand for system. One could say that we have to accept the fact of the fragmentation of reason, according to Neiman, just as Thomas Nagel would have us acknowledge the fragmentation of value.
So in the end Neiman sides with philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau, and Leibniz, with crucial qualifications. Even in the face of Auschwitz and so many other horrors of life, she concludes that we need to retain some allegiance to the principle of sufficient reason in order to fight injustice, to be creative, and to meet deeply human needs, among other reasons.
Whether one concurs with Neiman or not on this point -- and I certainly do not agree with her claim about reason and the origins of creativity -- another great virtue of this book is on display here. It is a book about the history of modern philosophy, but it is also an engaging piece of philosophical thought itself, deeply informed by its history. Indeed, in the end, we are left to wrestle with an intriguing and certainly controversial metaphilosophy.
© 2016 Brad Frazier
Brad Frazier, Dept of Philosophy, Wells College