The Moral Drama of the World

"The Choice of Hercules" Annibale Carracci 1596

“The Choice of Hercules” Annibale Carracci 1596

The Moral Drama of the World

It’s Erev Rosh Ha Shana (the eve of the Jewish New Year 5777) and here I am, not in synagogue tonight, because I have a column to script. Likewise tomorrow I’ll be late for the temple services because, absentmindedly, I scheduled a morning appointment that it would be wrong to cancel.

The High Holidays are so called because, when they expect you, you have to show up. Or at least, to do something. Like cook for an overflow crowd of friends and relations who have flown in from all over the country to be with you. Well, that’s a crowd I don’t have.

All the same, when the anti-semites show up (as they are doing on genteel American campuses, at Trump rallies and at BLM and BDS rallies, from left to right), they’ll still know where to find me.

When I focus my mind on the new anti-semitism, I see only evil, sui generis, immemorial, incurable as a human phenomenon and perennially prepared to spring its ambush.

Today I was asked by someone whether I thought she should consult a certain party about a matter in which I have a personal interest. As it happens, the person she inquired about has been, in my life, a longterm adversary of rare talent, able to spin out persuasive fictions that are defamatory. The defamations have been believed without evidence and have done me an impressive amount of damage through the years. I saw precious friendships, collegial relations, the regard of neighbors and the support of family friends peeled away from my life.

On the whole, I did not fight back. I let them go. All ashore that’s going ashore. If they wanted to believe my defamer, and not me of whom they knew no ill, let them. I didn’t want to get into the intrigue, the back and forth, of what seemed to be gossip, even in my own defense. “Slander,” I said, “ is always believed.” That saying of mine is even posted on “Dear Abbie” as one of “Abigail’s Adages.”

Today, for some reason, I saw it differently. I decided to fight back. I don’t have a fund of native aggression so we’re not starting from any perch of natural advantages. Even worse, I felt invaded by terror compounded of the memory of many past defeats.

So how did I ready myself for the combat? I did it in two stages.

First (don’t laugh), I used a method introduced by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, which he termed “the phenomenological reduction.” Don’t run away. I will explain it to you. If you want to see the essence of a situation, Husserl recommends bracketing what he calls “the natural attitude”: your awareness that the world is real and your interests are really at risk in the world.  Put all that you hope to gain and fear to lose inside brackets. Put it out of play. Pretend you’re already dead and just revisiting your life. Pretend it makes no difference to you now.

Second, I did the opposite of what I had done in step one. I stopped looking objectively at the scene I confronted. I stopped pretending to rise above it, as if it didn’t concern me vitally. My prayer guidance said:

This is the moral drama of the world.

It concerns you.

Put your whole heart and mind and vitals into it.

Give it your all.

When I finally talked to the person who had asked for my opinion, I spoke with the orderliness and clarity of a lawyer making a closing argument. From the response that followed, I think I won my case.

I fought back.

Who else can do it

if we won’t?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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