A Good Look at Evil’s Second Edition
The author’s advance copy of my expanded second edition of A Good Look at Evil, arrived Friday. The look of it is entirely gorgeous. To have such endorsements, from opinion-shapers of recognized importance — the well-regarded new literary critic Adam Kirsch, the tough-minded analytic philosopher William Lycan, the eloquent, seasoned, well-credentialed fighter for women’s rights Phyllis Chesler, and the gifted novelist Gail Godwin — is enormous. If no one else should ever read the book, this is a tall mountain already climbed.
What is the meaning of an achievement like this in the course of a life? Some time ago a colleague told me that the ancient Greeks would shout with one antique roar – when an athlete had won an important race, or a wrestling match, and was at the top of his game —
The Greeks believed that the aim of a life is glory. Therefore, they thought it best to depart when one’s glory was at its peak, not yet surpassed or outlived. In his elegiac poem,“To An Athlete Dying Young,” A. E. Housman celebrates their outlook.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory cannot stay.
Although I’m way past the hour for so fine-tuned an exit, anyone who has reached the top of a steep, steep climb can hear — behind today’s congratulations — antiquity’s more sincere advice: die now!
It happens that I’m not free to do that. I have two more books to do. Unhidden Depths: Confessions of a Young Philosopher still needs to find the right publisher and there is another book beyond Confessions. In Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, from which so many public intellectuals emerged to shape America’s mind in the twentieth century, Henry M. Rosenthal, my father, was considered by his more famous classmates to be the one with the most “genius” and the most personal integrity. He was enigmatic. People pained him because he was burdened with a kind of moral x-ray vision. He could see where they were going wrong, or where they would go wrong if they continued down the road they had chosen. There were things he knew that I’ve always wanted to fathom – that I feel the wider world would benefit by knowing. So I can’t “die now” – or die yet.
Besides, I’m not an ancient Greek. Glory isn’t my aim in life. Aristotle distinguished three types of life goal: pleasure, fame, and virtue (arête, excellence). If you deliberately make pleasure your aim, it’s destabilizing and puts you at the mercy of stuff over which you have minimal control. (In our day, it’s not hard to fill in the lurid details in living color.) The quest for fame or glory (“celebrity”) puts you at the mercy of the public and its fleeting preferences. Virtue or excellence (what we would call “being the best that you can be”) is obviously the noblest of the three aims but has its own fragility. Circumstances can overwhelm your efforts: disease, extreme poverty, persecution, a disabling childhood, wars, earthquakes, plagues can all interrupt and thwart your efforts to be the best that you can be. Aristotle admits this. He’s a realistic philosopher. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, for Aristotle.
Okay, so much for our gifted cultural forebears on the pagan side, of whom Poe writes, in his poem dedicated to Helen of Troy:
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Another strand finds its way into our common culture. (There is wisdom to draw on, and much of it, from nonwestern sources, but I can’t make this post go on indefinitely. It’ll soon be closing time at my café.) What’s the other strand, having to do with the aims of life?
It’s the Bible of course. There the whole scheme of life is depicted quite differently, but one of the prominent aims gave my book its theme: the struggle with evil. In the Bible, that is, evil is an acknowledged reality. The Greeks did not know that. With glancing exceptions, in general the classical world attributed the vices to ignorance, to an uncultivated mind.
With all due regard for what the classical world knew and achieved, in this respect they were mistaken. Evil is a power in its own right and has a cunning all its own.
People who have liberated themselves from stultifying, fundamentalist homes cringe when they hear that kind of talk. They heard it all through their childhood from authority figures with narrow minds and inflated egos. They saw it used to manipulate people and push them around.
The “God” word is often used like that too. For manipulative purposes. But let’s not rush to judgment here. It’s the words for what is best, like “love,” “truth, “beauty,” “justice,” “brotherhood,” “peace,” that can be misused in this way. Lies wear the look of truth — for ornamental purposes. How else would wrong intentions make themselves appealing? That doesn’t mean that true words were never spoken.
So the Biblical world shows us how it is when we encounter evil: the deliberate effort to sabotage our best selves. In contemporary times, there is no avoiding the Biblical narratives.
And the classical world gives us philosophy: the longest conversation in history – international, inter-ethnic and interdenominational – about humanity’s most important concerns. There is no avoiding philosophy.
What my book, A Good Look at Evil, tries to do is admit the Biblical awareness, that evil is real, and bring to bear the resources of philosophy to the understanding of it.
What’s my aim as the author, now? It must be this:
to make that understanding more widely known.