New Year Retrospective

“The Music Lesson”
Johannes Vermeer, 1662-65

New Year Retrospective

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.  If they had any force for me, I might.  First, you gotta believe in those things.

But I do find living force in going back over the path recently trodden, to see how it looks from here, now.  And there’s no harm in letting the passing of a calendar year mark off the time set aside for review.

On January 1st, I did this in my journal.  So I’ll lift key scenes to share with you.

If I ask myself, What has changed for me in 2020?, personal changes are somewhat angled off from what’s been plowing through our planet: the pandemic and its costs.

In my part of this time opened up by the shutdown of everything else, I’ve finally gone all the way through the papers of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal. 

Here’s what the theologian Thomas Altizer wrote about my father.  He “was the center of a brilliant group of young New York intellectuals, including Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling, and while he was the only believing and practicing Jew within this group, in their early days he commanded their moral center of gravity.” 

Clifton Fadiman, a well-known graduate of Columbia’s stellar class of 1925 said, “I thought Henry was a kind of genius,” in terms of “intensity, adherence to a code of feeling which was higher than that which the rest of us adhered to, and a constant satiric sense. … He seemed to be able, at that very early age, to detect in anyone dishonesty or disloyalty to truth … .”

My original purpose in reviewing his papers, had been to serve up his talent and uniqueness within the confines of a daughter’s intellectual memoir.  After a number of attempts, I “failed.”  He escaped any grasp of which I was capable.  Finally, I concluded that such a project had never been among my possibilities.

Taking the steps that followed from this realization, I have been readying the materials for their eventual archiving.  I have also been posting the shorter pieces, philosophic or theologic, on here.

Filial piety is not a popular – not even a respected! – emotion today.  However, it should be.  It has power.

With regard to Confessions of a Young Philosopher — my memoir of a youth spent dialectically testing out certain erroneous ideas – I’d long held the view that

real stories and good pictures

go together. 

This past year, I found a wonderful illustrator and her pictures are being roughed into reality as we speak.

What about A Good Look at Evil?  The first edition, published by Temple University Press, was nominated for a Pulitzer.  Back when I wrote it, nobody talked about “narratives.”  My colleagues at the Brooklyn College Philosophy Department scoffed at me: I was importing novelistic themes into philosophy and that was mixing apples and oranges.  Now everybody talks about narrative but they mean fictional tales that everybody spins because the underlying truth is unconscious and no woman or man can get at it unassisted. 

In contrast, here’s what I mean by narrative:

the consciously true story of one’s life.

By “evil,” I mean the conscious effort by ill-wishers to spoil one’s true story.  (And of course, one can be one’s own story-spoiler.)  Anyway, although the present reissued edition contains two new chapters, the original chapters still seem to me timely, breaking new ground.

In 2020, a young relative of the book’s original editor did an extraordinary job of recording it as an audiobook.  It has all the tensions, the pushes and pulls of a stage play.  If, as I believe, good stories should be illustrated, it now seems obvious that

philosophy should be dramatized.

That’s how philosophy began, with Plato writing immortal dialogues between Socrates and his fellow Athenians.

Come to think of it, there was another avenue that Confessions of a Young Philosopher traversed while still in manuscript.  It’s quoted liberally in a philosophical book, published in 2020 by Indiana University Press, titled Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion, by Bernard Harrison, a well-regarded British philosopher.

This means that things I say about Jews in a personal memoir have found their way into a philosophic book on the subject of anti-semitism.  But why do I talk about Jews at all?  Doesn’t everybody suffer?  What am I trying to do?  Get blood out of a stone?

Everybody suffers and that’s not news.  What is news is that the most unlikely people often have a complaint I call


Often they exhibit this complaint negatively, with a violently dismissive shrug.  Or by iterating a purportedly universal list of the world’s religions, with only one missing: the Mastadon in the Room.

What’s my point?  What am I getting at?  My aim, boys and girls, is to have fun!  To have many playmates with whom to run and play, climb trees and laugh a lot. 

If a morbid, historically deep-seated and deeply distorting relation to Jews (and/or to being oneself Jewish) undermines the good times and the fun, well boys and girls, I feel I can help.  If I can help, I will.

What else was new in my year 2020?  Some measure of dynamic rebalancing was going on.  Physically, my neuropathy treatments with Mark Bussell at the Loma Linda clinic in California have started to show symptomatic progress. 

Alongside that, do I find any signs of rebalancing inwardly?  There is one sign, but I hesitate to talk about it.  In New York, where I come from, it would be considered rude even to mention it.  So, with reluctance, I have to admit that I’m feeling, uh …

more happiness.

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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2 Responses to New Year Retrospective

  1. Judith Dornstreich says:

    At the risk of rudeness, I would like to mention that the…um….let’s call it “punchline” made me very happy to read. Love you!

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