We meet with evil in the ordinary course of experience, as we try to live our life stories. It’s not a myth. It’s a mysterious but quite real phenomenon. How can we recognize it? How can we learn to resist it? Amazingly, philosophers have not been much help. Despite the claim of classical rationalists that evil is “ignorance,” evil-doers can be extremely intelligent, showing an understanding of ourselves that surpasses our own self-understanding.
Meanwhile, contemporary philosophers, in the English-speaking world and on the Continent, portray good and evil as social constructs, which leaves us puzzled and powerless when we have to face the real thing. Thinkers like Hannah Arendt have construed evil as blind conformity to institutional roles–hence “banal”– but evil-doers have shown exceptional creativity in bending and reshaping institutions to conform to their will.
Theologians have assigned evil the role of adversary to the divine script, but professing religionists are fully capable of evil, while atheists have been known to mount effective resistance. More than broad-brush conceptual distinctions are needed. A Good look at Evil maps the actual terrain–of lived ideas and situations–showing how to recognize evil for what it is: the perennial and present threat to a good life.
“Abigail Rosenthal proposes a new way of understanding one of the oldest mysteries–the nature of evil. Drawing on wide literary and philosophical resources, Rosenthal proposes that narrative self-understanding is the key to a good life. She traces the implications of this idea for understanding various types of evil, including the ultimate evil of Nazi genocide–which, she argues, cannot be understood in Arendtian terms as a kind of banality. Highly personal and original, Rosenthal’s work offers new ways of grappling with some of the largest ethical questions.” –Adam Kirsch, author of The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century (2016)
“Rosenthal pinpoints the characteristic feature of evil–at least the leading type of evil–that distinguishes it from what is only morally wrong or very, very bad. It is based on her basic notion of an ideal ‘life story’ or plot. She extends both concepts from individual victims to races and populations as victims. [T]here is nothing banal or ordinary about evil, the intentional disrupting of the victim’s ‘ideal thread’ or plot. … In a fascinating new essay, Rosenthal revisits Hannah Arendt . . . applying her “plot” concept to Arendt herself in light of what is known about Arendt’s long intellectual and personal relationship with Heidegger. Rosenthal argues that despite a splendid recovery from early adversity, Arendt went on to ‘spoil’ her own life story. And in a concluding piece, Rosenthal shows from her own experience how one can have reason to believe that a person’s life story has been co-authored by God.” –William G. Lycan, author of Real Conditionals (2001)
“It is a most compelling and creative work. Rosenthal is analyzing the ‘stories’ that people tell us about themselves, in terms of both their lives and their work. She does so in an effort to understand genocidal evil-doers, both those who perpetrate and collaborate with it and those who cover up such crimes.” –Phyllis Chesler, author of An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir (2013)