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Alan Wolfe


Desperately Wicked

Reckoning with evil

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"The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe," wrote Hannah Arendt in 1945. She was wrong. To be fair, her comment was not directed at the United States, and it applied to intellectual life in general rather than to academic trends in particular. Still, postwar thought in the West in the last half of the 20th century did not make evil central to its concerns. On the contrary: philosophers retreated even more deeply into analytic preoccupations with logic and language; social scientists reacted to the massive irrationalities of war and totalitarianism by treating all human behavior as if it were ultra-rational; both literary theorists and novelists were attracted to forms of postmodernism that denied any fixed distinctions, including the one between good and evil; and the most influential theologians studiously avoided neo-Augustinian thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr. The one European thinker who comes closest to Arendt in breadth of knowledge and passionate concern with the fate of humanity—Jürgen Habermas—has devoted his work not to exploring the horrors of the modern world, but to the conditions under which meaningful human communication is possible.

What was not true of the past fifty years, however, may turn out to be true of the next fifty. Evil is getting increased attention. Presidents Reagan and Bush used the term in their rhetoric to significant public acclaim. Popular culture addicts know all about Hannibal Lector and consume the plots of Stephen King. And the books under review here are representative of a much larger number of recent titles, suggesting that academic fields as diverse as philosophy, theology, and psychology are turning with increasing frequency to a subject they once ignored. It has taken a half-century since the end of World War II for the study of evil to catch up with the thing itself—perhaps, given the traumas of the evils uncovered at war's end, not an unreasonable amount of time.

Now that ...

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