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Alan Wolfe

Desperately Wicked

Reckoning with evil


"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 evil is once again prominent on the intellectual and academic radar screen, the problems of understanding it have only just begun. These books not only fail to agree on what evil is, they disagree on how it came into the world and whether it ever can be expected to leave. Consider them, as all of their authors save one would want them to be considered, provisional efforts to start an inquiry rather than foundational attempts to solve a problem.


The exception is James Waller. We need, he writes, a "unified" and a "new" theory about evil, and he plans to offer "an original interpretation," as well as a "model," that will make sense out of "extraordinary human evil." These are ambitious claims for so complex a phenomenon, and it should not come as a surprise that Waller fails to deliver on them. His book, the most immodest of the four under review here, sheds the least new light on the problem.

Waller, a social psychologist at Whitworth College in Washington, begins by defining evil as "the deliberate harming of humans by other humans." This is, he writes, a behavioral definition that enables us to leave out people's motivations in order to judge them by their actions, an odd conclusion given that one must evaluate motivations to determine whether actions are deliberate. Mostly, though, Waller's definition suffers from its extreme broadness. Harm has been an unavoidable feature of social life since its origins. Without uprooting people from ways of life that limit their potential, and in the process impose considerable harm upon them, there would be no progress in the world. Sometimes such acts of displacement are clearly evil, as when agents of American expansion intentionally unleashed deadly viruses on Native American populations. But sometimes harm can have beneficial consequences, especially for later generations; ask the grandchildren of immigrants to America or Australia forced out of poverty-stricken Europe, often against their will.

Rather than distinguishing between different kinds of harm and the consequences that follow from them, Waller jumps immediately to "extraordinary human evil," which, unlike evil in general, involves "the deliberate harm inflicted against a defenseless and helpless group targeted by a legitimating political, social, or religious authority." This definition also suffers from being too capacious. Under the spell of evil's seeming ubiquity, Waller intersperses throughout his text brief accounts of many of the major evils that have taken place in recent years, from Rwanda to Bosnia. But they serve mostly to underscore the point that, for example, violations of human rights in Latin America carried out by repressive dictators, as horrendous as they are, are not at the same level, morally speaking, as genocidal attempts to wipe out entire populations based on their religion or ethnicity.

There is a reason for Waller's inclusiveness; he has a thesis to advance. "My central argument," he writes, "is that it is ordinary individuals, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil." Furthermore, "being aware of our own capacity for extraordinary evil—and the dispositional, situational, and social influences that foster it—is the best safeguard we can have against future genocide."

To demonstrate his thesis, Waller argues that true evil such as that exhibited by the Nazis cannot be explained as a large-scale manifestation of psychopathology. Were many of the leading Nazis madmen? Did their actions reveal not only familiar human motives but also a strain of mental aberration such as we are inclined to impute to the perpetrators of certain horrible crimes—a Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance? Waller answers no, and the way he makes his case says volumes about his approach throughout the book.

It turns out that Rorschach tests were administered to some of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Nearly everyone who studied the results of these tests disagreed about what they signified, including the two psychologists who administered them. In addition, only 19 individuals underwent the test—a limited basis for sweeping generalizations. Indeed, the psychologists who were given the data in 1947 never published their conclusions. Perhaps they found the sample too small and the technique too crude.

But Waller charges that, confronted with evidence that the Nazis were normal, the psychologists would not go on record with their findings. When another research team comes to the conclusion Waller prefers, that Nazi leaders had no tinge of madness about them, Waller cites their work favorably, even if the bulk of the Rorschachs this group studied were not of Germans but of Danes who collaborated with the Nazis. "As much as we may wish it to be true," Waller concludes, "the Nazis cannot so easily be explained away as disturbed, highly abnormal individuals."

To appreciate how absurd this conclusion is, consider the following thought experiment. Wanting to find out who is abnormal and who is not, you design a projective test meant to measure mental health. But one of your colleagues comes up with a better idea. "Let's not be satisfied with a measure of madness," he exclaims, "let's observe the real thing." This colleague then proposes that we see which of our fellow citizens would be willing to round up all the Jews in the society, send them on trains to camps, and kill them with gas. "Anyone willing to go that far," he concludes triumphantly, "surely would be mad," but, we can picture him adding, "this would never happen in real life." Now we know, of course, that it did. Despite all the evidence that anyone could ever want demonstrating that the Nazis were psychopaths, Waller proposes that a test meant to measure something is a better indicator than the thing itself, a sad commentary on the way some psychologists view the world.

Seeking further support for his implausible thesis, Waller turns to Hannah Arendt's famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. But he gets nearly everything about Arendt wrong. He states that the controversy over her book centered on the notion of "the banality of evil"; actually, most critics focused on Arendt's suggestion that Jewish councils collaborated with the Nazis, an aspect of her book that Waller never mentions. Moreover, Arendt would be aghast at Waller's suggestion thesis about extraordinary evil. The phrase "banality of evil" was meant to suggest that Eichmann was a cog in a machine without conspicuous evil motives of his own, but it never implied that the Nazi machine was just like any other machine. Indeed, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt talked about the "radical evil" that had emerged in the 20th century, arguing that modern forms of totalitarianism were historically unique. Much ink has been spilled over whether "radical evil" is reconcilable with "the banality of evil"; there is no contradiction if one realizes that radically evil ends can be carried out through banal means.

Equally unsatisfactory is Waller's attempt to develop what he calls a "situational" explanation of evil. "People tend to do evil because of where they are," he writes, "not who they are." Yet Anton Schmidt, an ordinary German whose efforts to save Jews in Poland were cited at the Nuremberg trials, committed acts of goodness because of who he was—and to do so he had to overcome the situation in which he found himself. Despite repeated pronouncements that his model of evil is not meant to absolve individuals of the responsibility for their acts, Waller does just that.

All of this could be forgiven if Waller were correct that a recognition of our potential for extraordinary evil is a necessary first step to controlling future outbreaks of the phenomenon. But there is no reason for thinking he is. Forgive me, but I do not consider myself evil, nor would I apply that term to most people I know. (I have no doubt harmed people in the course of my life, sometimes deliberately, and people have done the same to me, but this does not make any of us evil.) Some concepts are useful only to the degree that they are rarely used, and evil is one of them. By restricting the term to exceptional acts committed by truly reprehensible people, we do not make the "other" responsible for our own failings, as Waller charges. Instead, recognizing that we cannot prevent extraordinary evil, we do the next best thing: we single out those who perpetrate it and condemn and punish them for the choices they made. We should "democratize" evil rather than engage in "demonizing" it, Waller suggests. I would rather leave the subject to poets than social psychologists; the former do a better job with devils than the latter.

Poets, however, are not specialists, and "most nonspecialists simply do not bring the training of experience necessary to fully mine the potential of what contemporary psychology can offer," Waller opines. This is his most immodest claim of all. Evil has a certain grandeur; it stands there in all its hugeness, challenging us to grasp its essence. Academic psychology, by contrast, is puny in its methods and conclusions, although, it would seem, not in its ambitions. Oblivious to the gap between his subject matter and his discipline, Waller proposes that "scholars in genocide studies" need to take his model "and test its applicability to a broader range of cases of perpetrator behavior than those I have included in this book." The thought sends a chill down my spine. To begin to grasp radical evil, the last thing we need is "genocide studies," as if the victims of systematic killings needed their own version of identity politics. And before we succumb to genocide inflation by finding ever more examples of deliberate harms against which we can test our theories, we need to spend considerably more time than Waller has trying to understand exactly what it is we seek to understand.

Waller concludes his book by telling his readers that they ought not to mind being compared to the worst monsters that ever lived. "The lesson does contain potential 'good news,'" he writes reassuringly. "The commission of extraordinary evil is no longer a mystery." Well, it remains one to me. I have read Becoming Evil and I still do not understand why six million Jews were rounded up and sent to gas chambers.


Philosophers spend considerable time trying to understand what something is; all the more reason to be grateful that some of them, like Richard Bernstein and Susan Neiman, are turning to the question of evil. Both of these thinkers have been influenced by the Continental tradition in philosophy, which never ignored large moral and ethical questions to the degree that the analytical tradition did. Their books bring clarity and depth to the subject; I consider both of them essential reading for anyone who wants to start thinking about evil and what it means.

Radical Evil, as its title suggests, originates with Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism. In a letter to Gershom Scholem, Arendt wrote that despite what she claimed in Origins, evil could never be "radical." Bernstein argues that Arendt's comment is "misleading." To understand Arendt's point of view, we need to pay attention to what Arendt called "thought-trains," strands of ideas about a concept—to mix the metaphor—that need to be woven together to make an idea whole. However uncertain Arendt was of Eichmann's motives, according to Bernstein, she was consistent in her view that the concentration camps represented unprecedented evil. The camps, she wrote at one point, stand "outside of life and death," for what they accomplished was not death in the usual, physical, sense of the term, but "the murder of the moral person in man." Others have murdered and committed criminal acts. The Nazis were unique because they used every available aspect of modern technology to eliminate the idea of humanity itself.

This idea of "thought-trains" works for Bernstein because it describes not only Arendt's ideas but also Bernstein's approach to the ideas of any great philosopher. Unlike Arendt, Bernstein is not an original thinker; his books invariably are commentaries on the ideas of others. But what wonderful works of synthesis they can be, and in this book all of Bernstein's abilities as a teacher and clarifier are on display. Bernstein shows how Eichmann himself could cite Kant on duty, and do so with some fidelity to Kant's thought, even while missing the central point of Kant's "thought-train": "insofar as individuals have the capacity of spontaneous choice (Wilkür), they are accountable and responsible moral agents." Bernstein's chapter on Hegel muses over the question of whether there is anything to be gained by viewing good and evil as existing in dialectical tension with each other and concludes that not much is. Three other pre-Holocaust thinkers—Schelling, Nietzsche, and Freud—are treated in similar ways; Bernstein tries to extract from each crucial insights that help contemporary thinkers wrestle with the problem of radical evil.

The most interesting chapters in Bernstein's book are the three that deal with Jewish European philosophers who had to face the lessons of the Nazi era: Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Jonas, and Arendt. In many ways, Levinas had the most extreme reaction to the Holocaust. For Christians and Jews, theodicy has traditionally offered relief from the problem of evil; awful things can happen, but the God ultimately responsible for them can nonetheless be good. The true measure of radical evil in our time is that we live, as Levinas put it, at "the end of theodicy." Not only religious but also secular thought can turn inauthentic and dishonest if it succumbs too easily to the temptation to find some goodness in the face of genuine horror.

Does this mean that the only appropriate response is nihilism? Levinas, according to Bernstein, did not believe this to be the case: "The excess of evil, its malignancy that resists integration, solicits a transcendence that shines 'forth in the face of the other man; an alterity of the nonintegratable, of what cannot be assembled into a totality.'" Here Bernstein is less than clear, but that is no doubt because Levinas is as well. An epigrammatic thinker, Levinas never bridged the distance between his critique of the end of theodicy and his message of hope, and Bernstein, finally, cannot help him all that much.

The thought of Hans Jonas ought to receive more attention than it does. Like Levinas, Jonas rejected any theodicy that would too easily "explain away" the evil of the Holocaust. Jews even more than Christians should recognize the challenge to God represented by Auschwitz, for the Jew "sees in 'this' world the locus of divine creation, justice, and redemption." In 1984, Jonas discovered the diary of Etty Hillesum, who had been sent to the Auschwitz gas chamber in 1943. "And if God does not continue to help me," this young Jew wrote, "then I must help God." Jonas found these words overwhelming, for they fit with the preoccupation with responsibility that runs through his philosophical writings. We should not view the Holocaust as God's punishment for our sins, Jonas concluded, for God is not that powerful and we are not that sinful; attributing an evil like the Holocaust to God's displeasure with us conveniently lets us off the hook. "We human beings have inflicted this on the deity. … It remains on our account, and it is we who must again wash away the disgrace from our own disfigured faces, indeed from the very countenance of God."

Finding a way to distinguish God's responsibility from that of human beings also preoccupies Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. Neiman contrasts two events: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the Nazi Holocaust. Those shaken by the former asked how God could have allowed such suffering. Those stunned by the latter asked how human beings could have done such horrible things to one another. Between these two reactions, Neiman argues, lies nothing less than "an alternative history of philosophy."

Although Pierre Bayle wrote before the Lisbon earthquake—his Dictionary was published in 1697—Neiman finds his work relevant to her inquiry. She summarizes his argument in the form of three propositions: (1) evil exists; (2) God is benevolent; and (3) God is omnipotent. "Bend and maul them as you will," she writes, "they cannot be held in union. One of them has to go." For Bayle, if you drop the assumption of God's omnipotence, you have practiced heresy, but if you believe him to be omnipotent, you cannot explain why he put evil into the world. Recognizing Augustine as the thinker who provided the most serious effort to reconcile these propositions, Bayle refused to accept the answer that God gave us free will and retained the power to punish us for abusing it; donors as generous as Augustine presumed God to be do not dispense lethal gifts. For Neiman, Bayle embodies the belief that a reality such as evil is exactly what it seems; we are under no obligation to find the goodness that lies behind it because no such goodness exists. There is a direct line, in her idiosyncratic history of philosophy, from Bayle to Voltaire, Hume, and the Marquis de Sade.

For other thinkers of whom Leibniz is paradigmatic, by contrast, we are required to make evil intelligible because there is another reality behind it. Leibniz sought such intelligibility by turning to God: the term "theodicy" was his invention. But from Neiman's perspective, the key question is not whether God makes evil intelligible but whether anything does. Thus she views thinkers such as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Marx as sharing the same tradition as Leibniz.

Neiman spends considerable time on Rousseau, endorsing Kant's view that Rousseau did for history and society what Newton did for the physical world. Sharing much of Augustine's views on free will, Rousseau changed only God's role; he "held the Fall, and any possible redemption from it, to be explicable in terms that are completely natural. Rousseau replaced theology with history, grace with educational psychology." For Rousseau, the Lisbon earthquake was a purely natural event that carried with it no threat of punishment for human sins. Rousseau, for Neiman, creates the modern approach to evil. On the one hand, he believes, with Leibniz, that one can make the inexplicable intelligible. On the other hand, however, it is not God who brings that intelligence to us but we who, by understanding history and sociology, fashion it for ourselves.

If Lisbon concentrated the modern mind on moral evil, Auschwitz raised the question of whether there was any morality at all. Its effect was so devastating because it undermined what could be called the post-Lisbon consensus. No longer could we agree that man-made evil differed from natural evil because the former, unlike the latter, contained an element of intentionality. Nazi leaders like Eichmann lacked any intentionality; this was Arendt's great insight. Another German, Hans Blumenberg, wrote that modernity began with theodicy. Does it end, Neiman asks (echoing Levinas), with "the realization that all such acts are forlorn?" She does not answer the question, as indeed Levinas did not either. But she does develop a readable and thought-provoking account of how that question came to be in our thoughts.

Neiman can reach too far in her interpretations; to say that "evil plays a major role" in the work of John Rawls is, at some level, true, but it also overlooks everything that is distinctive in Rawls in order to fit him into her story. Her categories also seem on occasion forced; Marx is lumped together with Leibniz because socialism would make the evil of capitalism intelligible, and thus would presumably count as a theodicy, yet it surely matters whether the agent of intelligibility is supernatural, natural, or artificial. At the same time, however, Neiman's audacity and occasionally morbid wit are a welcome addition to contemporary philosophy. If there is any hope after Auschwitz, we may find it in the fact that human minds will not stop trying to make some kind of meaning out of it.


Although many of the thinkers who tried to make sense out of the Holocaust were Jewish, they were influenced by Christian theology; Hans Jonas was a student of Rudolf Bultmann, and Hannah Arendt, as Charles T. Mathewes reminds us, always worked in the shadow of Augustine. Evil and the Augustinian Tradition features Arendt, along with Reinhold Niebuhr, as representing alternatives to what Mathewes calls "subjectivism," which he defines as "the belief that our existence in the world is determined first and foremost by our own (subjective) activities."

Niebuhr is often assumed to be a conservative, but, as Mathewes points out, this cannot be easily reconciled with his political activism, most of which was concentrated on left-wing causes. Moreover, because American conservatism is so tied to a Smithian love of the marketplace, it has never—with the exception of now somewhat forgotten figures such as Whittaker Chambers or the Southern agrarians—been able to develop the ironic, and often pessimistic, stance toward modernity that any good conservative mood should reflect. In Augustine's theology Niebuhr found an alternative to the prevailing American optimism of his day.

Niebuhr's voice was tragic. Evil, the realist in him recognized, is "a fixed datum of historical science"; not for Niebuhr the kind of naïveté that has often characterized religious leaders' involvement in politics. At the same time, our sins are not of such a depraved nature that any hope has to be ruled out of order. We can take responsibility for our acts, and Mathewes is especially good as describing this Niebuhrian sense of responsibility. "We have no intellectual resources for 'handling' evil," he writes, "if 'handling' it means managing it." Our thought is always torn open at its side, as it were, and bleeds from the knowledge that we sinners, we evil doers, are at fault and are yet the vehicles whereby God's salvation is made manifest."

Mathewes clearly prefers the way Niebuhr formulates the prospect for hope in the face of evil to Arendt's discussion of the same issue. Searching for an alternative to the totalitarianism of the 20th century, Arendt did develop a rather romantic attraction to the Greek polis. Mathewes interprets this attraction as a preference for "a sort of 'heroic' agonal politics" and criticizes Arendt for idealizing "the anarchy of permanent revolution." Such a prospect, he writes, "cannot make sense of hope." But when he adds that Arendt's alternative is "equally banal" to the totalitarianism she so eloquently criticized, Mathewes inadvertently shows how easy it is for a scholar absorbed in texts to lose touch with reality. Such a comment treats the Holocaust as if it were an intellectual game and not a real event with devastating consequences. Mathewes concludes that Arendt's treatment of these issues "is not very helpful for us in dealing with the evil we find around us, and in us, every day." He thus comes full circle back to where we began with James Waller, unable to recognize that some forms of evil are, so to speak, more evil than others.

This treatment of Arendt illustrates the most frustrating feature of Mathewes' otherwise illuminating book. Convinced that subjectivism is the problem, Mathewes finds it everywhere, even in thinkers like Niebuhr and Arendt whom he otherwise admires. His alternative is to return to Augustine, who "urges us to participate ever more fully in the world, and to understand that participation Christologically." Yet Niebuhr and Arendt witnessed unprecedented horrors on a scale made possible by modern technology. If their response is to conclude that real human beings like the Nazis were responsible for that evil, the resulting "subjectivism" seems justifiable compared to a historicism that would make no distinction between that evil and all the other forms that wickedness has taken over the centuries. Niebuhr and Arendt are interesting thinkers because they both know Augustine well and are aware of the need to account for specifically modern events. Their flirtation with "subjectivism" is to be admired, not criticized.

Mathewes' book, which originated as a doctoral dissertation, is, like Neiman's, ambitious and audacious. And like Neiman's, it demonstrates a bit too much razzle-dazzle, as it hops around from one thinker to another, engages in outrageous name-dropping, and leaves too many thoughts unfinished. Evil and the Augustinian Tradition can be taken as a sign that academic theology is returning to grand themes, including the existence of evil. And it can also be read as a note of caution, urging a bit more intellectual modesty than can be found in its pages.


Three hundred years passed between Lisbon and Auschwitz, and if there is once again going to occur a historical event that will force thinkers to confront the reality of evil, one hopes that it will be at least another three hundred years before it takes place. (September 11, at least so far, does not qualify; while it was carried out by decidedly evil people, and while the number of lives lost was tragically high, this was an event that resonated with religious wars of the past rather than one that marked a hideous "breakthrough," some new way to wipe out an entire population). Long after Arendt made her erroneous prediction about the effects of Auschwitz, the Holocaust has begun to stimulate brilliant thinking about evil, but one would trade all those thoughts for the lives that were so ruthlessly taken.

Still, that trade is not one we can make. We live with evil because evil has chosen to live with us. The best we can do is to be as ambitious as we can in trying to tackle one of the great mysteries surrounding us, without becoming so ambitious that we bring evil down to the level of ordinary existence. As Richard Bernstein concludes in an especially reflective summary of what we know and what we do not, evil is "an excess that resists total comprehension." Yet, he continues, "interrogating evil is an ongoing, open-ended process" which requires not only a reaffirmation of the importance of personal responsibility but also a commitment to rethinking what responsibility means. Whether we are followers of Augustine or Kant, we are individuals with free will. Faced with the Holocaust, some people chose to do the right thing—even while far more chose evil.

Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is the author most recently of Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice (Norton).

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