Understanding Evil – Part 1
A two-part series (September 30 and October 28)
$18 per lecture or $30 for the two-part series
Like the virus, the concept of evil has evolved. Also like the virus, it has become more virulent and efficient in the art of destruction, even as our understanding of it has devolved from the demonic to the insidious and readily contagious. It may even be asymptomatic or appear to be. Evil is a monstrously large concept and topic. It is also an elusive one, difficult, some would say impossible to define.
This first talk will focus on the early or pre-modern history of the concept of evil, which, in its ancient 2,000+ years, was almost always a theological issue. We’ll discuss the two basic kinds of evil, the natural and the moral, and we’ll examine and compare the definitions and treatments of evil in Judaism (in the Old Testament, the Book of Job, the Ten Commandments, and in biblical commentary and scholarship); in Christianity (its origin in the Fall, the Devil, the idea of sin and the seven deadly sins, its treatments by Christian theologians and others); and more briefly in Islam, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. An obligatory feature of any discussion of evil in the pre-modern world is theodicy, the often-strained effort to explain and justify the existence of evil in a world created and governed by a presumably all-good, all-powerful God. Why did God allow it? Was He not all good, after all? Not sufficiently powerful to prevent or destroy it? Here we’ll look briefly at the theodicies of St. Augustine, Leibniz, who coined the term, the poets Milton and Pope and, drawing the pre-Modern into the early 19th century with Hegel.
The first talk on evil, mainly historical and theological. focused on the concept as understood by Judaism and Christianity in the Biblical and Middle Ages. The second will be about evil as both phenomenon and idea in recent times and the present. How evil has been defined, largely in humanistic and secular terms, by contemporary moral philosophers and thinkers, will be discussed. We will also discuss the perhaps paradoxical decline of the term’s use in modern discourse, even as what we might call evil in the world seems to have risen to previously unimaginable levels of cruelty, intensity and horror. We will also explore how seemingly ordinary people can be brought to perform such acts, how the virus of evil spreads from person to person, and how it grows from the indifference of idle bystanders to peripheral, then active participation, and from there to group violence, mass murder and genocide. Could this virus, which spread through Europe so virulently in the ‘30s and ‘40s and elsewhere since, take hold here? And now? Are there signs?
Bill Freedman was born in Newark, NJ, took a PhD in English Literature at the University of Chicago in 1964 and taught in the City University of New York system before moving to Israel in 1969. He taught English literature at the University of Haifa until his retirement in 2004 and, until 2019, taught part-time at the Sakhnin College of Teacher Education in the Arab town of Sakhnin. Bill received an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University in 1974 and was a practicing psychotherapist until his retirement in 2010. Bill has published books and a number of essays in literary criticism and theory, an oral history of baseball fans, and four books of poetry. He and his wife have a small home in Landgrove, where they spend their summers.