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.
This second talk will focus on the quantum shift in the ways evil is defined in the post-Enlightenment world of recent and contemporary philosophy and thought. How have recent and contemporary thinkers redefined evil in exclusively human and secular terms? And what are its causes? How does evil take root and intensify in individuals? And how does it take hold, grow, and spread, virus-like, through larger groups, societies, and entire nations? Why in Germany in the 1930s and 40s? Why not here? and now? It will pick up from the first talk (which you needn’t have heard to follow this one) with various refutations, some quite comically contemptuous of the earlier theodicies and will mark the decline of evil as a seminal subject of philosophy and everyday discourse, from which the word has all but disappeared. Is it really anything more than an emotionally charged synonym for ‘terrible’, ‘horrifying’ of ‘very bad’? This brings us to what we might call the paradox of evil in the modern world: the decline of the concept of evil from the divine and demonic to the human, the ordinary and, in Hannah Arendt’s stunningly provocative judgement, the merely ‘banal’, even as what looks, walks, quacks and pains like evil swells to genocidal proportions—the Holocaust and the genocides in Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere. Time permitting, (perhaps in the Q&A), we’ll discuss the dissonance many feel between what we think we know about evil and what we more viscerally feel about it.
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.