Baffling, Cruel and All Too Human
by Damon Linker
On the evening of Sept. 11,
President Bush declared that "today, our nation saw evil." By
invoking this powerful moral concept, the President perfectly articulated the
sentiments of Americans everywhere, who had just witnessed the murder of nearly
3,000 innocent civilians. And yet, as the country struggled in the following
days to absorb the cataclysm at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the
attacks were just as often described as "senseless."
Susan Neiman is right, these two contradictory views – one finding moral
clarity in Sept. 11, the other no meaning at all – are related to each
other. Indeed, as she argues in "Evil in Modern Thought," their
intimate connection reveals something important about the character of human
to Ms. Neiman, human beings desperately long to make moral sense of themselves
and the world: "The drive to seek reason in the world ... is as deep a
drive as any we have." It is so fundamental to who we are, in fact, that
most of us go about our lives assuming that "the true and the good, and
just possibly the beautiful, coincide."
That is, until we experience an event – the premature death of a
loved one, a deadly earthquake, an act of mass murder – that reveals to
us that the world does not make as much moral sense as we ordinarily believe.
Ms. Neiman argues that a good deal of philosophy arises out of an attempt to
grapple with such shattering experiences – and that the history of modern
thought cannot be properly understood without recognizing this fact.
Such an argument alone makes Ms. Neiman's book an original one. More
often than not, today's professional philosophers neglect questions about the
meaning of life and its relation to moral truth. Instead, they focus on solving
puzzles in epistemology ("How can I know that I'm not a brain floating in
a vat?") and applied ethics ("Is it wrong to kill my children if
doing so will save a greater number of lives?"). They also tend to read
the history of philosophy through the lens of these technical concerns, with
the result that the philosophers of the past, with their very different moral
and religious preoccupations, appear to be mere relics of a bygone age.
Ms. Neiman's history could not be more different. She deftly shows that
the ideas of the great philosophers emerged from their far-reaching reflections
on the most enduring – and troubling of human experiences. She thus
conveys those ideas with a vividness that is lamentably rare today.
Ms. Neiman examines several philosophical traditions, but two are of
special importance. One began in the 17th century with Leibniz and culminated
in Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. In Ms. Neiman's hands, these thinkers become
noteworthy for insisting that we stop blaming God for the evil that befalls us
and take responsibility for ourselves. Using science and technology, they
argued, we could predict and avert natural disasters or diminish their effects.
Using social and political reform – or, in Marx's case, revolutionary
violence – we could eliminate human brutality and injustice. Needless to
say, the modern world has been marked in countless ways by this breathtakingly
bold solution to the problem of evil.
Then there is the pessimistic tradition, whose founders include
Voltaire, Hume and Schopenhauer. Unlike the first group of thinkers, who seek
to create another, better world, these philosophers argue that we must resign
ourselves to this world and its evils. For them, the search for overarching
meaning is futile, arising from self-deception. Far better, they claim, to affirm
an ugly truth than to lose oneself in what can only be a beautiful illusion.
Ms. Neiman shows considerable sympathy for all the thinkers she
discusses, but she does not spare them a critique either. She acknowledges that
the first tradition has done great damage as well as good. Its more cautious
proponents have inspired the great social and technological innovations of the
modern age. But its most ardent champions have encouraged the political
radicalism that has made modernity an era of so much utopian savagery. (Think
of Soviet Russia in the 1930s or China's Cultural Revolution.) Apparently the
attempt to eliminate evil ends up unleashing new, virulent forms of it.
As for the second tradition, its proponents have refused to acknowledge
the depth of our attachment to the pursuit of moral meaning and thus, in Ms.
Neiman's view, betrayed a lack of self-awareness. Mankind cannot just wish away
its deepest longings. As Ms. Neiman implies in her final chapter
("Homeless"), human beings inevitably strive to fashion moral
meaning, whether they are struggling to comprehend Auschwitz, Sept; 11 or the
suffering of a small child. "Belief that there may be reason in the
world," she writes, "is a condition of the possibility of our being
able to go on in it."
Life is lived – and tentative meaning is forged – in the
border zone between sense and senselessness: That is the lesson of this
profound and provocative book. It is a lesson worth pondering as we prepare to
commemorate Sept. 11 and to revisit the question of why such horrors happen in
the first place.
Published in: Wall Street
Journal, September 3, 2002