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Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:
Rosenthal, A. (1987/2018) A Good Look at Evil. Eugene OR, USA: Wipf and Stock.
The philosopher Abigail Rosenthal has taken on one of the perennial challenges for philosophy and theology – evil. She has deliberately decided to not focus on the why of evil, known in theology as the challenge of theodicy, or as Harold Kushner named it in his first famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rather, she focuses on defining evil, trying to say what evil is. In her introductory chapters (Chapters One and Two), she puts forth her thesis that human life should be understood as story, and that people seek to live out the stories of their lives according to the models their communities and cultures provide for them. It is possible for people to miss out on the opportunities to live out their story – Rosenthal calls this ‘banality’. It is also possible for people to ‘thwart’ – through circumvention/prevention – the ability of other people to live out the stories of their lives. It is this which she pinpoints as defining what evil is. She rejects the notion that value judgment is purely the realm of subjective evaluation and cannot be based on objective fact, arguing that evaluation is required in all human endeavor, even when deciding what is an objective fact. She also rejects cultural relativism as a complicating factor (one culture says this is how the human story should be lived, another culture says something else), though she concedes the possibility that the ways in which people can live out their ‘stories’ in a culture can change, shift, or even be renegotiated.
With this model established, Rosenthal spends Part Two (Chapters Three and Four), Rosenthal explicates the forms of evil which are carried out more in the realm of personal affairs. She uses as her archetypes ‘The Rake’, more clearly defined as ‘the seducer’, and ‘The Sell Out’. She suggests a progression in the type of evil between ‘The Rake’ and ‘The Sellout’, naming seduction as a kind of interference in the life stories of individuals, whereas the ramifications of ‘The Sellout’ can have destructive consequences for groups of people or communities.
I find her usage of alcoholism, addiction, gambling, and even prostitution as steps in defining the degrees of evil which lead to the ultimate form of ‘going to the bad’ (her term) in the rake/seducer disturbing and even annoying, given what we understand about addiction as a disease, thereby affecting those addicted to alcohol, other drugs, and to gambling, as well as the nature of sex work as often being a financial necessity for those who are involved in it. Ignoring these factors in explaining these phenomena and simply to list these as degrees of ‘going to the bad’ is simply unfair. It weakens her argument.
Rosenthal suggests that it is possible for these forms of evil to be overcome in persons by exposing them to the consequences of their actions, and thereby expose to them how they are interfering with the ability of others to live their lives, and how their life stories are consequently less fulfilling than they could be. As intriguing as these remedies may be, these are presented as ‘Evil Under Wraps’, evil which can be conducted in a more concealed, private context. As such, they are preludes to the greater evil she examines in Part Three (Chapters Five and Six) – the ‘Evil in the Daylight’.
Here is where Rosenthal gets to the core subject of her writing – an analysis of genocide, culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust) of the Jewish people, as exposed in the trial of Adolf Eichmann carried out through the legal system of Israel in 1961. If evil generally is the attempt to prevent another person from living out their story, genocide becomes the deliberate attempt to eliminate the story of an entire people, as delineated through phenomena like language, culture, and religion. Her examples in this section, the attempted extermination of the Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire, corporate greed, the legacy of residential schools in Canada, and the banning of the potlach, are well discussed, in all their complexity.
The ultimate in genocidal evil is, as the reader suspects, defined in the extermination project of the Jewish people as carried out by the Nazi government of Germany. Their Holocaust experiment is defined by Rosenthal as ‘the destruction of history’ (p.158). History is defined by the Nazi German perspective alone, and all other groups which impinge on their definition of history must be eliminated. This leads to her consideration of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel in 1961. She sets in her sights the theses of Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem and argues strenuously that the evil perpetuated by Eichmann in perpetuating the Shoah (Holocaust) was not ‘banal’. She strongly takes issue with Arendt’s assertions that Adolf Eichmann was a mere operative, that the Jewish people in some way facilitated their extermination by cooperating with Nazi authorities, and that the court in Jerusalem which tried Eichmann did not have the proper authorization and legitimacy to do so.
Apparently, this was not enough for Rosenthal, so three decades later, she added an extra chapter to argue that Arendt’s desire to question the horror of the Shoah and the legitimacy of the trial of Eichmann can be traced to her relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief affair during her undergraduate studies in Marburg. Following their abrupt break-up and Heidegger’s subsequent Nazification in the 1930s, it is argued that Arendt disassociated herself with Heidegger and launched herself into pro-Zionist work and philosophical writing. However, after meeting up with Heidegger in the 1950s and rekindling their romance for a short time, Rosenthal claims that Arendt became a virulent defender and advocate for Heidegger, and that this in fact led her to embrace the ‘banality of evil’ argument she put forth in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Can it really be this simple, though? Adam Kirsch (2009) has argued (convincingly) that the interplay between the German and Jewish aspects of Arendt’s personality which resulted in a clear disdain for sentimentality and an unwillingness to blend the personal and the political/academic poles of her life are strong undercurrents that run through her entire life’s work, as well as her ambivalence concerning the world Jewish community – she may have blamed Jewish councils for playing a role in the extermination of Jews, but she also advocated for a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allied powers. Rosenthal makes convincing arguments against viewing the evils of the Nazi Shoah as ‘banal’, but there is also evidence suggesting some of her arguments to be leaning towards being simplistic.
The final chapter, as moving as it is, seems out of place. Rosenthal makes a personal testimony of sorts concerning her obstinacy in sticking with her teaching position when, after years of being denied tenure and being disciplined for not publishing any significant work, a freak occurrence at an academic seminar on Spinoza allowed her the opportunity to impress someone no less than the President of her college, after a mystic vision she experienced did not result in the hoped-for reversal of yet another annual disciplinary warning from her department. Is it an attempt on Abigail Rosenthal’s part to emphasize the importance of preserving one’s story (in this case, a need to complete and posthumously publish her late father’s work on Spinoza and Hobbes) in the face of blind institutional justice? I could not make a connection.
In conclusion, while Abigail Rosenthal takes A Good Look at Evil and provides good arguments concerning what evil is and how dark evil can get, she also sometimes veers toward simplistic assertions and black/white distinctions which detract from the quality of those arguments. It’s a volume worth reading, but not by itself. One must refer to other works of differing perspectives in order to make one’s own conclusions.
Other Works Cited
Kirsch, A. (2009, 5 January) Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal. In The New Yorker [online]. Retrieved 10 August 2020 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/01/12/beware-of-pity).