Today, the twentieth of January, is the actual day of our 20th wedding anniversary, though we had our celebratory dinner last Friday, after seeing the James Baldwin movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
At the restaurant, we had to move as far away as we could from the party at the long table who brought with them from the bar their deafening roars of ersatz gaiety.
What did we talk about? First, we parsed Jimmy Baldwin’s heartbreaking, boy and girl romantic cri de coeur. I’d first learned Baldwin was gay from Richard Wright, his colleague and rival.
“Oh, too bad,” I remarked.
“Why do you say ‘too bad?’” Wright asked me.
“Because,” I said sincerely, “we need every good man.”
I went to New York for an overnight last Thursday. This trip had been postponed for at least a year, during which I was dealing with one huge difficulty after another.
Through the times and troubles since my last birthday, I hadn’t found an interval cleared for a visit to The City, the town where I grew up and navigated some of the shaping adventures of my earlier life.
It is the town where my mother captured the Nazi spy ring being run out of the basement of the walkup apartment on 86th and Park where our family lived during the War years. My mother wondered why our superintendent did not allow suitcases to be stored in the basement. As she discovered, the basement was where he kept a shortwave radio from which he sent signals to the German U-boats floating off New York harbor. After my mother alerted the FBI, it raided the basement and closed down the operation, packing him off to Foreign Spy Volley Ball Camp for the duration of the War. When mother saw our super again on 87th Street after the War, he gave her, she said, “a very sour look.”
What the hell, it was home. My schedule of reunions for the overnight was impossibly full, for a person of even rudimentary sensibility.
This past week we’ve been in California, where I’ve resumed my treatments for neuropathy at the Loma Linda hospital. The other event of the week, salient for me, was a talk at the Claremont School of Theology with the title,
“Evil Is Not Banal.”
There are two younger theologians who normally organize these events. As it happened, one was on leave. The other was home recovering from minor eye surgery and simultaneously tending to a gas leak.
We had a total of five in the audience.
Was I rattled? Well no. I was focused on the business of the afternoon, which was explaining what evil is and is not. But of course I did notice.
There’s a back story to my noticing.
I've written a book.
Here's what it's about:
We meet with evil in the ordinary course of experience, as we try to live our life story. It’s not a myth. It’s a mysterious but quite real phenomenon. How can we recognize it? How can we learn to resist it?
Amazingly, philosophers have not been much help. Despite the claim of classical rationalists that evil is “ignorance,” evil-doers can be extremely intelligent, showing an understanding of ourselves that surpasses our self-understanding.
Meanwhile contemporary philosophers, in the English-speaking world and on the Continent, portray good and evil as social constructs, which leaves us puzzled and powerless when we have to face the real thing.
Thinkers like Hannah Arendt have construed evil as blind conformity to institutional roles—hence “banal”—but evil-doers have shown exceptional creativity in bending and reshaping institutions to conform to their will. Theologians have assigned evil the role of adversary to the divine script, but professing religionists are fully capable of evil, while atheists have been known to mount effective resistance.
More than broad-brush conceptual distinctions are needed.
A Good Look at Evil maps the actual terrain—of lived ideas and situations—showing how to recognize evil for what it is: the perennial and present threat to a good life.
What People Are Saying about "A Good Look at Evil"
I first received this book in the expectation of procuring some insight into the nature of evil. What I gained was certainly this, but far more.
A Good Look at Evil begins with a unique take on the ethical life as the realization of one’s ideal story, and evil as the destruction of this process either within oneself or in others. In unpacking these deceptively simple definitions, Rosenthal offers a wealth of ideas which may serve to deepen and transform our grasp of human nature. Here, for instance, one finds keen profiles of unsavory figures like the seducer and the sell-out—depictions on par with the best philosophical novels. Here is also a merciless dissection of Hannah Arendt in light of new evidence concerning the Eichmann trial and her relationship to Martin Heidegger. Here is a penetrating study of the different kinds of personalities and motives behind genocide.
Chapters such as “Thinking like a Nazi” can compete with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew for recognition as among the greatest phenomenologies of self-deception and the genesis of the bigoted mind. All throughout, Rosenthal engages with a host of authors both classic and contemporary. She explores topics which connect philosophy with anthropology, history, and even theology.
Rosenthal’s concept of God as a co-author of our life-narrative merits some future exploration, and may yet have some impact on the philosophy of religion. The sheer originality of this book make it a pleasure to read, and my grasp of the range and phenomena of evil have advanced considerably after having completed it. This is no small claim, given that I have been teaching courses in both theoretical and applied ethics for close to twenty years.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the perennial questions of right and wrong—indeed for any intellectually curious and morally serious person.
Jonathan Weidenbaum, Ph.D., School of Liberal Arts, Berkeley College, NYC
As a person who wholeheartedly subscribes to the idea that we must be constantly attentive to, and increasingly watchful over, the 'plots' of our own unfolding stories, I found Abigail Rosenthal's a welcome, revealing, and indispensable book about the slippery crevices of the moral life. I hope it is translated into many languages. Everyone should read it.
Gail Godwin, author of Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings (2001)
Abigail Rosenthal proposes a new way of understanding one of the oldest mysteries-the nature of evil. Drawing on wide literary and philosophical resources, Rosenthal proposes that narrative self-understanding is the key to a good life. She traces the implications of this idea for understanding various types of evil, including the ultimate evil of Nazi genocide-which, she argues, cannot be understood in Arendtian terms as a kind of banality. Highly personal and original, Rosenthal's work offers new ways of grappling with some of the largest ethical questions.
Adam Kirsh, author of The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century (2016)
Rosenthal pinpoints the characteristic feature of evil--at least the leading type of evil--that distinguishes it from what is only morally wrong or very, very bad. It is based on her basic notion of an ideal 'life story' or plot. She extends both concepts from individual victims to races and populations as victims. [T]here is nothing banal or ordinary about evil, the intentional disrupting of the victim's 'ideal thread' or plot. … In a fascinating new essay, Rosenthal revisits Hannah Arendt . . . applying her "plot" concept to Arendt herself in light of what is known about Arendt's long intellectual and personal relationship with Heidegger. Rosenthal argues that despite a splendid recovery from early adversity, Arendt went on to 'spoil' her own life story. And in a concluding piece, Rosenthal shows from her own experience how one can have reason to believe that a person's life story has been co-authored by God.
William G. Lycan, author of Real Conditionals (2001)
It is a most compelling and creative work. Rosenthal is analyzing the 'stories' that people tell us about themselves, in terms of both their lives and their work. She does so in an effort to understand genocidal evil-doers, both those who perpetrate and collaborate with it and those who cover up such crimes.
Phyllis Chesler, author of An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir (2013)
Rosenthal writes in a distinctive philosophical voice that models personal interest in the moral quality of life and, with the vividness and candor that this implies (and also considerable wit and humor).... Evil can be not merely the sad effect of compromises and evasions but a bright, hot, self-nourishing interest in the kind of personal superiority that one realizes by laying waste to others. If we held evil to be merely a general criterion for the moral evaluation of practice and avoided pinning it to any real individual, we would miss the very phenomenon that forces us to reckon with evil as distinct from what is merely regrettable or deficient in our lives-- a phenomenon with an alarming human concreteness.
Stephen G. Smith, Professor of Philosophy, Millsaps College, published online in Continental Philosophy Review
A Good Look at Evil is not only an examination of evil but proposes a new way to think about our own lives. By adopting a literary approach to a philosophical question, Rosenthal has provided genuine insight into a problem that has befuddled thinkers for ages. Evil is not an abstract concept but a lived reality and situation in which we encounter. If you wish to understand evil as well as to know how to live your life, A Good Look at Evil is a perfect way to begin writing your own story.
Lee Trepanier, Editor, The Voegelin View
Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Abigail Rosenthal’s book, A Good Look at Evil, takes it one step further. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is to pretend that it doesn’t exist! A Good Look at Evil, then, is a remarkable and incisive exploration of the human condition.My compliments to the author, Abigail Rosenthal, for her thoughtful and inspiring book. No wonder this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Ray Silverman, Amazon Customer Review
Abigail Rosenthal is a professor (emerita) of philosophy, which is not the same thing as being a real philosopher. Indeed, there are few enough books written today by genuine philosophers. This is one. Like Socrates, she also conducts conversations with the many non-philosophers, but unlike him, she does so over the Internet in an online column, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Any book with the title, A Good Look at Evil looks to be heavy going, but Rosenthal’s treatment of an undoubtedly important philosophical problem is remarkably accessible to anyone who still retains a hold on commonsense.
This is, then, a genuine and practical philosophy of existence, a recovery of the understanding of philosophy as a way of living. Moreover it is devoid of the high sounding and usually empty words we often associate with philosophy, words that properly speaking are the verbal coin of the realm for intellectuals, sophists, PR flacks and similar frauds.
Barry Cooper, Professor of Political Science, University of Calvary, Amazon Customer Review and Voegelin View
By the way.
I've just finished a memoir. I call it...
Confessions of a Young Philosopher
Here's what it's about:
Confessions offers an original take on a spectrum of issues that no contemporary thinking person can easily escape: the asymmetrical relations of men and women; love, sex, and seduction; Marxism, existentialism, utopianism, and anti-humanism; relations between the races, identity politics, anti-semitism- ideas and issues lived through in one woman's exhaustively "examined life."
For me, the passionate history of a feminine life had to be thought through philosophically. I was at the point where the thesis and the antithesis negated each other. On paper, a student of Hegel could have worked out the dialectical synthesis. But I wasn’t living on paper.
Can you think of a publisher?
Interested in reading a preview of the book?
Charmed, I'm Sure.
I'd be happy to hear from you.