I bought this book after reading and enjoying the shorter On Forgiveness: How Can We Forgive the Unforgivable?
and because I believed it was likely to be thematically similar to Eric Fromm's books The Heart of Man
, The Fear of Freedom (Routledge Classics)
and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
which it is (although I dont believe that Holloway has heard of Fromm).
This is a highly readable and accessible book, it has a contents which is clear enough and expanded upon in the introduction, and there is a great index which makes looking up particular topics or skimming the book easy. Although, that said, the pace and style of writing is so great that you'll be tempted to read the book cover to cover even if you are only skimming it for references or an essay.
The book arrives in three parts, the first looking at the ugly fact of human cruelty and the reality of evil, part two looks at why humans are uniquely prone to this kind of unbalanced sadism and greed (interestingly reaching similar conclusions to those in Fromm's Anatomy of Human Destructiveness) while part three sounds a more positive note, describing some things that the author believes are an antidote to our endemic cruelty, like the challenges and prompts from art. Holloway considers the saint to be as enduring as the monster in human history and as compelling.
There is a lot that is quote worthy and I found myself finishing a chapter only to go back to read my favourite paragraphs or lines again to commit them to memory before proceeding to the next. All this is achieved without any serious effort since the text and content is not challenging, I believe it would be enjoyed by the academically inclined, philosophers, psychologists or general readers alike and I'd hope that general readers will take it up.
I have some reservations with the ways in which Holloway conceptualises evil doing from the outset, he begins with a confession of complicity in an incident of sexual harrassment within the workplace and from there discusses another literary figure's confession of a similar, although much more grave and cruel incident, proceeding to cite Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse
. Holloway accepts Dworkin's narrative about male sexuality and cruelty as part of his narrative, with the only possible caveats being citations to the effect that male sexuality can oppress men also when it takes possession of them, there is also a bit of odd cosmology at this point too about the Big Bang. I had an impression that this narrative could have been linked with the earlier confession and therefore correspond to a kind of catharsis. This is a pretty broad brush conceptualisation, there have been second thoughts about some of Dworkin's radical feminist work since her death from sources, including those closest to her, who have suspected she was an emotionally scarred or damaged individual. Given my knowledge of philosophy I suspected that it would be susceptiable to branding as a naturalistic fallacy or being reductive, at least as much as any Freudian psycho-sexual explanation of human nature. However Holloway does not present this narrative in a strongly proselytising way and it doesnt spoil the book.
There isnt any explicit mention of rival perspectives accounting for similar behaviour, such as Jung's views about individuals possessed by complexes, archetypes or shadows or Fromm's perspectives about social character. Each of these accounts suggesting that sexual harrassment or rape can be motivated by other powerful unconscious drives or social relationships other than sexual instincts. However I could not say for a moment that this is a deliberate omission on the part of the author, particuarly in Fromm's case there is a kind of social amnesia operative when it comes of his books and perspectives, particularly with the sharp decline in interest in marxism. There are brilliant citations from other sources the author is familiar with, such as Simone Weil's insight that both those who endure and deploy force can be turned to stone, while other points echo those of authors like Fromm, for instance the consideration that "History is full of examples of whole peoples who abandoned the rigours of freedom for the consolations offered by infallible authority, but none was more terrifying in its consequences than Nazi Germany".
All in all this a fine read, considering the subject matter it could have made for a harrowing read but Holloway succeeds in providing both an unflinching look at humankind's capacity for evil and wrong doing but also righteousness. This book is as good as On Forgiveness, although I felt On Forgiveness was more original, and would hope it reaches a wide audience of readers.