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Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy [Hardcover]

Susan Neiman
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Book Description

21 July 2002

Evil threatens human reason, for it challenges our hope that the world makes sense. For eighteenth-century Europeans, the Lisbon earthquake was manifest evil. Today we view evil as a matter of human cruelty, and Auschwitz as its extreme incarnation. Examining our understanding of evil from the Inquisition to contemporary terrorism, Susan Neiman explores who we have become in the three centuries that separate us from the early Enlightenment. In the process, she rewrites the history of modern thought and points philosophy back to the questions that originally animated it.

Whether expressed in theological or secular terms, evil poses a problem about the world's intelligibility. It confronts philosophy with fundamental questions: Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal? Neiman argues that these questions impelled modern philosophy. Traditional philosophers from Leibniz to Hegel sought to defend the Creator of a world containing evil. Inevitably, their efforts--combined with those of more literary figures like Pope, Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade--eroded belief in God's benevolence, power, and relevance, until Nietzsche claimed He had been murdered. They also yielded the distinction between natural and moral evil that we now take for granted. Neiman turns to consider philosophy's response to the Holocaust as a final moral evil, concluding that two basic stances run through modern thought. One, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Adorno, insists that morality demands that we don't.

Beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, this book tells the history of modern philosophy as an attempt to come to terms with evil. It reintroduces philosophy to anyone interested in questions of life and death, good and evil, suffering and sense.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (21 July 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691096082
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691096087
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.3 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 582,142 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Winner of the 2002 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

Winner of the 2003 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, American Academy of Religion

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2003

"Evil has become the subject of one book after another, but [this] is one book unlike any other - by a philosopher unlike any other."--Bill Moyers, NOW

"Scintillating and self-disciplined - a very rare thing in a philosopher."--Jonathan Ree, Times Literary Supplement

"Provocative and profound."--Damon Linker, The Wall Street Journal

"The American philosopher Susan Neiman has written the book for this world-political hour."--Neue Züricher Zeitung

"A brilliant new book. . . . No summary can convey the intellectual firepower of Neiman's book. Within her field of interest, she seems not only to have read everything but to have understood it at the deepest level."--William C. Placher, Christian Century

"Eloquent... [Neiman argues that] evil is not just an ethical violation, it disrupts and challenges our interpretation of the world."--Edward Rothstein, The New York Times

"Neiman follows the argument like a sleuth, and, indeed, her book is a kind of thriller: What is it that menaces us? Will we find what evil is? And how may we escape it? The path leads from a God found absent past a Nature that's indifferent till it fetches up at the house of a man himself. . . . Neiman leads the reader through a careful analysis of the relation of intention, act, and consequence to kinds of useful knowledge and degrees of awareness."--William H. Gass, Harper's Magazine

"This great work....looks into these abysses with astonishing fearlessness."--Die Zeit

"An erudite and compelling intellectual treatise that is profoundly interesting, often witty, and constructed without resorting to jargon or obfuscation. . . . In reorienting the history of philosophy, she has made it come alive. . . . This is a fine, even elegant book."--Choice

"This is an accessible work of philosophy in the best sense, sharply focused on matters of vital human concern and free of the domain tics that mar even allegedly popular works by Anglo-American philosophers."--Mark Lilla, The New York Review of Books

"Clear, elegant and inviting...suddenly, (philosophy) is again a matter of life and death."--Die Welt

"We badly need alternative histories of philosophy. The story told (by me, among others) cries out for supplementation. . . . Neiman's snazzy prose makes this book a pleasure to read, as well as an immensely welcome change from the sort of history of philosophy to which we have become accustomed."--Richard Rorty, Common Knowledge

"A deeply moving and scholarly book that will interest many general readers."--Library Journal

"Neiman's book is a welcome contribution to a philosophical conversation too long neglected."--Barry Allen, Toronto Globe and Mail

"Neiman argues that when we ask why the world is the way it is, rather than the way it ought to be, that's the same as thinking about evil. . . . If there is only a single standard of good behavior, then no matter how honestly we believe in our causes--in democracy, for instance, as opposed to tyranny or religious totalitarianism--we are never allowed to stop worrying about our own morality when we march forth to defend them."--Judith Shulevitz, New York Times Book Review

"Neiman argues that, confronted with the enormity of the Holocaust, 20th-century thinkers found new grounds to conclude that what we call evil reflects nothing so much as the unintelligibility of the world. . . . [Her] conclusion is that we should neither abandon reason nor demand the impossible from it but rather rely on it as much as we can to identify the forms of suffering and acts of cruelty that we have the power to prevent, remedy or diminish."--Peter Berkowitz, Washington Post Book World

"Superb... Neiman's claim to have written an alternative history is not an empty boast."--First Things

"Neiman's audacity and occasionally morbid wit are a welcome addition to contemporary philosophy. If there is any hope after Auschwitz, we may find it in the fact that human minds will not stop trying to make some kind of meaning out of it."--Alan Wolfe, Books & Culture

"Neiman's narrative . . . sheds light not just on the writings of particular thinkers, but also on their relation to one another. And it helps us begin to understand certain facts about the modern period that current philosophers find baffling."--Thomas Hibbs, The Weekly Standard

"Neiman's book is written with considerable flair, as many critics have already noted, but it possesses a far rarer and more valuable quality: moral seriousness. Her argument builds a powerful emotional force, a sense of deep inevitability. . . . It is not often that a work of such dark conclusions has felt so hopeful and brave."--Mark Kingwell, Wilson Quarterly

From the Inside Flap

"This is a splendid book; it will be widely read and much discussed. Working from the assumption that philosophers ought to attend to 'the questions that brought us here,' Susan Neiman has given us a brilliant reading of those who have done just that. Her history of philosophy is also a philosophical argument: that evil is the central question driving the best modern philosophy, and that it is not only a moral question but a metaphysical one. The book is written with grace and wit; again and again, Neiman writes the kind of sentences we dream of uttering in the perfect conversation: where every mot is bon. This is exemplary philosophy."--Michael Walzer

"A brilliant study of changes in our understanding of evil from the book of Job through the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and on to the Holocaust and September 11. Neiman makes a powerful case for taking that problem as central to the history of modern philosophy, and her analysis of our present resources for coping with evil are provocative as well as profound. It's an immensely illuminating book."--J. B. Schneewind

"In tracing the responses to the problem of evil from the Enlightenment, when the question was why the Lisbon earthquake and the engagés were Voltaire, Leibniz, Pope, and Rousseau, to the present, when it is why Auschwitz and they are Améry, Arendt, Camus, and Adorno, Neiman has made an original and powerful contribution to the analysis of an intractable moral issue: how to live with the fact that neither God nor nature seems concerned with our fate. Succinctly, steadily, and relentlessly written, the history of philosophy as philosophy could hardly be better done."--Clifford Geertz

"Even--or especially--to a nonphilosopher like myself, Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought offers intellectual adventure of a high order. The audacity of her recasting of Western philosophy is matched by its profundity--and frequent wit. Its challenges are as bracing as they are essential. Her intellectual fearlessness deserves the closest and widest attention."--Todd Gitlin

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy it! 20 July 2012
By Miss
I'd definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the subject. I bought it because it was the set book for my university course (history, with elements of philosophy) and immediately liked it because it had a good balance of detail and simple, easy-to-take-notes-from structured paragraphs. The fact that this book has character and isn't too formulaic means I then went back to it after my course had finished and have just read it cover-to-cover!

I don't know enough to comment too much on the factual accuracy, but as an under-graduate I couldn't find any contradictions and it reads as a well researched and thought out book. It has detailed notes (at the end, so they don't interrupt your reading if you don't want them) and an extensive Bibliography and Index.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I wasn't sure what to expect with this book and I confess I was dismayed to find Auschwitz and September the 11th both featuring prominently in the introduction. Nazis are, of course, still the modern epitome of evil and though I don't dispute their place near the top of that particular hit parade, at least in the 20th century, I can't help feeling that all that could be said about their appalling degeneracy has been said. Can it be that talk of the evils of Nazism has become a bit trite? Equally, however horrendous the attacks on the twin towers, it was surely the fact that we got to watch such a spectacular event live on TV that gave it such import, not the (let's face it) relatively modest death toll when you compare it with events such as, oh I don't know, the invasion of Iraq, say?

So, I guess I was a little sceptical then when I first ventured this text. However, I am happy to say my concerns were soon dispelled. Auschwitz and the twin towers don't feature for another 250 pages and when they re-emerge they are handled with at least a degree of balance.

What we get instead is a history of theodicy from the enlightenment to the post war period. What is theodicy you ask? Well, I didn't know myself until I read this book. Apparently it is a name for those theories put forward by thinkers to explain how a world created by a benevolent God can contain so much suffering and evil. The problem logically put is this:

1. God is good.
2. God is omnipotent.
3. Evil exists.

All three of these propositions cannot be true. If God is omnipotent and truly good he wouldn't allow evil.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
92 of 96 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful Inquiry into the Problem of Evil 5 Feb 2003
By Thomas Provenzano - Published on Amazon.com
"Evil in Modern Thought" is a well-written and thought-provoking review of Western philosophy's struggles with the problem of Evil. Susan Neiman views this problem "as the guiding force of modern thought." Recognizing the controversiality of her contention she sub-titles her book, "An Alternative History of Philosophy." Neiman takes us along on her philosophical journey into the writings of important 17-20th century Western thinkers. She groups these thinkers under chapter titles that neatly summarize their attempts at understanding evil. While presenting the salient features of their ideas, she asks them questions you'd want to ask yourself.
Neiman states that what constitutes evil has changed - evil today stands for "absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation." The author asks: "How can human beings behave in ways that so thoroughly violate both reasonable and rational norms"?
Chapter 1, "Fire From Heaven" includes the thinkers who stole God's fire for man: Leibniz; Pope; Rousseau, Kant; Hegel and Marx. We start with the words of an 11-th century Castilian king embodying man's growing urge to independent thinking: "If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better." At first, faith reigns supreme; we meet Leibniz, who thinks God has ordered all things for the best. His work, the "Theodicy" attempts the conformity of faith with reason. But the poet, Pope, nudges God aside with:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Rousseau was the first thinker to treat the problem of evil as a philosophical one. He states evil "is a catalog of mistaken acts that can be rectified in the future." Knowledge, not penance is needed. His account of evil was naturalistic because it required no reference to supernatural forces or sin.

Kant followed through on Pope by setting limits to mortal reasoning about God: questions about God and his purposes are out of bounds and speculating on
God is idolatry; he believed in the existence of a "Moral Law" that is supreme - and that we are duty-bound to obey. Purpose is not in nature but in Reason (we define our purposes).
For Hegel and Marx there are forces at work that drive humanity - not God but the force of History (Hegel) toward greater freedom and knowledge and the forces
of human creative work (Marx). Mankind must take responsibility for the world rather than explain it. God is man (Marx). Hegel wanted to eliminate the contingent; perhaps he epitomized, better than any other philosopher, man's quest for certainty.

Chapter 2, "Condemning the Architect" posits that God's creation is flawed. We are introduced to Bayle; Voltaire; Hume; de Sade and Schopenhauer. Voltaire railed against a benevolent world-view that tried to explain away the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which several thousand people died. Bayle said faith requires a crucifixion of the intellect and that God is responsible for all evil - Reason thus leaves God condemned. We commiserate with Voltaire's plaint: "we miserable little animals have the right to wonder about our misery!"

When we reach David Hume we're told the emperor has no clothes: reason is not up to the task its been assigned (reasoning about God and evil is doomed to frustration).

And what to make of de Sade: an original thinker who wrote violently pornographic works - and who rather than merely state that man is capable of horrifying and despicable acts, bestowed upon us horrifying human specimans as though to show God himself what his "wonderful" creation was capable of. As Neiman states: "he tried very hard to stop at nothing." And by doing so, he condemned the Creator himself: for how could a benevolent God create creatures the likes of those de Sade depicted.

Chapter 3, "Ends of an Illusion" recounts the condemnation of man's religious-based rationalizations by branding them anti-life (Nietzsche) and infantile (Freud). The Promethean Nietzsche thought the problem of evil was not given, but created by those unequal to life. He sought to revise our concept of guilt away from the Christian to something nearer and more accepting of the contingencies of life. Freud's view can be summarized as, "Attempts to seek some kind of sense in human misery are fueled by childlike fantasies. The need for a metaphysics is an obsessional neuroses."
When we arrive at the end of our journey, in Chapter 4, "Homeless" we seem bereft of hope. We are called to account with the horrors of the 20th century -Communism, Fascism, Stalinism, Islamism which have given us two unprecedently destructive world wars, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Holocaust and September 11. Philosophy has shut the door on further idealisms and can only peer dumbfounded at what Hegel's heirs have wrought. We cannot innocently walk past the death camps and philosophize as before. We can never go back to where we started; but have we reached a dead-end?
So what might the answer be to Neiman's opening question: "How can human beings behave in ways that so thoroughly violate both reasonable and rational norms"? As de Sade's writings reveal, we should analyze the mind's capacity for extreme levels of anger: in de Sade's case, he spewed vitriol against the idea of a benevolent God, Hitler viciously scapegoated the Jews, bin Laden despises America and wants to make Islamism the dominant force in the world. Hitler's and bin Laden's powers to instill fanatical hatred in followers was and is terrible to behold. This anger, coupled with human aggrandizement, and the fires of fanaticism feeds off itself like a feedback loop that continuously increments its energy levels until the person spins out of any rational orbit, tosses aside the "Moral Law" and willingly commits, justifies and revels in the most horrifying acts.
"Evil in Modern Thought" is a compelling inquiry into the problem of evil and will certainly stimulate your own thinking on the subject while increasing your understanding of what some of the greatest minds in Western philosophy said on the subject.
89 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is Evil A Dead Issue? 6 Aug 2003
By Bucherwurm - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The concept of evil has occupied a significant place in philosophy throughout the history of man's thinking. Dr. Neiman has written a very interesting book that explores the problem of evil as considered from early modern thinking to the present.
The question is, of course, how do you reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent Deity with the existence of evil. She starts the discussion with Leibnitz who felt that God considered all possible worlds, and decided that the one we have is the best one possible. Evil was divided into two types: natural evil that encompassed the cruelties of nature (floods, earthquakes, droughts, etc.) and moral evil i.e. those acts that we humans are responsible for. Pierre Bayle and Voltaire eagerly tore this idea to shreds. Rousseau came along and said that man, and not God was responsible for all evil, as man had become corrupted through the progress of civilization.
Neiman goes on to discuss the thoughts of Hume, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche, Feud, and even the Marquis de Sade. Then she delves into the topic of the Holocaust, and September 11. Of particular interest here is the thoughts of Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust, and her reflections during the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt feels that the vast majority of those involved in the Holocaust, Eichmann included, had no malicious intent in what they did. They merely performed assigned tasks, and did not really have the evil impulses that might be found in one of de Sade's novels. Evil truly had become banal, a merely boring activity of a bureaucracy. September 11th did provide evidence of evil intent, however. Those involved were determined to destroy innocent human lives.
At this point one has to wonder whether Evil as a philosophical issue has become obsolete. Arendt's reaction to evil (and Freud's too) pointed out psychological issues, and my feeling is that our study of the topic should move on to the examination of the individual and social psychology, and the cultural factors that examine our species' seeming propensity to engage in acts of "moral" evil. Author Neiman also asks the question of whether Philosophy can go any further with this topic.
One outstanding book that covers this topic is "Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century" by Jonathan Glover. He explores how humans become desensitized to evil; how we are able to dispassionately "kill from a distance." A government can decided to drop bombs on people; missiles are fired that do the task. Yet no one involved actually is engaged in any close up killing of another human.
Other books to consider are "Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty" by Roy Baumeister; "The Roots of Evil", by Ervin Straub; "Why They Kill", by Richard Rhodes; and "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People", by John Conroy. These books all explore the psychology of evil behavior.
A final comment. This book can be read and enjoyed by that ubiquitous "educated layman", but an interest in the topic of western philosophy would be helpful, as would some memory traces of what you learned in Philosophy 101.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant evil 12 Oct 2002
By Adam - Published on Amazon.com
This is the kind of book you want to buy for all your friends so you can argue about it. It's the kind of book you want to get an extra copy of so your spouse can read it at the same time and you can talk your way through it. It's the kind of book that will be a required text of most philosophy 101 classes in ten years' time, and the one text you reread ten years after graduating. It is witty without being glib, accessible without being remotely condescending. It's both brilliant and brave because it dares to remind us why anyone was interested in philosophy in the first place and why we need it.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Tour of the Thought about Evil 20 Jan 2003
By Eva Illouz - Published on Amazon.com
This book offers an extraordinary odyssey for the mind: Neiman gives us a grand tour of western philosophy, from the book of Job to Hannah Arendt, from Albert Camus via Rousseau and Sade, but does not explore these authors with the standard queries of philosophy (epistemology or metaphysics). Neiman examines how these various authors have raised what are perhaps the most burning questions of our times: Why do we suffer? What is evil?
This is an exhilarating book which philosophers and non-philosophers alike can only enjoy.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If this is the future of philosophy-- 10 Jan 2003
By rafael perez - Published on Amazon.com
I found this book so cogent and lucid that I couldn't put it down. And look forward to a second read. It isn't philosophy lite, but it can't be, given the subject. For a serious
reader both the style and the substance is a feast for the mind and spirit. Evil in Modern Thought manages to convey the rich complexity of modern philosophy and the childlike wonder that is it's cornerstone.
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