The Myth of Evil

The Myth of Evil

Phillip Cole
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r21jm
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  • Book Info
    The Myth of Evil
    Book Description:

    A philosophical history of the concept of evil in western culture.‘Evil is something to be feared, and historically, we shall see, it is the enemy within who has been seen as representing the most intense evil of all - the enemy who looks just like us, talks like us, and is just like us.’The Myth of Evil explores a contradiction: the belief that human beings cannot commit acts of pure evil, that they cannot inflict harm for its own sake, and the evidence that pure ‘evil’ truly is a human capacity. Acts of horror are committed not by inhuman ‘monsters’, but by ordinary human beings. This contradiction is clearest in the apparently ‘extreme’ acts of war criminals, terrorists, serial murderers, sex offenders and children who kill.Phillip Cole delves deep into our two, cosily established approaches to evil. There is the traditional approach where evil is a force which creates monsters in human shape. And there is the ‘enlightened’ perspective where evil is the consequence of the actions of misguided or mentally deranged agents. Cole rejects both approaches. Satan may have played a role in its evolution, but evil is really a myth we have created about ourselves. And to understand it fully, we must acknowledge this.Drawing on the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Arendt, Kant, Mary Midgley and others, as well as theology, psychoanalysis, fictional representations and contemporary political events such as the global ‘war on terror’, Cole presents an account of evil that is thorough and thought-provoking, and which, more fundamentally, compels us to reassess our understanding of human nature.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-2685-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Chapter One Terrorism, Torture and the Problems of Evil
    (pp. 1-23)

    This is a book about evil. More precisely, it is a book about human evil, and its central question is whether there can be a secular conception of evil, whether that idea can tell us anything about the human condition, explain anything about what human beings do, in the absence of its more familiar territory of the supernatural and the demonic. In seeking to understand human evil it asks the question whether evil exists at all, and one possible answer I take very seriously is that it does not. That this is a book about something that may not exist...

  5. Chapter Two Diabolical Evil – Searching for Satan
    (pp. 24-51)

    Each day on the television or in the newspaper I am confronted by the evidence that human beings are capable of the most dreadful acts against other human beings. If, like me, you regard animals as carrying ethical significance then the catalogue of atrocity becomes even longer. One way of understanding at least some of these actions is to see them as diabolical or demonic, a commitment to the suffering and destruction of others for no other reason than that destruction itself. Many of them can be understood as provoked by anger or ignorance or even misguided hope, but some...

  6. Chapter Three Philosophies of Evil
    (pp. 52-76)

    In a world without Satan, how are we to make sense of evil? An enlightened Christian world view would, of course, attempt to account for evil without a supernatural prince of darkness, but as we saw in the previous chapter, such a theodicy is notoriously unstable and the dark prince keeps coming back into the picture. The central question of this book is whether a secular world view can do any better in accounting for evil, or whether the concept becomes empty in a world without God or the Devil, or any other supernatural powers. Can there, in the absence...

  7. Chapter Four Communities of Fear
    (pp. 77-94)

    In Chapter 2 I looked at the search for Satan as a mythological character, and suggested that there was another way to find him, and I want to pursue that particular method here. We have seen how the idea of Satan and diabolical evil emerge within communities that consider themselves to be under attack, and that the most dangerous enemy is the one who lurks within, who appears to be just like us but is a monster in disguise, plotting to transform the community into something else, and perhaps even plotting our complete destruction. Satan is of course a supernatural...

  8. Chapter Five The Enemy Within
    (pp. 95-121)

    In his book A History of Terror: Fear and Dread through the Ages, Paul Newman describes the deep insecurities that have afflicted humanity through recorded history, and observes: ‘No doubt, in this third millennium, mankind will continue to be beset by fears, crazes and swirling panics’ (Newman 2000: 223). These, he says, can strike any nation, any profession, any social group at any time. His book is ‘a kind of journey through the badlands of history – a narrative of terror, torture and desecration’ (Newman 2000: 223). This journey shows how, ‘by the political use of fear, the darker side of...

  9. Chapter Six Bad Seeds
    (pp. 122-147)

    ‘Won’t someone think of the children?’ is the constant refrain of Reverend Lovejoy’s wife in the cartoon series The Simpsons. Whatever crisis or panic grips the citizens of Springfield, she places the children at the centre of attention. The child, for her, is an innocent and helpless victim in constant need of protection. But in the character of Bart Simpson – one of the children she must be thinking of – we see someone who is far from helpless and certainly no innocent, as he pursues mischief for its own sake and constantly rebels against any form of rules and order. Bart...

  10. Chapter Seven The Character of Evil
    (pp. 148-173)

    The problem we examined in the previous chapter was one of moral judgement, and I argued that the way Venables and Thompson were judged was patently unfair. This is not only to dismiss the charge of ‘evil’ made against them, but also to question the extent to which they were morally responsible for what they did – any kind of moral judgement is therefore questionable in their particular case. This is because there were background factors that played a significant role in their actions, and those background factors and the role they played made it inappropriate to hold them morally responsible....

  11. Chapter Eight Facing the Holocaust
    (pp. 174-209)

    Elie Wiesel was sent to Birkenau in April 1944, at the age of fifteen. He also spent time in Auschwitz, Monowitz and Buchenwald. His mother and younger sister were killed in Auschwitz, and his father was killed in Buchenwald shortly before it was liberated by the American army in April 1945. He has written a series of novels and other work in response to his experiences, and he presents two serious challenges to those who want to write about the Holocaust. The first is the problem for those of us who were not there. ‘Ask any survivor and he will...

  12. Chapter Nine Twenty-First-Century Mythologies
    (pp. 210-241)

    I began this book by speaking of the Devil, and that is how I close it. I looked at the figure of Satan in detail in Chapter 2, concluding that he had an ideological role in Jewish and Christian thought, as communities who felt themselves both under external attack and endangered by an enemy that hid within used the idea of the Devil to attack and destroy that internal threat. Rather than metaphysical, here Satan’s presence is political, but I also identified another presence for him, a literary one, and it is this particular role I want to examine now....

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 242-250)
  14. Index
    (pp. 251-256)