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Why Evil Exists

Why Evil Exists

Professor Charles Mathewes Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Course No.  6810
Course No.  6810
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Why do humans do evil? What is behind "man's inhumanity to man," the troubling fact of human actions that produce suffering and destruction? Is it ultimately a spiritual or cosmic problem? Is it a consequence of social systems or power structures? Or is it some inner deficit of human nature, lurking in the shadow world of our psychology? Why, in the end, does evil exist?

The "problem of evil" is one of the oldest and most fundamental concerns of human existence. Since ancient times, questions surrounding evil have preoccupied every major religion, as well as many of history's greatest secular thinkers, from early philosophers to contemporary social theorists.

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Why do humans do evil? What is behind "man's inhumanity to man," the troubling fact of human actions that produce suffering and destruction? Is it ultimately a spiritual or cosmic problem? Is it a consequence of social systems or power structures? Or is it some inner deficit of human nature, lurking in the shadow world of our psychology? Why, in the end, does evil exist?

The "problem of evil" is one of the oldest and most fundamental concerns of human existence. Since ancient times, questions surrounding evil have preoccupied every major religion, as well as many of history's greatest secular thinkers, from early philosophers to contemporary social theorists.

Whether we view it in theological, philosophical, or psychological terms, evil remains both a deeply intriguing question and a crucially relevant global issue.

From organized terrorism to genocidal conflicts, from environmental destruction to the ongoing nuclear threat, human actions that most of us would consider evil play a central role in the dialogue between nations and peoples, affecting not only our well-being, but the very survival of our civilizations. No single aspect of human life is more relevant to the question of our social evolution—to the goal of a healthier, more humane world.

Finally, what we call "evil" touches every human being on the planet. It's a matter each one of us must face, both as it may affect us individually and as members of our larger communities, and it may demand a response from us on the personal and the communal levels.

Now, in Why Evil Exists, award-winning Professor Charles Mathewes of the University of Virginia offers you a richly provocative and revealing encounter with the question of human evil—a dynamic inquiry into Western civilization's greatest thinking and insight on this critical subject.

A Question at the Heart of Human Existence

Covering nearly 5,000 years of human history and invoking the perspectives of many of the West's most brilliant minds, Why Evil Exists probes intimately into how human beings have conceived of evil, grappled with it, and worked to oppose it.

With Professor Mathewes's inspired guidance, you engage with how both individual thinkers and larger trends of thought have faced evil, studying the work of major theologians, philosophers, poets, political theorists, novelists, psychologists, and journalists.

These 36 lectures offer you the unique chance to approach the subject of evil through numerous lenses and to refine your view of this central question of human life, giving you a broad and deep resource for your own thought and action.

Insights from the West's Great Minds

In this multilayer survey, you first examine accounts of evil in the ancient world, in Greek culture and the precepts of early Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. With this base, you engage with history-making thinkers whose views have shaped Western conceptions of evil, including these major figures:

  • St. Augustine: Grappling with this vastly influential theologian, you contemplate Augustine's core equation of being with goodness, and his view of evil as a "privation" of being, a turning toward ultimate nothingness.
  • Thomas Aquinas: One of the greatest intellects of medieval scholasticism, you study Aquinas's brilliant elucidation of the mindset—the inner logic and rationale—of the evildoer.
  • Thomas Hobbes: Considered the first modern philosopher and "social constructivist," you examine Hobbes's proposition that good and evil are invented constructs of human language.
  • Immanuel Kant: The work of this philosophical titan included highly influential observations on evil, resting on his conception of morality as located in the depths of the human will itself.
  • Sigmund Freud: You track the complex ruminations on evil of the founder of psychoanalysis, including his hypothesis and exploration of the "death drive," an innate, destructive force of the psyche.
  • Hannah Arendt: Perhaps the single greatest commentator on human genocide and totalitarianism, Arendt analyzed the "moral inversion" of Nazism, which profoundly affected modern understandings of political evil.

Theology and the Imperative of Evil

Across the arc of history, you explore the nature of evil in Western religious thought.

In the Enuma Elish of ancient Babylon and the biblical book of Revelation, you find early conceptions of the universe as a battleground between good and evil cosmic powers. In the ancient Hebrew interpretation of Genesis, you see how Adam and Eve actualized an already inherent potential for evil. You study the psychology of Satan in Islamic theology, as well as in the weighty meditations of Anselm of Lyon and Martin Luther.

In our own time, you encounter Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's challenging view of sin as rooted in resistance to our "hybrid" condition as both matter and spirit. And, in the wake of the Holocaust, you grasp Jewish thinker Arthur Cohen's extraordinary reformulation of faith in a God whose reality "is our prefiguration"—the promise of what we may become.

Philosophical and Literary Visions of the "Human Malady"

Parallel with the theological accounts, you study primary currents of Western secular thinking on evil in the work of key philosophers and social theorists, observing also how religious and secular thought on evil influences each other. In this area of the course, you devote separate lectures to the insights not only of Hobbes and Kant, but of philosophical giants such as Machiavelli, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.

Early in the lectures, you see how Plato and Aristotle defined a debate on evil that stretched across millennia, between a dramatic, cosmic conception of evil and a view of evil as a human matter of this world. You investigate Hegel's grand philosophical system, locating evil as a necessary element of a larger, universal process of maturation, and Nietzsche's demand for a new "language" of human actions in Beyond Good and Evil.

In American history, you study Abraham Lincoln's searing, theological interpretation of slavery and the Civil War, and his bold vision for healing the wounds of both North and South.

In the work of poets and novelists you find visceral and knowing evocations of evil—pointing us, through their reflective power, toward clearer views of our world.

Beginning with the Inferno, you travel with Dante into the self-delusion of the damned, in his timeless revelation of Hell as an existential prison of the evildoer's making. In Paradise Lost, you study Milton's invocation of Satan as a human archetype, despairing in his futile rebellion against God and his own nature.

Later, you taste Joseph Conrad's unforgettable portrayal of moral disintegration in Heart of Darkness, revealing the psychic self-betrayal of "civilizing" imperialists in the Congo. In the 20th century, you dig into Albert Camus' allegory of a city besieged by evil in The Plague, caught in a cycle of avoidance and denial of its own vulnerability to—and tendency toward—evil.

A History of Passionate and Penetrating Thought

Professor Mathewes, recently honored with the celebrated Mead Endowment Teaching Award —one of the University of Virginia's highest honors—brings to these lectures his own considerable insight, compassion, and flair for getting to the essence of complex ideas. Throughout the series, he illustrates humanity's clash with evil as both a hugely rich field of thought and a thoroughly engrossing story, inviting you to question your conceptions of humanity's dark side, and to imagine yourself and the world in new ways.

Among many keenly provocative perspectives, you contemplate Martin Luther's warning that direct resistance to evil amounts to a collapse into evil itself, and philosopher Blaise Pascal's demand that we must recognize our own habitual avoidance of confronting our propensity to evil. You see how Hobbes's influential notion of human action as based in "rational self-interest" translates into modern game theory and nuclear strategy. And you hear Professor Mathewes's own call for a new way of approaching evil in our time—one that avoids the pitfalls of either demonizing others or internalizing the causes of "evil" acts in the world.

In Why Evil Exists, Professor Mathewes compellingly suggests that by living in the depth of the question of evil itself, we find resources in ourselves that are more powerful than any given theoretical answer.

Join a deeply insightful teacher in facing this fascinating, primordial question—a chance to bring your own most discerning thought to a crucial challenge for our world.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Nature and Origins of Evil
    Consider the range of human thought across history, which has sought understanding of evil. First, examine three dominant historical views of the nature of evil. Then, grapple with the key questions of abstract theory versus concrete description, the transcendence or mundaneness of evil, and evil's function in nature and civilization. x
  • 2
    Enuma Elish—Evil as Cosmic Battle
    In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, see how the dualism of good and bad divine powers locates evil as an innate structure of reality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, probe one of the earliest recorded attempts to understand suffering and to find meaning in the face of death and evil. x
  • 3
    Greece—Tragedy and The Peloponnesian War
    This lecture explores contrasting views of evil and suffering in ancient Greece. In Greek tragic drama, trace the cruel paradoxes of fate and responsibility, under divine governance, that afflict the characters. Conversely, uncover the historian Thucydides' linking of evil to "accidents" of circumstance and chance in his account of the Peloponnesian War. x
  • 4
    Greek Philosophy—Human Evil and Malice
    The inquiry continues with the seminal views of Plato and Aristotle. Follow Plato's developing views of evil as "miseducation," a political fact of human society and ultimately as metaphysical revolt. Then ponder Aristotle's "mundane" vision of malice and evil as akrasia, weakness of will, and a misordering of fundamental human drives. x
  • 5
    The Hebrew Bible—Human Rivalry with God
    The Hebrew Bible roots evil in various forms of rebellion. In the Hebrew book of Genesis, see how the Fall actualizes an intrinsic potential for evil. Then consider three faces of rebellion: the rejection of God's plan (the Fall), interhuman strife (Cain and Abel), and direct rivalry with God (the Tower of Babel). x
  • 6
    The Hebrew Bible—Wisdom and the Fear of God
    The Hebrew Bible also offers a contrasting view of evil and suffering—as phenomena reflecting the mysterious will of God. Explore the implications of the covenant between God and Abraham, and Abraham's mandated sacrifice of Isaac. In the book of Job, see how Job's faith is established through determined acceptance of suffering. x
  • 7
    Christian Scripture—Apocalypse and Original Sin
    This lecture addresses the New Testament heritage on evil. Uncover the early Christian view of a cosmic struggle between God and darkness in the Gospels and the book of Revelation, noting numerous references to demonic powers. See how the doctrine of original sin is linked to the very goodness of Jesus. x
  • 8
    The Inevitability of Evil—Irenaeus
    The early Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon proposed an important "theodicy" or theory of evil. Discover the tenets of Irenaeus's thinking, based in his view that the descent into sin is necessary for the fulfillment of human destiny. Study his conceptions of natural and moral evil, and the redemptive "tutelage" of suffering. x
  • 9
    Creation, Evil, and the Fall—Augustine
    Saint Augustine propounded another seminal "theodicy" of evil. Contemplate his two foundational claims: evil as "privation" of fundamental good, and evil as perversion of human nature toward the meaningless. Consider also his views on the rationale for evil, evil's ultimate mysteriousness, and its interior implications for the doer. x
  • 10
    Rabbinic Judaism—The Evil Impulse
    Rabbinic Judaism resists the Christian "cosmic drama" of sin and redemption. Study the rabbinic conceptions of tov (goodness/conscience) and ra (badness/self-interest), as each functions in human nature. Also grasp the notion of ra as a practical challenge of will and responsibility and an ultimate gift from God to mature humanity. x
  • 11
    Islam—Iblis the Failed, Once-Glorious Being
    Islam locates the origin of evil precisely in the rebellion of Iblis, the fallen angel. First, define the relation of the Qur'an as a sacred text to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Then probe Iblis's fall through his "misappropriation" of faith, and the paradoxical dimensions of evil as both personal and impersonal. x
  • 12
    On Self-Deception in Evil—Scholasticism
    The monastic tradition of Christian scholasticism offers compelling views of satanic psychology. In the thought of Anselm of Lyon, explore the "logic" of Satan's rebellion against God, rooted in bottomless, unspecified desire. In Thomas Aquinas, trace the psychology of Satan to a self-deceptive motive to become what God is. x
  • 13
    Dante—Hell and the Abandonment of Hope
    Dante's Inferno poetically elucidates Christian thinking on evil. In his observation of the damned, see how the literary "Dante" learns the meaning of both pity and piety. Then grasp the nature of Satan's punishment, revealing Hell as a self-made crucible where the damned become what they internally want to be. x
  • 14
    The Reformation—The Power of Evil Within
    This lecture investigates the pivotal thought of reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. In Luther's works, discover his view of Satan as a subtle, inner force, working to induce delusive thought and action. Also study Calvin's core conceptions of moral predestination and the innate depravity or corruptibility of the human spirit. x
  • 15
    Dark Politics—Machiavelli on How to Be Bad
    Niccolò Machiavelli's writings are often read as a nihilist sanction for wickedness in government. Push beyond that view to a deeper understanding of his thought, suggesting practical means for dealing with the inevitable "dirty work" of politics, with the determined aim of the stability and good of the polity. x
  • 16
    Hobbes—Evil as a Social Construct
    Hobbes, considered the first modern Western philosopher, proposed a hugely influential understanding of good and evil. Study his conception of innate human savagery, amoralism, and self-interest in the "state of nature," and his theory of compensating social contracts, suggesting that moral distinctions themselves are invented constructs of language. x
  • 17
    Montaigne and Pascal—Evil and the Self
    Philosophers Montaigne and Pascal offered sharply contrasting, "interior" accounts of sin. Evaluate Montaigne's view of zealous extremism as rooted in pathologic denial of the "disorderliness" of human nature, against Pascal's contention that that very nature requires spiritual zealotry to counteract and heal it. x
  • 18
    Milton—Epic Evil
    Milton's Paradise Lost is another deeply influential literary meditation on evil. Here, travel deeply into the psychic agony of Satan, in Milton's complex portrait of temptation, choice, rebellion, and futility. Conclude with reflections on the distinction between satanic and human sin, and the Fall's significance in God's plan. x
  • 19
    The Enlightenment and Its Discontents
    The Enlightenment fostered several critical arguments on the problem of evil. Track the debate questioning the limits of reason in dealing with evil between Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz and later between Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then follow David Hume's incisive critique of both religious and atheistic thinking. x
  • 20
    Kant—Evil at the Root of Human Agency
    Kant's extraordinary insights revolutionized Western philosophy. Grapple with key elements of his thought, including his view of all arguments for and against an omnipotent God as essentially indeterminate, morality as located in the human will, and "radical evil" as the tendency of that will to privilege itself above the general good. x
  • 21
    Hegel—The Slaughter Block of History
    Hegel was the architect of a global philosophical system encompassing the realities of evil. Study his conception of original sin as a condition of alienation rooted in the human impulse to reflective self-consciousness, and his grand vision of history as the intelligible working out of the problem of evil in time. x
  • 22
    Marx—Materialism and Evil
    What is the relation of human social systems to evil behavior? Explore Marx's legendary analysis of material circumstances as the source of both thought and action, material inequalities as the wellspring of evil, and his determined view that transforming social conditions would erase the motive for human oppression. x
  • 23
    The American North and South—Holy War
    Two American voices spoke poignantly of the evils of slavery. In Huckleberry Finn, see how Twain portrays the agonizing moral double bind that afflicts Huck in his friendship with the slave Jim. Contemplate Lincoln's distinctly theological interpretation of the Civil War, and his visionary conception of healing for both North and South. x
  • 24
    Nietzsche—Considering the Language of Evil
    In imagining humanity's future, Nietzsche urged a profound rethinking of morality. Probe his view of the duality of good/evil as a structure that constrains and punishes, his "challenge to truth," and his proposal of a "pragmatic language" focused on the fruitfulness or healthiness of action and the cultivation of human creativity. x
  • 25
    Dostoevsky—The Demonic in Modernity
    Dostoevsky's novels were driven by an obsession with Western intellectual movements that attacked traditional morality. Observe his portrayal of nihilist revolutionaries in Demons, undone by their failure to understand evil in their own nature, and of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, as he rejects moral structure, destroying his own soul. x
  • 26
    Conrad—Incomprehensible Terror
    Conrad's writing is perhaps the most profound modern literary representation of evil. In Heart of Darkness, sense the white colonials' corrosive moral rot, revealing a savagery greatly exceeding that of the "primitives" they claim to civilize. In The Secret Agent, witness Conrad's prescient evocation of the desire to destroy civilization itself. x
  • 27
    Freud—The Death Drive and the Inexplicable
    In Freud's psychoanalytic picture of evil, study his notion of the pleasure principle and the roots of pathological behavior in the conflict between human desires and constricting cultural roles. Then follow his later delineation of the "death drive," a core, destructive force of the psyche in eternal struggle with Eros. x
  • 28
    Camus—The Challenge to Take Evil Seriously
    Two novels by Camus speak deeply to post-war thinking on the phenomenon of evil. Examine The Plague as an allegory for a society possessed by evil, resistant both to confronting evil and to recognizing its eternal recurrence. Contrast this with Camus' depiction of a "prophet" whose only prophecy is our own fall. x
  • 29
    Post–WWII Protestant Theology on Evil
    Three challenging perspectives: Explore Tillich's conception of the demonic as human "possession" by dimensions of reality beyond the personal self; Barth's vision of Das Nichtige ("the nothing"), a force opposing creation, to which God says "no"; and Niebuhr's "diagnosis" of sin as rooted in the desire to escape our condition as both matter and spirit. x
  • 30
    Post–WWII Roman Catholic Theology on Evil
    In modern Catholicism, grasp theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's nuanced spirituality of hope, based in the conviction that God's providence is so powerful that salvation is a possibility for all humanity. Then study Pope John Paul II's precise delineation of "objectively" evil actions as a resource in the church's larger public discourse. x
  • 31
    Post–WWII Jewish Thought on Evil
    The Holocaust radically challenged Jewish conceptions of evil, faith, and identity. Grapple with four major Jewish thinkers, confronting the apparent death of the God of the covenant, as they urge profound questioning, new understandings of faith, and a turning to fellow humans to find meaning in healing the world. x
  • 32
    Arendt—The Banality of Evil
    Hannah Arendt's writings provide critical insights into modern political evil. Look deeply into the totalitarian mindset and its intent to control and transform human nature. In particular, grasp the singular "moral inversion" underlying the genocidal actions of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, which "justified" history's darkest hour. x
  • 33
    Life in Truth—20th-Century Poets on Evil
    Three 20th-century poets responded powerfully to political oppression. Hear Paul Celan's evocation of the annihilation of meaning, continuity, and time itself in the death camps. Follow this with Czeslaw Milosz's searching words on the legacy of past suffering, and Zbigniew Herbert's vision of the power of art and beauty in opposing totalitarianism. x
  • 34
    Science and the Empirical Study of Evil
    Contemporary psychologists have attempted to measure human tendencies toward what we may call "evil" behavior. Examine three landmark experiments studying obedience to authority and willingness to participate in cruel acts, and review the troubling evidence suggesting that human actions are driven much more by context or situation than by innate "character." x
  • 35
    The "Unnaming" of Evil
    This lecture proposes serious reflections on humanity's current capacities to respond to evil. Grapple with highly relevant issues, including the question of whether our past resources of understanding are equal to current challenges, a possible template for anticipating genocide, and our tendency to "serially" forget the lessons of the past. x
  • 36
    Where Can Hope Be Found?
    Professor Mathewes reviews the many themes and "layers" of thinking that articulate humanity's struggle with evil. Conclude with thoughts on what a workable present stance may be, balancing the intractable challenge that evil presents with the affirmative sense of the world revealed in our resilient will to face it. x

Lecture Titles

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Charles Mathewes
Ph.D. Charles Mathewes
University of Virginia

Dr. Charles Mathewes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches religious ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion. He earned his B.A. in Theology from Georgetown University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago. From 2006 to 2010, Professor Mathewes served as editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the flagship journal in the field of religious studies. He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, A Theology of Public Life, Understanding Religious Ethics, and The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. He is also associate editor of the 3rd edition of the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Every year since 1999, Professor Mathewes's classes have been named as exemplary classes for prospective students to attend during UVA's Days on the Lawn, a decision period for applicants accepted to the university. In 2007, he received a Mead Honored Faculty award-one of UVA's highest teaching awards-and also a Mead Endowment Teaching Award, which he used to create a seminar on religion and politics that culminated in a trip to Washington, DC, and meetings with politicians, policy experts, and legal scholars.

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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 48 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by Where he's wrong I enjoyed much of the course, but he has a huge pro-Catholic bias, exemplified by his rant against the Gnostics, which is historically inaccurate. They had an unusual idea about the origin of evil and who God was and were consequently killed off in the only crusade against fellow Christians conducted by the Catholic Church. For an analysis of the debate see www.GodReconsidered.com July 9, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by More cloud than tool Audio download. This is a course for people who enjoy thought experiments and philosophical explorations from a historical perspective. Every abstract concept used to explain reality is part of la larger ideational house of cards. Change anything near the base and the structure collapses or changes. "Evil" used to be one such pillar concept in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Satan, Hell and Evil each mirrored divine counterparts, and explained social and natural chaos. Today, evil as a concept has lost its persuasiveness and is virtually absent in the natural and social sciences. It survives as entertainment in video games and horror films. Dr Mathewes would disagree with my statement. His WHY EVIL EXISTS is a plea for its continued relevance, not just historically, but in our technological world where state-sponsored crimes seem increasingly common. What exactly is "evil"? Mathewes never defines it succinctly. Whatever it meant in the past, the modern examples he mentions refer to the malicious infliction of suffering on a large scale, by commission or omission, individually or through blind conformity to group pressure. It is unearned suffering. It is a radical denial of the empathy and moral reciprocity underlying all social life. Mathewes further distinguishes between "natural evil" — floods, earthquakes, epidemics, etc. once seen as messages from aggrieved divinities — and man-made "moral evil" such as the Nazi Holocaust. For all intents and purposes, his modern examples all belong to the moral variety. _______________________ Mathewes explores evil primarily through a series of chronologically-ordered classic texts. This has certain advantages and limitations. PROS • Although his overviews only focus on a few points in each thinker, he offers an excellent introduction for those of you interested in a broad picture. Early Mesopotamia, for example, thought of evil as a cosmic battle whereas the Bible used a rebellion model, even a desire to become God. This can be enlightening. • His voice is clear. His examples are good. The guidebook offers excellent value with its glossary and annotated bibliography. CONS • The lecturer sticks to the philosophers and writers in the second, more modern half of the course even though disciplines such as psychology, sociology and other social sciences have plenty to say about his list of moral evils. The closest he comes to them is the Arendt lecture. • A key problem in the modern section is the vagueness and heavy religious baggage implied by the concept of "evil". It works best in the mythical context of early Western thinkers where basic metaphors about the nature of man in the universe are being developed. Trying to explain shocking mass or individual behavior we hear about in the news every day with concepts like "evil" is like using a large fish net to catch bees. The tool is too crude. • On this point, I would echo another contributor, NYNM, and suggest TTC's extremely brief course EXPLAINING SOCIAL DEVIANCE for another take on evil. Check my review for a summary. • Early on Mathewes promises to keep the discussion relevant to people who have suffered from the consequences of evil. But here too, the concept is too vague unless you subscribe to a religious system where evil is defined more concretely. Had Mathewes cut out a few writers and focussed more attention on the typical responses to evil today — outright denial, armed reprisal, the law, social media shaming, medication, cognitive behaviour therapy or mindfulness to name a few — his course would have been much more user-friendly. _____________________ Overall, this is a good introduction for TTC clients primarily interested in the history of an idea. Those of you seeking therapeutically useful insights following a trauma are knocking on the wrong door. Recommended to the philosophically-minded. May 30, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Thought opener In the end the good Dr. Mathewes does not know why evil exists anymore than any of the rest of us can. However, Dr. Mathewes offers a thought provoking set of lectures on the Western world's struggle to understand evil over more than the last 3,000 years. His lectures helped me to understand a bit more of the cultural context in which the ancient Hebrews began to record their faith tradition. Without any formal training in philosophy, many of the nuances of the philosophers from the Enlightenment to present went over my head. However, I still recommend this course very strongly to anyone who is interested in finding out how Western civilization has thought about evil. May 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent course Perhaps I enjoyed this course so much because I had familiarity with some of the material that was presented. I found every lecture to be clear and interesting. As someone who was born before the second world war, and has lived to experience 9/11, I am all too aware of the evil that is in the world. Professor Matthewes has given me much to think about much to reflect upon. May 2, 2014
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