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Why Evil Exists

Why Evil Exists

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Why Evil Exists

Course No. 6810
Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
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Course No. 6810
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 200 portraits, illustrations, and photographs. Portraits include those of prominent philosophers who've probed this eternal question, including Dante, Hegel, Arendt, and Camus. There are also captivating (and shocking) illustrations and photographs of literary and historical events that have forced us to confront the existence of evil, including the book of Revelation, the Civil War, and the Holocaust.
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Course Overview

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
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2011
  • 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

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Charles Mathewes

About Your Professor

Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
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...
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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 57 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Intense -- Beware I suspect that this will be the strangest review ever received by The Great Courses. Unfortunately the story I have to tell is incredibly long and complex, and I will only be able to give a vague outline. This happened to me about 6 months ago. I was 22 and until then, I had never had even a slightest lapse in sanity. I've been an avid roadtripper ever since I turned 18, and that is when I first started listening to Great Courses. I've listened to at least 50 while on solo road trips around the USA. In April of this year, I went on yet another road trip. This time, however, I decided I would make the experience more intense than ever by deleting all my social networks and mostly refusing to communicate with my friends and family while I was gone (this was inspired by the early chapters of "Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions," which I read after listening to the "Meaning of Life" course on here.). During this trip I was driving on back roads in the Midwest, through Kansas, Nebraska, up to South Dakota. I would sleep in my car, which I had made mostly self-sufficient. There was no need to talk to anybody. It had been weeks since I had spoken to anybody for more than a few minutes, and my days were spent with reading, driving, and listening to lectures. Finally I chose this course and found it so interesting that I listened to all 18 hours in three days. I was familiar with lots of the material, but hadn't heard it described in such a way. For example, the lecture on Hobbes and the social contract was something I already knew plenty about, but it hadn't been explained in terms of evil before. Hobbes wrote that a person's primary goal was to survive until the next morning. Without civilization, we would be forever in fear for our lives, never able to trust that our neighbor wouldn't kill us in the night. Hence, "evil." So I finish this course while at Badlands National Park, then drive east over to Minnesota and go to Minneapolis. Now that I'm in the middle of a city, surrounded by people, everything feels eerie. Remember I have been alone for weeks-- it had been the most intense experience of solitude I'd ever encountered, although I simply hadn't realized that I had been so alone. The eerie feeling was mainly brought on by the feeling that everybody had "evil" in them, but it was tamed by civilization. I walked around in the city feeling frightened, but also powerful. What eventually kickstarted my insanity was when I held eye contact with an old man who happened to look kind of like Hemingway. We were passing each other on the street, and he stared at me intensely giving me a sort of "evil eye." This sort of thing would never bother me whatsoever, and it seems crazy to share this. But his look sent a jolt of the most intense fear I'd ever felt all through my body. As soon as this happened, I became incredibly paranoid. I started to view everybody around me as impostors, like they were pretending to be civilians and were actually trying to keep an eye on me. I got in my car to drive out of the city, and as I drove, it felt like every car on the road was following me. I pulled over and went into an open field. Reality felt completely unusual. I was dizzy and everything appeared fake. I thought of Nietzche's "eternal recurrence" and started to think that I was fated to live this day over and over again eternally. I recalled Nietzsche writing that when he thought of eternal recurrence, he felt nauseous. I thought, "Oh no! They got him too!" Very soon I started to realize I had gone crazy. This is what is apparently rare for crazy people: first, I knew I was crazy and only wanted to make everything go back to normal; second, I have a 100% clear memory of my entire experience. There's much more to the story, but here is the summary of what happened next. I experienced "time dilation," where every one minute looking at a clock felt like many hours. I should not have been driving, but I did. I tried to drive back home (thousands of miles), but along the way the road signs telling me how many miles to the next city kept increasing. "90 miles to Kansas City." Then "110 miles to Kansas City." Etc. So I pulled over and parked my car. I was in a residential neighborhood at 7am. It was raining. I leave my car and start walking in the rain, barefooted. About 20 minutes later I'm stopped by the police. Someone had called them and said a strange guy was walking around. The police ask for my ID, I give it to them. I must have had crazy deranged eyes, because the police are being very aggressive toward me. I'm convinced that I have a spiritual mission to walk the earth eternally, and they're trying to stop me. I tell them, "I'm stronger than you." I meant that I was stronger than them spiritually (haha), but they didn't take it that way. I was shoved to the ground, handcuffed, and brought to jail. In jail I decide to stay quiet other than asking for my attorney (but I have no attorney). Because I'm not communicating, they can't call anybody I know to figure out who I am or what has gone wrong with me. I end up staying in jail for two straight days, locked up in my own cell, refusing to speak or even look at any of the guards. During this time, which truly felt like months, I believed I would be locked up there eternally (like, billions and billions of years). There is much more to be explained about my specific thoughts while in jail, but there is no room here. Surprisingly my thoughts were quite intellectual, although without logic. For example, the police later told me that I had been manically quoting philosophers, which they had to look up on their computer. I was saying things like, "The way through life is the golden mean," and, "Don't fly too close to the sun." Kind of hilarious in hindsight, but terrifying at the time. All along, this course about Evil is on the front of my mind. Some other lines of thought throughout those two days: I thought I might be backwards evolving, and that I would look in the mirror and be a monkey. Another thing I considered is that I would have to sit in the same pose eternally and eventually become a statue. The pose I chose was "the thinker" because I am part Greek. Absolutely insane. So eventually the police reach my parents, who then drive hundreds of miles to come get me. When they arrive, I don't think it's really them. Poor mom and dad, they were terrified. Absolutely nothing like this had ever happened to me or anyone in my family before. They take me out of the jail cell, but I refuse to leave with my parents. I'm still quoting philosophy, which they are looking up on their phones and trying to echo back to me. I'm starting to feel this incredible moral guilt. I am starting to believe that -I- am the one causing and creating all of the evil in the world, and if I can only just stop, the earth would become a paradise. At this point I basically become catatonic again, meaning that I refuse to move or speak. My theory now about people who are "catatonic," is that it is related to guilt. I thought that anything I did would harm my parents, family, friends, etc. Anyway, they take me to a mental hospital. Sigh. I'm handcuffed and driven by the cops to a mental hospital. I remained there for five additional days. It was absolutely horrible, because I was trying to ask all the other patients what was going on. The other patients are used to people being insane, and they're heavily medicated themselves, so they just smile at anyone who is new. I can't even begin to explain how horrible this was. But after the five days, during which I had been given "anti-psychotic" pills morning and night, I went back to normal. One morning I simply woke up with entirely clear thoughts and thought, "Oh." It is very hard to describe, but reality had felt completely fake to me during the prior week, kind of like I was in a Matrix. Once reality felt normal again, I snapped out of it and felt just fine. The hospital released me, I went back home with my parents for about a month to make sure I wouldn't fall back into psychosis, and I've been 100% ever since. I went to a psychiatrist for four sessions during that month. He had absolutely nothing to tell me... and just seemed incredibly confused as I told him the story. He didn't diagnose me with anything, just called it a "brief psychotic episode." Incredibly strange. I'm now living on my own again, not on any medications, and feeling better than ever. I read my journals from the months leading up to the psychosis and feel that I was a little bit crazy even back then. In short, I was too serious. I would read moral philosophers and try to follow their words precisely. It was all too much to handle, and I feel like all the reading/studying I had been doing leading up to the psychosis had given me intense guilt, which then "ruptured" while I listened to the course on Evil. In the end, I feel mostly confused that such an occurrence is even possible. I have much more empathy for mental illness now, knowing that inside the apparently crazy person's mind there is a real human trying to solve their way out. I hope to be a filmmaker one day, and in that regard the experience was a positive one. It gave me some insight into the mind, at least. Everything is good as long as I don't ever slip into that state again. I think I'm done with solo road trips for a while. Next time I will bring a friend, or a dog. There is not much more for me to learn about being alone. November 20, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Worthy addition to my philisophy course library A topic on which I was long interested begins to make some sense with this professor. The linkeages and concatenations of of this topic with the study of different Western and Eastern schools of philosophy and moral principles are very meaningful. January 21, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Scary and informative The scary part of this course is summarized by Professor Mathewes in his wrap-up in the final lecture. Professor Mathewes states “Evil hasn’t gone away, nor is it likely to”. Professor Mathewes provides an informative description of the western civilization view of evil from ancient times to modern times. This course includes references and quotes to statements from many of the historians and philosophers of human history. Professor Mathewes states at the beginning of this course that his knowledge is based upon western civilization and that his course will be limited to concept of evil in only the western civilizations. It would be useful if The Great Course offered a course on the eastern civilization view of evil so that the eastern and western views could be compared and contrasted. December 27, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by This course made me into a cynic No, not a religious cynic, I was that already, but a cynic as far as my ability to trust that a lecturer knows the material he teaches well enough. I'll give a few examples of why I say that: In chapter 2 (approximately 7 minutes) the lecturer says that "no self-respecting rabbi would say the world was crated ex nihilo" (I'm paraphrasing as I don't remember the exact words, but he did use the words "no self-respecting rabbi"). This is so incorrect. Just as a start, Maimonides I would think is a self-respecting rabbi, and that was his view, and it became the normative taught as Jewish belief., So that was a pretty strange incorrect statement. In chapter 3 (just before or around 15 minutes) - after WWII, to say that everything was God's will would be blasphemous for Orthodox Jews - of course this is not true. In fact - and it is one of the most compelling reasons to prefer the idea that there is no God - it is a very common view and frequently expressed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, i.e., it is God's will, and in fact, a punishment. This is why I used the title that I did. If in the material that I know well (religious Jewish literature and thinking) I see serious inaccuracies, how can I know if the other material, that I am not very familiar with, is presented any more accurately? I can't. I know have a rather disorganized bunch of comments and thoughts about this series. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to organize a proper essay. I was also quite disturbed by something the lecturer said in chapter 8 (approx 15 minutes) talking about gnostics and if the gnostic version of Christianity had become the orthodox Christianity, and teach that the Torah is from the devil (or something like that), then imagine what anti-semitism would have been like. And what was anti-semitism like because orthodox Christianity taught that the Jews killed Jesus, etc., etc.?! A picnic? Another serious difficulty I had with the course is that it really blurs the meaning of "evil" - if Adam and Eve don't listen to God, I'd not call that "evil". You could say they "sinned". That is very different. It was between them and God. Evil harms other people. Calling human suffering by natural causes, such as a tsunami, evil, basically means that it is evil inflicted by God, if one believes that God is behind the behavior of nature. I agree that if God is behind nature, then He is evil, but I'm not sure it is what the professor intends. Suffering caused by natural phenomena is, too, a compelling reason to prefer to think that there is no God. In fact, this is one of the issues that I thought I'd hear more about in this course. I wanted to see if there were any ideas that I hadn't heard yet to explain how on one hand a god can be all-powerful and loving and on the other hand there be events like an earthquake or ebola with many innocent victims. The blurring of suffering due to disease or death inflicted by God on people (like Job) and calling that evil, and also calling the behavior of humans as evil, as the modern Christian theologian (Niehbur?) did when he said that "original sin" is the one Christian doctrine that can easily be observed is problematic. There are really several different questions here - why does God inflict suffering on innocent people, or on people who don't deserve such a severe punishment, and why humans can be so evil. There is also the question of why certain people are the victims rather than others, even in the case of human-inflicted evil, I hate when I hear someone say something like "thank God I went to work that day, 9/11 - God saved me". Why you? Why did the next guy get to work on time and lose his life? Did God do that too? When discussing Job, those types of questions are relevant, but other selections are on other questions. I felt that all these questions were blurred together, and, even worse, some of the selections really did not address any question in the realm of "why evil exists" - especially a few of the lectures towards the end, such as the one on poetry. That seemed to deal more with how we write about evil events, but not about why there are evil events. Regarding chapter 10 on Rabbinic Judaism: he does a fairly decent job of presenting the concept of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (evil and good "inclinations"), and even mentions that some people say that calling it an "evil" inclination is not so accurate and that it is better to call it the drive for "badness". It is natural to humans, because of their self-interest, which also drives people to marry, etc. All this is fine. But then he conflates this concept with suffering (actually uses the words together "evil and suffering" and of course they are two totally different things), and talks about how this traditional view of yetzer hara does not work post-Holocaust, but of course it has nothing to do with trying to explain the Holocaust, because the yezter hara and yetzer hatov do not explain what befalls a person, only what a person does, which sometimes brings harm on himself. He neglects the whole side of Judaism that talks about suffering as punishment. It is quite troubling that he does not see the difference between bad behavior and suffering from an outer force. No one thought to say that Nazis behaved as they did because of the yetzer hara, and a halakhic lifestyle (which he said is intended to help Jews control their yetzer hara, and that is fine) should have helped the Nazis. The following chapter is Islam, and I don't think I can trust his presentation of it, considering what he does with Jewish sources, and that is a shame, because I would like to understand Islam better. The lecturer's presentation of books is not always convincing. For example, Huck Finn - and of course he presents it as "the greatest American novel" - is overrated and to claim that it has the message as he states in the lecture, he needs to relate to the disappointing end of the book. Or, Crime and Punishment - maybe it is too complex (profound? - see further on) a book to try to summarize the way he did, but I was not pleased with his presentation of its message. Some of the material barely addresses the question the course is supposed to address: Why Evil Exists. For example, Chapter 30 presents von Balthasar and evil as the rejection of Jesus and God's love. So does that mean if a mass murderer, if a perpetrator of genocide then says he believes that Jesus sacrificed himself to save everyone, the murderer is "saved" from hell? This isn't addressed, and I didn't see a connection between this line of thinking and the events of the 20th century. I got the feeling - and this is true not just for this selection, but I brought it as an example - that there is only a very loose connection between some of the choices of literature discussed and the question on the table. The lecturer overall had a decent presentation style - not monotone and well-controlled. I lecture, so I know how difficult it is to speak with no interaction. But there was one thing that drove me nuts while listening: The lecturer uses the word "profound" (and "profoundly") profoundly too much - it becomes banal; not everything and everyone can be profound. There were times that within one sentence I'd hear "profound" and "profoundly. Lastly, less irritating, but still irritating: a frequent lisping "s". I couldn't decide if the lecturer often lisps or if there is a problem with the recording quality. Overall, though the lecturer was interesting enough in his presentation to keep me listening (maybe there is a pony in there), I'm left feeling I heard some interesting ideas, got a smattering of an exposure to a serious reading list, some of which I've already read and some of which I haven't yet, but I'm left with a skepticism about the accuracy of what was imparted, and I think that more critical thought is necessary in defining the question to be answered and in examining how the questions are answered. November 30, 2015
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