Rated 5 out of 5 by drew151515 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 Delfos 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 PacificNW 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 dfkinjer 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