The Big E

In the summer of 410 the Goths streamed into the city of Rome and sacked it for three days. According to modern historians, this event was not nearly as significant as once thought, given that the center of the Empire had already moved east and the barbarians had been chipping away at its territories and infiltrating its administrative apparatus for some time. Rome did not “fall” in 410, or so it now seems to us.

To contemporary observers, though, the sack of the city was a disaster of the highest order. We have only to read the first book of Saint Augustine’s City of God, which was written during the two decades following the event, to relive the profound spiritual dislocation caused by the sufferings of Christians who were there. As bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine was besieged by believers’ reports of torture, famine, enslavement, rape, and murder, and by their recurring question: Why? Why does God permit us to suffer rather than routing our enemies or bringing about the apocalypse that would reestablish his divine justice? In responding to these cries Augustine knew he could count on two things in his readers’ minds—a sense of human sinfulness and be-lief in the afterlife—both of which he used to bring them comfort. How do we know, he asked, that all those who suffered were pure of heart, even if they professed Christianity? And even if some of the sufferers were indeed innocent, God’s providence works in mysterious ways; we can be sure that, at least in the hereafter, all will be made right. In the words of Saint Paul, “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

In November 1755 the city of Lisbon, one of the loveliest ports in Europe, was leveled by a tremendous earthquake followed by fires and tidal waves that killed untold numbers. The reaction across the continent was swift and, to some, reminiscent of the atmosphere surrounding the sack of Rome. Churches were packed with ordinary parishioners hoping to have their fears relieved, and they heard sermons that echoed Augustine’s mixed message of guilt and hope. But educated European opinion in 1755 could no longer be reached by such sentiments. Modern attacks on the concept of the soul had made doctrines of sin and the afterlife more than doubtful. And without them, how could the sufferings of flesh-and-blood human beings in the here-and-now ever be understood, let alone justified?

This old question gets fresh treatment in Susan Neiman’s challenging study, Evil in Modern Thought. Her book is principally a historical treatment of thinking about the problem of evil from Lisbon to Auschwitz, and secondarily an argument about how best to approach it today. This is an accessible work of philosophy in the best sense, sharply focused on matters of vital human concern and free of the donnish tics that mar even allegedly popular works by Anglo-American philosophers. For Ms. Neiman, the problem of evil is not a holdover…

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