Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

The Problem of Evil in Philosophy and Popular Culture

Course # 01:090:294:H3
Index# 06039
T 8:30AM-11:30AM
Trip McCrossin

Will Count Towards SAS – Philosophy MAJOR and MINOR

From its ancient origins in the Book of Job, or farther back even in the Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, through the early decades of the Enlightenment, the problem of evil — the perniciously difficult to satisfy “need to find order within those appearances so unbearable that they threaten reason’s ability to go on,” as Susan Neiman has aptly described it, as when, to one degree or another, bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people — is primarily a theological one. Human reason strains, in the above “find order” spirit, to reconcile conspicuous human suffering with faith in divine wisdom, power, and benevolence, which either makes or allows it to happen. Midway through the Enlightenment, however, as Neiman contends, the problem began to evolve to include also a more secular version. Here, while it is no longer in response to suffering’s ostensibly divine origin, reason strains similarly nonetheless. In both versions, we worry that the strain may be sufficient to call into question reason’s ability to make the order it so fervently desires.

Having distinguished the theological and secular versions of the problem, Neiman goes on to propose an additional duality in our responses to the problem. “Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day,” she proposes, the “one, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands that we make evil intelligible,” while the “other, from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that morality demands that we don’t.” Neiman goes on to qualifies this in two ways that will not arise here. On the one hand, we can’t help but acknowledge perspectives, Freud’s and Nietzsche’s being her examples, related to the problem of evil, but which “cannot be fit into either division, however broadly construed,” making of Rousseau’s and Voltaire’s two-way competition a three-way one eventually. We must also acknowledge, on the other hand, in effect a fourth way to the division, which is that “the forms of evil that appeared in the twentieth century made demands modern consciousness could not meet,” not obviously at least, which produces additional “fragmentation” in available responses to the problem of evil.

In the spirit of previous iterations of the seminar, we would again apply ourselves to exploring the above philosophical phenomenon and the various and provocative ways in which it is reflected in in popular culture.

About Trip McCrossin

Professor Trip McCrossin teaches classes in the history and legacy of the Enlightenment, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, and in contemporary ethical and political issues and popular culture. He strives to organize them to be as thoroughly conversational and exploratory as possible, and to relate philosophy as often as possible to the cultures we live in, and in this spirit, contributes periodically to essay collections published in several "popular culture and philosophy" series. He studied at the University of Michigan and Stanford and Yale Universities, and before coming to Rutgers in 2003, worked for some years in the labor movement.