Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 229-232
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The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives edited by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty. London and New York: Routledge, 2001
Amelie Rorty's eclectic collection of essays, The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives (2001), is premised on the view that notions about evil have a rich and complex history in Western thought, a history that makes the relative silence of recent philosophy (by which Rorty seems to mean mostly Anglo-American philosophy since, say, the 1950s) rather surprising. Rorty remarks upon but does not here offer an explanation of an implicit division of labor according to which moral philosophers have left analysis of the varieties of "sheer wickedness" and discussion of "the lures of sin, evil, immorality, cruelty" to legal theorists, psychoanalysts, the clergy, and popular culture (xi).
This anthology is not intended, for the most part, to do the philosophical work the absence of which Rorty notes (for an example of this, see Lara 2001). The Many Faces of Evil seems meant, rather, to whet our appetite for a further and deeper study of evil by reminding us of the ubiquity and variety of views about the nature of evil, its sources, and the proper remedies for it. Rorty has organized the entries more or less chronologically, illustrating the long history [End Page 229] of reflection on evil, and she fits them under eight broad rubrics as part of her insistence that "evil" should be thought of as "an umbrella concept that has undergone dramatic transformations, marked by a rich vocabulary of distinctions: abomination, disobedience, vice, malevolence, willfulness, immorality, cruelty, aggression and crime" (xii).
The selection is broad—from The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV of the American Psychiatric Association, from Maimonides to the Marquis de Sade. But the portions in this smorgasbord are small—the average entry is well under ten pages. So if you don't remember much of your Seneca or your Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, your Dante or your Chaucer, your Baudelaire or your Goethe, not to mention your dear Herren Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, you may find yourself wishing heartily for either more of the original text, more commentary from the editor, or both. There is not nearly enough material here for budding scholars of evil to work from, nor for professors not already familiar with the authors to teach from. But the collection serves very well the purpose of making clear that the topic of evil provides an almost unlimited amount of grist for the philosophical mill.
Rorty's enthusiasm for the topic is palpable in the brief commentary she offers at the beginning of each section of the book. She's always been an engaging writer, and seems in particularly good form here, which makes the brevity of her introductory and framing material a source of some disappointment. But the desire to have more from both editor and authors means that the book succeeds in reminding us—or convincing us—how compelling the topic of evil can be.
Readers of Hypatia will be interested, among other things, in where and how women appear in this anthology: as icons of the kinds of evil under examination, or as contributors in this particular set of explorations (of course readers also will be of various minds about the meaning of answers to these questions). Eve makes a cameo appearance, in an early selection from Genesis. We do not hear much about Pandora. Female commentators on evil in the anthology include Hannah Arendt, Rorty herself, G. E. M. Anscombe, and Jean Hampton. Rorty adds, in a footnote qualifying her general claim that recent philosophy has on the whole ignored evil, "Interestingly enough, a disproportionate number of philosophers who have discussed the psychology of evil, immorality and forgiveness are women: G. E. M. Anscombe, Hannah Arendt, Cynthia Freeland, Jean Hampton, Mary Midgley, Martha Minow, Judith Shklar" (xviii). Rorty's suggestive comment is of a piece with the overall "here's a juicy bone—see what you can do with it!" offering this book represents. Does a distinctively feminist...