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Alan Wolfe on Political Evil (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 13, 2011: In his learned new book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), Alan Wolfe of Boston College examines and discusses political evil, concentrating political evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If you have found yourself at times reflecting on political evil and American foreign policy, and perhaps reflecting on American foreign policy as political evil, you may find Wolfe's detailed discussion of political evil thought provoking, regardless of whether you should happen to agree or to disagree with certain points he makes. In short, if you're looking for a thought-provoking book to read about political evil, you will almost certainly not be disappointed by Wolfe's book. Regardless of how individual readers, including me, may respond to particular points he makes, Wolfe has done the country an enormous service by examining and discussing the various forms of political evil and the various ways of discussing political evil that he examines and discusses. As a result, his book deserves to be widely read and discussed.

If Wolfe's book were widely read and discussed as it deserves to be, the discussion could take our current political discussion to a new level by giving liberals news ways of thinking about and discussing political evil. If this desirable result were to happen, then liberals would be better equipped to fight the good fight against the Republican noise machine. In my estimate, the Republican noise machine has for decades out-scored, as it were, tongue-tied liberals.

In roughly the first half of the book, Wolfe discusses World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. He analyzes totalitarianism in detail, with special attention to Hannah Arendt's work. In the second half of the book, Wolfe turns his attention to far more detailed discussions of terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the politics of countering political evil, or counter-evil. Because of my own interest in terrorism, I will highlight his discussion of terrorism below and then round off this review essay with my reflections regarding the elections in 2012.

However, as I will explain momentarily, I find certain statements Wolfe makes regarding individual evil puzzling, to say the least. For this reason, I think that I should start by establishing where I am coming from, as they say, in order to establish the intellectual framework I am using for discussing certain points in Wolfe's book.

Centuries before Christianity came along, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle discussed virtue. According to their way of thinking, we humans are not born virtuous. As a result, we need to work deliberately and self-consciously to cultivate virtue.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle famously conceived of virtue as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it. For the sake of discussion, I am going to style their way of thinking about virtue as three-way thinking. At the risk of sounding flippant, I would say that for each one virtuous way of acting, there are two ways in which we can miss the mark of the virtue in question. So if I were a betting man, I'd bet that we are probably going to miss the mark of the one virtuous way of acting a lot. I'd bet that we will probably be inclined to go after one or the other of the two ways that miss the mark.

Now, the two opposites of virtue are vices, vicious ways of acting, not virtuous ways of acting.

Now, for the sake of discussion, let's say that vices represent evil, which we can operationally define as the opposite of good (i.e., not good).

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So if we are not born virtuous, if virtuous acts are acts that we must carefully work to cultivate in ourselves, then we must also be born with a propensity toward non-virtuous acts. But if we agree to characterize non-virtuous acts as evil (i.e., not good), even allowing for degrees to which they may be evil, then we should conclude that we humans have a built-in propensity for evil.

Nevertheless, we could also argue that alongside our propensity for evil, we also have a propensity toward the good.

As is well known, when Christianity came along centuries after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, St. Paul and St. Augustine conspired to construct the doctrine of original sin.

Especially with Augustine, the doctrine of original sin is advanced along with his two-way way of thinking (i.e., good versus evil). But is Augustine's two-way way of thinking an advance over the three-way way of thinking that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle worked with? Doesn't two-way thinking suggest that we may have a fifty-fifty chance of hitting the mark? By comparison, doesn't three-way thinking suggest that our chances of possibly hitting the mark are less than fifty-fifty? I'm glad that I'm not a betting man, so I don't have to bet of these things.

The most basic way to understand the doctrine of original sin is to understand it as claiming that we humans are not born virtuous, an understanding of the doctrine of sin that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could readily grasp.  

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Now, in the Christian tradition of thought over the centuries, the major implication of the doctrine of original sin was that we humans have a propensity for not being virtuous. In short, we have a built-in propensity for evil. We are born with this propensity for evil, and no human escapes being born with this propensity for evil.

It is now time for me to mention and discuss the puzzling statements that Wolfe makes. He says, "I do not believe we ever should [grant] that every single person has internalized a capacity for evil" (page 76).

Granted, there may be a catch in his wording here regarding "internalized a capacity for evil." He seems to imply that we are not born with a capacity for evil, as the doctrine of original sin has been understood to imply, however vaguely. The doctrine of original sin to the contrary notwithstanding, our human nature from birth onward does not include a capacity for evil, he seems to imply in the quoted statement. Instead, when we do find people who evidently do have a capacity for evil, we should infer that they somehow acquired and internalized a capacity for evil, he seems to imply. They weren't born with such a capacity as part of their human nature, he seems to imply.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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