The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Grappling with Evil in Our Time

Paul Hollander

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)


t a time when a growing moral relativism in the Western world coexists with the global rise of Islamist extremism, there are good reasons to reflect on the prevailing notions of evil—not that evil ever ceased to be a morbidly fascinating subject. The best reason for thinking about evil has always been the hope that understanding it might help to reduce its most alarming manifestations. But the fascination with evil also stems from the dismaying record of human actions undertaken to create a better world that led to untold human suffering. Even more disturbing are the types of evildoing that seem to give pleasure to perpetrators who seek neither lofty political goals nor material gain from the infliction of pain, suffering, or death.

It is not only serial murders, bloody civil wars, the spectacle of rampaging mobs, and bombs exploding in crowded restaurants and marketplaces that prompt reflections on evil. Notions of good and evil that invite and urge moral judgment seem deeply embedded in human nature and thinking, and in the life of communities. Both literature and language reflect the reality that “in virtually every human culture there has existed some word for ‘evil.’” Attempts to understand evil lead to the vexed questions of human nature, free will, and various types of determinism.

The study of evil—and of the ways people in different societies and at different times interpreted and saw fit to handle it—can also shed invaluable light on the nature of societies and social institutions. There is, for instance, a vast and telling difference between societies in which some women were called witches and considered the personification of evil and, as result, were severely punished (often burned to death), and those in which a serial murderer is deemed incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. In recent times, such wrongdoers have increasingly been considered incapable of suppressing their aggressive impulses for reasons beyond their control, and therefore deserving of psychiatric treatment, not punishment. There are similarly informative and striking differences between societies variably disposed to single out different groups as agents of evil on various demographic, ethnic, ideological, religious, or political grounds. Finally, the investigation of evil may also help us to better understand why the spectacle of painful human suffering and death has been a source of entertainment for millennia, and what this tells us about human nature.

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Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of fifteen books and is currently working on a study of the relationship between twentieth-century dictators and intellectuals.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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