The question of evil: A humanistic inquiry

Why do good people do terrible things to others? Why do bad things happen to good people? 

Students in two humanities courses this spring are examining the idea of evil through close reading and discussion of literary and philosophical texts from Plato to Flannery O'Connor. But what can reading books about horrific events that took place far away, centuries ago or in fiction teach us about evil in our own lives?

"The humanities expose us — often with brutal honesty — to vocabularies and insights adequate to the complexity of human experience, especially for an age marked by stubborn violence and tempted by reductive simplicity," said Eric Gregory, professor of religion and chair of the Humanities Council. "Reading and arguing about works of literature or philosophy, especially when historically or culturally distant, allow us to read ourselves and take creative responsibility for those deepest commitments which give shape to our lives."  

Below, we visit these courses: "From Pandora to Psychopathy: Conceptions of Evil from Antiquity to the Present," taught by Christian Wildberg, professor of classics, and "Topics in Literature and Ethics: Modern Evil," taught by Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English.

Christian Wildberg, professor of classics, leads a precept

Students in two humanities courses this spring are examining the idea of evil through close reading and discussion of literary and philosophical texts from across the centuries and around the world. Christian Wildberg, professor of classics, leads a precept for his course "From Pandora to Psychopathy: Conceptions of Evil from Antiquity to the Present."

Moral evil: How do you explain human wickedness?

"The question of moral evil is arguably one of the most important topics a humanities course can raise, if not the most important one," said Wildberg. "I think our students are painfully aware of the fact that our world is in a state of precarious instability, not to say perpetual crisis, and has been for some time. This course may help them to articulate and work through their own thoughts, worries and existential concerns."

Early in the semester, Wildberg wrote his "working definition" of evil on the board in McCosh 10, a large lecture hall that accommodates the 223 students in the class. 

"Evil is a human activity in thought, word or deed that (intentionally) inflicts unnecessary suffering on other (human) beings — and is that suffering itself," he wrote.

At his precept later that week, he asked his students to look closely at each word in the definition. "What do you think about this definition? Any intuitions that come to mind?"

One student questioned the phrase "unnecessary suffering." "I feel like that could be a relativistic term. In ancient Egypt, they killed servants and put them in the tomb with the pharaohs. Does the fact that it's evil change based on time? They didn't think it was evil. But we do, looking back."

"We're looking at many atrocities in this course," Wildberg told the group. "Maybe the people committing them did not experience it as committing evil. The pharaohs thought they were doing the right thing, but what was it like for the people who were killed? From the perspective of history, you can look at the situation from various sides."

Caeley Harihara in precept class

Sophomore Caeley Harihara poses a question during a precept. An electrical engineering major, she said she was drawn to the reading list for Wildberg's course, "full of classics I had always wanted to study."

The focus of "From Pandora to Psychopathy," Wildberg said, is: "To ask the great thinkers of our tradition the same question, What is evil, and where does it come from?"

Readings begin with the earliest accounts of evil in texts including the Bible and Greek myth then move through the Western philosophical canon — Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt. Guest lecturers from a number of universities visited the class to discuss world religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. Deborah Prentice, Princeton's dean of the faculty and the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, spoke about the Milgram Experiments on obedience to authority conducted in the 1960s.

Wildberg's own childhood in post-World War II Germany — and his commitment to the importance of the humanities — spurred the idea for this course, which he taught for the first time last year.

"Growing up, the more I learned about Hitler's totalitarianism and its bigoted murderous policies, the less comprehensible that history became to me," he said. "How could a high culture in the heart of Europe collapse into complete moral bankruptcy just like that, within the span of a mere generation? I designed this course as an indirect answer to that question, hoping at the same time that it will give meaning and substance to the oft-repeated but actually quite nebulous assertion of the relevance of the humanities for the modern world."

Wildberg is not surprised by the high enrollment in the class and believes that humanistic inquiry is valuable to every student, no matter their major. "Every young person strives to make sense of the world he or she is born into," he said. "Ours is deeply troubled. I suspect that our students begin to realize that the STEM curriculum alone does not provide the answers they need and expect from us."

Sophomore Caeley Harihara, who is concentrating in electrical engineering, said a course she took on metaphysics and epistemology last semester piqued her interest in philosophy. She was drawn to the reading list for Wildberg's course, which is "full of classics I had always wanted to study."

Sophomore Clark Doyle, who is considering majoring in philosophy, said he chose the course because of its interdisciplinary nature: blending philosophy, religion, classics and modern psychology. He particularly enjoyed the precept discussion of Nietzsche.

"His work detailed a conception of evil where strong people were considered good, whereas the weak were regarded as evil," Doyle said. "This relatively primitive notion contrasted strongly with other philosophies of evil, where conventional morality served as the basis for determining good and evil."

During the precept discussion on Nietzsche, Wildberg encouraged healthy skepticism: "What I want you to learn in this class is to read more carefully than you have read. Stop at every sentence [and ask]: What is this doing to me? Why should I believe you?"

Wildberg said he hopes his students walk away from the class "more empathically attuned to suffering, in whatever shape or form, and resolved to relieve it."

Professor Gikandi teaching class

Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English, sketches out thematic elements of one of the novels in his course "Topics in Literature and Ethics: Modern Evil." Readings include "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid, a 1993 Princeton alumnus, as well as works by Primo Levi, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Ondaatje and Uzodinma Iweala.

Stepping into 'the theaters of modern evil'

In week one of Gikandi's course, students were transported to a small Southern town through the pages of Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Displaced Person."

"Evil becomes most apparent when bad things happen to good people," Gikandi said. "A Polish refugee arrives in town and begins the difficult task of remaking his life. He is a good person. He is hardworking. He gets along well with others. But he generates a crisis because he does not understand the racial laws governing the community. When a tractor slides on his back, none of the people around him are willing to help. And they are actually good people."

Gikandi wants students "to think about the role of language and the imagination in the theaters of modern evil. I'm challenging them to think about evil, not as something that happens in remote corners of the world but in our own cultures and civilizations," he said.

The way to do that, Gikandi explained, is to start small and then go big.

In week two, students read the novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid, a 1993 Princeton alumnus. The novel's main character, Changez, a Pakistani student at Princeton, joins a prestigious Manhattan consulting firm in New York after graduation and starts dating Erica, an American photographer. After 9/11, his relationship with Erica — and his vision of the American dream — founders as he battles the moral and religious push-pull of the two worlds, American and Muslim, that shape his identity.

Gikandi, who first taught the course in the aftermath of 9/11, added the novel to the syllabus when it was published in 2007, then dropped it when he wanted to focus on other issues such as genocide.

"But I have returned to it this year to get the students to think about the problem of imagining others as one of the catalysts for evil," he said. "The book challenges our notions of self/other because it reverses and complicates who the other is. Discussing the book early in the semester brings these questions closer to home."

He said that jumping into larger events such as genocide and war too quickly presents the "danger that the students will see them as located outside their own range of experiences."

Students in classroom listening to professor

Students reflect during a discussion in Gikandi's class.

The Princeton connection of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is useful, he said, "because it confronts the students with the paradox of the situation in which they find themselves — simultaneously privileged and challenged by an ethical demand, namely that they do the right thing. After all, to be in a place like Princeton is both a privilege and a responsibility."

Hamid, whose fourth novel, "Exit West," was published in February, said he was surprised and flattered to learn that his novel is part of the syllabus.

"There's something very special about that for me: a coming full circle," Hamid said. "I began my first novel ["Moth Smoke"] at Princeton a quarter-century ago, and I remember reading (with a partisan level of excitement and interest) other Princeton-connected writers while I was a student."

Hamid noted his novel's relevance to evil in current times. "It tries to ask you, the reader, to confront how you determine what you believe to be true in the face of an untrustworthy, one-sided narrative. I think recent political events suggest that the need for each of us to take this task seriously is, if anything, growing more pressing by the day," he said.

Also on the syllabus are Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz," Edwidge Danticat's "The Dew Breaker," Michael Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost" and Uzodinma Iweala's "Beast of No Nation."

Junior Alejandro De La Garza and senior Shiyi Li said Levi's autobiographical account of 10 months spent in Auschwitz had the greatest impact of them.

De La Garza, an English major, said it was "incredibly painful" to read and "the most important book for me in grappling with the problem of representing evil in literature. Never have I seen a more effective or comprehensive account of the dehumanization and hopelessness of victims of the Holocaust."

Li, a chemical and biological engineering major, said: "While we tend to regard those who commit evil as monstrous, the reality is that those who commit evil are in fact ordinary individuals not dissimilar to ourselves. If placed in extenuating circumstances, almost anyone would be capable of radical evil — a sobering thought."

This is exactly the kind of thinking Gikandi wants to evoke. As a visual coda, he showed the class an online album of photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "The photograph of SS officers enjoying themselves a short distance from the crematoriums at Auschwitz is astounding," he said. "Evil is not committed by demons but human beings to other human beings."

Li said this course is one of several humanities courses she has taken during her time at Princeton — including the yearlong, team-taught Humanities Sequence and classes in art history, Shakespeare, philosophy and modern fiction.

"To complement my science education, the humanities have taught me how to appreciate and analyze literature, how to conduct research on topics beyond science, and how to contemplate complex social/philosophical issues with open-minded consideration of multiple approaches," she said.

During all the years he has taught this course, Gikandi said he has been struck most deeply by "the things that seem to puzzle the students most: Do we have the right to represent the suffering of others? What are we to do when suffering is presented in such beautiful and poetic language? And, of course, why does Ann — a character in Edwidge Danticat's 'The Dew Breaker' — marry the man who tortured and killed her brother?"