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Publisher's Summary

Whether we view it in theological, philosophical, or psychological terms, evil remains both a deeply intriguing question and a crucially relevant global issue. Now, Professor Mathewes offers you a richly provocative and revealing encounter with the question of human evil - a dynamic inquiry into Western civilization's greatest thinking and insight on this critical subject.

With the inspired guidance of these 36 lectures, you'll engage with how both individual thinkers and larger trends of thought have faced evil, studying the work of major theologians, philosophers, poets, political theorists, novelists, psychologists, and journalists. You'll study the psychology of evil in Islamic theology, as well as the weighty meditations of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Lyon, and Martin Luther. And among contemporary views, you'll grasp Arthur Cohen's extraordinary post-Holocaust reformulation of faith in a God whose reality "is our prefiguration" - the promise of what we may become.

Parallel with the theological accounts, you'll also study primary currents of Western secular thinking on evil in the work of key philosophers and social theorists. You'll investigate Thomas Hobbes's proposition that good and evil are invented constructs of human language, and Kant's conception of morality as located in the human will. You contemplate Freud's hypothesis of the "death drive," an innate, destructive force of the psyche, and Hannah Arendt's highly influential analysis of the "moral inversion" of Nazism.

So why does evil exist in the world? Join a deeply insightful teacher in facing this fascinating, primordial question - a chance to bring your own most discerning thought to a crucial challenge for our world.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2011 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2011 The Great Courses

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But What's Puzzling You is the Nature of My Game

I gained much from this study of EVIL, as examined and imagined in art, philosophy, theology and psychology. I recommend it (with the proviso below) if you write much or if you are fascinated by the forces of good and evil in film and other arts, theology, the psychology of those who commit atrocities or in politics.

The course covers:

the nature and origins of evil (including the symbolism of tragedy, sin and wickedness),

the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh, the Peloponnesian War (and Greek tragedies), the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle,

the Hebrew Bible (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the tower of Babel, Abraham and Job), Christian scripture (original sin and the Apocalypse), Augustine, Rabbinic Judaism, Islam (the Qur'an and the story of Iblis), Thomas Aquinas, Dante (Hell and the abandonment of hope), the Reformation (Luther and Calvin),

Machiavelli, Hobbes (The Leviathan), Montaigne and Pascal and divertissements, Milton (Paradise Lost and epic evil), the Enlightment (Theodicy, Voltaire v. Rousseau and Hume),

Kant (the idea of radical evil), Hegel (evil in history), Marx's failed idea that evil is fundamentally a problem of material conditions), the American Civil War (Huck Finn and Abe Lincoln), Nietzsche,

Dostoevsky (Demons and the nature of evil in modernity), Conrad (human incapacity to escape the Heart of Darkness), Freud (the death drive and pleasure principle), Camus (biological evil in The Plague, selfishness and narcissism in The Fall),

the religious outlooks on evil after WWII (Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish), Hannah Arendt (the banality of evil in Totalitarianism), 20th Century poets on evil (the poetry of surviving Shoah, or catastrophe), science and the empirical study of evil (the shock and prison experiments, on obedience to authority), the "unnaming" of evil (genocide, 9/11 and the H-Bomb), and

whether hope can be found (by avoiding hatred and guilt, "planting iris [that] will be flowering long after [Hitler] is dead").


The Professor did a remarkably good job on an exceedingly ambitious subject.

Proviso: The lectures get rather deep at times, making it difficult at times to follow if you're doing something else, like driving, while listening.

95 people found this helpful

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Best Audiobook I've Ever Listened To

Any additional comments?

I'm nearing graduation and after four years at a hum-drum state university, I can testify that I've never once sat in a classroom with a professor of this caliber. Mathewes is no bureaucrat with tenure going through the motions till retirement, he's a genuine and contagiously engaged scholar. He knows how to lecture and hold a student's interest. He never goes off on irrelevant tangents or gets bogged down in technical minutia. Each lecture is painstakingly researched and meticulously prepared to be intellectually and emotionally provoking.

His thorough knowledge of history, literacy and philosophy make him a veritable well-spring of experience and wisdom. The topic itself resists easy answers and Mathewes never offers any. He acts as a medium between Western civilization's greatest philosophers on evil and his audience. He distills their wisdom into terms readily available and digestible to the modern listener --with or without any background in these disciplines. Evil is every person's concern and Mathewes makes sure his lectures are accessible to every person who confronts evil in their life, but for all that, he never talks down to the reader, nor does he over-simplify things in a way that alienates those with some grounding in this subject.

I agree with another reviewer that the series gets off to a slow start, but after a few lectures Mathewes hits his stride and the series really takes off. This is quite simply the most pleasant and intellectually engaging audio book from audible I've ever downloaded. The material and depth of the lectures is dense enough to warrant a re-listen, especially after I acquaint myself more with the many texts and authors he references throughout the lecture series. Which was another great part of this series. Mathewes doesn't confine himself to classical philosophers and religious authorities, but branches into perspectives on evil through great works of literature in fiction, poetry, and our modern take on the subject post-holocaust and post 911. Whatever expectations I had when I purchased this audio book were met and exceeded. This lecture series is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in a genuine exploration of evil in the human condition.

Highly Recommended!

74 people found this helpful

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Slightly Misleading but Still Good

What did you love best about Why Evil Exists?

It is thoroughly researched with many approaches to the understanding of evil throughout the ages.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Why Evil Exists?

The approach to Eichmann's trial stands out. Sometimes the most horrific of evil is enacted as if it's another boring day at the office.

Which character – as performed by Professor Charles Mathewes – was your favorite?

He didn't perform characters but his speaking voice keeps you involved. Imagine what a great teacher who actually enjoys his job sounds like.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Not possible but the title needs clarification. It isn't 'Why Evil Exists' but is more 'A History of Evil.'

Any additional comments?

If you were looking for a deep analysis of evil as a force in this world, you may be disappointed. That said, this is as close as it will get through the Great Courses series. I enjoyed each lecture and feel I got my full credit's worth with this title.

24 people found this helpful

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A subject we need to study

I listen to this book as I had just listen to "The Demonologis" - Written by: Gerald Brittle. I had also listen to Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion" as well as countless books on WWII, Nazi's, government conspiracies and classic novels with villains and hero's in all guises. I wanted to know about evil. This book was an eye opener. Not because it put it in context and made me think about how us humans think and experience evil but it asked questions about evil that I never thought about. From Adam & Eve through to 911. The Holocaust, Pol Pot. Slavery, sin, lies, government sanctioned law and cultural considerations. These lectures are worth listening to. If you really want to get the benefit from these lectures, I suggest listen to one or two a week, but then do the back ground reading on the lecture to give you a more rounded and in-depth feel for the subject. You really need to engage this subject so also find a theologian, deep thinker and really get your teeth into it. These lectures are an excellent starting point. As we move into the 21 Century, I think this is a topic we need to really explore and debate. Well worth the time and money I spent on this book.

22 people found this helpful

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Worthwhile and Relevant

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I own dozens of Great Courses, many of them on history, philosophy, or religion. This one has impressed me more deeply than any other course. The topic is crucially important. The ideas are presented fairly and honestly. The conclusions are sobering, perhaps even a bit scary.

What did you like best about this story?

The subject of evil and its origin has always interested me, not in a ghoulish sense but rather as a profound theological and philosophical mystery. The professor explores this topic deeply in a way that is easy to follow. I was also impressed with how even ha deadly he treated two important thinkers (Marx and Nietsche) whom I strongly dislike.

Which character – as performed by Professor Charles Mathewes – was your favorite?

The lecture on Huck Finn and President Lincoln is the most fascinating lecture of all the hundreds of Great Courses lectures I have enyoyed. For me, that lecture alone justified my purchase of the course.

17 people found this helpful

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Hard to start but easy to finish and enjoy again.

This lecture was everything I hoped it would be. It is my opinion that Professor Charles Mathewes performance was a modest example of perfection and he did us all a favor by digging into the subject and presenting us with 19 hours of entertaining history and philosophy.

If you're into philosophy and religion courses, this one is for you.




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Challenging reflection on evil

I am a frequent listener of the great courses series and find them to be excellent much of the time. Having just finished listening to why evil exists I found this course to be one of the best I have listened to in the many years that I have been following the series. Not only does it cover a broad expanse of material, but it does an excellent job of integrating the ideas presented and wrestling with them. I highly recommend this course to anyone who is willing to wrestle with the question of evil.

12 people found this helpful

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This course made me into a cynic

No, not a religious cynic, I was that already, but a cynic as far as my ability to trust that a lecturer knows the material he teaches well enough.
I'll give a few examples of why I say that:
In chapter 2 (approximately 7 minutes in) the lecturer says that "no self-respecting rabbi would say the world was created ex nihilo" (I'm paraphrasing as I don't remember the exact words, but he did use the words "no self-respecting rabbi"). This is so incorrect. Just as a start, Maimonides I would think is a self-respecting rabbi, and that was his view, and it became the normative taught as Jewish belief. So that was a pretty strange incorrect statement.
In chapter 3 (just before or around 15 minutes) - after WWII, to say that everything was God's will would be blasphemous for Orthodox Jews - of course this is not true. In fact - and it is one of the most compelling reasons to prefer the idea that there is no God - it is a very common view and frequently expressed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, i.e., it is God's will, and in fact, a punishment.
This is why I used the title that I did. If in the material that I know well (religious Jewish literature and thinking) I see serious inaccuracies, how can I know if the other material, that I am not very familiar with, is presented any more accurately? I can't.
I know have a rather disorganized bunch of comments and thoughts about this series. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to organize a proper essay.
I was also quite disturbed by something the lecturer said in chapter 8 (approx 15 minutes) talking about gnostics and if the gnostic version of Christianity had become the orthodox Christianity, and teach that the Torah is from the devil (or something like that), then imagine what anti-semitism would have been like. And what was anti-semitism like because orthodox Christianity taught that the Jews killed Jesus, etc., etc.?! A picnic?

Another serious difficulty I had with the course is that it really blurs the meaning of "evil" - if Adam and Eve don't listen to God, I'd not call that "evil". You could say they "sinned". That is very different. It was between them and God. Evil harms other people. Calling human suffering by natural causes, such as a tsunami, evil, basically means that it is evil inflicted by God, if one believes that God is behind the behavior of nature. I agree that if God is behind nature, then He is evil, but I'm not sure it is what the professor intends. Suffering caused by natural phenomena is, too, a compelling reason to prefer to think that there is no God. In fact, this is one of the issues that I thought I'd hear more about in this course. I wanted to see if there were any ideas that I hadn't heard yet to explain how on one hand a god can be all-powerful and loving and on the other hand there be events like an earthquake or ebola with many innocent victims.
The blurring of suffering due to disease or death inflicted by God on people (like Job) and calling that evil, and also calling the behavior of humans as evil, as the modern Christian theologian (Niehbur?) did when he said that "original sin" is the one Christian doctrine that can easily be observed is problematic. There are really several different questions here - why does God inflict suffering on innocent people, or on people who don't deserve such a severe punishment, and why humans can be so evil. There is also the question of why certain people are the victims rather than others, even in the case of human-inflicted evil. I hate when I hear someone say something like "thank God I went to work late that day, 9/11 - God saved me". Why you? Why did the next guy get to work on time and lose his life? Did God do that too? When discussing Job, those types of questions are relevant, but other selections are on other questions.
I felt that all these questions were blurred together, and, even worse, some of the selections really did not address any question in the realm of "why evil exists" - especially a few of the lectures towards the end, such as the one on poetry. That seemed to deal more with how we write about evil events, but not about why there are evil events.

Regarding chapter 10 on Rabbinic Judaism: he does a fairly decent job of presenting the concept of yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (evil and good "inclinations"), and even mentions that some people say that calling it an "evil" inclination is not so accurate and that it is better to call it the drive for "badness". It is natural to humans, because of their self-interest, which also drives people to marry, etc. All this is fine. But then he conflates this concept with suffering (actually uses the words together "evil and suffering" and of course they are two totally different things), and talks about how this traditional view of yetzer hara does not work post-Holocaust, but of course it has nothing to do with trying to explain the Holocaust, because the yezter hara and yetzer hatov do not explain what befalls a person, only what a person does, which sometimes brings harm on himself. He neglects the whole side of Judaism that talks about suffering as punishment. It is quite troubling that he does not see the difference between bad behavior and suffering from an outer force. No one thought to say that Nazis behaved as they did because of the yetzer hara, and a halakhic lifestyle (which he said is intended to help Jews control their yetzer hara, and that is fine) should have helped the Nazis. The following chapter is Islam, and I don't think I can trust his presentation of it, considering what he does with Jewish sources, and that is a shame, because I would like to understand Islam better.
The lecturer's presentation of books is not always convincing. For example, Huck Finn - and of course he presents it as "the greatest American novel", which is quite diputable - is overrated and to claim that it has the message as he states in the lecture, he needs to relate to the disappointing end of the book. Or, Crime and Punishment - maybe it is too complex (profound? - see further on) a book to try to summarize the way he did, but I was not pleased with his presentation of its message.
Some of the material barely addresses the question the course is supposed to address: Why Evil Exists. For example, Chapter 30 presents von Balthasar and evil as the rejection of Jesus and God's love. So does that mean if a mass murderer, if a perpetrator of genocide then says he believes that Jesus sacrificed himself to save everyone, the murderer is "saved" from hell? This isn't addressed, and I didn't see a connection between this line of thinking and the events of the 20th century. I got the feeling - and this is true not just for this selection, but I brought it as an example - that there is only a very loose connection between some of the choices of literature discussed and the question on the table.
The lecturer overall had a decent presentation style - not monotone - and well-controlled. I lecture, so I know how difficult it is to speak with no interaction. But there was one thing that drove me nuts while listening:
The lecturer uses the word "profound" (and "profoundly") profoundly too much - it becomes banal; not everything and everyone can be profound. There were times that within one sentence I'd hear "profound" and "profoundly".
Lastly, less irritating, but still irritating: a frequent lisping "s". I couldn't decide if the lecturer often lisps or if there is a problem with the recording quality.
Overall, though the lecturer was interesting enough in his presentation to keep me listening (maybe there is a pony in there), I'm left feeling I heard some interesting ideas, got a smattering of an exposure to a serious reading list, some of which I've already read and some of which I haven't yet, but I'm left with a skepticism about the accuracy of what was imparted, and I think that more critical thought is necessary in defining the question to be answered and in examining how the questions are answered by the literary selections.

11 people found this helpful

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Interesting concepts

The title was clickbait enough for me and I admit I had preconceived ideas of what I thought this Great Course was going to reveal to me. Initially, I struggled with the material because I wanted/hoped for some striking revelations. (I recommend the mindset of a blank but single focus if you start this course.) After having to listen multiple times to the first 10 chapters, I got the pulse of the material. Which wasn’t all about religion in case one wonders. The info presented on psychology, sociology and political science were exceptionally fascinating. The lecture on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was downright shrewd.

The info is not as serious as I first imagined but still stimulating and interesting. As always, I learned far more than I expected and definitely caused me to want to reexamine what I believe in externally and internally.

10 people found this helpful

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The title is, perhaps, broader than the content.

I found this series very engaging, and while I often found myself somewhat skeptical of the analysis and conclusions it really challenged me to examine and juxtapose my ideas against the Professor's. I think that makes it a very good listen. I gave it a four star rating overall only because I had hoped for a broader, more cross-cultural examination of the idea of evil, and I think the lectures may not have defined evil, or examined our culture's definition/conceptions of exactly what evil is deeply enough. To his credit, at the end of the series he does acknowledge the limitations of the lectures.

The focus is somewhat more from a Christian/European perspective than the publisher's summary makes clear. There's no examination of evil from any current eastern culture's viewpoint, and most of the historical analysis is Jewish/Christian/Islam based. So, it's really an analysis of evil from a monotheistic, supernatural viewpoint. He does do a decent job in addressing the ideas of some of the modern secular philosophers. (As an aside: as a non Christian, I find the tortured logic required to justify why a loving, omnipotent God of Abraham needed to create evil and allow or trick his most favored creations to indulge it a little ludicrous).

Being exposed to this analysis resulted in my being much more suspect of monotheism's value to mankind. I wonder if, in a monotheistic, system, the simplistic dichotomy between good and evil, God and Satan, supports authoritarianism and fanaticism, encouraging over-simplifying complex issues into a black/white, right/wrong, good/evil juxtaposition. After some small study of Greek and Roman history, (especially the Stoics), and developing a working knowledge of Buddhism and a smattering of Confucianism, I find myself pondering if other forms of thought lend themselves to a more reasonable attitude of understanding, compromise, and the emphasis that a moral individual must be responsibility for questioning, choosing and practicing their own philosophical and/or religious beliefs.

The delivery of the lectures is quite good. Professor Mathews regularly makes some verbal slips. I'm not particularly into Freud, but if you were, some of them could be quite interesting to examine, but overall he is enthusiastic and clear.

I think this lecture series was a good investment for me.

10 people found this helpful

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  • LIUFA
  • 08-07-15

Not what I expected from Great Courses

What disappointed you about Why Evil Exists?

ATM I have library of 25+ Great Courses books, and expectation is to get scientific material, which in this case I did not. Book should be titled 'Interpretation of Historic Writings'. Every lecture is just taking some text and going through it, which does not answer the question why evil exists. Example would be whole lecture on how 'Dostoevsky in his 'Crime and Punishment' shows evil of nihilism in some way'. Then there's lecture for Niche, Marx and 36 of other writers, philosophers and activists.



What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Disappointment.

7 people found this helpful

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  • Sergio
  • 07-20-15

Not Impressed: Disjointed

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

I would not recommend these set of lectures to a friend. The very first lecture we get a very good introduction as to what we will be dealing with in these set of lectures. The author fails to associate concrete examples of evil things with humans. However he does give a good summary as to what other authors say about humans and evil doings.

Would you be willing to try another book from The Great Courses? Why or why not?

I did listen to other courses from The Great Courses and I would recommend them.

What three words best describe Professor Charles Mathewes’s voice?

Charming - Passionate - Monotone

Could you see Why Evil Exists being made into a movie or a TV series? Who would the stars be?

It could be a documentary of sorts.
As actors I would imagine... Harrison Ford, Keanu Reeves and Gillian Anderson

Any additional comments?

If you get to buy this book you will need to supplement it with further readings as there are a lot of gaps. A lot of more information could have been given in the space that was provided.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Giddy Gilbert
  • 01-01-21

EXCELLENT AUDIOBOOK

This complex subject is dissected and analysed with depth and clarity. I'm particularly impressed with the non-religious source material as they tend to use Myth as fact which i find irritating and nonsensical. Here, I'm particularly referring to the one god variety! There is no easy solution to defining the subject if indeed there is such a thing but the correct questions are postulated by powerful writers, philosophers and lastly religious ramblings of stupidity.
Why Evil Exists becomes a personal journey of reflection, meditations and prayer to the Gods to bring cohesion to many conflicts and understanding. The book is a thorough albeit an Western Introduction. The Gods of Eastern Teachings, philosophies and science would complete this study but its an essential start to knowledge.

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  • Sheila
  • 10-02-20

Brilliant

Wow the range and depth of knowledge and the personal thought and interpretation behind these 36 lectures is hugely impressive. The clarity of Charles Mathewes presentation of material from often dense and complicated original sources is brilliant- and to my mind pretty even handed. Please listen to what this learned man has to tell us about the to date intractable puzzle of evil in the western world. Engage with him - and those around you - in considering some of the most fundamental questions of our time. To the lecturer: ‘Thank you’ .

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  • David
  • 07-24-22

Excellent

This lecture especially the last one gives an unbiased conclusion of a most intractable subject of this horrendous human problem that evil does exist but it is not beyond our ability to fight it.

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  • Ben A
  • 05-26-22

It's ok, not great, not bad

Quite a few points that come across as wrong. For example, the assumption that attacks on civilians is something new. It isn't, attacks against civilians is as old as warfare.

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  • n
  • 05-07-22

awesomeness

immense research, thought, patience, understanding, and passion in these series of lectures. awesome speaker. everyone would benefit from hearing these.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 04-11-22

Utterly Brilliant

Prof Matthewes' series is both erudite and accessible. He follows themes and connects dots across the millennia to show us how little humans have changed. We are still in the eternal struggle between reason and desire, power and love, and peace and justice. He doesn't give any facile answers, he just lays out the groundwork for us to consider the matter a fair bit deeper. Thanks Prof.

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  • mtg101
  • 08-09-20

keep on keeping on

i nearly gave up 30mins in. some Christian trope. but it gets better., dostroyevstkyb and all

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  • Nia David
  • 05-14-20

brilliant!

really easy to follow and listen to and very informative. definitely would recommend as a starting point to find further reading on ethics.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-13-18

alright, but not great.

There were some interesting historical parts earlier (skip the first lecture, it's boilerplate 'welcome' stuff), but I never really got much of an insight to concepts of evil. From about halfway it just shifts into a pretty Christian assumption of what evil is (and sin). it's not proselytising, more that it's just assumed that the Christian view of evil is the natural default.

I kept waiting for the point where he'd really dive into differences between cultures or even between individuals' viewpoints. Or even that evil might be multipolar rather than just a binary. There was some interesting stuff involving the trial of Eichmann that I'd recommend.

Unfortunately, the author betrays a poor understanding of science (and dated knowledge of psychology). Science's purpose is not to make the world better for people; it can't fail at "it's own goal" as the author suggests. Likewise, the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments were not caveated at all, and nothing was really made of more recent commentary and studies on those. it made me question the validity of the rest of the author's inferences. I finished off the whole series, but only really half-listened after this point.

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  • myra colecliffe
  • 10-06-21

Great interdisciplinary discussion

A very interesting and insightful series by someone who is incredibly widely read and knowledgeable. I wish there were more lectures by him!