Where Did All the Evils Go?

Writer’s Page

Michael Allen Gillespie

From a fading photo on the title page of Ron Rosenbaum’s recent book, Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil, [1] a small child peers out at us. Who is this child? A victim of the Holocaust? An image of all that was lost? Or perhaps a shattered survivor who lived on haunted by the ghosts of those who died? No, it is something worse, a photo of baby Adolf, as innocent as any child who has “not yet bitten of the apple.” There is no hair combed carefully into place, no steely glint in his eye, no narrow mustache above an unsmiling lip, no arm extended in salute, and no indication of future deeds so horrible as to beggar the imagination. Just a small child, filled with all the promise that youth has to offer. The question at the heart of the book is captured in this photo. It is a question posed not merely by the victims of the Holocaust or the millions killed in Hitler’s war, but by our very humanity. Is there a humanly comprehensible path from that small child to the gray and brooding figure searing his course across our history? And if there is, how can we ever use the word “humane” again? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and not wonder if that unspeakable something that was in him is not also in us?

Rosenbaum’s personal search takes him not only to piles of crumbling newspapers and letters, to distant towns and lost places in all corners of Europe, Israel and North America, but also into the pages and the living rooms of nearly all the world’s most famous Hitler scholars. What he discovers there is quite disturbing. Although they are all ardent foes of Hitler and everything he stood for, they fundamentally disagree about his moral character. For some, such as Emile Fackenheim, Hitler is evil incarnate, utterly inhuman, the epitome of absolute evil. In stark contrast, others such as H.R. Trevor-Roper (author of The Last Days of Hitler), argue not only that he was not evil but that he was in fact an idealist, horribly misguided, to be sure, but an idealist nonetheless, who sought to do good. There was not evil will at work in Hitler, they maintain, only (terribly) faulty reasoning. There are some, such as Robert Waite, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, but this proves difficult, for while they describe a path from here to there, they are almost all forced to admit that at some point that path is profoundly ruptured, that it passes through an unfathomable abyss, an anomaly of such magnitude that it is difficult to say how the human being who entered it is related to the inhuman being who comes out the other side.

If we accept Rosenbaum’s account, we seem compelled to choose between one of two impossible alternatives: either Hitler was not evil or Hitler was not human. This dilemma is particularly troubling because for many years Hitler has been the only absolute in our relativistic moral universe, the one point on our moral map that always flashed “Forbidden! Do not enter here!” And our certainty of his evil has been just about the only thing that has given us the resolve to defend the cause of humanity. Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the like evoke not merely disapprobation but action because, at some level, we see in them the reappearance of that malignant spirit we imagine to have possessed Hitler. If we doubt that Hitler was evil, how can we sustain any notion of evil or find any ground for moral judgment or action? And if we are left with only silence in the face of this question, how can we not conclude that we are lost on an infinite moral sea, beyond good and evil?

Nietzsche believed that such a fate was inevitable, for the death of God and the collapse of everything built upon that God were already well underway, even if most Europeans had not yet recognized that fact. [2] He was equally convinced that the consequence of this “greatest event” would be the collapse of European morality, centuries of brutal war, and the advent of a world in which everything is permitted. Was he right? Is this the source of the difficulty we face when we consider the question of evil? Are we at heart already entertaining that “uncanniest of all guests,” nihilism? While it is tempting to leap to such a conclusion, it might behoove us to ask a preliminary question, not whether the absence of a point of absolute evil on our moral map is the result of a creeping atheism and nihilism, but how it came about that all the lesser points of evil were effaced. Might our difficulty in coming to terms with the possibility of “radical” or “ultimate” evil not be connected to our difficulty in believing in evil in all of its lesser forms?

The existence and variety of evil was certainly not a question for the High Middle Ages. Aquinas and Dante, for example, knew what evil was, described its forms and degrees, and laid out the appropriate punishments and remediations. Judas, the medieval moral equivalent of Hitler, was in this way clearly connected to the baby who, according to Augustine, concupiscently sucked at its mother’s breast. For these thinkers, there is no problem with how we get from the child to the monster. Medieval Christianity had a moral map that was complex, rooted in reason and revelation, reflected in civil and canon law, and embedded in creation. Yet by the middle of the seventeenth century, the points on this map had largely been erased. Indeed, Descartes and Hobbes, the two great pillars of modern thought, proclaimed that good is what pleases me and evil what causes me pain or opposes my will. Where, then, did all the evils go?

This is the question I address in this essay. I believe that the answer helps to explain the mysterious ambiguity of evil in modern times. In what follows, I argue that the answer to this question lies in the theological and philosophical transformations that mark the passage from the late medieval to the early modern world. Descartes and Hobbes are not the source of this change. They articulate a radically subjective, quasi-utilitarian view of morality. However, they do so not because they clearly prefer it but because the alternative they see in front of them is much worse. They turn away from a notion of evil so vast and a notion of good so compelling that it had become easy on moral grounds to justify not merely casuistic equivocation but the slaughter of whole populations. To understand how morality came to this pass and why our moral map has become so useless to us, we thus need to examine not Nietzsche, or even Descartes and Hobbes, but the tremendous theological and moral transformation of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. In doing so, I believe we can see that our inability to sustain a notion of evil arises not from the death of God but from the proclamation of his omnipotence, thus not from atheism but from a particular kind of theism.

Michael Allen Gillespie

Michael Gillespie is Acting Chair of Political Science 2006-07; Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Director, Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies at Duke.

This selection is excerpted from his essay, “Where Did All the Evils Go?,” which appears in Naming Evil/Judging Evil, edited by Ruth W. Grant and published by the University of Chicago Press, ©2006.


1. Ron Rosenbaum, Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 343.