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Facing Evil, Sustaining Hope

A Story of How One Book Came to Be Written

By Predrag Cicovacki

Predrag CicovackiAbout 10 years ago I had a curious conversation with one of my friends. "We look at the world very similarly," he said, as soon as we started our regular walk—"yet our attitudes toward it couldn't be more different." After my puzzled look as the only reaction, he continued with an obviously prepared introduction.

"We agree that the 20th century may have easily been the worst that humankind has ever experienced," he said. "This leads me to pessimism, sometimes despair, while you always seem to maintain your optimistic attitude."

I was not sure what to say. We had often discussed a variety of related topics, from World War II and the Holocaust to the tragedies of Chernobyl and Rwanda. We are usually equally vocal, but that particular evening I was not eager to speak. It was a long day and all I needed was some fresh air and a much lighter exchange. Since my friend kept looking at me and expecting my answer, after a prolonged silence, I decided to share some of my anguish with him.

I told him how, a few minutes before going to teach my Kant seminar earlier that day, I had foolishly decided to check quickly on the Internet the news from the Balkans. In the middle of that day a bomb had exploded on the public market in Sarajevo, killing dozens and injuring many more. The scene described was of unspeakable terror—yet another tragedy in the sequence that was continuing almost daily for more than four years.

My friend knew that I had been born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, which was going through a bloody process of disintegration during the '90s. He knew that the Balkan wound was weighing heavily on my soul. He now followed my words with a puzzled look and silence, waiting for more.

"I did not want to teach that class," I continued. "I wanted to cry and scream. I just could not understand why this war was going on—why it was necessary in the first place. Why is it that former neighbors, most of whom thought of themselves as Yugoslavs just a few years ago, were now determined to prove with guns and bombs that they are Serbs, or Croats or Bosnians? Even my own parents, who raised me in the spirit of Yugoslavia, were now full of animosity toward anything that was not Serbian. Even they—peaceful and educated people who used to be so open-minded—locked themselves in a vicious circle of fear and intolerance, preoccupied with how the historical injustices of the previous decades and centuries must finally be corrected.

"But where does this ‘pursuit of justice' lead?" I asked. "How many more have to die before ‘justice is satisfied'? And would it ever be, by adding more dead and maimed bodies to an already disgustingly large pile?"

My friend wanted to hear more about what had happened earlier that day, about why I brought up the class I needed to teach.

"I really did not want to teach that class," I reiterated. "I just could not do it. My eyes were full of tears; my mind far away from Kant. My wound bleeding."

I dragged myself somehow to the classroom.

To buy a little time, without even greeting my students and taking my usual seat in order to check the attendance, I just dropped my books on the table and went straight up to the board. With my back turned to the students so that they could not see my face, I started writing on the board and speaking about Kant in a barely recognizable voice. After about five minutes, I finally turned to the class and went to my seat.

"Professor, are you OK?" asked one of the students.

"Yes, I am fine."

Somehow I managed to finish my class.

I was hoping that this story would close the subject matter, but my friend did not think so.

"That's exactly what I am wondering about," he said. "In the face of such a horrific reality in which we live, in the face of the world overwhelmed with evil, I try to find a philosophical grounding for any optimism that we may preserve and that would not be a sheer self-delusion. You, however, seem to be optimistic by nature, innately, and it does not seem to bother you whether any optimism is rationally justifiable and, indeed, appropriate in this world."

I tried to reassure my friend that things are not that simple, but long after our walk was over, I knew that he was at least partially right. Even though the Balkan wars were eroding my optimism, even though I had to think of evil more than ever, I was not facing the problem of evil—or our corresponding right to maintain a viable and non-deluding hope, in any deep or sustained way. My own life was fairly good, secure and successful, an ocean away from the dark clouds hanging over my native land and over not so rosy prospects of humanity at large. Although it was becoming more difficult to teach Kant when my mind and heart were elsewhere, I did not think sufficiently about integrating what I was most concerned with in my private life with what I write about or teach.

That conversation with my friend triggered something in me: the time had come for a different kind of education, for a different kind of soul searching.

I grew up in an entirely secular atmosphere—my parents were not believers, and Yugoslavia was a country with a loose communist ideology. In a village where I lived until the age of 11 there was no church, and I never knew anyone who attended religious services. When we moved to a city, I visited the local churches—Orthodox and Catholic—out of curiosity, and sometimes, also, because they would organize a free dance on a Saturday night. Before the age of 17, I had never had a copy of the Bible in my hands, and then I discovered a dusty one in my grandmother's attic. I borrowed and read it, for I believed every educated person should know at least a little bit about religion. During my years of undergraduate studies at the University of Belgrade—and even later during graduate studies at the University of Rochester—religion did not seem to matter—not only to me, but also to my peers and professors.

And then, in 1991, I found myself as a teacher at the College of the Holy Cross.

Both of my parents were teachers, and from them I learned to think of teaching in terms of giving and taking—the only way to be a good teacher is by being a perpetual student. There was a lot for me to learn at Holy Cross. At first, it was curiosity again—about a radically different orientation toward the central questions of life and death—for the whole campus was permeated with the atmosphere of spirituality that I had never experienced before. Then, gradually, the inability to cope with the horrendous realities of my native country led me to start looking for consolation and answers in a new direction—not toward the optimistic philosophy of moral progress of the Enlightenment and Kant's categorical imperative, in which I was steeped, but toward spirituality. My turn toward spirituality was slow and painful. It still remains a work in progress, but it was a redirection which could not be reversed any more.

The visible changes in my professional orientation soon followed. Instead of teaching "Theory of Knowledge" and "Early Modern Philosophy," which I was hired to do, I started teaching "Philosophers on War and Peace" and "Foundations of Ethics." A few years earlier, I'd barely known anything about the Book of Job, and now I was teaching the Honors Program seminar dedicated entirely to this biblical masterpiece. In the same period, Holy Cross history Professor David O'Brien led me first to co-teach "Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies" with him, and then to take over from him not only the teaching of this course on a regular basis, but also the directorship of the peace and conflict studies concentration (between 2000 and 2003).

O'Brien became director of the newly opened Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and, with his encouragement and support, I organized the symposium, "The Anatomy of Evil," held at Holy Cross on April 11-13, 2002. The symposium had its comical and not so comical moments. With his lecture, "Lamentations and Losses: From New York to Kabul," Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., opened the symposium in front of the audience that crowded St. Joseph Chapel. But, for some reason, he was speaking in two microphones that were interfering with each other—making it difficult for anyone beyond the first several rows to understand him. One of the main speakers, the world famous philosopher Slavoj Žižek, never arrived in Worcester, without even informing me that he would not be coming. Another distinguished guest, Rabbi Michael Lerner, called in the middle of the night before he was supposed to speak to tell me that he was just released from jail in Washington, D.C., for protesting against the government. He could not make it on time, but when he finally arrived, he was truly inspiring. His flamboyant personality and booming voice dominated the rest of the symposium.

Then there were brilliant presentations by Susan Neiman ("Roads to Hell"); Gil Bailie ("Two Thousand Years and No New God"); and Michael True ("Evil as Mystery: Primal Speech and Contemporary Poetry"). We also heard three profound papers on Thomas Merton: "We Are Prodigals in a Distant Land," by John Collins; "Recovering Paradise: Thomas Merton on the Self and the Problem of Evil," by Thomas Del Prete; and "Exposing the Deceitful Heart: A Monk's Public ‘Inner Work,'" by Jonathan Montaldo—and inspiring lectures: by the eminent Yale Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff on Saint Augustine and the Stoics ("Identifying Good and Evil"); by the famous anti-communist dissident Svetozar Stojanović ("From Relative to Absolute Evil"); and by the renown Kant scholar Sharon Anderson-Gold ("Uprooting Evil and the Building of Ethical Communities"). The working part of the symposium closed with an extraordinary two-hour round table in which the audience that had packed the Rehm Library for two full days participated with a great deal of enthusiasm and passion. The symposium officially closed with a performance of Shakespeare's Tempest, masterfully directed by Holy Cross associate professor of theatre, Edward Isser.

The symposium turned out to be such a success because the participants treated the questions concerning the nature of evil not as abstract ideas that bewilder our intellects but as the questions that cut through the fiber of our fallible humanity. The materials presented did not offer proven recipes for how to eliminate evil but displayed a compelling testimony of human struggle with an aspect of our lives we cannot afford to ignore.

After the symposium was over, I had to decide what to do with the presented papers. Since publishers are not eager to print conference proceedings, I decided to add essays by Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Emil Fackenheim and Jeffrey Burton Russell; selections from the books of Carl Gustav Jung, Philip Paul Hallie, Tzvetan Todorov, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; and a story by Leo Tolstoy. Thereby, a book emerged which displays a full spectrum of opinions representative of the 20th century, a book which approaches the problem of evil as dealing with the fate of humanity—thus, the book's title: Destined for Evil? The Twentieth-Century Responses.

In the long process of preparing this book, it became clearer to me not only how to understand the problem of evil but also how to address the concerns of my friend, which had prompted my spiritual journey. Despite the undeniable growth of evil in the 20th century, I became convinced that the nature of evil itself has not changed. The growth of evil was explainable by the growing technological and production-oriented mentality that invaded every aspect of the human world; this new mentality led to an alarming increase in the fragmentation of individuals and societies, as well as to the depersonalization of our relations with other human beings. In puzzling over the question of whether we are destined for evil, I came to realize that the question itself is also not new. Doesn't it take us all the way back to the question asked by Cain: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

If our contemporary question is so old and familiar, so must be our answer to it. To Cain's rhetorical question, we need to give a non-rhetorical and committed affirmative answer: Indeed, we are all supposed to be our brothers' keepers. Even more importantly, our hope and our answer to the question of whether we are destined for evil depend on our ability to live up to this affirmative answer. They depend on our ability to awake out of the seduction of the God of war and vengeance, of rage and violence—and turn toward the God of love and care, compassion and altruism. Easier said than done, for caring for our brothers means humbling our own narcissistic egos, restricting our own boundless desire to possess and dominate. Easier said than done, for let us not forget the biggest challenge that the God of love presents to us: When the choice is between being wronged or doing wrong, between being killed or killing others, could we consciously and willingly choose to find ourselves at the receiving end?

These were my final thoughts expressed in Destined for Evil? After sending this manuscript to the publisher and while teaching Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in my class, "Philosophy and Literature," I noticed a new aspect of the problem of evil. Dostoevsky helped me realize that there are two great dangers of humanity: having hopes and ideals that are not congruent with reality, and having no hopes and ideals at all. The former warns us never to close our eyes to what the real world is really like; the second, never to abandon a healthy hope. How, then, can a healthy optimism co-exist with our harsh reality, which seems permeated by various forms and manifestations of evil? On our recent walks, my friend and I discussed the challenges posed by "The Grand Inquisitor," and I am now working on a new book project: Dostoevsky: The Affirmation of Life in the Face of Evil.

And so my journey continues—life experiences and conversations lead to challenges—challenges to responses and new books. In the meantime, Destined for Evil? was recently published—three years after the symposium on evil, I am holding this new book, my seventh child. The book is mine, yet I know that it is not mine anymore, for it must now assume a life of its own. After all, books are written to lead back to life, back to the readers with their problems and challenges that our lives so tirelessly pose to us. What I don't know, what only you can tell me, is whether this book will speak to you, whether it may prompt you to begin your spiritual quest.

Predrag Cicovacki is an associate professor in the College's philosophy department. Destined for Evil? is available through the Holy Cross Bookstore.

 

 

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