Defending the Enlightenment

Defending the Enlightenment

Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists
by Susan Neiman
Harcourt, 2008, 480 pp., $27.00

Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal
by Rob Riemen
Yale University Press, 2008, 116 pp., $22

In 2001 Susan Neiman published Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. One of her goals was to nudge philosophy away from the seminar rooms and scholarly journals, where it revels in arcane themes, and back into the public sphere, its proper dwelling ground. Philosophy was born in the marketplace of Athens, where Socrates and his adversaries would debate topics such as the nature of courage, justice, virtue, and truth. Neiman, who directs the Einstein Forum in Berlin, is a former student of the illustrious Harvard political philosopher John Rawls. She describes how she once urged her mentor to address pressing contemporary issues such as the Holocaust. Rawls demurred, sheepishly admitting that he lacked the requisite professional expertise—a response that left his protégée profoundly disappointed.

Today philosophy has succumbed to mind-numbing specialization. The connection to everyday life has been all but severed. By tracing philosophical discussions of evil from the Lisbon earthquake to the Holocaust, in Evil in Modern Thought Neiman sought to counter this trend: to render philosophy worldly again by demonstrating its capacity to treat vital and topical themes. The results were widely and deservedly acclaimed. But her efforts also benefited, in ways that could not have been foreseen, from the Zeitgeist. For as the book went to print, two hijacked airliners smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon, resulting in the deaths of nearly three thousand innocents. Evil, as personified by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, had once again become eerily topical.

Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists is a sequel to Evil in Modern Thought. It, too, is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. However, here Neiman’s point of departure is no longer evil but moral perplexity—specifically, the moral disorientation of the contemporary left. As Neiman sees it, the problem is that the terrain vacated by the left’s aversion toward moralizing and morality in general has been filled by the political right. By voting Republican, large swaths of white, middle-class Americans have sacrificed their economic self-interest in favor of a party with whose values they could identify—or so they thought. Until quite recently, the right has been maddeningly successful at providing a coherent moral narrative, much of which consists of blaming the left for the nation’s post-1960s problems and failings: social permissiveness, loss of authority, cultural anarchy, the decline of the family, and so forth.

In Neiman’s view the left has succumbed t...

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