Lars Svendsen - We’re all victims of evil, and all guilty of committing evil acts. It’s normal to be evil, we just don't know how to talk about it

Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, Trans. by Kerri Pierce (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010)

"Despite the overuse of the word in movies, political speeches, and news reports, “evil” is generally seen as either flagrant rhetoric or else an outdated concept: a medieval holdover with no bearing on our complex everyday reality. In A Philosophy of Evil, however, acclaimed writer/philosopher Lars Svendsen argues that evil remains a concrete moral problem: that we’re all its victims, and all guilty of committing evil acts.“It’s normal to be evil,” he writes—the problem is, we’ve lost the vocabulary to talk about it.Taking up this problem—how do we speak about evil?—A Philosophy of Evil treats evil as an ordinary aspect of contemporary life, with implications that are moral, practical, and above all, political. Because, as Svendsen says, “Evil should neither be justified nor explained away—evil must be fought.”

"Mankind’s biggest problem is not so much that there is a excess of aggression, but that there is a shortage of reflection.
"What is evil? Who is evil? How do we fight evil? How is evil characterised in a modern and post-modern society? A Philosophy of Evil is a philosophical inquiry into evil as a phenomenon, consisting of two parts. The first part is about the philosophical history of evil, where Svendsen presents the thoughts of philosophers from Antiquity up to today, grappling with the question: What is the essence of evil? The second part is concerned with the phenomenology of evil. Drawing on a variety of sources including literature, paintings, academic studies, film and music, Svendsen attempts to reveal myths about evil, for instance the one saying that there is a connection between low self-esteem and evil acts."

"Svendsen is painfully aware of the world's atrocities, but he doesn't think the main problem is "demonic" evil, by which he means deliberate intent to oppose someone's "living a life both meaningful and worth striving for." His argument about human actions that impinge on meaningful and worthwhile life is much involved with Hannah Arendt's concept of stupid evil, but he ultimately agrees with the long Christian tradition that evil is a privation, a lack of something—mostly rationality and the universality that a common rationality fosters. Svendsen adequately illustrates the role played by irrationality in the evils that make today's news, but he does not carry his thesis through to what looks like its logical conclusion: the world is divided between those who think evil can be stamped out with guns and jails and those who take the privation doctrine seriously and think evil can be dealt with only by finding out what is missing and repairing it. VERDICT An intelligent, well-written book that makes a good start at addressing the problem of crime via a philosophy of evil." —Leslie Armour

"The discussion of where evil comes from is thoughtful and usually convincing... The train of thought is clear and easy to understand, especially for philosophy, and the language is smooth and readable, especially for a translation... A Philosophy of Evil is a valuable contribution, and it serves as a needed reminder and call-to-action for the 21st century." - Philadelphia City Paper

"Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan gently opens his solo debut, Seeing Things, with a reality-check: “It’s hard to admit, but it’s easy to tell, that evil is alive and well.”
Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen agrees in his 2001 book A Philosophy of Evil, urging people, especially Westerners, to wake up to this fact and do something about it through personal, social and political means.
Evil is a possibility found in all of us, because we are all free, moral beings,” writes Svendsen in Kerri A. Pierce’s newly translated English edition. He argues that while “evil” is generally pictured in demons and Nazis, we must understand that most forms are much more tangible than that, eventually pointing toward the fact that “evil” is not an abstract principle that disappeared with religious mythology, but a real moral problem in all human beings and societies. “Evil people are not just ‘others,’ but also ourselves.”
This work of philosophy begins by tearing down popular religious conceptions of why evil exists. Svendsen argues that explaining evil only serves to defend it, whereas things like genocide and rape must not be rationalized and therefore tolerated — they must be fought. Using the Holocaust as his primary example, but exploring many other real-life historical events, as well, he shows how normal people are capable of extreme evil, suggesting that there is no single source for evil but rather a more complex range of causes. Some do evil to achieve a goal, such as using slave labor to make a profit. Others do evil because they mistakenly believe it is good, exemplified in the Crusades or any other ideological war. The majority of us, however, do evil simply for lack of forethought. Here he says that much evil is the result of stupid and careless actions, while instrumental and ideological evil are allowed to exist because no one thinks to do anything about it — which is itself an evil.
On that last point, Svendsen continually drives home the point that when we see evil, we must call it what it is, and that we have a responsibility to work for a better world, while carefully guarding ourselves against creating more evil in the process. Of course, this is easier said than done, but he makes a compelling argument for battling injustice and defending human rights, on both the local and international level.
The discussion of where evil comes from is thoughtful and usually convincing (though not always). The train of thought is clear and easy to understand, especially for philosophy, and the language is smooth and readable, especially for a translation. While it is not an end-all study of the subject, A Philosophy of Evil is a valuable contribution, and it serves as a needed reminder and call-to-action for the 21st century." - Eric Pettersson
Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, Trans. by John Irons (Reaktion Books, 2005)

"It might sound odd, but to a philosopher boredom is not boring at all. Indeed, to the reflective reader the subject of boredom reveals itself as being surprisingly fascinating. Perhaps one might advance the hypothesis that embarking on the adventure of gaining understanding constitutes the most effective antidote the victim of boredom has at her disposal. The effect of such a remedy is further enhanced, one might suggest, when it is in some significant aspect of human existence that new insight is acquired, even when the aspect in question is none other than boredom. In any event, reading Lars Svendsen's A Philosophy of Boredom, one becomes captivated by the phenomenon itself and enriched with historico-cultural knowledge of both past and contemporary views of it.
The book is divided into four parts. Part One is entitled 'The Problem of Boredom'. It sets out the problem in broad philosophical terms by offering the main conceptual co-ordinates in relation to which the phenomenon in question is in the author's view best understood, i.e., 'Boredom and Modernity', 'Boredom and Meaning', 'Boredom, Work and Leisure', 'Boredom and Death', 'Typologies of Boredom', 'Boredom and Novelty'. The author explains the difficulties in pinpointing such an intrinsically hazy concept. This is borne out by some conceptual connections Svendsen sketches between some manifestations of boredom and those of insomnia, melancholia and depression. These, however, remain rather fuzzy. Also, the results of a 'small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances' are telling in this regard: the survey reveals that the interviewees 'were on the whole unable to say whether they were bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative - and one person even claimed that he had never been bored.' The connotative fluidity of the concept and the 'nameless, shapeless, object-less' nature of boredom lead the author to the adoption of a few methodological decisions. Namely: rather than a systematic argument in a 'strictly analytical dissertation', he presents a series of sketches in a 'long essay'; also, given the diversity of the phenomenon under discussion, he resorts to an interdisciplinary approach. Lastly, the author discards the methodological route of taking a predetermined, a-temporal view of human nature as point of departure for his inquiry: no such absolute theoretical point is readily or uncontroversially available, and good theoretical and moral reasons have been produced in our philosophico-cultural tradition has to why a concept of human nature valid for all times and places would be misguided. Svendsen aptly refers to Nietzsche on this point, who noted that the ' "hereditary fault of all philosophers" is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth.' Rather, he opts for a combined approach of phenomenological tradition and history of ideas as guiding thread towards an understanding of the phenomenon at hand.
Part Two can be considered as a short treatise in the History of Ideas. Svendsen strikes the reader with his familiarity with an enormous wealth of interdisciplinary source material belonging to the Western tradition spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary times, i.e., historical, literary-cultural, and philosophical. However, he proceeds lightly in a somewhat ironical, half-detached tone guiding the reader along a narrative peppered with delightful quotations and references from poetry, novels, theatre, cinema, art, etc.
For instance, he traces the history of the concept 'boredom' back to the original concept 'acedia', which is mainly to be found in Christian writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Svendsen points out the main differences between 'acedia' and its modern counterpart 'boredom'. In particular, the former is a morally charged concept which denotes a mood to be mainly found among a restricted elite, while the latter describes a psychological state afflicting people en masse. More importantly, the moral condemnation of the phenomenon of acedia as a grave sin is due not only to the fact that it was considered as the breeding ground of other sins, but that it contained a rejection of God and of divine Creation. Svendsen appropriately quotes Dante's verses from the Commedia where the poet expresses his abhorrence for such a sin by reserving a disgusting punishment for the 'acidiosi' in Hell: they are placed in the mire which mirrors the bad humour they brought within themselves, when they should have rejoiced at the glorious sun:
Fix'd in the slime they say: 'Sad once were we
In the sweet air made gladsome by the sun,
Carrying a foul and lazy mist within:
Now in these murky settlings are we sad.
- (Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy)
Notwithstanding the long-standing ancestry, the concept of boredom as such is typical of what Svendsen refers to as 'Modernity'. According to the author, the coming into prominence of 'boredom', better still of a discourse on boredom, is tied to a conjuncture of phenomena of a socio-historical nature. These latter mark the cultural and artistic movement of Romanticism giving rise to the modern Zeitgeist. 'Boredom becomes widespread' - Svendsen explains - 'when traditional structures of meaning disappear. In modernity the subject is released from tradition and has to seek new meanings for itself. The modern subject does so via transgressions of various kinds, but is left more bereft after each new transgression.' The crucial elements to take into account in understanding the phenomenon of boredom, which are intrinsically constitutive of it, are the essentially human capacity and need for meaningful content in one's life and its frustration. If human beings were not 'creatures of existential meaning', they could never be bored nor conceive of boredom. By 'existential meaning' it is meant, roughly, the spiritual need for one's life to have a content which is capable of giving it a point, a goal or value. 'Boredom and lack of meaning' - Svendsen maintains - 'finally almost coincide, with the modern subject believing that this meaning can be acquired by transgressing the self, by making all other accessible meaning one's own. Personal meaning, understood as a unique meaning for me, as something that alone can give my life meaning, turns out to be unrealizable'.
A lengthy third part is dedicated to Heidegger's phenomenological investigation of boredom. Here Svendsen offers an accessible account of key-notions of Heideggerian existential phenomenology. The author's detailed discussion of Heidegger's notion of 'profound boredom' and of its existential significance recommends itself for its remarkable quality of combining clarity of exposition and depth of content.
As a foretaste of the discussion Svendsen offers of Heidegger's position, I begin by noting that the phenomenon of boredom is all but uniform in the manner it pervades the relationship between the human being and her surrounding world. One can, for instance, feel bored at something in particular, e.g., a lecture, a job, etc. This is called by Svendsen, following Martin Doehlemann, 'situative boredom'. Philosophically more interesting is the phenomenon of 'existential boredom'. In its extreme form, this overlaps with Heidegger's 'profound boredom'. When the latter kind of boredom strikes, 'I am bored by boredom itself - I am completely attuned by boredom'. The existential significance Heidegger confers on profound boredom consists in the invitation to focus our attention on, rather than attempting to escape from, this all-pervasive mood, since doing so bears the possibility of a radical change in one's way of living, i.e., from inauthenticity to authenticity, that is, to a way of living which is true to the 'being' of human reality.
Part Four offers a discussion of the ethical implications of the phenomenon of boredom. By this the author does not wish to suggest that the phenomenon of boredom might be used to ground a moral theory. Rather, he reads the phenomenon as a sort of what might be called 'existential indicator'. Interpreted along these lines, boredom, although not itself morally blameworthy, points to the lack of, and hence the requirement for, a life choice purporting moral implications.
A Postscript summarizes the major points tackled in the book and the author's concluding remarks. The latter concern themselves with the theme of Part Four, namely, with the ethically significant stance that would be appropriate to adopt in relation to the phenomenon of boredom.
Notwithstanding the excellent qualities pointed out above, the book might leave one with a few reservations.
Firstly, while fully taking on board the author's claims regarding the nature of boredom as a 'vague, diverse phenomenon', still one might find that the author's treatment of it mirrors the nature of the phenomenon itself a bit too closely. In particular, one cannot help feeling somehow lost in the midst of numerous quotations and literary sources. As said above, they are delightful and intellectually enriching; however, they are not always philosophically illuminating as to the position the author wishes to defend: since not all of the various views of boredom presented in the book are mutually self-consistent, it is not clear which one among them, or even instead of them, the author wishes to support. There are cases where Svendsen refers sympathetically to a view while he nonetheless voices his disagreement with that same view in other places of the book. The most obvious instance in this regard is the following. Svendsen dedicates an entire part of the book, Part Three, to Heidegger's analytic of boredom; in addition, he introduces Heidegger's treatment of the subject in terms which, being highly favourable, might suggest his agreement with the German philosopher's position: 'By far the most elaborate phenomenological analysis of boredom is to be found in the series of lectures given by Heidegger in 1929-30... I regard these lectures as one of Heidegger's most impressive philosophical achievements. My aim in presenting his analysis of boredom is ... to use it to gain a better understanding of how boredom expresses itself and influences experience as a whole.' However, towards the end of the portion of the book dedicated to Heidegger, Svendsen leaves the reader somewhat confused as he writes: 'But what is so "profound" about boredom? Doesn't Heidegger commit a highly questionable sublimation of boredom? ... I have come to the conclusion that the question of Being is not a genuine question, that there is no "Being as such", and that Heidegger's project was therefore doomed to fail.' If we consider that the 'question of Being' is structural to most of what Heidegger wrote in philosophy, hence also to his phenomenology of boredom, and Svendsen thinks such a question is empty, then we are left wondering why Svendsen dedicates an entire part of the book to Heidegger's philosophy; or indeed in what sense we are to interpret Svendsen's claim that Heidegger's texts will aid us to 'gain a better understanding' of the phenomenon under discussion.
At times the reader may feel to be approaching the place in the text where the author's view of boredom is finally revealed; unfortunately, this does not occur, it would seem, until one has read the very last lines contained in the 'Postscript': 'A one-sided focusing on the absence of Meaning can overshadow all other meaning - and then the world really looks as if it has been reduced to rubble. A source of profound boredom is that we demand capital letters where we are obliged to make do with small ones.' One would expect that by changing one's desire for the 'Meaning' of life into less demanding desires for everyday meanings and values, one could somehow ward off boredom. Also, further elaboration on the point just made by Svendsen might be welcome, e.g., what it is meant by lower case 'meaning', how it is possible to adjust one's aspiration for the Absolute according to the author's suggestion to accept the finite and the contingent, etc. However, the reader may be slightly disappointed at finding out that the adjustment to a more ordinary sense of the 'meaning of life', whatever this might be and whatever the manner whereby it might be achieved, is utterly inefficacious as a way of relieving us from the afflictions of boredom: 'Even though no Meaning is given, there is meaning - and boredom. Boredom has to be accepted as an unavoidable fact, as life's own gravity. This is no grand solution, for the problem of boredom has none.' How is one to interpret Svendsen's proposal? It seems that the desire for 'Meaning' rather than 'meanings' is not intrinsically tied nor necessarily related to the phenomenon of boredom after all. The author leaves the reader somewhat puzzled.
It is surprising to find that Svendsen omits references to Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in his book, given his extensive use of phenomenology, existentialism and literature.
In Sartre we find reference to 'profound boredom', discussing which Svendsen spends Part Three of the book in connection with Heidegger's philosophy.
Antoine Roquentin, the diarist of Sartre's Nausea, declares: 'I am bored, that's all. From time to time I yawn so widely that tears roll down my cheek. It is a profound boredom, profound, the profound heart of existence, the very matter I am made of.' (Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea). Perhaps the less mystical overtones with which Sartre treats of 'Being' in his texts might have led to different conclusions from the ones Svendsen critically draws from Heidegger's treatment of profound boredom.
Indeed, both Sartre's and Camus' positions, though different from each other in some respects, might be closer to Svendsen's in their positive acknowledgment of the finitude and contingency of human existence. Although neither of the above thinkers' views is obviously uncontroversial nor exhaustive of the subject, they might nevertheless theoretically flesh out Svendsen's claim about the nature of the relation between boredom and the question of the meaning of life that, as it stands, remains underdeveloped.
It would be opportune to remark on this point not simply because Sartre and Camus had something interesting to say about boredom; after all, one must sieve through one's source material, and Svendsen is considerably generous with his sources, both in number and in variety. Rather, the omission of the above names acquires relevance because what Sartre and Camus wrote separately on the subject is closely linked with what Svendsen has perceptively identified as being one central strand of the conceptual content of 'boredom', namely, its internal connection with existential meaning. For instance, both Sartre and Camus recognize the dissymmetry between the desire for Absolute Meaning, which afflicts modern humanity, and the utter contingency and finitude of whatever meaning men are capable of bringing into their lives on the backdrop of a Universe which is totally devoid of any intrinsic value.
In the posthumously published Cahiers pour morale, Sartre resorts to inter-subjectivity, through co-operative action, as a way of increasing the finite capacity for engendering existential meaning and value human beings possess.
Camus' texts, on the other hand, defend the stance fully to embrace the absurdity, contingency and finiteness of existence. More specifically in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus invites us to do so in good spirits: we should picture Sisyphus happy as he ceaselessly carries his heavy stone uphill and lets it roll downhill. One could still object that, though happy, nothing prevents the Absurd Man from falling prey to boredom, at least once in a while. This might very well be true. However, the existential attitude fully to embrace the finitude of the human condition with happiness and determination, which Camus advocates, if at all attainable, by implication necessarily excludes, cannot logically be compatible with, the most destructive and paralysing manifestations of boredom, that is, boredom as 'a bestial and indefinable affliction', as Schopenhauer aptly described it." - Maria Antonietta Perna
Lars Svendsen, Fashion: A Philosophy, Trans by John Irons (Reaktion Books, 2006)

"Fashion is at once a familiar yet mysteriously elite world that we all experience, whether we’re buying a new pair of jeans, reading Vogue, or watching the latest episode of Project Runway. Lars Svendsen dives into that world in Fashion, exploring the myths, ideas, and history that make up haute couture, the must-have trends over the centuries, and the very concept of fashion itself.
Fashion opens with an exploration of all the possible meanings encompassed by the word “fashion,” as Svendsen probes its elusive place in art, politics, and history. Ultimately, however, he focuses on the most common use of the term: clothing. With his trademark dry wit, he deftly dismantles many of the axioms of the industry and its supporters. For example, he points out that some of the latest fashions shown on runways aren’t actually “fashionable” in any sense of the word, arguing that they’re more akin to modern art works, and he argues against the increasingly prevalent idea that plastic surgery and body modification are part of a new wave of consumerism. Svendsen draws upon the writings of thinkers from Adam Smith to Roland Barthes to analyze fashion as both a historical phenomenon and a philosophy of aesthetics. He also traces the connections between the concepts of fashion and modernity and ultimately considers the importance of evolving fashions to such fields as art, politics, and philosophy.
Whether critiquing a relentless media culture that promotes perfect bodies or parsing the never-ending debate over the merits of conformity versus individual style, Lars Svendsen offers an engaging and intriguinganalysis of fashion and the motivations behind its constant pursuit of the new."
Lars Svendsen, Philosophy of Fear (Reaktion Books, 2008)

"Surveillance cameras. Airport security lines. Barred store windows. We see manifestations of societal fears everyday, and daily news reports on the latest household danger or raised terror threat level continually stoke our sense of impending doom. In A Philosophy of Fear, Lars Svendsen now explores the underlying ideas and issues behind this powerful emotion, as he investigates how and why fear has insinuated itself into every aspect of modern life.
Svendsen delves into science, politics, sociology, and literature to explore the nature of fear. He examines the biology behind the emotion, from the neuroscience underlying our “fight or flight” instinct to how fear induces us to take irrational actions in our attempts to minimize risk. The book then turns to the political and social realms, investigating the role of fear in the philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes, the rise of the modern “risk society,” and how fear has eroded social trust. Entertainment such as the television show “Fear Factor,” competition in extreme sports, and the political use of fear in the ongoing “War on Terror” all come under Svendsen’s probing gaze, as he investigates whether we can ever disentangle ourselves from the continual state of alarm that defines our age.
Svendsen ultimately argues for the possibility of a brighter, less fearful future that is marked by a triumph of humanist optimism. An incisive and thought-provoking meditation, A Philosophy of Fear pulls back the curtain that shrouds dangers imagined and real, forcing us to confront our fears and why we hold to them."
Lars Svendsen, Work (Acumen Publishing, 2008)

"Work is one of the most universal features of human life. Often associated with tedium and boredom, it conflicts with the things we would otherwise love to do. Thinking of work primarily as a burden—an activity we would rather be without—goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, whose philosophers generally regarded work as a terrible curse. Yet research shows that it prolongs life and is generally good for people's physical and mental health. Our attitudes toward work have changed significantly in the last decades and increased recognition of it as a crucial source of meaning and social identity has led to increased demands for opportunities to find meaning and self-realization in the workplace. Lars Svendsen argues that we need to complete this reorientation of our feelings about work and collapse the differences between leisure and work. We must think of work not only as productive but as recreative—in other words, much more like leisure."


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