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Evil: A Primer: A History of a Bad Idea from Beelzebub to Bin Laden 1st Edition

12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312312817
ISBN-10: 0312312814
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The concept of evil has been much bandied about of late, so it is refreshing to see an attempt to bring a discussion of its machinations to the public forum. Hart begins by groping for a workable definition of evil and uses his starting point--specifically, that evil is an "intentional human act that causes extreme harm to innocents and attacks our basic moral order"--to set up a philosophical, historical, and literary tour of Bad Things. Condensing 4,000-odd years of human grappling into a book that is brief and, yes, lighthearted enough to be airport fare is difficult, and Hart deserves praise for presenting a broad range of complex ideas so concisely and accessibly. He also gets credit for having the guts to remind us that we like doing evil things, or at least naughty things. Concision has its flip side, however, and this book's often-flippant eclecticism borders on superficiality; the short shrift that Hart grants unintentional, systemic, banal evil is particularly troubling. As a primer, Hart's book has its qualities. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"William Hart's Evil: A Primer is an engaging survey of the very complex problems that litter the conceptual geography of evil. He invites us to look at a roots of the concept and its relationship to religious beliefs and geopolitical issues. He explores the black depths of our intellectual and social history and reveals for us, in a clear and concise fashion, what we all need to be thinking about when politicians, religious leaders, and terrorists use the term 'evil' to describe their enemies. We have heard a great deal in recent years of evil empires and 'the axis of evil,' of evil people and evil actions. William Hart's book provides a foundation for all of us to put such evocations of evil in a proper context."
- Professor Peter A. French, Lincoln Chair in Ethics, Arizona State University and author of Cowboy Metaphysics and The Virtue of Vengeance

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (October 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312312814
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312312817
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,804,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By booklover on April 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Hart's bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. He has clearly done his research. Yet the book is written with a light touch. He describes why evil both fascinates and repels, and considers evil in its awful destructive aspects and its naughty aspects. In describing naughty evil, Hart's sense of humor ripens and the book has some delightful passages that made me laugh out loud.

I read the entire book in a couple of hours and it filled me with a desire to follow up the biblography and learn more about the pressing subject of evil.

Hart is to be commended for making reading about evil fun. He covers a lot of weighty scholarship in vivid delightful prose. For anyone looking for an introduction to the subject of evil, I cannot recommend a better book.

Hart has written a book that is both confectionary and substantial, a rare accomplishment.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Thales on November 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
If you are looking to gain some objective historical perspective, even a passing overall concept, on the subject of evil and how the idea has been shaped throughout history, do not imagine you will find it in this book. What you will find in reading, "Evil: A Primer", is William Hart's opinions on evil formed through shallow interpretations, and a clear aversion to religion, especially Christianity.

Other reviewers are right to praise the author for having lots sources, unfortunately many of the quotes are taken out of context and with the most superficial reading. The superficiality runs throughout the book as the author never explores to deep and if he does begin to meaningfully explore a topic, makes a turn around and quickly backs out usually with some kind of sarcastic humor. The author seems to use humor as a device to cover up a lack of deep insights.

I say this book is dishonest mainly for the fact that on the cover as part of the subtitle it states, "A history of bad ideas from Beelzebub to Bin Laden". I think there is one or two passing references to evils committed by radical Muslim types like Bin Laden. What the book is full of is countless references to the absurdity and evil rhetoric of Christianity. In regards to the underlying current of this book, being religion and evil, the author is making a clear point, not that Christianity and religion have contributed greatly to identifying, categorizing, and trying to subdue evil, but that religion in general, and Christianity specifically have done the most to perpetuate and commit evil ideas and actions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By DONALD G. FOX on January 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I found this lovely exploration of evil to be sincerely thoughtful and very interesting. True, the author is wise enough to point his readers towards possible sources and understandings of evil, but he would be foolhardy to pose a definitive answer as to why evil exists in the human experience. For those readers who are uncomfortable with having to balance the paradoxes of evil within human theologies, this definitely is a book that will be most unsatisfactory. If, however, you enjoy a good jaunt through many various areas of human thought and belief around the issues of evil, this book is sure to be amusing, informative, and intriguing. Mr. Hart's offers a solidly well-written book on a subject that is often ignored, hidden and denied by the fearful.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By dshoom on September 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I does go through the the various quandaries about what Evil is? Investigates its possible etiological reasons including that of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) suggesting that it may be an unregulated primal survival behavior. Yet the book leaves us with more questions as to the real cause of Evil and also notes many since the days of recorded history people have pondered about it and given their version - so certainly this Evil business has been around and perplexed people over the generations and not a modern malaise; perhaps simple rooted in unaccommodating self love - its causative reasons still mixed in nature and nurture. Cain kills Abel - any ideas why? Reading this book will not help either. But all the same it covers the open ended details.
The fact is that Evil exists and it is up to us to manage it within our environments on a daily basis, with small everyday heroism, of standing up for what is right however inconvenient, before it becomes an unmanageable monstrosity as history has shown repeatedly and will repeat unless each one of use commits to actively managing Evil in every so small ways everyday in ourselves and others.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is exactly what the title states, a history of a bad idea. The idea of evil as humans have defined it throughout the ages from the physiological to social.

Start at page 183 with Bill's "further reading" which he describes not as a bibliography, but a treasure trove of what he found especially helpful or memorable. It gives you an overview of what each chapter has to offer and some fascinating books that might not be mainstream for the topic.

I found chapter five spot on for a few people we may actually encounter on a day to day (although hopefully not) basis.

Chapter eleven was by far my favorite and if it wasn't so very true, especially in the current political climate, the premise of the chapter would be ludicrously funny.

A book to read and to my naive rose coloured world wish weren't so damn accurate.
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