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What Evil Means to Us 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801434303
ISBN-10: 0801434300
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Alford (government and politics, Univ. of Maryland, College Park) spent over a year interviewing state prison inmates, college students, and working people to find out how people conceptualize and experience evil. To many of his informants, doing evil is the "pleasure in hurting and lack of remorse." It is rooted, from what they told the author, in a baleful, bottomless sense of dread; to cause others to suffer this existential dislocation is somehow (in the mind) expected to alleviate it in oneself. "How to know and live with this malicious destructiveness in oneself, one's friends, one's lovers, and the world around?" Alford suggests that hope, and the answer to the problem of evil, may be found through shared narrative?the realm of "metaphysics and theology." Although this is a difficult book, it provides an unusually systematic approach to a topic more often addressed through anecdote or abstraction. Of interest especially to professionals who work with people "on the edge."?John R. Leech, Brooklyn
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

"Alford . . . spent over a year interviewing state prison inmates, college students, and working people to find out how people conceptualize and experience evil. To many of his informants, doing evil is the 'pleasure in hurting and lack of remorse.' It is rooted, from what they told the author, in a baleful, bottomless sense of dread; to cause others to suffer this existential dislocation is somehow (in the mind) expected to alleviate it in oneself. . . . Alford suggests that hope, and the answer to the problem of evil, may be found through shared narrative―the realm of 'metaphysics and theology.' Although this is a difficult book, it provides an unusually systematic approach to a topic more often addressed through anecdote or abstraction. Of interest especially to professionals who work with people 'on the edge.'"―Library Journal

"The provocative general thesis of this narrative account is twofold. First, the impulse to do evil is all around us and lies deeply and inextricably within each of us. . . . Second, the amelioration of evil in society depends on our acknowledging the universality of its grip on human persons and seeking its containment through creative acceptance of the dread that is inherent in the human condition."―Choice

"This is not a tale for the weak of heart."―Times Literary Supplement

"This is a deeply thoughtful and humane book which anyone interested in the phenomenon of evil― and who isn't?―will want to read and ponder."―V. Bradley Lewis, Review of Metaphysics

"Alford makes many intriguing connections between evil as understood in classic literature and evil as recognized in popular culture. Anyone interested in the anatomy of human destructiveness would do well to consult this book."―Theological Studies

"Alford's writing has a rich quality. . . . Alford has a great degree of skill in raising thought-provoking questions without premature closure. It is refreshing to read a book that leaves one feeling unsettled, informed, and yet with a desire to pursue further readings and investigation. This book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the social and psychological effects of violence and who is interested in the philosophy of evil."―Stuart W. Twemlow, M.D., Psychoanalytic Books: A Quarterly Journal of Reviews

"Alford has written a most interesting volume on how we experience evil. . . . His book is a beautifully crafted psychoanalytic meditation. . . . Lyrical and evocative. . . . Extremely thought provoking, compelling and accessible. I urge all psychoanalysts to read this small gem."―Paul Marcus, The Psychoanalytic Review

"This scholarly gem should appeal to a very broad cross-section of the population. . . . Even those among us who have thought at great length about evil will likely benefit from Alford's remarkably accessible reflections on the darker side of human interaction."―Virginia Quarterly Review

"What does the cliché that 'evil spelled backward is live' mean? Fred Alford wants to know, and with this provocative question he takes the reader on an intellectual journey which is, in his words, a 'domestic anthropology' of evil. . . This book is provocative, intellectually stimulating, and well written."―J. Reid Meloy, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association

"Intelligent, erudite, and wide-ranging. . . . His material is certainly rich, but it is his organization and critical analysis of that material, coupled with his exact and yet sometimes lyrical prose, that makes the book a landmark study. . . . Alford's book is without a doubt a superlative study."―Sara L. Knox, Journal of Popular Culture

"At a time when many construct babbling towers as a monument to their own erudition, Fred Alford is truly unique: a political theorist who brings his own brave, innovative research to bear on a profound question―the nature of evil―and does so with ringing clarity of intellect and prose."―Stanley Renshon, City University of New York

"The book gives a healthy jolt to our psychological insight into evil. Alford's thesis―that a sense of dread can be the impetus for doing evil―demands serious attention."―Fred E. Katz, author of Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil

"Total loss, total meaninglessness―in a lucid analysis packed with brilliant insights, C. Fred Alford shows how those phrases sum up what evil means to us. Taking his readers into a labyrinth formed by injustice and suffering, hopelessness and indifference, as well as by the agonizing questions raised by those afflictions of body and soul, Alford proves to be a trustworthy guide. He can help us not only to understand but also to restrain the human tendency to inflict on others the very conditions that we most dread."―John K. Roth, Claremont McKenna College

"If man's capacity to perpetrate evil is deeply rooted in his psyche, so too is the concept of evil. Alford solves the riddle of 'What Evil Means to Us' by asking. The results of this creative inquiry are at once profound and deeply disturbing."―Jerrold M. Post, M.D., author of Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (September 4, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801434300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801434303
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,360,488 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
After reviewing, and finding wanting, much of the traditional discourse on the question of evil, C. Fred Alford interviews two population groups, violent convicts and college students to find out what it is that we mean when we describe an experience as evil. He comes up with his own definition: evil is the projection into another of one's own feelings of dread. In other words, an event is not evil because of its great scope, but because of it's (usually, but not always, unconscious) malicious intent. I find this answer very helpful on two grounds. First, it helps one to discriminate between experiences which are simply unpleasant and those which are characterised by human malevolence. Second, there is a practical usage too - Alford's model helps one to look deeply into one's own actions and ask: "Am I causing someone else to feel pain which I should actually be dealing with myself?"
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This book is a valuable contribution to a discussion we should never stop having: Why is there evil in the world, what causes it, and how can we prevent it? Evil is a topic we find easy to symbolize but difficult to categorize. Alford first attempts to define it by conducting interviews using a questionnaire he designed. One group of interviewees is a random sampling of middle-class Americans. The second group consists of inmates in a maximum security prison doing time for violent crimes. Alford also held regular group therapy sessions with the inmates to probe their thoughts about evil.

While the interviewees, particularly the inmates, come up with some striking observations, Alford isn't really conducting an empirical study. He quickly lays a theoretical grid over the subject. Citing Thomas Ogden's writings on the "autistic-contiguous position" Alford asserts that evil is rooted in a kind of pre-categorical dread that we first experienced as infants. The infant's lack of boundaries and total identification with the caregiver lead to anxiety that the self is being subsumed by another. The average person experiences the bliss as well as the anxiety of infantile connection, followed by a period of forgetting this experience ever happened (infantile amnesia). The normal person then undergoes the stress filled process of separating from the caregiver and establishing an autonomous self. The successfully functioning adult has both a sense of their own personal boundaries and an ability to empathically understand the boundaries of other people.

For the evil person, this process gets short-circuited. Unable to deal with the anxiety caused by pre-categorical dread, the evil person displaces this anxiety by using force to violate the boundaries of another person.
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Format: Hardcover
Alfords combination of psychoanalytic theory,philosophy and theology is, I think, unrivalled. This is the second of his books that I have read and like the first, Narcissism, Socrates and the Frankfurt School I found it to be very thought provoking. In a time when evil clearly abounds and yet our social sciences constantly negate it Alford sinks his teeth into 'the heart of darkness.' I particularly enjoyed his revision of Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments and Zimbardo's prison studies.(Both of which I was familiar with.) Individuals obeyed,Alford suggests, simply because they found pleasure in inflicting pain on others and were given an occasion to do so with impunity.

The language of evil and the lens to understand it needs to be engaged in directly or else we will be left to demagogues who do know evil exists and speak directly to the heart of darkness without the fairness and compassion of Alford, who understands that many individuals suffer as much evil as they perpetrate. It is a fascinating contribution to the cycle of violence literature. Satan, remember, was a seducer and evil has its pleasures. There is power in the dark side.
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The book was very useful it provided insight into the mind of psychopaths and sociopaths and those that are mentally unstable and what that looks like.
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