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The Myth of Evil

Phillip Cole

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A philosophical history of the concept of evil in western culture.

'Evil is something to be feared, and historically, we shall see, it is the enemy within who has been seen as representing the most intense evil of all - the enemy who looks just like us, talks like us, and is just like us.'

The Myth of Evil explores a contradiction: the belief that human beings cannot commit acts of pure evil, that they cannot inflict harm for its own sake, and the evidence that pure 'evil' truly is a human capacity. Acts of horror are committed not by inhuman 'monsters', but by ordinary human beings. This contradiction is clearest in the apparently 'extreme' acts of war criminals, terrorists, serial murderers, sex offenders and children who kill.

Phillip Cole delves deep into our two, cosily established approaches to evil. There is the traditional approach where evil is a force which creates monsters in human shape. And there is the 'enlightened' perspective where evil is the consequence of the actions of misguided or mentally deranged agents. Cole rejects both approaches. Satan may have played a role in its evolution, but evil is really a myth we have created about ourselves. And to understand it fully, we must acknowledge this.

Drawing on the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Arendt, Kant, Mary Midgley and others, as well as theology, psychoanalysis, fictional representations and contemporary political events such as the global 'war on terror', Cole presents an account of evil that is thorough and thought-provoking, and which, more fundamentally, compels us to reassess our understanding of human nature.


Chapter 1. Terrorism, Torture and the Problem of Evil
Chapter 2. Diabolical Evil – Searching for Satan
Chapter 3. Philosophies of Evil
Chapter 4. Communities of Fear

Chapter 5. The Enemy Within
Chapter 6. Bad Seeds
Chapter 7. The Character of Evil

Chapter 8. Facing the Holocaust
Chapter 9. 21st Century Mythologies.

About the Author

Phillip Cole is Professor of Applied Philosophy at the University of Wales, Newport. He is the author of The Myth of Evil (Edinburgh University Press 2006), Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh University Press, 2000) and The Free, the Unfree and the Excluded: A Treatise on the Conditions of Liberty (1998).


Cole has written the best book on evil to date; it deserves a place on the shelves of both academic and public libraries.
- Choice
Philip Cole's work takes an important stance against the belief that we are helpless in the face if evil. Cole rejects this impotence point blank and his book is a comprehensive analysis of the theme with a cool, direct and non-nonsense approach.
- Claudia Nielsen, Network Review
Does evil really exist? No, thinks Phillip Cole, but it is extremely useful as a political myth. His varied and interesting cultural study of the idea begins by tracing the literary development of Satan, from a part of God himself or a kind of prosecutorial accuser at God's side in the Pentateuch, to the fully fledged anti-God in the New Testament. Thence we take in Faust, Kant and Nietzsche, child murderers and the Holocaust, with a luridly fascinating interlude for witch-hunting and the less familiar epidemics of vampires in 18th-century central Europe.
- The Guardian