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Alumnus Addresses Issue of ‘Radical Evil’ in Post-Secular World


Martin Beck Matustík (GSAS ’91), Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Purdue Univesity, was welcomed back to Fordham by Nancy Busch, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, on Oct. 9.
Photo by Ken Levinson

“Radical” evil of the variety that leads to genocide and other atrocities was the issue of the day on Oct. 9 when philosopher Martin Beck Matustík (GSAS ’91), Ph.D., delivered the annual Gannon Lecture at Duane Library on the Rose Hill campus.

The Czech-born Matustík, who is a professor of philosophy at Purdue University, outlined his notion of radical evil, a term coined by German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, during an hour-long presentation in which Matustík argued that the modern world has left many inured to such depravity and cruelty.

“We have lost the language to speak about the types of cruelties and wanton violence that occurred in the 20th century, as well as in our own century,” Matustík said. “And so the question is: Should we give up the notion of evil all together? What are we supposed to do in Kosovo, in Sarajevo, in Guatemala, in future Darfurs and in those villages where humans have raped women and killed their neighbors and the U.N. or the European Union tells the victims to move back to those villages and live with each other?

“We do not have the political means to legislate forgiveness,” he said. “We do not have the language and political means to bring about answers to such questions.”

Matustík also argued that in order to fully grasp radical evil, it must be understood as a religious phenomenon in that those who perpetrate such cruelty are imbued with a kind of inverse religiosity: instead of hope, despair; instead of love, hatred.

“Unless we understand radical evil as a religious phenomenon, we don’t understand it at all and we don’t even know what we are praying for when are praying to be delivered from evil,” he said.

A highly regarded scholar, Matustík received his doctorate from Fordham University and is the author ofDiscontents of Our Times: Essays About Radical Evil and Other Anxieties of Today (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, 2006), Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001) and Specters of Liberation: Great Refusals in the New World Order (State University of New York Press, 1998). His address, “The Scarcity of Hope: Post-Secular Meditations on Radical Evil,” is based on a book he will publish in 2008 on the subject, Radical Evil and the Scarcity of Hope: Postsecular Meditations.

Matustík said there are a number of ways people can respond to radical evil from waging war to expressing moral indignation. He detailed a philosophical approach that embraces hope, forgiveness, redemption and love as a way to begin the healing process in the wake of unspeakable harm and irreparable violence.

One must assume responsibility, he said, for embracing hope that an unjust world can be mended and be made better, if not radical evil is left with the most enduring victory.

“To become responsible is to turn from despair to forgiving the unforgivable, and that is the most difficult and that is precisely what is missing in all those situations where we are to begin anew somewhere after some terrible evil,” he said.

The Gannon Lecture, which began in the fall of 1980, brings distinguished individuals to Fordham, to deliver public lectures on topics of their expertise. Fordham alumni endowed the series in honor of Robert I. Gannon, S.J., president of Fordham from 1936-1949.


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