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Evil: The History of an Idea

Course registration will be available for this course once it is scheduled.

Course Description

The daily news bombards us with stories about the evils that humans commit against one another--from acts of interpersonal violence such as rape and murder, to atrocities perpetrated on a massive scale, such as genocide and terrorism. Ideas about what it means to be evil, and what it means to be just and good, continue to shape the ways that we understand and react to these incidents. Journeying through history to consider situations in which men and women have encountered, discussed, and embodied evil, this course will give students a deeper understanding of shifting cultural and religious concepts about evil that shape modern societies and our everyday lives.

To say that an individual or group is evil is to condemn and delegitimize all that they represent. When George W. Bush grouped Iran with Iraq and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil" in 2002, he branded the nation as anathema not only to the United States, but to the world. When the Iranian leader Khomeni called the United States "the Great Satan" in 1979, he identified American imperialism as the root of corruption in the world. So is evil just a rhetorical tool that exists in the eyes of the beholder? This course considers how individuals and societies across history have constructed and deployed ideas about evil. We will begin by examining the origins of the idea of evil in religions and legal systems, before analyzing concepts of evil that have driven historical actions and events. Is it possible to define evil? How do different religions and societies approach the "problem of evil"? Is evil "unspectacular and always human"? Does it "share our bed and eat at our own table"? To answer these questions, this course will cover topics including heresy and inquisition, the Salem witch trials, Satanic cults, and representations of evil in music, literature, and film.

This class will prepare students to transition from high school to college. Exploring issues of gender, religion, persecution, social class, racism, and imperialism, the course will provide an excellent foundation for AP history and college humanities courses. Students will hone their analytical skills by examining primary sources, writing analytical essays, and discussing historical themes and events. Through on-going feedback and evaluations, the instructor will encourage students to improve their reading, writing, and speaking skills. By the end of the session, students will become more proficient at participating in discussion and writing well-organized essays with an argument supported by specific evidence.

Prerequisites: Students should be able to read, write, and articulate ideas in English, but non-native speakers who are working to refine their skills in these areas are encouraged to enroll. No particular background in history or literature is required. However, students will find this course most useful if they arrive willing to engage with the material and respect the viewpoints of fellow classmates.