The New Demons

Rethinking Power and Evil Today

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Simona Forti
Zakiya Hanafi
Cultural Memory in the Present
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The question of evil, one of the most fundamental in humanity’s exploration of itself, is in reality the question of suffering. This is the point with which Simona Forti opens New Demons: Rethinking Power and Evil Today. It marks the beginning of a well-researched and seemingly near-exhaustive investigation of the philosophical history of thought on evil. What is perhaps most striking from the beginning is not its in depth reading of Kant, Nietzsche, Foucault, or Arendt—all of which, along with many others, extend throughout the book—but rather Forti’s turn to the literature of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Drawing primarily from Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), the inspiration for her thought as well as the title of her book, Forti spends part 1 outlining what she calls the “Dostoevsky Paradigm.” She presents this paradigm as an answer to the assertion by Kant that “absolute evil” (i.e., evil committed for its own sake) is inconceivable. Forti marks a distinction between wickedness, which is a “structure of individual conscience,” and evil, which is a “mode or expression of power” (4). Evil, according to Forti, is a dynamic motion, a “field of forces and tensions” (7), which operates through, but is not identical to, the exercise of political power. While an improvement on past models, Forti argues that the Dostoevsky Paradigm still resigns itself to dichotomy: a separation between those with power (and who are therefore capable of evil), and those without (who are, by definition, innocent victims). Such a system ultimately returns to a rigid concept of good and evil, and is therefore ultimately untenable in fully understanding the reality of political evil.

The “absolute demons” of the Dostoevsky Paradigm are characterized by a fundamental disobedience, a “guilt of transgression”—that is, original sin—and a will to power which manifests as a will to death. After spending part 1 describing both the philosophical and psychological aspects of absolute demons, and after an interlude on biopolitics which draws primarily on the work of Foucault, Forti turns in part 2 to a different paradigm of evil. She refers to figures of this paradigm as “mediocre demons” which are characterized by a staggering obedience to authority, indifference, and primarily, an absolutized will to life. In this Forti draws heavily on the work of Hannah Arendt, particularly Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Viking Press, 1963). Forti herself prefers to use the term “the normalcy of evil” throughout part 2, and ultimately turns to the reflections of Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved, Summit Books, 1986) as the prime example of this concept.

Throughout both parts of New Demons Forti—sometimes explicitly and sometimes obliquely—identifies Christianity as one of the historical drivers of both the overly simplistic and Dostoevsky paradigms. With regards to philosophy, however, by seeming to accept a priori a separation between itself and theology, Forti is dismissive, as a matter of course, of any metaphysical approach to the question of evil. While she does provide readings of religious thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, her view of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, tends to echo that of Nietzsche, and especially, of Arendt. Or rather, it echoes her own perspective of Arendt’s work, which, as Forti herself notes, may be more a reflection of her own views than those of Arendt (202).

Such dismissiveness would not be as noticeable in a work that was not, in most other respects, remarkably complete. In point of fact, with such in depth readings of so many different thinkers and writers—crossing lines of philosophy, literature, psychology, and sociology—it is difficult to discern Forti’s own point of view in New Demons. But what saves this work from being a helpful, if somewhat stale, encyclopedia of thoughts on evil is precisely the perspective Forti brings to these manifold writers. Such a perspective is perhaps Forti’s largest personal contribution in New Demons, and it is not an insubstantial one.

Overall, Forti presents an exciting demonstration of the possibility of deep reading within a range of philosophical ideas set alongside revelations gleaned from literature. By offering a work impressive in breadth and in depth, Forti contributes insight on a single topic from many angles. This is a book which can be profitably read by those interested in political philosophy, literary analysis, psychoanalysis, and history (both as theory and practice). Dismissiveness towards it aside, there is also ample material to chew on from the viewpoint of theology. New Demons is an example of what can be accomplished when various perspectives—or as Forti calls them, “genealogies”—are brought to bear on an enduring human question.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent S. Gordon is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simona Forti is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Italy.



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