As a child in a parochial school, I was required to memorize Exodus 20:5, in which God promises to visit the “iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me.” How spiteful, I thought. I didn’t think I should have to bear anyone else’s sins. Gradually, however, I came to understand the text as a statement of cause and effect rather than a spiteful threat. What it suggests, I realized, is that evil acts have lasting effects. We internalize trauma and pass it down to the generations that follow us.

Lawrence Swaim’s Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil takes up this difficult topic, explaining in strictly human terms what causes aggression to replicate itself and how aggression — when rationalized, concealed, or dissembled — can become evil. Swaim also discusses how evil,...

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