To say that a book entitled On Evil is a joy must initially appear entirely paradoxical. And yet in a strange way Terry Eagleton’s On Evil is a joy to read perhaps because at the end of it one does indeed feel strangely optimistic even though the last chapter of the book is entitled “Job’s Comforters.”
Perhaps this strange optimism is engendered because Eagleton makes a distinction between wickedness and evil [my italics] defining evil as “a kind of cosmic sulking” that “rages most violently against those who threaten to snatch its unbearable wretchedness away from it” (117). He goes on to say that “the evil, then, are those who are deficient in the art of living” (128).
Illustrating his points with analysis of fiction such as Golding’s Pincher Martin, Lawrence’s Women in Love, Greene’s Brighton Rock and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, to name just a few, and referring to thinkers ranging from Augustine of Hippo and Eriugena to Freud, Karl Barth, Lacan, Ricoer, and Mary Midgley, Eagleton develops his distinctions between wickedness and evil, asserting that “most wickedness is institutional. It is the result of vested interests and anonymous processes, not of the malign acts of individuals” (143). At no point does Eagleton suggest that we must remain inactive in the face of wickedness. Rather, in his discussion of terrorism, he warns us against becoming “complicit, however unwittingly, in the very barbarism . . . [we] condemn”(159).
Evil, for Eagleton, then, is something different from “plain wickedness,” which involves actions like “destroying whole communities for financial gain or being prepared to use nuclear weapons” (130). In an echo of Hannah Arendt, Eagleton suggests, “Evil is philistine, kitsch-ridden, and banal” (124), but it is also “a form of transcendence, even if from the point of view of good it is a transcendence gone awry” (65). Evil is a chosen absence, a conscious denial of good. Evil combines both the angelic and the divine: “one side of it—the angelic, ascetic side—wants to rise above the degraded sphere of fleshliness in pursuit of the infinite. But this withdrawal of the mind from reality has the effect of striking the world empty of value” (75).
Perhaps unavoidably, Eagleton’s language at times becomes heavily theological. This is particularly true in the first chapter “Fictions of Evil” and the second “Obscene Enjoyment.” For some readers, the discussion of God may be disturbing or at least surprising if they think only of Eagleton the Marxist. But I must be candid and say that while no longer subscribing to any particular given denominational or institutional dogma, I am in no way uncomfortable in discussing the divine, and any concept of the divine could for me include only a “God [who] does not damn anyone to hell. You land yourself there by turning down his love” (54). What one understands by God and God’s love is, of course, the journey of a lifetime. In other words, I am comfortable with the approach Eagleton takes to his examination of how one understands evil and find that my own views tend to be rather similar to his.
What I also appreciate about the book is Eagleton’s humorous, conversational tone, which has made him a critic I’ve always enjoyed reading. Did you ever, for example, conceive of hell as “being talked at for all eternity by a man in an anorak who has mastered every detail of the sewage system of South Dakota”? (124). Why South Dakota one wonders? Why not Karachi, Adelaide, Moose Jaw, or Slough? His humour doesn’t reduce the seriousness of his subject matter; rather, it personalises it. In fact, the work is very personal in its revelation of Eagleton’s likes and dislikes. I suspect that Bob Hope and the Royal Family don’t rank particularly high in his esteem. At times, he is bitingly caustic, and one realises that Eagleton is still very much the critic of bourgeois puritanism. One is tempted to agree that “once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing” (120).
But, I hasten to add, On Evil in no way espouses vice. However, Eagleton does reveal a great compassion. His understanding of the human condition is sensitive, and ultimately one feels that while he sees humans as being perhaps morally challenged, his ultimate take on humanity is that we are not inherently bad. Again, in his reference to original sin he tends to put this discussion into terms that echo a Catholic upbringing, but he takes Augustine to task for “blo[ting] his copybook by going on to claim that original sin was transmitted by the act of sexual reproduction” (126). One tends to agree it is a rather large blot. Given this discussion of Augustine and the breadth of Eagleton’s scope in his references in this book, I was rather surprised that he did not include some reference to and discussion of Pelagius, who “wanted to avoid the idea of hereditary sin.” (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought From its Judaic and Hellenic Origins to Existentialism. Ed. Carl E. Braaten. Harper-Touchstone, 1968. 124). In fact, as I was writing this review I was distracted (?) into reading some Paul Tillich on Pelagius. “The great struggle between Augustine and Pelagius” says Tillich, “is perhaps the classic example of the problem in the Christian Church” (131). All in all a very interesting digression and further indicative of the strength of Eagleton’s book. It makes one want to read more, to engage with him, to look up his references, to follow one’s own thoughts.
On Evil does not answer the question of why there is evil. It goes some way towards defining what evil may be and, I would argue, at the core of the book is an understanding that men and women may do wicked things not because they are inherently evil but because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. I am left, then, with a sense of, if not optimism, at least the possibility of redemption however one may define that term. I am also left with the feeling of having been for the duration of the book in the lively and witty company of a thoughtful and insightful man.