May 9, 2011

Review: Terry Eagleton, "On Evil"

Title: On Evil
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Philosophy/Literature
Year: 2011
Pages: 176
ISBN13: 978-0-300-17125-9
Binding: Paperback
Price: $16.00 (also available in cloth for $35.00)

Terry Eagleton believes the term "evil" is either misused or disregarded by most people today. By misdiagnosing or disregarding evil we run the risk of not being able to properly deal with real evil when we encounter it. To prevent such a catastrophe, Eagleton has put together an extended meditation on the existence and nature of evil.

Eagleton apparently hopes to give readers the option of forgetting about the religious implications of evil. He cites a recent poll showing that Denmark has the lowest amount of believers in sin is cited. Eagleton notes that such people nevertheless believe in the reality of things like "child pornography, police violence, and the barefaced lies of pharmaceutical companies." But to call such things "sin" would imply an "offence against God rather than an offense against other people. It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for" (15). In other words, whether the reader places sin in a context of God or man, they can still take part in the discussion. There are several arguments based on the nature of God and eternity, however, which tend to break out of the bracket he initially set up. (It's somewhat beside the point of this review, but I have some substantial disagreements with Eagleton's conception of God.)

This excerpt highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses of Eagleton's prose. It can be witty and song-like, but it can also be snarky and self-assured. I liked his comment about the New Testament, but it obviously cries out for explanation which Eagleton never gives, not a single biblical reference is given supporting that claim. This is why I call the book a "meditation" as opposed to a philosophical explication or analysis. He picks and chooses his sources, doesn't set up a conceptual framework, and mashes different Western thinkers together throughout the work. As for the snarky and self-assured, his jab at pharmaceutical companies likewise receives no further comment, it's a given, as is his repeated use of works by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Eagleton is a Christian himself, so his reliance on these thinkers will likely surprise readers. Continued critiques of capitalism are to be expected from the man who also wrote a book called Why Marx Was Right.

Eagleton is quite adept at taking a unique approach to a common idea, which can really induce the reader to think and keep the reader on her toes. For instance, he sees the modern age as having largely shifted attention from the "soul to the psyche" or from "theology to psychoanalysis" (17). This shift helps account for all the fuzzy, feel-good self-help, prosperity gospel stuff which he despises. Freud and Jesus, he says, are both presenting "narratives of human desire," describing a "science of human discontent" (17). He seems to delight in overturning conventional phrases, too. "Idle hands are the devil's playground" sounds nice, but often times  the "trouble with the wicked" is that "they are far too busy, rather than not busy enough" (13). Elsewhere he challenges Sartre's claim that "Hell is other people" while analyzing William Golding's book Pincher Martin. Without the requisite spoiler alert notification he shows how Golding's book argues that hell is "exactly the opposite" of other people. "It is being stuck for all eternity with the most dreary, unspeakably monotonous company of all: oneself" (22).

Eagleton's evil is intensely connected to his understanding of personal identity, responsibility, cause and effect, and the proper understanding of justice. He refers to the brutal torturing and murder of a child by two ten-year-old boys in England in 1993. A police spokesman chalked it up to their being pure evil. This, argues Eagleton, seemed a way of forfeiting understanding. "Evil" in this view is unintelligible, so we attribute it to bad blood and genes, insanity, demon possession, etc. If we believe punishment should apply to people who commit evil acts of their own free will then chalking their actions up to "evil" seems to call into question the sort of punishments we mete out, prison sentences and even the death penalty. On the other hand, if we try to understand the circumstances which led to the tragedy we might have room for change or mercy. This leads to one of the most interesting parts of Eagleton's book: his discussion of "original sin." The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, is absurd, Eagleton holds:

"It regards original sin as a kind of genetic stain which you might be fortunate enough to be born without, rather as you might be unfortunate enough to be born without a liver. Original sin, however, is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place...[because] we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires--an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core" (35).

Thus we may be born innocent, in the sense that a tortoise is innocent, incapable of doing better or worse, but we are not born without incurring the stains of the blood and sins of this generation, in Mormon parlance. He argues against Rousseau and others who view radical individual liberty as the foundation of freedom and responsibility (36). Rather, we enter an already-existing game, and we implicitly start playing it as we grow up. "Who can say for sure, in the great skein of human action and reaction, who really has ownership of a particular deed?" (37). He argues in behalf of a "radical materialism" which does not see evil or wicked acts as existing independent of the social structures in which they occur, or apart from their material contexts (15). Evil=you+me+society+action depending on how we affect the whole. This isn't an entirely new conception, of course. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis's argument about sin in Mere Christianity where he criticizes the idea that we can sin so long as it only affects ourselves. He compares humanity to a fleet of ships, and individual ships who go off course, so to speak, can indeed have dire consequences even if they are unintended based on the very nature of our world.

The trouble with seeing bad acts as being either evil or explicable is that these views tend to stop conversation, tend to stop personal reflection, too (8). Conservatives who might blame evil on the individual and liberals who emphasize only the societal causes are both missing it, and in something of a Hegelian synthesis he sees better potential in looking at individual and societal contributions to evil acts in the world.  In order to make the world better should we change the person or their surroundings? Both, he argues (148).

This is different than a grim view of the fallen nature of man requiring a retributive punishment approach, as well as a mealy-mouthed or overconfident faith in progressivism--that the world just keeps getting better. (This is, incidentally, is main beef with the so-called "New Atheist" movement.) He recognizes that some will simply not agree with his approach to evil:

"For some commentators, trying to grasp what motivates Islamic suicide bombers by, say, pointing to the despair and devastation of the Gaza Strip, is to absolve them of their guilt. But you can condemn those who blow up little children in the name of Allah without assuming that there is no explanation for their outrageous behaviour--that they pulverise people simply for kicks. You do not have to believe that the explanation in question is sufficient reason to justify what they do" (7).   

Clearly Eagleton is not only talking in the abstract about evil. It becomes more and more apparent that he is speaking to actual world events, not archaic religious distinctions of behavior. This is why Eagleton is almost sure to bother every reader about something they believe in, whether it be his criticism of capitalism or US foreign policy--criticisms which he usually states without fully explaining or justifying. (For this reason, it almost feels like his audience is supposed to be those who want to believe in evil and progressivism simultaneously but don’t know how to reconcile the two competing things.) At the same time, he is right to point out that the stakes are high, especially considering global terrorism and ongoing war. If you're uncomfortable with what looks like his defense of Islamic extremists above, his conclusion might help balance things out. There he points to Islam again in order to decry a certain strain of overconfident triumphalism. He sees the "No Apologies!" approach as a dangerous participant in, rather than solution to, our current problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. If we could seek to understand what they are doing we might better be able to bring a resolution. However:

"This is not to claim that Islamic fundamentalism is eminently rational. On the contrary, it is ridden with the most virulent strains of prejudice and bigotry, as its torn and butchered victims have good reason to know. But those lethal fantasies are mixed in with some specific political grievances, however illusory or unjustified its enemies may consider them to be" (158). 

Disregarding extremists out of hand "is an irrational prejudice to rival their own, and one which can only make the situation worse" by meeting violence with violence, leading to more terror, more violence, and so forth (158-159). This, I believe, is Eagleton's most pressed point of the book. But there are plenty of additional side-roads which readers might enjoy on subjects like egotism, death and despair. It has plenty of darkness, but somehow these ideas are explored in an upbeat manner. As one example of such a side-road, consider Eagleton's comments about "Debunkery." This is the tendency some have to correct incorrect or false ideas about history or whatever else. In a sense, Eagleton himself is acting the debunker in much of this book. Debunkery, he says, can be a "positive kind of foolery" because it can puncture "the pompous delusions of the self-deceived. But it can also sail perilously close to the nihilism of those like [Shakespeare's] Iago, who can win a vicarious kind of identity for themselves only by deriding and destroying...The problem, then, is that a healthy iconoclasm can sail very close to a pathological cynicism" (87). This sounded familiar enough for me.

Eagleton's prose can be a bit pedantic, he uses limited footnotes but cites a pretty large variety of western thinkers. Literary analysis of interesting fiction on the topic of evil shows his strengths as a professor of literature, a profession which at the same time helps account for some of his weaknesses in philosophy or theology. The feel of the prose was very similar to his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which originated as a series of lectures. Evidently his conversational style is not only found in his lecturing. His extended discussion on Freud and the "death drive" seemed a bit lengthy and peripheral to me. At the same time, his description and rejection of several theodicies on the grounds that they help excuse God at the expense of encouraging us to alleviate suffering in the now was quite fruitful, I think.

Ultimately, Eagleton leaves the reader hanging regarding the fundamental nature of evil, if there is such a nature, and offers no concrete suggestions to help alleviate its effects in the world. He distinguishes between wicked acts and outright evil, the former being acts which are explicable the latter being less explicable? In fact, the latter being pointless. But isn't that sort of judgment in the eye of the beholder? If he intended to answer more questions than he raised then I'd say he was not very successful. He isn't giving answers as much as provoking questions, it seems to me. This is another reason I refer to the book as being a meditation rather than an explication or treatise. (The lack of a jargon-laced subtitle gives this impression as well. He went straight for the simple: "On Evil.") The hope, then, is that it can spur further reflection and discussion on the part of its readers. It is on these grounds especially that I recommend On Evil.


Other interesting reviews/responses to On Evil

-Humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling

-Richard Coles, vicar of St Paul's Church, Kensington


BHodges said...

This comment is an example of how Eagleton's book leads to a lot of further thought.

Looking at that review y AC Grayling made me realize how Grayling terribly misses the boat regarding Eagleton's take on "original sin." He seems to be responding to an idea of original sin which Eagleton himself actually opposes. Grayling sees that Eagelton took a of time talking about original sin, but overlooks what he actually says about it for some reason.

I thought the original sin bit was especially interesting when situated within a Mormon view of "original sin." It would be interesting to see specific examples of Mormon leaders talking in ways similar to Eagleton re: original sin being societal and not soul-staining, etc.

Eagleton also takes his idea of original sin far enough to say that babies are baptized because they are already born into this web of societal sin, and are the product of bad historical precedents, etc. He doesn't explain why or how the ordinance is supposed to help resolve that problem, nor does he bring up the idea of personal accountability at a given age here, but earlier in the book he mentions that children lack the socialization and experience to be accounted as "fully human" so to speak. He makes that observation in considering the horrific murder of the three-year-old discussed in the introduction.

BHodges said...

I really liked this description by Coles:

Evil has done rather badly in recent years, being often ignored by – and unintelligible to – the chattering end of culture. This is in some ways surprising, because out in the field it has been performing as strongly as ever. No longer talked about much in polite society, it emerges, luridly, in tabloid commentary.

Yes, this is the evil identified in Nancy Grace-esque righteous condemnations and "bombshell tonight" exclamations. (It's actually one of the reasons I have some weird interest in her program, and watch a minute or two of it each night.) This is the sort of easy evil condemning that Eagleton doesn't like.

Stephen M (ethesis) said...

it almost feels like his audience is supposed to be those who want to believe in evil and progressivism simultaneously but don’t know how to reconcile the two competing things.)


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