Terry Eagleton

On Evil

An erudite, diligent examination on the eternal problem of evil.

Feb 22, 2023
Dimitris Passas

Those who fall under the sway of the death drive feel that ecstatic sense of liberation that springs from the though that nothing really matters. The delight of the damned is not to give a damn (...) he death drive is a deliriously orgiastic revolt against interest, value, meaning, and rationality. It is an insane urge to shatter the lot of them in the name of nothing whatsoever." (p. 109)

"Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs." (P. Larkin- "Wants"/1951)

Terry Eagleton is one of the most esteemed and influential literary critics of the western canon and some of his books are still considered to be cornerstones in the field with Literary Theory: An Introduction and After Theory being his leading works which have -together- sold over a million copies all over the world. In one of his most recent publications (the book was released on January 1, 2010), the English intellectual attempted to shed light on a problem that is as old as the original sin, the nature of evil. Eagleton is often characterized as a Marxist, however he is always careful to avoid the dogmatic interpretations provided by closed systems of thought, combining elements from diverse theories and philosophies and remaining humane in his approaches throughout the way. Apart from Marxism, Eagleton is heavily inveigled by Christianism and his name has been frequently involved in heated confrontations with the representatives of the so-called "New Atheist" movement such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. His main thesis in Literary Theory: An Introduction, published in 1983, was that any form of literary theory is unavoidably political, arguing that there is no such thing as a fully autonomous, wholly self-sufficient theory entirely lacking political aspects and connotations, then proceeding to introduce his own position on the matter employing a mix of traditional Marxism, structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and deconstructionism. In the course of his career, Eagleton remained suspicious toward postmodernism as he believed that the latter has affected cultural theory with the final result being the devaluation of both objectivity and ethics. His assessment of postmodernism is summarized in his 2003 treatise, After Theory where he sums up the pros and cons of the theories presented by the major figures of the movement such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Despite his negative views on postmodernism as a whole, in his treatise Eagleton discerns its positive effects too, exhibiting a fierce intellectual strength which forbids him from being categorical, especially when evaluating the work of major thinkers of the twentieth century.

On Evil is a short book in terms of length, nevertheless it is crammed with ideas, open-ended questions, and insights which are meant to make the reader confront the main subject in an unprecedented way as the author introduces his unique take on the concept of evil while at the same time criticizing the various theories that have been dominating the western thought throughout the centuries. The book contains an introduction, which is the most dense part of the work as in only a few pages, Eagleton encapsulates his thoughts and sentiments concerning the heretofore theories of evil and succinctly presents his own speculations, as well as three chapters ("Fictions of Evil", "Obscene Enjoyment", "Job's Comforters"). The English literary critic draws elements from various resources, with the Freudian theory of the death drive being the most critical as it is through the "Todestriebe" that evil acquires a palpable existence within each human being as well as the community. It should be noted that the aforementioned theory was initially introduced by Sabina Spielrein in 1912 and was picked up by Sigmund Freud eight years later when his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle was released. It was there that the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis traced the existence of two opposing drives inside the human psyche. Previous to the publication of that book, Freud has written about "Eros", a drive which is governed by the pleasure principle, but now he broadened his scheme adding the opposing internal force "Thanatos" (Greek word for death). While Eros generates harmony and sexual connection, Thanatos wakes up the most primal of instincts, urging the individual to annihilate everything in his path for no reason at all, just for its own sake. The death drive is linked indistinguishably with the most calamitous of impulses, causing the individual to eradicate his basic human traits. He becomes a "monster" that "in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others".

Eagleton insists on the theme of independence and human autonomy which he further associates with the source of evil itself. A totally self-sufficient human is most likely to commit evil acts according to the author. In his own words: "Pure autonomy is a dream of evil". There is nothing more inhuman than the perception of a being without any form of tie with the objective world and the others. In the, laconic yet cogent, introduction, the reader has the opportunity to delve into the divergence between the various philosophies regarding the essence of evil. Thus, we learn about the two types of determinism dominating the debate on the subject, determinism of environment and determinism of character. The former concerns the approach which asserts that evil is nothing else but a result of the poor, unjust social conditions and circumstances within which each social actor lives and acts. The social conditioning theory (held by liberal structuralists) has been a linchpin for the Marxist theory of good and evil, thoroughly politicizing the matter, a natural consequence of the theory's principle doctrines that compel its advocates to adhere to a strict pre-determined set of categorical imperatives. For Marxists such as Fredric Jameson and Perry Anderson the wider notion of moralism serves as a distraction from the searing politico-historical issues that each society has to deal with at any given epoch. Eagleton dismisses this particular notion of evil as he believes that such a perception could lead a faulty logical conclusion, that is to excuse the actors since their behavior is a mere by-product of their surrounding living conditions. Generally, according to Eagleton, any attempt at explaining the causes that lurk behind every evil action further obscures our pursuit of clarity in regard to the eternal questions that arise from the examination of the concept of evil.

The same happens with the determinism of character, an approach embraced mainly by the representatives of conservative behaviorism, as the culpability is once again placed beyond the social agent. It is a case of defective genes inciting the most horrible of crimes with the individual himself sharing no percentage of responsibility for them. However, Eagleton stresses that explaining evil doesn't inevitably lead to excusing it. As he writes: "Explanations may sharpen moral judgements as well as soften them". The third conception of evil, dictates that doing evil is caused by the actor's own free will. The author seems to think that this last theory is susceptible to lapsing into a different type of determinism of character, thus retaining the theory's flaws. What Eagleton wants to do in this book is to emphatically declare that evil is an existing force in the universe by revolting against the theories of moral relativism and social or biological determinism. Despite his, well-known to the global readership affiliation with the Christian doctrines, Eagleton doesn't succumb to the temptation to ascribe a metaphysical dimension to his perception of evil, though in the book he often refers to the work of Thomas Aquinas and other theologians. The first chapter delves into the history of literature to pinpoint authors and protagonists that may prove helpful to the author's analysis. Eagleton focuses on Graham Greene (Brighton Rock), William Golding (Pincher Martin), Thomas Mann (Doctor Faustus), and John Milton's classic Paradise Lost and uses the texts to illustrate the ways in which literary authors have utilized a particular interpretation of evil in their work. Furthermore, the author mentions several philosopher and major thinkers in the course of his text, though in a manner that will prove to be easily accessible to a layman reader. So, there is no need to have an expansive academic background on philosophy in order to grasp Eagleton's thoughts and arguments.

As it is the first book by Eagleton that I've read, I feel happy as I feel that I discovered another worthy author whose body of work as a whole ought to be thoroughly explored. Next in line comes the Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read, the English literary critics latest publication (released in 2022), a work that promises a lot to an aspiring critic and -perhaps- author.


On Evil
Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press

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