On Evil is the latest in a series of works by the literary critic Terry Eagleton in which he addresses some of the great philosophical questions fellow Marxists have tended to avoid.
In the case of evil this avoidance is because Marxists have denied its existence, although they accept that there can be evil acts (such as the Holocaust) which humans have the capacity to perform. Eagleton wants to go beyond both this – and a related liberal-humanist “community worker” position which mistrusts the concept of evil because of the ways in which it has been used as a means of demonising the deprived or oppressed. The first, Eagleton claims, confuses “morality with moralism” and the second “works better if you are thinking of unemployed council-estate heroin addicts than the serial killers of the Nazi SS”.
Instead, he argues, evil is a real aspect of human existence, “a condition of being, as well as a quality of behaviour”, identifiable by two characteristic attitudes. One involves “the mechanistic view for which every act exists only for the sake of some other act” – which leads to treating other people purely as the objectified means of self-gratification. The other is “a refusal to accept our mortality as natural, material beings”, which can lead, as in the case of the Nazis, to the treatment of others in a way that is not merely instrumental, but annihilatory – a species of what Eagleton, following Jacques Lacan, calls “obscene enjoyment”.
But evil itself is not functional other than in the sense of satisfying human appetites. It is ultimately meaningless, because it regards existence itself as meaningless, while simultaneously trying to prolong it. At least, this is what I think Eagleton is saying. His discursive, conversational style is always entertaining, but in the case of a subject as unavoidably metaphysical as this it occasionally obscures his argument.
Nevertheless, he argues that evil as he defines it – “radical evil” – is relatively rare and that the term is often used to obscure debate. The spectacle of bourgeois politicians denying the possibility of a rational explanation for the actions of the people they label terrorists, preferring to denounce their actions as incomprehensible acts of “evil”, is a case in point. Yet, as Eagleton rightly says, to understand something is not necessarily to commend it. Beyond any ideology, the destruction of the Twin Towers “also took the Arab world’s sense of anger and humiliation”.
His conclusion rightly returns us to our contemporary political dilemmas: “The result of defining terrorism as evil is to exacerbate the problem; and to make the problem worse is to be complicit, however unwittingly, in the very barbarism you condemn.”
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