On evil by Terry Eagleton

In popular discourse, Evil is unintelligible. The less intelligible an act is the more evil the act becomes. This accounts for the common-sense notion in which evil has come to mean ‘without a cause’. The contradiction in our current usage is that we then proceed to explain the unintelligible. The explanation often rests on something that is actually beyond the control of the actor: i.e., they *are* evil rather than what they have done is an evil act. When such discourses are used it is often in an effort to debunk the connection between environment (i.e., poverty, abuse, etc.) and replace it with another cause (i.e., character). In this way we throw out one cause only to replace by another more mysterious cause located in the opacity of the self.

One the fallacies that plagues this type of argument is that merely having a reason for why someone committed a violent crime, for example, does not mean that the reason is sufficient nor than it justifies the action. A reason does not make the action rational.

Eagleton, then, wants to resist both the idea that human actions are explicable and therefore cannot be evil and/or the view that human actions are radically inexplicable and therefore resist any meaningful discussion.

One of the popular critiques of divine virtue is this: if a person cannot choose to be virtuous then his virtue should not be admired anymore than ‘the size of his ears’. Most people are reluctant to ascribe this kind of determinism to our actions but this does not mean that we must therefore accept a deep individualism. In this sense, also, there is no blame in *being* evil.  There is, as Eagleton argues, no ‘absolute distinction between being influenced and being free’. Influence, pressure, or force must be interpreted and therefore responding to influence is, at least in part, a creative effort. Responsibility is to relate to influences in a particular way and to recognise that the way in which we position ourselves in relation to a particular set of influences is a creative act (a choice, to some extent). If we follow this type of thinking onward we can observe that human beings possess a degree of autonomy but that this embedded in a wide and deeper dependence on others.  Evil, then, is neither wholly chosen nor wholly beyond the control of the person.

For Eagleton, what is evil is the attempt to denies this mutuality. Pure autonomy is the dream of evil and is ‘metaphysical’. Rather than evil being a specific set of actions it is a form of relationality to being, i.e., the desire to annihilate being.

Is evil inborn?  In one sense, yes, through original sin.  As described by Eagleton, the doctrine of original sin is being innocently implicated in wrongdoing. Original sin is about being born and not whether you are saint or a sinner. It is original sin which makes the notion of autonomy a myth. This reproduction of the toxicity of sin can only even be broken by forgiveness.

Evil is destructive because it is the antithesis of God’s gift of creation. At the same time, evil is parasitic. It leeches off of life in order to fill the emptiness that rests within each of us. This emptiness is key because it those who represent non-being (i.e., they are an ontological threat) are those who drive you to mass-murder. The holocaust was not merely about Jews but also gays, lesbians, and the infirm. Evil then is a violence toward other beings as a means of assuaging the pain of the non-being which exists inside ourselves.

Evil is ‘amorphous and denies difference’ and often appears to have no purpose. Evil does not change and is boringly unremittingly the same. This is why hell is said to be for eternity. Evil is an example of pure disinterestedness. Evil is austere but dissolute; it both undervalues and overvalues the self. Perhaps one of Eagleton’s most memorable description of evil is where he describes it as a kind of cosmic sulking: ‘it rages most violently against those who threaten to snatch away its unbearable wretchedness’. Here Kierkegaard’s description of the tenacity with which we hold onto our own sinfulness is apropos. The evil want God to be dead because they want to reign as an individual sovereign of the space His nothingness leaves behind.

In contrast to this disinterestedness, goodness, like Gerard Manley Hopkins suggest, ‘is in love with the dappled unfinished nature of things’. Process and newness are part of the giftedness of life. Goodness is not a willingness to endure evil, as if torture were really for our own good, nor is goodness a willingness to see the bigger picture; rather it is both a scathing critique of the violence and oppression in the world coupled with a profound and unshakeable hope that we are capable of better. That we as humans have not yet moved beyond the point of being irredeemable. This hope, in Eagleton, is based on the belief that we (humanity) are not at our best when we live in circumstances of great oppression and hurt. Moreover, we are certainly not at our best when we experience a profound lack of material well-being.

Here then, is where Eagleton finds some hope in the face of the rare but no less real cases of Evil.


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