What is the point of evil?

If Terry Eagleton is right that evil is literally, supremely pointless, and also reassuringly rare in a world full of human purpose, then why are we discovering it everywhere we look?

Angus Kennedy

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In On Evil, Terry Eagleton updates his earlier reading of the three witches in Macbeth, in which he cast them as the heroines of the piece: a sisterly community; radical separatists; postmodern feminist theorists unsettling the established social and sexual order, striking at the heart of patriarchy.

Nearly 40 years later, he now sees them rather as anti-authority figures in a much more radical and metaphysical sense: as ‘enemies of political society as such’, embodying a ‘negativity which finds positive existence itself abhorrent’. The witches are figures of evil itself: immaterial and free of bodily constraint; rejecting ‘creaturely things’; having no ambition; no self-interest; neither means nor ends; no point. ‘They have no particular end in sight, any more than do their circular dances around the cauldron.’

With this one example, Eagleton usefully shows us how the seemingly radical postmodern deconstruction of authority may have thrown the eye of newt out with the hell-broth. What was once transgressive is now all the norm and no longer subversive or unsettling. With the ascendancy of cultural and moral relativism comes the conundrum that ‘if authority no longer functions, the idea of permission is bound to lose its force’. The contemporary loss of authority of politicians, bankers, teachers, even parents, means there may be little that is proscribed by society – its only principle being ‘do no harm’ – but there is also precious little to give meaning or sense to life. Eagleton observes that our ‘societies are those whose politics are little more than a set of managerial techniques designed to keep its citizens happy. As such, they are likely to breed the demonic as a backlash to their own blandness.’

Eagleton’s target here – although he does not explicitly acknowledge it – is really contemporary Western nihilism: British-born and bred suicide bombers protesting ‘against the debased quality of modern existence’, trying through murder and desperate frustration to show ‘that absolute acts are possible even in a world of moral relativism’. Contemporary anti-consumerism is equally well captured by Eagleton’s observation that ‘death is both a lack of being and an excess of it’. There is just too much meaningless junk around: why can’t someone clean it all up? Equally, Eagleton’s observation that evil involves a simultaneous ‘megalomaniac overvaluing of the self, and an equally pathological devaluing of it’ is a good take on the fragility of contemporary identity politics and the emergence of the cult of the victim.

On Evil is initially a fascinating reading of a number of novels and plays, through which it tries to arrive at a workable definition of evil. William Golding’s Pincher Martin portrays ‘a chilling image of Enlightenment man’ who can only count his ‘brutal self-interest’, incapable of love, refusing to submit to any limit, any finitude. Eagleton traces a provisional definition of evil in terms of unconstrained human ambition which drives man ‘beyond his own limits by the lure of the infinite’. The straight razor gangster Pinkie in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is revealed as a supreme artist of nothingness: a nihilist who detests the material and nature. Nothing can touch or move him. Adrian Leverkühn, in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, contracts syphilis as a short cut to musical genius, expressing the evil that comes when reason grows too abstract and loses ‘touch with creaturely life’. All existence for him is cheap and tawdry, a ‘whatever’: his is a sneery and knowing cackle at a reality that just seems a cheap joke, a phony world of consumerism in which the only pleasure on offer is to know that it’s fake, to jibe at those too stupid to get it.

Human self-interest is indeed often widely reviled today, in the form of lurid imaginings of bankers’ greed, man’s rape of nature and the human arrogance that has the temerity to seek to transform and overcome natural limits rather than accommodate to them. Although Eagleton does say that we ‘are born self-centred as an effect of our biology’, he does not rest on a definition of evil in terms of absolute self-interest. He is intellectually honest enough to pursue it, through readings of Macbeth and Othello, into an understanding that evil – ‘radical’ Evil in Kant’s sense – is actually without point, without causality. ‘The delight of the damned is not to give a damn. Even self-interest is set aside.’ Real evil is utterly disinterested, quite meaningless, and, as such, actually quite rare and exceptional in that most things have some form of reason behind them. The Holocaust may be an exception, as may be the Moors murderers in Manchester, England, but their very uniqueness is a source of comfort. For Eagleton, most of what we call evil is in fact (merely) wicked.

According to Eagleton there is, however, an institutional and systemic wickedness, which for him explains why so much of human history is a ‘slaughter bench’, as Hegel put it, yet which at the same time leaves some hope for humanity to be able to change the way things are since ‘most violence and injustice are the result of material forces, not of the vicious dispositions of individuals’. At this point, On Evil almost shuts its eyes on its insight into radical evil, tells us not to lose too much sleep over it, and hopes that rational argument can see us through our differences. It turns out that it is the bankers and oil companies that are to blame after all: ‘It is old-fashioned self-interest and rapacity we have to fear, not evil.’

This, I think, is a missed opportunity, in that the account of radical, purely disinterested evil is an interesting one that does shed some light on the nature of contemporary society and the problems of authority and meaning. It is the case that we remain fascinated by evil today, as the reaction around the recent Jon Venables case shows. Evil is one of those words, like the Holocaust, or Holocaust denier for that matter, that ‘is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus’, says Eagleton. Evil is, more often than not, ‘unspeakable’. When the West seems profoundly unsure just what it is for, and struggles to legitimise its own existence, some desperate form of certainty is hoped for in what Slavoj Žižek has called ‘the fashionable elevation of the Holocaust into an untouchable transcendent Evil’.

In the purest form of this simplistic morality play, Nazis almost wage war solely on children or at least defenceless victims. Who could disagree that this is evil? When events like Darfur are cast in this way, who could object to the imperative that ‘something must be done’? Who needs to know more? When something is unspeakable and unthinkable, what do we think of someone who stops to bother us with questions? Unfortunately, when debate is silenced in this way, our moral capacity as rational and free agents is undercut. The imperative to act, just because something must be done, is almost to act without reason, without a point. To follow Eagleton’s own logic, it is evil. At the very least, what are very complex and very worldly realities are depoliticised and simplified and there ceases to be any reason to try to debate or understand them.

As the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church continues to unfold, the website of the Italian diocese of Bozen-Brixen says that ‘Any abuse is one too many’ and it hosts an online forum where allegations can be lodged with an ombudsman. It promises that ‘every accusation will be investigated quickly and effectively, as care for the victims and their protection has the highest priority’. The desire to bring everything into the open is such that there is no concern for the reputation of those accused: the website speaks to the ombudsman’s willingness to follow up immediately on every suspicion lodged. Secrecy or defensiveness of any kind has become anathema around questions of child-abuse allegations and the pope is heavily criticised for attempting to deal with suspected cases behind closed doors.

The Guardian reported that, in Germany, parish priests have been shouted down during sermons, and it quoted the author and journalist Clifford Longley as saying that the scandal contrasts ‘the priest as man of God, symbol of purity and holiness, and the sexual abuse of children as the ultimate betrayal of innocence, representing unspeakable evil’. In the background one can almost see the bony accusing fingers of the witches demanding that what can only be a pretence of holiness is unmasked for the filth it must really be. One can almost hear the Schadenfreude of Adrian Leverkühn’s hellish laughter.

The scandal has widened into an attack on the authority of the Catholic Church per se. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, demands ‘truth and clarity about everything that has happened’. Truth and clarity, however, are not things that can be demanded on a plate. They are to be established through an often messy process of investigation, reasoning, argument and debate. They are a matter of perspective, as Eagleton notes: ‘The only truths we can attain to are those appropriate to finite beings like ourselves.’ To those who reject these limits, however, ‘only truths which are free of all perspective can be authentic’. This is the viewpoint, ironically, of God not man. The demand to see and know all is really a dream of nothingness, an evil nightmare.

Truth is. The Good ought to be. Goodness is the process by which we try to bring our vision of what ought to be into reality: to make reality poetic, as Goethe said. This idealism and its pursuit is what defines our humanity. If we allow a gap between what is true and what is good to open up, then we open a door to evil. As the way in which we should live seems increasingly to be determined for us by experts, by the way socio-biology tells us our brains are wired, by the mantra of ‘the evidence says…’, ‘the science says…’, we pour oil on the bonfire of every human value. With the question of how to live apparently answered for us in advance, pre-destined, all that seems to remain to us is an unending and tireless vigilance against each other, an eternally watchful and suspicious process of raising awareness in the name of ‘never again’. Occasionally, as our eyes flag in the face of this bland vision, we are shaken awake by the discovery of yet another demonic example of our fears: another Fritzl in the cellar; another genocide. It is a picture of hell.

The French mathematician and Catholic philosopher, Pascal, thought that ‘Man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute’. If we want to move society forward, to progress and advance, then we must tackle the question of what values we believe in and want to establish. We must debate what we think the good society is and we must be comfortable with our own self-interest in terms of what it is that we want and what it is that we need. The challenge of the good for humanity is always to try to realise its ideals with the materials it has to hand. Taking up that challenge is the point.

Angus Kennedy is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Economy Forum and a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

On Evil, by Terry Eagleton, is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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