Should we ever use the term “evil.” The brilliant Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton thinks that some events, people and actions require the “e” word.
I teach a course at the College of Charleston on the concept of Satan in western Europe and the United States. Lately, I’ve been using the first chapter of Eagleton’s On Evil as a way to begin a discussion about the historical usage of the idea, who has used it and for what reason.
Eagleton’s deeply aware of the problematic nature of talking about “evil.” He writes that its often used as a “punch to the solar plexus” rather than a term of analysis. Or it tends to be an expression of confusion over acts and events that we don’t understand. Calling terrorism “evil” expresses both outrage at disregard for human life and our inability to fully cope with the tragic consequences of such acts.
He also realizes that the term evil has gone out of fashion in some quarters and thinks perhaps we need it back, in radically revised form. Some in the modern west (he, somewhat awkwardly, picks on both Scandinavians and the French) are so convinced that the term evil has been misapplied by those interested in demonizing the cultural Other that they refuse to use it. But what about when you want to talk about Nazis?
On Evil convinces the reader that you can have morality without moralism and that its possible to talk about historical evil in terms of the material realities of history and culture rather than in terms of the demonic or even individual moral choices.
Unfortunately, Eagleton fails to acknowledge the fact that the impulse toward the annihilation of life tends to come from those who believed themselves warriors of righteousness. Eagleton is right that the phrase “the Other” has plenty of the scent of the trendinista about it. But its also true that history is in large part a story of victimization, the wholesale murder of those “others” hated and feared by those invested with judicial and police powers.
One of my students this summer put the matter very succinctly; “most of the evil we have studied was done by people convinced they were good.” The age of radio pulp villain who proclaims their evil evilness while tying someone to the railroad tracks never existed in truth. The destroyers of life and the connoisseurs of suffering believe they are warriors of righteousness, destroying evil.
Criticism to one side, On Evil is pure unadulterated Eagleton if you are a fan. This is as much as to say that he makes deep waters seems like a wading pool and that he turns heavy into quipy. Obviously, this gets him into trouble.
I still highly recommend this book. Its one of Eagleton’s intellectual thrillers you can’t put down, one of those books that seduces you with its breadth and that pops and crackles with insight on every page. Even when he’s wrong, he’s interesting.
I also highly recommend his even stronger work Why Marx was Right, a little book where Eagleton’s occasional tendency to oversimplification serves him well as he tries to answer simplistic criticisms of Marx.