Friday, July 9, 2010

Evil Is Boring--So We Should Just Ignore It

I just finished reading a book by Terry Eagleton entitled On Evil. Since I have a personal dislike for the trendy concept that there is no such thing as evil, but only "sick" people who should not be punished for their illness, I decided to buy the book. By the time I finished it, I couldn't be sure which side of the debate Eagleton was on. I suggest you wait until it hits the discount table before considering a purchase of the book.

Eagleton has, in past tomes, written extensively on his belief that evil is a real thing. He spent much of his research and exposition proving it by pointing to Hitler, Mussolini, and various other fascist tyrants. What was always missing from his analyses was an equal condemnation of evil as demonstrated by Mao, Stalin and Castro. In case you hadn't guessed by now, Eagleton views everything from the Marxist point of view. But On Evil travels a very circuitous road. The best way I can describe it is that despite his earlier expositions proving the existence of evil, he has now written a book about evil for the purpose of proving it doesn't exist. Or it does exist, but it's not very important. Or something.

I remember one of my pastors saying that Satan is the great liar, and the greatest lie he tells is that he doesn't exist. A great many of us believe that he is both the creator and master of evil. On the other hand, most of us don't really picture Satan or evil in the way the accompanying illustration does. For one thing, it makes him too easy to pick out in a crowd. Eagleton says in this recent publication that evil (which must exist if it has characteristics) is boring, supremely pointless, philistine, kitsch-ridden, and superficial. The concept of evil he describes says that people can do unbelievably cruel, vicious, or neglectful things, but evil itself is not worth worrying about, if it even exists.

Eagleton can neither be described as intellectually rigorous nor consistent in the development of his view of evil (or something like it). It seems that he is unintentionally of two minds on almost everything he has written, and spends much of his time refuting his own theories. When in "evil doesn't exist" mode, he has a bad habit of closing his books with Marxist comments on the inevitability of history and class struggle. But only when the mass murderer is not a communist does he find evil in the acts committed.

The problem for Eagleton is that as a Marxist, he cannot adequately describe evil because it's a nearly impossible topic to discuss when there's no God in the analysis. But as much as he wants to eliminate theology from his equation, the religion he rejected as a youth seems to color his descriptions of evil acts committed without underlying evil itself. Then Eagleton will wander off into discussions of the banality of evil but without either the force or theology behind Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase "banality of evil" in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In earlier works, Eagleton found good evil (don't ask me how you reconcile those two words) to be anything but banal. He frequently brings up Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in order to discuss his favorite character in the work. Though Eagleton won't admit to admiration, he dotes on Adrian Leverkuhn, whom Eagleton describes as "a Dionysian artist, plumbing the depths of human wretchedness in order to pluck order from chaos. His art strives to wrest the spirit from the flesh, wholeness from affliction, the angelic from the demonic." Huh? Beside his dance with the devil, Leverkuhn went so far as to purposely contract syphilis from a prostitute in order to enhance his musical genius. Well, that definitely isn't banal.

Eagleton admires that kind evil (if that's what it is, depending on the day of the week). He posits that this kind of evil is so outrageous and so defiant of the mores of civilized human beings as to rise to the level of the sublime. In addition, Eagleton slams the narrator of the book for being too decent, too reasonable, and too civilized to appreciate the monstrosity he will face. Leverkuhn, on the other hand, is to be admired for his welcoming of death resulting from his debauched ways.

So at least some of the time, Eagleton admits there is such a thing as evil, but it's only worth considering when it's really grand and destructive evil. The evil inherent in Nazism and communism can be either dreary or purposeful. The former bores him to death, the latter excites him so he has to justify it. Thus, Nazi evil was, well, evil because it lacked legitimate purpose. Communism, particularly as practiced by Mao and Stalin, may or may not have been evil, but in Eagleton's mind it had purpose, and therefore was either forgivable or understandable. Communism served the purpose of freeing people from the tyranny of capitalism. Nazism, on the other hand, served no purpose. The Holocaust was "an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it."

Peasants and serfs in Russia and China were murdered by the millions all for the ultimate good of the working class. The Jews were exterminated by Hitler just because they happened to be there. Making Germany free of the "degenerate subhuman Jews" as a palpable purpose doesn't even seem to occur to Eagleton. If it had, he would actually understand the true nature of evil, but it would require him to admit that extermination of a people because of their religion and ethnic makeup is not really much different from doing the same thing by murdering large numbers of people based solely on their unfortunate membership is a certain social stratum.

There is another inconsistency in Eagleton's view of evil as banal. He seemed to get what Arendt was talking about when discussing Eichmann. But he is unable to see that the evil of Eichmann's banal and bureaucratic carrying out of orders was quite different from Hitler's mad fury and hatred of the Jews. If Eagleton had the intellectual consistency necessary to be convincing, he would have put Hitler into the same category as Leverkuhn. Even black racist Louis Farrakhan was able to come up with words describing Hitler as an evil genius (though his shared hatred of Jews also played a part in his assessment).

Where Eagleton is consistent he badly damages his own arguments. By refusing to recognize Hitler as the grandiose type of evildoer that he so admires in Leverkuhn, and ascribing that characteristic to Mao and Stalin instead, he shows his Marxist intellectual intransigence and laziness. And unlike Arendt, Eagleton doesn't recognize that evil can be banal, or it can be wildly dramatic, but either way it's evil. And I would simply add, it's also an offense against God. Eagleton is guilty of combining psychological jargon in seeing evil as a mental disease and Marxist theory in seeing evil as an uncontrollable reaction to economic oppression.

I agree with Alan Wolfe of Yale's final assessment of Eagleton's new book: "None of this makes sense, says Eagleton, but that's how it is with evil. The less sense it makes, the more evil it is. Eagleton's book makes no sense, but it's not evil, it just makes no sense."


Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - the concept and questions have been around forever it seems. I have felt that Marxists need to reconcile the notion Marxism is not inherently evil with the fact that any marxist regimes have turned out that way. The reality is there has long been the concept of the benevolent dictator. To me, the very notion of dictator almost becomes evil by definition. If someone holds power over you, it is too easy to treat them badly.

perhaps the better question is why do people so often behave with cruelty towards each other. Why is it so hard for people to treat others well. The golden rule would seem to apply as a good standard. Sometimes the problem is personal gain and selfishness (e.g. murder your spouse to get the money.) That is not true evil to me. That comes from hatred it seems. We are still animals for all our intelligence. We are capable of acting out of emotion without thinking. No the real problem is when people behave with cruelty on purpose. In this regard, I look at the psychopath, now called the sociopath as the real source of such evil. Whether that is a problem with brain chemistry, I don't know, but these people have no conscience. The best book I have read on that is "The Mask of Sanity."

Game Master Rob Adams said...

"The greatest trick the devil ever did was to convince the world that he did not exist"

Kaiser Soze

AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like Eagleton is trying hard to find evil in people he doesn't like but explain it away in people who share his ideology. In fact, you've identified a massive amount of contradictions here.

And you're right about his being neither consistent nor intellectually rigorous. It sounds like he just threw this together without every really thinking it through or checking to see if his theory made any sense.

Any of the questions you raise should have stopped him cold if he was being honest.

Good read.

(ACG -- I love that quote! Love the movie too!)

Anonymous said...

"Sounds like Eagleton is trying hard to find evil in people he doesn't like but explain it away in people who share his ideology."

Andrew, this sounds remarkably like the present administration and leftists in general, don't you think? TJ

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I would also add that this is the danger in group movements which deny individual responsibility. We all know that a mob develops a mentality of its own that would probably not occur if each individual were to be asked to perform the act that the mob is perfectly willing to commit.

And as for Mao, Stalin, Hitler and to a lesser extent, Mussolini and Castro, we've been hammered with the concept that a single murderer, or even a serial killer can be excused because of some imagined emotional problem. But they've left no doubt that when it comes to mass murder, only an insane person would order it. That concept makes mass murder easier because until it happens, nobody wants to accept the fact that the future mass murderer is just plain evil.

Unknown said...

ACG: Kaiser Sose had many identities and no identity, which allowed him to take credit for things said by those who went before him. In this case, I heard the version I quoted at a church meeting in the early 70s. I'm quite sure that cleric heard someone else say it years before that. That said, Sose had it exactly right.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, Yes it certainly does!

Unknown said...

Andrew: The left loves to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson by saying "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Thus, they justify their overall good intentions by treating inconsistency as an irrelevancy. In fact, Emerson said "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines." I would simply add "Marxist authors." Eagleton never explains his inconsistencies, so it remains for the rest of us to figure out that evil is bad if committed by the right, but good (or at least admirable) if committed by the left.

Unknown said...

Anon: Even more simply put, excuses have become the alternative to answers when it comes to inconsistency on the left.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, At least he's consistent in his inconsistency! Dare I say "foolishly consistent."

Unknown said...

Andrew: You may so dare, and I doubt there's anything I could say that would stop you anyway. LOL

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I should have added that you are right on target about the concept and questions. Theologians and philosophers have been debating the whole thing for as long as there have been theologians and philosophers. Philosophers (and faux philosopher/authors) have a slightly easier time of it than Jewish and Christian theologians since philosophers get to set their own ground rules. We have ten basic rules that mean that most of the time we only get to define the degree of evil, but not the evil itself.

rlaWTX said...

The thing about psycho- and sociopaths isn't that they are crazy -- crazy implies an inability to know that the thing you did was wrong. Psycho/sociopaths KNOW, they just don't care. True Schizophrenia is one of the few dx that actually move into that inability. By virtue of delusion, one does not know that their world is not real.

All of that to say, evil is a choice to counter all known "good" paths with your own direction, because you know better, because you "are" better, because you just want to... "To him who knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). Lucifer fell because he wanted his position to match his view of himself - higher than God. Man (& woman) Fell because of the allure of knowing as much as God and therefore being out from under His rule.

Evil is the ultimate of selfishness.

(The Philosophy of RLA)

Unknown said...

rlaWTX: For many of us, the perfect description of hell is complete distance from the presence of God. Therefore, evil is anything which makes that distancing more possible. To defy God is to claim equality of decision-making ability with God. A person whose mind is so clouded and cross-wired that he is truly insane cannot, of his own will defy God (or commit an intentional crime). Some criminals really are just crazy. Most are merely evil. And considering the amount of time, effort and planning which has to go into mass murder, the greater and more elaborate the crime, the less likely that the criminal is insane and the more likely that he is evil.

Without being able to see that, and by using "motivations and results" as the measure of evil or lack thereof, a Marxist can quickly excuse the "brilliant evil" of Mao and Stalin while condemning the "banal evil" of a Hitler. On the other hand, a confused pseudo-intellectual like Eagleton can't see that a Jew-hating Nazi could come up with exactly the same reasoning, but reach exactly the opposite conclusion.

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--Unless I'm not remembering this right, Hannah Arendt "revised and extended" her remarks about the banality of evil to make people understand that she was not suggesting that all evil was banal or that Eichmann was any less guilty because he was the instrumentality rather than the creator of the Holocaust.

Unknown said...

HamiltonsGhost: Aha! Another fan of Arendt. Until one has read Origins of Totalitarianism," it's impossible to discuss these mass murderers and their motivations properly. But as to your point, Arendt did an entire lecture series correcting the misconceptions raised by her banality of evil remarks about Eichmann and the "we were only following orders" gang. She was much taken with Kafka's reasoning about the lurking evil in mindless bureaucracies (particularly as evidence in The Trial) but realized she had failed to make it clear that her banality argument did not stand alone, nor was it her whole theory. Too many people (such as Eagleton) have relied on the original without taking into account her further explanations.

Individualist said...


"On the other hand, most of us don't really picture Satan or evil in the way the accompanying illustration does."

I think that is because in the picture the Devil looks like he has a hernia..... Just Saying!

From a psychological point people don't wish to believe they are evil and when they do commit wrong acts they make justifications (as opposed to excuses justifications are told to themselves).

I think the reason many of the left deny that good and evil exist is that for them everthing is personalized through their political lens. Thus they cannot look at events from an abstract academic viewpoint and place a lable because they have to become personally involved in that choice.

I am not explaining this clearly I know. I guess what I mean is if they see a robber they have to ask what the race, class, social structure, religious affiliation is etc since they invest "academic Capital" in these things and have viewpoints based on feelings bout them. Thus robbery is not evil but a sickness. If you are the group the left blesses then it is society's sickness, if not then you own or a product of your ideological beliefs.

Unknown said...

Individualist: I think you're quite clear--and correct. The big cry of the left for many years was "screw guilt" (that's the cleaned-up version). But they were speaking only of doctrinal guilt and individual guilt. They absolutely adore group guilt, so long as it's those who disagree with them who are guilty. Slavery--a sin. And those of us who arrived 140 years after slavery and belong to families that never owned slaves, or fought to free them, or weren't even in America during slavery are expected to feel collective guilt (whites only, if you please). But feeling guilty for some evil thing you've done and which you knew to be wrong is a no-no. Furthermore, without the guidance of scripture, the left gets to write its own rules on evil and guilt, and has done so with missionary zeal (pun intended).

wahsatchmo said...


Not to engage in idle fandom (except that I will explicitly do so), but this post and your subsequent comments are wonderfully considered and expressed.

Post modernist thought sought to do away with the concepts of good and evil and instead make them reliant only upon a select bureaucracy who would determine, upon slippery slope, that which was dark grey and that which was off grey. And then, for the off grey: accolades, approbates, and accommodations. For the temporally darker grey: punishment, penalties and penance.

Without an understanding of Evil, our justice system cannot exist, considering that our punishments are heavily based on intent and knowledge. Intent is one of the keys to Evil. The second key is knowledge.

That they are the same keys for Good is no coincidence. But claiming good intentions does not mitigate an evil act, and having knowledge of a horrific outcome does not preclude a good intent.

And in-between does reside humanity.

Post modernism represents the abrogation of responsibility for the consideration of morality. Or, in less stilted terms, “I care, but only to the extent that it does not concern me.” A terribly odd concept, but one must abandon concepts of Good and Evil if one cannot ask for forgiveness for their own transgressions while simultaneously embracing that they are above such societal contrivances.

Sure, they’re contrivances that have history, meaning, and import across cultures, religions, and time, but let’s just say “meh”, and move on.

Unknown said...

wahsatchmo: Thanks for your kind remarks and valuable opinion. I have read enough nonsense from Foucault and Derrida to know that postmodernism is just a wordier, and more sophisticated form of nihilism, combined with a whole lot of obscurantism. It carries good/evil, right/wrong, truth/falsity into all new realms of moral relativism and structural meaninglessness.

I would consider Eagleton a postmodernist in many ways if I could be convinced he was sufficiently dedicated and academically qualified to be one. Sadly, I have to conclude he's simply a mundane Marxist.

wahsatchmo said...

As you say, and it's only my first impressions of Eagleton that led me to me classifying him as a postmodernist rather than a mundane marxist, for I have not read him in any fashion.

Is it wrong for me to hold the same derision for postmodernism as I do for marxism, or is there something that can be gained or admired from postmodernism (aside from the misnamed MTV series in the 80's which featured awesome bands instead of the popular and redundantly execrable crap)?

StanH said...

Wow! …Lawhawk, it sounds as if Terry Eagleton wouldn’t know evil if Ted Bundy where sitting in his lap. He’d explain it away in a sea of moral relativism that would exhaust even the most devout, devotee, of gobbledygook. Evil is subjective, as is good, but you know it when you see it.

Unknown said...

Stan: Worse than that, he could have Ted Bundy sitting in his lap, but before he could decide if he was truly evil, he'd have to know what Bundy's political beliefs were. Was he a "grand evil genius" or a "boring mundane evil schlub?"

patti said...

reminds me of a young woman i know who changed her ideology once something "bad" happened to her for no apparent reason. so many folks i come into contact with seem to have a belief that as long as they don't experience "bad" or evil, then it's a concept, not so much truth.

and i love the quote: the greatest lie...

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