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On Evil

On Evil

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by Terry Eagleton

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In this witty, accessible study, the prominent Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton launches a surprising defense of the reality of evil, drawing on literary, theological, and psychoanalytic sources to suggest that evil, no mere medieval artifact, is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.

In a book that ranges from St. Augustine to


In this witty, accessible study, the prominent Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton launches a surprising defense of the reality of evil, drawing on literary, theological, and psychoanalytic sources to suggest that evil, no mere medieval artifact, is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.

In a book that ranges from St. Augustine to alcoholism, Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Mann, Shakespeare to the Holocaust, Eagleton investigates the frightful plight of those doomed souls who apparently destroy for no reason.  In the process, he poses a set of intriguing questions.  Is evil really a kind of nothingness?  Why should it appear so glamorous and seductive?  Why does goodness seem so boring?  Is it really possible for human beings to delight in destruction for no reason at all?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An engaging if ultimately unsatisfactory argument in favor of the reality of evil by one of Britain's most distinguished Marxist literary critics. Analyzing some of Western literature's major pronouncements on evil from Thomas Aquinas to William Golding, Eagleton (Reason, Faith and Revolution) pieces together what he sees as the defining features of evil in a rather unsystematic way, before grounding his own vision of evil in Freud's notion of the death drive, describing evildoers as suffering from “an unbearable sense of non-being” which must “be taken out on the other.” Despite its undeniably enjoyable verve and wit, the book's claims are undermined by a rather arbitrary use of source material as well as a belated and inadequate articulation of its major theoretical claim. Muddy talk about different levels of evil and an undeveloped but evidently important distinction between wickedness and evil suggest that the author's notions on the topic would be better served by a larger, more sustained work. Nonetheless, as an attempt to take seriously the reality of extreme wrongdoing without recourse to either religiously grounded certitudes or a total sociological determinism, it offers a promising alternative. (Apr.)
New Yorker

“Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution attacks the new atheism as a kind of secular counter-fundamentalism… Better than any previous book of its kind.”—James Wood, The New Yorker

— James Wood


"An absorbing, stimulating, awfully entertaining discussion.”--Ray Olson, Booklist

— Ray Olson

Irish Times

“Jaunty and surprisingly entertaining. . .[Eagleton's] argument is subtle, intricate, provocative and limpidly expressed. . . . A valuable contribution to a debate as old as Adam and Eve and as contemporary as 9/11 and Abu Ghraib.” — John Banville, Irish Times

— John Banville

Christianity Today

"On Evil belongs to the genre of religious psychology, where Eagleton brilliantly relates the ultimate concerns of the theologian with the penultimate concerns of the psychoanalyst. Without the former, the result would be a study of human discontent; without the latter, a retreat into papier-mâché piety. Here, Aquinas meets Freud--enriching our reflections on the nature and manifestations of evil."--Christopher Benson, Christianity Today

— Christopher Benson

New Yorker - James Wood

“Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution attacks the new atheism as a kind of secular counter-fundamentalism… Better than any previous book of its kind.”—James Wood, The New Yorker

Booklist - Ray Olson

"An absorbing, stimulating, awfully entertaining discussion.”--Ray Olson, Booklist

Irish Times - John Banville

“Jaunty and surprisingly entertaining. . .[Eagleton's] argument is subtle, intricate, provocative and limpidly expressed. . . . A valuable contribution to a debate as old as Adam and Eve and as contemporary as 9/11 and Abu Ghraib.” — John Banville, Irish Times

Christianity Today - Christopher Benson

"On Evil belongs to the genre of religious psychology, where Eagleton brilliantly relates the ultimate concerns of the theologian with the penultimate concerns of the psychoanalyst. Without the former, the result would be a study of human discontent; without the latter, a retreat into papier-mâché piety. Here, Aquinas meets Freud--enriching our reflections on the nature and manifestations of evil."--Christopher Benson, Christianity Today
Library Journal
Eagleton here distinguishes wickedness, i.e., doing bad things, from genuine evil. The latter, he holds, is a rare phenomenon that involves a will to nothingness; the individual embodying evil views existence as repulsive and desires pure annihilation. By contrast, wickedness is a not unusual phenomenon that may stem from bad historical conditions, and we ought not to judge the potential of humanity by what takes place under the repressive social systems that exist today. Eagleton does not discuss in detail the nature of social repression, as he conceives it, but instead devotes most of the book to evil as portrayed in works by, among others, William Golding, Thomas Mann, and Shakespeare. In particular, his sensitive analysis of Macbeth, which concentrates on the three witches, is well done. Eagleton, who displays a wide knowledge of philosophy and theology and draws on both Schopenhauer and Freud's death drive to draw out his account, combines a Marxist and a liberal Catholic sensibility in an unusual way. VERDICT Highly recommended for anyone interested in the intersection between literature, philosophy, and religion.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH

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On Evil



Copyright © 2010 Terry Eagleton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16296-7



Fictions of Evil

There aren't many novels in which the main character dies in the first few paragraphs. There are even fewer in which this is the only character in the book. We would be bemused if Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse were to break her neck in the first chapter of Emma, or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones were to be stillborn in the novel's opening sentences. Something like this, however, is what happens in William Golding's novel Pincher Martin, which begins with a man drowning:

He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.


Given that there is no help to hand, and that the man, Christopher Martin, is wallowing in the middle of the ocean, this promises to be a gratifyingly short novel. With commendable presence of mind, however, he manages to kick off his sea boots, inflate his lifebelt, and struggle his way to a nearby rock, where he survives for a while. Except that his efforts are really in vain. The truth is that Martin dies before he heaves his boots off, though he does not know it. Neither does the reader, who discovers this only in the novel's last line. In watching Martin scrambling around on his imaginary rock, we are privy to the condition of the living dead.

Pincher Martin is the tale of a man who refuses to die. Yet we soon learn from a series of flashbacks that this grasping, lecherous, manipulative naval officer was never really alive in the first place. "He was born," a colleague remarks, "with his mouth and flies open and both hands out to grab." His isolation on the rock magnifies the fact that he has been a solitary predator all along. Martin uses other people as instruments of his own profit or pleasure, and on the rock he is reduced to using his own exhausted body as a rusty piece of mechanism for accomplishing various tasks. As the sinewy, muscular style of the novel suggests, the hero is stripped down to his animality—to the instinctively self-preservative creature he has always been. It is fitting, then, that he is dead without knowing it, since death reduces the body to a meaningless piece of matter. It represents the divorce of materiality and meaning.

Estranged from his own body, Martin squats inside it rather as a man might sit inside a crane, operating its limbs like so many levers. Evil involves a split between body and spirit—between an abstract will to dominate and destroy, and the meaningless piece of flesh that this will inhabits. Martin does not see but "uses" his eyes to look at the things around him. While he was alive, he negated the reality of other people's bodies, treating their flesh merely as a mechanical means to his own satisfaction. Now, in a neatly ironic reversal, he deals with his own body as though it were someone else's. His extreme fatigue, which means that he has to shift his limbs by sheer force of will, magnifies the way he has treated other human bodies all along. Certainly his own body is no part of his identity. It is at war with his selfhood, rather than the place where that selfhood is made flesh. All that is still stirring in him is a sublimely unquenchable will to survive, which drives on the lumbering machinery of his body like a despot. Because it transcends all natural constraints, this will represents a kind of infinity. As such, it is a secular version of the God against whom Martin will find himself pitted in a life-and-death struggle.

This shipwrecked sailor, then, is a mass of lifeless stuff pinned together only by a relentless drive. This drive is located in what the novel calls the "dark centre"—the eternally vigilant core of consciousness buried somewhere inside Martin's skull, which seems the only place where he is truly alive (though even this will turn out to be an illusion). This dark centre is the hero's monstrous ego, which is unable to reflect on itself. This can be understood in both a factual and a moral sense. Human consciousness cannot nip behind itself, since when we reflect on ourselves it is still we who are doing the reflecting. Our sense of the murky regions from which consciousness springs is itself an act of consciousness, and thus already remote from that realm. But neither can Pincher Martin know himself for what he is, in the sense of getting a fix on his own predatory nature. If he were able to do this, he might be able to repent, and so to die for real. As it is, he is stuck fast within his own skull. Even the rock, whose contours seem curiously familiar to him all along, turns out to be the exact shape of a missing tooth in his gum. He is literally living inside his own head. Hell is not other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre claimed. It is exactly the opposite. It is being stuck for all eternity with the most dreary, unspeakably monotonous company of all: oneself.

What the novel portrays, in the figure of its dead-but-won't-lie-down protagonist, is a chilling image of Enlightenment Man. It is, to be sure, a grossly one-sided portrait of that mighty current of human emancipation, as one might expect from a conservative Christian pessimist like Golding. But it captures with superb immediacy some of its less savoury aspects. Martin, as we have seen, is a rationalist who treats the world, including his own and others' bodies, as mere valueless stuff to be moulded by his imperious will. All that counts is his own brutal self-interest. As a kind of latter-day colonialist Crusoe, he even seeks to exercise dominion over the rock on which he is marooned, giving names to its various sectors and manhandling its bits and pieces into some kind of order. It is almost as though his briskly efficient activity on the rock is a way of concealing from himself the fact that he is dead. In this sense, too, Martin behaves rather like Robinson Crusoe, who chops wood and builds stockades on his desert island with all the stolid common sense of a Home Counties carpenter. There is something reassuring about witnessing such stout Anglo-Saxon practicality even in the most exotic of settings. There is also something mildly insane about it.

In fact, it is practical intelligence that Martin values most highly. Deludedly, he sees himself as Prometheus, a mighty hero of the Enlightenment and Karl Marx's favourite mythological figure. Prometheus, too, was chained to a rock but refused to submit to the gods. "Give up, leave go" is the temptation seductively murmured in his ear; but he is terrified of slackening his grip on himself, which is what dying would involve. Since all he has ever had is himself, the only alternative to survival would be pure nothingness. And even his tormented half-life on the rock is preferable to no existence whatsoever.

Martin cannot die because he regards himself as too precious to disappear forever. But he is also unable to die because he is incapable of love. Only the good are capable of dying. Martin cannot yield himself up to death because he has never been able to yield himself up to others in life. In this sense, how you die is determined by how you live. Death is a form of self-dispossession which must be rehearsed in life if it is to be successfully accomplished. Otherwise it will prove to be a cul-de-sac rather than a horizon. Being-for-others and being-toward-death are aspects of the same condition. Pincher Martin is sometimes taken to be a novel about hell, but it is really a story about purgatory. Purgatory is not an ante-room in which morally mediocre types sit around performing various degrading penances until their number is called and they shuffle shamefacedly forward into paradise. For Christian theology, it is the moment of death itself, when you discover whether you have enough love inside you to be able to give yourself away with only a tolerable amount of struggle. This is why martyrs—those who actively embrace their deaths in the service of others—traditionally go straight to heaven.

Martin is not in hell. Though he is dead on his feet, some ghostly trace of him still lingers on; and there can be no life in hell, which is a state of pure annihilation. There could no more be anyone "in" hell than there could be anyone in a material location called debt or love or despair. For traditional theology, to be in hell is to fall out of the hands of God by deliberately spurning his love, if such a condition is actually thinkable. In this sense, hell is the most florid compliment to human freedom one could imagine. If one can even reject the blandishments of one's Creator, one must be powerful indeed. But since there can be no life outside God, who is the source of all vitality, the finality of hell is a matter of extinction, not perpetuity. If there is such a thing as hellfire, it could only be the fire of God's ruthless love, which burns up those who cannot bear it. The damned are those who experience God as a Satanic terror, since he threatens to prise their selves apart. His love and mercy loosen their hold on themselves, and in doing so risk depriving them of their most precious possession. Those who live in fear of hellfire, then, can rest assured. The good news is that they will not roast for ever and ever. This is because the bad news is that they will simply be consumed to nothing.

This, in the end, is probably what happens to Christopher Martin, though we can't be sure. His friend Nathaniel, whose gauche, gangly innocence infuriates him rather as the sheer fact of Othello's existence irritates Iago beyond endurance, speaks to him of "the technique of dying into heaven," dissolving into the ultimate truth of things. Martin reacts rather less high-mindedly by trying to murder him. In our present warped condition, Nat argues, the love of God would appear to us as "sheer negation. Without form or void. You see? A sort of black lightning destroying everything we call life." God is a kind of sublime nothingness. He is a terrorist of love, whose implacable forgiveness is bound to seem like an intolerable affront to those who cannot let go of themselves. The damned are those who experience the "good" infinity of God as a "bad" one. In the same way, one can experience what art historians call the sublime (towering mountains, storms at sea, infinite skies) as either terrible or magnificent, or both.

Like Faust, the damned are too proud to submit to limit. They will not bow the knee to the finite, least of all to their own creatureliness. This is why pride is the characteristic Satanic vice. This is also why they are so terrified of death, which is the absolute limit of the human. The "good" nothing of God is counterpointed in the novel by the "bad" nothingness of Martin himself, his sheer incapacity for life. "I spit on your compassion ... I shit on your heaven!" he snarls in the final showdown. As the lines of black lightning play mercilessly around him, probing for some crevice or point of weakness where they may penetrate, Martin is reduced to a pair of enormous lobster-like claws, locked like a protective carapace over the elusive dark centre of his selfhood. The lightning probes away at the claws, seeking with infinite patience to undo them:

There was nothing but the centre and the claws. They were huge and strong and inflamed to red. They closed on each other. They contracted. They were outlined like a night sign against the absolute nothingness and they gripped their whole strength against each other ... The lightning crept in. The centre was unaware of anything but the claws and the threat ... Some of the [lightning's] lines pointed to the centre, waiting for the moment when they could pierce it. Others lay against the claws, playing over them, prying for a weakness, wearing them away in a compassion that was timeless and without mercy.

And this is where we take leave of our hero. We do not learn whether the black lightning succeeds in its probing and prying. Perhaps Martin is not annihilated after all. We do not know whether the lightning of God's remorseless love turns out in his case to be a bad negativity or a good one—whether it obliterates him or transforms him. This is one reason why Pincher Martin is not a novel about hell.

There is a final point to note about the book's terrifyingly apocalyptic conclusion. When the black lightning begins its destructively re-creative work, the rock and the ocean are revealed to be mere paper fictions:

The sea stopped moving, froze, became paper, painted paper that was torn by a black line. The rock was painted on the same paper. The whole of the painted sea was tilted but nothing ran downhill into the black crack which had opened in it. The crack was utter, was absolute, was three times real ... The lines of absolute blackness fell forward into the rock and it was proved to be as insubstantial as the painted water. Pieces went and there was no more than an island of papery stuff around the claws and everywhere else there was the mode that the centre knew as nothing.

Martin's self-created world turns out to be quite literally a hollow fiction. It is no more than a fantasy designed to plug the intolerable negativity of death. This final revelation is particularly shocking given the novel's intensely physical style, which works overtime to re-create the sensuous feel of things. If anything has the air of reality, it is this jagged wedge of rock and its frozen, skin-drenched tenant. Even this sense of solidity, however, turns out to be an illusion. Evil may appear robust and substantial, but it is in fact as flimsy as a spider's web. There is another kind of negativity, however—that symbolised by the black lightning of God's love—which is more real than reality itself.

There may be some significance in Golding's choice of surname for his hero. Not long before the novel's publication, a book appeared describing Operation Mincemeat, a celebrated ruse which took place toward the end of the Second World War. British forces dropped a corpse dressed as a Royal Marines officer off the coast of Spain, carrying letters which successfully fooled the Germans about where the Allies planned to invade Europe. The code name given to the corpse was William Martin; and in the introduction to a new edition of an account of the operation, Ewen Montagu's The Man Who Never Was, John Julius Norwich raises the suggestion that the dead man, whose identity remains secret to this day, was one John McFarlane, a name which sounds Scottish. In the film of Montagu's book, there are also one or two hints that the anonymous body is that of a Scot, possibly from the Hebrides. There is a reference to the Hebrides in Pincher Martin, which might just be an allusion to Martin's home. In Operation Mincemeat, a dead man saved thousands of the living, as the duped Germans diverted their troops from the Allies' true landing place. In Golding's novel, a dead man believes that he himself is rescued. But he was never really alive in the first place. Pincher Martin is the man who never was.

Several of Golding's novels are concerned with what is traditionally known as original sin. Lord of the Flies, for example, is a heavily loaded fable of the "darkness of men's hearts." The schoolboys' efforts to build a civilised order on their island are inevitably undermined by violence and sectarianism. I call the fable "heavily loaded" because it is easy to prove that civilisation is only skin-deep if the people you show trying to build it are only partly civilised animals in the first place (i.e., children). It is as easy as proving in the manner of George Orwell's novel Animal Farm that human beings cannot run their own affairs by portraying them as farmyard animals. In both cases, the form of the fable determines the moral outcome.

Another of Golding's novels, The Inheritors, actually pinpoints the moment of the Fall itself, as one "unfallen" tribe of early hominids encounters another, more dangerous and destructive culture. This second tribe, because of its greater capacity for language, has made the crucial transition to conceptual abstraction and technology. And this involves developing more deadly weapons. It is as though this more evolved community has cut its bonds with Nature and entered upon the precariousness of history proper, with all its ambiguous gains and losses. The Fall, with impeccable theological correctness, is thus portrayed as a fall up rather than down. It is a felix culpa, or fortunate fault, in which human beings "lapse" upward from the natural world and the innocence of the beasts into an exhilarating, sickeningly unstable history. It is, to adopt the title of another of Golding's novels, a free Fall—one bound up with the fatal, double-edged freedom which advanced linguistic consciousness brings in its wake.

Free Fall is the title of Golding's most subtle investigation of original sin, a condition which has nothing to do with slimy reptiles and forbidden fruit. "Original" here means "at the root," not "in the beginning." The novel perceives that being "fallen" has to do with the misery and exploitation that human freedom inevitably brings in its wake. It lies in the fact that we are self-contradictory animals, since our creative and destructive powers spring from much the same source. The philosopher Hegel considered that evil flourished the more individual freedom did. A creature equipped with language can develop far beyond the restricted scope of nonlinguistic creatures. It acquires godlike powers of creation. But like most potent sources of invention, these capabilities are also deeply dangerous. Such an animal is in constant peril of developing too fast, overreaching itself and bringing itself to nothing. There is something potentially self-thwarting or self-undoing about humanity. And this is what the biblical myth of the Fall is struggling to formulate, as Adam and Eve use their creative powers to undo themselves. Man is Faustian Man, too voraciously ambitious for his own well-being, perpetually driven beyond his own limits by the lure of the infinite. This creature cold-shoulders all finite things in his hubristic love affair with the illimitable. And since infinity is a kind of nothingness, the desire for this nothingness is an expression of what we shall see later as the Freudian death drive.

Excerpted from On Evil by TERRY EAGLETON. Copyright © 2010 by Terry Eagleton. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Terry Eagleton is currently Bailrigg Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He lives in Dublin.

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