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Book Review: On Evil by Terry Eagleton

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Beneath the diaphanous veil of ambiguity, the wit and the nuance-sense Terry Eagleton fails to get to the real heart of darkness, says AC Grayling 

Terry Eagleton brings news: he tells us that there really is such a thing as evil. He feels that it is necessary to tell us this because contemporary liberals and leftists regard talk of evil as merely a way of describing extreme forms of moral badness – and that, he argues, misses a point. I think he is wrong about this; liberals and leftists would delete the “merely” in the foregoing sentence because in capturing the extreme character of the badness in question the word “evil” does an important job. They would therefore have no reason to deny that evil exists, not in some metaphysical sense but in the plain sense that there are people and acts that unequivocally exemplify it – people who in extreme ways are deliberately malicious, cruel and destructive, and acts that are horrible, brutal and morally revolting. How could anyone deny this given that, alas, history and the contemporary world stagger under the evidence?

Eagleton – in the process always witty, always fluttering a diaphanous veil of ambiguity over his stylish prose – alleges the insufficiency of this view. He does not go so far as to say that evil is some sort of metaphysical stuff, but he implies that it is more like that than a “mere” egregious degree of badness. And he thinks it matters to say so because what he takes to be the liberals’ down-playing of evil renders them, he says, impotent to deal with it.

Accordingly he sets off on one of those complexifying journeys, like the route of a pinball bouncing backwards and forwards among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine, Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so copiously on – a verbal pinball ride among the entries in the telephone book of Western culture, to tell us what evil is. But do not expect, by the end, a conclusion, still less a definition, nor even a summary. Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a straightforward statement. You have to grasp at fragments as you bounce among the pingers, not always quite sure whether he is agreeing or disagreeing with this or that author, even whether he is still paraphrasing an author or speaking with his own voice. That’s a technique, of course.

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