“Evil is not something we should lose too much sleep over,” according to Terry Eagleton. How much sleeplessness is just enough?

In February 1993, two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, lured a two-year-old child, Jamie Bulger, away from a shopping center in Liverpool. They proceeded to batter him to death. Arrested and charged with murder, they were sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison, later raised to ten years and then to fifteen. The term was subsequently reduced to eight years after the European Court of Human Rights condemned the boys’ trial in an adult court as “inhuman and degrading.” Venables was released “on license” in 2001 and given a new identity. The conditions of his parole were that he must never contact Thompson or go back to Liverpool.

When I was in London a few months ago, I read reports in newspapers and heard on TV that Venables had now been returned to prison, his parole revoked, and that new charges against him would be considered on the basis of “extremely serious allegations,” as then–Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced. (I have not read or heard anything of Thompson since his release.) Jamie Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, demanded that the Justice Secretary give her full information about Venables’s alleged new offense, but he refused, on the grounds that any disclosure would “undermine the integrity of the criminal justice process.” Harriet Harman, leader of the House, said, “Bear in mind that the people who wanted to kill Venables in 2001 are out there still.” In the following days, newspapers reported that Venables’s return to prison was related to alleged child-pornography offenses. It was also reported that he had become a heavy user of drugs and alcohol, and had shown signs of psychological problems. His mental state had become so fragile that he felt compelled to reveal his true identity, even to strangers.

Eagleton mentions this murder in the first sentence of his essay On Evil, but only to provide an occasion for this comment:

There was an outcry of public horror, though why the public found this particular murder especially shocking is not entirely clear. Children, after all, are only semi-socialized creatures who can be expected to behave pretty savagely from time to time. If Freud is to be credited, they have a weaker superego or moral sense than their elders. In this sense, it is surprising that such grisly events do not occur more often. Perhaps children murder each other all the time and are simply keeping quiet about it.

But the most significant aspect of the case, it seems to me, is that “the public” and indeed the British courts and government have no idea what to make of such a violent act or how to devise a punishment appropriate to the crime. Those who wanted to kill Venables when he was released in 2001 presumably found the sentence of eight years too light. On what grounds? That, ten years old, he had reached the “age of reason” and should be removed from decent society for the rest of his life? What would Eagleton have done, had he been the judge? Would he have said, “Well, boys will be boys, as William Golding shows in Lord of the Flies and as Freud told us when he wrote about children and their weak moral sense, so it’s only natural; I’ll let the little ruffians off with a caution and hope they become socialized fairly soon.” If not, why not?

Evil became a “problem of theory” for the first time, we learn, in the later years of the seventeenth century, and it complicated the production of theodicies. John Milbank maintains, in his Theology and Social Theory, that religion is not basically theodicy. The big dictionaries say that a theodicy is “a vindication of the divine attributes, especially justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil: a doctrine or theory intended to justify the ways of God to men.” Milton’s Paradise Lost and Newman’s A Grammar of Assent are formidable instances of the genre. Milbank writes:

The notion [that religion is basically theodicy] is itself derived from the intellectual history of the West, where, from the late seventeenth century onwards, the word “God” came to denote merely an ultimate causal hypothesis, rather than the eminent origin and precontainment of all created perfection. A first cause conceived on the model of efficient causality, or the instantiation of logical possibility (Leibniz), was not, like the medieval God, good by definition. Instead, his goodness had to be “demonstrated” in terms of the necessity of local imperfections for the most perfect harmony of the whole.

In the Middle Ages, as Kenneth Surin has shown in his Theology and the Problem of Evil (1986), suffering and evil “were regarded as negative or predatory in relation to Being and therefore as a problem only ‘solvable’ in practice.” Milbank has developed the evidence further:

Where evil was seen as the manifest upshot of a perverse will (it being presumed that without free assent there could be no perfect goodness in creatures) and suffering as the sign of the deep-seated effect of such perversity, there was no real problem of evil, and so no science of “theodicy.” In the seventeenth century, by contrast, attributions of evil to the effects of the fall of demonic powers and of humanity went into decline, and thus evil was approximated to the theoretically observable fact of imperfection, to be rationally accounted for.

Hence the eighteenth-century distinctions between metaphysical evil, natural evil, and moral evil. Metaphysical evil is to have a wrong sense of the world, and to live its consequences. Natural evil is floods, earthquakes, disease, suffering, and other catastrophes. Moral evil is the bad things that particular individuals do. Hence, too, Kant’s definition of the good as a man’s submission to the rule of the moral law: it follows that evil is a man’s submission of the rule of the moral law to his inclinations. A man is good if he takes the moral law into his life as his governing principle, evil if he derogates from that principle. To the Enlightenment, evil is yet another fact to be accounted for. We are children of the Enlightenment when we ask: Can an evil deed be accounted for by appeal to the evildoer’s early life, his social environment, original sin, or other causes? Or is the evil deed ultimately opaque, beyond cause?

Eagleton’s book is a loose meditation on evil and on various attempts to give a rational account of it. Loose, in the sense that he has not, I think, lost much sleep over it or labored to put his thoughts in persuasive order. “There are indeed evil acts and individuals,” he says, distinguishing himself from “softhearted liberals” and some “tough-minded Marxists” who deny that evil exists. He disagrees, too, with those who think that evil deeds are inexplicable, “without rhyme or reason.” He doesn’t quote these lines from Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” but he might have:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Eagleton holds that one is still responsible for one’s actions even when an exculpatory cause can be adduced. He keeps coming back to original sin, even though he appears not to believe in it. Several of the novels he discusses as evidence of at least imagined evil are rampant with it, notably William Golding’s Free Fall and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Eagleton writes:

It is “sin” because it involves guilt and injury, but not “sin” in the sense of willful wrong. Like desire for Freud, it is less a conscious act than a communal medium into which we are born.

I prefer Wallace Stevens’s version, in “Esthétique du Mal,” where the sin is

That evil, that evil in the self, from which
In desperate hallow, rugged gesture, fault
Falls out on everything.

It involves “injury” if “fault / Falls out on everything,” but it is not “a conscious act” at all.

As the book goes on, Eagleton talks himself into presenting evil as a sinister nothing. This is a version of Aquinas’s sense of evil as lack. Eagleton’s master here and throughout is Kierkegaard, who speaks, in The Concept of Anxiety, of “the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil.” Indeed, the double source of Eagleton’s argument is the equation of this nothingness with Freud’s death-drive, Thanatos, “turned outward so as to wreak its insatiable spitefulness on a fellow human being.” In another mood, Eagleton emphasizes the practical pointlessness of evil deeds, though that consideration doesn’t throw any light on Venables and Thompson. In fact, the book is a rumination in which Eagleton takes up an issue, drops it, picks it up again, runs with it, thinks of something else vaguely related to the issue, and keeps the soliloquy going till the shadows fall.

The theme Eagleton likes best is the purposelessness of evil. I was surprised that, in some pages on Iago and Othello, he didn’t mention Coleridge’s description of Iago as a “motiveless malignity.” But he recurs to this motif on the Holocaust, where it seems to me he ties himself in intellectual knots. The Holocaust, he says, had no practical purpose; but it had sufficient purpose in Hitler’s dream of a pure German race. Eagleton exonerates most of the participants in that dream, on the bizarre ground that institutions are not the same as people. He elides the fact that institutions are composed of people:

Perhaps the best we can venture is that evil in Nazi Germany, as in similar situations, worked at very different levels. There were those on the ground who conspired in an evil project not because they themselves were evil, but because as members of the armed forces or other minor functionaries they felt compelled to do so. There were others who eagerly took part in the project (thugs, patriots, casual anti-Semites and the like) and who were therefore more culpable, but who could hardly be described as evil. There were also those who committed unspeakably atrocious deeds, but not because they reaped any particular gratification from doing so. Eichmann may well fall into this category. And then there were those, presumably like Hitler himself, who indulged in fantasies of annihilation, and who can probably be spoken of as authentically evil.

Presumably? Probably?

This passage is another instance of Eagleton’s peculiar insistence that individuals are rarely evil but that institutions are nearly always evil. The reason he needs this desperate notion is that what he wants to propound in this book is a secular theodicy—to justify the ways of men to men. He regards religion as “mass psychosis” and leaps over many serious theodicies to the conclusion that “the existence of evil is an extremely powerful argument against the existence of God.” John Henry Newman, too, was perplexed by this consideration: “The real mystery is, not that evil should never have an end, but that it should ever have had a beginning.” But Newman pursued the issue by way of hard thinking toward assent. Eagleton makes an unargued distinction between evil, wickedness, and immorality, in declining degrees of seriousness, but the only point of this is to open a small possibility of social redemption. He finds a thin hope in the fact that, as Mary Midgley has noted, “A great deal of evil is caused by quiet, respectable, unaggressive motives like sloth, fear, avarice, and greed.” Eagleton takes comfort from this observation, and counts these motives “more as wicked or immoral than as evil”:

For the most part, it is old-fashioned self-interest and rapacity we have to fear, not evil. Monstrous acts are by no means always committed by monstrous individuals. CIA torturers no doubt make devoted husbands and fathers…. Those who steal pension funds or pollute whole regions of the planet are quite often mild-mannered individuals who believe that business is business. And that this is so should be seen as a source of hope.

By that logic, the fact that SS officers retired to their quarters in Belsen to listen to Beethoven quartets should have been seen as a source of hope.

Again, Eagleton drives a wedge of hope between individuals and institutions. “The point is that most wickedness is institutional.” If you separate immoral acts as relatively trivial, and wicked acts as only a little more culpable, you are left with the real evil of systems, anonymous social forces—capitalism the worst of them. Because these forces are not human, you can deride them as forms of nothingness, however dreadful. And again because they are not human, you can murmur in their vicinity such words as “hope,” “realism,” and (twice) “transformation.” These cannot amount to much as tokens of a secular theodicy, but they are the only tokens Eagleton has in his hands. He speaks of his values as “radical,” and associates them with “materialism,” which he declares to mean “the belief that most violence and injustice are the result of material forces, not of the vicious dispositions of individuals.” The radical claim, as he calls it, is “that life could be feasibly much improved for a great many people.”

It could, and it can, as the unmentioned work of Bill Gates, President Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Sacks, Bono, and the thousands of people who are working to relieve famine can testify. But Eagleton offers only the usual rhetoric of the rueful Left, denouncing “the reputable middle classes”—to which he and I comfortably belong—and praising “the dappled unfinished nature of things” (a nice little tribute to Hopkins) and the merits of “creatureliness,” whatever he deems that to mean. We read of “creaturely existence,” twice, “creaturely life,” twice, “a meaningful creaturely life,” and “creaturely things.” The OED is penurious on this word. It gives “the acknowledgment of creatureliness, of absolute dependence, of having nothing, but receiving all things from God.” That can’t be what Eagleton means. Someone in the seventeenth century referred to “the creaturely humanity of Christ.” Eagleton doesn’t say, in any of his uses, what he means by it. At a guess, I would say he means the acknowledgments we make—or should make—to one another, in recognition of our mere common humanity. The only pointed use of the word I find before Eagleton is in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), where it is referred to by Auerbach as “the new word ‘creatural’” and by his translator who says: “Kreatürliches: the word, a neologism of the 1920s, implies the suffering to which man is subject as a moral creature.” During the last centuries of the Middle Ages, according to Auerbach, “the ‘creatural’ aspect of Christian anthropology—life’s subjection to suffering and transitoriness—comes out in crass and unmitigated relief.” A sense of such woe is clearly a virtue, but it could hardly be the means of social transformation that Eagleton invokes. If that is all he offers, it wilts into an empty formula. So I have looked through the book for supporting values to which Eagleton appeals as a Marxist or a lapsed Marxist. The only one I can find is history, which he brings forward to dislodge religion:

It is part of the argument of this book that evil is not fundamentally mysterious, even though it transcends everyday social conditioning. Evil as I see it is indeed metaphysical, in the sense that it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it. Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it. But this is not to suggest that it is necessarily supernatural, or that it lacks all human causality. Many things—art and language, for example—are more than just a reflex of their social circumstances, but this is not to say that they drop from the skies. The same is true of human beings in general. If there is no necessary conflict between the historical and the transcendent, it is because history itself is a process of self-transcendence. The historical animal is one who is constantly able to go beyond itself. There are, so to speak, “horizontal” forms of transcendence as well as “vertical” ones. Why should we always think of the latter?

This is typical of Eagleton’s rhetoric. He takes a concept from religion, translates it downward into humanist terms, calling it “the historical,” then enhances those terms with a glow of the “spirituality” they have evidently lost. What is the point, except to claim that if you lose your religion, you lose nothing? The argument could turn up in any book by Terry Eagleton, and it does. It has nothing to say about Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

I report, without comment, that the book is dedicated “To Henry Kissinger.”


Related: Culture & Barbarism, by Terry Eagleton

Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: 

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).

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