It’s easy to fall back on shorthand, to use words that pack rhetorical punch and don’t require explanation. Words like these (“conservative,” “millennial,” “freedom”) are general enough but also can be understood in a specific way by a specific audience; indeed, one way we forge tribes is that the in-group knows what you mean without your having to spell it out. But the ambiguity of these terms can also lead to miscommunication. More often, it leads to muddled thinking.
Terry Eagleton asks us to add “evil” to this list. So I set a Google News alert for the word, and almost immediately got results as varied as: voting for Roy Moore, tax cuts, gay rights, a school shooter, loneliness, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the New York Yankees. We use the word enough. So what are we talking about?
In On Evil, Eagleton tries to give us an answer. He’s troubled that we refer to terrorists as evil; not because their actions aren’t heinous, but because we might not even be sure what we mean by it. Eagleton observes, “The word ‘evil’ is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in a solar plexus,” because it is meant to end the asking of explanatory questions. In the popular way we discuss evil, Eagleton writes, “either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them.” The point of the book is to demonstrate that neither of these things is true.
It is easy to invoke the e-word, Eagleton explains, because we assume that evil is “uncaused.” In this (incorrect) view, someone who is evil has no excuse; their actions result from their freely chosen character. They’re “just evil.” Suggesting that there might be an external reason, that someone can do something evil “rationally,” might invite accusations of trying to justify an evil action. For politicians especially, suggesting there are rational motives for terrorism is not a smart PR move.
So if this is the wrong way to conceive of evil, what’s the right way? Eagleton lists a few of evil’s characteristics. It is uncanny—almost real, but a shadow of itself. It is superficial, presenting itself as one thing but turning out to be another. It is an assault on meaning; it wishes to undo reality and expose the universe as a sham. It is monotony, forever; Eagleton warns sinners, “Hell is being talked at for all eternity by a man in an anorak who has mastered every detail of the sewage system of South Dakota.”