Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
The Nature of Evil
by Terry Eagleton
The devil, so they say, has all the best tunes, and this seems to be the case when it comes to literature as well. Nobody would take a guided tour of Dante's Paradiso if they could have one of the Inferno instead. Milton's God sounds like a bureaucratic bore or constipated civil servant, while his Satan shimmers with mutinous life. Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could have a beer with Fagin instead. So why is evil so sexy, and so profoundly glamorous? And why does virtue seem so boring? Why is it that when I told my thirteen-year-old son I was writing a book on evil, he replied "Wicked!"?
One answer, I think, is that it is not virtue that is boring but a particular, very familiar conception of it. Think of Aristotle's man of virtue, who lives more fully and richly than the vicious. For Aristotle, virtue is something you have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores at sherry parties. Being a virtuous human being is a practice, like being a skilled diver or an accomplished tennis player; and those who are really brilliant at being human -- what Christians call the saints -- are the virtuosi of the moral sphere, the Pavarottis and Maradonas of virtue. Goodness in this Aristotelian view is a kind of prospering in the precarious affair of being human -- a prospering which, if Sigmund Freud is to be believed, none of us manages particularly well. The wicked are those who haven't developed the knack of fine living -- those who botch the business, as you might make a mess of cooking an omelet or conducting a symphony orchestra. The wicked, then, are inept, crippled, deficient people who never really get the hang of human existence. They are like poor artists who can't knock themselves into shape. Whereas the good, the virtuous, are those who, like good artists, realize their powers, energies, and capacities to the full, in as diverse a way as possible. And because of this, they are brimming with life and high spirits. With this model, to ask "Why be good?" as people began to later, would be as ridiculous as asking "Why enjoy a dark, foaming, full-bodied pint of Guinness?" or "Why should a clock keep good time?" Virtue is a kind of energy or exuberance, which is why it is sometimes thought to have something to do with God. To say that God is good is not to say that he is remarkably well-behaved -- most Christian theologians would not see God as a "moral" being at all -- but rather that he is an infinite abyss of self-delighting energy, which no doubt means that he must have a boundless sense of humor as well (he needs one). For Christian theology, God is that abundant, overflowing, ecstatic jouissance at the heart of us, which is closer to us than we are to ourselves (as the unconscious is closer to us than the ego), and which allows us to be free and to flourish. To be entirely without such abundant, self-delighting life is to be evil; and this means that evil is not something positive but a kind of lack or defectiveness, a sort of nothingness or negativity, an inability to be truly alive. Evil may look lively, seductive, and flamboyant, but this is just the flashy show it puts on to cover up the hollowness at its heart. It is the paper-thinness of evil, its brittle unreality, which is most striking about it.
Whatever happened, then, to this ancient notion of goodness as exciting, energetic, and exhilarating, and evil as empty, boring, and banal? Why do people now see things the other way round? One answer, at least in the West, is the gradual rise of the middle classes. As the middle classes came to exert their clammy grip on Western civilization, there was a gradual redefinition of virtue. Virtue now came to mean not energy and exuberance but prudence, thrift, meekness, chastity, temperance, long-headedness, industriousness, and so on. No wonder people prefer vampires. These may be admirable virtues, but they are not exactly exciting ones; and one effect of them is to make evil seem, by contrast, a lot more attractive, which is exactly what happened. Virtue had now become essentially negative. It was closely bound up with middle-class respectability. It had lost its sexiness and become restrictive rather than enabling. As Auden remarked of the Ten Commandments, there's no particular point in observing human nature and simply inserting a "not." We were now moving toward that perversion of moral thought (identified above all with the greatest of all modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant) for which virtue was all about duty, obligation, and responsibility, rather than in the first place a matter of finding out how to live fully, how to enjoy ourselves. Of course, duties, obligations, and responsibilities have their place in human life. What is disastrous is to place them at the center of one's moral vision. Duties and obligations make sense not in themselves, but in relation to the idea of living most fully and most richly. If they make that possible for the greatest number of people, well and good. But they are not to be seen as definitive of virtue. I say that virtue is really all about enjoying yourself, living fully; but of course it is far from obvious to us what living fully actually means. This is because, as we know from Freud and others, we are not transparent to ourselves as human beings. On the contrary, there is a sense in which we are desperately opaque to ourselves. So we can't just look inside ourselves and find the answers to these questions ready and waiting. Instead, we need special kinds of language, like moral philosophy and political theory, to help us in these matters. And the human conversation about what it is to live well -- which is the answer to the question "what is morality?" -- has never arrived at an agreed conclusion and probably never will. Astonishingly, we men and women of the modern age disagree on quite fundamental issues, which someone living in the Middle Ages might have found incomprehensible. We all agree that it is a bad idea to roast babies over fires, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this. And we probably never will. As long as we don't roast babies over fires, however, this may not matter too much.
Young people in the West these days have become very interested in zombies and vampires and other forms of the so-called Undead, and I think this has a bearing on what I am saying about good and evil. Zombies and vampires exist in some twilight, indeterminate zone between life and death, and the same is true of those who are evil. They can only manage a kind of sham, inauthentic life, a ghastly parody of genuine life; and they derive this life from their own sufferings and from the sufferings they inflict on others. This dreadful state of being is what it means to be in hell -- though there cannot literally, actually be anyone in a place called hell, any more than you can be in a place called love or disgrace or despair. This is because for Christian theology there can be no life outside God, so nobody could reject God and still live. Hell means not perpetual punishment but absolute extinction. The fire of hell is God himself, with his relentless, terrifying, uncompromising love. God is a terrorist of love. And though this fire is the life and love of God, there are those who can't take this love (the wicked), who detest and despise it, and who are burnt to a cinder by it.
Only in being in atrocious pain can the evil persuade themselves that they are still alive. This is why they cling perversely to their sufferings, since without them they would be dead. They would rather cling to this obscene enjoyment of forcing others and themselves to suffer, which is a kind of nothingness, an inability to live truly, rather than risk the much more terrifying nothingness of abandoning themselves, in the faith that out of this kind of nothingness something positive, some new life, may finally emerge. The wicked are terrified of giving themselves away and cling to themselves for dear life as if to a lover.
This is why the damned or undead are said to be both despairing and exultant, miserable and mocking. They relish their agony because it is their only way of existing, and spit in God's eye because his ruthless, intolerable love risks removing their torment and along with it their identity. "I shit on your love!" William Golding's Pincher Martin snarls to his Creator. The damned are like an alcoholic who is so ravaged by drink that he can gain a spot of illusory relief only by stepping up his intake, thus shattering himself even more atrociously. Like the damned, the alcoholic is in the grip of what Freud called the death drive -- and the true perversity of this drive is not that we are hell-bent on destroying ourselves, but that we do so because we are persuaded to take pleasure in the act of tearing ourselves apart. And that really is diabolical. The demonic is a kind of cosmic sulking, since comfort and forgiveness would be its undoing. The philosopher Kierkegaard sees the damned as those who refuse to relinquish their despair, since this would relieve them of their rebellious delight in rejecting Creation altogether. There is something adolescent about evil, and (as Saint Paul teaches) something grown-up about good. This is one reason why the image of children as good is so misleading (though the Victorians could never decide whether they were angels or demons, and needed them to be both). Children may be innocent, but that's not the same thing; and goodness is something they have to learn, to practice, to grow into. The Satanic, declares a character in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, "demand that there be no God of life, that God destroy himself and all his Creation. And they shall burn everlastingly in the flames of their own hatred, and long for death and non-being. But death shall not be granted them."
The demonic are those who can't die because to do so would be to give up their terrifying drive to annihilate everything, including themselves. They are frightened of giving themselves away and cling to their anguish for dear life, as to a lover. They need to stay alive in a spectral kind of way in order to undo themselves and others. Only by spreading chaos and nothingnesss around themselves can they fill the frightful vacuum at the center of their being. Yet since this lack or absence at the center of our being is known as subjectivity, this is bound to be a doomed project. Only because there is something missing, repressed or lacking from us can we operate effectively. Only by negating non-being can the evil feel alive, yet non-being is both infinite and indestructible.
Those who cannot accept that there is a lack at the core of our being, or that this manque d'être is what makes us what we are, try to stuff this gaping wound with fetishes of all kinds -- with doctrines, possessions, loved ones, sponge-rubber trousers, and so on. Fetishism for Freud is really a matter of trying to plug some fearful gap that is intolerable to you. The evil are those who cannot bear the fact that they are incomplete -- which is to say, cannot bear the fact that they are human. They are pathological purists for whom matter itself is intolerably messy and indeterminate, and who are thus ascetic and virulently anti-materialist. The evil are precisely those who don't enjoy an orgy.
There is, then, something deeply paradoxical about evil. The evil are those who can't stand nothingness, the nothingness that they are, and so try to cram this hole by creating even more nothingness around them, in the form of destruction. Only by trying to negate non-being can they feel alive, but non-being is infinite and indestructible. Nothing is more invulnerable than nothingness. And how do you know when you have destroyed it? The evil are those who quite often find this terrible nothingness (one that really lies at the heart of themselves) embodied in some alien, frightful figure outside themselves: the Jew, the Arab, the woman, the homosexual, the foreigner. But laying violent hands on those who embody negativity will not bring you any closer to murdering the non-being at the heart of yourself, since that lack is what makes us human in the first place.
The damned, then, are monstrous, Dracula-like travesties of the living. And the death drive that dominates them is equally a kind of travesty or parody of that terrifying force known as the will, with its indomitable, never-say-die passion to subjugate and possess, which even as I speak is wreaking havoc with millions of lives in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the name of Western ideals of progress and democracy. Freud himself had no doubt that within this drive or energy, which builds and destroys civilizations, lurked the death drive itself. This is profoundly ironic, since it means that concealed within our desire to create, to subdue to order, to reduce to harmony -- in short, to overcome chaos (all very necessary, by the way) -- lies a kind of chaos itself. The will to order and dominate that yields us civilized existence is secretly in love with nothingness. There's something anarchic, out of hand, about our very lust for order and civility, vital though these things are.
This idea that death and dismemberment lie within the very impulse to exuberant life and the drive to build civilization was known to the ancient Greeks as the Dionysian, because Dionysus is life and death, Eros and Thanatos together, builder of cities and wrecker of them, both joy and destruction, affirmation and negativity. He is also for the ancient Greeks the patron of the greatest art form they bequeathed to the world: tragedy. Tragedy is the form that finds in our very capacity to confront chaos, to stare the Medusa's head of frailty and negativity squarely in the eyes, our capacity to go beyond it. Only by opening ourselves in this way to our own frailty and finitude might we have a chance for authentic life. Only by being hauled through hell might we have a chance of rising again. It is this that the evil cannot accept. They want to deny our frailty and negativity, not embrace it.
Tragedy is the form that recognizes that if a genuine human community is to be constituted, it can be only on the basis of our shared failure, frailty, and mortality. This is a community of repentance and forgiveness, and it represents everything that is the opposite of the American Dream. This means, in the terms of Jacques Lacan, that the symbolic can be founded only on the Real. Only by acknowledging the monstrous as lying at the very heart of ourselves, rather than projecting it outward onto others, can we establish anything more than a temporary, imaginary relationship with one another, one which is not likely to endure. This means relationships based on the recognition that at the very core of the self lies something profoundly strange to it, which is utterly impersonal and anonymous but closer to us than breathing, at once intimate and alien. This has had many names in Western civilization: God, Language, Desire, the Will, Language, the Unconscious, the Real, and so on.
In the finest of all modern novels about life and death, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the hero Hans Castorp finally comes to see that the tenderness and comradeship he witnesses in his great utopian vision in the Alpine snow is what it is only because there is a horror at its heart -- the ritual sacrifice of a young child. All civilization is built on sacrifice, even if this is only the necessary repression of our more disruptive instincts. It is love, Hans comes to realize, not reason, which is stronger than death, and from that recognition alone can civilization flourish -- but, the novel adds, "always in silent recognition of the blood sacrifice." Or as the poet Yeats puts it, "Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent." Sacrifice is the act by which the reviled, polluted thing, the pharmakos or scapegoat, undergoes the turbulent passage from weakness to power. It is only by identifying with this polluted, cast-out thing (which in early sacrifice usually involves eating it) that the city can be saved, that which is torn and bleeding can be made whole, justice can be accomplished, and life can be snatched from the jaws of death. This is why one of the modern names for ancient sacrifice is political revolution.
And so the death-dealing myths of Western modernity -- the bad infinity of Faustian desire, which would annihilate the whole of Creation in its compulsive-obsessive hunt for the transcendental signifier, and which in doing so hubristically rejects all limits on the human enterprise and thus rejects death itself -- must be countered by that other founding Western myth, the fable of Oedipus, who, blind and broken before Thebes, is finally forced to confront his own finitude and humanity, and who in doing so releases a great power for good. It is, if you like, a choice between two kinds of nothingness. On the one hand, the nothingness of the insatiable will, which overreaches itself and brings itself to nothing, and for which no actual object can be worth anything compared to the infinity that is itself. This (bad) infinity, one of whose modern names is desire, devalues everything sensuous and specific in its frantic search for all or nothing. Desire is absolutely nothing personal and will pass all the way through its (purely contingent) object in order finally to reunite with the only thing it really desires, namely itself. On the other hand there is that tragic acknowledgement of one's own inevitable failure and pollution, that peering into the pit of nothingness over the edge of which, so one hopes (but with absolutely no guarantees), something affirmative might finally crawl. Tragic humanism sees the need for this breaking and remaking, as liberal humanism does not. And this is in my view one of the most important ethical and political conflicts today.
Oedipus, the beggar king, stands before Athens. As he once returned an answer to the Sphinx, now his own presence poses a question to the city-state. Is it to gather this unclean thing, this stinking piece of nothingness, to its heart, or is it to cast it out as so much garbage? What is civilization to make of this ghastly parodic image of itself, at once stranger and brother, guilty and innocent, hunter and victim, man and monster, poison and cure, holy and defiled? "Am I now a man," Oedipus asks, "only when I am now no longer human?" It is a profound paradox he touches on here -- that to be stripped of our culture and civilization, of all that makes for difference and specificity, is in one sense to cease to be human altogether, for it's this which constitutes our humanity; yet that in another sense nothing is more purely and simply human than this condition of utter dehumanization, that when we are stripped like Lear or the concentration camp victim of our cultural lendings to become less than human, we end up becoming more so. And then Theseus, ruler of Athens, takes an ethical leap into the unknown, inaugurating a radically original event. He welcomes the defiled beggar into the city, fearful of contamination but trusting that if he does so a great power for good will follow. That which is rejected is made the cornerstone; that which is cast out as so much excrement will prove to be fertilizing. As Oedipus is enshrined at the heart of the city, the violence that went into the making of civilization, but which then is always in danger of undermining it, is sublimated into a defense of the city itself. In a tragic action, only through self-emptying and dispossession can transcendence, risen life, be assured, and it is never really assured at all. It is not true, as the demented Lear snaps to his daughter, that nothing will come of nothing. On the contrary, the lesson of tragic humanism is that something will come only of nothing; and that those who fear that nothingness -- those who refuse to acknowledge this thing of darkness as their own, who can see it only as a monstrous obscenity lurking on the threshold of their city-state -- will themselves go to monstrous lengths to annihilate it.
Considered by many to be the most influential British literary critic, Terry Eagleton has written more than forty books, including Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009) and most recently On Evil (2010). He is currently a visiting professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Source Citation: Eagleton, Terry. 2011. The Nature of Evil. Tikkun 26(1): 80