Sunday, January 2, 2011

On Evil by Terry Eagleton

The novelist Milan Kundera writes on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of what he calls the “angelic” and “demonic” states of humanity. By “angelic”, he means vacuous, grandiloquent ideals which lack root in reality. The demonic, by contrast, is a cackle of derisive laughter at the very idea that anything human could conceivably have meaning or value. The angelic is too stuffed with meaning, while the demonic is too devoid of it. The angelic consists of high-sounding cliches like “God bless this wonderful country of ours,” to which the demonic replies “Yeah, whatever.” “If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth" (the reign of the angels) writes Kundera, “man collapses under the burden; if the world loses all meaning (the reign of the demons), life is every bit as impossible.”

When the devil gave a burst of defiant laughter before God, an angel shouted in protest. The devil's laughter, Kundera comments, “pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel's shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was.” The angelic are like politicians, incurable upbeat and starry-eyed: progress is being made, challenges ate being met, quotas are being filled, and God still has a soft spot in his heart for Texas. The demonic, by contrast, are natural-born scoffers and cynics, whose language is closer to what politicians murmur in private than to what they maintain in public. They believe in power, appetite, self-interest, rational calculation, and nothing else.

The United States, unusually among nations, is angelic and demonic at the same time. Few other nations combine such high-flown public rhetoric with that meaningless flow of matter known as consumer capitalism. The role of the former is to provide some legitimation for the latter.

Rather as Satan combines angel and demon in his own person, so evil unites these two conditions. One side of it – the angelic, ascetic side – wants to rise above the degraded sphere of fleshliness in pursuit of the infinite. But this withdrawal of the mind from reality has the effect of striking the world empty of value. It reduces it to so much meaningless stuff, in which the demonic side of evil can then wallow. Evil always posits either too much or too little meaning – or rather it does both at the same time.

The dual face of evil is obvious enough in the case of the Nazis. If they were full of “angelic” bombast about sacrifice, heroism, and purity of blood, they were also in the grip of what Freudians have called “obscene enjoyment”, in love with death and non-being. Nazism is a form of crazed idealism which is terrified of human fleshliness. But it is also one long jeering belch in the face of all such ideals. It is both too solemn and too sardonic – full of stiff-gestured bombast about Fuhrer and Fatherland, yet cynical to its core.

The two faces of evil are closely linked. The more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mass of sensation. The more abstract reason becomes, the less men and women are able to live a meaningful creaturely life. So the more the must resort to mindless sensation to prove to themselves that they still exist...

Hell is the kingdom of the mad, absurd, monstrous, traumatic, surreal, disgusting and excremental which Jacques Lacan, after the ancient God of havoc, calls Ate. It is a landscape of desolation and despair. But it is a despair that its inhabitants would not wish for a moment to be snatched from them. For it is not only what gives them an edge over credulous idealists of every stripe; it is also the misery that assures them that they still exist. But even this, did they but know it, is a lie, for theologically speaking, as we have seen, there can be no life outside God. The evil, who believe they have seen through it all, are thus ensnared in illusion to the end.


  1. It seems that Eagleton's theology is grounded in the work of the 13th century Irish philosopher John Scotus Eriugena. Here ( for the record) is what Eagleton writes about him... Eriugena, the greatest of all medieval Irish thinkers, pictured God as pure vacuity. God in his view could only be defined in terms of what he is not. Even to call him good or wise or all-powerful is to translate him into our own terms, and thus to falsify him.

    Eriugena, like Thomas Aquinas, would have heartily agreed with the atheists who claim that when people discuss God they have no idea what they are talking about. He was influenced in this view by the ancient philosopher Pseudo-Dionysus, whose discourse on God in The Divine Names is one of resolute denial: “He was not, He will not be. He did not come to be, No. He is not.”

    Only the finite can be defined; and since human subjectivity for Eriugena is infinite, as a sharing in the unfathomable abyss of the godhead, it follows that the human, too, eludes all definition.

  2. If God is non-being, then so in essence are his creatures. To belong to him is to share in his nullity. There is a nothingness at the heart of the self which makes it what it is. Human beings for Eriugena are necessarily inscrutable to themselves. They can never get a total grip on their own natures, because there is nothing stable or determinate enough about them to be securely known. As such, they are as elusive as the Freudian unconscious. We have complete self-knowledge, Eriugena comments, only when we do not know who we are.

  3. God's perfect freedom lies at the root of human freedom. Just as God is boundless, so in Eriugena's opinion are we. We partake of this infinite liberty by belonging to him. Paradoxically, it is by being dependent on the Creator that we become free and autonomous- rather as it is by trusting in a reliable parent that we can eventually enter upon our own selfhood. Eriugena is a kind of spiritual anarchist. Like God, human beings are in his view a law unto themselves. They are their own ground, cause, end, and origin, just as their Maker is. And they are like this because they are his creation, made in his own image and likeness.

  4. In an audacious move, Eriugena assigns the human mind a notably higher status than was customary in medieval thought. The human animal has a godlike power to create and annihilate. For this medieval philosopher, as for the poet William Blake, to see material things with visionary clarity is to grasp that their roots run down to infinity. Eternity, as Blake remarks, is in love with the products of time. For evil, by contrast, finite things are an obstacle to the infinity of will or desire, and so must be annihilated.

    Creation for the evil-minded is a stain or blemish on the purity of the infinite. The German philosopher Schelling saw evil as far more spiritual than he saw good. For him, it represented a bleak, barren hatred of material reality. This was more or less how the Nazis felt as well.

  5. The world, Eriugena considered, was a kind of exuberant dance, without end or purpose. It would not be a bad description of the novels of his later compatriot James Joyce. The cosmos has something of the whorling, spiraling, self-involved quality of traditional Celtic art. Like such art, it exists purely for its own self-delight, not to accomplish some mighty goal. And this is the surest sign that it springs from God, who is equally without point or purpose. Like Joyce's fiction, the world is not designed to get anywhere in particular. For Eriugena, as for some modern physics, Nature is a dynamic process which varies according to the observers shifting vantage point. It is an infinity of partial perspectives, and endless sport of multiple viewpoints.

  6. There are traces of this vision in the thought of the Dublin philosopher Bishop Berkeley five centuries later. There is little that modern philosophers like Friedrick Nietzsche or Jacques Derrida could have taught this audacious medieval Irishman. For holding these views, Eriugena had the honor of being condemned for heresy. The infinite freedom of the individual was not quite what the thirteenth century papacy wanted to hear and he is said to have been stabbed to death by his students with their pens.

  7. In the case of Eriugena, God is a pure nothingness. He is not a material entity or an extraterrestrial object. He cannot be located either inside or outside the universe. Indeed, he, to, is a formalist in his own exotic fashion. The language he speaks, one resonant through his Creation, is known as mathematics. It is the key to the laws of the universe, but it is entirely without content. It is purely a matter of manipulation of signs. Mathematics is all form and no substance. In this sense it has an affinity with music. But God's negativity is not such that it cannot stomach the fleshy and finite. Instead, as William Blake suggested, be is actually besotted with material things. The Christian belief is that God achieves supreme self -expression in a tortured human body. He is present in the form of flesh, but above all in the form of mangled flesh.