On Evil by Terry Eagleton

In March I was on the panel for an edition of Question Time filmed in Canary Wharf. The big news that week — I say “big” but “awful” might be more accurate — was that Jon Venables, one of the ten-year-old boys convicted in 1993 for the murder of the toddler James Bulger, had broken the terms under which he had been released on licence and was being returned to jail. Now we have the further atrocity exhibition of two boys — aged 10 and 11 — convicted of an attempted rape on an eight-year-old girl. With such crimes as these, surely — we must collectively ask ourselves — it becomes possible to explain them only by positing the existence of some exceptional depths of inner darkness?

It was predictable that a question concerning Venables would be put to the Question Time panel: the killing of Bulger (I refrain from using the term “murder” for reasons that will become apparent) had gripped the nation. While there were some of the usual liberal suspects who protested at the idea of ten-year-old children being put on trial for murder, English law remained quite unambiguous: the age of criminal responsibility was — and remains — just 10.

Terry Eagleton, in his book-length essay entitled simply On Evil, is quick to home in on the Bulger case as deeply illustrative of our contradictory thinking on the subject. He quotes one of the police officers who dealt with Robert Thompson and Venables as saying that the minute he clapped eyes on one of these culprits he “knew he was evil”. Eagleton observes that while the policeman seized upon the term as a badge to ward off the possibility of liberal apologias for the dreadful act, in fact the ascription of “evil” does nothing of the sort. It is by no means clear that anyone could be held responsible for being born evil.

This is precisely the contradiction that James Hogg teases out in his 1824 classic whatdunnit, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In the novel, a young Calvinist Scot encounters a mysterious figure who informs him that he is one of the elect (in other words, predestined for Heaven), and so encourages him to embark on a murderous spree on the basis that everything he does must be good by virtue of his exalted state.

Eagleton of course will have read Hogg, and the queasy equivalence between the non-responsibility of the virtuous murderer and the evil one wouldn’t be lost on him. As well as being a cradle Roman Catholic, he has also been a card-carrying Marxist. Although Eagleton may be heterodox in relation to both systems of thought, it’s nonetheless these two totalising ideologies that inform his quest for evil. For Eagleton evil is very definitely innate in humans, being a sort of French plaiting of Schopenhauer’s universal Will to Life, St Augustine’s Original Sin and Sigmund Freud’s thanatos or Death Drive. We are all born with this lust for annihilation, just as we are all born with an equal and countervailing drive towards going forth, checking out some nice tourist destinations and fruitfully multiplying. If I understand Eagleton rightly, evil arises not simply when individuals deviate from the good (this is mere wickedness) but when they try to cope with their own overpowering fear of death, pain and destruction by wreaking it on others.

Eagleton, of course, has to account for the great charnel house of the 20th century — its mass murders and genocides. On the face of it, this is where the commonsensical view that there is a line to be drawn between the merely bad and the downright demonic should favour the existence of Christian evil. Certainly Eagleton’s version of it allows for a distinction to be drawn between individuals who were carried away or coerced into abetting genocides and those who instigated and even gloried in them. But I’m not sure that he makes his case; he wants the Holocaust to be qualitatively different from all other mass murders, and so judges that it was almost uniquely purposeless — or, rather, was a collective enactment of the evil individual’s insatiable lust for autonomy.

The mass murders of Maoist China and Stalinist Russia, by contrast, Eagleton believes did at least have a point — but did they, beyond the naked exercise of power? Surely inciting an entire nation to turn upon itself in an orgy of highly personalised violence — as Mao did — is just as bad (or evil); as is a regime such as Soviet Russia, where people were murdered with supremely brutal inefficiency.

And then there’s the worrying spectacle of those bureaucrats of death such as Adolph Eichmann, who inspired Hannah Arendt’s ringing phrase “the banality of evil”. With Eichmann Eagleton seems to want to have it both ways: the office manager of the Final Solution gave exhaustive testimony before his Jerusalem trial in 1961 — mind-numbingly boring to read — but while one is left with an impression of Eichmann as insanely deluded, vain and ambitious, it’s not at all clear that he was abetting murder to assuage his own fear of death. Eagleton acknowledges the potential for evil in all of us — so might not its banality be because it is everywhere we look?

Eagleton’s problem is that he needs evil to be special, different and achingly banal all at once. He needs this because his view of what human beings are remains very deeply conditioned by his religious upbringing and his political sympathies. For Eagleton humans are, first and foremost, rational beings with the capacity for freedom of will. Of course, being a superannuated Marxist as well, he also can’t help seeing them as mired in a false consciousness that stops them moving towards God/communism.
On the Eagleton definition, we cannot really know whether Thompson and Venables were evil or not — any more than we can absolutely “know” that anyone either is or is not evil. To have a definitive answer we would need to get inside their heads in a godlike fashion.

I fear that for Eagleton the debasement of the term “evil” is of a piece with the loss of Christian faith in the West. For the fact about evil is that it exists in a purely historical sense: there is no evidence for it in religions that much predate the Christian era — nothing in Eastern religion, Plato or even Biblical Judaism. It comes into the world through the teachings of Jesus as redacted by St Paul, and probably resulted in part from a cross-fertilisation by the very Manicheanism that Christians are always at pains to disavow (even unto burning such heretics at the stake). In other words — and to be fair to Eagleton, he doesn’t really dodge this — no Christian God, no evil.