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Eagleton, Terry. On Evil.

EAGLETON, Terry. On Evil. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 192pp. Cloth, $25.00--Drawing on a variety of literary, philosophical, and theological sources, Eagleton attempts to construct what might be called an "ontological view" of evil. According to this view, evil would be an outcome of the excessive split between spirit and matter, reason and the senses, form and content. As a result, the ideality of the former element in each dichotomy becomes increasingly incompatible with the inevitable flaws and imperfections of the material world, which, in turn, appears more meaningless than ever before. It follows that evil, on Eagleton's understanding, is metaphysical, in that it takes a stand on Being as such and as a whole. The attitude it spawns is purely negative and destructive, is irked by the imperfection of everything that exists, and sets the goal of annihilating all material reality.

The sources of the theory of good and evil outlined in the book are, ultimately, traceable to ancient Greek philosophy and, especially, Plato's writings, where the Good is closely linked to the question of Being. For Plato, the most important facets of the Good include generativity (allowing things to spring forth into Being) and maintenance or preservation (permitting things to be kept intact, to persevere in Being). In contrast, evil signifies a kind of ontological deficiency, a lacuna or a black hole in Being, that robs things of their existence and that endeavors to unleash its destructive effects on the whole of Being. Similarly, in the terms of medieval philosophy, evil is tantamount to the undoing of God's creation, a daring trumping of divine will, which is the ontological figuration of goodness. This, however, betrays the reactive features of evil: its belatedness vis-a-vis the Good and Being itself, negated in every act that emanates from the evildoer.

At the level of the subject, Eagleton detects the corollary to the negativity of evil in the Freudian death drive, in absolute solipsist egoism, and, occasionally, in the restlessness of desire. Relying on an analysis of William Golding's Pincher Martin and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, among other literary works, Eagleton concludes, in Chapter One titled "Fictions of Evil," that the protagonists' inability to relate to others, to open themselves up to other human beings--for instance, in and through love--spells out their alienation from corporeality, destroyed along with the rest of the substantial, material reality that surrounds them. The characters, therefore, are said to incarnate extreme evil as a disincarnate state, so much so that they are unable to die, to bid farewell to the finite bodies they had consistently disavowed throughout their lives. More generally, the actions of evildoers are often inexplicable, unsupported by the kind of reason that is embedded in the logic of means and ends, and, thus, assume the appearance of gratuitous destruction--of violence for the sake of violence that does not spare the actors themselves.

Chapter Two, "Obscene Enjoyment," further develops the theme of the subjective corollaries to evil and the effects of the split between the mind and the body, as well as ideality and materiality, on the psyche of the evildoer. Here, the annihilation of the other perversely turns into a confirmation of the evildoer's own existence, a temporary satisfaction of the "drive to nothingness" at one's core, and, at the same time, a source of "obscene enjoyment." The main consequence of such behavior is the splitting of the actor's image into the angelic and the demonic: an advocate of forma and ideal purity, on the one hand, and a gruesome demolisher of messy materiality, on the other.

Finally, in a brief third chapter, "Job's Comforters," Eagleton confronts the political effects of evil and takes a stance on the possibility of theodicy in their aftermath. His conclusion is that, no matter how it might be explained away, suffering is always bad for the sufferers themselves and, contra Kant, that the teleology of progress is insufficient to justify the fact that numerous lives are sacrificed to its demands. Still, for Eagleton, evil remains a rare phenomenon, since much of human suffering is explicable within the logic of means and ends (the logic foreign to evil) and attributable to immoral behavior.

The main problem with this book is that the concept of evil at its core is so vague and distended that it overlaps with other social, intellectual, and aesthetic trends. It is conceivable that nihilism, in keeping with Eagleton's definition, would fall under the category of evil, inasmuch as nihilism stands for an active or passive rejection of Being as such. Yet, besides it, idealism and much of Western philosophy would fall under the heading of evil as well, insofar as they entail the mind/body split, the privileging of ideality over materiality, and so on. Along similar lines, aesthetic formalism satisfies Eagleton's criteria for evil, to the extent that it, too, negates the concrete content of the artwork and emphasizes, as much as possible, the purity of form. Thus, despite occasional thought-provoking analyses, On Evil fails to make a meaningful contribution to a philosophical consideration of the concept in question.--Michael Marder, Ikerbasque/The University of the Basque County, Vitoria-Gasteiz.
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Author:Marder, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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