Monday, February 14, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Evil and Wickedness

and wickedness

Terry Eagleton produces delicious prose. His hybridized Catholic/Marxist perspective, coupled with tactical demonstrations of his brilliant wit and serious theoretical chops, make him an eminently worthwhile writer for serious, thoughtful, and thick-skinned readers. His recent book On Evil follows his established precedent with provocative riffs and reflections on a multifaceted conception of evil.

Eagleton's book reaches a controversial apex in the final pages, as he turns the inertia of the preceding study on the topic of terrorism. His problematic takes this form: ought we say that fanatics who strap bombs to their bodies are truly "evil," or do they rather fall under the more mundane and inclusive description "wicked?" Eagleton, somewhat unsurprisingly, takes the latter option, after some qualifications. The devil is in the details, as it were.

Eagleton's characterization of evil draws from a variety of sources, including medieval philosophical theology and Freudian psychoanalysis; ultimately he reduces the ontology of evil to a very limited domain. Evil is primarily, in his view, an existential malaise; it is a quality of being, and consequentially manifests as a quality of action. It is a rebellion against meaning and existence, an ultimate and paradoxical union of Milan Kundera's "angelic" and "demonic" faces of humanity as it abstracts reason from context and the senses in pursuit of the infinite while degrading the world into total meaninglessness. Value, to the evil person, is a false, empty, imposed idea that is foreign to the world it would presume to organize; death and nonbeing are, by contrast, objects of affection, the evil person's anti-values. Posing an historical example, Eagleton writes, "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 Führer and Fatherland, yet cynical to its core." 

The union of hyperextended reason and cynical revulsion at the world are closely related, and the latter grows in proportion to the former. In Eagleton's words, "[t]he more reason is dissociated from the body, the more the body disintegrates into a meaningless mess of sensation. The more abstracted reason becomes, the less men and women are able to live a meaningful creaturely life." Tragically, the despair produced by the disintegration of value and sense is the only real assurance the evil person has of his continued existence, which binds him to the maintenance of his despair. Although suicide would seem to be the natural culmination of this outlook, the fact of evil in a person is itself an expression of the insult that evil intends against being and goodness, and so, instead of expiring under the weight of his hopelessness, the evil person experiences Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," which does not permit a determinate end. Eagleton goes on to say that his despair is what gives the evil person a leg up on men and women of all kinds who subscribe to one or another framework of sense-making because his condition would seem to destroy the possibility of meaning or redemption; and so, in another paradoxical turn, the despair of the evil person ascribes to him an obscene spiritual superiority. Evil, manifest, seems to be a naked, perverted, unhindered will-to-power.

Wickedness is both a less complex thing, and a more common thing. Assuming a rational framework, wickedness would primarily reside in the quality of one's actions, and an empirical preponderance of wicked acts would lead to the inference of an individual's wickedness. In essence, wickedness is morally wrong action done in the pursuit of rational and even morally neutral or morally right ends. On a small scale, it is cutting off a person in traffic to make it on time to a job interview. Writ large, it results in the destruction of the homes and lives of innocent people in an attempt to force the hand of an unjust government. Or so Eagleton would argue. 

The key difference between evil and wickedness seems to be the presence of rationality. Evil people cannot in principle be reasoned with because there is no reason in what they do; unfiltered evil is an unreflective acting-out against Being itself with no goal or achievable end in mind. Radical irrationality is one of its constitutive aspects. By contrast, the wicked may be reasoned with, at least in theory, because they possess reasons for acting in the way that they do, no matter how poisoned or twisted the logic. Their means can be reprehensible and even unintelligible for a person with a different outlook, and this may still say nothing about the ultimate value or worth of their ends. 

Eagleton's final point is that these ends are what must be addressed, but these ends are also dismissed out of hand by the person who categorically labels, for example, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists as sheerly evil. Eagleton wishes to say that those who feel, as powerless international actors, that their only recourse is to acts of terrorism may have legitimate political and ideological grievances against the west that may serve as the raw material for a dialogue that could in turn represent a first step on a path towards some sort of reconciliation.* 

In this hypothetical dialogue, if both parties were to acknowledge the legitimate claims on the side of the other - perhaps if radical Islamic fundamentalists were to recognize, even through the tight strictures of their ascetic moral code, space for moral neutrality and moral goodness in the lives of westerners living in secular capitalist culture, and if westerners could see the ways in which the Arab world has been mistreated by western nations over the last several centuries through implicitly and explicitly imperialist programs, agendas, and policies - is it feasible that this newly discovered plane of mutual intelligibility could create room for rationally working out a peaceful resolution to this conflict of life-worlds that has set the tone for international affairs in the twenty-first century? 

At this point, I am unsure if this is a reasonable idea, or idealistic to a point of radical naïveté. I welcome comments intended to elucidate, add to, or call into question my characterization of a fascinating aspect of Eagleton's study.

Also, happy St. Valentine's Day! I hope that you are having, or planning to have, a wonderfully romantic time with your significant other, if you have one. Otherwise, happy Monday, I guess. 

*This is not to say that there are not terrorists for whom wanton violence and death have become ends in themselves.

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