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Who Decides What Is Evil?

It turns out that Islamic terrorists are not evil after all, only wicked.

By 10.20.11

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On Evil
By Terry Eagleton
(Yale University Press, 176 pages, $16)

"The devil seems to have all the best tunes," says Terry Eagleton, paraphrasing a frustrated London pastor from 1844.

No surprise here, Eagleton explains. To fend off the Evil One, we must be virtuous, which means embracing thrift, prudence, chastity, abstinence, sobriety, meekness, obedience and self-discipline. "So it is not hard to see why evil should begin to look like the sexier option."

By turns, Eagleton goes from serious to witty to ironic and back again in his book On Evil. He attempts to define evil, as opposed to mere wickedness, in a world facing more and more terrorism, mass shootings and -- perhaps worst of all -- loose language. All this is couched in a sweeping religious and historical context.

Evil vs. wicked -- does it matter? Yes, it is a distinction worth thinking about, and for a couple of reasons.

First, because there is a difference. But public rhetoric has become so sloppy and full of guff that clarity can be fogged up and nuances can vanish. Who means what any more?

Second, terms such as evildoers, axis of evil, and Great Satan have the effect of stifling discussion, ending arguments prematurely, hitting us like a "fist in the solar plexus," as Eagleton puts it. The more senseless an action seems, the more we want to call it evil and change the subject.

And yet he pulls his punches in an offhand comment on 9/11. The anti-Western Islamists might not have gone so far, he suggests, if it weren’t for the Arab world’s sense of "anger and humiliation at the long history of its political abuse by the West."

"To define Islamic terrorism as evil, in the sense of the word employed in this book, is to refuse to recognize the reality of that wrath. It may well be too late for the kind of political action that might alleviate it. Terrorism now has a deadly momentum of its own," he warns.

A professor with lecturing credits at Notre Dame, Yale, University of Manchester and the National University of Ireland, Eagleton takes issue with other words as well. He refers to a British security official who called Islamic terrorists psychotic. "One wonders if the man is up to his job," he writes. "If terrorists really are mad, then they are ignorant of what they are doing and are therefore morally innocent. They should accordingly be nursed with tender care in psychiatric hospitals rather than have their genitals mutilated in secret Moroccan prisons."

One English critic called Eagleton's survey of evilness a "dark and steamy Christmas pudding of a book." I would add that it is best read for its puddingly pleasures than for its rather heavy philosophical and Freudian supporting arguments. He invokes Augustine, Freud, Milton, Voltaire, Kant, Arendt, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Thomas Aquinas (from whom he borrowed his title) in one slim volume.

Eagleton, English-born of Irish extraction and now living in Dublin, is known for his lively, irreverent style and makes good use of his punchline prose here despite a very unfunny subject. He allows himself one personal note. When he told his young son he was writing a book about evil, the boy was impressed. "Wicked," he said.

In a sense, this book is a reflection on human nature, on good and bad. He meanders through the history of ideas, by the final pages giving me the feeling of having been through a hall of mirrors.

One searches in vain for Eagleton's blacklist of evildoers. Surely some names come to mind.

But not the English children who clubbed a smaller child to death 16 years ago. They are merely children and therefore "semi-socialized creature." Not Mao or Stalin. Not Pol Pot. They all had motives, however perverse. Not even Hitler. The Holocaust had the motive of racial purification, disqualifying it for the distinction. Oddly, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein don't get a look-in.

Instead, Eagleton resorts to fiction where he finds pure evil in characters in Othello, Macbeth, and Graham Greene.

I thought philosopher Colin McGinn, quoted at some length in the book, had the concept pinned down rather well by identifying two kinds of evil: that with a purpose, and the purposeless primitive evil "which is purely unmotivated and which admits to no further explanation." Eagleton is talking mainly about the latter, calling on Freud's "death drive" to back him up.

Sub-themes come and go in this discursive narrative. He dismisses the current vogue for atheism by launching a jive at the two superstars of the God debate. He is no biologist and no theologian, he says, but he can tell when "someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens is talking out of the back of his neck."

And his Marxist sympathies emerge in a somewhat tortured passage on the evils of capitalism. Good can come from evil, and usually does, he asserts. Even Marx wondered if there could ever be socialism without the capitalist achievements of the past. Capitalism is a necessary evil, he believes, that "develops the wealth of society to the point where socialism can take it over and reorganize it in the interests of everyone."

Eagleton has an academic's commitment to the meaning of words, and much of his argumentation consists of putting boundaries around loosely used terms. Terrorism is "wicked rather than evil," he finally declares.

And yet he acknowledges that even terrorists can have purposes of a kind. "They smash and sabotage to ease the hellish conflict in which they are caught." He believes that evil people "are in pain, and like a lot of people in pain will go to extreme lengths to find relief."

Eagleton wants us to talk to Islamic fundamentalists but he is not soft on them. Their rhetoric is "riddled with the most virulent strains of prejudice and bigotry, as its torn and butchered victims have good reason to know."

He concludes with a warning against ignoring Islamic grievances. "This [non-communication] is irrational prejudice to rival their own. More violence against them breeds more terror, which in turn puts more blameless people at risk."

Where Eagleton seems most naïve in this book is in his apparent belief that it is only the West that has stymied any open, honest and productive dialogue over Islamic grievances. He may also wish to examine in some future book the silent majority of Islamists who seem unwilling or unable to rein in their violent brothers.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.