On Evil by Terry Eagleton

When I checked out On Evil from the library, the librarian asked me, “Do you believe in it?” I stared blankly for a moment before realizing that she was referring to “evil.” I gave her my best intellectual answer, “I guess it’s definitional.” And then I added that I might have more to say on the subject after reading the book. I don’t.

On Evil is the fourth Eagleton book I’ve read this year. It is also—by far—the worst. I found myself annoyed through most of the book because he pointedly avoids ever saying what he thinks evil is. It was only on finishing it that I realized that he had not, in fact, promised me any such insight. The book is called “on evil” after all, and didn’t he spend 159 pages writing “on evil”? Indeed he did.

In the end, though, what is the whole point of this book? It seems that he most wanted to address the issue of terrorism and the stupidity of assuming people who fly airplanes into buildings cannot be understood. And he does an excellent job of this in the last four pages. So really he has a good solid (though short) magazine article.

All of this is not to say that the book isn’t a quick and fun read. It is filled with humor and insight, as when discussing the differences between the angelic (not necessarily good) and the demonic (not necessarily evil), “The angelic consists of high-sounding cliches like ‘God bless this wonderful country of ours,’ to which the demonic replies ‘Yeah, whatever.'” And again, when talking about the lack of true purpose to actions, “In fact any purposeful activity, if you push it far back enough, turns out to be in the service of some nonpurposeful state of affairs. Why did she run for the bus? Because she wanted to get to the pharmacist’s shop before it closed. Why did she want to do that? To buy some toothpaste. Why did she want some toothpaste? To brush her teeth. Why brush your teeth? To stay healthy. Why stay healthy? So as to carry on enjoying life. But what is so precious about an enjoyable life?” Or finally, on Aristotle’s notion that living is something that takes constant practice, but which we never succeed at, “It is just that most of us are better at it than Jack the Ripper.”

As I read On Evil, I kept thinking that there is one kind of evil that I do believe it: institutional evil. It is a system that allows mostly banal actors to produce deleterious results. Consider, for example, the recent Gulf oil spill. It is not that any person involved needed to be evil—be they employee, collaborator, or customer. Individually benign character flaws like greed and laziness are enough to fuel the system that leads to catastrophe. The same could be said for genocide, although such instances seem always to be additionally fueled by evil participants. How Eagleton, a neo-Marxist, could wait until page 143 to bring this issue up—only to drop it within a page—amazes me.

In the end, Eagleton’s evil requires both a soulless actor and a harmful act. This is a definition I can deal with, but not one that I find that compelling. This leaves me with nothing new to say about evil if that librarian ever asks me.


Eagleton is at his best when discussing Schopenhauer. For example, he writes, “Isn’t the material world incurably banal and monotonous, and wouldn’t it be far better off not existing? The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer certainly thought so. Nothing struck him as more self-evidently foolish than the assumption that the human race was a good idea.”

Later, he quotes Schopenhauer from The World as Will and Idea, stating that life consisted of, “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.”

I read The World as Will and Idea when I was in high school, but I really don’t remember any of it. I do, however, think it had a profound effect on me because Schopenhauer’s view of the universe is very similar to my own. This is why whenever Eagleton talks about him it makes me laugh in a knowing way—like I’m laughing at my own foibles. Yes, Schopenhauer is unrelentingly depressing. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Now I have to get The World as Will and Idea. It’s going to be a bumpy week.


The other day (8 September 2010), I was waiting at a bus stop and I saw a copy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Awake! magazine. It caught my eye because of its secondary headline, “Also: What Makes Us Good or Evil? Page 20.” I couldn’t pass that up, so I picked it up and read it. It made me reconsider Eagleton’s book: this was not a subject that was easy to write about. I don’t expect much from the JWs, in general, but this was really pathetic. There was no mention of questions. They simply stated that, “Man is as good or as evil as he chooses to be”—as if John Calvin had never been born.

What also struck me was that of the nearly twenty bible passages cited, only two are Gospels (John 8:44 and Luke 6:43-45) and neither are actually quoted. The John citation tells us that Jesus thought the Devil was a destroyer of man and a liar. The Luke citation is a little more on target, telling us that Jesus thought that good begets good and evil, evil. However, Jesus isn’t exactly clear in Luke. One could certainly interpret Luke 6:45 to mean that we ought to help the poor out of the pit we relegate them to. In other words, that evil is not so much a function of soul as of environment.

The main thing is that Christians are always on about is Jesus and WTFWJD. And yet, when they make arguments, they almost never quote him. Why? Because his ideas were revolutionary. They totally go against the status quo, which is what modern Christians want to maintain above all else (even God).

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “On Evil by Terry Eagleton

  1. Let’s not forget the flawed characteristics of indifference and complacency leading to "institutional evil."

  2. Yeah, that was what I found most wanting in Eagleton’s book. I think it is just that this subject is so obvious to him that he doesn’t find it interesting. He does discuss it in other books–including his Shakespeare scholarship.

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