SATURDAY READING: The Nature of Evil, by Terry Eagleton

From Tikkun

The devil, so they say, has all the best tunes, and this seems to be the case when it comes to literature as well.  Nobody would take a guided tour of Dante’s Paradiso if they could have one of the Inferno instead.  Milton’s God sounds like a bureaucratic bore or constipated civil servant, while his Satan shimmers with mutinous life.  Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could have a beer with Fagin instead.  So why is evil so sexy, and so profoundly glamorous?  And why does virtue seem so boring?  Why is it that when I told my thirteen-year-old son I was writing a book on evil, he replied, “Wicked!”?

One answer, I think, is that it is not virtue that is boring but a particular, very familiar conception of it.  Think of Aristotle’s man of virtue, who lives more fully and richly than the vicious.  For Aristotle, virtue is something you have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores at sherry parties.  Being a virtuous human being is a practice, like being a skilled diver or an accomplished tennis player; and those who are really brilliant at being human – what Christians call the saints – are the virtuosi of the moral sphere, the Pavarottis and Maradonas of virtue.  Goodness in this Aristotelian view is a kind of prospering in the precarious affair of being human – a prospering which, if Sigmund Freud is to be believed, none of us manages particularly well.  The wicked are those who haven’t developed the knack of fine living – those who botch the business, as you might make a mess of cooking an omelet or conducting a symphony orchestra.  The wicked, then, are inept, crippled, deficient people who never really get the hang of human existence.  They are like poor artists who can’t knock themselves into shape.  Whereas the good, the virtuous, are those who, like good artists, realize their powers, energies, and capacities to the full, in as diverse a way as possible.  And because of this, they are brimming with life and high spirits.  With this model, to ask, “Why be good?” as people began to later, would be as ridiculous as asking, “Why enjoy a dark, foaming, full-bodied pint of Guinness?” or, “Why should a clock keep good time?”  Virtue is a kind of energy or exuberance, which is why it is sometimes thought to have something to do with God.  To say that God is good is not to say that he is remarkably well-behaved – most Christian theologians would not see God as a “moral” being at all – but rather that he is an infinite abyss of self-delighting energy, which no doubt means that he must have a boundless sense of humor as well (he needs one).  For Christian theology, God is that abundant, overflowing, ecstatic jouissance (as the unconscious is closer to us than the ego), and which allows us to be free and to flourish.  To be entirely without such abundant, self-delighting life is to be evil; and this means that evil is not something positive but a kind of lack or defectiveness, a sort of nothingness or negativity, an inability to be truly alive.  Evil may look lively, seductive, and flamboyant, but this is just the flashy show it puts on to cover up the hollowness at its heart.  It is the paper-thinness of evil, its brittle unreality, which is most striking about it.

Whatever happened, then, to this ancient notion of goodness as exciting, energetic, and exhilarating, and evil as empty, boring, and banal?  Why do people now see things the other way around?  One answer, at least in the West, is the gradual rise of the middle classes.  As the middle classes came to exert their clammy grip on Western civilization, there was a gradual redefinition of virtue.  Virtue now came to mean not energy and exuberance but prudence, thrift, meekness, chastity, temperance, long-headedness, industriousness, and so on.  No wonder people prefer vampires.  These may be admirable virtues, but they are not exactly exciting ones; and one effect of them is to make evil seem, by contrast, a lot more attractive, which is exactly what happened.  Virtue had now become essentially negative.  It was closely bound up with middle-class respectability.  It had lost its sexiness and become restrictive rather than enabling.  As Auden remarked of the Ten Commandments, there’s no particular point in observing human nature and simply inserting a “not.”  We were now moving toward that perversion of moral thought (identified above all with the greatest of all modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant) for which virtue was all about duty, obligation, and responsibility, rather than in the first place a matter of finding out how to live fully, how to enjoy ourselves.  Of course, duties, obligations, and responsibilities have their place in human life.  What is disastrous is to place them at the center of one’s moral vision.  Duties and obligations make sense not in themselves, but in relation to the idea of living most fully and most richly.  If they make that possible for the greatest number of people, well and good.  But they are not to be seen as definitive of virtue.  I say that virtue is really all about enjoying yourself, living fully; but of course it is far from obvious to us what living fully actually means.  This is because, as we know from Freud and others, we are not transparent to ourselves as human beings.  On the contrary, there is a sense in which we are desperately opaque to ourselves.  So we can’t just look inside ourselves and find the answers to these questions ready and waiting.  Instead, we need special kinds of language, like moral philosophy and political theory, to help us in these matters.  And the human conversation about what it is to live well – which is the answer to the question, “what is morality?” – has never arrived at an agreed conclusion and probably never will.  Astonishingly, we men and women of the modern age disagree on quite fundamental issues, which someone living in the Middle Ages might have found incomprehensible.  We all agree on why we agree on this.  And we probably never will.  As long as we don’t roast babies over fires, however, this may not matter too much.

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