A friend of mine wrote a book subtitled “The Metaphysics of Sin”, which he says sounds like the title of a knock off Harry Potter movie. It is actually a topic that often gets discussed in my house. My wife and I have a running spat over what reason can reveal about God and about the ontological weight of sin. I argue that our reason can reveal very little about God and that sin is an absence of ontology. She takes the much more reasonable line of claiming that reason is not worthless on the God question and that sin surely has some weight, some kind of reality because it actually has catastrophic consequences, especially when it gets going and grows to evil.

Terry Eagleton

So aside from being a huge fan of his prose, I relished getting stuck into Eagleton’s book “On Evil“. He takes us on a tour of evil as it has been treated by some of the great writers. William Golding’s Pincher Martin has been added to my must-read list as a result of his treatment. I surely didn’t appreciate the 3rd Policeman when I read it because Eagleton draws out much that I missed. Brighton Rock, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, Macbeth, Othello and Paradise Lost all get plenty of air-time as well. In this, the book is something that Eagleton is uniquely placed to produce- a book about books that helps you understand something that can never be captured by a book.

For Eagleton, evil is something very different to common wickedness or immorality. There is morality. There is immorality and both of these pursuits can be quite pointless. Then there is virtue, which is what we are really meant to strive for- the flourishing of our lives. For Eagleton, life is about learning how to be good. This is not the same as morality. Ida, a character in Brighton Rock, is sketched by him as someone who is a daytripper from the land of pragmatic morality. She is bound to come asunder on her visit into the realm of the absolute. Good is absolute. So too, is evil.

In this, evil is alarmingly close to love. It has no end in sight. This is what distinguishes it from immorality and wickedness which have a point. Evil is done for its own sake. We seek to quell the nothing within us by making more of it around us. But there is always more to make nothing of and so in this sense, evil is like addiction, which he treats beautifully. For Eagleton, a Christian might say that eternity is in love with the products of time but evil happens when the products of time because obsessed with eternity.

A guy in my church once prayed that God would help him resist the glamour of sin. I thought that was a good prayer. Eagleton would too, but he would remind us that sin only seems so glamourous because the “good” amongst us have traded virtue for morality:

Yet the idea that evil is glamourous is one of the great moral mistakes of the modern age. (When I told my young son that I was writing a book on evil he replied, “Wicked!”) I have written elsewhere on how this mistake may have arisen. Once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing. Once the puritan propagandists and evangelical mill owners redefine virtue as thrift, prudence, chastity, abstinence, sobriety, meekness, frugality, obedience, and self-discipline, it is not hard to see why evil should begin to look a sexier option. As with the magnificent music of Adrian Leverkuhn, the devil seems to have all the best tunes. Suburban virtue is a poor thing compared to Satanic vice. We would all rather have a drink with Dicken’s Fagin or Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff than a chat with the God of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, who speaks like a constipated civil servant.

In a lecture in Trinity College earlier in the year, Eagleton had argued that the obsession that our society has with vampires and zombies revealed the way in which we suspect we are dead or more precisely the undead. We are trapped inside the world we have made, stripped bare of coherent spirituality, a kind of rationalist iconoclast. He extends those thoughts:

The jaded sensibility of postmodern culture can no longer find much shock value in sexuality. So it turns instead to evil, or at least what it guilelessly imagines to be evil: vampires, mummies, zombies, rotting corpses, maniacal laughter, demoniac children, bleeding wallpaper, multicoloured vomit, and so on. None of this of course is evil at all, just plain nasty.

This book is enjoyable. That is a remarkable achievement, considering its content. Its treatments of psychoanalysis are genuinely exhilarating. When have you heard that before? It is practically impossible to catch up with everything Eagleton has written but I will always be trying to do it now. His books come from a unique place, and have a lovely balance in how they reject light from no quarter. Is there any Irish intellectual to compare with him working today?

Your Correspondent, Whiskey works better than beer

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