Two events happened this spring in New York City that flummoxed our sophisticated pundits.

First, a naturalized citizen failed to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Why did Faisal Shahzad become a jihadist? Explanations included revenge for drone attacks in Pakistan, misery over the foreclosure of his home, rage against George W. Bush, Islamist hatred for infidels, and anger at the creators of South Park, a TV show that depicted Muhammad.

Second, after helping an assaulted woman, a homeless immigrant was stabbed in Queens and left for over an hour as dozens of passersby ignored him. A surveillance camera captured the whole scene. When firefighters arrived, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dead. Why were there no Good Samaritans? Explanations included bystander apathy, diffusion of responsibility, and desensitization to violence.

The pundits were reluctant to acknowledge the obvious presence of evil in both events, owing to our thin moral discourse and metaphysical uncertainties. Thankfully, British literary critic Terry Eagleton is alert: "We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz …. Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be."

On Evil (Yale University Press), a superlative follow-up to Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution, argues against two prevailing viewpoints: "Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them." The first viewpoint besets our sanguine politicians, journalists, and social scientists who tend to explain away evil, while the second besets our dour theologians and ministers who invoke "evil" as a conversation stopper. Evil—like God—is neither fully comprehensible nor unfathomable, but partially explainable. Eagleton insists that our explanations of evil may sharpen or soften moral judgment.

Informed by the Marxist accent on class society and the Christian accent on original sin, Eagleton articulates a vision he calls "tragic humanism," which is honest enough to reckon with the brokenness of life, but hopeful enough to affirm the possibility of deep-seated transformation. "Soft-hearted liberals and tough-minded Marxists" need to hear Eagleton because he dares to name individuals and acts "evil," which they regard as an archaic category that has gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Otherworldly Christians also need to hear him because he confronts them with the material effects of evil (famine, nuclear weapons, financial malfeasance), which they miss because of their focus on "the spiritual forces of evil" (Eph. 6:12).

Article continues below
'On Evil' belongs to the genre of religious psychology, where Eagleton brilliantly relates the ultimate concerns of the theologian with the penultimate concerns of the psychoanalyst.

If social conditions are solely responsible for evil actions, we are puppets. If human behavior is solely responsible, we are monsters. And if the autonomous will of an individual solely chooses evil actions, we are like "the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost, with his 'Evil, be thou my good!'?" Against all these dehumanizing responses that move us beyond good and evil, where we are not answerable for our actions, Eagleton contends for an interplay between environment and character, as there is "no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free."

On Evil belongs to the genre of religious psychology, where Eagleton brilliantly relates the ultimate concerns of the theologian with the penultimate concerns of the psychoanalyst. Without the former, the result would be a study of human discontent; without the latter, a retreat into papier-mâché piety. Here, Aquinas meets Freud—enriching our reflections on the nature and manifestations of evil.

Everyday Dogma

This short book comprises three chapters. In "Fictions of Evil," Eagleton, a Roman Catholic, turns to the modern novels of William Golding, Flann O'Brien, Graham Greene, and Thomas Mann, and develops unconventional expressions of doctrine that might not get the seal of approval from Pope Benedict. For example, he says that "original sin is not the legacy of our first parents but of our parents, who in turn inherited it from their own. The past is what we are made of. Throngs of ghostly ancestors lurk within our most casual gestures, preprogramming our desires and flicking our actions mischievously awry." Risking a change in the substance of orthodoxy, the author performs the work of a glassblower, expanding the molten glass of dogma beyond its familiar shape until greater illumination is achieved.

The second chapter, "Obscene Enjoyment," opens with perceptive interpretations of evil in Shakespeare's dramas. Where the three witches of Macbeth subvert human speech, sexual identity, and social order, Iago, the villain of Othello, itches to deface the virtue and beauty of the married couple because they threaten his own sense of nothingness. These villains are anti-creators, exercising a negative freedom to destroy. "Given the intolerable fact that things do exist," Eagleton observes, "the best evil can do is try to annihilate them. In this way, it can seek to get on terms with God by inverting his act of creation, in a grisly parody of the Book of Genesis."

Article continues below

The rest of the chapter explores key questions with the aid of philosophy, theology, and 20th-century political history. Is evil positive or privative? Purposeful or pointless? Rare or common? Glamorous or boring? Internal or external? Is "radical evil"—willing wickedness for its own sake—even possible? Do not expect neat and tidy answers, because evil is a conundrum.

The highlight of this chapter is the application of Freud's death drive to the alcoholic, whose addiction—like evil—reveals that pleasure and self-violence are inseparable. If the scandal of psychoanalysis is "the proposal that human beings unconsciously desire their own destruction," then the scandal of the gospel, according to Aquinas, is the proposal that the Divine Physician cares for the sick more than the sick care for themselves (Matt. 9:12).

Loving 'For Naught'

"Job's Comforters," the final chapter, concerns theodicy—the attempt to "justify the ways of God to man." "Modern attempts to explain evil really stem from the cosmic optimism of the Enlightenment," Eagleton claims. "Evil is the dark shadow that the light of Reason cannot banish. It is the joker in the cosmic pack, the grit in the oyster, the out-of-place factor in a tidy world." The Boy Scout argument (evil builds our moral character), the Best of All Possible Worlds argument, the Big Picture argument ("evil is not really evil, just good that we fail to recognize as such"), and the Free Will argument are all incisively critiqued. Bottom line: Theodicies downsize an un-downsizable God and diminish the evilness of evil.

When confronted with evil, we should remember God's approach with Job in Eagleton's cheeky paraphrase:

Far from offering Job an account of why he has allowed him to suffer, he more or less tells him to go to hell. What can you possibly know about me? is the brunt of his testy intervention. How dare you imagine that you can apply your moral and rational codes to me? Isn't this like a snail trying to second-guess a scientist? … In the end, Job decides to love God for "naught"—to love him without regard for merits or demerits, reward or retribution, with a love as gratuitous as the scourges he has endured.
Article continues below

In a near perfect book—perfect for its profundity and panache—there are imperfections: its insufficient treatment of the relationship between sin and evil; its agnosticism about whether the origins of evil are supernatural or natural; and its mistaken claim that "most wickedness is institutional … the result of vested interests and anonymous processes, not of the malign acts of individuals." Closer engagement with the Bible's portrayals of evil would have helped.

On Evil leaves the reader with at least two major takeaways. First, evil refuses creaturely limits, which explains the ambition for godlike power in the Garden of Eden, the zeal for racial purity in the Nazis' Final Solution, and the tireless drive for profit in the American Dream. Second, evil wears many faces—creative and destructive, delightful and deadly, primitive and progressive, clinical and chaotic, idealistic and cynical—to conceal its utter vacancy.

Christopher Benson is a humanities instructor and book reviewer in Denver.

Related Elsewhere:

On Evil is available from and other retailers.

Previous articles on evil from Christianity Today include:

Operation Evil Power | If Christ has truly defeated the powers of Satan on the Cross (Col. 2:15), why do the powers of evil effectively operate in this world? (May 25, 2010)
Theodicy in Light of Eternity | Theologians see hope for the future based on the past. (January 25, 2010)
The Problem of Goodness | It's not just the problem of evil that baffles the secularist. (December 22, 2009)
The Evil In Us | Prisoner torture in Iraq exposes the ordinary face of human depravity. (July 1, 2004)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

On Evil
Our Rating
not rated  
Book Title
On Evil
Yale University Press
Release Date
April 6, 2010
Buy On Evil from Amazon