Terry Eagleton on the label ‘evil’

Israeli Daily, 1967‘It is true that morality has been often enough a way of ducking hard political questions by reducing them to the personal. In the so-called war against terrorism, for example, the word “evil” really means: Don’t look for a political explanation. It is a wonderfully time-saving device. If terrorists are simply Satanic, then you do not need to investigate what lies behind their atrocious acts of violence. You can ignore the plight of the Palestinian people, or of those Arabs who have suffered under squalid right-wing autocracies supported by the West for its own selfish, oil-hungry purposes.

The word “evil” transfers the question from this mundane realm to a sinisterly metaphysical one. You cannot acknowledge that the terrible crimes which terrorists commit have a purpose behind them, since to ascribe purposes to such people is to recognize them as rational creatures, however desperately wrongheaded. It is easier to caricature your enemy as a bunch of blood-crazed beasts – a deeply dangerous move, since to defeat an opponent you have first to understand him. The British tabloid press may have seen the IRA as gorillas rather than guerrillas, savages with no rationale for their actions, but British Intelligence knew better. They understood that Republican murders and massacres were not without a purpose. Indeed, to label your enemy as mad is to let him, morally speaking, off the hook, absolving him of responsibility for his crimes’.

– Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic, 2003), 141–42.


  1. Hmm. There is a purpose behind the ISIS actions, but I don’t think it’s primarily political. It extends way back to the same purpose that caused Islam to terrorize and slaughter and conquer Christian nations centuries ago, long before the Crusades.
    It’s equally easy to blame Western nations – for misunderstanding the Arabs, for the desire for cheap oil, for a host of actual political things. But that doesn’t cause one lot of Muslims to kill another lot of Muslims. That may have internal political overtones, but basically it’s a religious issue, as is the ISIS one.
    And sometimes evil is just plain evil, as with Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung, all of whom seemingly started off politically, but became increasingly savage as a result of their lust for power and domination.
    Yes, the West is responsible for some issues in the Middle East, and has been for a long time. But equally, those causing the current violence (ISIS, Hamas) in these countries have to take responsibility for their own actions, and when that action includes wiping Israel off the earth, slaughtering their own people, allowing their own people to be collateral damage, then I find it hard to think that this is anything but plain old Satan at his usual work of destruction.


  2. Eagleton is always there or thereabouts – as you’d expect for someone profoundly influenced by Herbert McCabe.

    And speaking of evil, do you know his book On Evil (2010)? The dedication is “To Henry Kissinger”. Brilliant, or what!

    Btw, Eagleton is lecturing at Swansea University on February 10th on “Was Jesus a Revolutionary?” Should be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘Thereabouts’, like McCabe and his bête noire Thomas ;-)

    As for Eagleton’s On Evil, I’m reading it at the moment, having spent the last 2–3 weeks reading Augustine … Will turn to MacKinnon and Murdoch soon.


  4. @ Mike: A related quote from Rowan Williams, for your consideration:

    ‘To say that a Goebbels—or a Radovan Karadzic or a Saddam Hussein—exemplifies lucidity, coherence, effectiveness and so on in his actions is certainly not to claim that his pursuit of his desires is a simple instance of homogeneous ‘evil’, exercising power and effectiveness. It is to recognize that, if evil itself is never a subject or substance, the only way in which it can be desired or sought is by the exercise of the goods of mental and affective life swung around by error to a vast misapprehension, a mistaking of the unreal and groundless for the real. The more such a pursuit continues, the more the desiring subject becomes imprisoned, enslaved, hemmed in; the more the typical excellences of will and intelligence are eroded. However, that does not mean that the effects of this nightmare error are lessened.

    To put it more pictorially: the more power, dignity and liberty adhere naturally to a created being, the more energy there will be for the pursuit of false or destructive goals, illusory goods. The corruption of a human will is a more far-reaching disaster than the corruption of an animal will, because the latter has a severely limited range of possibilities for innovation on the basis of reflection. A wicked human is an immeasurably greater problem than a wicked hamster (if, indeed, we could give much content to such an idea); and Augustine and the majority of Christian theologians up to the Enlightenment would have added that a corrupted angelic will is an immeasurably greater problem than a corrupted human will, and that a fair number of our difficulties in this world derive from just this problem’.


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