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On Evil

On Evil
Author: Terry Eagleton
ISBN 13: 9780300171259
ISBN 10: 300171250
Edition: N/A
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 2011-04-26
Format: Paperback
Pages: 192
List Price: $16.00

For many enlightened, liberal-minded thinkers today, and for most on the political left, evil is an outmoded concept.  It smacks too much of absolute judgments and metaphysical certainties to suit the modern age.  In this witty, accessible study, the prominent Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton launches a surprising defense of the reality of evil, drawing on literary, theological, and psychoanalytic sources to suggest that evil, no mere medieval artifact, is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.

In a book that ranges from St. Augustine to alcoholism, Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Mann, Shakespeare to the Holocaust, Eagleton investigates the frightful plight of those doomed souls who apparently destroy for no reason.  In the process, he poses a set of intriguing questions.  Is evil really a kind of nothingness?  Why should it appear so glamorous and seductive?  Why does goodness seem so boring?  Is it really possible for human beings to delight in destruction for no reason at all?

Publishers Weekly

An engaging if ultimately unsatisfactory argument in favor of the reality of evil by one of Britain's most distinguished Marxist literary critics. Analyzing some of Western literature's major pronouncements on evil from Thomas Aquinas to William Golding, Eagleton (Reason, Faith and Revolution) pieces together what he sees as the defining features of evil in a rather unsystematic way, before grounding his own vision of evil in Freud's notion of the death drive, describing evildoers as suffering from “an unbearable sense of non-being” which must “be taken out on the other.” Despite its undeniably enjoyable verve and wit, the book's claims are undermined by a rather arbitrary use of source material as well as a belated and inadequate articulation of its major theoretical claim. Muddy talk about different levels of evil and an undeveloped but evidently important distinction between wickedness and evil suggest that the author's notions on the topic would be better served by a larger, more sustained work. Nonetheless, as an attempt to take seriously the reality of extreme wrongdoing without recourse to either religiously grounded certitudes or a total sociological determinism, it offers a promising alternative. (Apr.)