Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Enjoying Evil

As I mentioned recently, it is interesting to see contemporary writers addressing age-old topics, including such vast issues as evil, the existence of which is problematic in a world that makes sense. It has provoked strong and varied reactions from writers and thinkers in every era.

Twenty years so I developed a course, The Faces of Evil, for the honors students at the University of Central Florida that turned out to be my most popular course--and a particular favorite of mine because I kept expanding its scope as I learned more. That, for me, is the chief value of teaching: to learn and share what one knows.

There is a great challenge in talking about evil in a way that makes sense. Now Terry Eagleton, the British literary theorist, has written a lively article in the magazine Tikkun, based, no doubt, on his recent book in which he asserts his belief in evil.

Eagleton, whose reputation as a Marxist bad boy who stirs up controversies in academia, is not the first person I would expect to become a Christian apologist, yet the essence of what he says in his essay "Why is Evil So Sexy, and So Profoundly Glamorous?" is in keeping with the mainstream tradition in which he, like me, was raised.

Of course, he brings wit and brio to this familiar discussion. Goodness is seen as dull and boring, he says, because we fail to understand what virtue is: it is an ongoing practice, not a static piety but a kind of energy or exuberance that "has something to do with God."

Eagleton's God is not, to be sure, a Victorian schoolmaster, well-behaved and dictatorial like the divine character in Milton's "Paradise Lost." Rather, God is "an infinite abyss of self-delighting energy." No one, he asserts, can reject the Christian idea of God and still live because there is no life outside God.

And to be without such abundant energy, says Eagleton, is evil. Evil, then, is (as it was for Plato and Augustine and countless others) a negativity, an absence of the good: in this case, a lack of the ability to be fully alive. (I am reminded of the words of Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive." Or was it Ignatius of Antioch? Hard to keep those old guys straight.)

If we fail to see the exciting side of goodness, Eagleton says, we naturally find it dull and turn to vampire stories and the apparent allure of evil.

Eagleton's point is that virtue has nothing to do with doing your duty; it has to do with enjoying yourself in an authentic sense.

Like zombies and vampires, the truly evil live in a twilight world of non-being between life and death. All they can manage is a kind of inauthentic life; so despite the appeal of certain literary and cinematic villains, including Milton's Satan, Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III, Hannibal Lecter, et al., they live a parody of real life, deriving pleasure from inflicting their sufferings on others.

Perhaps we are fascinated by evildoers, as I used to speculate with my students, because we see our own potential for malevolence--hatred, racism, violence, e.g.--in others, real or imagined. But most people are not evil even if in their adolescent fantasies they find the idea enticing.

If I were to re-write Eagleton's essay, I would say more about the power of love as the essence of goodness as well as about the way evil inevitably involves the ego, the isolated self disconnected from society.

No topic invites more speculation or raises more important questions than the nature of evil. What happened to the ancient idea that goodness should be exciting and evil boring? How did it get reversed? Can it be discussed outside a theological framework?

Eagleton, using some useful literary examples, shows that the answer is "yes" to this last question while also cleverly showing the religious dimension of the topic. I am grateful for his article and for all the intellectual energy he has put into keeping the topic engaging.

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