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On Evil Paperback – April 26, 2011

3.3 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

In the altogether excellent Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), Eagleton wondered how it was that the “most unlikely people, including myself,” were talking about God. Here he talks about God again, pretty much willy-nilly, given a topic—evil—so antonymically correlative to the deity. To his credit, he begins by considering personal, psychological evil and throughout draws far more on secular literature and philosophy than on scripture and theology. From Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956) and Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), he draws a conception of evil as nullity, as radical lack of emotion and sympathy. Constant negation, characteristic of the narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1967), and the radical freedom added to negation by Adrian Leverkühn in Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947) broaden the idea, and the witches of Macbeth and Othello’s Iago add “obscene enjoyment” to it. Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky are adduced before Eagleton somewhat surprisingly pronounces that evil is rather rare; more common and troubling is “plain wickedness, like destroying whole communities for financial gain.” An absorbing, stimulating, awfully entertaining discussion. --Ray Olson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300171250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300171259
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #262,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Clarissa's Blog VINE VOICE on June 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In his book On Evil, Terry Eagleton offers his readers an eminently readable treatise that combines literary criticism and philosophy in a way that does justice to his complex and charged subject. In my view, Eagleton does what every scholar of literature should attempt to do: make his analysis accessible to a wide reading audience without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of his work. As usual, the book is written beautifully, and Eagleton's sense of humor is highly enjoyable. This is the kind of literary criticism that is accessible to any reasonably educated person, not just to academics.

Eagleton begins On Evil by discussing how the concept of evil has been appropriated by a certain type of political discourse. The implication behind referring to terrorists as "evildoers" and their actions as "pure evil" is that if we accept that there is a rational explanation for acts of terror, we somehow condone them. This, of course, is completely wrong since "rational" and "commendable" are not the same thing. The tendency to refer to terrorists as evil only serves the purpose of shutting down any kind of discussion of their actions. As a result, we are left with no understanding of what they do and what. Consequently, we cannot possibly hope to combat terror since we have precluded any opportunity to analyze terrorism in any meaningful way.

Even though Eagleton ridicules the way certain politicians have appropriated the word "evil," he believes that evil actions and evil individuals do exist. In this, he disagrees not only with a certain brand of liberals but with many Marxists as well. (We have to remember that Eagleton himself is an unapologetic Marxist, which does not preclude him from pointing out the many subjects where he disagrees with his fellow Marxists.
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Format: Paperback
I gave up half way through. At a certain point I realized I was just spending time in the mind of a really interesting and intelligent man who likes to read. He makes some compelling points but it takes too much work getting to them. Too many assumptions, far reaching pseudo connections and not enough hardcore substantiation. Too many examples from literature rather than real life. I guess I was expecting something heavier, harder hitting. If I'm going to read for pleasure I'll pick up some fiction.
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Format: Paperback
This is an excellent work by the world's favorite heterodox Marxist. Eagleton combines theology, philosophy, and psychology to make incisive comments on the nature of evil. Not only does Eagleton synthesize ideas from the likes of Augustine and Freud, but he also draws on a wide range of literary and historical examples, from Shakespeare to the Holocaust. Eagleton's fundamental claim is that evil is banal, not sexy, that it is less, not more interesting than virtue. Many of these insights were presented in an embryonic form in Eagleton's earlier work After Theory, but they are far better developed here.
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Format: Paperback
This book makes absolutely no sense to me. It is full of references to books of fiction and many times feels like you are listening to a professor explain the meaning of a book. Problem is, none of it seems to have anything to do with "evil". It's just the ramblings of a man who seems to know what he is talking about, but can't stay on topic and can't explain it to anyone else.
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I agree with other reviews. I thought I was in a Freshman English Lit. class instead of reading something cohesive and in depth about the subject of evil. The first 80+ pages reference so many books and characters that I thought I was reading Cliff Notes for an exam. There seems to be no clear idea or topic other than all of the books had "evil" characters in them. The last half of the book was better but some may see humor in Eagleton's rhetoric, I sensed more derisive and bigoted opinion towards God, religion, and the Catholic Church (nothing new here from the Liberal left).

I almost stopped reading it, but I always make it a point to finish what I started, something this book fails to do. His criticisms of 'classic' explanations about evil are shallow and more opinion than sound philosophical arguments. In the end he blames the US for Islamic terrorism? Of course to the left the US is evil (or perpetrates evil) hard to tell where he draws the difference and we get what we deserve (including 9-11). It is astounding that an educated man has such a wrong view of what Islam teaches, stands for, and is dedicated to making a reality. Whether through violence or social evolution, as can be seen in large areas in Europe, the goal has been clear since it's inception. One world religion as a social theocracy. His harangue against the US at the end is shameful but then again so is the fact that I actually paid for this book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book does a good job of supporting a view of evil, but what that view is remains somewhat unclear. Nonetheless, for readers who like to draw their own conclusions, Eagleton provides some intriguing analysis of literature and philosophy with regard to evil or immorality.
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Outstanding philosopher. The book defines evil in depth. A great gift for introspective friends (or folks who think they are without flaws!)
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