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According to an English Evangelical bishop writing in 1991, the clear signs of Satanic possession include inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, a false smile, Scottish ancestry, relatives who have been coal miners and the habitual choice of black for dress or car colour. Some of us associate evil with different circumstances — for instance, those in which two ten-year-old boys tortured and murdered a toddler in Liverpool 17 years ago. Terry Eagleton bases the first chapter of his book On Evil on this case. Not once in this chapter does he refer to the killers or their victim by name, and not once does he need to. The murder of Jamie Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was uniquely traumatising enough for it to be burned into our collective memories (yet not unique enough almost to happen again last year in Edlington).

Jon Venables: A Killer by nature or nurture? 

Eagleton starts his book with this case for the same reason that I've started the review with it — because we both know that it makes our writing infinitely more interesting. Because the thing that sells almost as much as sex is evil. Because Huntley and Carr, Hindley and Brady, Venables and Thompson are all sure things when it comes to a good news story, even years after the crime. (In the last few months, both Huntley and Venables have graced the front pages of the papers.) There is something about evil that absolutely enthrals us — even more so if it involves women or children — and there is something terrifyingly thrilling about the thought that there are monsters, psychopaths and sadists in our midst. On Evil is laced with these villains and anti-heroes, both real and fictional, and automatically becomes much more absorbing because of this: Pinkie, in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, with his "slatey eyes...touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went"; the nihilist Iago, who seeks to destroy the angelic pompousness of Othello; even Satan himself, who cries "Evil, be thou my good!" in Paradise Lost

We classify such killers as monsters in order to separate them from the merely wicked, and to separate them from ourselves. After all, life would be pretty unbearable if we were to believe that evil was commonplace or something that we could all succumb to in the right circumstances. Evil has to be a category on its own, that exists above and beyond understandable human behaviour. 

Eagleton is out to spoil this illusion that we've created for ourselves, arguing that evil isn't as mysterious or incomprehensible as we may like to believe.

A police officer involved in the investigation of Jamie Bulger's murder said that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits he knew he was evil. Eagleton sees this as a "pre-emptive strike against soft-hearted liberals", a ploy to secure full punishment for the boys by arguing that their actions were without rhyme or reason and couldn't be explained away by looking into Thompson's and Venables's backgrounds. Evil people are therefore evil by nature, not nurture, and must be punished as such. They are like it from birth, like Kevin in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, who, to some, displays sociopathic tendencies even as a baby. Unfortunately, this is a circular argument: if someone is evil by nature then they can't really help who they are and what they do and are, perversely, innocent. They have been born with a disease or psychosis. 

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Fabio P.Barbieri
April 30th, 2010
10:04 AM
Oh, give me a break. "In the modern age we have abandoned theological explanations of evil for psychological ones..." - anyone who would put up such a piece of commonplace trash is not worth hearing. First, there is no contradiction between psychological and theological explanations of evil, so the notion that the rise of the latter makes the former not credible is pure trash. Second, the "theological" explanations of anything haven't gone anywhere. Hello? We Christians are right here, here and now; one of the greatest intellectuals of our time is the Pope. If Eagleton has paid no attention to him, that makes Eagleton ignorant, not the Pope. But for the love of Heaven even Eagleton, as a professor of literature, ought to be aware that the greatest writers of the twentieth century, from Graham Greene to Andre' Gide to Thomas Mann to Mikhail Bulgakov, wrote on Christian themes using Christian categories and were either Christian or the next best thing. Surely even he has heard of the Oxford debate of CS Lewis and GEM Anscombe - two Christians and two of the leading minds of their time? Surely he cannot be so stupid as to ignore GK Chesterton? And so on, and so forth, and so following... And the final irony: wanting to be up to date and discarding old-fashioned theories and explanations, he lights upon... Sigmund Freud. I hate to have to tell you that, Terry old boy, but if there is one theorist who is definitely old hat, who has given rise to a whole cottage industry dedicated to debunking him, whose findings are no longer used even by those who claim his succession - that is old Siegmund. Nobody more than he is "of his time" - and has gone with his time. Really, give me a break!

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