The emptiness of Evil

Apr 18, 2021 by

by Terry Eagleton, UnHerd:

Vice became exciting when virtue grew boring — but it will never sustain you.

The word “evil” doesn’t mean very, very bad. Stalin and Mao slaughtered millions of men and women, while Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the so-called Moors murderers of the 1960s, killed only a handful of people; but it is tempting to speak of Brady and Hindley as evil, even though massacring millions is obviously a lot worse than murdering only a few. Evil is a special kind of badness. Dictators kill to further their corrupt political ends, whereas Brady and Hindley killed just for the hell of it. There was absolutely no point to their actions. They strangled little children simply for the obscene pleasure of the act of destruction. Or, in Freudian terms, they were in the terrifying grip of the death-drive.

Demons, as they are presented in myth and legend, aren’t opposed to this or that human value, but to value as such. Hell resounds with the yelps, sniggers, chortles and guffaws of those who mock the preposterous idea that human existence could have any meaning or worth. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, the devils itch to puncture this moral pomposity and show up human beings for the miserable waste of space that they are.

Evil, in other words, is a form of cynicism. What it finds intolerable isn’t this or that piece of the world, but Creation itself. Its mission is to return things to pure nothingness, and it reaps the kind of delight from this destructiveness that we see dimly reflected in a small child smashing up a toy. Destruction is an inverted form of creation, which brings into being a new entity known as nothingness. Since God has cornered the act of creation, the devil can only imitate this creativity by trying to break up God’s handiwork; but this means, to Satan’s eternal chagrin, that evil is dependent on good, and is always belated in relation to it.

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