This brings us to an important point in understanding Eagleton's political philosophy, which he calls realism as opposed to both conservatism and liberalism.
Conservative anthropology is essentially pessimistic. Humans are not true moral hybrids, prone to evil yet capable of good; 'they are for the most part corrupt, indolent creatures who require constant discipline and authority if anything of value is to be dragged out of them'. It is for this reason that conservatives lay great store on the role of institutions in governing the unruly wills and affections of sinful men. The flaw in their loyalty to tradition, however, is that they . . . refuse to acknowledge that the very institutions they build to protect themselves against disorder frequently end up as instruments of the destruction they are seeking to avoid. Eagleton believes that capitalism, in particular, has to be distinguished from other institutional forms of life, because it plugs directly into the unstable, contradictory nature of the human species. 'Capitalism is a system which needs to be in perpetual motion simply to stay on the spot. Constant transgression is of its essence.' The same might be said of religious institutions, with the added difficulty that their transcendental pretensions make them peculiarly resistant to redemptive change.
If conservatives believe in original sin but not in redemption, then liberals believe in redemption but not in original sin. They are deficient in the tragic sense of life, which is why they tend to identify the source of the ills that beset us as not in ourselves, but in external impediments to human well-being: remove these external obstacles, goes the mantra, and the kingdom will come on earth as it is in the heaven of the liberal's imagination.
Radicals, on the other hand, try to maintain a precarious balancing act between these extremes. 'On the one hand they must be brutally realistic about the depth and tenacity of human corruption to date ... On the other hand, this corruption cannot be such that transformation is out of the question.' Eagleton believes that what prevents the radical from sliding into despair is an understanding of what he calls materialism. 'I mean by this belief that most violence and injustice are the result of material forces, not of the vicious disposition of individuals ... The opposite of materialism here is moralism - the belief that good and bad deeds are quite independent of their material contexts.'What he is proposing, in fact, is a materialist understanding of original sin. He believes that most immoral behaviour is bound up with structures and institutions, so that it is not entirely the fault of the individuals who are implicated in it. A good example would be the way men and women who would no more torture an animal than shoot their grandmother collude in the existence of a vast, industrialised system of cruelty to animals because of their addiction to cheap food. . . . Another great realist theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, captured this paradox in the title of one of his books, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr demonstrated again and again in his writings that we are at our worst in the collective or structural sphere - Eagleton's materialism. Acts we would never dream of performing ourselves we allow to be done in our name at a distance.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Richard Holloway reviews Terry Eagleton's On Evil.