April 17, 2021   6 mins

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.

There’s a long tradition for which evil is a kind of lack or absence. It may look frighteningly real, but it really springs from an incapacity for life.

The evil are the living dead, botched simulacra of authentic human existence. One such simulacrum walked among us fairly recently, known as Jimmy Savile. This isn’t necessarily to say that Savile was evil, but he was certainly a hole in the air. The point of the wig, shades, cigar, tracksuit and other appurtenances was to disguise the fact that there was nobody behind them. His eyes were dead and his geniality entirely bogus. He was devoid of talent, believed in nothing and had no relationships with other people because he was unable to love — which is to say, unable to be alive. He happened, however, to be a Roman Catholic by birth, and his charitable activities were probably an attempt to persuade St Peter that they sufficiently outweighed his crimes to allow him to squeeze into heaven.

When evil people feel agonised by the sickening void inside themselves, they try to fill it by annihilating others. Only in the act of destruction can they feel alive. Only by spreading their own nothingness around themselves can they hope to escape from it. Yet one can also view this from another perspective.

One reason why the evil detest human life is because it is messy. Evil is unnerved by the untidy and unfinished. Materiality is shapeless, mercurial stuff which seeps all over the place. The evil, however, are purists and disciples of order who find chaos unbearable, and who are therefore deeply hostile to the human body. Hitler couldn’t stand being touched. If he demonised Jews, it was partly because they signified this chaotic nothingness or non-being, which needed to be purged for the purity and orderliness of the German race to shine forth like some luminous work of art. And since the need for purity is absolute, this meant that not even a tiny scrap of nothingness was to be left around, which meant in turn that every Jew on earth had to be liquidated.

Hitler, then, was engaged in the impossible project of trying to destroy nothingness. This, to do violence to language, was the constructive aspect of his project. The destructive side of the Nazis was the orgiastic way they revelled in nothingness and meaninglessness for their own sake. They, too, were in thrall to the death drive, which seduces us into delighting in destruction as an end in itself. As Primo Levi points out, one of the most chilling aspects of the Nazi concentration camps is that they were unnecessary. In fact, from the Nazis’s viewpoint they were in some ways counterproductive, disposing of men and women whose talents could have been harnessed to their war effort and tying down personnel and resources which might have been used elsewhere.

You might claim that it suited the Nazis to create a bugbear — an alien Other against which the nation would be united in its antagonism. But you do not need to kill six million people to create a bugbear. There was a crazed excess about the project which betrays the fact that the rationality driving it was by no means simply an instrumental one. This is one way in which the Nazi extermination differs from, say, Stalin’s slaughter of the kulaks and others, which was practically, politically motivated. This needless to say, is not to claim that Stalin’s behaviour was less morally atrocious than Hitler’s. The former murdered far more people than the latter.

Perhaps the camps were driven by practical reason in the sense that you needed to kill every last Jew in order to ensure that a Germany cleansed of despicable weakness would triumph in its wars. This was one motive for supposedly purifying the race. But it was also an end in itself. Evil has the mystery of things that are motiveless. This is one reason why it is sometimes seen as glamorous, compared to the prim world of virtue. In fact, virtue is also a matter of doing things for their own sake, rather than for profit and reward, and thus has an unnerving resemblance to evil. The devil, one should recall, was once an angel. Evil may appear full of energy and exoticism, but that is just outward show.

In reality it is flat, kitschy, sham and superficial, an incapacity for living at any depth. It is Jimmy Savile’s tracksuit, not Dracula’s gown, the spectacles of Adolf Eichmann rather than the lethal eyes of the Medusa. The evil are those who are deficient in the art of living — an art which Aristotle believed you had to get good at by constant practice if you were truly to become a person. There is no reason for doing this, any more than there is reason for burying little children on Saddleworth Moor.

Vice became exciting when virtue grew boring. For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, virtue is all about abundance of life. By the time we arrive at the philosophy of John Locke in the late 17th century, virtue is now a thoroughly bourgeois affair — a matter of thrift, prudence, chastity, temperance, honesty, sobriety and a number of other qualities for which one feels more admiration than affection. No wonder, then, that with the rise of the middle classes evil finally comes into own, as Milton’s magnificently rebellious Satan overshadows his stiff-necked bureaucrat of a God. Dickens’s heroes have all the virtues, but his villains have all the life. One would rather knock back a glass of whisky with Fagan than share an orange juice with Oliver Twist. How to make goodness interesting becomes an exacting artistic problem. A few centuries later, “wicked” would come to mean “great”, and Gothic would be all the rage in university English departments.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly monk Father Zosima declares that the Satanic “demand that there be no God of life, that God destroy himself and all his creation. And they shall burn everlastingly in the flames of their own hatred, and long for death and non-being. But death shall not be granted them.” The evil can’t die because they are kept alive by their own loathing and self-torment. Only their misery can assure them that they still exist. This is what is traditionally meant by hell. It is the kingdom of the mad, absurd, surreal, farcical, disgusting and excremental — of all, in short, that pounds meaning and value to pieces. If only the evil could let themselves go, they might recognise that there is a more fertile kind of nothingness than destruction, namely the act of self-dispossession. Only in this way might they be open to genuine life.

Yet this demands a courage which is found wanting in one of the great literary figures of our own time, William Golding’s Pincher Martin. Marooned on his rock in the Atlantic Ocean, dead but unable to accept the fact, Martin’s giant, lobster-like claws grip one another to protect the dark centre of his identity against the flashes of black lighting which batter relentlessly against them, seeking to unlock his self-defence and penetrate his inner being so that he might be saved. Martin, however, who regards himself as too precious to die, turns his face to the sky and shouts “I shit on your heaven!” The novel ends without the reader ever learning who is the victor in this contest. We shall never know whether heaven could take this insult on the chin, smash Martin’s defences to pieces and thus allow him to be reborn.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.