a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Eagleton pegged

with 2 comments

Eagleton – yeah ok, he looks a bit like me, only much less interesting

There are few ‘intellectuals’ who get my dander up in the way Terry Eagleton does – perhaps only that Scots git John Gray is his match for monumental stupidity and excruciating arrogance.

Anyway, Eagleton keeps popping up and I do my best to ignore him, but some quotes in Butterflies and Wheels from a review he wrote on some secular essays have allowed me to comment without reading the entire review, which would only be a mood-ruiner. This is a particularly choice and typical example:

Christianity is certainly other-worldly, and so is any reasonably sensitive soul who has been reading the newspapers. The Christian gospel looks to a future transformation of the appalling mess we see around us into a community of justice and friendship, a change so deep-seated and indescribable as to make Lenin look like a Lib Dem.

I’m going to focus on these lines because they capture everything that is problematic [to put it mildly] about Eagleton’s critique, and because they reveal, I think, something of his true nature.

I’ve certainly been here before. The phrase ‘the appalling mess we see around us’ has basically the same meaning as ‘our currently dire condition’, a phrase he used in his notorious review of The God Delusion, with which he seems to have reincarnated himself as an atheist baiter of atheists. That phrase caught my attention then, and formed the basis of my own little critique of Eagleton. Here’s an example of what I wrote then:

Is Dawkins an apostle of human progress? I don’t know. I do find him an optimist, and I share that optimism. Eagleton, on the other hand, speaks of our ‘currently dire condition’. It’s probably useless to speculate here on Eagleton’s meaning – whether our current condition, though dire, is better, worse or the same as it was a hundred or fifty thousand years ago. It reads like throwaway rhetoric to me.

I’m now beginning to realise that it’s not a matter of throwaway rhetoric, though it’s also clearly an issue Eagleton cannot and will not address. The ‘mess we’re in’ is merely adverted to, as something screamingly obvious, but too intractable to face squarely.

So what is this screamingly obvious mess? I’ll try to guess. I think he’s referring to ye olde ‘human condition’. Okay, that doesn’t answer the question, but at least it quashes the idea that there’s anything modern about it. A dire condition – the fruit of unfairness, selfishness, cruelty, desperation and whatever – has always been our lot – and for that matter, the lot of every living being, so it’s not just a human condition. It’s my contention that Eagleton sees all this as dire because he’s a utopian anti-realist. The reality is that there’s lots of luck involved in each and all of our circumstances. Everyone can take themselves as examples. I myself was born of working class Scots who came to Australia as ten pound migrants in the early sixties, when I was a young child. I had opportunities, I lacked opportunities. I was born with a set of genes, and no doubt seemed to my parents to have a set character from an early age, as most children seem to have to most parents. It was a matter of luck that I wasn’t born to Afghan peasants and sent to a madrassa at an early age to be indoctrinated into Moslem fundamentalism. It was a matter of luck that I wasn’t born into a rich and powerful family and raised to believe that I might become president of the most powerful nation on earth, in spite of being as thick as two planks. It was a matter of luck that I was born with a particular and unique genetic inheritance. There’s nothing ‘fair’ or ‘just’ in any of this. It is simply my lot.

As I’ve said, it’s the same for dogs, cats, elephants, dolphins and spiders. As a dog I could’ve been born pampered and pedigreed, or I could’ve been born on a dung-heap, scrabbling for life for a few months before dying of sickness or starvation. If born a spider, I might’ve been lucky enough to have been a wolf-spider, whose mother takes especial care of her young.

wolf spider with kiddies on back

Even so, chances are I wouldn’t have survived to adulthood.

So I think it’s clear to any clear-thinking realist that the world isn’t a fair or just place, and human civilisation hasn’t helped much in that regard. Nor would any clear-thinking realist expect that it would. It’s not a ‘dire condition’ or a mess, it’s just – well, tough. For some more than others, admittedly.

This is by no means an excuse for complacency, it’s just a matter of keeping things in perspective. So to return to Eagleton, who writes

Christianity is certainly other-worldly, and so is any reasonably sensitive soul who has been reading the newspapers.

Now, I think this statement is false but understandable. False, because I consider myself a reasonably sensitive soul, and I read newspapers [or more, often these days, online sites, TV news, and blogs], and I’m not at all other-worldly. Sure, I often wish things were otherwise, but in this world, not in some other-worldly other-reality. It’s understandable simply because wishful thinking and fantasising are understandable. We all engage in it, and it can be a productive engagement [and also not]. Note though that Eagleton again brings things into the modern age [without explanation or detail], as if our modern world is more cruel and crass than the world of the Thirty Years’ War, or the Trojan War for that matter. In fact, I find other-worldly thinking more comprehensible in the context of two thousand years ago. Imagine tramping about the dusty roads of Galilee, thinking ‘Jesus Christ, I’m buggered. My feet are killing me – look at that blister! Wouldn’t it be nice to find some gorgeous nymphette to wash them and dry them with her nice silken hair, and massage a bit of myrrh and aloe into them. And why don’t these peasants listen to a word I say? Jesus, a guy would have to be crucified to get any attention round here! Ah if only we could be taken away from all these cares and woes, where we could all be happy and gay – except for all those rich bastards….’

Yes, Christianity is other-worldly indeed, and offers no solutions whatever for this world. Neither does Eagleton, and so he hankers after other-worldliness, though he knows it ain’t true. Understandable, maybe, but spectacularly unproductive. Which brings me to the second sentence of the quote:

The Christian gospel looks to a future transformation of the appalling mess we see around us into a community of justice and friendship, a change so deep-seated and indescribable as to make Lenin look like a Lib Dem.

Two things. First, when you move to the other-worldly, you can’t even say the sky’s the limit, for in fact there are no limits. Bodies? Who needs em? Minds? Well, maybe, but why not partake of the one Mind, and call it Mindless Mind, that which is not? Indescribable indeed. Second, having read the gospels several times now, I find no coherent moral program therein, no coherent discussion of friendship or justice or community [as you find, say, in Plato or Aristotle]. There’s just the basic message – have faith and you’ll be saved. Whatever that means.

Eagleton rather reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridge, whom I critiqued a while back. Muggeridge, too, hated the real world [and especially sex, the poor thing], and had a similar tetchiness and slovenly attitude towards analysis and rigour. Both utopianists also have a complete contempt for and proud ignorance of science. This is hardly surprising, for the cornerstone of all science is a focus on the real world – that which is testifiable and verifiable, where speculation, though encouraged, is always balanced by fidelity to the laws and scientific developments previously confirmed. I dealt with Muggeridge’s other-worldly utopianism at the end of my essay on him. Eagleton is, perhaps, not so much an embracer of a utopian view as a chaffer against realism. Then again, he is a former Marxist, just as Muggeridge was a former socialist, and seems to enjoy hanging about in the vague netherworld of post-modernism, where anything apparently goes. It’s unlikely he’ll become a full-blown convert to an increasingly unconvincing Christianity, but it wouldn’t hugely surprise me. He might just do it to spite us, and himself.

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2011 at 11:36 am

Posted in religion, skepticism

2 Responses

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  1. Well-written & bloody well right. The Inefffable Eagleton is a silly little twit.

    Tim Harris

    July 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm

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