The Ethical Failure of Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton has joined the rush of those on the left to offer opinions on ethics in a recent lop-sided work called Trouble with Strangers.1  His argument is as straightforward as it is expected in these days of his recovered role as a part-time theologian of the Roman Catholic left: both Christian theology and socialism offer a far more profound sense of both the depravity of human beings and the capacity for ground-shaking renewal.  After all, is this not the point of the narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection?  It leads one to what should be an entirely disinterested obligation to sympathy, compassion, understanding and obligation to one’s fellow men and woman.

But why is this position expected?  In most of Eagleton’s works after the turn of the millennium,2 he has trotted out variations on the same, rather traditional Roman Catholic form of theology: the intrinsic nature of God, who had no need to create the world but did so out of love (God therefore does not depend upon creation for existence); the power of simple, intrinsic virtues in constructing a metaphysical response to the equally intrinsic and apparently insurmountable forces of evil (capitalism, selfishness, mayhem, bloodshed, cruelty and what have you); the centrality of ethics and love as the process of selfless giving; the need for forgiveness, specially political forgiveness; the role of genuine hope, especially through and for the anawim (the poor, dispossessed and downtrodden), the only Hebrew word Eagleton seems to know and which appears, dragged out of retirement from his early theological works, with predictable regularity.3  Through it all, ethics sounds a regular beat as a central feature of that theology.  In work after work we find the same potted theology, for which he ritually apologises,4 with occasional references to Thomas Aquinas and an old mentor, Herbert McCabe.

The late Eagleton has settled upon a three-legged stool: Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and theology each provide him with largely the same message concerning the depths of human depravity and the possibility of overcoming it.  Or rather, while psychoanalysis might provide an excellent description of our fallen state, Christianity and Marxism (tagging along somewhat breathlessly) have by far the best solution.  But this triangulation explains the choice of Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic and Real as a grid for Trouble with Strangers — a decision that initially seems like window-dressing for some rather ordinary arguments concerning ethics but then turns out to be quite forced.  By the later stages of the book the grid looks decidedly lumpy, with Eagleton struggling to bend and stretch it to fit yet more ethical positions: Shakespeare in the symbolic, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic, ethical and religious as imaginary, symbolic and Real, and then the leftovers gathered at the end from Aristotle to Kant.

However, the trap with using these categories, particularly in the way Eagleton presents them, is that they fall into a developmental pattern.  Although Eagleton notes Lacan’s dialectical reading of the imaginary, symbolic and Real, he takes them either as stages in a child’s development, a crooked historical narrative of bourgeois fortunes, or of course a progressive narrative structure in which Christianity comes out trumps at the end.  The effect is obvious, for the imaginary is an immature form, caught in the primitive mirror stage, and an ethics that falls into this category is focused on the self.  The symbolic is a step forward with its negotiation of the self and the other, but even this falls short of the terrible place of the Real, the traumatic, indescribable kernel that keeps us all going but threatens to destroy our world at any moment.  Only at this point do we reach the Christian doctrine of sin, which is not only the springboard for a theological solution but also the moment where Marxism’s profound pessimism about the status of exploited and alienated human beings comes into its own.  Or, as Eagleton puts it, the Lacanian Real is ‘a psychoanalytic version of Original Sin’.5  So psychoanalysis gets us to our fallen, sinful state, but from there we need theology and Marxism.  The problem now is that Eagleton simply assumes, without offering any extensive analysis, that Marxism drinks deeply at the well of Jewish and Christian thought.

But what has all this got to do with ethics?  Is there a breakthrough, a deep and thorough transformation of ethics in light of the traumatic and terrible Real?  If we need to have a Lacanian structure, then let us make the most of it.  Does the passion narrative of Christ’s death allow us to stare that beast in the face?  Does it provide a narrative of transition, the ultimate psychoanalytic cure?  In the despairing cry of dereliction and abandonment — ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ — does the narrative take us through and beyond the Real?  Do we finally get past the subjective concerns of the imaginary and the interpersonal obsessions of the symbolic to a moment when the over-riding desire of ethics is to help us get on better with our fellow man and woman?

The simple answer is no: Eagleton does not deliver.  All we find are some feel-good observations on disinterested goodness and virtue: Christ overcomes death and despair basically through being nice and not expecting to be rewarded for it — something like lending my shovel to a neighbour and not expected anything in return.  According to Eagleton, Christian theology offers a number of simple, unprepossessing virtues that may actually overcome the depths of evil (and Eagleton does not shy away from admitting that he seeks to recover a full-blooded ‘metaphysics’).  Kindness, love, justice, humility, modesty, meekness, vision, courage, dedication, selflessness and endurance — all of these and more are marshalled again and again to do battle with evil in a starkly dualistic universe.6  But the greatest virtue is love, which he takes not as the lusty desire for getting one’s clothes off and connecting the plumbing, but as an indifferent, unconditional, impersonal and, especially, a public and political law of love that has its benchmark in the love for enemies and strangers.  For Eagleton, this is the key to ethics, a selfless and disinterested — as in not expecting anything in return — obligation to care for the ‘stranger’.  The echoes of the biblical injunction to show kindness to the stranger in our midst, for we too were strangers in Egypt, runs through Eagleton’s text,7 but he cuts a different path from Levinas’s bloodless, disembodied ethics in the midst of a permanent warfare of the social.  In the end ethics is at the core of the Christian message, found on the cross of Christ as an ethical act.  And its concern is in the end that other to whom we must show selfless love, a banal goodness that will overcome evil.

Apart from his failure of nerve, Eagleton offers both a truncated theology and a dismembered socialism.  Ethics becomes nothing more than a code of life for the religious left, or rather a much more spiritual left.8  Follow these guidelines — above all, the law that one should love one’s neighbour as oneself — which happen to be much the same in both Christianity and socialism, and you are on the path to salvation.  Ultimately, Eagleton falls into a tired — no, well and truly buried — argument that was common in the nineteenth century.  A moral code for society, it was argued, can be based only on Christian theology.  Casting anxious looks at the swelling mobs of anti-clerical protesters and openly secular social movements, church and political leaders opined that with the decline of Christianity so would the social glue of morals disappear.  For all his trumpeting of a more radical ethics based on love and the death and resurrection of Christ, Eagleton makes largely the same argument (shared, incidentally, by conservative Muslims).  Values have been dropped by the wayside, he argues, as capitalism and its empty consumerism have gained sway.  We no longer have a robust metaphysical framework and ethics is left to wander about, thirsty and hungry, in a moral wasteland.  The solution is then a recovery of the Christian message, nothing less than a full-scale recovery of his early years among the Roman Catholic left.  Since the turn of the millennium, the explicit theological tone in Eagleton’s works has sounded ever more loudly, so that now he writes openly of the need for a bodily resurrection of Christ (for otherwise the message is meaningless), the power of the resurrection of Christ and the nature of God, and — a topic on which he has been a little cagey until recently — the solidarity of the sacrificial meal and love feast of the Eucharist.  Not only is this an adequate replacement for self-sacrifice, should we miss the grand opportunity to give our lives in service for others, but it is a pure blast from Eagleton’s past, when he used to argue for the value of the Eucharist.9  The only thing missing is the old argument that the priesthood might become Leninist vanguard.10  It is no wonder the archbishop of Canterbury reads him with approval.


1 Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).  Loaded with quotation and exposition (perhaps to show that Eagleton does read every now and then), it is an odd collection that includes Francis Hutcheson and Aristotle, Shakespeare and Adam Smith, Heinrich von Kleist and Kierkegaard.

2  Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (London: Penguin, 2001); Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others (London: Verso, 2003); Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwells, 2003); Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” London Review of Books (2006); Eagleton, Jesus Christ: The Gospels (Revolutions) (London: Verso, 2007); Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics; Eagleton and Nathan Schneider, “Religion for Radicals: An Interview with Terry Eagleton,” MRZine 61, no. 4 (2009); Eagleton, On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).  Often scattered in various reflections throughout these works, the most complete statement of what I no longer hesitate to call Eagleton’s theology may be found in Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, pp. 5-32, which he is ‘reluctant to label . . . liberation theology’, even though he sees the connection (p. 32).  See the detailed discussion in Roland Boer, Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, Historical Materialism Book Series (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2007), pp. 275-333.

3  Terry Eagleton, “The Roots of the Christian Crisis,” in “Slant Manifesto”: Catholics and the Left, ed. Adrian Cunningham, Terry Eagleton, Brian Wicker, Martin Redfern and Lawrence Bright OP (London: Sheed & Ward, 1966); Eagleton, The New Left Church (London: Sheed and Ward, 1966); Eagleton, “The Slant Symposium,” Slant 3, no. 5 (1967): 8-9; Eagleton, “Why We Are Still in the Church,” Slant 3, no. 2 (1967): 25-8; Eagleton, “Language, Reality and the Eucharist (1),” Slant 4, no. 3 (1968): 18-23; Eagleton, “Politics and the Sacred,” Slant 4, no. 2 (1968): 18-23; Eagleton, “Language, Reality and the Eucharist (2),” Slant 4, no. 4 (1968): 26-31; Eagleton, “Priesthood and Leninism,” Slant 5, no. 4 (1969): 12-17; Eagleton, The Body as Language: Outline of a ‘New Left’ Theology (London: Sheed and Ward, 1970).

4  Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, p. vi; Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, pp. xi-xii; Eagleton, Holy Terror, p. vi.

5  Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others, p. 205.

6  Ibid, p. 120; Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, p. 74.

7  Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19: 34; Deuteronomy 10: 19.

8  Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, pp. 195-6, 272, 291-2, 323

9  Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers, pp. 195-6, 272, 323.  Compare Eagleton, The New Left Church, pp. 69-84; Eagleton, The Body as Language: Outline of a ‘New Left’ Theology, pp. 39-40; Eagleton, “Language, Reality and the Eucharist (1)”; Eagleton, “Language, Reality and the Eucharist (2).”

10  Eagleton, The Body as Language: Outline of a ‘New Left’ Theology, pp. 75-93.

Roland Boer is Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia.  Visit his blog Stalin’s Moustache: <>.  See, also, Roland Boer, “An Intrinsic Eagleton” (Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 9.2, Summer 2008).

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