Philosophy

James Ley reviews 'On Evil' by Terry Eagleton

James Ley
Monday, 06 July 2020

One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of lectures, published as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (2009), which condemned the atheist movement for its allegiance to an outdated form of nineteenth-century positivism and for its optimistic belief in the virtues of progressive liberal humanism. His latest book, On Evil, is a kind of supplement to the debate, in which he attempts to drive home what he considers the naïveté of such a view.

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For over a decade, Peter Singer has been one of those public intellectuals we are supposed by some not to have. In the past, however, the problem with him has been that his thinking has often been about matters not seen to concern the public at large, animal liberation, for example. But events have hurried us all forward. Even a few years ago it was possible for mottoes like ‘greed is good’ or pronouncements like Mrs Thatcher’s that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals’ to seem not only provocative but hard-headed. The good life, we were, many of us, persuaded, was synonymous with goods, our heroes were experts in money-making – having and spending, ethics seemed to be a matter of preserving the appearances, not getting caught.

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From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.

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Mary Ann Evans arrived in London from country Warwickshire in 1851 into an environment of intellectuals who believed in the progress of the human spirit through criticism of superstition and the application of science. Working first as a translator and critic, she became for a time the editor of the Westminster Review, a journal that had been turned by John Stuart Mill into a forum for philosophical radicals. Evans had plans to write a critique of the doctrine of immorality but her partner, George Lewes, who was famous for a work on the lives of philosophers, encouraged her to write fiction. She began with sketches of rural life using the name George Eliot.

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In November 2001, the United States – along with Australia and its other allies – prepared to embark on the now notorious military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time, some effort was made to justify these actions to the American public. It fell to Laura Bush, the First Lady, to deliver the apparently feminist case ...

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‘Serenity now,’ repeated Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza whenever his blood pressure got too high. His doctor recommended this anger-management technique, but he might as well have got it from Seneca, whose De Ira (Of Anger) James Romm has edited ...

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It may be tempting to think we already know Socrates, the Athenian philosopher whose most famous dictum remains that he was wise only insofar as he was aware of his own ignorance. Although Socrates never published anything of his own ...

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The Birth of Ethics is a remarkably ambitious and innovative work by one of Australia’s most eminent philosophers. It is the full-length statement of an argument originally set out in Philip Pettit’s 2015 Berkeley Tanner Lectures on Human Values. The aim of the book is to ‘offer an account of ethics …

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Andrew S. Curran recounts the only meeting between the two great philosophes Denis Diderot and Voltaire early in 1778 when Diderot, aged sixty-five, insulted Voltaire, then eighty-five, by averring that contemporary playwrights (including, by implication, the two of them) would not brush Shakespeare’s testicles if ... 

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My favourite image from Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, humanist, heretic is set in Berlin as World War II concludes. Young Walter Kaufmann, a German Jew forced to flee the National Socialist regime to the United States, has returned to his native land as part of the occupying forces ...

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