Eye of Marx, Toe of God

May 15, 2010 at 8:45 am (crap, religion, Rosie B, Uncategorized)

Thought for the Day on Radio 4 contravenes the Trade Descriptions Act as its blended platitudes about how we should all be nicer to each other and bad things happen aren’t something you can chew on for very long.  However, about 10 days ago someone, I can’t remember who, did actually grab my attention.  First of all he said the name “Eagleton”, then he said he’d been reading something Professor Prolific has been writing – evidently his new book about Evil – and how he’d gone from interpreting the three witches in Macbeth as revolutionary socialists overthrowing the old order (that would have been in his Marxist days – what a perverse reading of the withered hags) to thinking they are a bunch of evil nihilists wanting destruction for destruction’s sake (that’s in his present Christian guise, and a standard reading borne out by the text).  Well, anyone can change their mind about a literary work – nah they can’t, it’s Eagleton, and he’s up to no good.

I don’t want to read his latest so I can denounce it as vapour but Anthony Grayling has saved me the trouble by tasting the stew Eagleton has cooked up in his cauldron from random ingredients:-

He [Eagelton]  sets off on one of those complexifying journeys, like the route of a pinball bouncing backwards and forwards among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine, Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so copiously on – a verbal pinball ride among the entries in the telephone book of Western culture, to tell us what evil is. But do not expect, by the end, a conclusion, still less a definition, nor even a summary. Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a straightforward statement. You have to grasp at fragments as you bounce among the pingers, not always quite sure whether he is agreeing or disagreeing with this or that author, even whether he is still paraphrasing an author or speaking with his own voice. That’s a technique, of course.

Yeah, the shifty sod.

As we are dealing with Eagleton here, note that this is of course not a mish-mash of inconsistencies, as it appears to be; this is subtlety and nuance. It is, you might say, nuance-sense.

I chose the same bits to quote as Butterflies and Wheels, for the very good reason that they are witty and apt.  Grayling goes on (read the lot – it’s an elegant hatchet job):-

The notion that evil is non-rational is a more significant claim for Eagleton than at first appears, because he is (in this book as in others of his recent “late period” prolific burst) anxious to rewrite theology: God (whom he elsewhere tells us is nonexistent, but this is no barrier to his being lots of other things for Eagleton too, among them Important) is not to be regarded as rational: with reference to the Book of Job Eagleton says, “To ask after God’s reasons for allowing evil, so [some theologians] claim, is to imagine him as some kind of rational or moral being, which is the last thing he is.” This is priceless: with one bound God is free of responsibility for “natural evil” – childhood cancers, tsunamis that kill tens of thousands – and for moral evil also even though “he” is CEO of the company that purposely manufactured its perpetrators; and “he” is incidentally exculpated from blame for the hideous treatment meted out to Job.

You can see where this leads: with other ways of defining deity conveniently beyond any possible meaning that can be attached to the notion, the religionists and their fellow-travellers are forever protected from challenge to and criticism and refutation of religious ideas and beliefs.


When Shakespeare was writing about witches he was living at a time when people believed they did have actual powers that could hurt and harm.   Eagleton’s statements on God are an incantation that summon what he no doubt thinks is a Cloud of Unknowing but are in fact a medium’s vapour of ectoplasm, a magician‘s puff of smoke.

Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw. . .
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.


  1. Jim Denham said,

    I see that Eagletonian-Armstrongian irrationalism and relativism has now infected even some of those who call themselves “secular humanists”:


    PS: the article I’ve linked to must qualify as one of the most mind-boggling examples of irrational, pretentious, meaningless bullshit ever written.

    Mr McGhee is not even *wrong* !

  2. Ophelia Benson said,

    It is very elegant, isn’t it – Grayling’s demolition, that is, not Eagleton’s erection.

  3. johng said,

    Its charecteristic of this blog that it prefers a right wing liberal to a Marxist. Shiraz Socialist: the place to go for right wing platitudes on any given issue. Why not read his work Jim? You might actually learn something. As opposed to reproducing vicious right wing diatribes from philistine’s who hate the left.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Gamers: since when was Grayling a “vicious right wing”er? Have you actually read anything by him?

    His entry in Wikepedia reads as follows:

    “Between 1999 and 2002 Grayling wrote a weekly column in The Guardian called “The Last Word”, in which he turned his attention to a different topic every week. In these columns, which also formed the basis of a series of books for a general readership (commencing with The Meaning of Things in 2001), Grayling made the basics of philosophy available to the layman. He is a regular contributor to Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is free group blog, and writes columns for Prospect magazine, The Dubliner magazine, the New Scientist, and the Barnes and Noble book review. He is accredited to the UN Council on Human Rights in Geneva by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, is a patron of the British Humanist Association, an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, and is Patron of the British Armed Forces Humanist Association. He is involved with several educational and literacy charities. He is a Trustee of the London LIbrary, has been a board member of the Society of Authors, and in 2003 was a Booker Prize judge.”

    Hardly the stuff of a “vicious” “right winger.”

    And (it increasingly has to be asked) is Eagleton any longer a “Marxist” in any meaningful sense?

    And, Gameboy, what makes you think I *haven’t* read Eagleton’s nonsense?

    PS: beware the grocer’s apostrophe, comrade.

  5. Rosie said,

    “philistine’s” – love it.

    Last time there was an Eagleton thread johng linked to an egregious piece of Eagleton-blather in the LRB and said those in the letters page taking issue with its lack of logic, baseless assertions, ignorance of theology etc were “ideologically motivated”. This included James Wood, who a) is non-ideological to a fault; b) knows a lot about theology; c) is a brilliant literary critic so can meet Eagleton on his own ground.

    johng – you can oppose writers’ foolish vapourings without having any ideological motives.

  6. resistor said,


    ‘It helps that the personnel at the top of the Tory party are more at ease with the arts world than in previous years. Mr Cameron has had Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter for dinner at his home, and his wife is friends with the artist Sam Taylor-Wood. Mr Osborne comes from a family of art collectors — he owns work by Emin — and hosts regular dinners where recent guests have included the historian Anthony Beevor, the critic Anthony Lane and the philosopher A. C. Grayling.’

  7. Clive said,

    Its charecteristic of this blog that it prefers a right wing liberal to a Marxist. Shiraz Socialist: the place to go for right wing platitudes on any given issue. Why not read his work Jim? You might actually learn something. As opposed to reproducing vicious right wing diatribes from philistine’s who hate the left.

    What are the right-wing platitudes in what Grayling says against Eagleton? He’s obviously wrong where he says that Marxism is an ideology which imprisons you – though I’m not sure his point that Eagleton is imprisoned by one the one hand (a particular kind of) Marxism and on the other his Catholic upbringing isn’t quite insightful.

    Jim’s right, you can’t dismiss Grayling as just a right-wing liberal.

    And I certainly have read a lot of Eagleton. By what stretch of the imagination his rambling, pretentious drivel about religion is Marxist I’m not sure. And I think Grayling’s description of Eagleton’s literary style – and the absence of argument it disguises – is spot on.

  8. maxdunbar said,


    If you can get me a copy of Eagleton’s book I would be happy to read it and discuss it on this site.

  9. resistor said,

    Clive says, ‘Jim’s right, you can’t dismiss Grayling as just a right-wing liberal.’

    Oh yes you can.

    Tell me why he found the company of Gideon ‘George’ Osbourne so congenial?

  10. Clive said,

    It’s the ‘dismiss’ part which is relevant. I have read stuff by Grayling which seems to me worthy of some respect.

  11. johng said,

    By what stretch of the imagination is Terry Eagleton a Marxist? Well if you actually read him his account is simply a sophisticated take on standard marxist accounts of religion: which the awl seem to have rejected in order to make alliances with liberals. You know the kind of liberal who can’t be bothered to even read a book he’s commenting on.

  12. Rosie said,

    You know the kind of liberal who can’t be bothered to even read a book he’s commenting on.

    Come on, johng, I’m pretty sure Grayling had read Evil before commenting on it. He does quote from it quite a lot.

  13. Clive said,

    johng, I simply do not accept this account of Eagleton’s book. I read it expecting that, and expecting something interesting – as I have plenty of criticisms of ‘Ditchkins’ myself. But I think Eagleton’s book is neither ‘sophisticated’ (it’s frequently either incomprehensible, to me anyway, or gibberish) nor Marxist.

  14. Jim Denham said,

    Gameboy tries to enlist Marx to his defence of religion:

    “His (Eagleton’s) account is simply a sophisticated take on standard marxist accounts of religion: which the awl seem to have rejected in order to make alliances with liberals.”

    Bollocks on stilts! Gameboy: Marx was an atheist! Your pathetic grovelling before Islam and Catholicism can never obscure that basic fact, you miserable defiler of Marx’s memory!

    Your filthy misrepresentation of Marx will not be forgotten by us atheists who defend Marx’s true tradition and true thinking against religious scum like you and Eagleton.

  15. resistor said,

    Jim, I know you’re still celebrating winning 75 votes in Camberwell and Peckham – but isn’t it time to sober up?

  16. paul fauvet said,

    Resistor has never explained what, precisely, he resists. From his latest comments I guess it must be common sense.

    It is possible that Grayling is a liberal, but that doesn’t invalidate his critique of Eagleton. Possiby Eagleton still regards himself as a Marxist – but Lysenko, Zhdanov and a lot of other dishonest hacks also considered themselves Marxists.

    Johng seems to have some difficulty understanding materialism. Yes, Marx had a sophisticated analysis of how religion functions in societies. He did not believe it was a simple con-trick. Neither, by the way, does Dawkins – you wouldn’t take hundreds of pages to dismiss something that was just a con.

    But Marx was an atheist. He didn’t believe in supernatural explanations for natural or social events. He didn’t believe there was any such thing as god. Neither did Lenin, Trotsky, or the founder of Johng’s sect, Tony Cliff.

    Yet Eagleton can’t give a straight answer to such questions as: do you believe in god? Or: do you pray?

    Back in the 1980s, Eagleton tried to turn the witches in Macbeth into proto-feminists, making them the heroines of the play. But his style is so slippery that it was impossible to tell how serious he was.

    A proper Marxist approach to Shakespeare (or to any other long dead author, for that matter) must deal, not with the vagaries of subjective interpretations, but with the soldi, material object we possess – the actual text of the play.

    Since the 19th century, serious scholars, who look at the text, have known that Shakespeare didn’t write all of Macbeth, and that some of the witch scenes are later additions made by Thomas Middleton. The truly interesting discovery is that in his own lifetime Shakespeare wasn’t regarded as sacrosanct, but could be revised and edited.

    Analysing texts, including nowadays running them through computers, is serious works that incompetent dilettantes like Eagleton don”t do.

  17. resistor said,

    ‘Paul Fauvet’ accuses me of resisting common sense.

    Common sense is not something rigid and stationary, but is in continuous transformation, becoming enriched with scientific notions and philosophical opinions that have entered into common circulation. ‘Common sense’ is the folklore of philosophy and always stands midway between folklore proper (folklore as it is normally understood) and the philosophy, science, and economics of the scientists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, a relatively rigidified phase of popular knowledge in a given time and place.
    Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from cultural writings. London (Lawrence & Wishart) 1985, 421

    ps The suggestion that Eagleton was unaware of later additions to Shakespeare is laughable.

  18. paul fauvet said,

    No, Resistor, you are not off the hook just because you can quote a chunk of Gramsci.

    You avoid the main issue – which is that liberals can defeat Marxists if they have better arguments. For the sake of this discussion, I will accept your premise that Grayling is a liberal, even a “right wing liberal” if you like. This doesn’t automatically disqualify him in a debate over philosophical issues such as the nature of evil.

    Plenty of people who have claimed to be marxists turn out, on closer examination of their credentials, to be charlatans. On occasion this has proved most embarassing – out of loyalty to the Soviet Union, orthodox communists lined up behind the fraudulent theories of Trofim Lysenko, and denounced genetics as “a bourgeois psudoscience”.

    No doubt, if resistor and johng had witnessed a 1940s debate between a follower of Lysenko and an orthodox geneticist, they would have denounced the latter as a “right wing liberal” and preferred the self-proclaimed Marxist.

    And I did not state that Eagleton was unaware of the revisions made to Shakespeare’s plays. My point is quite different – he just doesn’t allow the reality of texts to interfere with his vapid and pretentious waffle.

  19. resistor said,

    Fauvet, ‘Plenty of people who have claimed to be marxists turn out, on closer examination of their credentials, to be charlatans.’ Just as you showed yourself to be by your appeal to ‘common sense’.

    Secondly, as ‘the reality of texts’ is a very dubious concept as we don’t have Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, only secondary sources. Using computers runs into the problem of Garbage In Garbage Out.

    Finally, Shiraz Socialist has made Eagleton a hate figure because of his entirely justified attack on their own God figure, Martin Amis.

  20. Jim Denham said,

    Errr: ” Shiraz Socialist has made Eagleton a hate figure because of his entirely justified attack on their own God figure, Martin Amis.”

    God figure?

    Errr… the anti-semite “resister” is resistent to more than common sense (and those Marxists who reject Structuralism and Althusser accept “common sense”, along with “human nature”, as a perfectly valid concept). He’s also resistent to boring mundanities like evidence, facts, justifying your statements, etc, etc.

    Martin Amis a “God figure”? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. One single solitary shred of evidence for that statement will do.

  21. maxdunbar said,

    ‘Secondly, as ‘the reality of texts’ is a very dubious concept as we don’t have Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, only secondary sources.’

    Is Resistor an Oxfordian now?

  22. Jim Denham said,

    Co-incidentally, I’ve just started reading James Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”

    In his stimulating Prologue, Shapiro (an avowed Stratfordian who , nevertheless, has some respect for some of the Shakespeare -“deniers”) writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of of every story…

    “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.”

    A good review here:

    I’ll do a review for this blog when I’ve finished the book.

  23. Clive said,

    People like johng and resistor keep leaping to Eagleton’s defence here, but their argument doesn’t seem to amount to much more than ‘Eagleton is a famous (ex?)-Marxist who is awfully clever, and his detractors are nasty.’ I’d be interested to hear, for instance, a summary of Eagleton’s book ‘Reason, Faith and Revolution’ (as in – I challenge you: sum up his argument. Give it a try!) let alone an actual defense of it.

    Personally I don’t have a very high opinion of Martin Amis either as political thinker or novelist. It’s quite possible to also have a low opinion of Eagleton.

  24. Will said,

    The proven liar, antisemite, and ‘philosophical’ spiritualist john Game yet again is proven to be a liar, (goes without saying — doesn’t need anymore evidence) antisemite (same as previous), and ‘philosophical’ spiritualist and sophistry exponent bar-none. Gameboy merely practices the inversion of the inversion of the inversion game. As such, the thick religious crackpot does not affect the ideological sphere, since he merely reinforces the structure of the ideological by acknowledging it – that is, practically, by making it (i.e. religio crackpottery and all its werKs) work (in a anti-socialist fashion and pro-reactionary fashion).

    Gameboy shuD be treated like a religious snake-oil salesman — i.e. SHOT for being a cunT.

  25. johng said,

    Eagleton’s book is wonderful Clive. Have you actually read it? It argues that the doctrine of progress needs to be rescued from both liberal triumphalism and post modernist obscurantism and re-visits perfectly mainstream marxist themes in relationship to religion. I note the hysterical personalised hatred directed at me on this site, and had a bit of a giggle about the AWL having the sheer chutzpah to complain about the same viz, accusations of racism. This place is a right wing sewer.

  26. maxdunbar said,

    Then why spend all your time rolling in the shit?

  27. Rosie said,

    Errr: ” Shiraz Socialist has made Eagleton a hate figure because of his entirely justified attack on their own God figure, Martin Amis.”

    Errr? from me as well. I don’t much like Amis and his mannerist, over-worked prose style, can’t stand his novels, especially the female characters, and when he turns to politics he makes an arse of himself.

    As for Eagleton’s attack on Amis – it was partly justified and partly lazy writing – he got a few things wrong which an ordinary blogger wouldn’t.

    mainstream marxist themes in relationship to religion

    Whenever johng makes this claim or one like it I ask for a quote or a link which demonstrates this. He has so far failed to provide them.

    Re the Shakespeare book, Jim, I’ve read the reviews and it sounds excellent.

    As for the “reality of texts” I’m talking about the Macbeth I’ve read and seen. It may be a collaborative effort but as it stands, I can’t see how you could make the witches either proto-feminists or revolutionary socialists.

  28. Clive said,

    Of course I’ve read it. You might pontificate about things you haven’t read, but I don’t. All right, you think it’s wonderful. Weird.

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