Terry Eagleton

Just read my first Terry Eagleton prompted by the Laurie Taylor interview referred to by Sam, and a number of earlier references on MoQ Discuss. First “The Meaning of Life” followed immediately by “Reason, Faith and Revolution”

In the former, his Alexei Sayle-esque stand-up routine targets every variant of the use of the words meaning and life. Along the way, drawing on Monty Python and Douglas Adams’ humour, even thoughts you might hold dear come under attack, but ultimately Eagleton’s answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” is … love. An Aristotelian, reciprocal, agape, eudaimonic kind of unconditional love.

So far so good. A brief, funny and satisfying read. With plenty of literary and philosophical references, already clear he is a fan of Shakespeare, Marx and Wittgenstein (and Aquinas, and MacIntyre, and Lacan), more on which later, but I loved this on Arthur Schopenhauer, which gives some clue as to Eagleton’s style. Seriously funny.

Arthur Schopenhauer, a thinker so unremittingly gloomy that his work, quite unintentionally, represents one of the great comic masterpieces of western thought [and Eagleton proceeds to poke fun at both his name and his looks, as well as his thinking].

(Aside – he quotes Baggini too, but with mild criticism & faint praise – don’t think he’s a fan ?)

Eagleton is a Marxist Christian (I think … sometimes hard to tell ;-)). A back-to-basics radical revolutionary rather than a pragmatist when it comes to rescuing the babies of Marxism, theology and east-west politics from the bathwater of their 20th century hypocrisies and evils. As a “sophisticated-non-theist-pragmatist” myself I find I have a lot more in common with a sophisticated theist like Eagleton, than the stereotypical “believer in God”.

The subject of the second book is “Ditchkins” the recent “Let’s kill God” flurry of public reaction to irrational extremes of religious fundamentalism and faith – Dawkins, Hitchens et al. The subtitle of “Reason, Faith and Revolution” is “Reflections on the God Debate”. He’ll get no argument from me panning the juvenile ignorant thinking of such commentators, but I find a few points to disagree.

He lumps Dennett in with this crowd. I have to say that whilst his contribution “Breaking the Spell” starts off in the same camp addressing the same target US public the same way, I find myself defending Dennett’s much less scientistic, less  “reductionist” lines of argument, and his lovingly humane open-minded conclusions. I hope he’s read Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and “Freedom Evolves” too, written before the recent post 9/11 hysteria.

Reductionism as a straw-man is my second argument too. He ridicules Dawkins “meme” concept, but it is clear he does so for its reductionist crassness. It’s reductionist crassness we should be fighting.

“Memes” … [secular myth, parody of genetic transmission, conflation of the cultural and biological, 19th century Positivism] … overlook the fact that moral and scientific progress, far from evolving in tandem, can be in severe conflict with one another. We have telecommunications but we slaughter more than ever. Dawkins is an old-fashioned crassly reductive system builder … All such triumphalistic totalizers are fated to fail … Such reductive systems are incompatible with the freedom which Dawkins rightly champions.

I share the criticisms of Dawkins, but must point out the misunderstanding lies in too simplistic understanding of multi-layered systems that involve the biological and cultural (and the physical and intellectual) and the complexity of non-reductionist, non-determinist two-way-interactive-causation between patterns in those layers. The fact that components and causes and effects exist in such systems, does not make the systems and their behaviour reductionist or determinist. That is the crass view. Memes are simply useful components to talk about, when it comes to the evolution of free-will and freedoms … as Eagleton himself does with this earlier joke …

One CIA intervention which has not received the urgent attention it merits, by the way, was the agency’s dissemination of a Russian translation of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land during the Cold War. Was this to demonstrate the virtues of both free verse and free expression, or to demoralize the Soviets by unleashing the virus of nihilism into their midst ?

The effect of such a virus is no different the the concept of meme. And no more reductionist or determinist in postulating a possible effect in the scheme of things, rather than one objective input to a sausage machine with predictable outcomes. That would be crass reductionism. A meme is no more reductionist than a virus. Stereotypes are useful for transmitting messages but dangerous in the wrong hands. So back to more serious matters …

… Without the vast concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip, it is not at all out of the question that the Twin Towers would still be standing. Those who would resent the ascription of even this much rationality to an Islamic radicalism which they prefer to see as simply psychotic, should have a word with those in the British secret service whose task it was some years a go to monitor the IRA. These professional anti-terrorists knew well enough not to swallow a lot of cretinous tabloid hysteria about terrorists as monsters and mad beasts. They were well aware that the IRA’s behaviour, however sometimes murderous, was in a narrow sense of the word rational and that, without acknowledging this fact. they would be unlikely to defeat them.

As long as we see faith as the polar opposite of reason, we shall continue to commit these errors.

Cretinous tabloid hysteria ? I think memes are a useful concept in this discussion, not least the rationality vs faith meme. Eagleton appears to be at least as sophisticated philosophically as Harris and Dennett when it comes to this debate. Reading on …

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