So bad it's good: Why do we find evil so much more fascinating than goodness?

Gruesome horror movies, serial killers, the Nazis. Evil is the flipside of human existence, writes Terry Eagleton

The Devil, so they say, has all the best tunes. Why is evil so irresistibly glamorous? Why is it that when I told my 12-year-old son that I was writing a book on evil he replied "Wicked!"? Virtue may be admirable, but it is vice we find sexy. Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could have a beer with Fagin. As Oscar Wilde remarked, anyone who doesn't find the death of Dickens's saintly Little Nell uproariously funny must have a heart of stone. We all love to boo a villain, whether it's Colonel Gaddafi or Simon Cowell. Popular culture is obsessed with ghouls and vampires, zombies and monsters; this Friday, cinema's archetypal evil guy, Freddy Krueger, returns in a remake of Nightmare on Elm Street. Nothing is more delightful than being scared to death.

When did evil start to look so alluring? One answer might be: when goodness began to look boring. We can blame this on the puritanical middle classes. It is they who redefined virtue as thrift, prudence, meekness, abstinence, chastity and industriousness. It's not hard to see why some people should prefer zombies and vampires. Goodness came to seem negative and restrictive. As the poet Auden wryly remarked, the Ten Commandments consist in observing human behaviour and then inserting a "not".

Yet goodness hadn't always been as dreary as this. For some ancient thinkers such as Aristotle, it was really a matter of knowing how to enjoy yourself. It meant learning how to flourish as a human being, developing your humanity to its fullest, finest extent. Being human on this view is something you have to get good at, like playing the tuba or tolerating bores at sherry parties. For Aristotle, it had an intimate link with happiness. Being virtuous for him was the quickest route to well-being. The good man or woman is one who excels at the precarious business of being human. Those who become really brilliant at being human – the saints – are the virtuosi of life, the Pavarottis and Wayne Rooneys of virtue. Goodness is a kind of joie de vivre, a source of energy and high spirits. As for the New Testament, it is about enjoying an abundance of life, not about paying your taxes and rolling in for work on time.

On this view, vicious people are those who have never got the hang of human existence, as someone might never get the hang of playing poker. They are lacking, deficient, incapable of being truly alive. The evil are not really there. They are unfinished sketches for real human beings. Like ghosts, they hover between life and death, trapped in some limbo that cuts them off from the human world. They may look human enough but, like aliens in a horror movie, this is just a phoney appearance.

Evil may look flashy and seductive, but if you poke it, it crumbles away to nothing. It is as bogus as Gordon Brown's smile. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, watching the Nazi genocidist Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem, realised that the most striking thing about evil was its banality. Eichmann looked like a harassed bank clerk, not a swashbuckling villain. He was the supreme bureaucrat. Bureaucrats don't like untidiness, and nor does evil. The evil are revolted by the sheer messiness of human existence. They are purists who prefer the perfection of death to flesh and blood.

So how do evil individuals try to persuade themselves that they are alive? The answer is simple and chilling: by tearing other people apart. The only thing about them that is not quite dead is the pleasure they reap from destruction. In this sense, the evil are basically sadists. Hitler's henchmen killed Jews because they saw them as a threat to their own purity of being. They represented an insidious form of non-being which threatened to undermine the Nazis' own identity. Yet Jews also symbolised a frightful negativity that lay at the heart of the Nazis themselves, which is another reason why they had to be exterminated. Beneath the rallies and racial fantasies, the bombast and the marching bands, the Nazis were pure nihilists, in love with death and annihilation. If they were crazed idealists, they were also utter cynics who delighted in smashing all human meaning and value to pieces.

Pure evil detests the very fact of human existence and wants to wipe it from the face of the earth. It can see nothing in humanity but a pathetic sham. It is out to demonstrate that the whole of human life is as empty as itself. Hell is full of the sniggers and guffaws of those who believe they have seen through the pretentious façade of human existence. It is a place of farce as well as agony, mockery as well as misery. It is populated by cynics and buffoons as well as by torturers and rapists.

This is why evil is also entirely pointless. Common-or-garden wickedness generally has a purpose. Stalin and Mao murdered countless millions of men and women, but they did not do so just for the hell of it. There was a political point to their atrocities. It is much harder to see the point of the Holocaust. Making a bogeyman of Jews helped to unite the German nation, but you do not need to slaughter six million of them to do that. The so-called Final Solution tied up equipment and military personnel that could have been useful in the German war effort. It also disposed of men and women whose skills the Nazis could have exploited.

The Holocaust cannot be understood in terms of everyday utility. Its obscene excessiveness of all purpose was part of its point. It was an orgy of meaninglessness as well as an unspeakable tragedy. The slogan over the gate of Auschwitz – Work Makes You Free – was intended as a cynical jeer, not an uplifting sentiment. Tragedy usually presupposes a sense of human value. You would not be moved by the sufferings of Lear if you thought human beings were worthless. The Nazis, by contrast, were beyond tragedy because they were beyond a sense of human value. They wanted to murder meaning as well as people.

One of the most grotesque aspects of the concentration camps is the way so much meticulous organisation was pressed into the service of such complete nihilism. Modern states are rational, utilitarian set-ups, which do nothing without a soberly calculated purpose. It is astonishing, then, to find a kind of monstrous act of public meaninglessness at the very heart of modern history. Destruction for destruction's sake is almost always confined to the private sphere, as with the Moors murderers.

One of the most frightening aspects of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley is that they did not seem to be mad. Mad people sometimes do pointless things, but when sane men and women destroy just for kicks, we are in the presence of something beyond mere immorality. The boys who murdered James Bulger seem to have destroyed just for kicks as well. Yet if they were born evil, as some have suggested, this means that they are innocent. You cannot be held responsible for your genetic make-up, any more than you can be responsible for having cystic fibrosis. To damn people as evil from birth is actually to excuse them. The same goes for goodness. If people are born good, then it would be as pointless to congratulate them on their selfless behaviour as it would be to congratulate them on having red hair and freckles.

If evil exists largely for its own sake, it has an unnerving affinity with good. The Devil, after all, was once an angel. God is portrayed by theologians as existing entirely for the sake of his own self-delight. He did not need to create the world, and nowadays, given its bloodstained history, he is no doubt bitterly regretting that he ever did anything so rash. Like God, goodness is its own reward. In fact, it had better be, because it isn't likely to get any other pay-off in this world. If the very word "virtue" has a mildly ridiculous Victorian ring to it, it is partly because there is something absurd as well as admirable about the good. In a predatory world, they are bound to appear rather wet behind the ears. There is something nerdy about goodness. Trusting, warm-hearted people are likely to be taken for a ride by rogues and tricksters, as so often in the English novel. The good are bound to end up as victims, and nobody wants to be that. This is another reason why we prefer Fagin to Oliver, whose prim little Standard English accent belies the fact that he was brought up in a workhouse.

If the evil are dedicated to destruction, then like Milton's Satan they are bound to be in a permanent sulk. This is because they need things to exist in order to put their foot through them. And this means that they are parasitic on goodness. Even so, putting your foot through something can be intensely creative, as toddlers are aware. For some people, heaving a brick through a stained-glass window is a lot more creative than actually designing it. We all derive pleasure from destroying, which is one reason we enjoy violent movies. The evil are just those people who live this out in practice, killing simply for the hell of it.

This, gratifyingly enough, is pretty rare. It is just that when it does happen it tends to happen in a big way. One reason why it is rare is that in order to reject goodness, the evil must first have some experience of it. Otherwise they are not wicked, simply ignorant. In traditional religious doctrine, nobody can go to hell unless they have deliberately turned down the love of God. "I shit on your love!" the doomed protagonist snarls at his maker in William Golding's novel Pincher Martin. But it is surely doubtful that anyone could have a taste of, say, human love and find it completely futile. Men and women who maim and exploit are not usually evil. It is rather that they have never had any real experience of love in the first place. Even a mild deprivation of love can be enough to turn us into monsters. There is no need to enlist the aid of horned devils for this to happen.

There is another sense, however, in which destruction for its own sake is an everyday affair, at least if Sigmund Freud is to be believed. Freud believed we reaped pleasure not from annihilating others, but from laying violent hands on ourselves. In his view, there is a yearning for death at the core of our being. And one reason why this death wish can become so terrifyingly powerful is that we actually take pleasure in it. The poor, battered ego relishes the idea of escaping into nothingness. When this desire becomes irresistible, the result may be suicide. Nobody would kill themselves unless there was something in it for them.

The suicide says "no" to life because it has become an intolerable burden. It is not usually existence as such they reject, just their own unbearable bit of it. Really evil people, by contrast, are out to abolish existence as such. In their eyes, being as such is bad. But you cannot abolish being as such, which is another reason why the evil are in such a sulk. In the words of a character in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: "The satanic demand that there be no god of life, that God destroy himself and all of his creation. And they shall burn everlastingly in the flames of their own hatred, and long for death and non-being. But death shall not be granted them."

On Evil by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale University Press (£18.99). To order a copy for the special price of £17 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada