Yale, £18.99, 176pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Atlantic, £15.99, 232pp. £14.39 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

On Evil, By Terry Eagleton
The Uses of Pessimism, By Roger Scruton

For well over three decades, Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton have as public intellectuals put on an entertaining non-stop show as the lion and the unicorn of competing ideologies. In the blue corner, with a training in philosophy sharpened by his expertise in music and architecture as well as bare-knuckle bouts of political controversy, Scruton has punched hard for traditional conservatism and the rooted laws and customs that sustain it. In the red, his grounding in Marxist criticism and theory handily reinforced by theology, ethics and Catholic social doctrine, Eagleton has proved a champion of the light-footed left that knows how to dance as well as stamp. Now both have published books that, for all their keen differences, together pose a disturbing question. Have lion and unicorn morphed into Tweedledum and Tweedledee? And, if so, has one given up the fight, or have both collapsed in the middle of the ring?

One of these books, for example, aims to develop the kind of argument about human beings and their nature that "remains faithful to many a traditional theological insight". The other dismisses theology as an "entirely phoney" domain. One argues with Aristotle and Aquinas, against modern individualism, that "virtue is by far the fullest, most enjoyable way to live"; it also scorns "leftists for whom pessimism is a... thought crime". The other proposes a morality based on self-critical "habits of forgiveness and irony"; it celebrates civil society not as the gathering of homogeneous people but as "a free community of strangers", and is not bothered by forms of faith since "religion may decline and fragment without damage to the rule of law".

One writer defines original sin, fatalistically, as the unavoidable "fact of being born" into a body in thrall to drives and desires. The other sees it, hopefully, as the creative rebellion of Cain when he slew his brother Abel, "turned his back on the tribe" and set off to found cooperative settlements of citizens. One insists that "the past is what we are made of" and that "throngs of ghostly ancestors lurk within our most casual gestures, preprogramming our desires". The other praises the "collective rationality" of "irretrievably diverse" societies with "the capacity to live in peace and adapt through consent and consensus".

One scoffs at the "mindless progressivism" of that "staggeringly complacent" atheist, Richard Dawkins. The other soberly accepts that history shows "we can... move on from our original nature". And the first voice, in each case, belongs to the radical Eagleton; the second, to the conservative Scruton.

Eagleton's book aims to rescue the reality of evil as a very rare but extreme case of "wickedness" against those liberals or progressives who would discount the idea as a survival from a superstitious age. It accepts that the proud, clever and almost abstract destructive cruelty occasionally practised by people or by states – from Iago to the Nazis – might still deserve the name. It sees evil as a grotesque form of will, even of art: a sort of absolute selfishness built on the denial of our "creaturely" natures, and of our dependence from the womb "on others of our kind": "Pure autonomy is a dream of evil".

Scruton's study seeks to defend "the image of human imperfection" against those utopian and optimistic creeds that dream of a future without conflict or compromise. It suggests that all persons and societies must "recognise limits and constraints... boundaries we cannot transgress", and cherish the slow-cooked institutions that allow us to grow up safe and live in peace. Via "small doses of pessimism", Scruton aims to inoculate us against the fatal fever of utopian ideals. He warns against the "fallacies" of grand top-down designs – from modernist architecture to liberal education, the Soviet Union to the (almost equally deplorable) European Union – that will always end in tears.

From its taste for "discipline and sacrifice" to its admiration for Enoch Powell and detestation of Le Corbusier and masterplanners in every field, Scruton's conservatism is so- familiar – comforting, even – that allies and enemies alike will greet it like an old comrade or sparring-partner. In a nutshell, "The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a utopia. It is the residue of myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law".

Put these books together, however, and you see an extraordinary optical effect. Scruton's utopianism of "false hopes" more or less converges with Eagleton's idea of "evil". To Scruton, utopia is also artful, abstract and wilful, a monstrous assault by the inflated ego on reality (both invoke Schopenhauer). It is Eagleton whose concept of history rules out "the possibility of utopia", since "There are certain negative features of the human species which cannot be greatly altered." Scruton concurs that "our virtues and loves are the virtues and loves of dying creatures". A chief trait of evil, adds Eagleton, is its "refusal to accept our mortality as natural... beings".

Yes, when it comes to upfront politics, the pair do disagree in predictable ways. So Eagleton views Islamist terrorism as a wicked but rational riposte to historical injustice; Scruton as an inner-directed quest for annihilation founded on rage and resentment at modernity. Yet it's Scruton who expresses sympathetic curiosity about this mindset, noting that the 9/ll hijacker Mohamed Atta wrote a dissertation on the ruin of the fine Muslim city of Aleppo by "junkyard modernism".

And in Eagleton's Freudian account of the "death drive", Scruton would find an eloquent explanation of self-destructive urges that flame out to consume the world – except that Eagleton dissects not Islamism, but alcoholism. Scruton's utopian, like Eagleton's evil-doer, is drunk on a hatred of embodied reality.

Both thinkers write with consistent clarity and frequent wit. But both harbour neurotic blind-spots. Scruton refuses to accept that we have just witnessed a "crisis of capitalism". He is unable to see global capitalism and Western empire as destructively utopian ideologies of coercion. It is not trivial to ask where he would stand on the proto-totalitarian crimes of uniformity committed by the Spanish Inquisition and its heirs. For his part, Eagleton vainly seeks to exempt the massacres of Stalin and Mao (although "beyond the moral pale") from the hellish category of Nazi genocide. He falls into just the utopian trap Scruton exposes, positing that true history has not begun since – prior to an endlessly-deferred real revolution – humanity remains mired in "rapine, greed and exploitation".

So Tweededum and Tweedledee keep their distance at last. The day of coalition thinking has yet to dawn. Still, it fascinates to see these old combatants ready to share so much terrain: the ground, above all, of the mortal body and mind, forever denied perfection. "Those who sentimentally indulge humanity" – as Eagleton writes, and Scruton might - "do it no favours." For a double dosage of reality, read both books.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture