Yale University Press, 2018, 216 pp., $25
Radical Sacrifice (2018) is the newest of Terry Eagleton’s scores of books. He has published close to one a year for about 50 years. This doesn’t rank Eagleton as a presence on Wikipedia’s page of the most prolific writers, but the fact that L. Ron Hubbard holds the Guinness World Record, at 1,084 publications, reminds us that, in this mass-market age, quantity comes cheap. Hubbard’s success as science fiction author-turned-religious guru also shows that many people today, though awash in words, long desperately for meaning. Eagleton’s core thesis is thus apropos: Our culture lacks a sense of sacrifice as transformative and salvific, as a source of meaning.
Eagleton is adept at explaining meanings. His 1991 book Ideology, for instance, acquaints the reader with 20 different definitions of the book’s titular term but fails to endorse any of them as true. Cultured, charming, and well read, Eagleton wrote the textbook on Literary Theory (1983) as well as an attack on it, After Theory (2003). He slings frequent potshots at capitalism and quotes chic French philosophers while using literature to suggest vaguely Marxist interpretations of culture. He occasionally pens sentences like, “Only the fertile dissolution of non-being can reclaim powers oblivious of their own finitude.” In other words, he is the very model of the modern, or postmodern, English professor.
Yet—and this is what allows Radical Sacrifice to be interesting—Eagleton casts himself as a radical contrarian, dissenting from both modernity and postmodernity. Exploring sacrifice through chapters on the crucifixion, martyrdom and death, gift-giving, and scapegoating, the book identifies an important idea and, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “plays gracefully” with it. But his posture—kind-of Marxist, kind-of Christian—is mostly a pose, veiling a deeper postmodernism. And postmodernists, by definition, will never be able to articulate a view of the human person as something worth sacrificing for. Eagleton has thus underlined the central problem of postmodernity: meanings, meanings everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
“The practice of sacrifice nurtures a wisdom beyond the rationality of the modern,” Eagleton asserts. In the name of the autonomous self who exercises an exchange-based rationality, the liberalism of the moderns rejects sacrifice and thus overlooks its redemptive and transfigurative powers. “For conventional liberal wisdom,” Eagleton writes, “self-fulfillment and self-dispossession are essentially at odds. This is not the case for a more radical outlook. One must take a remarkably indulgent view of humankind, as many liberals do, to assume that the self can come into its own without that fundamental breaking and refashioning of which sacrifice has been one traditional sign.”
Here Eagleton argues, rightly, that sacrifice escapes the logic of calculated self-interest. An American baseball analogy might summarize the Irishman’s point: A “sacrifice fly” is not a sacrifice, but a strategy. Its mode of thinking cannot transform a life, sustain a culture, or give either of them meaning.
Eagleton also critiques the “callow postmodern cult of options” that too facilely celebrates inclusion and mocks as naive and oppressive the idea of Truth or Reality or Human Nature. Postmodernists, despite their radical posture, are ultra-capitalists, he claims, because they dissolve all real meaning and substantial difference into a supermarket of shallow diversity and ever multiplying micro-meanings.
Eagleton is on solid ground here, again. Words are said to be signifiers breeding without substance, images reflecting images in a hall of mirrors with no original object anywhere in sight. Postmodernists sometimes critique, sometimes commend, this loss of value, depending on whether it serves their political purposes of the moment—but they offer no alternative. By debunking meaning as a mask of raw power, they are left with no meaning with which to combat injustice and so are left with nothing to sacrifice for. If we wish for significant lives and a decent society, postmodernism is a bad investment. Sell while you can.
Eagleton’s angle can be explained pretty quickly, simply by explaining his title. As sacrificed, a thing is “sacred,” both holy and cursed (from the Latin). Eagleton could have appealed also to the etymology of “blessing:” to be blessed is to be bloodied, wounded. Though it is religious people who most easily recognize how these apparent opposites are actually complementary, the link between blessedness and suffering is a universal feature of human experience. True sacrifice, self-sacrifice, is always radical and transformative.
The point is worth developing a bit more. Sacrifice entails some degree of suffering. While not all suffering is salvific, it is our most profound teacher. And people who see the other side of deep suffering often understand their wounds as blessings, as the experiences by which they have become more fully human. In hindsight, an adult can wish that awful thing (insert your own tragedy here) didn’t happen, while also being grateful for having learned its lessons, having been sculpted inwardly, engraved—however brutally—with deeper meaning.
Suffering and sacrifice, however, are not equivalents. Suffering is something that happens to us, while sacrifice is something we choose to do. We can turn suffering into sacrifice by consenting to our hardships, but it’s still not the same as an act of choice. In sacrifice, we show an openness to this unavoidable human process that can move us from lower to higher, from superficial to deeper, from brutish to more elevated. Of course, a noble readiness to suffer can be exploited; Eagleton should have emphasized the fact more clearly (it is perhaps too modern a point for him to explore). Still, in the true sacrificial attitude we do not seek suffering but expose ourselves to life for the sake of something worthy, consenting to become something new, something we can neither will ourselves into nor even foresee.
Eagleton rightly emphasizes that, for sacrifice to work its magic, one cannot approach it transactionally. Pagan burnt offerings were often understood as deals, exchanges with the gods for goodies or bribes to obviate evil. The great monotheistic religions reject this quid pro quo attitude, even if some followers still fall into it. It is an impious form of piety, as Socrates points out in the Euthyphro.
Eagleton suggests that, in order to unleash the transfigurative powers of sacrificial suffering, we must approach it as an ultimate act—worth doing even if we were in no way recompensed. Unless it is unconditional, the sacrifice is nullified, reduced to a self-serving strategy. Eagleton here endorses the ethics of the crucifixion while rejecting, or remaining agnostic, about its promise of an afterlife: “Only if the cross is lived in tragic resignation as final and absolute may it cease to be either. Only by living one’s death to the full, rather than treating it as springboard to eternity, might it prove possible to transcend it.”
By reading the resurrection metaphorically, as a hoped-for transformation in time rather than as guaranteed reward in heaven, Eagleton manages to reject the crucial doctrine of Christianity while still taking it seriously. In other words, he expertly uses Christian scriptures but rejects the religion for which they are central, leaving the reader to wonder where any meaning occurs worthy of making a sacrifice.
So: a sacrifice for what? Eagleton doesn’t seem to believe in souls, so his aim, and his object of analysis, is clearly not spiritual. In the end, it all comes down to what we knew it would from most of the previous 49 books: political transformation, sketched in Marxist fashion, if only rather vaguely.
In Eagleton’s concluding chapter, he applies the idea of the sacred scapegoat to victims of political and economic dehumanization, suggesting—as he does also in Why Marx Was Right (2011)—that the proletariat is the true image of Christ’s sacrifice. “The transition from Christianity to Marxism is among other things one from a vision of the poor as prefiguring the future to a faith in them as the prime means of its attainment.” Eagleton’s blending of Christianity with Marxism reminds us of an older style leftism, and also a Latin American style, before the obsession with race and gender displaced concern about the proletariat. What we are left with, pardon the pun, is a leftism plain-faced about attaining a collective unity with what amounts to religious meaning by way of economic prophecy and political activism.
Instead of hoping for an afterlife, or for lives of personal and interpersonal significance, we are to hope for a political afterlife: a world after capitalism. And this will be achieved through capitalism’s metaphorical crucifixion of the proletariat, the image of which should move the rest of us to repentance and conversion. About the “impending upheaval which Marx calls communism and the Christian Gospel calls the kingdom of God,” Eagleton concludes the book with the exciting, deep-sounding, but obscure sentence, “revolution is a modern version of what the ancient world knew as sacrifice.” And why not? In postmodernist fantasyland, anything can mean anything, so long as it is sounds the right political note.
Attempts to find the font of meaning in political life are not the monopoly of the Left, whether positivist, para-modern or postmodern. The Right has been at it too, albeit with less alacrity over the years. Note Michael Walsh’s best-selling books The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (2015) and Fiery Angel (2018), which frame contemporary culture wars within an “Ur-Narrative” of hero versus villain, in which the Right’s enemy is no less than the Devil and his minions among “the Satanic Left.” Only in this narrative context, Walsh claims, can we individually and culturally recover the meaning we need to survive. Other recent (and more serious) conservative books—like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017)—also critique our modern liberal order as insufficiently meaningful, urging us toward a post-liberal order where our lives together might be infused by a thicker, collective significance.
The problem isn’t that modern liberalism has failed, but that it has succeeded rather well at its goal of providing, however imperfectly, a balance of prosperity, security, and liberty on a massive scale. It does not attempt to make our lives meaningful, but it never promised to do so. Its very success has proven Aristotle right: The key question is, what should one do with leisure? And as Aristotle also notes, when aware of their own ignorance about the point of life, people are vulnerable to various forms of baloney telling them that it is something grand and high above them. It is in this context that we should understand Scientology, Marxism, and other ideologies.
People long for meaning. It’s just one of the things we do. To borrow a phrase from Michael Oakeshott, one can recognize “the politics of faith” as a permanent and necessary feature of public life while also recognizing that it wants to find more meaning in the collective than a decent liberal politics can bear. To be modern about it, a decent politics largely leaves people to their own private devices to satisfy their longing for meaning, even if this means some people will make a mess of it.
But we mustn’t be too thoroughly modern about it: Of course politics is ultimately going to be meaningful for many if not most people, and in a big way. Even this liberal order, which tries to privatize the search for meaning, is neither neutral nor self-supporting; it requires people willing to make sacrifices for it without turning to it as the wellspring of meaning. That is a fine needle to thread, for we ask people—soldiers, for example—to make ultimate sacrifices for the sake of a procedural order. It requires a self-effacing, rather unsatisfying faith, one pushing us to focus on something smaller-seeming than it should: the responsibility that, in daily life, we take for ourselves and our civic companions.
Thus I would rewrite Eagleton’s concluding sentence as “personal responsibility is a modern version of what the ancient world knew as sacrifice”—if only “responsibility” sounded as exciting as “revolution.”
Eagleton’s recourse in the end to a political and economic resurrection implies that he has lost sight of the concrete human being, for whom the activities of personal responsibility are the primary site of meaning and sacrifice. Neither his postmodern nor his Marxist self can allow him to accept such a bourgeois view of human identity.
In the postmodernist view, our identities disintegrate into various images, each one a socially constructed narrative. This debunks both the premodern concept of the soul, the set of capacities and drives that comprise each person’s essence, as well as the modern self, the rational, self-interested ego. In contrast, the postmodernists tell us that a self is a hodgepodge of images and stories given to it and absorbed in false consciousness. You only think you exist as a unitary self, we are told.
The physicalistic reductionists say much the same thing. Perhaps you think you exist because your brain is doing something or other, or because the Disney movies you saw as a kid convinced you that you did. In either case, the trendy position in the academy for a few decades now, in the sciences as well as in the humanities, wants to convince you that you don’t really exist. “You” are actually a biochemical or a cultural epiphenomenon of one sort or another, and the same goes for others.
In his fine 2007 book The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, Eagleton successfully avoids the moderns’ selfish self, the postmodernists’ non-self, and the materialists’ brain pretending to be a self by endorsing an Aristotelianism supplemented by a Christian sense of caritas. In that view of the person—despite the obvious, superficial tensions between the parts—true self-love is not cast as an enemy of love of others. Sacrifice can be affirmed while avoiding the naive readiness to sacrifice that can be so easily exploited.
But in Radical Sacrifice, Eagleton adopts a different view. Here, he wants too much “self-dispossession,” urging a “selfless” ethics, based on a postmodern non-self mixed with a revolutionary Marxist materialistic reduction of the person. It is homo sapiens stripped of all meaning that shows us the ground of solidarity: “Our common susceptibility to political murder constitutes a potent egalitarian bond.” But that sense of self—as potential victim in solidarity with other victims who probably don’t exist as free agents in the first place—is hardly enough to make someone want to live through life’s inevitable moments of terrible suffering.
The abstract humanitarian caritas he hopes will transform the world is not aimed at the good of the specific people we encounter, but is anonymous—“an impersonal (which is to say, political or institutional) love.” Worse, throughout the book Eagleton emphasizes the “nothingness” and “lack” that, for him in this book at least, constitute the core of humanity:
‘In love,’ writes Slavoj Žižek, ‘I am nothing, but as it were a Nothing aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack.’ He might have added that to acknowledge the self as nothing is to transcend the self-serving illusions of the ego in order to be open to the reality of other selves.
Notice the contradictions: You are nothing, but capable of being aware of yourself and of serving either yourself or others, and “the Other” is presumably also nothing, but somehow also a reality worthy of your attention, love, and suffering. We will create our meaning out of nothing, it seems, when political institutions, loving humanity anonymously and impersonally, end capitalist dehumanization. But mustn’t persons be something significant already for there to be something wrong with de-humanization and right with love?
Lucky for us, human lives—enjoyed and suffered by intrinsically relational individuals in contact with other concrete individuals—have inherent meaning. The contemporary German philosopher Robert Spaemann critiques the revolutionary fanatic who “thinks that it is only through his actions that any sense can come into the world at all.” This is where we should place Eagleton in his Marxist moods. “Every moral point of view by contrast,” Spaemann writes, “starts with the position that there is already sense in the world, and that this sense results from the existence of each individual person.” Let’s hope that liberalism can sustain a faith in that.
Eagleton is able to play gracefully with ideas. This proves yet again, for anyone who still needs proof, that it is often better to be usefully wrong than to be trivially right. For all this we should be grateful, even if we, personally and politically, must look for the meaning we long for elsewhere—namely, wherever each of us happens to be.