A kind of materialist

Materialism, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising, even if he writes with common sense and a minimum of theoretical verbiage. In his latest book he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) particularly in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around, and that material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche held similar views about the roots of our ideas, spurned bourgeois philosophy in favour of brutal honesty and could see to the dark heart of things. (His celebrated ‘God is dead’ was meant to alert people to the fact that they spoke of God but acted as if He didn’t exist.) But Nietzsche got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling conditions of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself. (Those on the left in thrall to Nietzsche tend to conveniently overlook his fascist views, says Eagleton.)

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also, writes Eagleton, undervalued philosophy’s power. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled. It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion, but Jesus, who is supposedly God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ teachings typically had a materialist bent – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, feed the hungry, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

And Christians are not just souls waiting for heaven, but material beings (of a ‘highly specific kind’, says Eagleton) working through the animation of the Holy Spirit for a better world. Neither are we just minds, but connected to other people through our bodily needs.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

A mistaken enterprise?


Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers, edited by Peter Frick, (published by Fortress Press), is concerned with the perhaps surprising contemporary phenomenon of otherwise atheist philosophers’ interest in the apostle Paul. Most of these philosophers would be placed on the “left”, although Frick points out in his introduction that simple left-right polarisations are not very helpful because they can block out potential lessons to be learned on both sides. The chapters cover what may be the usual suspects – Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. – while describing how Paul’s position within his society stimulates their thinking, even if many philosophers dismiss the content of his message. A final chapter encourages us within the churches to be not so precious with Paul and to accept as prompts the alternative viewpoint these philosophers present.

To take a couple of examples, the chapter on Alain Badiou (above) begins by noting that postmodernity is characterised by both pluralism and homogenisation. We have endless choice, but there is a sameness about it all, meaning true novelty is hard to find. And truth is seen as merely a matter of opinion. Badiou’s political problem is finding truth that is not so abstract as to be meaningless, but that is grounded in something more than a particular moment that is of interest to only a select few. And he finds in Paul an example of someone, even if in Badiou’s view what Paul is preaching about is nonsense, whose method treads this middle ground – applying a particular event (the resurrection) in a wider context.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, that frowning giant of European philosophy, finds inspiration in Paul’s proclamation of what seems a “scandal” to reason. For Zizek, Paul proves that radical change must come not from within the “horizon” of “common sense”, but must be sparked by something analogous to Kierkegaard’s (and Luther’s) leap of faith. Zizek claims then that his radical political philosophy is a far closer descendant of Paul than the theology of the mainstream churches. In other words, it is Paul’s radical method, and not his content, that is the most important thing. Now, Zizek may be saying this tongue in cheek (it’s hard to tell with Zizek, and he might say it is beside the point), and it certainly is contrary to the mainstream views in the churches, but for Zizek we live in a different world, and the sort of continuity with the early church we seek in the contemporary churches, in theological rather than political terms, would be for him a mistaken enterprise.