Book review: The Dark Side of the Soul misses an opportunity to explore evil

Stephen Cherry articulates the moral life as viewed from the senior common room of a Cambridge college, a kind of soft, touchy-feely approach that denies the possibility that profound wickedness actually exists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 4:00am

The Dark Side of the Soul

by Stephen Cherry

Bloomsbury

Some people think sex is sinful, while others think sin is sexy. The glamour of evil is the reason half the postgraduate English students in the world seem to be working on vampires and the gothic. Traditionally, however, it is virtue that is beguiling and vice that is boring. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the good life is about living as exuberantly as you can, whereas wickedness is a lack or defect. The wicked are those who have never quite got the hang of being human. They are botched imitations of real human beings, flashy but depthless. Then there are the genuinely evil, who destroy others not for some practical purpose but just for the obscene delight of it. The immoral are two a penny, but the evil are as rare a species as Tea Party intellectuals.

How, then, did wickedness become so alluring? Part of the answer may lie in that legendary phenomenon: the rise of the middle classes. Once the merchants and accountants got their hands on virtue, redefining it as prudence, thrift, chastity, meekness, sobriety, self-discipline and so on, vice was bound to appear alluring by contrast. Dickens’ Fagin has a larger fan club than Oliver Twist. There is also the English tradition of the devil-may-care patrician, from Byron to Boris Johnson, whose appeal lies in his roguery.

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The dark side of the soul, in Stephen Cherry’s new book, turns out to be simply a dozen or so shades of grey. Turning his eyes from war, genocide, famine, rape and exploitation, Cherry takes us instead on a gentle guided tour of such notable moral atrocities as snobbery, vanity, hypocrisy, talkativeness, defensiveness, perfectionism and intoxication. It is the moral life as viewed from the senior common room of King’s College, Cambridge, where Cherry is dean.

The book opens unpropitiously, with the claim that the main problem with vice is that it does harm to oneself, whereas personally speaking I don’t care much what moral damage a serial killer inflicts on himself as long as he keeps his hands off my throat. In the generous spirit of liberal Anglicanism, Cherry argues that vice is not to be excluded, prohibited or exorcised, but is “something with which we need to develop a critical and constructive relationship”.

Developing a critical and constructive relationship with one’s habit of selling migrant workers into slavery is admittedly not easy to cultivate, but the book offers us a degree of comfort here, insisting that immorality is not something we can ever eradicate.

Not much can be done, he thinks, about the dark side of the soul, because “it is, after all, dark”. This is a bit like claiming that there is nothing much to be done about belabouring someone with an iron bar because it is, after all, an iron bar.

There is more moral wisdom on offer. We are told that “the lonely heart is always a heart seeking fulfilment in the give and take of relationships”, and that if we look into our own tarnished souls we will be less inclined to believe that others are monsters of evil.

A feel-good culture such as our own is allergic to ideas of sin and wickedness, which is one reason that this book is an opportunity fatally missed. It might have argued that those who reject what is traditionally known as sin either have some fancy spiritualistic conception of it, or simply haven’t been reading the newspapers. Instead, it helps to confirm the view that the church is as out of touch with actual vice as the Borgias were with saintliness.

The Guardian