Hannah Arendt and "the Banality of Evil"

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from "Evil: The Crime against Humanity"
Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University

There are ways in which Eichmann in Jerusalem recalls the last sections of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but there are also important respects in which it differs. Arendt laid considerable emphasis on these differences in a number of letters. To Mary McCarthy she mentioned three of them. She wrote first that she no longer believed in "holes of oblivion" because "there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible." Secondly, she realized that "Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology" than she would have assumed before attending the trial. What had become clear to her was that "extermination per se" did not depend on ideology. Thirdly, and this was by far the most important difference, the phrase banality of evil "stands in contrast to . . . 'radical evil.'" This last distinction is developed in more detail in a letter to Gershom Scholem (see letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963). There she wrote: "It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme." "Thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated." That there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil. Not the murderous deeds but the evildoer she faced in Jerusalem and the massiveness of the evil he inflicted on the world are banal in that sense.4 The realization that the most extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal, that it is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, was momentous; to say the least it afforded Arendt relief from a burden she had borne for many years.

[complete source here]

I have no great philosophical mind. I do not always understand things written in the way they are intended. But what I derive from this brief discussion is that evil has no deep roots and no intrinsic sense because it is, in a sense, utterly alien from what we are. That is, we are created good, only good can be radical because it stems from the depth of our being in God. Evil, which subverts these depths, which starts in a place outside the ground of our being, can have no depth and can ultimately make no sense.

The phrase "banality of evil" was used to descirbe Adolf Eichmann as he faced trial in Jerusalem. He was an accountant of death, dealing merely in numbers. Free from passion, simply exercising his functions within the legal system of his time.

Eichmann's example occurred to me as I considered the plight of the police officers who are standing guard over Terri Schiavo. There are still people who are willing to do evil and prevent good as a matter of course. Perhaps they do not understand the evil they do--I pray it is so. But if they are aware of it and do it anyway, they have entered the realm of senselessness. While their moral culpability may not be sinful, nevertheless, it should give us all pause to consider how we cooperate with this same evil and accept the shallow, the rootless, the invasive. And unfortunately, it seems, there is no end to the people who are willing to enter the realm of the senseless. Even if every officer present today were to quit, there would a cadre of others to replace them. This is not to say anything about police. Were the police to leave, there would be a cadre of misguided "compassionate souls" who would be willing to preside over her execution. (The same souls, I might add, who are aghast at the barbarity implicit in Scott Peterson's possible demise--after twenty to thirty years of appeals. I echo their concerns, but see the terrible compassion that leads to the gas chambers.)

The real danger of what we face here is outlined by Arendt's discovery in a trial in Jerusalem.

[source as above]

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court's refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann's conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called "the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century." The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have "functioned in the expected way" for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, "it began to function the other way around." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general "moral collapse" had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)

The systemic danger we face from this single case is far greater than we might imagine. It is the sound of the torrent that turns us from Thou shalt not to Thou shalt. Too many mistake the law for what is morally right--the reason of the law replaces the light of God and conscience. Indeed, in a society where religion is sidelined, it is possible that what is legal becomes the definition of what is moral.

Ms Schiavo's case is not over, and I pray it has a better end than seems possible now. But if it does not, I think we need to recall Donne's prescient understanding, "Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

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It has been a long time since I have read Arendt. This might be a good time to dig her out and give her a second reading. Thanks.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 23, 2005 8:03 AM.

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