Systems of evil and Hanna Arendt’s banalities

I never understood, in my callow youth, why Hanna Arendt was considered a Big Brain.  What I read of her stuff I found gaseous and abstracted from reality.  (Her book on totalitarianism, for example, is vastly inferior to the crisp, fact-based treatment of the same subject by Walter Laqueur.)

Worst of all, she had coined a phrase, “the banality of evil,” that was supposed to explain away Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  Arendt used the phrase to describe Adolf Eichmann during the latter’s trial in Israel.  Eichman, a Nazi potentate responsible for organizing the death of thousands, portrayed himself as dull little man blindly obeying his government’s bureaucratic rules and regulations.  I thought it amazing that Arendt, a putative Big Brain, would buy such a lame story from such a disgusting source.

According to this Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum (via A&E), Arendt’s intellectual sin may have been far worse.  Arendt idolized Martin Heidegger, the Nazi’s pet Big Brain and father of modern French philosophy.  She had been Heidegger’s lover in her student days, and she worked, successfully, to rehabilitate him after the war.  To this end, it was essential for Arendt that Nazism be portrayed as a banality, indulged in by most otherwise normal Germans.

Rosenbaum hates the phrase even more than I do, and tears into it without mercy:

So the phrase was wrong in its origin, as applied to Eichmann, and wrong in almost all subsequent cases when applied generally. Wrong and self-contradictory, linguistically, philosophically, and metaphorically. Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn’t know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.

But there is more to it than that.  The twentieth century spawned political systems which imposed a single interpretation of life on unwilling populations.  The active principle of these systems was terror:  they thrived on the suffering and extermination of multiple   “enemies.”  Tens of millions died in consequence.  Monstrous as it was, the Jewish Holocaust was only one episode in this grim drama.

Living under an all-demanding, all-controlling regime imposes painful moral choices.  One can dissent in the style of Solzhenitsyn, and end up in Siberia – or Dachau.  One can withdraw into a private “internal exile,” avoiding trouble with the authorities – which often means doing their bidding.  Or one can collaborate, however unwillingly, out of fear and weariness, with evil.

But those, like Eichmann and Heidegger, who embraced evil and justified it to the world, and gladly participated in its crimes – these people were the tormenting devils in the stench and fire of the totalitarian hell.  To find banality in such horror requires an exceptionally warped moral sensibility.

And that is the nicest thing I can think to say about Hanna Arendt.

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2 Responses to Systems of evil and Hanna Arendt’s banalities

  1. Brutus says:

    You have omitted another significant option: Orwellian doublethink that enables the perpetrator of evil (or some lesser charge) to keep the truth from registering fully. By seizing on some minutiae or other distracting focal point, an otherwise rational actor can push the consequences of his/her actions out of awareness and so avoid self-recrimination and culpability. It’s a mysterious aspect of human cognition, but it has significant value not just in perpetrating evil but in getting through difficulties that threaten to undo us.

    • True, and a good point. I was placing myself in the shoes of a normal person, having to make life decisions in an evil system. It goes without saying such systems allow evil persons an enormous range of expression.

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