“[W]henever I transcend the limits of my own life span and begin to reflect on this past, judging it, and this future, forming projects of the will, thinking ceases to be a politically marginal activity. And such reflections will inevitably arise in political emergencies.”
---Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Thinking)
There have been several new studies on and discussions about Adolf Eichmann lately. In them, Arendt’s name is frequently mentioned for fairly obvious reasons. Her remarks on Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness,” including her “banality of evil” and its relevance in assessing modern day atrocities, have forewarned against the consequences of totalitarianism for more than a half-century now. But some scholars, including Bettina Stangneth in her new book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, are challenging Arendt’s ideas. This gives us an opportunity to look back on Arendt’s theories and reevaluate their logic ourselves.
**This post was originally published on November 15, 2013**
It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer?
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Sari Nusseibeh, recently retired President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, thoughtfully writes of the end of his lifelong dream that Israel and Palestine might be able to live together in a peaceful and vibrant future. All that is left, he writes, is the promise of hell. "I can, of course, see and admire beautiful individuals. Israel boasts so many of them - poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists - and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives. But that special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished. I can no longer see it anywhere. It has become replaced, in my mind - sorry to say - by what appears to have become a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs, bent on self-aggrandizement, capitalizing on world-guilt for past pains and horrors suffered, and now hiding behind a religious fiction to justify all the pain and suffering it does to my own people, our heritage and culture.... I cannot see an Israeli government now offering what a Palestinian government can now accept. I can therefore only foresee a worsening climate - not a one-time disaster (say, an avalanche following the killing of a Jew while performing a prayer in the Noble Sanctuary, on what Israelis call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) that can once and for all be put behind, by whichever side, but an increasingly ugly living climate in which only those who can acclimatize and be ugly themselves can survive. In simple words, even if called 'holy,' I can foresee this place turning into a hell for all those who live in it. It will not be place for normal human beings who want to pursue normal lives, let alone a place where anyone can hope to fulfill a sublime life." Read Roger Berkowitz's response on the Arendt Center blog.
In the New York Review of Books Robert Pogue Harrison notes that changing the world through work has become a Silicon Valley cliché: "When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: 'Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?' The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: 'Don't just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.' A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to 'change the world' through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it's hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly. Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the 'dark times' of the first half of the twentieth century, 'with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,' Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption: 'The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs-which are the needs of mortals-when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.'" You can also watch Harrison's talk on Thinking and Friendship given at the Arendt Center.
In a piece on the place of theory and dangerous thinking in contemporary intellectual discourse, Henry Giroux describes why such practices appear to be in decline, citing its unintelligibility, an assault on them from particular political interests, as well as the corporatization of the university, among other things. It doesn't help that good critical thinking is hard to do, and that thinking and action aren't the same: "One important function of dangerous thinking is that it foregrounds the responsibility of artists, intellectuals, academics and others who use it. Mapping the full range of how power is used and how it can be made accountable represents a productive pedagogical and political use of theory. Theorizing the political, economic and cultural landscapes is central to any form of political activism and suggests that theory is like oxygen. That is, a valuable resource, which one has to become conscious of in order to realize how necessary it is to have it. Where we should take pause is when academic culture uses critical thought in the service of ideological purity and in doing so transforms pedagogy into forms of poisonous indoctrination for students. Critical thought in this case ossifies from a practice to a form of political dogmatism. The cheerleaders for casino capitalism hate critical theory and thought because they contain the possibility of politicizing everyday life and exposing those savage market-driven ideologies, practices and social relations that hide behind an appeal to commonsense. Both the fetishism of thinking and its dismissal are part of the same coin, the overall refusal to link conception and practice, agency and intervention, all aggravated by neoliberalism's hatred of all things social and public."
Stephen Mucher makes the case that liberal arts faculty should be more involved in teacher education, suggesting that teachers who are well versed in the humanities, in addition to teaching practice, prepare more curious, more creative students with better critical thinking skills: "Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option. More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, 'the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.' By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal."
In an interview, poet Carol Muske-Dukes takes on the notion of "unoriginal genius," which she thinks is alienating contemporary poetry from the public, and emphasizes instead an older way of thinking about verse. Let's bring back readable poetry we can recite: "Proponents of unoriginal genius would say that they are putting forward a version of interpretation and illumination of a technological age. But the fact is, this mirroring of disjunction represents no real speaking or reading or thinking population.... The struggle here, as it is with overly accessible, catchy poetry, is a struggle to be both popular and enlightening. We live in a time when language matters. Not only because of the constant threat of misunderstanding in translation - in diplomacy, in wartime, in the university and literary life - but, as always, in individual human relations. So the abdication of accessible rhetoric and a turn toward so-called scholarship is an abdication of the human. The academy has opted for pointless experimentation in language compared to my mother's generation - she's ninety-eight - of well schooled, publicly educated students of poetry who know pages and pages of poetry by heart. Should anyone who believes in sense be ostracized from the ongoing conversation of literature?"
Kate Losse suggests that there's something sinister behind the connection of work and leisure on the campuses of innovative tech companies: "Of course, the remaking of the contemporary tech office into a mixed work-cum-leisure space is not actually meant to promote leisure. Instead, the work/leisure mixing that takes place in the office mirrors what happens across digital, social and professional spaces. Work has seeped into our leisure hours, making the two tough to distinguish. And so, the white-collar work-life blend reaches its logical conclusion with the transformation of modern luxury spaces such as airport lounges into spaces that look much like the offices from which the technocrat has arrived. Perhaps to secure the business of the new moneyed tech class, the design of the new Centurion Lounge for American Express card members draws from the same design palette as today's tech office: reclaimed-wood panels, tree-stump stools, copious couches and a cafeteria serving kale salad on bespoke ceramic plates. In these lounges, the blurring of recreation and work becomes doubly disconcerting for the tech employee. Is one headed out on vacation or still at the office - and is there a difference? If the reward for participation in the highly lucrative tech economy is not increasing leisure but a kind of highly decorated, almost Disneyland vision of perpetual labour, what will be its endgame? As work continues to consume workers' lives, tech offices might compete for increasingly unique and obscure toys and luxury perks to inhibit their employees' awareness that they are always working." Maybe Silicon Valley's idea of changing the world is simply the collapse of the labor vs. leisure distinction.
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Michael Weinman discusses Arendt's use of the term "irony" in her report on the "banality of evil" in his Quote of the Week. American modernist poet Wallace Sevens provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a free speech lecture Zephyr Teachout delivered at Bard in 2012 in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the hell that the Middle East is fast becoming in the Weekend Read.
Shirley Jackson published her story The Lottery in the New Yorker this week 66 years ago, on June 26, 1948. It is a powerful and disturbing story about a small and happy New England town where once every year the residents select lots to choose one person who will be stoned, presumably to death. Jackson unfolds the story gradually, and the atmosphere of celebration on lottery day helps hide the dark turn The Lottery ultimately takes in its final paragraphs. The shift amongst the townspeople from the lighthearted conviviality to cold-blooded stoning is shocking and deeply unsettling.
In the New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern argues that we should pay less attention to the character of actors like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and focus more on the governmental actions they have revealed. Yet much if not most of Halpern’s essay focuses on Snowden and Greenwald themselves, and the paragraph that stands out in Halpern’s essay goes directly to Snowden’s decision to leave the country and evade confronting the U.S. Government in court:
It is here that Edward Snowden’s story begins to sound much like those of Thomas Drake, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Edward Loomis, longtime NSA employees who, a few years earlier than Snowden, attempted to raise concerns with their superiors—only to find themselves rebuffed—about what they perceived to be NSA overreach and illegality when they learned that the agency was indiscriminately monitoring the communications of American citizens without warrants. Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis resigned—and later found themselves the subjects of FBI interrogations. Drake, however, stayed on and brought his suspicions to the office of general counsel for the NSA, where he was told: “Don’t ask any more questions, Mr. Drake.” Frustrated, Drake eventually leaked what he knew to a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. The upshot: a home invasion by the FBI, a federal indictment, and the threat of thirty-five years in prison for being in possession of classified documents that, when he obtained them, had not been classified. After years of harassment by the government and Drake’s financial ruin, the case was dropped the night before trial. It was against this backdrop that Snowden found himself contemplating what to do with what he knew. Stymied by an unresponsive bureaucracy, seeing the fate of earlier NSA whistleblowers, and finding no adequate provisions within the system to challenge the legality of government activity if that activity was considered by the government to touch on national security, he nonetheless set about gathering the evidence to make his case.
For those who would defend Snowden, this narrative is essential. The claim is that the United States now is simply not like the United States of the 1960s and 1970s when Daniel Ellsberg gave himself up after releasing the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg himself has made this argument while defending Snowden, arguing that Snowden and whistleblowers like him simply cannot and should not trust the U.S. government to treat them legally and humanely.
"Thinking in its non-cognitive, non-specialized sense as a natural need of human life, the actualization of the difference given in consciousness, is not a prerogative of the few but an everpresent faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the “prerogative” of those many who lack brain power but the everpresent possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered."
--Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture” (1971)
Published eight years after Eichmann in Jerusalem, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is Arendt’s elaboration of her argument in that book that Adolf Eichmann’s criminal role in the Holocaust did not originate from any “base motives” or even from any motives at all, but from his “thoughtlessness” or “inability to think.” If, she asks, Eichmann’s crimes, which he committed over the course of years, resulted from the fact that he never paused to think, what exactly does it mean to think, and what is the relation between thinking and morality?
In the above quote, which appears on the penultimate page of the lecture, Arendt defines thinking—or the kind of thinking that she argues is necessary for morality—as “the actualization of the difference given in consciousness,” as “that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered.” She describes this “non-cognitive, non-specialized” kind of thinking both as “a natural need of human life” and as “an everpresent faculty of everybody.” By contrast, she defines “inability to think” as the everpresent possibility for everybody to shun thinking.
We might wonder at this point why Arendt does not simply speak of an “ability not to think,” an ability to (actively) shun thinking, rather than an “inability to think.” Is this because she wants to maintain a hierarchy between something that is natural and human (thinking) and something that is unnatural and inhuman (not thinking)? What would be the justification for such a hierarchy? Or does she want to suggest that Eichmann has become unable to think (through barbarous “nurture”), losing touch with his (nevertheless everpresent) faculty of thinking, which everybody has from birth (“nature”) or from the moment they learn to speak? Thinking and language are intrinsically connected from the first page of Arendt’s lecture, where the primary evidence of Eichmann’s inability to think is that he speaks in clichés. (Also, the lecture is dedicated to a poet, W.H. Auden.) Finally, how does Arendt’s description of thinking as a “natural need of human life” relate to her suggestion that Socrates did not merely discover the importance but the very possibility of thinking?
Arendt casts Socrates as “a model, (…) an example that, unlike the ‘professional’ thinkers, could be representative for our ‘everybody,’ (…) a man who counted himself neither among the many nor among the few (…).” She takes Socrates not as “a personified abstraction with some allegorical meaning ascribed to it,” but as an “ideal type” who “was chosen out of the crowd of living beings, in the past or the present, because he possessed a representative significance in reality which only needed some purification in order to reveal its full meaning.” What, then, is this representative significance?
Arendt bases her conception of thinking and its relation to morality primarily on two famous propositions that Socrates puts forward in the Gorgias: “It is better to be wronged than to do wrong,” and “It would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me” (Arendt’s emphases). According to Arendt, these propositions are not primarily “cogitations about morality” but “insights of experience,” of the experience of the process of thinking. Arendt claims that Socrates means by the first proposition that it is better for him to be wronged than to do wrong if he is thinking, because in thinking you are carrying on a dialogue with yourself, which presupposes some friendship between the partners in the thinking dialogue. You would not want to be friends and enter into a dialogue with someone who does wrong, and since Socrates presupposes that the unexamined life is not worth living, doing wrong leads to a life that is not worth living because examining it in thinking is no longer possible.
Arendt argues that conscience is a “by-product” of consciousness, of the actualization of the difference of me and myself in thinking, because: “What makes a man fear his conscience is the anticipation of the presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home” (Arendt’s emphasis). However, this formulation suggests that there is no reason to fear your conscience if you never go “home,” that is, if you never engage in the activity of thinking, which, according to Arendt, was precisely Eichmann’s problem. What, then, determines whether someone uses her faculty of thinking or realizes the everpresent possibility of not thinking?
Arendt’s lecture does not contain a strong answer to this question. But although the relation between phenomenological description and normative argument in this lecture remains somewhat unclear, the lecture seems to contain a defense of thinking and a “demand” that everybody think, that everybody aspire to some extent to the ideal-type represented by Socrates, because only thinking can provide an antidote to the “banality of evil.” Arendt acknowledges that thinking can lead to license, cynicism, and nihilism through the relativizing of existing values, because “all critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and ‘values’ by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions.” However, Arendt’s anti-elitist suggestion is that the problem of nihilism is never that too many people think or that people think too much, but rather that people do not think enough.
Yet Arendt does not tell us what would promote thinking. She does not propose, for instance, to generalize the teaching of thinking through educational institutions, the way that Adorno proposed to create “mobile educational groups” of volunteers to teach “critical (…) self-reflection” to everybody, in his 1966 radio talk, “Education After Auschwitz.” A Habermasian model where people become critical through participation in democratic politics is unavailable for Arendt given her strong opposition of thinking to politics, which belongs to the realm of action. What Arendt does tell us is what is conducive to actualizing the everpresent possibility of not thinking: “(…) general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits that can be replaced by other habits and rules,” the way that Eichmann, as Arendt argues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, simply substituted the duty to do the Führer’s will for Kant’s categorical imperative.
"If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice...Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon..."
Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, fell on the 27th day of the month of Nisan or in April this year. It begins at sundown and continues into the next day. A memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, it is a time to call these events to mind and consider their continued resonance and relevance in our own dark times. How shall we, in the words of Hannah Arendt, bear the burden of such a past? With what attitude should such events be commemorated?
Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1964, a televised conversation between the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, and the well-known German journalist, Günter Gaus, was broadcast in West Germany. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her controversial analysis of the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, had just been published in German in the Federal Republic and Gaus used the occasion to generate a “portrait of Hannah Arendt.” The interview ranged across a wide field of topics, including the difference between philosophy and politics, the situation in Germany before and after the war, the state of Israel, and even Arendt’s personal experiences as a detainee in Germany and France during the Second World War.
Already a cause célèbre in the United States the book had brought Arendt lavish praise and no small amount of damnation. What Gaus especially wanted to know was what Arendt thought about criticism levied against her by Jews angered by her portrait of Eichmann and her comments about Jewish leaders and other Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Above all,” said Gaus, “people were offended by the question you raised of the extent to which Jews are to blame for their passive acceptance of the German mass murders, or to what extent the collaboration of certain Jewish councils almost constitutes a kind of guilt of their own.”
Gaus acknowledged that Arendt had already addressed these critics, by saying that such comments were, in some cases, based on a misunderstanding and, in others, part of a political campaign against her, but he had already crossed a contested border. Without hesitation, she corrected Gaus:
First of all, I must, in all friendliness, state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance. Someone else did that in the Eichmann trial, namely Mr. Hausner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. I called such questions directed to the witnesses in Jerusalem both foolish and cruel.
True, Gaus admitted. He had read the book and agreed that Arendt had not made that point exactly. But, he continued, some criticism had been levied against her because of “the tone in which many passages are written.”
“Well,” Arendt replied, “that is another matter...That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.”
What did she mean by ironic? “If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice.... Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon...” To convey the shock she experienced when, contrary to her own expectations, Eichmann “in the flesh” appeared to be more a clown than a monster, Arendt countered with a reverse shock, adopting a sardonic, unsentimental voice to unmask what she later termed “the banality of evil.” It could be read as her way to diminish the self-aggrandizement of the architects of the Final Solution to middling size. The trouble was she used this voice rather undiplomatically to describe not only Eichmann’s actions but also the complicity of others, including some members of the Jewish community she judged harshly for cooperating with Nazis. “When people reproach me with accusing the Jewish people, that is a malignant lie and propaganda and nothing else. The tone of voice is, however, an objection against me personally. And I cannot do anything about that.”
“You are prepared to bear that?” asked Gaus. “Yes, willingly,” Arendt claimed. What she had not anticipated was how unprepared many who read her were to take on this new shock of the “banality of evil” on top of the horrifying accounts of Jewish suffering conveyed at the trial.
In fact, “bearing the burden of the past,” thinking about the past in its morally perplexing and disconcerting entirety, was the focus of Arendt’s writing, from her earliest essays to her last. And in no case did this burden bearing affect her more personally than when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem. When she returned from a European trip taken for a needed rest soon after the book’s release, she found stacks of letters waiting for her. Some correspondents praised the bravery of her truth-telling, but the lion’s share found her book detestable. A few included death threats.
Was her refusal to concede that her “tone” had anything to do with the hostility the book generated merely a matter of sheer stubbornness? Or was the ironic tone itself emblematic of Arendt’s ideas about the danger implicit in thinking and the burden of responsibility that lay at the heart of judgment?
In the introduction to The Life of the Mind, Arendt offered this account of the generation of her controversial and still frequently misunderstood concept of “the banality of evil”:
In my report of [the Eichmann trial] I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil...However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous...Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?...Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?
But, Arendt insisted, thinking’s ability to condition people against evil-doing did not mean “that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though ‘virtue could be taught and learned’—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior.” What cold comfort, then, this thinking business seemed to be, offering no guarantee that evil will be avoided and good prevail.
Arendt had removed the guarantee of absolute innocence and automatic guilt from the question of moral responsibility. What did she put in its place? The capacity to exercise an “independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” And who evidenced this capacity? They were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “dared to judge for themselves.” Deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “live with themselves,” sometimes they even chose to die rather than become complicit. “The dividing line between those who think and therefore have to judge for themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”
Nonetheless, Arendt’s tone made it seem as if she knew she would have acted more valiantly than those who cooperated with the Nazis. Outraged by her moral judgment of Jewish leaders many asked: Who is she to judge those who were forced to make difficult decisions and, in the interests of saving the many sacrificed the few? Arendt answered this question in a 1964 essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” “Since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled by the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
—Kathleen B. Jones
This Quote of the Week is adapted from an essay originally appearing in Humanities Magazine, March/April 2014.
Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.
-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.
The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.
In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.
According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking. This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.
The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.
The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.