"It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him? Precisely the dialogue which Shakespeare let Richard III lead with himself after a great number of crimes had been committed:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself?"
-Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’
‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ is one of the most perfect examples of Arendt’s late writing. A distillation of her career-long thinking on thinking, the essay performs what it so elegantly urges: it is an essay on thinking that thinks.
For Arendt, the moral considerations that follow from thinking and, more grievously, from not thinking are profound. Adolf Eichmann’s “quite authentic inability to think” demonstrated to Arendt the arrival of new kind of evil in the world when she attended his trial in 1961. The airy emptiness of his speech was not the stupidity of a loathsome toad: his jabbering of cliché falling upon cliché sounded totalitarianism’s evil in a chorus of thoughtlessness. Shallowness as exemplified by Eichmann cannot be fixed or given depth by reason; no doctrine will argue the thoughtless into righteousness. Only through the experience of thinking, Arendt insisted, of being in dialogue with oneself, can conscience again be breathed into life. Thinking may be useless in itself; it may be a solitary activity that can often feel a little bit mad. Yet thinking is the precondition for the return of judgment, of knowing and saying: “this is not right.” By 1971, Arendt saw no evidence of a resurgence of thinking in the wake of atrocity.
Writing an essay on thinking that thinks and thus performing the experience of thinking is itself an act of defiance. Performing is the right verb here: Arendt knows she is staging her argument as a public spectacle. Her hero is Socrates: gadfly, midwife, stingray, provoker, deliverer and galvaniser of thinking in others. Socrates democratises perplexity. And when he has finished chatting with others, he carries on talking at home, with his quizzical, critical companion, that ‘obnoxious fellow’ with whom we are forever in dialogue -- the two with whom we make a thinking one. Arendt is fully aware that she is making a character out of Socrates. His inveterate dialogism is a model. Just as Dante’s characters conserve as much historical reality as the poet needs to make them representative, so too, she says, with her Socrates. Against the vacant image of Eichmann inanely mouthing his own eulogy in front of the hangman’s noose which opens the essay, we have Socrates: thoughtlessness versus thoughtfulness.
But what of the third character in Arendt’s essay—Shakespeare’s Richard III? The murderer who nobody wants to befriend? The villain who despite his best efforts cannot stop talking to himself?
Richard plays an odd, yet pivotal, role in Arendt’s performance of thinking. On the one hand, he is Socrates’ evil twin. Richard rejects conscience. ‘Every man that means to live well endeavours … to live without it’, he says. This is easy enough to do, says Arendt, because ‘all he has to do is never go home and examine things.’ Except, in Richard’s case, this proves difficult. He may try to avoid going home, but eventually he runs into himself at midnight; and in solitude, like Socrates, Richard cannot help but have intercourse with himself. Alone he speaks with himself in soliliquoys (from the Latin solus – alone and loqui –to speak; Arendt’s beloved Augustine is believed to have first conceived the compound). And this is what makes this villain—one who many have wanted to claim for the calculating murderousness of the twentieth century—much more like Socrates than Eichmann.
Both Socrates and Richard have the capacity to think. True, Richard thinks himself into villainy—he ‘proves himself a villain’—but this is precisely his pathos in Arendt’s drama. If it is better to suffer than to do harm, it is also better to have suffered at the hands of Richard who at least thought about what he was doing, than suffered as a number in one of Eichmann’s filing cards, the pathetic loner who joins a murderous movement not because he’s frightened of who might await him at home, but because he doesn’t even suspect anyone might be there in the first place. For all the ham-fisted productions that want him to be, Richard is not a Nazi villain in early modern disguise. Better that he could have been, of course, because then we wouldn’t have to contemplate the particular thoughtlessness of contemporary evil.
Richard is no Osama Bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either, despite comparable violent last stands (and the corpse lust that attended them). This is well understood by Mark Rylance’s recent performance of Richard in the Globe Theater production that played in London last year and that is rumoured to open on Broadway soon. Rylance’s performance of Richard is like no other. It is also a performance that makes Arendt’s thinking more relevant than ever.
Rylance understands that since the War on Terror, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, after Guantanamo, rendition and drone wars, it would be a travesty to play Richard’s villainy as safely and exotically other (by contrast, in 1995 it was entirely possible to set the play in a 1930s Nazi context, and have Ian McKellen play the role for its cruel humour with a knowing nod to Brecht). Rylance’s Richard is plausible, pathetic even; he is compelling not in his all-too-evident evil but in his clumsy vulnerability. His creepy teeth sucking, and ever-twisting body mark a silent but persistent cogitation; he is a restless, needy, villain. Like a child, Rylance’s Richard grabs at his conscience— he thinks—and then chucks it away as one more ‘obstacle’, just as he spits in his mother’s face at the very moment he most desires she recognise him. In a neat echo of Arendt’s analysis of how the loneliness of totalitarianism feeds thoughtless evil, the loveless hunchback fights solitude in an effort to avoid the midnight hour; orchestrating collective murder is his defence against being alone with his thoughts. (This was observed by my theater companion who, being ten years old—and a British schoolboy—understands the connection between feeling left out and group violence well). Richard’s tragedy is that circumstances turned him into a serial killer, to this extent he is a conventional villain; his pathos, however, as this production shows, is to be poised between thinking and thoughtlessness, between Socrates and Eichmann.
‘No. Yes, I am/Then fly. What from myself?’ When Rylance speaks this soliloquy he stutters slightly, giggles and looks—as Arendt might have anticipated—a little perplexed. This is not a knowing perplexity; Richard does not master his conscience, nothing is done with the solitary dialogue, but the thinking is there even if Richard himself seems unsettled by its presence. In refusing to play Richard simply as one of the ‘negative heroes in literature’ who, Arendt argues, are often played as such ‘out of envy and resentment’, Rylance brilliantly captures the last moment before evil becomes banal.
To play Richard’s cruelty alongside his vulnerability is not to fail to recognise his villainy, as some have complained; rather, it is to dramatize the experience of thinking in the process of being painfully and violently lost. With pathos, we might think, is the only way to play Richard III today. The Globe’s production is a late, but utterly timely, companion to Arendt’s essay.
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer "human" in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.
Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, "The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power." Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.
By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many "evil motives" that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.
I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt's work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,
Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.
But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.
To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party's "Brown Shirts," the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler's paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:
Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.
I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the "banality of evil." This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather "perfectly normal men" who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt's thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.
Franz Kafka is hung in Israel for being a Nazi. Hannah Arendt laughs in the face of Auschwitz. Walter Benjamin cries for the lost revolution. With such visions, the Berlin-based-artist Volker März has carved out a space for himself as an artist of the thoughtful and the absurd. I met him last month at MEINBLAU, a gallery on Christinenstraße, his most recent exhibit in Berlin.
I was quickly ushered into an alternate reality. As you walk in, you must become acquainted with the März' artificial world.
This it the tale of Franz Kafka, who, in 1924, aged 41, does not die of tuberculosis but rows with his ape, Mr. Rotpeter, to Palestine, where he still lives to this day in Tel Aviv, aged 126. From here he provides a commentary on world events of the last 85 years, including the history of Israel in brief comments that I have gleaned from his letters and emails.
The exhibit that follows is titled "Israel Hangs Kafka." In März’s world, Kafka was tried and executed in Israel in 2009. He was accused of being a Nazi. In heaven Kafka finds "only a crowd of Kafkas, who tell him that every individual ends up in his own personal heaven in which he has to put up with hundreds of copies of himself." In 2010 there is a new government elected in Israel. Ashamed that the country had framed Kafka, the new government petitions God to have Kafka exonerated and return him to Israel. But as Kafka is falling back to earth, he goes astray and lands on the back of a Donkey in Ramallah in the West Bank. The Donkey carries Kafka to Pina Bausch who, like Kafka, is recently returned from heaven.
And this is just the textual frame for März's playful, gripping, and unexpected figures. The artworks themselves are thousands of miniature clay figures, hanging from the ceilings, attached to walls, and climbing throughout the exhibition hall.
They comprise a suggestive and inventive visual world. Kafka is naked, often erect, sometimes carrying an elephant or with his ape. He rides a donkey. He dances with Pina Bausch. He shoots a gun, he is blown up or drowned. Sometimes he addresses the Knesset. Behind each figure or scene is a story, but the exhibition does not provide the full narrative. For that, one should buy März's two bi-lingual volumes, Kafka In Israel, and In Search of Pina Bausch (Kafka: Auf der Suche nach Pina Bausch).
Volker März is tall, affable, and funny. "Kafka Hangs Israel" is the last of his "trilogy" of work on German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His first show in the series, "Auratransfer," was inspired by Walter Benjamin. "The Laughter of Hannah Arendt/The Concentration Camp as Space of Thinking" is the show that brought März to my attention, along with his piercing motto that gets right to the heart of brutal reality of Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil: "Auschwitz is human." März pierces Arendt's insight that the evil of the holocaust—as evil—was enabled not by monsters but by human beings who were merely human, or, in other words, who did not think. The banality of evil is an expression of the awful potentiality of human action when mankind abandons the truly human capacity to think.
There is a sense in which the provocative motto “Auschwitz is human” gets Arendt wrong in a small way. For Arendt, the fact that Eichmann is banal is not to say that he is human. It is rather to point to the loss of his humanity. This is the reason that Arendt disavowed a connection between her work and the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which people applied increasing doses of electricity to test subjects when told to do so by the scientists running the experiment. For Arendt, the fact that most people do act with banality shows not that humans are evil, but that in the modern age human beings are in danger of losing their humanity. The motto “Auschwitz is human” gets at the heart of Arendt’s insight that Eichmann—and all real evil in the modern era of the bureaucratic machinery of evil—was rather thoughtless than monstrous. But she never acquiesces to the motto that thoughtlessness is human. On the contrary, the highest activity of humanity is to think.
The transformative power of thinking lies behind Arendt’s own interest in Franz Kafka. For Arendt, Kafka's parables and texts were examples of thinking. Arendt is taken above all by Kafka’s account of the space between past and future, an image she took as the title of her 1954 book Between Past and Future. The parable concerns a person shoved forward from the past, pressed backwards by the future, someone who can jump outside the forces of history and find a space for thinking freely outside of history and free from social scientific predictions of the future. The space of thinking is found, she writes, in "the experience of thinking."
März’s exhibition in Berlin contained only a fraction of the Kafka figures he has created and tell only a fragment of the elaborate story that knits them together. That story is told in his two books on Kafka that can hardly be called the exhibition's catalogues. They are rather books in themselves, bilingual in German and English, and fantastic to read.
The first book is Kafka in Israel. It tells the story I have outlined above, up until Kafka's execution. In it we are introduced to Kafka and also Rotpeter, Kafka's ape. On the occasion of Kafka's 100th birthday the writer is invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he says: "Among all human beings, the Monkey is the one and only outsider." The ape, human but inhuman, is excluded. Which is why "we're pretty much agreed now that an ape is in urgent need of a continent of its own, one inaccessible to humans."
The second book, Kafka in Search of Pina Bausch, takes place after Kafka has been executed by Israel and returns to the West Bank where he meets the German choreographer Pina Bausch, herself recently returned from the beyond. More political than the first volume, the search for Pina Bausch is a raucous and often biting look at the hypocrisies and tensions in the political and culture divisions between Israel and Palestine.
Together, these two volumes make a fascinating journey in both pictures and text. They are accessible and brief, but compelling. You could do worse than to order yourself a copy. And while you are at it, don’t forget to order also März’s volume on Hannah Arendt, The Laughter of Hannah Arendt. These books by Märx are your weekend read.
From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him—already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well—could start from scratch and still make a career.
-Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 33
Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann and his striving to redeem himself from his life continues to teach us an important lesson about our relationship to movements. This lesson is not that we are all potentially “evil” due to the banality of most of our motivations. It is rather that our standing with respect to any movement, for good or for evil, places us in a position potentially to be sacrificed to or effaced under the movement itself.
An illustration of this possibility that has for some time resonated with me is in a 2005 audio commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal on the death of Rosa Parks. Here, he reminds listeners of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks. He says,
People build movements, one by one, in tens, hundreds, thousands and eventually millions, and what if Claudette Colvin, this poor woman, lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution. Few remember this woman’s name, but her contribution that would set the stage for Parks was immense...
We react very differently to this conception of “movement” than we do to the force that Arendt refers to in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We do not condemn individuals who become swept up in it, but rather praise and admire them.
What then differentiates the movement of the Third Reich from that of the American civil rights movement, other than the obvious? The former, according to Arendt, seemed to exist independently of individuals; it was a “History” with a narrative and direction all its own, not built by individuals, but rather itself building individuals. Adolph Eichmann tried to find in the History that the Nazi regime tried to bring about, a chance to acquire significance and visibility as an individual and to become, in a sense, a part of this history. Arendt makes clear the futility of such an attempt when she paints a picture of Eichmann not as a grand man, evil or otherwise, but as a banal figure who could not even interact intelligently with his interlocutors at the court.
When Mumia Abu-Jamal speaks of the civil rights movement of which both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin were a part, he describes a force in which it is still possible to identify within it the individuals whose actions have contributed to it. This movement appears not as a force of History, but of individuals, each of who advances the movement in her own way.
But even in Abu-Jamal’s conception of movement and despite the justice of this cause, the individual becomes, in some sense, lost to the movement in a way that is reminiscent of Eichmann’s disappearance into History. Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s relationship to the movement of his time can make us especially sensitive to the self-sacrifice of Colvin in a way that Abu-Jamal’s recognition of her does not. Arendt helps us to see that any movement, whether for good or for evil, requires that one be open to the possibility of being sacrificed, of having one’s individual action become transformed into a “step” toward a larger goal. Every movement demands individual sacrifice, for as long as the goal of everyone’s actions is the common, shared one around which the “movement” itself is organized, none is wholly significant in his own right.
This does not mean that the sacrifice may not be worth it, as the sacrifices to the cause of civil rights in this country surely were. But it does mean that our relationship to and experience of being a part of a movement cannot, or at least should not, be unconditionally positive. We should instead be wary of the possibility that our participation may not always be personally empowering and not delude ourselves into upholding the movements we believe in as unqualified forces for good.
And this means that we should attend to movements, both as their participants and their spectators, with the heavy heart that is appropriate to the sadness that should accompany our acknowledgement that individuals will be sacrificed. Abu-Jamal almost does this when he characterizes Colvin’s contribution as derivative of having set the stage for Parks and her action. But he ultimately tries to eject from our minds the tragedy of her loss by impressing us with the justice of the movement itself. “What if,” he asks, “this poor woman…lost not only her seat and her dignity but was later tossed in a mental institution”? She had set the stage for Rosa Parks and for a critical success in the movement for the rights of African-Americans.
He is right. But to be significant in this way is still sad, because to experience oneself as being merely a stagehand for another’s performance is a sad and lonely existence. Colvin reports having mixed feelings about her role in the civil rights movement and its leaders’ pushing her to the sidelines. She does not seem enamored with the possibility of being swept up in a movement (as Eichmann was) and she acknowledges the appropriateness of the decision to pass her up for Rosa Parks with the resignation of someone who had no other alternative.
When we talk about the most prominent movement of our time—Occupy Wall Street—we often fail to acknowledge the necessary possibility of individual sacrifice. Yet at the same time we demand in some way such sacrifice from everyone who participates in the movements we believe in. We reject leaders who seem too egotistical and who seem to profit individually from their positions. The problem is not that we shouldn’t ask for these sacrifices, but rather that we fail to acknowledge their necessity and in so doing, become open to possibly sacrificing individuals with impunity or with even joy. That one would sacrifice oneself for a movement, either willingly or not, might be laudable, depending on the movement, and it is definitely necessary. But this should be a deeply sad occurrence that does not make our commitment to a movement less passionate or energetic, but certainly should make it more complicated and more attuned to the sadness and tragedy that accompany it.
It is not enough to try to lionize the sacrificed individual, for this only covers over the tragedy of the individual’s loss, attempting to recover the idea of the thorough, unconditional righteousness of certain movements. If, as some have claimed, there is any softness on Arendt’s part in her description of Eichmann, it is not because she sympathizes with this figure in any way or sees his actions as anything less than deserving of his execution. It is because she recognizes the tragic character of all movements. With her description of Eichmann’s longing to achieve personal success through the Nazi regime, she was, I submit, trying to alert us to the necessary effacement of the individual that is universally present in all movements. With respect to this goal, her tone is appropriately somber. And as such, even though our political condition is nothing like that of Nazi Germany and our movement nothing like that regime’s, there is still plenty to learn from Eichmann in Jerusalem when we think about the movements that we might identify today.
Acting and Thinking: Thinking is rather complete concentration or absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves.
—Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 12
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt treats action as one of the three "most elementary articulations of the human condition"—those activities that are "within the range of every human being." But Arendt leaves out other—less elementary—articulations of human being. Most notably, she specifically says that the book will not address thinking, "the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." If acting is the highest of the elementary ways of being human, thinking is a specific kind of action that is, by its rarity, reserved for the few. Written by one of those few, The Human Condition is, above all, an attempt to "think what we are doing."
The Human Condition traces the relation between thinking and acting that cuts through all of Arendt's writing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann emphasizes his thoughtlessness. She comes to believe that it is thoughtlessness that makes possible evil actions and that thinking is the only possible way to stop or at least dis-empower the human tendency to do evil.
Similarly, thinking what we do is the path toward a reinvigoration of politics.
But what, exactly, is the relation between thinking and acting? Near the beginning Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, in July 1950, Arendt sets down the first of what will become numerous entries under the title: "Acting and Thinking." While many themes run through the Denktagebuch (literally, a book-of-thoughts), no other theme is so prevalent as "Acting and Thinking." In this early line of thought, we see Arendt's attempt to establish the relation between the two activities that would come to dominate her own thinking for the next 25 years.
The full entry, which references Martin Heidegger and William Faulkner, is worth citing in its entirety:
Acting and Thinking: Heidegger can only mean that it rests upon the sameness of being and thinking, and surely then, when thinking is understood as the being of man in the sense of the being of being. Thinking would then be the being that in man is freed to be action. Thinking is here neither speculation nor contemplation nor "cogitation." It is rather the complete concentration or the absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves.
"Why did I wake since waking I never shall sleep again."
The quoted line at the bottom is a slight misquotation of William Faulkner's famous line from Absalom, Abaslom (Arendt transposes "never" and "shall"). Thinking, Arendt writes, is an "absolute waking." It can be a rude awakening, insofar as it tears one from the dream world of easy living and requires concentrated attention to difficulty. In such wakefulness, there is the ecstasy of absolutely wakeful concentration.
The word Arendt uses to describe the fullness of wakeful thinking is the German vollbringen, to complete, or to bring to fullness. This is, not coincidentally, the same word Martin Heidegger uses to describe both thinking and acting in his 1946 Letter on Humanism. Heidegger begins his Letter on Humanismwith a discussion of the relation of action and thinking. The first sentence introduces the relationship: "We are still far from thinking the essence of action decisively enough."
If usually we think of action as simply something that causes or brings about effects, Heidegger writes that this is not decisive enough. Instead, "The essence of action is the bringing of something to completion, or the bringing of something to fulfillment." To act is to unfold something in the fullness of its essence, to bring it to be what it most is. It is for this reason that human action is thinking, since “Thinking brings to fullness the relation of being to the essence of man."
Arendt follows Heidegger in seeing thinking as the same as acting. What Arendt's account of thinking as fulfilling and completing wakefulness adds to Heidegger's conjunction of action and thinking is her insistence on human freedom. In the relation of action and thinking Arendt rejects all determinism and all understandings of action and thinking based in speculation, contemplation, or cognition, all of which subordinate human action to rules or reasons. Arendt's acting and thinking human being is not a shepherd of being, but a beginner.
Thinking, Arendt writes, is freed to act and to bring new things into the world. That is what Arendt means by a thinking that is absolutely awake. Thinking what we are doing must, therefore, be itself an active beginning, a surprising and spontaneous action that inserts itself into the world in act and deed. If such thinking is surprising and new, it will draw others to it who will tell stories about it. Only then, if and when thinking inspires others to act in its wake, does thinking act.
“For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”
The twin themes of guilt and responsibility, and the differentiation between them, were key issues for Hannah Arendt in this essay. As Arendt notes, the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was “neither a Bohemian like Goebbels, nor a sex criminal like Streicher, nor a perverted fanatic like Hitler, nor an adventurer like Goering.” Himmler was an outwardly “respectable” bourgeois who implemented a policy that compelled ordinary bourgeois paterfamilias to act as cogs in the infernal machinery of the “final solution.” While many Germans had strong ideological reasons to participate in the final solution, many a German husband did so without thinking, simply “for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children [and thus] was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.” By involving millions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, and by giving the fullest expression to the human capacity for barbarity, the German bureaucratic machine rendered questionable the traditional juridical differentiations between guilt and responsibility.
What struck Arendt in this early text was that the fact of bureaucratic involvement in the Holocaust did not automatically generate a feeling of guilt, or of responsibility in the participants. Arendt provides a snippet of an interview with an ordinary German, in which, after listing the types of activities he undertook and things he saw in his role as a paymaster at an extermination camp, the officer expresses shock when he learns that the Russians might put him to death. All he can do is break down and ask, “What have I done?”
What is it that allowed this officer to participate in and witness the most horrific crimes and yet remain free of any sense of guilt or responsibility? Arendt’s answer is that he lacked a feeling for the idea of humanity. Arendt is clear about what this idea of humanity is. “Purged of all sentimentality”, the idea of humanity is an awareness of the human capacity for evil. Without an awareness of one’s capacity for evil, a human being is incapable of experiencing shame. Shame, for Arendt, is an important indicator of human ethical awareness.
Rather than corrode the experience of politics, shame provides a model for post-Holocaust politics. Interestingly, Arendt invokes the Jewish prayer of atonement (“Our Father and King, we have sinned before you”) as an example of the kind of response that the Holocaust demands from us. Shame itself is not political – like religious sentiment, shame is non-political because it is the concern of an individual. A future politics, however, must be able to address at a political level – that is, in the space of plurality – what shame accomplishes in the individual. We need to develop a politics that fosters the collective awareness of our capacity for evil, just as shame inspires individuals to face their own responsibility. Politically, the development of shame can allow us to recognize that even if the guilt of a criminal act is limited to a particular individual, we must all be vigilant against our human propensity to participate in evil.
Arendt ‘s comments have resonance for the recently concluded war in Iraq. A New York Times correspondent recently discovered classified testimonies of U.S. soldiers under investigation for committing war crimes in Iraq. These testimonies confirm what critics of the wars in Iraq (and Afghanistan) have long alleged: that the real number of abuses committed by U.S. troops far exceeds those that were eventually disclosed to the public. Some of the (officially classified) images depicting these crimes have been leaked into the media – although they have not found a venue in the U.S. mainstream press. Many of these images are pornographic mementos celebrating the wanton destruction of human lives, much like the assortment of fingers and skulls of Iraqi and Afghani civilians discovered to have been collected as war trophies.
Given the existence of photographic records of these crimes, it seems that the guilty might be clearly identifiable. However, the guilt of those who actively participated in these crimes shades into the responsibility of those who abetted them or, at the very least, turned a blind eye to them. The willingness to equate the presence of these criminals to the statistically unavoidable appearance of “a few bad apples” was perhaps all too readily accepted by those unwilling to undermine their own economic security. Which is another way of saying that the responsibility of the crimes committed has been left unaddressed, even as the guilt of the criminal acts is still being established. “Shame at being a human being” might be for us today at the conclusion of the war in Iraq, as it seemed to Arendt upon the conclusion of the Second World War, both the affective record of an attempt to face the crimes of the war and the realization of “how great a burden mankind is for man- Manu Samnotra