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.
Amy Ireland is thinking about a genocide at the level of "genus-cide," the eradication of humanity itself. The threat is not weaponry but technology. And the exemplary precursor is the horse: "In the United States--where competition with the automobile was at its most intense--there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the 1950s only 2 million remained." The question Ireland asks is whether humans are going the way of horses to be replaced by more efficient machines. Will artificially intelligent machines consume humans' fuel? "Far from being actively malevolent, an artificially intelligent agent endowed with enough power only needs to be indifferent to become a murderer. What are we, after all, but fuel? Atoms that can be freely disassembled and reassembled into something else - a thousand paperclip factories, for instance, or a massive supercomputer, capable of mathematical calculations we can't even begin to imagine in our current state of technological paucity. Even the clearly delimited goal of creating exactly one million paperclips can warrant the wasting of an entire planet, for a fully rational AI would never assign zero probability to the hypothesis that it has not yet achieved its goal.... There is something satisfying about imagining a malevolent artificial intelligence that actively wants to destroy us because it fears us, loathes us, or at least finds our existence frustrating and inconvenient. But the notion that something will destroy us out of sheer indifference is much harder to swallow because it forces us to consider the possibility of our utter insignificance. Bostrom surmises with all the level-headedness of a pure statistician that the odds against humanity's survival are overwhelmingly high. The default outcome of our construction of a single strong artificial intelligence is, quite plainly, extinction. His intention, naturally, is to raise awareness of the risks that lie behind this seemingly anodyne technological innovation and encourage governments, corporations or other entities that may one day attempt to build strong AI to implement rigorously tested control measures before letting the thing out of the box. All this is well and good, but it rests upon a deeper anthropomorphic supposition. What if the most radical gesture a flailing humanity can make at this juncture is not to increase its investment in security and control, but to pass it on? What if we are entangled in a larger evolutionary process that we never had control over in the first place? The real question then, might not be how to survive the construction of strong artificial intelligence but whether or not the survival of the human race is a good thing after all." Ireland is right to pose the question of "genus-cide," although her tone is a bit blithe. The threat is not the eradication of human beings but, as Arendt writes in The Human Condition, the loss of the human condition, those characteristics of being human like labor, work, action, and (sometimes) thinking. As Arendt writes, "This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange."
Karl Ove Knausgaard was commissioned to travel from Sweden to the Viking's first settlement in Newfoundland and then drive across the United States in order to reflect on the state of America. In part one of his two-part "Saga," Knausgaard offers this insight into a specifically American form of poverty, the poverty of imagination and the abandonment of distinction: "I'd seen poverty before, of course, even incomprehensible poverty, as in the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique. But I'd never seen anything like this. If what I had seen tonight--house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster--if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth. I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing. Was that what home was here? Not the place, not the local, but the culture, the general?"
Peter Railton gave the John Dewey Lecture at the American Philosophical Association Meeting this year, where amidst reflections on philosophical thinking, personal courage, and political activism, he offered a guileless and moving account of his personal struggle with depression. "And what of depression? Perhaps we all know the mask of depression, that frozen, affectless face we catch glimpses of on our students, colleagues, and friends. I can't do anything about that. But perhaps I can do something about the face of depression--its visible image in the minds of our children and parents, teachers and students. Because in truth, we are still to a considerable degree still in a world of 'Don't ask, don't tell' with regard to depression and associated mental disorders, such as anxiety, even though these will severely affect one in ten of us over the course of a lifetime, and often at more than one point in a lifetime. So there's nothing for it. Those whose have dwelt in the depths depression need to come out as well. Some already have, but far too few adult men (big surprise!), and especially far too few of the adult men who somehow have come to bear the stamp of respectability and recognition, and thus are visible to hundreds of students and colleagues. It's no big deal, right? We're all enlightened about this. Then why do the words stick in my throat when I tell you that another theme uniting the three episodes I have recounted from my life, and that has played an equally important role in shaping my philosophy, is that they were all accompanied by my depression. This moody high school student, this struggling protester, this anxious young faculty member--they were all me and they were all living through major depressive episodes at the time. And there have been other such episodes, some more recent. Thankfully, for me and especially for my family who have been through so much already, not right now. Did others know? I don't know. Some must have guessed--perhaps those who themselves had known depression in their lives could see the mask of depression upon my face. But the thing is: I couldn't say it. I couldn't say, 'Look, I'm dying inside. I need help.' Because that's what depression is--it isn't sadness or moodiness, it is above all a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind's mighty resources in convincing you that you're worthless, incapable, unloveable, and everyone would be better off without you. Not a steely-eyed, careful critique from which one might learn, but an incessant bludgeoning that exaggerates past errors while ignoring new information, eroding even the ability to form memories. A young man once had the courage to tell me, 'My brain is telling me to kill myself, but my body is saying "no."' Happily, his body won. But it doesn't always. Every year, thousands of young men don't win the battle. We are captive audiences to our own minds, and it can become intolerable." Depression, Railton suggests, is still in the closet, and this causes untold pain at colleges, where, as a recent study shows, the mental health of college Freshmen is at an all-time low--something that will not surprise any of us who teach in this nation's colleges and universities.
In Railton's speech on depression discussed above, he also has this tidbit on meetings: "Oscar Wilde is still right--because the cost of building a society where the people have more say in how their lives are run is still many, many meetings. What is a meeting, after all, but people deliberating together with a capacity to act as a group that is more than just a sum of individual actions, and this sort of informed joint action is a precondition for significant social change. Come together, decide together, act together, and bear the consequences together. We must own our institutions or they will surely own us. As Aristotle told us, one becomes a citizen not by belonging to a polity or having a vote, but by shouldering the tasks of joint deliberation and civic governance. And there is no civic or faculty governance, no oversight of discrimination in hiring and promotion, no regulation of pollutants, no organization of faculty or students to initiate curricular reform, no mobilization by professional associations to protect their most vulnerable members or to promote greater diversity, no increased humaneness in the treatment of animals and human subjects, no chance to offset arbitrariness and bullying within offices and departments, no oversight of progress and revision of plans in response to changing circumstances, without actual people who care spending long hours in the work of planning, meeting, and making things happens. The alternative is for all these decisions to be made at the discretion of those on high--or not at all." At a moment when faith and participation in all institutions is rare and the pursuit of individual pursuits comparatively common, Railton's reminder of what Arendt calls the power of talking and acting together is worth heeding.
David Cole writes that the Senate Torture Report, when read in full, leads to fundamentally different conclusions than most of the headlines and early accounts suggest. Above all, the report blaming the CIA for lying may have missed the real story: "The full story is more complicated, and ultimately much more disturbing, than the initial responses--mine included--suggested. And because these documents may be the closest we come to some form of accountability, it is essential that we get the lessons right.... So why did the committee focus on efficacy and misrepresentation, rather than on the program's fundamental illegality? Possibly because that meant it could cast the C.I.A. as solely responsible, a rogue agency. A focus on legality would have rightly held C.I.A. officials responsible for failing to say no--but it also would have implicated many more officials who were just as guilty, if not more so. Lawyers at the Justice Department wrote a series of highly implausible legal memos from 2002 to 2007, opining that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in coffinlike boxes, painful stress positions and slamming people into walls were not torture; were not cruel, inhuman or degrading; and did not violate the Geneva Conventions. The same can be said for President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and all the cabinet-level officials responsible for national security, each of whom signed off on a program that was patently illegal. The reality is, no one in a position of authority said no. This may well explain the committee's focus on the C.I.A. and its alleged misrepresentations. The inquiry began as a bipartisan effort, and there is no way that the Republican members would have agreed to an investigation that might have found fault with the entire leadership of the Bush administration. But while the committee's framing may be understandable as a political matter, it was a mistake as a matter of historical accuracy and of moral principle. The report is, to date, the closest thing to official accountability that we have. But by focusing on whether the program worked and whether the C.I.A. lied, the report was critically misleading. Responsibility for the program lies not with the C.I.A. alone, but also with everyone else, up to the highest levels of the White House, who said yes when law and morality plainly required them to say no."
Adam Phillips worries about what's inside us: "We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical--more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused--than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves. But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating--Lacan writes of 'the obscene super-ego'--and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses--the super-ego is reiterative. It is the stuck record of the past ('something there badly not wrong', Beckett's line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right." In other words, critical thinking is essential, but let's also recall that it is dangerous. All thinking is an attack on the status quo and the common world in which we live. That is what Arendt means when she wrote, "There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous." That doesn't mean we should stop thinking critically, but it does mean that thinking requires knowing when thinking is, and when it is not, needed. That is the moment of judgment.
Novelist Gary Shteyngart spent a week watching Russian television and living like a Russian oligarch: "Here is the question I'm trying to answer: What will happen to me--an Americanized Russian-speaking novelist who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child--if I let myself float into the television-filtered head space of my former countrymen? Will I learn to love Putin as 85 percent of Russians profess to do? Will I dash to the Russian consulate on East 91st Street and ask for my citizenship back? Will I leave New York behind and move to Crimea, which, as of this year, Putin's troops have reoccupied, claiming it has belonged to Russia practically since the days of the Old Testament? Or will I simply go insane? A friend of mine in St. Petersburg, a man in his 30s who, like many his age, avoids state-controlled TV and goes straight to alternative news sources on the Internet, warns me in an email: 'Your task may prove harmful to your psyche and your health in general. Russian TV, especially the news, is a biohazard.' I'll be fine, I think. Russians have survived far worse than this. But, just in case, I have packed a full complement of anti-anxiety, sleep and pain medication."
Andy Greenwald considers what made the recently concluded sitcom Parks and Recreation successful and what it's legacy might be: "Art doesn't always have to be a dark mirror reflecting reality. It can and should also be a window, thrown open to let in every last bit of possible light. Parks and Recreation never quite resembled the real America. But every episode was imbued with the idea that maybe it could, if only we, the people, cared a little more and tried a little harder. The Wire, the greatest drama of the young 21st century, left us with a tough legacy to reckon with. Parks and Rec, the best comedy of that same century, gifted us with a beautiful model to which we can collectively aspire. I doubt the future will be as bleak as David Simon's vision for it or as rosy as Mike Schur's. The joy of being a TV fan is that we get to consider both. That's not a cop-out, by the way. That's a compromise, and one that even President Leslie Knope could accept. After all, Parks was built on the bedrock belief that opposing ideas could not only have merit, they could coexist. Like the show itself, it's an idea that sounds simple but in practice is anything but."
"Arendt's Critique of Modern Society as an Analysis of Process Imaginary"
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
"Figuring Rights: Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang explores the moral and political consequences of emotion entering into the public sphere in the Quote of the Week. American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In a special feature, we recognize Aliza Becker, one of her Associate Fellows, and her creation of the American Jewish Peace Archive: An Oral History of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Activists (AJPA). And we appreciate Arendt's engagement with Saint Augustine's "Confessions" in our Library feature.
This coming Friday, March 6th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the fifth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 10-13 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more!
By Ian Storey
“The trouble begins whenever one comes to the conclusion that no other ‘lesser’ evil is worth fighting…all historical and political evidence clearly points to the more-than-intimate connection between the lesser and the greater evil…with the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy today to formulate what Stalin actually did: he changed…the proverb ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ into a veritable dogma: ‘You can’t break eggs without making an omelette.’”
– Hannah Arendt, “The Eggs Speak Up”
Recently, there was a moment that struck me; it literally made me dizzy with how perfectly it encapsulated a political problem that was, at that particular moment at least, also personal.
As part of our seventh annual fall conference "The Unmaking Of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?," we asked university students in the United States and abroad to answer the question, "What core American ideals can inspire Americans to sacrifice self-interest and fight for justice?"
We received a large number of submissions, all of which were thoughtful and provocative in their arguments. However, two entries in particular stood out for us.
The winners of our 2014 Thinking Challenge are Rosa Schwartzburg and Alix Tate!
**This post was originally published August 10th, 2012**
In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.
That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.
It is hard to disagree with the claim that government is too big and too bureaucratic. Citizenship is in decline. The legitimacy of representative democratic government is experiencing a crisis around the world. These are common refrains, heard often on the left and the right. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are evidence of the general dissatisfaction with big, unresponsive, administrative government. California is thinking of splitting itself into six states. Even the New York Times Magazine, in its cover story today, suggests that the time for the Libertarian movement may have finally arrived.
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.
“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)
In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.
"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.