“[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.
"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.
The jury trial is, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood, one essential incubator of American democracy. The jury trial is the only space in which most people will ever be forced to sit in judgment of their fellow citizens and declare them innocent or guilty; or, in a civil trial, to judge whether one party’s wrong requires compensation. The experience of being a juror, Tocqueville saw, inculcates in all citizens the habits of mind of the judge; it “spreads to all classes respect for the thing judged and the idea of right.” Juries, he wrote, are “one of the most efficacious means society can make use of for the education of the people.”
If the experience of sitting in judgment as a juror is a bulwark of our democratic freedoms, we should be worried. As Albert W. Dzur writes, the jury trial, once the “standard way Americans handled criminal cases,” is now largely absent from the legal system. The jury trial “has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.”
Dzur offers a clear case for the disappearance of the jury trial:
[J]uries in the United States today hear a small fraction of cases. In 2005 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that juries heard 4 percent of all alleged criminal offenses brought before federal courts. State courts match this trend. Legal scholars Brian J. Ostrom, Shauna M. Strickland, and Paula L. Hannaford-Agor discovered a 15 percent decline in total criminal jury trials in state courts over the last 30 years, compared with a 10 percent decline in criminal bench trials, in which a judge issues the verdict. They also found a 44 percent decline in civil jury trials compared with a 21 percent decline in civil bench trials.
So what does the retreat of Jury trials signify? For Dzur, the answer is that the jury system is an important part of our justice system because it performs a “constructive moral function,” by which he means that juries “force widespread sobriety about the real world of law and order.” Juries can challenge “official and lay attitudes regarding the law. This sobering quality of juries is particularly needed now.” Here is how Dzur characterizes more fully the “sobering quality of juries”:
A juror treats human beings attentively even while embedded within an institution that privileges rationalized procedures. Not advocates, prosecutors, or judges, jurors are independent of court processes and organizational norms while also being charged with judicial responsibility of the highest order. Their presence helps close the social distance between the parties and the court. The juror, who contributes to what is a political, juridical, and moral decision, becomes attuned to others in a way that triggers responsibility for them. Burns notes how jurors’ “intense encounter with the evidence” helps them engage in self-criticism of the “overgeneralized scripts” about crime and criminal offenders they may have brought with them into the courtroom.
In other words, juries are institutional spaces where citizens have the time to attentively consider fundamental moral and legal questions outside of the limelight and sequestered from public opinion, government pressure, and the media circus. Since juries are the institutions where we practice moral judgment, Dzur argues that the loss of juries means that “we are out of practice. Lay citizens no longer have opportunities to play decisive roles in our justice system.”
The recent jury decision in the George Zimmerman case is an example of a jury resisting popular calls for guilt and making a sober judgment that the facts of the case were simply not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Juries can also resist the government, as might happen if Edward Snowden would return to the United States and put himself on trial before a jury. Such a jury could, and very well might, exonerate Snowden, exercising its fundamental right of jury nullification in the interest of justice. Snowden’s refusal to return is, in some part, a result of the diminished practice of moral judgment reflected in the diminishment of the jury.
Jury judgments are at times surprising and can, in extraordinary cases, go against the letter of the law. But the unpredictability of jury verdicts makes them neither irrational nor thoughtless. They are often intolerant and unfair, but this makes them neither racist nor unjust. Amidst the unquestioned hatred of all discrimination, we have forgotten that discrimination, the art of making relevant distinctions, is actually the root of judging. In our passion for rationality and fairness, we sacrifice judgment, and with judgment, we abandon our sense of justice.
What acts of judgment exemplified by juries offer are an ideal of justice beyond the law. Plato called it the idea of the good. Kant named it the categorical imperative. Arendt thought that judgment appealed to common sense, “that sense which fits us into a community with others.” What all three understood is that if morality and a life lived together with others is to persist, we need judgments that would invoke and actualize that common moral sense, that would keep alive the sense of justice.
For your weekend read, take a look at Dzur’s report on the loss of the juries. Also, you might revisit my own essay on this theme, “Why We Must Judge,” originally published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
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.
In the Paris Review, Roger Berkowitz argues that Margarethe von Trotta's new movie "Hannah Arendt" is "The Most Sophisticated Reading Yet of Arendt's Philosophy to Reach the Mainstream." The core of the film is its subtle and enthralling attempt to exemplify the act of thinking. As Berkowitz writes, "It is her silent intensity, throughout the film, that strikes the viewer, propels us to think with Arendt about what she is observing and its implications. The audience is thus transformed, moving from observing Arendt to thinking with her.... The thinking Arendt demands requires pride, a feeling of difference between oneself and others-even a kind of arrogance, an arrogance that von Trotta seizes on screen. The film honestly addresses this characteristic of Arendt and of thinking itself, and does not shirk from Arendt's belief that a confidence in one's own distinctiveness is necessary for character. Like Emerson's, Arendt's writing celebrates self-reliance. For her, our democratic desire for equality-to be the same as others and to not judge them-compounds the problem of thoughtlessness."
On the topic of thinking and arrogance, Nitin Nohria believes that we often judge the actions of others with a kind of moral overconfidence, and that, accordingly, "we like to sort the world into good people who had stable and enduringly strong, positive characters, and bad people who had weak or frail characters." Nohria believes that by "thinking hard about what it is about situations that are more likely to tempt us and what it is that are about situations that are more likely to give us moral courage," we can overcome a less than useful categorization.
In a wide ranging essay on books, reading, and writing, Rebecca Solnit pauses to praise the library: "Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao Tsu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens into another world, which might be the magic that all those children's books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. All readers are Wu Daozi; all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish."
Helen Epstein remembers the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Melita Maschmann's Account Rendered. The book, a memoir of Maschmann's activities as a Nazi, is addressed to an unnamed Jewish friend, an approach which sparked a brief correspondence with Hannah Arendt. Epstein sought out the addressee, believed to be one Marianne Schweitzer who now lives in California, to ask her about her girlhood relationship with Maschmann.
Walter Russell Mead takes on General Stanley McChrystal's recent call for Universal National Service. We at the Arendt Center, as part of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, are big believers in the importance of public service. But Mead has some typically smart quibbles: "The devil is in the details, and we suspect it will be a long time before a national service program works really well. After all, America has been trying to give every kid in the country a good high school experience for almost 100 years, and spending a lot of money on it. The goal of providing meaningful service opportunities to millions of kids is probably even harder to reach. These programs often work best on a small scale and deteriorate dramatically when blown up to giant proportions. We suspect that the various Agencies of Official Voluntarism that Stan wants to set up would become ineffective and expensive hotbeds of mediocrity before much time had passed. One of the things a culture of voluntarism and service is about is reducing dependence on government; more leadership from religious and other private groups and less official involvement from the Ministry of Joy might mean a slower start but a more satisfying performance in the long run."
June 5, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 6:30 PM
Film followed by a Q&A with Hannah Arendt Center Academic Director, Roger Berkowitz
Buy tickets here.
This week on the blog, A.O. Scott gives a rave review to Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt.Thomas Wild considers Arendt's thought that Americans might be too busy. And the Arendt Center worries about the febrile imagination of Arendt haters. Finally, in the Weekend Read,Roger Berkowitz counters the new common sense, that Arendt was right in general but wrong about Eichmann.