Friday, January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time for people to both honor those killed under the Nazi regime and prevent future genocide. As every year at this time, I wanted to post something on the matter, but had a particularly busy day and didn’t have much time to jot down some ideas. I took advantage of the weekend and what follows is the result.
~ Hannah Arendt, Letter to Gershom (Gerhard) Scholem, July 24, 1963.
When in 1961 Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Adolf Eichmann, one of the major figures in the organization of the Holocaust, was taken captive in Argentina by agents of the Israeli government and brought to trial in Jerusalem, the German-born Jewish-American writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt saw an opportunity to confront the “realm of human affairs and human deeds . . . directly.” And so it was that she decided to undertake a reporter’s job and started to report on the trial for The New Yorker magazine. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, was the result of Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial, and one of the most controversial books of the 20th century.
Covering the trial Arendt used the phrase “the banality of evil,” a definition that has since become a classic. By the way, it wasn’t Arendt who first coined the phrase. In fact, in her correspondence with her mentor Karl Jaspers about the Nuremberg trials, the great German psychiatrist and philosopher highlighted a risk involved in the use by Arendt of the Kantian term radical evil to refer to the horrors of the Holocaust (her precise words, however, were that totalitarian terror had “the appearance of radical evil”): in his view it might endow perpetrators with a “streak of satanic greatness” and mystify their deeds in “myth and legend.” To escape this danger Jaspers emphasized the “prosaic triviality” of the perpetrators and coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to make his point. In reply Arendt agreed with this observation.
The distinction between radical evil and banality of evil is developed in detail in the above quoted letter to her friend Gershom Scholem, who along with many of her critics, accused Arendt of portraying Eichmann and other Nazi criminals not as hate-filled, anti-Semitic monsters but as petty bureaucrats, and of speaking openly about the role played by Jewish councils in the deportation and destruction of their own people. “It would have been very comforting indeed,” she wrote, “to believe that Eichmann was a monster […]. The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, London: Penguin, 1994, p. 276)
Scholem, also known as Gerhard Scholem, a German-born Israeli Jewish philosopher and historian, accused her of not having a love for the Jewish people, of using a “heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone.” “Your account,” he wrote, “ceases to be objective and acquires overtones of malice.” Explaining why the Jewish critics at least were so upset by the book, Scholem wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people....’ In you, dear Hannah ... I find little trace of this.” “I have little sympathy,” he added, “with that tone—well expressed by the English word ‘flippancy’—which you employed so often in the course of your book. To the matter of which you speak it is unimaginably inappropriate.” Arendt’s reply was unapologetic:
You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed ‘love’ only my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect…. I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.
Arendt’s reply also shows that, although she had suffered herself and witnessed the suffering of other Jews, she was not inclined to let these experiences overcome her ability to critically analyze the facts. Actually, she brought an independent and probing mind to her coverage of Eichmann trial. And that’s perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of her approach to the whole thing.
But let’s go back to the point—the banality of evil. What did she really mean by that? What she certainly did not mean was that evil had become ordinary, or that Eichmann had not committed an exceptional and, to some extent, unprecedented crime. What she actually meant was that, as it is explained in the above quoted excerpt from her letter to Gerhard Scholem, there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto. The banality of evil is its own lack of depth. What is banal are not the murderous deeds per se, but the lack of depth in the evildoer Arendt faced in Jerusalem, and by consequence in the horrors he inflicted on his victims and on humanity at large.
It is especially interesting now to note that St. Augustine’s idea that evil is not something fully real but only something dependent on that which is more real—his account of the original nature of evil in the contexts of ontology, society and divine providence—in fact provides the basis for Arendt’s analysis of the banality of evil in the individual, the social, and the political spheres. As David Grumett put it in an article published in 2000, “[a] small amount of attention has been given to Arendt’s work on Augustine, though surprisingly none has focused on the concept of evil.” Arendt’s concept of the origin and nature of evil, he wrote, “is usually attributed to her personal experience of totalitarianism and later coverage of the trial of the Final Solution bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. This however fails to give a full account. Its intellectual roots are rather to be found in her doctoral dissertation on Augustine, published in 1929.” ("Arendt, Augustine and Evil," in The Heythrop Journal, Volume 41, Issue 2, April 2000)
Especially in his early works, Augustine identifies evil negatively. Take the Confessions (7. 12. 18):
And it was made clear unto me that those things are good which yet are corrupted, which, neither were they supremely good, nor unless they were good, could be corrupted; because if supremely good, they were incorruptible, and if not good at all, there was nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption harms, but, less it could diminish goodness, it could not harm. Either, then, corruption harms not, which cannot be; or, what is most certain, all which is corrupted is deprived of good. But if they be deprived of all good, they will cease to be. For if they be, and cannot be at all corrupted, they will become better, because they shall remain incorruptibly. And what more monstrous than to assert that those things which have lost all their goodness are made better? Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be. So long, therefore, as they are, they are good; therefore whatsoever is, is good. That evil, then, which I sought whence it was, is not any substance; for were it a substance, it would be good. For either it would be an incorruptible substance, and so a chief good, or a corruptible substance, which unless it were good it could not be corrupted. I perceived, therefore, and it was made clear to me, that Thou made all things good, nor is there any substance at all that was not made by You; and because all that You have made are not equal, therefore all things are; because individually they are good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good.
Or Eighty-three Different Questions (6 “On Evil”):
Everything which is, is either corporeal or incorporeal. The corporeal is embraced by sensible form, and the incorporeal , by intelligible form. Accordingly everything which exists is not without some form. But where there is form there necessarily is measure, and measure is something good. Absolute evil, therefore, has no measure, for it lacks all good whatever. It thus does not exist, for it is embraced by no form, and the whole meaning of evil is derived from the privation of form.
But Augustine’s best known and most quoted definitions of evil are the ones he gave in Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapters 3 and 4:
And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else. [Emphasis added]
From this it follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good. A good that wholly lacks an evil aspect is entirely good. Where there is some evil in a thing, its good is defective or defectible. Thus there can be no evil where there is no good. This leads us to a surprising conclusion: that, since every being, in so far as it is a being, is good, if we then say that a defective thing is bad, it would seem to mean that we are saying that what is evil is good, that only what is good is ever evil and that there is no evil apart from something good. This is because every actual entity is good. Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity. Therefore, there can be nothing evil except something good.
In the light of the similarities between Augustine’s and Arendt’s concepts of evil, according to Philip Reiff, we are allowed to speak of “Arendt’s theology of politics.” (The Theology of Politics: Reflections on Totalitarianism as The Burden of our Time," Journal of Religion 32, 2, 1952, p. 119) As David Grumett puts it, though Arendt is not a specifically Christian thinker, “she in places laments the decline in acceptance of aspects of a Christian world-view.” “She does not, for instance, hold divine grace or the mediation of Christ as components of her thought, as Augustine does,” Grumett explains, “[s]he rather brings Augustine’s world-view, explored in her early study of Augustine, to bear on the modern and contemporary human condition.”
Perhaps it was from Augustine that Arendt learnt the importance for political thought of properly recognizing human sinfulness and worldly facticity if it is to confront the problem of the origin of evil. This is what makes her concept of the origin of evil and her existentialism valuable and believable.
To conclude, in David Grumett’s words, Arendt’s and Augustine’s “recognition of the existence of great evil in the world and of the facticity of human existence in the world” is far from pessimistic. “On the contrary, it is precisely by being content to live in the world that a human may do his or her part to safeguard its reality and protect it from evil.”