[lit-ideas] More on the Banality of Evil

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 3 Nov 2007 09:33:27 -0700

It is no coincidence that I encountered a  new publication of Eichmann in
Jerusalem.   Her concern in that book is the modern concern many of us have
with Islamofascism.  I don't mean to introduce this as a controversial
issue.   What is controversial is how influential Islamofascism is and how
many operatives they have.   What is not controversial is that some do
exist; so it is fair to read Arendt's book on "The Banality of Evil" and see
if her evaluation of Eichmann is applicable to this new form of Fascism.


Except, her book was unsatisfactory for that purpose.  I was left not
completely sure of what she meant on this subject and so bought another of
her books, The Life of the Mind.  I was surprised to learn that she
apparently wasn't completely sure what she meant after Eichmann and began
this three part work on Thinking, Willing, and Judgment, except she died
before she could complete the third part.   The following evaluation of
Eichmann and the Banality of Evil seems to take her later work into
consideration.  It is from http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/arendt.htm 


"6. Eichmann and the 'Banality of Evil'

"Published in the same year as On Revolution, Arendt's book about the
Eichmann trial presents both a continuity with her previous works, but also
a change in emphasis that would continue to the end of her life. This work
marks a shift in her concerns from the nature of political action, to a
concern with the faculties that underpin it - the interrelated activities of
thinking and judging. 

"She controversially uses the phrase 'the banality of evil' to characterize
Eichmann's actions as a member of the Nazi regime, in particular his role as
chief architect and executioner of Hitler's genocidal 'final solution'
(Endlosung) for the 'Jewish problem'. Her characterization of these actions,
so obscene in their nature and consequences, as 'banal' is not meant to
position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent
depictions of the Nazi's inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a
malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could
discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of
genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and
judgement. From Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem (where he had been brought
after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded
that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have
accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann
was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following
orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their
effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were
not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable
from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for
Eichmann and his cohorts. 

"Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising
the kind of judgement that would have made his victims' suffering real or
apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to
perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that
would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible
for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an
internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of
the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use
self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have
required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the
nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This
connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of
thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt's work, which
sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive
role for politically and morally responsible choices."


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