Since the insurrection last week, Hannah Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil” has been shared widely on social media, and I thought instead of writing about Socrates today as promised, I’d share some cliff notes for understanding one of Arendt’s most important contributions to political thinking.
At the time of Arendt’s death in 1975 she was mostly known for her reportage on Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was commissioned by The New Yorker and later published in book form in 1963. Arendt’s account of the trial Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s logician, sparked international outrage. She was accused of blaming Jewish people for the Holocaust, of having sympathy for Adolf Eichmann, and for writing in an inappropriate manner.
So, what is the banality of evil? And, why is it so contentious?
The banality of evil has become a phrase much like Machiavellian or Orwellian these days, and it is used in a variety of contexts to capture the (seemingly) immoral actions of another person. Often it is used to lament stupidity. But Arendt didn’t mean that evil was dumb, or banal in the common sense, and she didn’t mean that the possibility for evil lurked inside all of us. In an interview with the German historian Joachim Fest, Arendt explains her understanding of banality:
People thought that what is banal is also commonplace. But I thought…That wasn’t what I meant. I didn’t in the least mean that there’s an Eichmann in all of us, that each of us has an Eichmann inside him and the Devil knows what else. Far from from it! I can perfectly well imagine talking to somebody, who says to me something I’ve never heard before, so it’s not in the least commonplace. And I say, “That’s really banal.” Or I say, “That’s just rubbish.” That’s the sense in which I meant it.
There are three primary criticisms of Arendt’s work. The first one is tone. She wrote with a great sense of irony that was missed or deemed inappropriate by critics like Gershom Scholem. Arendt consistently defends her use of irony and argues that a solemn tone of voice is not always the most appropriate to deal with evil:
The second objection is that people do not understand why she says Eichmann in not a zealous antisemite. Arendt’s argument is that of course Eichmann was antisemitic, but that is not the only element that motivated his actions, and if we want to understand why he did what he did, we need to look at the whole picture. Here, Arendt turns to bureaucracy as a deadening form of thought that prevents people from holding themselves accountable. She argues that this was evidenced in Eichmann’s speech which was full of clichés and stock phrases.
And the third objection is that Eichmann was unthinking. In an interview, Arendt explains:
Eichmann was rather intelligent, but in this respect he was stupid. It was his thick-headedness that was so outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it—nothing demonic! There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing, isn’t that true?
If Eichmann had been capable of self-reflective critical thinking, of imagining the lives he destroyed, would he have held himself accountable? In other words, can thinking prevent evil? This question lies at the heart of Arendt’s work on thinking, willing, and judging, and there is no clear answer. For Arendt, though, it is clear what Eichmann did lack—an inner voice. He could calculate, but he could not actively think.
The most common objection today to Arendt’s work on the banality of evil is that she did not attend the entire trial (true) and that she missed how conscious Eichmann was in orchestrating the murder of Jewish people (Still being debated). Arendt never denied Eichmann’s antisemitism, but she was curious to understand the absolute moral failure of society and wanted to know how it was a person could be so impoverished in their thinking. To dig into this, we might ask: Is there a moral obligation to imagine evil from the perspective of the evil doer? Is there a line for empathy?
In the same interview with Joachim Fest, Hannah Arendt relates a story by Ernst Jünger:
During the war, Ernst Jünger came across some peasants in Pomerania or Mecklenburg—no, I think it was Pomerania (the story is told in Strahlungen, “Radiations,” the title of Ernst Jünger’s collected diaries from the Second World War, first published in 1949). A peasant had taken in Russian prisoners of war straight from the camps, and naturally they were starving—you know how Russian prisoners of war were treated here. And he says to Jünger, “Well, they’re subhuman—and “ike cattle! It’s easy to see: they eat the pigs’ food.” Jünger comments on this story, “It’s sometimes as if the German people were being ridden by the Devil.” And he didn’t mean anything “demonic” by that. Look here, there’s something outrageously stupid about this story. I mean the story itself is stupid. The man doesn’t see that this is what starving people do. That anyone would behave like that. Still, there’s something outrageous about this stupidity.
This story illustrates what Arendt means by imagining the world from the perspective of another. It is an empathetic act of the imagination. And for Arendt, it is a radically human act that attends to the plurality of all living beings. Men and not man inhabit the earth and build the world in common. And because this is precisely what Eichmann was incapable of doing in her view, he was guilty of crimes against humanity, for violating this principle of plurality.
Below are some resources for exploring Eichmann in Jerusalem further.
From radical evil to the banality of evil:
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt described Hitlerism as “radical evil,” but she retracts this argument in Eichmann.
She came to see that evil could never be radical, that only goodness could be radical. Evil, she argued, was done by ordinary men and could never be exceptional. To elevate evil to such transcendent status would have been to give it more credit than it’s due. Eichmann was no superhuman monster, he was a rational calculating buffoon. One must laugh at evil, not celebrate it.
As far as I can date it, the banality of evil first appears in Hannah Arendt’s correspondence with Karl Jaspers. Here is some of their discussion:
Jaspers suggests that the banality of evil was suggested to Hannah Arendt by her husband Heinrich Blücher, though I can’t find any real evidence to support this:
In Hannah Arendt’s first letter home to Heinrich about the trial she describes the whole affair as banal:
Here everything is going as expected, ups and downs, with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape. I imagine you’ve read that he would like publicly to hang himself. I was speechless. The whole thing is so damned banal and indescribably low and repulsive. I don’t understand it yet, but it seems to me that the penny will drop at some point, probably in my lap.
Hannah Arendt’s papers surrounding Eichmann are mostly available to the public via the Library of Congress website. Here you can read her correspondence with critics, reviews, and see the trial papers she was working with while writing. Since Eichmann was written for The New Yorker, the original manuscript is held at the New York Public Library in New York City.
When I teach Eichmann and the problem of evil I teach Arendt’s text alongside Augustine, Nietzsche, and Kant. The question that Arendt raises in discussing evil is the question of will. She lamented that under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think. With the appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century, the moral categories of good and bad were destroyed and so she wanted to understand how one holds one’s self morally accountable beyond social norms and laws.
The Problem of Evil:
Augustine, The Confessions, Books 5 and 7
Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone
The Moral Foundations of Evil:
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Natural History of Morality”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality, Essay 1
Hannah Arendt, Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship
Hannah Arendt, Thinking and Moral Considerations
Outline for Eichmann in Jerusalem: