The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975; see here for an overview of her work) offered two groundbreaking and closely connected theories of evil, the banality of evil and radical evil, that help us rethink many common conceptions of not only evil but the nature of humanity. In the last post (see here) I gave a brief overview of radical evil in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951); in this post I present the banality of evil. By the end of the post we will see that the two forms evil are connected since the banality of evil presupposes radical evil.
In her influential and controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Arendt explored the motives behind evil deeds through a study of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann who was on trial in Jerusalem for organizing the deportation and transportation of millions Jews to the Nazi concentration and extermination camps (go here for an overview of his capture, the trial, and execution by hanging). Here is a helpful description from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Concept of Evil”:
Adolf Eichmann facing justice in 1961
“Arendt went to Jerusalem in 1961 to report on Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker magazine. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she argues that “desk murderers” such as Eichmann were not motivated by demonic or monstrous motives. Instead, “It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed [Eichmann] to become one of the greatest criminals of that period”…According to Arendt, Eichmann’s motives and character were banal rather than monstrous. She described him as a “terrifyingly normal” human being who simply did not think very deeply about what he was doing.” (see section 2.3; read the entry here).
Now typically people think the more evil the deed the more evil the motive and, perhaps, the more evil the person with the motive who is doing the deed. So Eichmann’s overseeing the murder of six million people should, presumably, lead us to conclude that he was a demonic person with demonic motives of astonishing proportions. But Arendt goes in the opposite direction, maintaining that Eichmann had no demonic depth at all. In fact, evil is on the surface – it is banal and can be motivated by everyday things like, in Eichmann’s case, his own advancement. But the key is that this motive has no thought attached to it. Consider this passage from Eichmann in Jerusalem (Viking Press, 1965):
“When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all…He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.” (287; see my series on Shakespeare’s Richard III and evil here)
This gives an account of why evil is so perplexing as Richard J. Bernstein notes in his book Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation (MA: Polity, 2002): “It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality” (218). Arendt sees Eichmann as someone who fails to judge, question, criticize, experience pangs of conscience, empathize with others, and so on. Indeed, he himself seems to be a victim of totalitarianism: he seems to act like a human in so many ways and yet has lost his capacity to act spontaneously, to act anew, and to act unpredictably (in the last post we saw how this loss of spontaneity on the part of all members of the state is the fundamental goal of totalitarianism). Indeed, he has lost a plurality in himself as Jerome Kohn, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School University (see here for the Center), explains in his essay “Evil: The Crime against Humanity” (read the whole essay here):
“The crucial point is that the activity of thinking provides an intense and ineluctable experience of plurality. While thinking, i.e., while experiencing the silent dialogue of thought, the ego splits in two, disclosing an inner difference within an apparent identity. At lightning speed these “two-in-one,” as Arendt called them, converse as long as the activity of thinking lasts. She found that these thinking “partners” have to be on good terms, essentially in agreement, because they cannot go on or resume thinking if they contradict one another. Arendt grounded, existentially, the logical law of non-contradiction in the congeniality of the two-in-one.” (8)
Arendt claims that the failure to be an inward plurality prevents relationships with an outward plurality as well:
“The longer one listened to him, the more it became obvious that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded with the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” (49)
“By the same token it is in the activity of thinking that the explicitly human relationship between a plurality, though it be only of two, is first established. Again, it is not an “idea” but the experience of sheer activity that makes the one not only respect and relish but refuse to abrogate at any cost the right of the other to freely exercise the right to think. Socrates, who never wrote anything, preferred to die rather than live apart from his thinking “partner” and in Arendt’s many references to him stands forth as the diametric opposite of Eichmann. Eichmann’s contradictions indicated not that he had lost consciousness but that he had no experience of inner plurality, no contact with himself, and that therefore he could be relied upon to do anything, anything at all, that his “conscience” assured him was his duty.” (8)
Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787)
We can easily imagine Eichmann living in some other political arrangement where he would be nothing but a petty bureaucrat. But his totalitarianism context changed everything. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt argues
“that totalitarianism was a “novel form of government,” that “differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship” in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries. Further, Arendt states that, owing to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in its apparatus of coercion, “totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.” She further contends that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy. That totalitarianism in Germany was, in the end, about terror and consistency, not eradicating Jews only. A key concept arising from this book, was the application of Kant’s phrase “Radical Evil”, which she applied to the men who created and carried out such tyranny and their depiction of their victims as “Superfluous People.”” (Wikipedia)
It is within this terrorizing and dominating context of totalitarianism that Eichmann’s thoughtless banality was cultivated and directed by radically evil people to have the evil effects it did. So we can see how the banality of evil presupposes the radical evil of totalitarianism. Many people think Arendt was reducing all evil to banality. But this is not the case. She was trying to articulate a new dimension of evil that, when combined with the radical evil of those who would be omnipotent and reduce everyone to inhuman instruments, would help us understand totalitarian regimes. The exact relation between these two forms of evil can be hard to discern. Agnes Heller, in her book General Ethics (Blackwell, 1988), offers a plausible account with a helpful plague analogy:
“Imagine for a minute a person who, under the spell of evil, becomes evil himself. Imagine the same person in a different setting: his demon has lost power, the evil of sophistication which evoked his underworld has gone. The person who has been possessed by evil, who was evil, who performed evil deeds, will, all of a sudden, lose all ‘symptoms’ of evil. He will no longer be possessed; his evil maxims will disappear. In short, evil is among other things an opportunist. If the plague has gone, the opportunity has gone, and so has the spell. This is the solution to the riddle of the ‘banality of evil’. Evil is far from banal, but banal people can be possessed by evil, perform evil deeds and be evil. The Eichmann who spoke in the courtroom of Jerusalem was not the same Eichmann who master-minded, with obstinacy, cunning and ingenuity, and when time was running out for him, the deportation of Hungarian Jews.” (172).
Of course this talk of being possessed and not being the same person appears to be inconsistent with personal accountability and receiving just deserts. But this need not be the case. The courtroom Eichmann can certainly be different from his possessed war years but nonetheless retain the personal identity required to be a responsible agent. In any case, Arendt’s account of the banality of evil certainly did not remove moral accountability. At the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem she writes: “And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
Eichmann in the yard of Ayalon Prison in Israel, 1961
Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann was, and still is, controversial. One work that critiques Arendt’s interpretation is David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes and Trial of a “Desk Murderer” (2006). Cesarani claims Arendt only attended part of the trial and based her writings mostly on recordings and the trial transcript. As a result she missed examples of the non-banal aspects of his character. He also argues that Arendt’s own prejudices skewed her interpretation of the trial. And, according to the Wikipedia entry on Eichmann in Jerusalem (go here), “Arendt has received further criticism from authors Bettina Stangneth and Deborah Lipstadt. Stangneth argues in her work, Eichmann Before Jerusalem, that Eichmann was, in fact, an insidious antisemite. She utilized the Sassen Papers and accounts of Eichmann while in Argentina to prove that he was proud of his position as a powerful Nazi and the murders that this allowed him to commit. While she acknowledges that the Sassen Papers were not disclosed in the lifetime of Arendt, she argues that the evidence was there at the trial to prove that Eichmann was an antisemitic murderer and that Arendt simply ignored this.”
But even if Eichmann himself doesn’t quite fit Arendt’s description, we can still accept her account as applying to others. Stanley Milgram’s “Behavioral Study of Obedience” (1963, go here for an overview) and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971, go here for an overview) offer us glimpses of how the banality of evil is, as Arendt stressed, also an omnipresent tendency about which we need to be vigilant (see Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View and Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil). And Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Arendt Now? (Polity, 2018; for the video interview with Bernstein, go here), as well as plenty of helpful articles online (go here and here), show us the relevance of both her forms of evil for our contemporary world.
For more on evil, see my post on natural and moral evil which includes some recent work in the science of evil (here), my three-part series on the privation theory of evil (here), my posts on demonic evil (here), my post on utilitarianism and evil (here), and my post on whether or not we should abandon the idea of evil altogether (here).