Evil, Banality of Radical

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Evil, Banality of Radical

The evil that German philosopher Hannah Arendt confronted was the phenomenon of totalitarian terror, vividly, but by no means exclusively, exemplified by the mass slaughter of Jews. She saw this phenomenon as marking not only a rupture with civilization that shattered all previously engraved images of Europe as a civilized community, but also an assault on human categories of thought and standards of judgment. She argued that it created particular difficulties of understanding for the social sciences because it contradicted all ways of thinking that presuppose an element of rational choice or a means/ends calculation on the part of social players. The frenzy of destruction that was the hallmark of totalitarian terror seemed to exceed all political, economic, or military utility. Arendt did not suggest that the death camps and other institutions of totalitarian terror were, therefore, beyond human understanding, but rather that if we assume "most of our actions are of a utilitarian nature and that our evil deeds spring from some 'exaggeration' of self-interest" (1994, p. 233), then we would be forced to conclude that such institutions are within human understanding. The difficult path she took was to not accept this conclusion, but on the contrary to try to make sense of the senselessness of genocide. In so doing, she defended the activity of understanding as such, as a sign of humankind's humanity and resistance to totalitarian ideology.

In the section on total domination in Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote that the death camps had "the appearance of some radical evil previously unknown to us" (1951, p. 443). The idea of evil, let alone radical evil, is not commonly used in modern political thought, so implicit in Arendt's use of the term was an opposition to certain modernist presuppositions. Among these the following might be mentioned. First, the tendency to relativize moral standards exists, as if conformity to a contingent normative order is all that defines what is moral or not. Second, there is the tendency to subjectivize moral standards, as if what is right and wrong are reducible to subjective opinions (individual or collective) of what is right or wrong. Third is humankind's inclination to dissolve the very idea of evil, as if neither its concept nor its existence is any longer pertinent to the modern world. Arendt characterized all three of these tendencies as the origins of totalitarianism prevalent within normal bourgeois society. The first allowed Germans to move effortlessly from democracy to Nazism and then back to democracy after World War II, as though moral standards were no more than a set of table manners that could be exchanged without trouble for another. The second allowed the question of what is right and wrong to be reduced to mere subjective feeling, so that any crime could be justified as long as it was committed with conviction or in good conscience. The third allowed the idea of good and evil to be abandoned in favor of some notion of historical or natural necessity. It was within this context that Arendt turned to Immanuel Kant's concept of radical evil.

More explicitly stated in Arendt's use of the term radical evil is its reference to the sheer nonutility of the death camps and mass killings. The conventional approach to understanding evil is recognizing it as a product of human self-interest in the form of greed, vanity, lust, prejudice, spitefulness, sadism, and other such vices. Ordinary evil is easily understandable in these terms. The idea of radical evil, however, indicated to Arendt that something else was at stake in the institutions of totalitarian terror: a form of evil that ordinary people could commit quite easily in a spirit more of selflessness than selfishness, people for whom ordinary human vices were secondary to their sense of duty on behalf of the movement. In this form of evil the sheer superfluousness of the victims is mirrored in that of the perpetrators themselves. The radicalism of evil, then, may be found in its surpassing the bounds of what Kant recognized as the normal sources of evil given the freedoms and frailties of the human will.

A further implication of Arendt's use of this term is that the radicalism of evil lies in its hostility to the very idea of humanity. Normally, the idea of evil makes sense against a backdrop of what it is to be human: I am evil when I satisfy my own cravings without regard for what makes me or someone else a human being. However, the peculiarity of radical evil—the peculiarity that makes it radical—is that the crimes committed are in the most literal sense crimes against humanity. As Arendt put it in Origins, in the case of totalitarian terror "individual human beings did not kill other individual human beings for human reasons," but rather an organized attempt was made to "eradicate the concept of the human being" (1992, p. 69). If the idea of universal humanity is the achievement of the modern age, at issue here was a politics whose aim was the destruction of all human spontaneity, plurality, and differentiation. This was the extremely radical nature Arendt detected in totalitarian movements whatever pretexts they advanced for their actions (e.g., the achievement of "a thousand year peace"). It also led her to ask why the idea of humanity caused such offense as to incite modern political movements attempting to destroy it? One answer she offered in a chapter titled, ironically, "The Classless Society," takes us back to the growth of European nihilism that emerged when, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggested, the values and beliefs taken as the highest manifestation of the spirit of the West lost their validity and in their place was born a spiritless radicalism, full of hostility to culture and consumed by images of destruction. Arendt located a source of modern nihilism in the rise of imperialism, when violence became the aim of the body politic, power could achieve nothing but more power, moral inhibitions were superseded, and nihilism became the practical spirit of the age.

Arendt may not have known precisely why she used the term radical evil. Her precise words were that totalitarian terror had "the appearance of radical evil" (1951, p. 443)—an indicator perhaps of a certain equivocation on the subject. In his correspondence with Arendt about the Nuremberg trials German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers highlighted a risk involved in the use of the term: It might endow perpetrators with a "streak of satanic greatness" and mystify their deeds in "myth and legend." Against this danger Jaspers emphasised the "prosaic triviality" of the perpetrators and coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to make his point. In reply Arendt acknowledged that there was truth to his observation and her own use of the term radical evil did come close to "mythologising the horrible" (Arendt and Jaspers, 1992, p. 69).

Writing some fifteen years later on the Eichmann trial, Arendt reintroduced the term banality of evil (seemingly without memory of Jaspers's earlier comments) to address the fact that the perpetrators were "men like ourselves" (1962). It was a rejoinder to conventional images of the so-called Nazi monster, according to which the world was portrayed in terms of the dichotomy between what Alain Finkielkraut has called "our own absolute innocence and the unspeakable Nazi beast" (1992, p. 61). One lesson Arendt took from the Eichmann case was that the perpetrators of the most radical evil could be pedestrian, bourgeois individuals, mired in an everyday existence that made them incapable of critical reflection or serious moral judgment. They were marked more by "thoughtlessness" and "remoteness from reality" than by any streak of Satanic greatness: "The deeds were monstrous but the doer . . . was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous" (1962, p. 54). The Eichmann trial was the trigger for Arendt's reaffirmation of a humanist tradition. According to it, only the good is radical; evil is never radical, only extreme. There is no meaning in destruction.

It is well known that Arendt's use of the term banality of evil was challenged, or denounced, by many critics, including her friend Gershom Scholem, on the grounds that she thereby trivialized the Holocaust. Arendt had been a relatively lonely voice in the 1940s and 1950s when calling for social and political thought to recognize the significance of the Jews' massacre during World War II. She celebrated the fact that the Eichmann trial helped to break a long silence, and that the survivors of the camps might now find an audience for their writings and memories. What, then, lay behind the uproar that greeted the use of banality of evil within this context. How can one make sense of it except as an aberration?

Perhaps the charges leveled against Arendt expressed the advent of a new kind of discourse: one that made use of theological terms such as Holocaust and Shoah to name the unnameable event; eschewed generic political terms such as totalitarian terror, crimes against humanity, or genocide; and underscored the singular uniqueness of the Shoah and its inability to be understood in human terms. As Elie Wiesel has put it: "The Holocaust? The ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted" (Roth and Berenbaum, 1989, p. 2). Arendt was the target of criticism because she represented an old humanistic tradition that emphasised a secular analysis of totalitarian terror, even if it required a major rethinking of the premises of existing social and political theory. The revision from radical evil to the banality of evil confirmed her secular stance. Banality of evil was her way of saying that the Final Solution—like all phenomena of totalitarian terror—was "human, all too human" and needed to be understood as such.

In any event, Kant's more original use of the concept of radical evil, to be found in Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason, conveyed a meaning that throws no clear light on the phenomenon of totalitarian terror, inasmuch as it had to do with the omnipresent ability of human beings to choose self-love and self-interest over and above the moral law. This is not at all what Arendt had in mind or wished to convey in her analysis of evil in the modern age.

SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah; Eichmann, Adolf


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Robert Fine