"Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme..."
Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” while covering the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official charged with the orderly extermination of Europe’s Jews. Arendt herself was a German-Jewish exile struggling in the most personal of ways to come to grips with the utter destruction of European society. In a series of articles for The New Yorker that later became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt tried to tackle a string of questions not necessarily answered by the trial itself: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil acts? How are those people different from the rest of us?
Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a sociopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.
[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
Amos Elon, The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt, the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Is it any wonder that controversy erupted almost immediately after Arendt’s work was published? Or that she was ostracized even by fellow Jews?
In the past forty years Arendt’s ideas have been championed in two landmark psychological experiments — Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment — but decried by luminaries like Norman Mailer.
Even if the phrase itself has lost some of its punch through sheer repetition, the ideas it embodies are no less relevant. It’s hard to talk about real-world horrors like the Rwandan genocide or torture at Abu Ghraib without referencing Arendt.
So for her centennial we’re reminding ourselves why her ideas still matter. Help us out by taking a stab at some of her initial questions: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil? Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people?
After doing some pre-interviews, talking about things internally, and mining this thread for good ideas, (empathy, the origins vs. the nature of evil, subjective vs. objective vs. moral judgments of evil) we’re leaning towards breaking this show up into at least two different shows.
The first show (tentatively scheduled for Thursday March 8th) would be more of an overview of Hannah Arendt’s life and work, introducing an introduction to the concept of the banality of evil as she described it. Our guests will likely be two of her last students who have spent their lives pouring over her work: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn.
The second show would likely be a more in-depth conversation about evil, starting with Arendt’s concept. We may build this show around Philip Zimbardo, whose recent work has included extensive interviews with prison guards from Abu Ghraib.
Extra Credit Reading
Hannah Arendt, Power and Violence, Bard College, December 1968.
bardlib, Hannah Arendt Workspace: “The Workspace is an open access forum in which readers might look, as it were, over Hannah Arendt’s shoulder as she annotated the texts most important to her.”
Sarah Kerr, The Horrible and the Ridiculous, BookForum, January 2007: “Arendt “lives on in newspeak through just four words,” she notes on the first page. The media’s promiscuous overuse of the phrase “the banality of evil,” from Eichmann in Jerusalem, has turned it into an unhelpful cliche, she writes. Young-Bruehl directs us back to the philosophical problem of evil, a discussion begun two centuries earlier by Immanuel Kant that Arendt saw herself as extending.”
Jerome Kohn, Evil: The Crime Against Humanity, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University: “In a revealing passage she said: “Only the fearful imagination of those who have been aroused by [firsthand] reports but have not actually been smitten in their own flesh, of those who are consequently free from the bestial, desperate terror which . . . inexorably paralyzes everything that is not mere reaction, can afford to keep thinking about horrors,” adding that such thinking is “useful only for the perception of political contexts and the mobilization of political passions.”
(Read the full series of Kohn’s essays on Hannah Arendt here.)
David Byrne, Free Will, Part 2: Support Our Troops, Journal, February 7, 2007: “Ultimately, following that logic that makes about 3 or 4 people ultimately responsible, if the buck continues to get passed on up the chain of command. Of course, those 3 or 4 will blame ‘faulty intelligence’ or try to absolve themselves one way or another, and they usually succeed.”
Robin Varghese, Banality of Evil, The French Version, 3 Quarks Daily, February 27, 2007: “In Bordeaux he resisted in his own way, he said: taking names off arrest-lists, tipping off families in advance, sheltering a rabbi in his house. Why, he even chartered the city trams to spare the very young or old the walk to the station, and booked passenger trains, not goods wagons, to make their journey comfortable. These self-justifications came out at Mr Papon’s trial, one of only two of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity.”
MC, People are willing to commit virtual torture too, Neurophilosophy, December 23, 2007: “In the initial part of the project, Slater et al have used an immersive Virtual Reality environment to re-enact the classic experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.”
Philip Zimbardo, Power turns good soldiers into ‘bad apples’, The Boston Globe, May 9, 2004: “Now there is a rush to analyze human behavior, blaming flawed or pathological individuals for evil and ignoring other important factors. Unless we learn the dynamics of “why,” we will never be able to counteract the powerful forces that can transform ordinary people into evil perpetrators.”
author, Why Arendt Matters and Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World, psychoanalyst, and former student of Hannah Arendt
Director of the New York-based Hannah Arendt Organization, Arendt's literary executor and last research assistant, and editor of several collections of her essays, including Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought