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Hannah Arendt

Can we make sense out of the senselessness of human cruelty?

The film-makers of Hannah Arendt (2013) are to be congratulated for making such an arresting movie out of impenetrable material. Arendt, a distinguished Jewish German philosopher responsible for the treatise The Origins of Totalitarianism is best known for her study of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1962. For a scholar with such a nuanced understanding of human society, it is sad she has become associated with only one phrase: the banality of evil.


Sent by New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of a man extraordinarily rendered from his refuge in Argentina by the Mossad, Arendt came to conclusions which have been much debated and misunderstood. Eichmann displayed neither guilt nor hatred in his demeanour and eschewed moral responsibility by claiming he was obeying the law in sending Europe’s Jews to their death in the camps.


Perhaps it was Eichmann’s appropriation of the teachings of Emmanuel Kant, doyen of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition, which irked her most. Kant’s categorical imperative – the idea that we can derive from reason an unconditional requirement that should be obeyed and from which all duties stem – was manipulated by Eichmann to justify following the Fuhrer’s orders. For Arendt, Eichmann did not think for himself. The banality of his evil lay in his stupidity: ‘this man was not a “monster” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect he was a clown’.


Using language like this, it is not surprising that Arendt made enemies of friends. The weight of grief which consumed Jewish people in the early sixties, only twenty years after the Holocaust, could not concede Arendt’s perceived intellectual tricks about clowns. As time has passed, the concept has become embedded in thinking about evil. Eichmann was a boring bureaucrat, an anonymous everyman of the modern civil service who used language clinically to denude it of moral content. However Arendt intended the phrase’ the banality of evil’ to be used, it has come to be associated with pale and bloodless public servants following orders and is therefore all the more threatening


Arendt also identified a vital dimension of creeping wickedness: when a way of life is sanctioned by the State and adopted by more and more people, it is as if moral responsibility is relaxed for others to follow suit. Only this way is the specious mantra of obeying orders understood. Yet as Arendt noted, ‘under conditions of terror most people will comply but some will not’. Individual responsibility is an irreducible concept.


Today people are more likely to take issue with Arendt’s assertion that Eichmann’s sin was a failure to think, as we place increasing emphasis on the role of emotion rather than reason in the resolution of moral dilemmas. It is a product of her enlightenment tradition to approach the question of evil this way and she doubtless meant thinking to include sentiment, but to the wrong ears it sounds as if intellectual capacity alone is sufficient to preserve us from wickedness.


Evil adopts many guises; Eichmann administered murder as a faceless twentieth century bureaucrat. True to today’s spirit, brutality is now posted online for anyone to pore over: the work of sadistic exhibitionists. Whether one locates goodness in the ability to think or to empathise, right living comes back to the golden rule which Jesus enunciated: do to others as you would have them do to you.


The film does justice to serious issues, which is an achievement in itself. It also shows the hostility Hannah Arendt endured for sticking to a script; unlike her subject, she knew how to think for herself.



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