Between the Radicality and Banality of Evil

Between the Radicality and Banality of Evil

Entre la radicalidad y la banalidad del mal

Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez

It would seem that we have surpassed the idea of evil as a notion sustained by theologians and rationalists who failed to pinpoint the location of that particular impulse. But Hannah Arendt didn’t see it that way: she knew that the present would never stop refl ecting on evil. It was an expression one couldn’t do without in thinking about politics: if we abandon our ethical criteria in order to evaluate the actions of man, we will have lost, or abdicated, politics as a place of coexistence. She wanted to understand this, and in order to succeed she had to take on Auschwitz, just as Voltaire took on Lisbon.

The politics she embraced were not the politics of force, but the politics of words. Therefore, Arendt was rowing against Machiavelli and Hobbes, those two bastions of modern political conception. To her, politics didn’t reside in the prince who cleverly wields the instruments of repression blow by blow. Neither was it to be found in a monster of order hired out by fearful individuals. Politics inhabited the forum of conversation, the exchange of ideas, the search for a common ground. Whereas according to the heirs of Hobbes, that is to say, the moderns, power consists of the capacity to impose one’s will on others, to Arendt, “it corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.”

Going back to the wisdom of the ancients, the word that resides in the nucleus of political action is not simply a descriptive void, but rather an instrument of moral evaluation. It isn’t just “table” or “tree,” but also “kind” or “perverse.” This was the way totalitarianism knew how to inaugurate a more perverse tyranny than any of its forerunners, by perverting the rudiments of communication. With its newspeak, totalitarian power was no longer an external construction. It became, rather, a device of terror that operated on its subjects from within. Thus, all traditional categories fell apart under a regime that dismantled the common sense (the moral judgment) of its citizens.

It’s important to note that the theoretical construction of Arendt—when confronting the monstrous voracity of totalitarianism that engulfs all—doesn’t take refuge in that which is private or anti-political. On the contrary, hers is an unprecedented vindication of the value of politics. Far from distancing herself from the field, she was convinced of the necessity of recuperating it, reoccupying it. Because she didn’t see politics as a prolongation of war, or a nest of bureaucrats and representatives. To her, politics was a cultural treasure that allowed men to find themselves, to become fully human. A man isn’t to be found in the isolation of the private realm, in the routine echo of the mercantile. Only in the shared space of politics could man find his authentic existence. Citizenship, therefore, couldn’t be an occasional voting occurrence, but rather the daily experience of he who exercises his liberty together with others.

Her reporting of the Eichmann trial caused quite a scandal. The philosopher-cum-reporter for The New Yorker was accused of being an anti-Semite, a traitor who found victims guilty of their own ruin. But really what she was doing was to elude the tale of victims who implore commiseration. Thus, the idea of radical evil she had explored in The Origins of Totalitarianism was transformed into banality. Many were infuriated by the adjective. A banal genocide? A trivial extermination? Let there be no confusion: Arendt was not minimizing a crime of historic magnitude. Nor was she contradicting her previous work as I understand it. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she sustains that one of the most striking elements of totalitarianism is the manner in which it turns people into the cogs of an administrative machine. Man is no longer a moral agent, becoming instead a screw. Thus, any moral responsibility vanishes. The most monstrous thing about the Holocaust is that those who were in charge of the extermination were ordinary types. Eichmann was no devil. He’d simply stopped thinking for himself. He followed orders without stopping to think about the moral implications. That is what triggers totalitarianism: when men stop thinking for themselves, no longer evaluating the ethical meaning of their actions on their own account.

Somewhere in The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt talks about the depravation of Pavlov’s dog: a degenerate animal because he has been trained not to feel hunger when he’s hungry, but rather when his master rings a small bell. Here is where, it seems to me, the Arendtian opus comes full circle: in her work on the human condition, she invites us to “think about what we’re doing.” When we stop reflecting on our conduct, whether through the mechanics of totalitarianism or the routine of contemporary conformism, we stop acting as moral agents. We become, in this manner, the disciples of Eichmann.

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