“The banality of evil” is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous and misunderstood judgment on Adolf Eichmann. Was she making excuses for the plotter of the final solution? Downplaying the enormity of Auschwitz? Calling everyone evil?
None of the above, as proved by this new anthology. Arendt rejects collective guilt: “Where all are guilty, no one is.” Banality is not triviality: “The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.” And banality is no excuse, for “even a functionary is still a human being” who has to be held responsible.
The banality of evil is evil as unthinking routine; the greatest weapons against it are thought and memory. Good people learn the art of “silent dialogue between me and myself”—because consciousness is a precondition for conscience, as well as for genuine remembrance. “The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter.” Arendt explores this idea in conversation with great religious and philosophical figures, especially Socrates, Plato, and Kant—who all associated evil with thoughtlessness. Also included are Arendt’s judgments on the trials of low-ranking Nazis; Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust; Vietnam; and desegregation. “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959) is still likely to provoke; while despising racism, Arendt disagreed with the strategy of fighting it by forced integration of schools.
In Arendt’s hands, the quaint idea that philosophy can guide our lives becomes a real possibility. This book is neither scholarship nor a system; it is the voice of a woman who knows, as she puts it, how to “defrost” our frozen thoughts.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2004