Some time ago, I did a shallow dive into life and work the philosopher Hannah Arendt. The weak study I made was of course inadequate to discuss the works of the great woman, and this post is even more inadequate to communicate them, but I’ll try to work on just a couple of ideas, some of which are very relevant to the crises of today.
Firstly, Arendt didn’t like the tag of ‘philosopher’ but rather considered herself as a political theorist. She didn’t consider man in the singular but whole societies at a time. In fact, according to her, the failure of philosophy to deal with the collective was one of its greatest failings.
To appreciate Arendt’s work it is important to consider her background. Hannah Arendt was a German Jew born in 1906 in Hanover. In 1937, she escaped Nazi Germany to the US as a stateless refugee. From these formative experiences, and her considerable study of history arose her views on the nature of power, politics, democracy and totalitarianism.
Today she is popularly remembered not so much for her considerable political thought but for her study of the Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann during his trial in Israel. Eichmann had been responsible for organizing the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews to extermination in the concentration camps. After the war, he had fled to Argentina where he had been kidnapped by Israeli agents to stand trial for his crimes in Israel. Eichmann was eventually hanged on 1 June 1962.
Arendt followed the trial and observed that Eichmann’s defence essentially consisted of the since infamous phrase that he was “merely following orders”. Arendt publicised her conclusions, Eichmann was no scheming bloodthirsty monster, in fact it was hard to escape the conclusion that he was a clown. He explained to his captors how hard he had to work to ensure the deportations occurred on time and schedules were met. It didn’t occur to him that the schedules he was working on were for the murder of human beings. He could not envision the consequences of his work beyond his own narrow bureaucratic life and he could not imagine that anyone else could either. He genuinely seemed to expect sympathy from his audience when he explained how his superiors under-appreciated him despite all the organizational hurdles he overcame.
Eichmann on trial in 1961
Finally, Arendt summed up his life in the phrase “the banality of evil”. The banality came from the person, not his deed. Banal did not mean commonplace, but rather the absence of good. The inability to think.
In some ways, this was more frightening than if Eichmann had been the murderous devil of caricature. It meant that evil came not from a satanic devil, but from even the most pathetic examples of humanity. According to Arendt, this was characteristic of the Nazis, many of whom spoke in clichés and seemed unable to grasp other people’s views or even talk with themselves. They would be worthy of pity if their deeds were less terrible. It was not that these people thought “evil thoughts”, but rather they seemed incapable of thinking any thoughts at all. They seemed to lack a fundamental sense of “goodness”.
Such people “needed” something to believe in. Something simple that they could grasp. Totalitarianism provided this. It was a mode of thought that provided a simple and convenient narrative for the social crisis they saw around them. It also discouraged all other modes of thought supplying a sense of self-righteousness.
Totalitarianism was a particularly modern invention and arose with the breakup of traditional community relations. People were isolated from each other when they had stopped exchanging ideas. This created a ‘bureaucratization’ of relationships where people were described by the role they fulfilled, as functionaries. This allowed people to avoid thought and stop thinking of each other as human beings.
Arendt felt that western philosophy had let people down. While Socrates engaged in the active marketplace of ideas, his student Plato turned away to a life of semi-passive contemplation. A sense of isolation and a decline in empathy was almost inevitable.
The result of all this was the destruction in the 20th century of the rights of man that had been the crowning glory of 18th century thought. What remained were the rights of the state. When a person lost a state and became a refugee, he or she lost all power and became as nothing.
German stamp featuring Hannah Arendt’s image