Banality of Evil: The Search for a Counterpart09-07-2011
Cori Ellison’s September 2nd piece in The New York Times on the premier of a new opera commemorating the inspirational life of Rick Rescorla begins with an invocation of one of Hannah Arendt’s most famous observations. Ellison writes:
“Having coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt went on to suggest that the most heinous crimes have often been committed by morally desensitized ordinary people. The inverse may be equally true: that “ordinary” heroes like Rick Rescorla who saved almost 2,700 lives on Sept. 11, 2001, only to lose his own, are the yang to Arendt’s yin, demonstrating what you might call the profundity of virtue.”
Ellison’s comments beg two main questions about the continued usage of Arendt’s term. Alfred Kazin notes the frequent conceptual carelessness with which the phrase is bandied about. Kazin comments in his essay Hannah Arendt: The Burden of our Time, “many a journalist and television commentator refers to the “banality of evil” with a confidence that makes one sick.” Devoted to Arendt, Kazin feared her categorization of Eichmann as banal could in fact be “injurious to thinking.” Given the ubiquity of Arendt’s phrase it is perhaps worth asking if the confidence with which it is used is at times misplaced?
Ellison use of the term in the context of the willingness or failure to act in the case of an emergency such as September 11th appears, in this light, largely correct. She is right to note that, underlying the principle of banal evil is a sense of moral anaesthetization. The Eichmanns of the world certainly demonstrate the muting of the impulse towards human decency that the Rescorlas of the world show to be elemental in the field of action. In this sense it is true that an alertness both to the fragility of individual life and the ethical webs that sustain it, is crucial in confronting and overcoming forces of destruction. For Arendt this basic moral attunement to one’s fellow man was cultivated and kept in check by the principles of religion and tradition, which ceased to be binding with the rise of modernity. In these times being awake to the circumstances and the sufferings of others is indeed no small virtue.
Ellison rightly praises this moral sensitivity, and the impulse towards the good that Rescorla bravely demonstrated. However, following through on such an impulse does not necessarily involve engaging in the activity of thinking, which is the true subject of Arendt’s theorem on Eichmann. What the “banality of evil” articulates is the atrophying of the ability to engage in thought--the dialogical process through which individuals come to consider the very conditions and demands of goodness and justice—rather than the absence of any instinct towards goodness or justice in the world.
For Arendt this activity is fundamentally distinct from the mind’s other jobs, such as deducing, selecting, or deciding. To think is not to “choose.” While undoubtedly heroic, acts of rescue do not commonly represent an Arendtian experience of thought, since, as Rescorla’s and others’ extraordinary efforts show, they are often performed without the mind being transformed into a field for debate. A more appropriate context to consider the inverse of banal evil is perhaps not an act of unmeditated courage, but rather premeditated resistance.
Wolfgang Heuer discusses such an instance in his recent book Courageous Action (Couragiertes Handeln). Heuer examines the resistance effort among East German’s asking with and through Arendt what qualities of character and mind are needed to face bureaucratic evil. Wolfgang Heuer will be speaking about this work and the significance of thinking in action at the upcoming conference at the Hannah Arendt Center.
Returning to the question of the use of Arendt’s term, where Ellison and others make the error is in mistaking the two senses of ‘banal.’ It would likely be no great surprise to Arendt the wordsmith that our misapplication is rooted in a semantic imprecision. And yet it is no minor point since Arendt’s famous observation on Eichmann is of course based on her analysis of Eichmann’s own neat playing of “language-games,” and, as Kazin notes, is itself susceptible to the very distortions it describes.
In the context of her musings on the Eichmann trial Arendt’s banality does not chiefly refer to the ‘quotidian,’ the prosaic lives of men, for which she had utmost respect and no reason to believe couldn’t be concomitant with a depth of thought. Rather the banality she noted in Eichmann is an explanation of the ‘trite,’ of the stock slogans and phony logic of terror and totalitarianism that deform both the rules of reason and man’s moral sense when they claim that if you grant A, so too must you grant B and C, all the way down what Arendt calls, “the murderous alphabet.” Regimes that systematically devalue human lives depend on thought formulas that make thinking insincere. How the mind is able to step outside of these is what Arendt’s observation on Eichmann asks us to contend with.
Therefore, the second question Ellison’s piece raises is what is in fact an adequate, positive counterpart to the “banality of evil”? Her suggestion of the “profundity of virtue” is a fair one in that it captures the notion that the institution of the good is inherently linked to a process of reflection. How else might we phrase this crucial idea? We invite others to consider this question and submit possible terms. Given both the ubiquity and the misunderstanding of Arendt’s original phrase, it is fitting that we now search for the best language through which to articulate the association she saw between man’s capacity for genuine thought and his capacity for moral action.