Does the concept of “thoughtlessness” forgive the unforgivable?
The concept of the banality of evil has been a matter of heated debate since Hannah Arendt coined it in 1963. Originally introduced to describe Adolph Eichmann, the SS officer responsible for organizing the transportation of (by his own estimation) 5 million European Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, Arendt’s theory of evil has suddenly become the topic of renewed interest. Confounding the debate between Arendt’s supporters and detractors is her ambivalent relationship with Jews and Jewishness, as well as her defense of Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher who never apologized for joining the Nazi party.
Critics of Arendt have long held that the concept of the banality of evil downplays the extraordinary nature of Nazi crimes. Indeed, shortly after the publication of the book version of Eichmann in Jerusalem (the piece originally appeared as a series of articles in the New Yorker), members of the prosecution at Eichmann’s trial attacked Arendt’s work as factually inaccurate. Recently the German philosopher Bettina Stangneth published Eichmann Before Jerusalem, a new book that works with documents on Eichmann that were not widely read when Arendt authored her theory. While Arendt painted a picture of Eichmann as thoughtless bureaucrat, the documents reveal a man of intelligence and charm, who was capable of manipulating his interlocutors through carefully constructed lies. Similarly, while Arendt saw nothing especially anti-Semitic in the man who took the stand in Jerusalem 1961, in fact Eichmann had a deep hatred of the Jews, and was committed to the Nazi cause even while living under a pseudonym in Argentina, long after the end of the war. Even when Arendt reported that Eichmann said “I will laugh when I leap into the grave because I have the feeling that I have killed 5,000,000 Jews. That gives me great satisfaction and gratification,” she did not know the depth of his hatred.
To Arendt’s new critics, it appears that she was not merely ignorant of some facts of the case but was taken in by Eichmann’s systematic lies. Explaining how this might have happened, Richard Wolin writes in the Jewish Review of Books,
To describe such a person as merely a man of “revolting stupidity” (von empörender Dummheit), as though his lack of intelligence somehow made his status as a genocidal murderer comprehensible, as Hannah Arendt did in the course of a 1964 interview, is perilously myopic. It was as though, by alluding to Eichmann’s purported intellectual failings, Arendt could make all other substantive questions and issues disappear… Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of “thoughtlessness” (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.
According to Wolin, Arendt’s myopia regarding the nature of Eichmann’s evil may be understood biographically. The character that emerges from Wolin’s narrative is not that of a radically independent thinker but of an emotionally dependent and intellectually derivative woman, whose misplaced trust in the German intellectual establishment leads her to abandon her own people, and to identify with the persecutors rather than with the victims. In Wolin’s telling of the story, Arendt is seduced twice by Heidegger, first before the war, when she becomes his teenage lover, and again after the war, when she becomes his staunch defender and promoter in the English-speaking world. The first seduction is sexual, the second intellectual – but in both cases, Wolin implies, Heidegger the anti-Semite exploits the Jewess.
Wolin’s biographical approach to Arendt’s thought is given in detail in his 2003 book, Heidegger’s Children. The book abounds with assertions about Arendt like “Heidegger’s brusque rejection undoubtedly enhanced her sense of Jewish inferiority. In her own mind, she must have wondered what role her Jewishness had played in their parting.” (pp.45-45). It is conceivable that Heidegger single-handedly made Arendt into a self-hating Jew. But it is certainly not “undoubtedly” true. For it is highly dubitable both that Arendt hated herself and that her attitudes towards Jews and Jewishness were deeply influenced by her sexual relationship with Heidegger. Indeed, Wolin cites no evidence for either point, but simply speculates about what was happening in Arendt’s “own mind,” a literary flourish usually reserved for novelists.
Wolin’s historical gaze apparently penetrates not only Arendt’s mind but Heidegger’s mind, as well. After their reconciliation in 1950, Arendt becomes “Heidegger’s de facto American literary agent” and promoter in the post-war English-speaking world. Wolin describes one episode of this relationship in particular: “Heidegger, elderly and cash-poor, contemplated auctioning off the original manuscript of Being and Time. Unworldly in matters of Geld, where was he to turn for advice? To a Jew, of course. Arendt dutifully complied, consulting a Library of Congress expert and offering detailed counsel” (p.49). Presumably the rhetorical question is not Wolin’s own but is supposed to reflect, in indirect discourse, Heidegger’s internal monologue. One might wonder whether internal monologue belongs in history at all. But beyond such concerns, why should we believe that Heidegger thought of Arendt as exemplifying this particular anti-Semitic stereotype? What evidence is there that Heidegger thought of Arendt as a clever Jewish merchant?
In general Wolin relies heavily on a number of assumptions about the Arendt-Heidegger relationship: That Heidegger treated Arendt poorly because of her (racial) Jewishness. That Arendt internalized anti-Semitic ideas and Nazi excuses from the unrepentant Heidegger. That Arendt derives her philosophical ideas without reinterpreting them, in particular the “thoughtlessness” she attributes to Eichmann, directly from Heidegger. Finally that Arendt was deceived by Eichmann in Jerusalem in the same way that she was deceived by Heidegger in Germany. In other words, it was Arendt’s naïve trust in Heidegger and in his implicitly Nazi perspective that blinded her to Eichmann’s monstrosity. Rather than seeing the real hatred beneath his veneer of bureaucratic professionalism, Arendt believed the war criminal’s lies, and broadcast them to the world in the concept of the “banality of evil.”
There are some, of course, who are more sympathetic to Arendt. In a provocatively titled piece in the New York Times, “Who’s on trial, Eichmann or Arendt?” Seyla Benhabib argues that the idea of “thoughtlessness” is an apt description of Eichmann even in light of the present evidence of his total commitment to Nazi ideology. Benhabib writes,
Eichmann’s self-immunizing mixture of anti-Semitic clichés, his antiquated idiom of German patriotism and the craving for the warrior’s honor and dignity, led Arendt to conclude that Eichmann could not “think” — not because he was incapable of rational intelligence but because he could not think for himself beyond clichés. He was banal precisely because he was a fanatical anti-Semite, not despite it.
In other words, the charge of thoughtlessness is applicable to Eichmann because he was capable of thinking but chose not to do so. In characterizing Arendt’s position in this way, Benhabib and, earlier, Judith Butler claim that Arendt is more fundamentally Kantian than Heideggerian.
For Kant, moral action is dependent the fundamental principles of individual autonomy, which requires the ability to understand and give reasons for one’s actions, and of regard for others, which requires recognizing and respecting others as autonomous actors. From a Kantian perspective, calling Eichmann “thoughtless” would amount to saying that he was evil precisely because he ceded his power of rational decision-making to the regime, and in the process blinded himself to the suffering of his victims. Banality from this perspective indicates the willingness of an individual to renounce his or her own status as an autonomous moral agent.
In an eerie statement during the trial, Eichman claimed that in carrying out his murderous orders, he was following the Kantian categorical imperative to will the principle one acts upon as a universal law. Arendt pointed out the absurdity of Eichmann’s conception of moral law as blind faith, a conception that required him to abandon the very autonomy and rationality by which he could have evaluated the orders he was given. But in response to Benhabib’s article, Wolin has maintained that the Kantian dimension of Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is far overstated. Arendt’s turn to Kant occurred years later, while her commitment to Heidegger was dominant in the months leading up to the trial. This is purportedly revealed in a letter to Jaspers, in which Arendt says that the trial offers an opportunity to study Eichmann in his “bizarre vacuousness.” In other words, Arendt simply presupposed that Eichmann was a machine-like functionary of the Nazi hierarchy, and thus blinded herself to the manifest evidence to the contrary.
Wolin has claimed that Arendt’s prejudgment of the case was so strong that she never bothered to see Eichmann testify. Corey Robin has pointed out that this latter claim is probably false: Arendt’s correspondence suggests that although she spent part of the trial in Europe, she returned to hear Eichmann’s testimony. Regardless of the veracity of this purely historical question, however, Wolin and a host of lesser voices consistently put Arendt in the position of a desperate woman who is willing to give up both her chastity and fidelity to the Jewish people in exchange for the affections of an accomplished older man. This criticism implicitly compares Heidegger to Eichmann, as if the admittedly disappointing and tragic actions of the philosopher were somehow commensurable with the murderous activity of the convicted war criminal. But perhaps the most ignominious aspect of Wolin’s account is his suggestion that Arendt had ulterior motives in coining her theory. By Wolin’s lights, “In seeking to downplay the German specificity of the Final Solution by universalizing it, Arendt also strove to safeguard the honor of the highly educated German cultural milieu from which she herself hailed.”
By forcing us to choose to view the concept of banality either through her personal relationship with Heidegger or through her intellectual affinity for Kant, both the critics and defenders of Arendt assume at the outset that her theory is fundamentally unoriginal. The implication seems to be that Arendt was incapable of true intellectual activity, but was always motivated by her emotional life or her sense of the philosophical tradition, and hence could only draw her ideas from the great men of philosophy.
It is true that Arendt draws both on Heidegger’s critique of the totalizing effects of modern technology and on Kant’s concept of rational deliberation as the basis of moral action. But while Heidegger’s conservative critique of the thoughtlessness of modernity has little moral force, Arendt applies the concept directly to the problem of evil via the Kantian conception of autonomy. Similarly, while Eichmann’s actions are blameworthy on any reasonable reading of Kant, his failure to act autonomously could not be explained by traditional moral theory. Arendt’s synthesis of Kantian moral theory with the Heideggerian critique of thoughtlessness is much more relevant and far-reaching than either could be alone. Arendt’s originality was to see that the extraordinary brutality and efficiency of Nazi crimes could only be grasped and condemned through a combination of traditional moral theory and cultural critique.
Eichmann’s self-defense depended on the claims that he himself never killed anyone and that as a bureaucrat he was a mere “cog” in the Nazi machine. In a certain sense, these claims are true: there is no evidence that Eichmann personally did bodily harm to his victims, nor that his actions were illegal under Nazi law. Sometimes Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is taken to entail that if these claims are true, then Eichmann was not blameworthy. In other words, critics think that Arendt’s theory is an argument in support of Eichmann, an explanation that somehow makes his actions seem less reprehensible or absolves him of guilt.
In fact the opposite is true. What Arendt already knew when she traveled to Jerusalem is that Eichmann was guilty of crimes against humanity and would almost certainly be convicted of those crimes. Indeed Arendt’s concept presupposes that Eichmann was guilty: to say that Eichmann was banally evil is already to say that he was guilty of real crimes, that he was blameworthy. The banality of evil does not absolve evildoers of responsibility but assumes it.
The ideas informing Arendt’s conception of evil, rooted as they are in the philosophical tradition, are not presented in abstruse philosophical language or printed in an academic journal. Instead Arendt chose to publish what she must have known would be a controversial theory in the New Yorker. As a result, many of the details of her account – such as any clear demarcation between her philosophical inheritance and original ideas, or a systematic account of moral responsibility – are simply left out. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a work of journalism, and Arendt often simply reports what was said, giving equal footing to the prosecution and to Eichmann’s own, often ludicrous comments. But in the “Epilogue” to the book Arendt finally delivers her own judgment:
Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
These are not the words of a moral relativist, trying to explain away Nazi crimes. Rather they are the words of a thinker who treats toleration as a principle of justice. Arendt’s point is that failure to tolerate the existence of others, to “share the earth,” is the ultimate criterion by which Eichmann, and presumably others like him, should be condemned.
Hannah Arendt had a long legacy of angering both the right and left. She was an ardent critic of Zionism, but also wrote freely about the alliances between the Third Reich various Arab states that were aligned against Israel. She expressed hopes for the student movement in the 1960s but dismissed the black power movement as barbaric. She considered violence to be a political failure but did not speak out against colonialism. She was alternately portrayed as a radical, a reactionary, an elitist, a pluralist, a “mere” journalist, and a “great” philosopher. The question is, why are we still talking about Arendt today?
In our view Arendt’s continued relevance comes from the very concept of thoughtlessness that she first gave a moral sense. In an era in which battles on the other side of the world are fought with a video-game controller, in which booms and busts are determined by algorithms and spread through fiber-optic cables, and in which the most intimate parts of our lives are increasingly subject to surveillance and publication, autonomy and responsibility seem to be in short supply. Noticing the banality of political and social life does not of course automatically entail that we are culpable for some as yet unrealized evil. But in order to avoid evil, it is not enough to isolate the “monsters” among us. Rather each of us must accept his or her role as an autonomous thinker and extend consideration and toleration to others. Reading Arendt reminds us of the moral imperative to reflect rationally on our own actions and on those of our fellow humans.
 The manuscripts of Eichmann in Jerusalem are available here. Léon Poliakov’s review of books by Gideon Hausner and Jacob Robinson is favorable to Arendt and available online here. Arendt’s response to Robinson’s book in the New York Review of Books is rather harsh: “it is indeed true that the greatest difficulty in dealing meaningfully with this book is its complete lack of consistent argument or point of view.” The less public but perhaps philosophically more interesting correspondence with Gerhom Scholem has been published in German.