The Nature of Evil

Edmund Burke famously said “For evil to flourish it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Burke was given to the pithy, memorable statements and was also a wise and extremely well-informed thinker. But today even though we might quote Burke there is little doubt in the minds of growing numbers of people that evil, as such, is a fiction. Indeed, in our relativistic age, “good” and “evil” are nothing more than words we use to describe things we either approve of or condemn. Today it’s all about US and how we feel. Students are asked not what they think about their reading (if they have done any) but how they feel. And they are asked to write “reaction papers,” rather than thought papers. And outside, in the “real” world, ask any Tom, Dick, or Sally and they will tell you it’s all a “matter of opinion.”

But one who took seriously the notion of evil was Hannah Arendt who, in 1963, was asked to write a series of articles for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Granted, the “final solution” was close enough in the memories of many people to make such a series of articles timely and pertinent. In fact, they were later collected in a book, published by Penguin under the title Eichmann  in In Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil.  Note, please, the sub-title. Arendt’s point was that folks like Eichmann are just like us. He was nothing more, and nothing less, than a bureaucrat, a tiny little man who simply did what he was told to do. In her words:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

The thing about the Holocaust that is so deeply disturbing, along with the fact that many deny it ever happened, is the strange matter-of-fact manner in which the “Final Solution” was carried out.  Hannah Arendt was appalled by the indifference with which people like Eichmann went about the business of calmly eliminating from the face of the earth over six million human beings. Such people are hollow: they have no soul. Eichmann never turned on the gas, but he was intent on making sure the trains ran on time so the victims could be delivered to their execution on schedule. He was not especially sadistic; he probably never thought about the people who were being gassed at all. But his callous indifference goes to the heart of Arendt’s dismay over his behavior. He was “just doing his job.” Evil can indeed be “banal.”

In a longer observation earlier in her book, Arendt seems to be providing a corollary on Burke’s statement quoted at the outset of this post:

“For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Of course, for any of this to make any sense whatever, we must first accept that the Holocaust did happen — it was not a fiction. And, secondly, we must accept that evil is indeed a fact of life. It is real and some of us, indeed, many of us, are capable of committing evil actions or going along with others who commit them. One would think that both of these things would be easy to accept, but in this age of Newspeak and “false news” it may be too much to ask. We are asked, instead, to forget the past and get caught up in the chaos of the present, to accept lies as the truth and go along with the atrocities that are committed in the name of making America “Great” again. We are overwhelmed each day with information and misinformation mixed together in such a way that it takes the greatest possible effort of will, intellect, and attention to separate the two. Most people simply do not bother. And with our education system failing fewer and fewer people are able to make the separation even if they wanted to.

We would do well to pause and reflect on the nature of evil — which is very real — and the things that have happened in the past that inform the present and should make us wary of so much of what is going on around us. Arendt was right: evil is banal. And while it may be something any one of us is willing to engage in, we should seek above all else to be one of those who recognizes it for what it is and who simply says “No.” With emphasis.

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34 thoughts on “The Nature of Evil

  1. Hi Hugh. Would it be fair to say that “evil” is so prevalent among Earthians that it is hardly ever seen as such except when it exceeds our current willingness to aquiece, like a 911 event, or the holocaust or a massive mass shooting. Most evil behaviour either slides under the radar or is actually praised and cheered. Root cause: we live in a “natural” system that apparently depends on systematic and gruesome violence to maintain its clockwork-like machinery. We call it the survival of the fittest. It is predation. Can we actually believe we could ever eradicate evil from our own nature when surrounded by, even dependent upon, predation? Man is the worst or most effective predator on earth. So successful is he in his predation that he is on the verge of killing off his host. Is predatory behaviour not evil, then? If we accept the predatory-prey concept as valid, even necessary, how can we ever draw the line between how much killing is legitimate and naturally mandated and when/if it crosses the line into non-natural predation? We have slaughtered millions of innocents since the Nazis passed from the page of history, yet we use the Nazi example of the holocaust to describe evil. Evil is everywhere, wherever someone or something is harmed to another’s personal benefit. My take on it, for what it’s worth.

  2. PS: since I am not receiving comments from your blog I’ve “unfollowed” and then clicked on “Following…” again to see if that solves the problem… just so you know I didn’t just unfollow for any reason. Thanks for all the challenging thoughts, professor!

  3. Hugh, in the new movie about the capture of Eichmann, they played him as you note. He was a father and seemed like a regular guy. This makes the evil that lied within him so horrible. The monsters are not like Freddie Krueger. It should be noted most rapes are by someone the victim knows and I believe the same can be said for gun deaths. Keith

  4. Interesting post, Hugh. Evil is as simple as voting to remove food from the mouths of children you will never meet. Most Germans in Nazi Germany knew the ‘snowflakes’ they saw drifting from the camps were the ashes of human remains. But they were fine as long as they didn’t have to do the killing.

    • We all seem to be able to look away when something doesn’t meet with our preconceptions. I doubt the Germans, as a rule, accepted the full facts (if we can use that word any more!) about what was going on. I suspect they thought that WE couldn’t possibly be doing such a dreadful thing!

  5. Dr. Curtler,

    As always, you have posted thought-provoking commentary.

    I recall having first heard the term “the banality of evil” in a philosophy class on critical thinking in 1968. The phrase stayed with me and led me to a reading of Hannah Arendt’s works. Deep stuff, dense, too, but well worth the reading.

    From her early work on the origins of totalitarianism to her specific work on Eichman in Jerusalem, she plays across more than one concept of evil:

    — One concept of evil focuses on the specific intentions of the leaders of fascist movements.
    — Another concept of evil has to do with the evil of a system designed to dehumanize and destroy “others”.
    — A third concept of evil refers to the actions of individuals in which the first and second type of evils have become normalized. It is in this context that we see the term “banality of evil” employed.

    Arendt’s attempts to define evil have spurred considerable discussion and critique, even on her own part.

    Key to all of these discussion, some of which are quite complex, appears to be a distinction between the essence of evil and evil action. The essence of evil lies in the refusal to recognize the common humanity of others. Evil action, intended or otherwise, lies in attempting to or succeeding in inflicting harm, to some degree, on those who are viewed as less than human.

    In her discussions of the origins of totalitarianism, Arendt is preoccupied with the historical and cultural context of the ideology of fascist (Nazi) leadership and the system of mass action they constructed. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt views individuals as compliant followers rather than evil actors. Evil action without evil intent that emerges out of a system of bureaucratically normalized processes and procedures.

    The reason this discussion has contemporary merit, I believe, is because of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. Der Trumpfer’s thus-far-successful efforts to motivate a mass following based upon grievance, outrage and scapegoating non-white people is one point. The policy directives and legislation sought by this administration reflect these pre-ideological intentions in inflicting harm upon millions of people, citizens and non-citizens alike. Extraordinarily, this is all done in the name of God, nationalism, patriotism, and White culture while completely undermining each of these principles in important ways.

    It is no accident that I began re-reading Hannah Arendt during the week of January 23,2017.

    Again, thanks for the thought-provoking comments.

    As always, best regards,

    Jerry Stark

  6. Very well said Hugh.

    I agree that there is a banality that surrounds the evil person. And I say person (rather than Sha’Tara’s more general term of ‘earthling’), because I don’t think animals are necessarily evil which requires pre-meditation.

    We are all capable of aggression or bad responses to something that upsets us, but the evil person needs only a conjured up thought to perpetrate an evil act upon something or someone else. And therein lies the operative word… ‘conjured.’ It is the made-up belief system that is always at fault for Evil acts perpetrated upon the innocent.
    Evil wears a smile because the evil person condones their own behaviour.

      • I wouldn’t say all evil is banal. There is diabolical evil which we associate with sadists, for example. Some people simply enjoy inflicting pain on others, and that strikes me as beyond banal!

      • I think that “banal” is the wrong terminology to use regarding man made evil-see def. of banal. Perhaps common place, unfortunately comes closest.

      • Perhaps, but most evil acts are done so casually that blink, and you can miss them. For instance, watching a friend cut absent minded cut a live wasp in half with his knife while we were chatting. He never even stopped talking. I was horrified and he thought I was bonkers… “It’s just a wasp!” was his only reaction; as though that justified the cruelty of watching two wriggling ends. That is what is meant by banal… And actually, Hugh first mentioned the banality of evil in his post.
        So many people are casual about nasty stuff, and their insensitivity gets right up my nose!

        Interestingly (or not), my own life is going into a tail spin because I see more and more evidence of an insidious creeping of banal, everyday evil acts by people I am supposed to love… It is getting difficult to deal with these new hatereds that are sliding into my life.

      • Ah, Colette, I’m so sorry to read about your personal troubles. We now know that Earthians do not “evolve” in terms of awareness and subsequent compassionate life response. They may invent a political or religious system that makes them seem better creatures mentally, morally and spiritually but such collective systems always fail – always! I have mentioned my “vision” of the future in which this particular species morphs through mutation into a new species – one that will be fully empathetic and will be compassionate to a fault. What we are witnessing is the downfall of a predatory species that has essentially refused to better itself, choosing instead to follow after its own innate destructive nature.
        The empathetic, compassionate, aware individual must learn to deal with the fact of having become and alien and stranger on its own world. We are the precursors to the coming new species, one that will be self-empowered, that will no longer rely on rulers or leaders to make decisions for them; that will be non-collective. Each will be fully responsible for all aspects of its own life as it involves interaction with others. Free choice and free will, will be the order of the day. The few of us who now demonstrate these possibilities are spies, flies in the ointment of society, the enemies of a doomed system.
        Not all of those who were born transitioned are aware of their status; few realize the deadly reality of being marked as the system’s enemy and few realize what that system is. People, or collectively, “the sheeple” are not the problem but what undergirds their thoughts and acts. For those aware, we can find warnings and messages everywhere, slipped in while the societal beast was sleeping or too ignorant to realize that a message to its future enemies was being placed where they would find it. For myself as an avid reader of the bible, I have found many warnings. I often quote this, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against powers, authorities and forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Long ago I took that to heart and have used it many times as affirmation, validation and how to explain the apparently mindless collective mentality and the overt evil extant in all religious enterprises. Imagine the gasps I heard as recently as yesterday when I told a small gathering of Christians that their god, Yahweh, or Jehovah or “the Lord God” was indeed of the spiritual forces of evil mentioned in the bible. I had no difficulty demonstrating, if not proving, this to be true simply by quoting some of the many passages of Scripture which make god out to be much worse than, say, a Donald Trump.
        During this downfall of civilization we can do little more than observe and take notes. The collapse MUST take place now, the rot of corruption has gone too deep for any kind of revolutionary surgery to reverse it. There is no point losing sleep over it. Yes, it is painful but if we were born into our own awareness then we know that whatever we experience from it is bearable and eventually edifying. Among the future mutants we shall return to be the Teachers and way showers. For now, let us find our own joy in the great sorrow that such may not overwhelm us and we become lost in the pain of the world.

      • Thanks for that Sha’Tara. Much appreciated. I won’t say more because I don’t want to hijack Hugh’s post and subject, but you are the first person I have come across who has even an inkling of what I am seeing. Most others would call me (us perhaps) paranoid.

      • I see you corrected the pejorative “earthlings” to the proper “Earthians” which simply indicates that the people referred to are from a planet called “Earth” just as we call someone living in Canada a Canadian. The only exception to a proper national term for a people happens to be “American” which is the term an alien would apply to anyone living within the three Americas. There is no proper name to refer to the people of the United States of America. I find that revealing…

      • Yes, apologies Sha’Tara. The ‘Earthlings’ term, of course, comes from the movie of the same title about the terrible stuff we humans do to animals in farming, hunting, and ritualistic (in my opinion, evil), sacrifices.

        Yes, I agree with your ‘Earthian’ moniker. For the record, I do tend to refer to all people from the United States, as ‘Americans’ and anyone South of that Southern US border by country (i.e. Mexicans), or just ‘South Americans,’ which I know is not strictly accurate if one is North of the Panama canal. I never really thought of your analogy as perceived by an ‘alien.’

      • No problem. It’s fascinating. According toToynbee, by the way, seven other civilizations have disappeared from the face of the earth. This may simply be the eighth. He saw the cracks in the foundation years ago.

      • It seems timely at this point to say that this may well be the eighth. I think it was Nostradamus who predicted that the current Pope would be the last. In his recent visit to Ireland, the Pope half heartedly apologised for child abuse within the church and for cover-up about the offending priests. He apologised to a much smaller audience than expected. Only 45,000 came to a venue expecting 250,000.One outspoken Cardinal has now called for the Pope’s resignation.

        If we consider that the Roman Empire fell shortly after the Romans embraced Christianity… Could our current civilisation fall if the Church falls?

  7. I think it incorrect to compare this civilization to the Roman Empire. This civilization is very old, perhaps more or less originating from Sumer or in the aftermath of the Flood. Since our current awareness of civilization is global, whether Christianity becomes politically irrelevant or not will not have much effect on civilization’s downfall. Religion, after all, is but one leg of the trinity of power that rules civilization and it is corruption in all three, religion, politics and finance that is creating the entropy sucking this civilization’s living energy and bringing it down – my opinion.

    • I wasn’t comparing our civilization to the Roman Empire — though there are captivating parallels. I was simply saying that, according the the British historian Arnold Toynbee, a number of civilizations have come and gone. Ours may simply be on the brink. It would appear so.

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