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.


Hannah Arendt Redux

A film recently released in New York deals with the life of Hannah Arendt and has once again stirred up much of the controversy that surrounded her study of the mind of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s during his trial in Jerusalem. Readers of these blogs will recognize Arendt’s name as I have referred to her many times. She is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century and one I never tire of revisiting. But it is precisely the depth of her thinking that has caused her detractors so much trouble: they simply don’t understand what she writes — or they are not careful readers. And this misunderstanding has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the release of this film by German director Margarethe von Trotta.

In his discussion in the New York Times of the controversy surrounding this film, author Roger Berkowitz evidences a careful reading of Arendt’s works and a thorough understanding of her position on Eichmann. He shows himself unwilling to side with those who thought Arendt had dismissed Eichmann as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” He was anything but those things, according to Arendt. But many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us. It is easier and more comforting to think the man a crazed psychopath. But this was also, in Arendt’s view, decidedly not the case. As Berkowitz notes in his excellent article:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Arendt had a very definite notion of what thought requires: it is a dialogue within the person himself or herself in which an honest attempt is made to see both sides of an issue and think one’s way carefully to imagined consequences of possible actions. Eichmann, like an increasing number of us, was unable to do that. He was not a “clerk” or a “robot.” Nor was he a psychopath. He was a relatively normal man who simply wasn’t able to engage his mind fully to think his way around a problem and see the implications of his actions. As a result, he became zealous, readily identifying with causes and blindly following a movement that he too quickly embraced. He could not think of Nazism without at the same time thinking of anti-Semitism. In his mind they were one and the same, and he embraced both ideas and willingly did what he was told had to be done. Evil is, in this case at least, banal.

A careful reader will note Roger Berkowitz’s oblique reference to America’s drone policy in the final sentence of the above quote, referring to those who are “willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.” Those who defend the use of these silent killers that take so many innocent civilian lives on the grounds that they are the “lesser of two evils” need to recall Arendt’s point that the lesser of evils is still evil.

The Nature of Evil

A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.

Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.

These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience  (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.

I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.

Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.