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.