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Hannah Arendt and the Shadow of Evil

Hannah Arendt

The appearance of an art house film on the philosopher Hannah Arendt has sparked renewed interest in an old controversy.

In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi colonel accused of masterminding the transportation of millions of Jews to the death camps. Arendt was herself a Jew who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany and who had been, years before, something of an ardent Zionist. But she had since grown suspicious of the Israeli state, seeing it as un-self-critical and indifferent to the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians. I think it is fair to say, therefore, that she came to the trial with a complicated set of assumptions and a good deal of conflicting feelings.

As the trial unfolded, Arendt was massively put off by what she saw as the grandstanding of the prosecutors. Their irresponsible, even clownish, antics were, she concluded, the public face of the Israeli state, which had determined to make of the Eichmann proceedings a show trial. But what struck her most of all was Eichmann himself. Sequestered in a glass box for his own protection, squinting behind owlish spectacles, screwing up his mouth in an odd, nervous tic, trading in homespun expressions, pleading that he was just a middle-level bureaucrat following orders, Eichmann was neither impressive nor frightening nor sinister. Arendt never doubted that Eichmann was guilty of great wickedness, but she saw the Nazi functionary as the very incarnation of what she famously called "the banality of evil."

One of the distinctive marks of this banality Arendt characterized as Gedankenlosigkeit, which could be superficially rendered in English as "thoughtlessness," but which carries more accurately the sense of "the inability to think." Eichmann couldn't rise above his own petty concerns about his career and he couldn't begin to "think" along with another, to see what he was doing from the standpoint of his victims. This very Gedankenlosigkeit is what enabled him to say, probably with honesty, that he didn't feel as though he had committed any crimes.

Hannah filmThe film to which I referred at the outset very effectively portrays the firestorm of protest that followed Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial. Many Jews, both in Israel and America, thought by characterizing Eichmann the way she did, she had exonerated him and effectively blamed his victims. I won't descend into the complexity of that argument, which rages to some degree to the present day. But I will say that I believe Arendt's critics missed the rather profound metaphysical significance of what the philosopher was saying about the Nazi bureaucrat.

In a text written during the heat of bitter controversy surrounding her book, Arendt tried to explain in greater detail what she meant by calling evil banal: "Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet —and this is its horror!—it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world."

The young Hannah Arendt had written her doctoral dissertation under the great German philosopher Karl Jaspers, and the topic of her work was the concept of love in the writings of Saint Augustine. One of the most significant intellectual breakthroughs of Augustine's life was the insight that evil is not something substantial, but rather a type of non-being, a lack of some perfection that ought to be present. Thus, a cancer is evil in the measure that it compromises the proper functioning of a bodily organ, and a sin is evil in the measure that it represents a distortion or twisting of a rightly functioning will. Accordingly, evil does not stand over and against the good as a kind of co-equal metaphysical force, as the Manichees would have it. Rather, it is invariably parasitic upon the good, existing only as a sort of shadow.

J.R.R. Tolkien gave visual expression to this Augustinian notion in his portrayal of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. Those terrible and terrifying threats, flying through the air on fearsome beasts, are revealed, once their capes and hoods are pulled away, to be precisely nothing, emptiness. And this is exactly why, to return to Arendt's description, evil can never be radical. It can never sink down into the roots of being; it can never stand on its own; it has no integrity, no real depth or substance. To be sure, it can be extreme and it can, as Arendt's image suggests, spread far and wide, doing enormous damage. But it can never truly be. And this is why, when it shows up in raw form, it looks, not like Goethe's Mephistopheles or Milton's Satan, but rather like a little twerp in a glass box.

Occasionally, in the course of the liturgical year, Catholics are asked to renew their baptismal promises. One of the questions, to which the answer "I do" is expected, is this: "Do you reject the glamor of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?" Evil can never truly be beautiful, for beauty is a property of being; it can only be "glamorous" or superficially attractive. The great moral lesson—articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt—is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.
Originally posted at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Forever Young News)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • This raises the time old question articulated by Plato as "Do you think anyone desires the bad?". I certainly have never thought of anything I consider evil as "seductive" or "glamorous". Is father Barron suggesting that Eichmann believed the Holocaust was evil AND seductively glamorous? I think such words are misapplied in this context.

    My view is that acts which kill or seriously harm other humans can be described as "evil" but I see no "metaphysical force" involved, and I don't understand what that means. To me the real question is what is the harm? The evil wasn't the little bureaucrat in the glass box, it was the killing and terrorizing of millions.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      The evil was also in the choices, and the acts that followed from those choices, that resulted in the terror.

      There is a joke that a man went to confession and said to the priest, "I committed adultery . . . but I didn't enjoy it." The priest replied, "Like hell you didn't." In other words, of course he found pleasure in it; why else would he have done it?

      The "glamor of evil" in that case is in whatever the adulterer found attractive in committing the act of adultery. The sin is in the violation of the virtue of chastity, the injustice to the man's own wife and children, the injustice to the woman's spouse and children if she has them, the harm to the child if one is conceived, the harm to the common good that can come from fatherlessness, and so forth.

      • I wouldn't call adultery evil. Fr Barron was talking about the holocaust.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I wouldn't call adultery evil.

          I would. For the reasons I gave.

    • Randy Gritter

      " Is father Barron suggesting that Eichmann believed the Holocaust was evil AND seductively glamorous?"

      In a negative way I think he is. That is Eichmann was seduced by his desire to be a good soldier. To avoid being punished. To live in relative peace and security. He didn't say I want that because it is appealing. He said I want that because the alternative is frightening. Is that seduction? Of a sort.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        What about the power and importance and money and sex and ego-gratification the Nazi leaders got? What about the pleasure in hatred and in punishing your enemies?

        • Is that really what you think motivated the Nazis? Hitler sure didn't seem to be about that, but I don't really know.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't know what motivated Nazis. I'm just saying those are pleasures people can find in evil acts.

    • MattyTheD

      Brian, "I certainly have never thought of anything I consider evil as 'seductive' or 'glamorous'". Really? Never? You've never seen the seduction and/or glamor of, say, vanquishing your enemies? Amassing great wealth (if obtained dishonestly or unjustly)? Amassing great power and security at the expense of others? Experiencing great sexual pleasure if obtained by dehumanizing your partner, or cheating on a spouse? The seduction of scapegoating someone innocent in order to get out of a jam? The seduction of, say, lying on your resume. Etc, etc, etc. Are you saying that evil acts usually look foul and despicable on the surface? Or are you saying that evil acts are extremely rare? Either way, I'd strongly disagree.

      • Eriktb

        It's important to remember that if someone thinks through the ramifications of their actions, basically considering if the grass really is greener, many people would weigh the consequences of their actions. I doubt many people would never have the daydream of wealth, pleasure, and whatever else, but when you take the time to consider what it all entails you find, at least I generally have, that the grass is very rarely greener and short term gratification outweighing long term happiness is rarer still.

      • I don't have enemies, but if I did I don't see anything immoral about vanquishing them. No, never wanted to amass too much wealth other than to be comfortable. I have zero interest in power, certainly not at the expense of others. I do experience great sexual pleasure with my partner, and I have zero interest in dehumanizing her. Honestly not at all. I have felt tempted to lie a little here, like the resume example, but never have, I would call that dishonest and plausibly harmful, but not evil. But we may just be thinking of different things. To me the word evil is an adjective for the most harmful acts, murder, serious bodily harm, crimes against humanity.

        I am saying that the people who do what I call evil don't think that it is evil.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I don't have enemies, but if I did I don't see anything immoral about vanquishing them.

          In wouldn't be immoral to vanquish your enemy if your enemy was innocent and you were in the wrong?

          • Again, I do not have enemies. This language is not what I would apply. What I try to do is make the best assessment of furthering the well being of as many people as possible and act accordingly. I don't think of people in terms of good evil, enemies, allies or vanquishing and I find nothing seductive or tempting in such concepts.

    • Linda

      That is the real problem with the most insidious of evils: they don't seem evil, or even seductive or glamorous. You don't realize that what you're choosing either *is* evil or *supports* evil in an indirect way. Think of how important low prices for goods and services seem to be. But so often, in going for the low cost option, we actually are supporting a business, company or system that takes advantage of its workers, abuses the animals, pollutes the environment or other ultimately evil practices. We are seduced by the low price, by the glamour of looking good on the cheap, and don't stop to consider our effect on the world in so simple an act.

      • It just feels weird to think that the Nazis were seduced by the glamour of the holocaust. To me they simply believed they were racially superIor but could not understand how they were so humiliated in the First World War and by the Armistice. Germany was devastated by the Great Depression and Communism was seriously on the rise. The Nazis seem to have been motivated by a fanatical nationalism that blamed these problems on the Jews. Led by a few psychopaths they imagined a white utopia purged of other races and tribes. I think they thought they were justified and what they were doing was not evil.

        • Phil Steinacker

          You are looking through the telescope from the wrong end. Nazis were not seduced by any glamour in the Holocaust per se; they were seduced by the allure of the Reich, the Master Race, the "inevitability" of their coming domination of the world.

          The Holocaust was a bad fruit of that seduction, although there were probably those Nazis who got pleasure from participating in the Holocaust, and that might better be called sadism - also evil.

        • Chris Kozub

          It is no different than the allure we Americans and others place on abortion. The Nazis wanted political, ideological, and religious freedom from what they considered to be "inferior" influences. They thought the Jews were interfering with their ability to find their own version of happiness. We allow abortion because we should be free to have sex with whom we please, when we please, and should be free to eliminate the repercussions of those encounters. The Nazi's no more believed that Jews and other "undesirables" were any more human than we, as a society, believe an unborn baby isn't human.

          • Zipper666

            That's a bit of a stretch and in any case a false equivalence. The politics of abortion rights is not some conspiracy to "force" abortion on women but to give them control over their own bodies and NOT be judged by others on religious grounds.

          • Chris Kozub

            I appreciate your response, but it's not false equivalence. Jew interferes with Nazi "happiness" therefore eliminate the less than human Jew= problem solved... Child interferes with abortive "mother's" happiness, therefore eliminate the less than human unborn child. The Jew nor the unborn child were asked if they would like to be killed for the sake of the Nazi or regretful mother. The woman's choice isn't controlling her own body but killing another person inside of her. The only lack of equivalence is that Nazi's killed 6 million and we have murdered over 50 million since Roe v Wade.

          • Zipper666

            "Child interferes with abortive "mother's" happiness"
            See what you did there? You use the same tired old meme that every woman that has an abortion does it because it's inconvenient.
            Stop spouting dogma that even The Holy See is backing away from.
            It's NOT an "unborn child" and it's NOT "murder" except in your superstitious take on it.
            I'm sure you would insist that a 14 year old girl raped by her step-father and pregnant should accept the pregnancy as a "Gift from God".
            Maybe you should go and talk with counselors at Planned Parenthood to see the reality of their work and the emotional torment their patients go through making probably the toughest decision of their life.

          • Chris Kozub

            See what you did there, "I'm sure you would insist that a 14 year old girl raped by her step-father and pregnant should accept the pregnancy as a "Gift from God". Same old argument that 'what about rape'? Less than 1/10th of 1% of all abortions are from women who have been raped. So, what about the other 99.9% of all abortions? Why not change the law that only a woman who is raped can have an abortion? Because deep down it's an ethnic cleansing tool just like the holocaust. The black population in the US would be twice what it is today if not for abortion. If you want to talk about the horror of what happens at Planned Parenthood, try reading Abby Johnson's book "Unplanned" She was a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas until she had to participate in an ultra-sound assisted abortion herself. What they do is MURDER, pure and simple.

          • Chris Kozub

            Also, regarding your point "patients go through making probably the toughest decision of their life" if this is as true as you claim (and I believe it is) why is it the toughest decision of the their lives? If, like you say, it isn't a human, then what difference does it make to end the pregnancy? the fact is, it's so tough because they know it is their child they are choosing to kill and the fact is Planned Parenthood, other abortion providers, and society at large, make these women feel as if they have no choice but to choose to end the pregnancy. Ironic, really, that pro-choice often means they feel they have no choice.

          • Zipper666

            Your objections to abortion are based on religion, my support for it is based on hard medical science.
            As for the "ethnic cleansing" BS perhaps you'd care to explain how the US economy would cope with those 50 million extra mouths to feed, especially in families that already have multiple children and no male partner in residence.
            In a country where senior politicians are attempting to curtail Welfare, Food Stamps and any kind of Social safety net how does increasing the birth rate benefit us?
            There is a major difference between saying you do not approve of abortion on "moral grounds" and actually trying to ban it completely.
            We know how well Prohibition did to eliminate the consumption of alcohol. Similarly, a ban on abortion simply drives it underground. Those with money will simply fly to Canada, Mexico or Europe, those less wealthy will be serviced by back street abortionists and once more women will die of eclampsia, blood poisoning and lack of post partum care. No doubt in your view this is God's punishment for their "sin".

          • Chris Kozub

            My objection is based on science as well as religion. After the instant of conception everything about that human being is there, genetically speaking. Nothing is provided for the remainder of its life other than food and oxygen. If we take those away from you you will die, too.

            So, your reasoning for keeping it legal is that no matter what people are going to want and pursue abortion no matter if it is legal or not. Well, murder is also illegal and people still do that, don't they? So, to prevent them from buying illegal guns or some sort of poison, or hiring a hitman, we should simply make it legal since there will always be people who are going to do it anyway.

            I also find your argument that any child who would be born as a result of abortion no longer being legal will wind up as a ward of the state and on government assistance for the rest of their lives cynical at best and downright disturbed at its worst. So, by this argument it can be said that any person who is a 'burden' to society, is less than human, and not productive and therefore undesirable and disposable. So, it won't take long to eliminate those with birth defects of either a physical or mental nature. Oh, wait, that is already happening. 90% of pregnancies that are detected to have the POSSIBILITY of a birth defect via amniocentesis are terminated, whether or not they are conceived in a household with a high income and with both parents present or not. This whole argument sounds a lot like the same arguments for purity and productivity that a weird little man with a funny mustache espoused 60-70 years ago from Germany.

          • Doug Shaver

            After the instant of conception everything about that human being is there, genetically speaking.

            So, the essence of humanity is in a chemical?

            I'll readily admit to being a reductionist myself, but I wouldn't take my reductionism that far.

  • Along the same lines of what Fr. Barron was saying. St. Thomas describes evil as a privation. There is no summum malum, or positive source of evil, corresponding to the summum bonum, which is God.

  • Miguel Adolfo.

    To my -very limited- knowledge, for Catholic Theology, the Devil is the "non person". So, it has a similarity, for me, with bureaucracy, because both can be described as "impersonal".

    Obviously, that doesn't mean that bureaucratics employees are "satanics". Nevertheless, to me, the higly bureaucratyzed laboral activity of our days, with all the inmense element of "disregard about others" and "always follow orders" is a very high risk of evil. Because, to be evil, to perform evil, is as simple as to stop taking into account what other need and feel.

    I worked once in a big corporation, and the rules tended to that. In my opinion, the nazi horror is not so remote, extrange or unexplanable for our modern world. I think we live in a very similar condition, only that, most of the time, it is not so extreme. But I consider it one of those differencies of degree which don't stand as a differency of condition.

  • Zipper666

    Let us remember that history is written by the victors. If the German's had succeeded in conquering and controlling Continental Europe and brokering a peace with the United States people like Eichmann would be in their "Hall of Fame".
    As far as Arendt's conclusions, she was amongst the first to realize that blind support of the Zionist State of Israel allowed a new trope of Holocaust to be visited upon the Palestinians by a people that knew better but ignored their own earlier suffering at the hand of despots.