I have not seen the new “Hannah Arendt” movie, but I am enjoying the recent outburst of commentary on her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is her account for the New Yorker of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel. The work is most famous for describing Eichmann’s brand of evil is “banal,” a wonderfully pithy phrase that has inspired generations of political thinkers to completely misunderstand her work. Writes Roger Berkowitz of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities:
Perhaps Arendt has been so violently misunderstood because her thinking is both provocative and demanding. Her blessing, and her curse was a facility for quotable aphorisms that, like Nietzsche’s, require whole books to reveal their unconventional meaning. It is easy to cite the “banality of evil.” It is much more difficult to make sense of what Arendt actually meant.
The common misunderstanding, says Berkowitz, stems from testimony at parts of the Eichmann trial Arendt did not attend, in which Eichmann’s anti-Semitism was on full display. Surely, her critics argue, had she heard his very willing embrace of Nazism, she would not have found anything banal in Eichmann. Berkowitz again:
The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”
The banality of Eichmann came not from his blindness, but from his idealism; his grandiose belief that he was a part of some movement that gave meaning to an otherwise fairly dull, bourgeois life. Arendt does indeed make Eichmann sound rather pitiful—not because he was an automaton, but because he had a desperate need to conform in his search for meaning. He abdicated his moral agency by accepting the ideas of others uncritically.
This argument could very easily turn into a rejection of all politics, for fear that it inevitably corrupts people and drives them to commit terrible deeds. Arendt, however, goes in an entirely different direction—one that is alien to the contemporary framing of politics as a fight between the state and the individual. In the words of Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez in Mexico’s Nexos magazine (translation mine):
What is notable about this theoretical construction is that, despite being a vehement denunciation of the voracity of totalitarianism and all nationalization, Arendt does not find refuge in the defense of the private or the apolitical. On the contrary, she restores the value of politics better than anyone. Far from distancing herself from this sphere, she was convinced that it was necessary to recover it, or occupy it, as we say today. In politics she did not see a prolongation of the war, nor a nest of bureaucrats or proxy representatives. Politics, for her, was a cultural treasure that permitted men to find themselves, and find they were truly human. Only in the common realm of politics could man find his authentic existence. He is not the man in private isolation, in the monotonous echo chamber of commercialism. Citizenship could not be the occasional episode of voting, but a daily experience of one exercising liberty with others.
The work that should have been titled Amor mundi [The Human Condition] sustains precisely this necessity to revitalize the public space and find means to act in concert. It does not look for refuge in the private realm but instead in the plaza, in places of deliberation and encounter. In the face of historical determinism and manufactured inertia, it offers a route of imagination and creativity. The most essential thing about man is his “talent to create miracles,” that is, “his capacity to initiate, to achieve the improbable.” Conformity is the negation of liberty. In this way, Hannah Arendt led the fight for a notion of liberty that has little to do with the normal sense of the word in our day in age. Beyond liberating us from exterior constraints, being free means becoming engaged with the world. Her vision of liberty is republican, and densely political. In his room, isolated, man cannot be free. He is, if he goes out the door and enters the city and acts within it. Arendt restored the liberty of the ancients, the liberty within the city, among others. Totalitarianism is the most radical negation of liberty because it not only prohibits action; it also negates man. It negates the victim but also the executioner: one or the other, nuts and bolts within the imposed machinery of power. There are no individuals, only the species; there is no man, only humanity.
Totalitarianism is no longer the existential threat it was when Arendt wrote, but her work is no less relevant today. Due to a long list of factors I won’t delve into here, political participation has declined, and it’s not uncommon to hear laments over the collapse of civic participation. On the other side of the coin, there are still plenty of mass protests and advocacy campaigns, but many of them operate in ideological echo chambers. People get together to fight for a cause, but there is little in the way of dialogue, save mutterings about “those people” on the other side and shaking one’s fist (or worse) at the counter-protesters. In Arendt’s reckoning, this is not only an impoverished view of political life; it is a negation of human freedom.
To be sure, it is easy to pine for “dialogue” and “civil debate,” but it isn’t always easy to make it happen, and proponents of such debates are often not all that interested in hearing what other parties have to say. Arendt’s politics, however, goes back even further. It involves such simple things as families around the dinner table, friends at the bar, and co-workers acting in concert. It involves casual give-and-take, a slow learning that builds a culture out of which one defines one’s individuality. Politics conducted in good faith within a community is anything but banal; it is absolutely essential to the formation of a free human being. Only through such a dialogue can a person learn to consider alternatives to the ideological conformity that so enthralled Eichmann.
It isn’t the answer to everything that plagues politics in this day in age, and it takes effort. The design, however, is startlingly simple, and it is a start.