“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not (…) No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
Throughout our fickle history, what we regard as evil is capable of fairly ubiquitous presence, often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but absolute mundanity. The core cause of this perplexity can be described using Hannah Arendt’s newspeak: the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. Arendt caused reflexive rebuttals as she coined the term to elucidate the mentality that fostered the atrocities of the catastrophe known as the Holocaust, a grueling manifestation of the anti-semitic narrative of the 20th century.
Though her incisive inquiry took great care to differentiate between the banal and the commonplace, it seemed to turn this monumental representation of victimhood into a meaningless triviality. Ironically, in our times, her contemplation tethered to the world is accounted to be courageous, and this contemporary Arendt renaissance establishes her as one of the most original and provocative thinkers of the post-World War II ―era. To investigate her intellectual career, The Argus participates in Hannah Arendt round talk sessions* at Choi Ina Books, led by Hong Won-pyo, a leading expert in Arendt and a professor emeritus of Language and Diplomacy at HUFS.
*The content of this article is based on these lectures.
Hannah Arendt, willing to talk about her pariah identity
As a German-born Jew destined to endure unprecedented anti-Semitic violence, Hannah Arendt witnessed her troublesome identity render her void of legal recognition, and thrusted aside, as a “problems” to be forced into migration and exile. What she found most intolerable in the Nazis regime was not an overt hostility toward enemies, but her gentile neighbors scrambling to forget that they had ever known her. Arendt viewed the urgency of her time, the utter destruction of European society, and established herself as a thinker struggling to seek the root of this chaos.
To further understand her contention, one must know the historical context. During the era of the Holocaust, nation-states that emerged from the revolutions of the Enlightenment period as well as those that reformed themselves incrementally, were to be governed through reasoned, rational debates conducted by equal citizens. At this time of transition from community to society, Arendt came to see that people who belonged too loosely to the political system would essentially be excluded from the public discourse. The Jews were a diasporic people for a long time, and had long been accepting the absence of political voice and skillfully adapting to whatever circumstances challenged them. In lack of worldly involvement, they undermined universal claims of citizenship and at the same time, took advantage of the increasing privatization and commercialization of society. They were not aware of the image of themselves―created within the general public―as a despised parasitical social group.
Ultimately, the prejudice attained its ugliest apotheosis in the hatred of Jews among other European nations, and an open, voluntary espousal of official anti-Semitism throughout, as though they had only been waiting for this opportune moment. Jews had failed to understand that if one is not an active participant in the making of their world, they are doomed to be enslaved by those who exercise the world. Arendt saw great difference between “acting on values” and “being value-neutral,” and she could not accept the theory of Jews being the innocent scapegoat that helplessly went to the net. She problematized the collective morbidity among her fellow Jews, who were psychologically succumbed to a notion of eternal victimhood and pride of being a “chosen people.”
Briefly mirroring the course of her life, one may realize that Arendt was indeed not a spectator to the Holocaust, but an astute critic that illuminated the potentialities for restoring the dignity of politics. Only because she refused to denounce her conditions as a pariah figure―a Jew in Nazi Europe, a stateless refugee deprived of citizenship, and a woman in an intellectual world of men―did she find the potential it affords her as a citizen of several worlds among many others, fully at home in none but adept in them all. For philosophy, Arendt continues in the same passage, as she provides condemnation of categorized groups of ethnicity, nationhood, race or religion in the light of her concept of human plurality―that we are all equal as human, but everyone is exceptional in that nobody sees the world from the same perspective. To her, the ascription can be transcended only when human beings come together for joint purpose in the public sphere, aimed at attaining a more participative society.
How Hannah Arendt came up with the “Banality of Evil”
Many of the incidents and stories that mostly provoked Hannah Arendt’s thinking were directly related to her attempt to comprehend the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide and the destruction of the public realm in modern age. At this historic juncture, she believed that it was necessary to name and prepare for evil actions humanity might face in the future. She questioned: Where does this evil action come from? Can one do evil, without being evil? How are those that do evil different from the rest of us, and what do they lack in human quality? Arendt answered these inquiries by coining the phrase “Banality-of-Evil” in her journalistic analysis of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. She argues that though the terrible consequences of blind obedience were captured through Eichmann, he was quite ordinary, and neither demonic nor monstrous, going against everybody’s expectation. Even the Israeli psychiatrist who had examined Eichmann during his pre-trial detention said, “By purely psychiatric tests, Eichmann seems more normal than I am by now.”
At the trial, Eichmann told the judge that he tried to live his life according to the Kantian moral principle. It tells one to act only according to the maxim whereby one can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Eichmann asserted that when he was given the task of deporting Jews to the concentration camp, his freedom to follow the ethical ideal was vanished. He pleaded that he was just a bureaucrat, saying, “There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders (…) I was not a responsible leader, and as such, do not feel myself guilty.” This leads to the question; did Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative really pave its way to the Holocaust? Admittedly, Kant wrote about disregarding the self-centered inclination as he worried about it disturbing the social order and, fulfilment of duties to the state.
However, Arendt asserts that Kant’s duty was an internal one that is self-imposed, not an external one imposed by others. Every man is a legislator the moment they start to act according to their practical reason, by finding principles that could and should be suited to a principle of general legislation. If Eichmann did not let go of at least the human condition of plurality, he would have been capable of judging one’s actions and thinking from the standpoint of somebody else. He would have never carried out the physical destruction of Jews as a means to spread Nazi propaganda. He did not lie, nor was his conscience bothered. Eichmann just knew that what he had once called his duty was now called a crime, and accepted this new code of judgement as if it were nothing but another language rule.
Thus, Arendt’s conclusion was profound. She was struck with Eichmann’s absence of thinking and claimed that an unthinking functionary is capable of enormous evil. Even the evil of the Holocaust was banal, committed daily and systemically without being adequately named or opposed. Arendt’s variant view of modern society helps us realize that the traditional meaning of evil is no longer defined as diabolical or demonic profundity. Now in 21st century, the “Banality-of-Evil” plays as an intellectual cliche to describe our collective enterprise-like world full of modern bureaucratic men like Eichmann.
How Hannah Arendt criticized the Western philosophical tradition
“What is most difficult is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it.” Hannah Arendt wanted to encourage everyone to love the world, which does not mean non-criticism or implicit rejection. She firmly confronted and understood that the role of human beings in this world is to resist totalitarianism by trying to live an active life of political engagement. In order to help us contemplate which position we humans are standing in this contemporary world, she gives out a tripartite division between the human activities of labor, work, and action, arranged in an ascending hierarchy of importance. Arendt confirms that when this hierarchy gets inverted, eclipse of political freedom and responsibility will encroach, as like our modern times are.
These three human activities each corresponds to the fundamental conditions humans live by ― labor corresponds to life; work corresponds to worldliness; and action corresponds to plurality. A recommended way to comprehend this logic of the three contexts is Peter Drucker’s famous parable of the three stone-cutters. It shows a situation of a traveler encountering three men cutting stones. He asks what they are doing, and the answers each responds to labor, work, and action. The first says, “I am making a living”: a timeless metabolism. The second says, “I am doing the best job of stone-cutting in the country”: an enduring production. And the last man says, “I am building a cathedral”: an immortally generative process. As it can be seen, these characteristics attend to appearance (vita activa), while the Western philosophical tradition devalued it in favor of the life of contemplation, which concerns the essence and the eternal realm of the Ideas (vita contemplativa). This was the point where Arendt abandons the tradition and regards herself as a philosophical outsider, as ancient philosophers generally assumed that no meaning could subsist in our plurality, and looks for a single truth to override plural opinions and merely provide necessities.
The prime culprit, Plato explains why he modelled this systemized philosophy through the allegory of The Cave in his masterpiece The Republic. He uses the metaphor of the prisoners chained in the cave to describe the people who believe that knowledge comes from what we see and hear in the world ― empirical evidence. As they are unable to turn their heads, all they see is a wall in front of them. Shadows are cast on the wall by the fire that burns behind them, and the shadows of puppets and objects puppeteers hold up become the reality of the prisoners. Here, Plato imagines one prisoner who breaks free and walks outside into the sunshine. Finally having realized the true forms of reality, and the real causes of the shadows, he feels sorry for his companions still caught in their limited reality. He returns to the cave to rescue them, but nobody believes in him and laughs him off. In the end, they kill their intellectual, the philosopher. Thus, Plato concludes that the philosopher who goes through the single experience of solipsistic contemplation should become a politician, not as a mere citizen that takes part in public debate, but become a skilled technician that operates citizens according to abstract principles ― the legislation.
Arendt opposed human beings from fitting in any type of arrangement or prediction model, and sought for a practicing philosophy that is not solitary, anti-political, and sympathetic to coercion. As a witness of the dark times, Arendt yearned to see the exchanges of liberal, rational arguments in the political realm. Nevertheless, our modern capitalistic society lays focus mainly on labor and the production of work using labor other than political action. Action is, for Arendt, to bring thoughts we have on practical life, and to not avoid the entanglements and frustrations it incurs when imposing our point of view to others. As long as we discuss human affairs, there is no absolute criterion to lean to but influencing people through persuasion and courting the judgements, which in other words, is the opposite of violence.
Interesting dialogues from the round talk
Moon Jung-yeop (54), a CEO
Both Adolf Eichmann and the Jews could not avoid succumbing to the psychology of their prevailing environment, which in theory, means that they have demeaned themselves―much like Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate to the presence of a bell. However, in realistic terms, their actions might have been the very last choice for their survival, though they did not stand in others’ shoes.
Arendt’s saying that the thinking has to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality seems to bring out doubts from deep within myself. I wonder how much ought to be while self-inflictions and conscience-of-guilt continuously collide. It is hard for me to differentiate good and the banality of evil. Having worked in a company for decades ―from subordinate to superior― I have spotted so many people hiding bureaucratic corruption and social irregularities, but nobody points out the problem. Then are we all Eichmann, and, so am I?
Oh Ha-seok(24), a HUFSan
In a recent movie I watched called, “The Parasite (2019),” I was met with two kinds of family: the Parks and the Kims. The Park family illustrated the picture of aspirational wealth, while the Kim family was street-smarts but rich in not much else. The Parks were happy, well-mannered, elegant, and sometimes naive ― preferring to be oblivious of the poor, who invisibly lived alongside them.
Conversely, the Kims were self-conscious, socially inferior people who went lengths to earn a living. They struggled to find menial gigs like folding pizza boxes, ran around their basement dwelling to chase their neighbor’s wi-fi signal, suffered from a house flood, and even disguised themselves as competent members of society to deceive the wealthy Park family. The movie’s director, Bong Joon-ho, remarked, “It is a very familiar scene where the poor and righteous people with a great cause join forces to fight against the vile, greedy and violent rich people.
However, I do not think this reflects reality.” Thinking over what he said, I threw a question to myself: “When the rightless people cannot even be guaranteed the lowest layer of human activity; labor, how they can value the highest layer; “political action,” in their lives? The ancient society of Greece had direct democracy, which Arendt praised to be the ideal public confrontation. Those who were legal citizens only had the leisure to think and act because the slaves were laboring in their place. It is ironic that the ideal public sphere can be achieved in such a hierarchical community….
In the pantheon of greatest thinkers, Hannah Arendt articulated the most compelling question for today: From when did everybody start to be swept away unthinkingly toward what others believe in, degenerated into functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery? What would happen if all the superfluous ― refugees, black and brown, women, the disabled ― turn their thinking into a political action? “Think for yourself, or else you will soon be dehumanized,” she would shout. The Argus hopes our readers could remind themselves why her ideas still matter now, and put forth into the bravery to think and act for the better, though you may have to expect and prepare the worst.
By Kwak Hyun-jeong
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section