Richard Wolin on Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” Thesis

Richard Wolin contends that my New York Times column, “Who’s on Trial: Eichmann or Arendt?” (The Stone, September 21, 2014), suffers from factual and analytical shortfalls, among them an unwillingness “to acknowledge the centrality of Heidegger’s notion of ‘thoughtlessness’ (Gedankenlosigkeit) as the inspiration underlying Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ thesis.” He also challenges my contention that Arendt’s philosophical debt here was to Kant rather than to Heidegger.

Not only are these contentions wrong; Wolin himself makes a number of important factual errors: Let me address them first. He writes that Arendt “never saw Eichmann testify.” But as Corey Robin’s intervention in this controversy shows and as an earlier piece by Daniel Maier-Katkin titled “The Reception of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem 1963-2011 documents, the trial was in session between April 11 and December 15, 1961. Arendt was in the courtroom between April 11 and May 8,and while Eichmann himself did not take the stand until June 20, she returned and watched him testify between June 20 and 23, although not during the final weeks when Eichmann was being cross-examined by Gideon Hausner. The purpose of Wolin’s wrong claim that Arendt never saw Eichmann testify is to create the impression that she had developed a preconception about Eichmann “well in advance of the trial.” But in fact on December 2, 1960 Arendt wrote to her mentor and friend Karl Jaspers: “I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go and look at this walking disaster face to face in all his bizarre vacuousness, without the mediation of the printed word.” Although Wolin quotes from this letter, he neglects to emphasize that far from avoiding seeing Eichmann on the stand, Arendt made sure to see and listen to the man. Her reference to Eichmann’s “bizarre vacuousness” was most likely based upon the interview conducted with Eichmann for Life magazine by Willem Sassen as well as another interview in Der Stern.

As is usually the case with Wolin’s work on Arendt—cherchez Heidegger!—search for Heidegger is the guiding interpretive principle: “It is on the basis of Heidegger’s fatalistic critique of modern technology as an unalterable condition of modern life that Arendt derives her view of Eichmann as a human automaton, or, following Eichmann’s own self-description during the trial, as a mere “cog” in the Nazi machinery of extermination,” Wolin writes. Arendt believed none of that. But Wolin’s eagerness to prove that Arendt’s views of Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” and her theory of Nazi totalitarianism are indebted to Heidegger drives him to his second factual blunder—his claim that it was only after 1970, almost a decade after the trial that Arendt turned to the Kantian categories of thinking, judging, and in particular “thinking from the standpoint of others.” In 1960 Arendt had already published an essay called “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” in her collection Between Past and Future. Portions of this essay had appeared as “Society and Culture” in Daedalus (82/2, Spring 1960) and there are significant passages in her posthumous Denktagebuch from the late 1950s, as well on the relationships between thinking, judging, and thinking from the standpoint of others (e.g., vol.1, Notebook XXII, 571–584). These show her preoccupation with these Kantian themes before, during, and after the Eichmann trial.

This is especially relevant to of “thoughtlessness” in the Eichmann case. After writing that Kant’s Critique of Judgment contains “perhaps the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy,” Arendt continues: “In the Critique of Judgment, however, Kant insisted upon a different way of thinking, for which it would not be enough to be in agreement with one’s own self, but which consisted of being able to ‘think in the place of everybody else’ and which he therefore called an ‘enlarged mentality’ (eine erweiterte Denkungsart).” Furthermore, “That the capacity to judge is a specifically political ability in exactly the sense denoted by Kant, namely, the ability to see things not only from one’s own point of view but in the perspective of all those who happen to be present . . . these are insights that are virtually as old as articulated political experience.”

Not only Eichmann but all those who wore the ideological blinkers of totalitarianism were incapable of thinking in this Kantian and Arendtian sense. They were blind to differences and perspectives that did not fit into their Weltanschauung. Ideological thinking immunizes itself against the world by fitting all evidence into a coherent scheme that cannot be falsified. It was this ideological thoughtlessness that permitted Eichmann to sit days on end with an Israeli officer, Captain Less, and tell him the sad story of his own life and the wrongs he believed had been done to him. Arendt comments: “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with his inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.”

In 1954 Heidegger published an essay, “What Is Called Thinking?,” in which he indeed writes that “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” The German text explicitly says: “überall hersche nur die Gedankenlosigkeit,” using the same term as Arendt. For Heidegger that we are still not thinking stems from the fact that “the thing itself that must be thought about turns away from man, has turned away long ago,” meaning that the inability to think is a form of “the forgetting of Being.” Undoubtedly, Arendt knew this text but, far from following Heidegger, she gave the category of “thinking” quite a different meaning than he did.

It would be foolish to deny Heidegger’s influence on Arendt, and I have discussed this extensively in my 1996 book The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Yet Wolin is very wrong to contend that Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism is simply an extension of Heidegger’s diagnosis of the “fallenness” of the modern world under the domination of technology. Arendt did not believe that modernity or modern technology alone had given rise to totalitarianism. This is why The Origins of Totalitarianism is an unwieldy work, not a mono-causal account, but a rich exploration of many elements and configurations in modern societies—such as the collapse of the rule of law in the nation-state, the rise of anti-Semitism, race thinking in the encounter with Africa, and the practice of administrative massacres in Western colonies, and so on—that come together in some fashion to enable totalitarian politics. There is no teleology to Arendt’s account. Modernity is not, on her account, a Verfallsgeschichte, a history of doom and decline, as it is in a Heideggerian philosophy of history.

Wolin has always misconstrued how Arendt transformed and indeed subverted Heideggerian categories, for example by translating “das Man” into human plurality; “being-unto-death” into natality; and by emphasizing the human condition of acting and speaking in the world with others. Had Arendt slavishly followed Heidegger’s thinking, which, as she observed many times, is destructive to the political realm, she would not have been one of 20th-century’s greatest political thinkers. But for Wolin, Arendt is always a foolish woman in love!

Arendt never changed her mind about the fact that with the concentration camps and the Holocaust something had emerged in human history that had altered the essence of politics and perhaps even human nature itself. It was not this evil which was banal, but the quality of mind and character of the perpetrators. Even though the full depth of Eichmann’s Nazi fanaticism was not publicly known when she wrote, Arendt never thought of him as a mere “cog in the machine,” (which as Bettina Stangneth shows Eichmann invented as a way of defending himself), nor, however, did she honor him by ascribing diabolical dimensions to him.

Wolin’s suggestion that “if Eichmann was ‘banal,’ then the Holocaust itself was banal” is slanderous toward Arendt and those of us who see some merit in her thesis; it is also based on a vacuous logic that ignores the truth that the quality of a deed in politics and morality can very well transcend the person and motives of the doer. As an intellectual historian and as a Jew, Wolin may take comfort in thinking that anti-Semitism is demonic, perpetrated only by sado-masochistic perverts and blood-thirsty liars.

Like Arendt, I, as a Jew, lie awake at night pondering how and why anti-Semitism continues to have a hold on so many otherwise ordinary individuals. Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” challenges us to be more vigilant, not less, toward race-thinking as a manifestation of the moral, political, and cognitive inability to take the standpoint of the other and to recall that we are all “strangers on a stranger’s land.” Accusing Hannah Arendt and her students of ignoring this challenge is simply disingenuous.

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