Hannah Arendt also wrote a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. She used that famous expression “the banality of evil” to describe him and his kind. He was a man who facilitated horrid acts of violence against the Jews. But Arendt said what set him apart was his “thoughtlessness.” To her he looked and acted like a boring accountant.
She had been shocked by how glib he was in court. He talked about exterminating millions of Jews as if it was nothing. What was there for him to admit to, he asked. He suggested, as did Himmler, that they could be reconciled with the Jews. They had a sense of elation when they considered this possibility. But the feelings were not real. It was, in Arendt’s phrase, “an outrageous cliché.” She said, “it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those clichés by which people had lived for twelve years.” As Carol Brightman said, “Clichés and conventional sentiments functioned as armor blocking the consciousness of the accused at just those painful junctures where painful intrusions of reality threatened.” These are some of the enemies of thought. In fact, during the trial Arendt had noticed how Eichmann was not perturbed by his starling contradictions. He was certainly not engaged in thinking. He was not stupid. He was just completely thoughtless.
Arendt was stunned that such horrific crimes could be committed without consciousness. She said she disagreed with Kant, who, according to her believed that stupidity was caused by a wicked heart. She contended instead that “absence of thought is not stupidity, it can be found in highly intelligent people, and a wicked heart is not its cause, it is probably the other way around, that wickedness may be caused by absence of thought.”
According to her teaching assistant Kohn, Arendt believed, as I believe, that “thinking conditions people to resist evildoing.” Most ethicists do not accept this, but I find it profoundly compelling. I believe, like the American novelist Henry James, that ethics is high reason. Where there is no reason there is no ethics. this is what the sleep of reason is all about.
Arendt was clear when she said that everyone could think. Of course, that does not mean that everyone will think. You didn’t have to have an education to think. She was not elitist.
Arendt got mad when Jews accused her of being self-hating and anti-Jewish as a result of her book on Eichmann. She said that all she wanted to do was to think about what he had done. She wanted to understand him and that was not the same as forgiving him or being soft on the Nazis. It was her job as a philosopher to think about these things. And she thought that was very important. In the film about her, Arendt summed up her thinking this way,
“Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness. It is my responsibility to try to understand. It is the responsibility of anyone who tries to put pen to paper on this subject. Since Socrates and Plato we have understood thinking to be a silent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the mind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong; beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down. ”
For Hannah Arendt, what thinking meant was to train the mind to go wandering. I love that concept. It brings me back to my concept of meandering. I love to meander–physically and mentally. That is the essence of free thinking (and there is really no other kind) to meander through thoughts without regard to preconceived ideas, ideologies, or prejudices. Only the free mind can think. I said that. But that is a concept directly inspired by Arendt.
Arendt’s first major book was On the Origins of Totalitarianism. She thought there was something new or modern about totalitarianism. It was not like anything we had seen before. It presented profound change from everything that preceded it. It was much more than tyranny or dictatorship. It cut at individual will. It cut at our individual identity. In fact, according to one of Arendt’s most profound insights, totalitarianism cuts at our capacity to think.
As always, I ask myself how this is relevant to our times. There are not many totalitarian regimes around right now, but there are movements—various forms of populist movements—that tend in the same direction. I think often of the American near fascists—i.e. the Trumpsters, the insurrectionists on Capitol Hill that were looking to hang Mike Pence only because their leader told them that he had been betrayed by Pence. That was enough to set off ordinary people looking to hang the vice-president of their country! Had they lost the capacity to think? To me it seemed that way.