In her book Human Condition, Hannah Arendt warned, “What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse”.
There is no doubt she was one of the most brilliant political analysts of the 20th century and one whose writings should be read very closely today. She studied the why’s of human nature: was she a prophet or a lighthouse, warning us of what could be if we didn’t analyze societies’ actions and our own within that sphere, and heed the warnings?
In this blog post I want to expose some of her writings because her ideas are very relevant to our times.
She studied human behavior, moral responsibility and judgment, and the role of thinking in social life. Her insights are crucial for us today and there is no doubt that a critical reading of her work will help guide us through our own flirtation with fascist thinking, authoritarian and totalitarian leadership
For all the deep thinkers that came out of German society, Weber, Marx, Nietzsche, the Nazi regime somehow managed to grow and thrive. But it was Hanna Arendt who wrote best about the political, cultural and intellectual crises that defined her times. For her it was vital to understand the years leading up to the war. She questioned how the intellectual class (like Heidelberger, her philosopher lover, professor and university rector) could have been so easily seduced by the nazis.
“Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility but of personal judgment (her italics) in the early stages of the nazi regime”, she wrote, “ it’s impossible to understand what actually happened”. Change comes in a sequence of measures and yet “no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others. “
In Madison’s words, “all governments rest on consent”. To do nothing is to consent, to consent is to support; this is the dilemma. She warns that the voices of outrage should never become silent, for when they do bad government becomes normal.
On the Banality of Evil
Arendt covered the Eichmann trial at Nuremberg, out of which came her book “Banality of Evil”. To be banal is to be boring, unimaginative, ordinary or vapid, and she was struck by Eichmann’s banality.
As she explained, the banality of evil was a “phenomenon of evil deeds committed on a gigantic scale”, which couldn’t be traced to an ideology, wickedness or pathology, but “whose only personal distinction is extraordinary shallowness”; it was not stupidity but the “inability to think” that stunned her.
Can there be evil when there was no motive? After sitting through his trial, she was struck by his dullness and how he was able to remove himself from personal responsibility for his part in the murders of millions of people because he “was just following orders”, “just doing his job”. He was puzzled – why should he be judged on the actions of the state since he was only one cog in a big machine. He spoke to the prosecutor with pride about how well he had accomplished the task given him, “not understanding there was no pride in organizing the death of millions”.
On Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship
She put the years 1933-1945 under the microscope and examined how easily human behavior adapted to fit the norms of dictatorship and totalitarian government. She muses that legal and moral issues presuppose the power of judgment, and questions whether in a world where we are cogs in the machine how much is personal responsibility a marginal issue.
Dictatorship is when “even the comparatively small number of decision makers” shrinks down to one, “while all institutions and bodies that initiate control over or ratify executive decisions have been abolished”.
“All the defendants in the post war trials excused themselves of blame: If i had not done it somebody else could have and would have”. One must ask even today – What are the alternatives to following orders? Is judgment one of hindsight said by people who aren’t there? We we do the same thing in his shoes? Are we partially to blame for being passive rather than fighting back against this machine?
She points out that it is the one who makes the system function, the human being on the stand, not the system itself that is put on trial. No one is a free agent unless they opt out and to opt out when the majority are opting in takes a great deal of courage and integrity that most of us don’t have.
“When many people, without having been manipulated, begin to talk nonsense, and if intelligent people are among them, there is usually more involved than just nonsense.”
For her it was not the outrage caused by the behavior of the brown shirts, but the “intrusion of criminality into the public realm and the ordinariness of it. The coordination of this criminality is what creates the moral issue, and “the eagerness of men to jump on the train”.
On Thinking and Moral Considerations
She was committed to the ideas that each event that happens in the world is new and unique and that we cannot fit it into an overall world view or impose a pre-formed theoretical explanation onto it.
Events are unique and non-linear. What happened in 1933 can be explained by events leading up to that time and it’s not the same as events in 2018. She was critical of the tendency to categorize present day events using historical events as present day eventualities of consequence because it dulls our sense of what might be new or unique about the new event. It is my opinion the press is being lazy when they use past events to describe present ones as done deals – since x happened last time it will happen again. They are metaphors only.
Let the outrage continue.
I used the following books for this essay. All are by Hannah Arendt.
The Human Condition, 1958
Responsibility and Judgment, 2003.
This is a book of her essays. The ones I used here were “ Some Questions of Moral Responsibility”, “Collective Responsibility” and “ Thinking and Moral Considerations”.