Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann.
Of “radical evil” and its “banality”
The topic of publicity crosses the entire work of Hannah Arendt. Although it was already present in her first post-war book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), it gained relevance in The Human Condition (1958). Afterwards, it was resumed in the construction of the term “banality of evil” that marked Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) and, finally, in the interpretation of Kant’s work, the third part of The Life of the Mind (1978-1982), left unfinished by Arendt’s death.
Her vision of publicity can be summed up in Heidegger’s pronouncement: Das Licht der Öffentlichkeit verdunkelt alles, which we could translate as “The light of the public obscures everything”, used by Arendt in the preface to Men in Dark Times (1968). In this dictum from Being and Time Heidegger protests against the false authenticity of modern times, or more precisely, against the irresistible force of trivia – of gossip, to use his words –, which destroys all that is real and authentic and truly worthy of the attention of men.
For Arendt Heidegger’s axiom, both sarcastic and perverse, was an eloquent summary of the “dark times” of the time in which “the public realm has lost the power of illumination which was originally part of its very nature”, as she wrote in the text “Thoughts about Lessing”.
Arendt explained the advent of the dark times in these terms:
“If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing the space for appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by «credibility gaps» and «invisible government», by speech that does not disclose what it sweeps under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality” .
Hannah Arendt misses that “space for appearances”, a place where men can show, for better or for worse, who they are and what they do. The Greek polis provides the perfect image of that space. In the polis men had a space where they could express - and share - their qualities and, therefore, were protected from the chatter and futility. In this circle of excellence and distinction the inhabitants of the city-states competed with each other for the approval of their peers and, guided by the ideals of heroism and immortality, narrated past events, stories of remarkable deeds, worthy of admiration. Thus, the polis emerged as a true “memory organization”, which rescued the men from the laws of finitude and oblivion. Human events, through a continuous work of remembering, were released from the erosion of time. Likewise, the polis carried the extraordinary to the everyday, giving a new meaning to the life of the Athenians. Similarly, Arendt wrote, the res publica of the Romans acted as a device against the triviality of their daily lives.
This kind of place - an “agonistic space”, competitive but also argumentative or persuasive - could only be born within a homogeneous community in which all the inhabitants of the city-state knew and used speech on equal terms. Moral homogeneity, lack of anonymity and political equality were thus the three cornerstones of the polis. Therefore, the survival of the “agonistic space” depended upon a principle of restricted access or, more specifically, the limitation of citizen’s rights to free Athenian males .
Hence, the rehabilitation of the polis is unthinkable today. The eruption of mass society and the extension of citizenship rights destroyed the foundations of the “agonistic space” because they brought moral heterogeneity to the public space, condemning it to anonymity and inequality. While in ancient Greece there was an inequality between the members of the polis and the multitude of excluded (slaves, women, metics), now the differentiation was carried into the public space: de jure, the admission in this space is now open to everyone but, once there, there are no equal opportunities of intervention, and yet, there is clear criterion to determine this unequal capacity to intervene in the public sphere. Access, permanence, speech, the public space, especially in mass societies, always seems to require an element of discrimination and thus the existence of elites seems almost unavoidable. No wonder that some authors, such as Margaret Canovan , Sheldon Wolin  and Hanna Pitkin , criticize the work of Arendt, considering that it incorporates two contradictory political principles. Firstly, a democratic principle which is expressed in the call for the participation of citizens. Secondly, an elitist principle which sees the restrictions on citizenship as a conditio sine qua non for the survival of the public space.
Trying to solve this apparent contradiction in the thought of Arendt, Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves (in a book which is a remarkable synthesis of Arendt’s ideas ) maintains that the author of The Human Condition adopted two models of action. One which could be described as “expressive” and another as “communicative”. Both corresponding to, in turn, two visions of the public space, alternating between the “dramatic setting” (elite type) and the “discursive space” (democratic type). Considering this, Seyla Benahib talks about the duality between “agonistic space” and “associational space” . Rather than making these distinguo, it’s important to keep in mind the evolution of the thought of Arendt. When she wrote The Human Condition she had a heroic, individualistic and elitist vision of politics, which was later abandoned in favour of civic participation in collective decisions. The latter will lead her to advocate a “council democracy” in the book On Revolution (1963), a few years after the Hungarian revolution. It is worth recalling that, according to her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Arendt followed with enthusiasm the Portuguese revolution of 1974 .
Another key aspect of her political thought is the idea of blurring of boundaries between public and private, which Arendt inscribes within the broader context of her complex theory of modernity. For Arendt, modern times are the times of “social”. Men “lost the world” when they changed the public space of action for the private space of economic interests. It’s important to remember the meaning of these concepts for Arendt: the “social” is an unreasonable expansion process of economic activities, which has developed since the eighteenth century and transformed economy in the central political issue of modern societies. The “loss of the world”, in turn, means the restriction or even the removal of the public sphere (the “space of appearances”) and its gradual but irrevocable replacement by the private world of lonely introspection.
In modern times, work became the most relevant component of the vita activa and the homo laborans vanquished the zoon politikon. According to Hannah Arendt, in a world in which work is a supreme value, the private activities of men left the inner circle in which they moved (oikos) to integrate the public sphere. Economic needs become a central political question to a point where the public space of freedom (politics) is dominated by the private space of need (economy). In other words, the private sphere is dissolved into the public space and the latter becomes dominated by the former. It is this dilution between public and private that is at the heart of Arendt’s theory of modernity and explains the great tragedy of our time: totalitarianism. The specific nature of the totalitarian system is the simultaneous destruction of the sphere of public life (through the isolation of men and the annihilation of their political skills) and of the sphere of private life, as a space of individual autonomy, in a radically new way.
This idea came soon in The Origins of Totalitarianism and was deepened by the expression “banality of evil”, turned famous by her account of the Eichmann trial. After watching the Eichmann trial Arendt concluded that the most characteristic feature, or even the essential one, of his personality was the absence of a set agenda or, more precisely, the fact that he was unable “to realize what he was doing”, a much criticized claim from the historiographical point of view.
Arendt continues: “He was not stupid […] it was sheer lack of discernment – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. […] And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann” . Eichmann’s crimes were not the result of his stupidity or of his wickedness: they were, rather, a reflection of his insensitivity to evil, of what Arendt called the “sheer lack of discernment”. For her the “Eichmann case”, and all post-war “cases” pose one of the more complex moral issues of all time: the question of the nature and mechanisms of judgment. In fact, Nazism was such a radical new phenomenon that men did not have rules or codes to deal with it and, as such, they had to be guided solely by their own judgments.
In Nazi Germany, “[t]hose few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely […]. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented” . This is a key phrase: no rules existed for the unprecedented. The meticulous application of Eichmann in the detailed fulfillment of the bureaucratic rules might be a possible answer to the lawlessness that was introduced by the Holocaust. The bureaucratic zeal was the counterpart of the lack of critical judgment. Actually, the abdication of the power to judge was for many the escape from the experience of totalitarian order. In fact, from the moment men cease to wonder about the meaning of their actions, the horror becomes a triviality. We have then the terrible, unspeakable and unthinkable “banality of evil” .
How does all this relate with the problem of publicity? To understand this connection we must move to the last writings of Hannah Arendt, the two volumes of The Life of the Mind - Thinking and Willing. And in particular her interpretation of the Kantian critique of judgment (Judging, the last part of her unfinished trilogy). At the beginning of Thinking Hannah Arendt admits that her interest in “the life of the mind” was born during the trial in Jerusalem. Once again, she acknowledges the impression caused by Eichmann’s empty personality: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer - at least the very effective one now on trial - was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behavior […] was not stupidity but thoughtlessness” . It was this “thoughtlessness” that sparked Arendt’s interest in the problems of “the life of the mind”, driving her to the next and excruciating question: to what extent does the practice of evil require “thoughtlessness”?
As I mentioned before, Hannah Arendt had already realized that the “Eichmann case” was related, mainly, with the power of judgment, with the “ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly”. It is in the study of that power that Arendt comes along with the Kantian critique of judgment which, in her view, was the core of Kant’s political theory. By interpreting the critique of judgment, Arendt emphasizes the distinction between the sensus communis and sensus privatus. The sensus communis means, since Saint Thomas Aquinas, a kind of “sixth sense” that “fits us into a community with others, makes us members of it and enables us to communicate [about] things given by our five private senses” . He thus expresses the necessary link between the subject and the community or, from another perspective, the necessary communicability of judgment.
Remember that Kant in the Critique of the Power of Judgment defined the sensus communis as follows: “By sensus communis [...] must be understood the idea of a sense of a communal sense, i.e., a faculty for judging that in its reflection takes account (a priori) of everyone else’s way of representing in thought, in order as it were to hold its judgment up to human reason as a whole and thereby avoid the illusion which, from subjective private conditions that could easily be held to be by objective, would have a detrimental influence on the judgment” .
Taking this definition, and the need to comply with “everyone else’s way of representing”, Arendt stresses “[j]udgments and especially the judgments of taste, always reflect upon and their taste, take their possible judgments into account. This is necessary because I am human and cannot live outside the company of men” . Therefore, the power of judgment is based on an intersubjective relationship, perhaps dialogical, and on the dignification of otherness. A man reduced to the sensus privatus of the five senses would be the subject unable to formulate an opinion. Insanity, according to Hannah Arendt, is the loss of common sense or, in Kant’s words, the “communal sense” .
The power of judgment stands, consequently, on a clear distinction between the public sphere of the sensus communis and the private sphere of the sensus privatus. For this reason, modernity, with its hegemony of the “social” that tends to blur the distinction between the public and private spheres, helps to qualify the Holocaust as a typically “modern” phenomenon; the most “modern” of the phenomena and, so to speak, a natural consequence - I cannot stress it enough: a natural consequence - of modernity.
That leaves an open question: what sensus communis could exist and thrive in Nazi Germany? If the answer is negative, it is difficult to demand, as Arendt does, that “human beings be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment” and - she adds - even if that judgment “happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them”. Hence, as Suzanne Jacobitti , Jean Yarbrough and Peter Stern say , perhaps the problem should not be located under “judging” but under “thinking”, since this “silent dialogue” between it and itself (Arendt) constitutes, in itself, a defense against wrongdoing. Simply, the “thinking”, in this case and for that purpose, must receive the influx of the power of judgment.
This, based on the sensus communis, opens therefore an area of convergence between public criticism - or its absence - and the “banality of evil”. In a different interpretation, which I will only mention briefly, authors such as Shiraz Dossa, elaborating over Arendt’s text about Eichmann, consider that the capacity for wrong-doing is due to a transposition into the public sphere of a “selfish privacy” (self-interested privacy) .
In short, Hannah Arendt’s vision of modernity is singularly pessimistic. Nevertheless, Arendt did not accept the “banality of evil”, or felt defeated by the fatality of the “dark times”.
On the one hand, she claimed that men should go pick up from the past examples and models that the present denied them. She knew, however, that this task could not be developed with the support of the tradition that modernity had destroyed. It should instead be based on the selective exercise of memory and careful collection of pieces from the past, an idea that Arendt picked up from the “fragmentary historiography” of Walter Benjamin and “destructive hermeneutics” of Heidegger.
On the other hand, Arendt never stopped believing in the values of autonomy and solidarity, i.e., the possibility of rebuilding a democratic discourse through the civic engagement of all citizens .
Memory and speech were, therefore, the two qualities that Hannah Arendt used to respond to the threat of dark times, revealing a profound humanism, even among the ruins of a century plagued by an evil that was so sticking by both its radicalism and banality. In a letter to Karl Jaspers, Arendt makes reference to “radical evil” and some sought to see in it a contradiction with the concept of “banality of evil”. But, in truth, what made the Holocaust so terribly unique was its ability to convert the “radical evil” in a reality accessible and achievable by men as ordinary as Adolf Eichmann. The “banality of evil” is not, contrary to what many critics said, a concept that relativizes the Holocaust and exonerates the authors and executors. It is, rather, the unsettling denouncing of the unlimited wickedness of ordinary men, like those that we can find in this amphitheater of the Faculty of Law, in this April afternoon. Hannah Arendt’s report may be occasionally dated in some respects, particularly in the description that she makes of the role of the Jewish councils, as demonstrated by a very recent book by Deborah Lipstadt . But, essentially, the address to ordinary men, like all of us, is the definitive proof that the work of Hannah Arendt maintains an uncomfortable and disturbing freshness. Unfortunately.
[originalmente publicado in AA.VV., Eichmann in Jerusalem – 50 Years After. An Interdisciplinary Approach. Berlim: Duncker & Humblot, 2012, pp. 71-77]
 Cf. Arendt, H.: Homens em Tempos Sombrios. Portugues transl. Lisboa: Relógio D’Água, 1991, p. 8.
 Cf. Benhahib, Seyla: “Models of public space: Hannah Arendt, the liberal tradition, and Jürgen Habermas”, in: Calhoun, Craig (ed.): Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 78-79.
 Cf. Canovan, Margaret: "The contradictions of Hannah Arendt's political thought", Political Theory, vol. 6, nº 1, 1978, pp. 5ff.
 Cf. Wolin, Sheldon: "Hannah Arendt: democracy and the political", in: Hinchman, Lewis P. / Hinchman, Sandra K. (eds.), Hannah Arendt. Critical essays, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994, pp. 289-306.
 Cf. Pitkin, Hanna: "Justice: on relating private and public", in: Hinchman, Lewis P. / Hinchman, Sandra K. (eds.), Hannah Arendt. Critical essays, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994, pp. 261-288.
 Cf. D'Entrèves, Maurizio Passerin: The political philosophy of Hannah Arendt, Londres: Routledge, 1994.
 Cf. Benhahib, Seyla: “Models of public space…”, cit, pp. 78-79.
 Cf. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth: Hannah Arendt. For love of the world, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, p. 438 and p. 466.
 Cf. Arendt, Hannah: Eichmann à Jérusalem. Rapport sur la banalité du mal. French transl. Paris: Folio, 1991, p. 460.
 Idem, p. 470.
 Idem, p. 408.
 Cf. Arendt, Hannah: A vida do espírito. O pensar, o querer, o julgar. Brazilian transl. 2nd edition, revised. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará, 1991, p. 414.
 Cf. Arendt, Hannah: A vida do espírito…, cit., p. 39.
 Cf. Kant, Immanuel: Crítica da faculdade do juízo. Portuguese transl. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1992, p. 196.
 Cf. Arendt, Hannah: A vida do espírito…, cit., p. 377.
 Cf. Arendt, Hannah: A vida do espírito…, cit., p. 375. Arendt, Hannah, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 70-72.
 Cf. Jacobitti, Suzanne Duvall: "The public, the private, the moral: Hannah Arendt and political morality", International Political Science Review - Revue internationale de science politique, vol. 12, nº 4, october 1991, p. 285.
 Cf. Yarbrough, Jean / Stern, Peter: "Vita Activa and Vita Contemplativa: Reflections on Hannah Arendt's political thought in The Life of the Mind", The Review of Politics, vol. 43, nº 3, July 1981, pp. 323-354.
 Cf. Dossa, Shiraz: "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The public, the private and evil", The Review of Politics, vol. 46, nº 2, April 1984, p. 166 and pp. 170ff.
 Cf. Focher, Ferruccio: "L'umanesimo politico di Hannah Arendt", Il Politico - Rivista Italiana di Scienze Politiche, ano LVI, nº 1, January-March 1991, pp. 5-27.
 Cf. Lipstadt, Deborah E.: The Eichmann Trial, New York: Schocken Books, 2011.