What Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt Can Teach Us About Evil Today

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George Prochnik in the LA Review of Books:

Nestled inside Arendt and Scholem’s discussion of the nature of evil is a controversy over language. Scholem implies that the cool note of urbane wit Arendt employs not only fails to capture the essence of the event she is witnessing, but actually contributes to the project of dehumanization that Eichmann helped actualize. She loses sight of her subject in the sparkling exercise of her own cleverness. Ironically, in accusing Arendt of practicing facile mockery at the expense of real engagement with the events in Jerusalem, Scholem is charging Arendt with the flipside version of the crime she pins on Eichmann himself: thoughtlessness. Only in Arendt’s case it is an excess of linguistic dexterity that fouls up her thinking rather than the deficit she perceives in Eichmann.

Arendt’s diagnosis of Eichmann’s banality was not intended to minimize the harm he inflicted, as she attempted repeatedly to make clear in response to attacks against her work, but to underscore his mediocrity. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s astonishing superficiality, on display throughout his trial, could be understood as even more ominous than the character of some classic satanic figure since it represented an easily communicable strain of wickedness. Eichmann’s banality underscored the susceptibility of unremarkable men and women to becoming collaborators in spectacular crimes under pressure of the right kind of leadership and within the self-contained moral universe of bureaucratic systems that enabled perpetrators to shuck off their sense of personal responsibility. As Arendt wrote Scholem, having watched Eichmann in action she had ceased to believe in the idea of “radical evil” that had been part of her philosophical lexicon in her earlier work on totalitarianism. Evil, she now proposed, had no depth, “and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface.”

More here.

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