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Evil: Banal and Otherwise

Writing about a new book by the philosopher Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem, the columnist George Will in a Washington Post column last week faulted Hannah Arendt for accepting Eichmann's "facade" that he was a little cog in a bureaucratic machine.

Stangneth, 48, has been described as an independent philosopher and historian living in Hamburg and as having " comprehensively analyzed" more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann's recently discovered written notes. Stangneth writes of Arendt having been mislead by Eichmann's act on the witness stand. She also writes that her book is,

... a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. This is not merely due to the fact that my own interest in the topic was aroused many years ago by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is dependent on understanding the era and the circumstances in which events occurred, and so a perspective like Arendt's is indispensable.

She adds that Arendt "showed courage in her ability to reach a clear judgment of the situation while aware of the risk, despite her meticulous research, of not knowing enough."

What does the revelation that Arendt had been misled do to her phrase "banality of evil," invented at that time of Eichman's trial? Banality suggests a boring lack of originality, a mere conformist rather than one of those responsible with others for National Socialist ideology: a Darwinistic struggle for survival between nations and races that justified the mass murder of Jews, the perceived enemy of Germany and Aryans. Before his trial, a few Jews described Eichmann as a stupid and simple man, and that is how Arendt saw him. This gets to the question of intelligence and evil. Eichmann, it turns out, was at least above average in intelligence. Hitler can be judged a little above average in intelligence. Is evil the result of the nature of humanity? Was the philosopher Kant correct in writing of "the depravity of human nature?"

Philosophers have been writing about Kant's concept called "Radical Evil." Stangneth did her dissertation on Kant's "Radical Evil." The philosopher Richard J Bernstein has a book titled Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. I won't bore you or with a description of Kant's position. I can't because I haven't read it. Bernstein suggests turning to Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Freud and Nietzsche in a search for the meaning of evil and human responsibility. In my opinion we can do just as well without dependency on any of these thinkers.

What intellectual justification exists for the proposition that humanity is depraved? What study of biology, neuroscience or sociology allows this? Biologically humanity has impulses that include fight or flight, anger or the empathy that glues people together into their various groupings. Some people act in what they see as in the interest of the largest group they identify with, and some act in their own interest in ways that are seen by others as criminal. Across history different ideas have changed. Ideology is plastic and a matter of opinion. Liberalism developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. National Socialist (Nazi) ideology drew from ideas in the nineteenth century and earlier and matured in the early twentieth century. A good study of history should tell us something about evil and its origins.

This is all about opinion, the opinions of those who chose how they will behave and the opinions of those who evaluate that behavior. This is not about sociological metrics. It can't be settled by abstract mathematical formulas. It's something measured with our own personal values applied to history.

Let us look into the recent past and an Airforce General named Curtis LeMay, originally from Columbus Ohio. He held to the ideological underpinnings involved in the creation of the US Constitution. He was a man of exceptional intelligence, described as a bright and innovative major general when he was in charge of the Army Air Corps in the Pacific during the war against Japan. LeMay, I submit, had banal Cold War attitudes that led him to oppose President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. LeMay described Khrushchev's letter to Kennedy during that crisis as "a lot of bullshit" and said that "Khrushchev must believe we are a bunch of dumb shits, if we swallow that syrup." LeMay wanted military action rather than talk with the Russians. That was 1962. In 1968 when a lot of vulgar ideas about race and the civil rights movement were still around, LeMay would gather up his wisdom to become George Wallace's running mate. Perhaps you will forgive me for thinking that going to war during the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been an evil act or that Wallace's "segregation forever" was another evil idea.

Study LeMay and the circumstances within which he worked and you might improve your understanding of the nature of evil. We can go back further, to World War II and the war against Japan. LeMay didn't mind killing civilians. His firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than did the bombing of Hiroshima.

Humans have a sense of decency, but in their body of ideas that we call ideology there is often room for what I see as slop. This we see in collections of a percentage of a population we call a mob – people who do things we might consider evil while they think they are opposing evil. Here is a comment attributed to John K Galbraith:

The reality is that we are a country like any other, with good and evil people, the strong and the weak, noble and criminal acts, with truth often hidden under deception and propaganda.

Staying with World War II, in Germany we had the same mix of good and evil. There were generals doing their duty to the Hitler regime who still had some decency in them. One was General Rommel. And there were others offended by the German military policy of killing civilians in Poland. And there were other Germans who had jobs as prison guards who found opportunity to express the sadism that is common among many people.

From the dregs of society we can find people exercising what they think of as enlightened philosophy that in actuality is simplistic and warped derivations. In this regard we have Charles Manson as an example.

Taking what I see as warped thinking that is too common among people, I wish to cling to Arendt's phrase, "banality of evil," no matter that Eichmann was more than a mere thoughtless clog in the Nationalist Socialist regime. I don't like conformity to mob passions and following one's impulses ungoverned by what some call our "better angels." Not believing in angels I attribute these better thoughts to commonsense empathies sometimes aided by an uncommon sophistication.

I'm not a great fan of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but I appreciated his recognition that a great evil across history was imperialism, kings expanding in territory, people invading another people, which kings did to gain territory and wealth in the form of tribute or taxes or, as in the case of Sparta, making slaves of former inhabitants.

The French filmmaker Louis Malle did something artistically with the concept "banality of evil," in my opinion with his film "Lacombe Lucien." Lucien was a young man who wanted to be heroic but was rejected by the French Resistance. (Wanting to do something heroic, often leads to something bad in my opinion.) Instead, he becomes involved with a group of pro-German collaborations, providing them with information. He was serving his desire to be important and to have some power. As Roger Ebert described it,

Now he gets to carry a gun (even a machine gun), and he has money in his pocket. It's a good job, as jobs go. He doesn't seem, at first, or even afterwards, to have given much thought to the moral issues involved... [Malle's] film isn't really about French collaborators, but about a particular kind of human being, one capable of killing and hurting, one incapable of knowing or caring about his real motives, one who would be a prime catch for basic training and might make a good soldier and not ask questions.

Lucien becomes attracted to a French born Jewish girl who lives in seclusion with her father, Albert, a tailor, and her paternal grandmother. Lacombe becomes protective of those targeted by his superiors. In the end he is executed for his collaboration with the Germans.

Life goes on, and some people give thought to what is right and wrong, more in particulars rather than great abstractions.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.