On ‘understanding’ evil

This post is a follow-up to the one below on Hannah Arendt and the notion of the banality of evil. I fear, from one or two of the comments, that the reservations I expressed about her arguments may have led to misunderstanding. My point was certainly not to suggest that one shouldn’t try to understand and explain why and how these horrors happen, how people can come to commit, or be indirectly involved in, them. This is why I said, for example:

We have to understand what they [the perpetrators] did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers ‘by nature’, and so forth.

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Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil

[I’d like to start by thanking the Fistful of Euros team for inviting me to guest-blog here this week. I’m hoping to offer a mini-series on European thinkers, focusing on just an aspect of the ideas of the thinker I choose in each case. I say ‘hoping to’ because I still have to compose the posts. But, anyway, here goes with the first of them?]

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In doing so she popularized the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, applying it to Adolf Eichmann in particular. Arendt referred to?:

the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. [All quotations from Eichmann in Jerusalem, except as otherwise indicated.]

A certain amount of misunderstanding has been generated by Arendt’s use of this phrase. That is in part because it was inapt to her intended meaning; in part perhaps also because it may have been inapt to its principal object – Eichmann.
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