Arendt in Dark Times
With Corey Robin’s piece “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” [June 1], The Nation lives up to its reputation for provoking critical thought. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and the banality of evil goes far beyond the Nazis and the Holocaust. We can see it today in the acquiescence and apathy of average Americans, who leave vital domestic- and foreign-policy questions to the mediocre politicians, technocrats, and powerful groups that lead us astray. We see it in those who deny the brutal consequences of global warming, free-market fundamentalism, militarism, and racism. By remaining neutral, we immerse ourselves in the evil that surrounds us. Hannah Arendt spoke out. She was one of the just ones.
In the very beginning of Corey Robin’s essay on Hannah Arendt, he asks: “Do we know of a Trojan War that is not intimately Homer’s, a Richard III who is not Shakespeare’s?” I don’t want to discuss the Trojan War, but it should be made abundantly clear that Shakespeare’s Tudor-pandering portrayal of Richard III is way off base historically. Over the past several decades, there have been numerous historically valid works that have proved Richard III to be far from the murderous tyrant that Shakespeare drew. No more should we read comments like that of Mr. Robin’s here.
David M. Jordan
Corey Robin is right to challenge simplistic readings of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. In my book The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt, I argue that the “banality of evil” passages in Eichmann in Jerusalem cannot be understood without a deep comprehension of the role that thinking plays in Arendt’s philosophy, notably the explanation she provides in The Life of the Mind. There, she explains, “it was the absence of [his] thinking…that awakened my interest.” Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s heavy reliance on clichés, even at times employing contradictory ones. Eichmann’s conscience, the bed of one’s own thought, had ceased to function. Thus, her use of the word “banality” refers to this “sheer thoughtlessness” as the cause of evil in this case. The word was never meant to describe the effect of evil but rather the cause.