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Hannah Arendt and the problem of evil

Hannah Arendt is one of the great women philosophers of the 20th century. Two recent publications in Danish on Arendt show that her philosophical thinking still challenges us in a world that is, as she predicted at the end of World War II, haunted by the question of evil. Copenhagen-based philosopher Robin Schott is hopeful that both books will inspire greater interest in Arendt's work in Danish universities. But she regrets that none of them address how the terms "woman" and "philosopher" are linked in Hannah Arendt's life and work.

FORUM/December 2002 When I finished my B.A. in philosophy in May 1976, it was barely six months after Hannah Arendt's death at the age of 69. The facts of Arendt's life and death apparently escaped the attention of one of my professors. While congratulating me on my exams, he said, "Tell me Robin, why have there been no great women philosophers?"

Hannah Arendt, along with Simone de Beauvoir, must be considered one of the great women philosophers of the 20th century. Yet the philosophical status of both thinkers has been constantly under assault. While Hannah Arendt was often typed as a political theorist, Simone de Beauvoir was viewed as an essayist and novelist. But internationally there has been a renaissance of philosophical interest in the work of both writers during the 1980's and 1990's. These two new books on Hannah Arendt contribute substantially to the very modest number of publications on her work in the Danish language.

Although Hannah Arendt must be counted as a great woman philosopher, one may still ask the question: how are the terms "woman" and "philosopher" linked in Hannah Arendt's life and work? This is a question that the Norwegian philosopher Einar Øverenget addresses only tentatively. On the one hand, he incorporates biographical material that explicitly stresses Arendt's female identity. He mentions all of Hannah Arendt's love affairs, and discusses at length her relation with Martin Heidegger. And his remarks about Hannah Arendt's childhood and adolescence do tend to "girl" her. (He refers repeatedly to how temperamental "little Hannah" was.) Øverenget also refers to Arendt's critical relation to feminism, based on her view that gender is a non-political category (Øverenget, p.184).

He does mention a few feminist authors who have written on Arendt, e.g., Seyla Benhabib's The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Sage, 1996) and Julia Kristeva's Hannah Arendt (translated by Ross Guberman, Columbia Univ. Press, 2001). Yet one could wish for a more substantive engagement with this theme. Recent feminist debates about Hannah Arendt have moved away from analyzing the "Woman Question" in Arendt, with its focus on her treatment of women, to the "Arendt Question in Feminism", with its focus on what resources Arendt offers feminist theory and politics. But Øverenget does not address any of these recent feminist interpretations of Hannah Arendt's work although he does mention Bonnie Honig's Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (Pennsylvania State Univ., 1995) in his supplementary literature list.

There are also several embarrassing typos and errors in this edition (e.g., on p.13 Hitler is described as taking power in 1922, instead of 1932; and Seyla Benhabib's name is systematically misspelled). But if one can put aside these disappointments and irritations, then one can find in Øverenget's book not only a competent and interesting presentation of Hannah Arendt's work, but also a book that is written in an Arendtian spirit. Øverenget discusses serious philosophical themes for a non-academic audience. In order to make Arendt's work accessible to a broad audience, he highlights the connection between existence and thought, and the commitment to thinking, that are key themes for Hannah Arendt.

Arendt's integration of experience and philosophy makes her thinking both concrete and general.(Øverenget, p.14) Although Arendt did not focus on her concrete identity as a woman, she was keenly conscious of her identity as a Jew. Her book on Rahel Varnhagen reflects this concern with Jewish identity. Rahel Varnhagen, born in Berlin in 1771, was a Jewish woman who held salons for leading intellectuals in the German romantic period. In Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman (San Diego, Harcout Brace Jovanovich, 1974), Arendt develops the concept of the pariah, the outsider who transforms difference into a source of strength. From the position of the pariah, one can defend the demand for political rights across social inequalities (Øverenget, p.40). Arendt's life was also marked by the experience of being a stateless Jew from 1933, when she fled Nazi Germany, until 1950, when she became an American citizen. This experience was decisive for her intellectual interests. At the end of World War II, she claimed that the problem of evil would be the fundamental question for intellectuals in the post-war period (Øverenget, p.221).

Indeed, the problem of evil became fundamental for two of her most debated books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. In Origins, she analyzes the history of anti-semitism in Central and Western Europe, the development of European colonial imperialism, and the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, in order to focus on the questions: What is the basis for a shared world? How can alienation from this shared world be overcome? (Øverenget, p.35) Arendt analyzes the paradox of modernity, with its emphasis on individual freedom as a paramount value and with its creation of a mass society that makes the individual completely superfluous.

The radical evil of totalitarianism is not connected with the desire for domination, for inflicting pain, or for violating the moral law. It is an evil that aims to eliminate the spontaneity of the individual, the fundamental feature of human existence. Although Arendt invoked the concept of radical evil in Origins, she introduces the concept of banal evil, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Øverenget suggests that this shift in terminology does not signify a shift in Arendt's conception of evil. The Third Reich resulted in radical evil. But the cause of this evil lies in individuals like Adolf Eichmann who carried out Hitler's orders because they were characterized by a thoughtlessness and superficiality that can only be called banal.

Although Øverenget stresses that Arendt's thinking unites both concrete and general, he nonetheless views these texts as political, not properly philosophical works. Susan Neiman, in her outstanding new book, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2002), sharply challenges this common interpretation when she describes Eichmann in Jerusalem as "the twentieth century's most important philosophical contribution to the problem of evil." According to Neiman, Eichmann is philosophical, not only because it discusses general philosophical questions that are reflected in one particular case, but because this particularity is the route philosophy must take if it is to understand the nature of judgment.

Øverenget does not focus on the problem of evil alone, but on the entire corpus of Hannah Arendt's works. Here I will restrict my remaining comments to his discussion of The Human Condition (Hannah Arendt, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), where he uses Arendt's distinction between earth and world to probe contemporary readers' presuppositions about the relation between the natural and the artificial.

Arendt emphasizes that human beings are subject to certain biological necessities from which we cannot emancipate ourselves. But unlike animals who live a natural life on earth, human beings have the capacity to create an artificial world which provides a stable frame for expressing individual uniqueness. Arendt's approach challenges the common presumption today that the "natural" should be the measure by which human actions and social policies should be judged. She reminds us that we can neither reduce individuals to their biological existence, nor emancipate humans from their biological conditions. Instead, we must retain a balance between the biologically given and the humanly created. Øverenget hints that these themes are relevant to contemporary debates about bio-technology. He also offers a controversial interpretation of Arendt's concept of natality.

For Arendt, natality represents not only the birth of each unique individual, but the capacity of each individual to act and hence to begin something new. Arendt writes that "natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political...thought." And she describes the fact of natality as the miracle that saves the world and that bestows on human affairs "faith and hope" Øverenget, however, links the concept of natality to Arendt's explicitly political reflections in order to argue: "I kraft af nataliteten og evnen til at handle udgør ethvert nyt individ også en fare for civilisationen. Barnet bærer barbariet med sig." (Øverenget, p.217) (By virtue of natality and the ability to act each new individual poses a threat to civilization. The child carries barbarism with him or her. Ed.) Øverenget's ominous interpretation of natality needs further discussion and substantiation. Here one confronts the limits of an intellectual book that is produced and marketed for a non-academic audience, for there are no references that enable the reader to check and evaluate the author's interpretation. (In 255 pages of texts there are only 22 notes, all of which are quotations from Arendt's own texts.)

While Øverenget focuses in particular on Martin Heidegger's influence on Hannah Arendt, Carsten Bagge Lausten and Jacob Dahl Rendtorff's anthology Ondskabens banalitet engages Arendt's thought with other major 20th century thinkers, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Lacan, as well as with contemporary thinkers including Jürgen Habermas, Slavoj Zizek, Zygmunt Bauman, and Giorgio Agamben. This book focuses specifically on the problem of evil and is addressed primarily to an academic audience.

The position of Arendt as a great woman philosopher is disregarded in this book, and I am sorry to see that there is not a single woman contributor to the volume. Nonetheless, there are a number of fresh and interesting contributions: e.g., the comparison between Adorno's analysis of the authoritarian personality and Arendt's analysis of Eichmann's superficiality and inability to think (Anders Ramsay); the discussion of how one can assure contemporary administrators in Denmark better possibilities for maintaining and expressing independent moral judgment than Eichmann had (Øjvind Larsen).

Here I will only discuss two articles that address the central questions of this anthology: Is evil as banal as Arendt suggested in her analysis of Eichmann? Are distance and abstraction from human relations sufficient conditions for committing acts of evil? Or does evil arise out of a flawed moral sensibility in immediate personal relations?(Laustsen and Rendtorff, p.18)

Carsten Bagge Laustsen argues, in opposition to Arendt, that Eichmann was both a sadist and a cynic. He develops his argument on the basis of the psychoanalytic methodology that Lacan developed and that Zizek applies to cultural analysis. According to Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil, Eichmann was not an anti-semite, and did not know what he was doing. But he committed great acts of evil out of thoughtlessness. Lausten argues that Arendt's analysis does not address Eichmann's way of being in the world, his choice of thoughtlessness. Eichmann's choice expresses a sadistic pleasure that he received in identifying both with the Führer and as the Führer's slave, and it expresses a cynical endorsement of an anti-semitic ideology that he claimed to deny (Laustsen and Rendtorff, p.150).

Arne Johan Vetlesen similarly questions Arendt's thesis that evil-doers are not motivated by sadistic pleasure. Many acts of evil occur in a hands-on confrontation between aggressor and victim, and not merely through the detachment of ordering an impersonal extermination. Hands-on evil occurred during World War II, as in the case of the police battalions in Poland and the Soviet Union who carried out the execution of the Jews, and it was present in the genocidal violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vetlesen argues that ideologically determined cognitive perceptions of the other interfere with the moral capacity for empathy that otherwise can develop in human interactions (Laustsen and Rendtorff, p.266).

Both authors suggest that human beings have basic moral capacities that can be dis-abled. For Laustsen, moral capacity is dis-abled through an individual's choice to be sadistic and cynical; for Vetlesen, culturally determined criteria interfere with this moral capacity, as when anti-semitic parents teach their children who are appropriate play-mates and who are not. But what in Arendt's view provides the basis for human moral capacities? Can the existence of human plurality itself provide the basis for an ethics of radical intersubjectivity? Can the cognitive ability to "think with others" provide us with the necessary moral resources? If neither of these answers is adequate, is there a gap in Arendt's thinking about morality?

Neither Øverenget's book nor Lausten and Rendtorff's anthology answers these questions. But both books show that Arendt's thinking continues to challenge us in a world that is, as she predicted, haunted by the question of evil. And the two books complement each other by the different ways in which they interpret Arendt's work from the perspective of the present. By doing so, they enrich the public philosophical discourse in Denmark. And one may hope that they will pave the way for a greater engagement with Hannah Arendt's work in Danish universities.
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More on Hannah Arendt in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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