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Arendt’s Judgment – by Marc Greif (Dissent Magazine)


Dissent played a part in the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1963, when Hannah Arendt’s articles for the New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in an Israeli court provoked consternation in intellectual journals and condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, Irving Howe decided to hold a public forum, under the auspices of the magazine, to invite the principals to debate. Arendt declined. Daniel Bell and Raul Hilberg took Arendt’s side, with Howe moderating, and met a violent clamor of opposition.

History remembers the forum for its breakdown of civility among the New York Intellectuals. The immediate recriminations centered on whether Alfred Kazin had been shouted down. “[A]t no point-I repeat: at no point-was anyone, not Bell or Hilberg or Kazin, ‘shouted down,'” Howe wrote. “[N]obody seemed to listen to what Alfred Kazin, who spoke up for Hannah, was saying,” William Phillips offered: “In fact, as I remember, he was booed.” The last word on the forum currently belongs to Ted Solotaroff, who just last year, in Alfred Kazin’s America, published his recollection of what happened:

[T]he rhetoric became more inflamed as each speaker tried to outdo the others in telling outrage. Finally, Howe introduced a survivor of the Holocaust and was happily translating for the audience his Yiddish testimony against Arendt when Kazin stood up, walked to the podium, and said, “That’s enough, Irving. This disgraceful piling on has to stop.”

The disgraceful piling on hasn’t really stopped for forty years. Even today Hannah Arendt is misremembered as a betrayer of her fellow Jews. It’s true that much of the sound and fury around Eichmann came from provoking habits of Arendt’s own. She never defined “the banality of evil,” the notorious phrase from her subtitle. Only a minority of commentators who have used the phrase since then understood what she meant. Arendt’s style was ironic and cutting. It was as if she had reversed the famous esoteric doctrine of her contemporary, Leo Strauss, and demanded persecution from those who should have been her allies by creating a surface full of provocations, and leaving between the lines the highly traditional principles that would have out-moralized the moralizers. Arendt’s paradoxes were calls to philosophical thought. But they could only have been elucidated in the philosophical works that the tumult surrounding Eichmann kept her from writing.

Two new books illuminate the perplexities of Arendt’s thought and the controversies surrounding her. Responsibility and Judgment collects lectures, addresses, and essays from the era of Eichmann in Jerusalem, letting us see how Arendt clarified her position in response to her critics, and turned a reporter’s insights into philosophy. Letters 1925-1975: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger invites English-language readers to examine the most controversial aspect of Arendt’s biography more recently, her love affair and lifelong friendship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazis as Arendt fled them.

THE BANALITY OF EVIL was a simple concept. It meant the following: A person who committed the most evil deeds could do so without having a wicked heart or a criminal temperament. To Arendt, this created a conceptual problem. Most people who did evil deeds really should have a corrupt temperament. Normal people, she firmly believed, held an aversion to evil: “It is, I think, a simple fact that people are at least as often tempted to do good and need an effort to do evil as vice versa.”

To many of us, this wouldn’t have caused a conceptual problem. In her era as in ours, everyday opinion made less of individual choice and more of circumstance. Bureaucracy reduced personal autonomy. An individual could be trained, controlled, or coerced. He could be made a “cog” in a machine; refusal is pointless if a more malleable person will instantly replace you. The “banality of evil” was misunderstood partly because it sounded so easy to assimilate to these ideas of reduced responsibility-all of which Arendt rejected.

At the Eichmann trial, Arendt had a perception for which she has often been faulted, but which every journalist who covered Eichmann in 1961 seemed to find. He was too normal. Mainstream magazines such as Life, Newsweek, and the Atlantic presented Eichmann’s averageness, dullness, and familiarity. He had arranged Jewish deportations from Reich territories. He transported populations to the death camps. But unlike Hitler and the major Nazi criminals, who had done evil from evil motives, Eichmann’s terrible deeds seemed to come from ambition and concern with his organizational task rather than a will to kill Jews. (This is controversial still; Arendt insisted on it.) In a psychological, though not a legal sense, he seemed to lack mens rea, a criminal mind.

It particularly troubled Arendt that Eichmann didn’t reject law or morality as higher-ranking Nazis did. He quoted Kant’s moral theory accurately and claimed to follow it. He had kept his “conscience,” meaning he had avoided compromises, shortcuts, or the intrusion of personal feelings into his arrangements to transport Jews.

The under-recognized outcome of her sense of Eichmann’s “normalcy,” for Arendt, was a shoring up of her already demanding sense of individual responsibility. This emerged, in Eichmann, in two very different projects. One was an empirical investigation. She wanted to know what in Eichmann’s inner makeup had allowed him not to see that his acts were wrong. The other was a separate task of publicity. Arendt was inspired to name all the ordinary people who were not being tried in Jerusalem, everyone from the Nazi era who had escaped judgment.

This led to her notorious, bitter pages on the Judenräte, the councils of Jewish leaders assembled by the Nazis when Jewish populations were ghettoized and deported. To minimize the suffering of the community, or to have some say in a terrible process, Judenräte did such things as deliver lists to the Nazis, select people to be deported, and round deportees up with a Jewish Police. Arendt believed it was immoral whenever leaders of a community made exceptions for some while they sent others to die. This judgment against the Judenräte earned Arendt the permanent enmity of friends like Gershom Scholem and her mentor, the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld. Her many angry pages of names of West Germans who had escaped judgment for their Nazi past, including officials in the Adenauer government, did nothing to blunt the controversy.

By judging the Judenräte, yet coolly and ironically studying Eichmann, Arendt seemed to her critics to be exculpating the captured Nazi and blaming his victims. But others’ interpretations had their own weaknesses. The American press viewed Eichmann as a symbol of the possibility of having one’s actions determined by bad circumstances. “There is an Eichmann in every one of us”: anyone might be capable of what Eichmann had done, and must be on guard against “conformism.” Jewish critics of Arendt’s reading of Eichmann, instead, believed that Eichmann’s normalcy was utterly an illusion or a put-on. Because Eichmann had been capable of monstrous deeds, he must be a monster inside.

To Arendt, these two positions seemed far more exculpatory than her own. An “Eichmann in everyone” diminished moral responsibility for those who crossed the line from conformism to actual evil. The idea that Eichmann was an utter monster, pathological and unique, refused realities uncovered by the trial and investigation. It set a standard of evil that ordinary wrongdoers wouldn’t meet. This jeopardized the process of judging wrongs in normal people. In her critics’ violent defense of the Judenräte, Arendt saw a fear of judgment. Why was everyone so afraid to do what any well-trained child could do: to judge those who had done wrong as wrongdoers-if not in court, then in speech and the freedom of their own thought-and let the chips fall where they might?

There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging . . . [B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done. . . . Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone. Hence the huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person.

Arendt’s own solution to the Eichmann enigma came closer to the views of her critics than of the American press. If Eichmann was “normal,” she thought, there was still something else wrong with him to let him do such evil. Her answer, based on observation, was not monstrosity but “thoughtlessness.”

This judgment has irritated readers ever since. Eichmann could obviously think in the ordinary sense. Arendt’s use of this word could only point to some philosophical concept she seemed too proud to spell out. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, “thinking” had two immediate meanings, as the two human things Eichmann seemed unable to do. He couldn’t think from the point of view of others. Interrogated by the Israelis, when his own life depended on it, he treated his questioners as if their worries and priorities were identical to his own. And he couldn’t see “reality”: that is, he failed to respond to the facts in front of his eyes if he could slip into a stock phrase (as when he loftily promised to remember everyone, in his speech before being hanged).

Thinking and judging: at this stage, the concepts’ definitions were pre-philosophical, rooted in Arendt’s immediate responses to Eichmann’s character. Yet their elaboration as grounds for philosophy occupied her for the rest of her life.

NONE BUT COMMITTED Arendt scholars, or those personally close to her, would have known that she built up an explicit moral philosophy under the direct influence of her insights from Eichmann. By the time The Life of the Mind was published, posthumously, in 1978, her late ideas seemed so transformed that though she credited the Eichmann trial with initiating them, the reader could hardly believe it. Responsibility and Judgment, however, publishes a set of four lectures she gave at the New School in 1965, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.” Because this material comes from the earliest period of post-Eichmann philosophizing, the continuity of her thought becomes clear.

Her task was to formulate the morality that kept average people from doing evil in emergency situations. The emergency she had in mind was Nazi Germany. She wished more people had possessed principles that led them to refuse the Nazis. Refusal was exhibited by rare individuals of every social type. Set against them, though, were those “normal” people who couldn’t be relied on: Eichmann-types on the one hand, and advanced “intellectuals,” her former colleagues, on the other. These two groups loved to judge things by rules-but in the Third Reich all rules had been reversed. “Thou Shalt Kill,” she liked to say, became the First Commandment. Therefore, Arendt set herself the difficult task of a morality that would not depend on rules.

Examining the history of philosophy, she found she had two natural allies for her concepts. The first was Socrates, who had made thinking the fundamental task of the good life. The second was Kant, who put judgment at the center of his aesthetics, in the power to identify a particular object, like a rose, as “beautiful” without a rule to follow. Kant, it’s true, already had a moral philosophy. Yet his three formulations of the Categorical Imperative, the most impressive ethical rule-book of modern times, and his picture of reason giving law to the self, had proven inadequate protections against participation in the evil of the Nazis.

Socrates provided her model of thinking. In the agora or the gymnasium, he questioned others to see what ideas would not stand up. When he was alone, thinking continued as an internal version of that same dialogue. It was “the silent dialogue between me and myself,” Arendt wrote. It made the thinker like two speakers internally, “two-in-one,” always testing possible beliefs and actions, grappling with the reality of the outer situation by a kind of inner company.

In his refusal to escape Athens when sentenced to death, Socrates also formulated the fundamental positive doctrine of Arendt’s vision of morality: “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.” Arendt saw this doctrine as a consequence of the conception of being two-in-one, an inevitable outcome of Socratic thinking. Thinking produced a kind of “don’t step beyond this line” that moral people held as their base for all behavior. If a thinking person did wrong, he would henceforth be in the presence of a wrongdoer, himself, and the long-term attempt to live with himself would be worse than any punishment the world could give.

But one needed to be able to judge right and wrong when it was not just a matter of refusing or saying “no.” Arendt knew that Kant had “defined judgment as the faculty which always comes into play when we are confronted with particulars.” For the judgment of a person’s action or his character, also, Arendt realized, one had no rule that could fit the always particular details and always unique circumstances.

Quoting Kant’s phrase, “Examples are the go-cart of judgment,” Arendt stressed the need of exemplary persons and actions for training in judgment. “We judge and tell right from wrong by having present in our mind some incident and some person, absent in time or space, that have become examples. There are many such examples. They can lie far back in the past or they can be among the living.” Exemplary wrongdoers and right-doers gave reason, the individual faculty of thought, its tie to the sensus communis. Such a common sense would keep the knowledge of human community intact even in an emergency like Nazism, when a whole society made laws that violated it.

As a moral theory, this is coherent but extremely demanding for anyone with modern expectations. Arendt rejected every argument we use to diminish the individual responsibility of a person in extreme situations. Determinism by circumstance, “cog” theory, collective guilt-she rejected them all. She also rejected the “argument of the lesser evil,” that it is acceptable to collaborate with an evil act if it might prevent or divert one greater. Participation, she insisted, always communicated consent. You could not collaborate with an evil process, whatever your motives, without in effect supporting it, and the practical consequences were nearly always better if enough people refused. She rejected a moral exception for physical coercion, even to the threat of death, using a formulation she had worked out with her close friend Mary McCarthy: “If somebody points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.”

FINALLY, THOUGH, it is her idea of judgment that is most alien to us. On Arendt’s model, we must judge, and judge, and judge: thoughtfully, implacably, publicly. At both the individual level and the level of the community, people must always be judging the acts and characters of others. If you think of our current world, there may be truth to her charge that we are afraid of judging. We complain about people, we hate them, we love scandals, we opine about what people shouldn’t dare say in public. But we would think it arrogant for one person to stand up and coolly say to another-“I, so-and-so, having considered it carefully, judge that what you, Mr. X, did, was morally wrong. I need no more authority to judge you than the fact that I am a fellow human being, and that I have judged by good examples, and asked myself what I, myself, could not live with doing.”

Of course, it would be a very curious world in which one constantly dared to judge others, and not so much one’s enemies. As Arendt always insisted, the real moral issue was never with one’s enemies, who like the Nazis could be so obviously evil) but with one’s friends, and those one loved.

HANNAH ARENDT would not have become political, she later believed, if the Nazis had not made life as a philosopher inadequate. At age twenty-seven, author of a published dissertation on Love and Saint Augustine, she was arrested for anti-Nazi activities on behalf of the German Zionist Organization. Upon her release, she fled Germany, living first in Geneva, then Paris. Deported with other “enemy aliens” in 1940 to the French internment camp at Gurs, released at the fall of France, she and her husband made it to America. In New York, she began the work that would make her the most important theorist of totalitarianism in the postwar years, while working for a variety of Jewish organizations. Then in 1963, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, and her reputation reversed: she earned accusations of self-hatred and Jewish betrayal. But only after the revelations, in the last two decades, of her liaison with Martin Heidegger, did some commentators dare to tar her with the Nazi brush.

Arendt was a nineteen-year-old philosophy student at Marburg in 1925 when Heidegger discovered her seated in his early morning lectures. He initiated a love affair. (“You are my pupil and I your teacher, but that is only the occasion for what has happened to us.”) Heidegger was married, thirty-six years old, and had two sons. The affair lasted a year, until Arendt switched universities, to Freiburg. Heidegger continued to summon her to meet him secretly when he traveled, perhaps as late as 1929.

Letters 1925-1975 is surprisingly unrevealing. Passion is evident, on both sides, as is Heidegger’s tremendous self-centered pomposity. Heidegger destroyed most of Arendt’s letters; she kept his. The high German tone, the notes on Being mixed with romantic schmaltz, and the fragmentary instructions on their assignations don’t add up to much.

Read alongside Responsibility and Judgment, however, the framework of interpretation has to be that old question: does the philosopher live by her philosophy? The notion that Arendt subtly imbibed anti-Semitism from Heidegger is nonsense. If Arendt ever betrayed something with her attachment to the elder philosopher, it was her own late philosophy of judgment. For what Heidegger could have been made, in his genius and in his evil deeds, was an example.

In late 1932 or early 1933, she confronted him directly, in the final exchange of their prewar correspondence. She had heard rumors of his abandonment of Jewish colleagues and students, reports of his anti-Semitism. “[S]landers,” Heidegger declared all of it. He ended the letter with a typical guilt trip for daring to accuse him: “In any case, I have long since given up expecting any sort of gratitude or even just decency from so-called ‘disciples.'”

In 1933, while Arendt ran from the Nazis, Heidegger politicked with Nazi colleagues to be appointed rector of the University of Freiburg. He delivered a Rectorial Address giving philosophical cover to National Socialism, arranging for it to be greeted with the Nazi Party anthem, stiff-armed salutes, and cries of Sieg Heil. He undertook the Nazification of the university, approving the anti-Semitism that excluded even his own mentor Husserl, and he cut off contact with Jewish colleagues and dumped Jewish graduate students. Heidegger’s enthusiastic Nazism has been well documented, despite his postwar prevarications, by a generation of recent German scholarship that turned up shameful new details as late as 1989.

By the war’s end, Arendt’s letters to her husband and to the philosopher Karl Jaspers indicate she knew enough about Heidegger’s actions to judge him a liar, a coward, and a participant in appalling deeds. She wrote sarcastically about his Nazism in a footnote to a dry 1946 Partisan Review essay on European existentialism.

Then Arendt met with Heidegger again, impulsively, in 1950, on a visit to Germany to recover pillaged cultural objects for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. “This evening and this morning are the confirmation of an entire life,” she wrote him afterward. “I became aware of . . . how . . . the power of the impulse had mercifully saved me from committing the only really inexcusable act of infidelity and forfeiting my life.” The “infidelity” would have been to abandon Heidegger forever. In a few further elliptical phrases, she in essence apologized to him for her plan of abandonment; even repudiating the “reasons” which could have kept her away. One has to imagine these “reasons” were his Nazi attachments.

In effect, she stopped judging him, at least to his face, at least publicly. Or, perhaps, she under-judged him: giving too much public credit to his deceptions, and too little to her long-standing intuitions about his character. Letters 1925-1975 reprints her tribute “Martin Heidegger at 80,” delivered in 1969 on radio and published internationally. Knowing what we know now-though we can’t say precisely how much of it Arendt knew-one can’t help but feel that she soft-pedals his Nazism. She said Heidegger made a “mistake,” but corrected it. She suggested this was to be expected in a philosopher, a role she evidently doesn’t assume for herself. “We who want to honor thinkers, even if our residence is in the middle of the world, can hardly help but find it striking and perhaps even irritating that, when they got involved in human affairs, both Plato and Heidegger resorted to tyrants and Führers.”

Again, a crucial essay from Responsibility and Judgment helps to clarify matters. Late in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” Arendt digresses to admit a major objection to her views about thinking and judgment. An ineradicable subjectivism haunts her idea of the freedom to choose one’s company, both outer and inner. She gives her response in an anecdote from Cicero. Cicero is choosing between the ideas of Plato and the Pythagoreans, where their opinions differ. He bursts out: ” ‘By God, I’d much rather go astray with Plato than hold true views with these people.’ ” Arendt goes on as follows:

And he lets his partner in the dialogue once more emphasize the point: he too would not mind at all going astray and erring with such a man [as Plato]. . . . The point is that . . . there comes a point where all objective standards-truth, rewards and punishments in a hereafter, etc.-yield precedence to the “subjective” criterion of the kind of person I wish to be and live together with.

Heidegger was her Plato. She preferred to go astray with him than remain with the views of those who hewed to decency-even herself. She knew Heidegger as a liar, a betrayer, and a lover whom she declared (in private writings) she had never quite ceased to love. She also knew him as a genius. It is not often in history that one finds a Plato for one’s teacher. She evaluated his philosophy, in letters to her husband and friends, completely separately from her gloomy assessments of his character. A fair sampling of readers today confirms the perception that Heidegger was the preeminent continental philosopher of the twentieth century. Though he turned to tyrants, to abandon him would have been to give up her “life,” that is, her other life as a philosopher, beyond the political persona and ethic of judgment she tried to maintain in the world.

This was Hannah Arendt’s lesser evil. It is not excusable in the context of her philosophy. Elsewhere she rejected involvement with the lesser evil, for a good reason. “Politically, the weakness of the argument [for lesser evils] has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.” Whether Arendt forgot, we can’t say. But she did not judge Heidegger, as she judged others, or in the manner that she demanded we all judge. What Arendt did not know about Heidegger, and what she excused, one hesitates to separate. The clear thing is that she made her choice. Her philosophy of judgment, together with her one key refusal to judge, can be understood in human terms but never reconciled.

Mark Greif is a senior correspondent at the American Prospect.


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