I’ll repeat Scott Alexander’s disclaimer at the beginning of his review of the book: “Content warning: Holocaust. This is a complicated and emotional subject and I make no claims to know much more than what I read in the book, nor to be 100% certain I am representing Arendt’s views faithfully.”
First off I’ll say that I highly, highly recommend this book. Arendt covers a ton of ground and there is a lot to unpack. I’m not going to cover all, or really much, of it because there are a couple specific things I want to write about here. Arendt covers two big topics that I won’t write about here: the resistance (or lack thereof) to the Nazis’ implementation of the Final Solution in different Nazi-occupied countries in Europe and David Ben-Gurion’s desire for a show trial and the twisting of jurisprudence for moral/political reasons.
What I do want to talk about relates to the subtitle of the book. The book’s main thesis is summed up by one short sentence in the introduction (written by Amos Elon): “Evil comes from a failure to think.” In this one sentence is Arendt’s disgust for the flagrantly theatrical trial; her contempt for Eichmann’s strangely one-dimensional and feckless character; and her horror at the crimes committed by such a shallow man. Elon goes on to say:
The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a ‘Completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,’ the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial. In a similar vein, Simon de Beauvoir said that at his trial after the war the French Nazi Pierre Laval seemed commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow.
As I was reading I started talking to people about the book, the question that I kept coming back to was, “What do we mean ‘evil’?” Even though we adults like to pretend that we have sophisticated worldviews with plenty of room in them for all sorts of shades of grey, the way we talk about evil is still cast in the same terms as most Disney movies, i.e. “this is good, that person is bad, and here is the line between the two.” The way it seems to me is that most people seem to think that you can be a good person who occasionally does bad things up to a certain point, after which they turn completely bad/evil and are beyond redemption. There are plenty of connections that I can see between this worldview and the way we live our lives and construct our societies.
But I’ve always struggled with this view. It’s not just that we hear plenty of stories of former criminals who “learn their lesson” and go on to become productive members of society; it’s not just that massive starting disadvantages that many of the people we call “bad” have; it’s not just that I’m some sort of vegan-hippie-liberal-academic type who doesn’t believe in evil. The basic thing is that when I do bad stuff (which I do!) I have a pretty ready explanation in my head for why I did that thing (even if it’s a crap reason like I didn’t enough sleep), and I’m normally pretty ready to concede that even though that thing that I just did was bad, I’m not some sort of irredeemably evil person. Nor do I think that if I do enough of those bad things I’ll feel like I am evil. This isn’t to say that internal feelings are always a good judge of whether or not you’ve turned into a Dark wizard; Arendt goes out of her way to show that Eichmann thought of himself as a basically decent guy who just got the short end of the bureaucratic and historical stick. But I do assume that other people feel at least similarly to me, i.e. that they have an internal narrative that has room in it for making mistakes and changing behavior to update for those mistakes.
Again I want to stress that I don’t mean to say that we have no room to judge other people:
[Arendt’s] position was that if you say to yourself, ‘Who am I to judge?’ you are already lost.
Ethics is hard. But saying that killing (and it’s disgusting older brother, genocide) is bad is not. We can, and should, judge other people in some situations.
But what I took out of this book and what I want to say here is closer to some combination of the fundamental attribution error (we know our own narratives and forgive ourselves but fail to see other people’s and so assume that the way they act in a given situation is reflective of a fixed part of their identity) and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” That not only do we make a fundamental mistake when we see someone doing a terrible thing and put them in the box labelled “bad,” but that we miss out on what real evil looks like. Because the simplistic definition of evil gives us a pass on all of the small bad things that we all do every day! No one is perfect: you get tired, hungry, scared, or any other combination of things you wind up yelling at the cashier at your grocery store, or you say shitty things about people behind their backs, or you’re a little impatient with your kid and make them cry.
We all do these things. And it doesn’t make us evil. It just makes us people, trying to live our lives as best we can. The problem with the simplistic definition of evil is that it exonerates us from responsibility for the bad stuff and condemns literally everything that a “bad” person does, which is an erasure of 1) their identity as people just like us and thus 2) their ability to change.
Evil comes from a failure to think. A failure to be present and aware of the things we’re doing. A failure to fully engage with the world. This definition is liberating for me. It makes us all responsible in each moment for doing all that we can to be good and to hold ourselves and each other accountable when we inevitably fail. And to then change and grow.