Christopher Owens 🔖 The banality of evil.
A phrase often misused and misinterpreted since employed as a subtitle for the seminal tome Eichmann in Jerusalem, it has arguably defined the works of philosopher Hannah Arendt. And for good reason: not only does it point out that evil isn’t some easily defined entity with horns and a pitchfork, but it shows how we are all capable of evil without thinking.
Something Arendt certainly could not be accused of shirking.
Published last year, this biography from Samantha Rose Hill (assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities) is an attempt at melding biography, philosophical insight and character study in 200 odd pages, with its subject being of one of the most noted theorists of the last hundred years.
Some task, I’m sure you’ll agree
However, it pleases me to report that this is an excellent tome that achieves all that it sets out to do, while keeping the reader captivated.
The biographical material is swiftly dealt with, never lingering on anything longer than necessary, covering her childhood, relationship with Martin Heidegger, fleeing Germany, being interred at Gurs, fleeing to America and becoming a world-renowned intellectual behemoth. Quite an extraordinary life to draw from.
The character study is, perhaps, a little lacking at times (probably down to the fact that Arendt lived for her chosen profession) but the examination of her philosophical insight is perfect for a beginner to see what she espoused, how it related to her overall philosophy and how it was received at the time.
One of her most contested essays, ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, is also tackled head on, as well as the controversy and her subsequent public position on the matter. Arendt wrote that:
…the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools. It certainly did not require too much imagination to see that this was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve. I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously, was asked. to be a hero-that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP felt called upon to be. It will be hard for the white youngsters, or at least those among them who outgrow their present brutality, to live down this photograph which exposes so mercilessly their juvenile delinquency. The picture looked to me like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?
For those who remember Holy Cross, it’s a disturbing, and sobering, reflection. Especially when you have Harry Ashmore (who covered the Little Rock case) stating his belief that it had been manufactured and then whipped up by the local governor to maintain power. For Arendt and her followers, this essay would lead to accusations of at best naivety and at worst racism.
Hill defends Arendt on this, pointing out that her overwhelming concern was for the children’s welfare and that they shouldn’t be used as foot soldiers in political battles but does acknowledge that;
In dismissing equality from politics, Arendt saw no distinction in the plight of oppressed people . . . And in doing so . . . she overlooked the particular conditions of oppression to argue in favour of a universal good, one that is founded in discrimination.
Ironically, in 1946, she had castigated German intellectuals for being unequipped to deal with the rise of Hitler. Maybe Little Rock was another example of real life events and philosophy are ill-suited bedfellows?
Although only briefly examined by Hill, this segment is too good to ignore. In 1969, while taking part in a panel discussion (which included Noam Chomsky), Arendt made it clear that she could not support violence, when asked about the actions of the Viet Cong. One of the panelists then said:
I think there is a distinction between the use of terror by oppressed peoples against the oppressors and their servants, in comparison with the use of terror by their oppressors in the interests of further oppression. I think there is a qualitative distinction there which we have the right to make.
The name of that panelist?
Conor Cruise O'Brien.
For those looking an introduction to Arendt, and post-war philosophy in general, you can’t go wrong with this book.
Samantha Rose Hill, 2021, Hannah Arendt. Reaktion Books. ISBN-13: 978-1789143799.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.