DOES THINKING prevent evil? Can critical self-reflection protect a person from participating in evil, particularly in a totalitarian regime? The distinguished political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) thought so. Her famous 1963 case study Eichmann in Jerusalem advanced the thesis that Adolf Eichmann's inability to think--his extraordinary shallowness--led him blindly to pursue evil. His supervision of genocide could not be attributed to great vice, to culpable passions, to the influence of ideology, or to the existence of misplaced idealism. He was not monstrous, or demonic, or even stupid, merely banal. Eichmann was the sort of mindless bureaucrat who was essential to the functioning of a totalitarian state.
Arendt was one of her age's greatest intellectuals. She highly valued thinking. She valued it for its own sake. Yet, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, she provided an additional, utilitarian rationale for thinking. (1) Properly exercised, it could help people avoid moral catastrophe. Arendt spent the last twelve years of life theorizing about what it meant to think, and specifically what it meant to think in practical terms about moral and political matters. (2) Her works addressing this issue are widely acknowledged to be substantial and provocative. Yet, in the end, like most intellectuals, Arendt overvalued the power of thinking, in this instance overestimating its influence on individual conduct.
We know now that Arendt's description of a "new type of criminal" uninfluenced by ideology and unmotivated by wickedness simply was not a factual description of Eichmann. David Cesarani's biography of Eichmann carefully details the Nazi's moral disintegration in the face of a debased ideology and a morally corrupt bureaucracy. (3) Arendt's thesis nonetheless remains provocative. Even if her banality-of-evil thesis did not accurately describe Eichmann, she believed that her understanding captured a broader truth explaining how so many ordinary people could so effortlessly and enthusiastically commit evil acts in a totalitarian state. "The Trouble with Eichmann," wrote Arendt, "was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." (4)
Although Arendt believed that Eichmann and those like him were responsible for their actions and therefore deserved to be punished, she nonetheless was particularly troubled by this banal genocidal-minded bureaucrat who "commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel what he is doing is wrong." (5) Arendt initially was concerned with the inner life, the conscience, and the judgment of a perpetrator who participated in genocide in the Nazi state. Most striking to her was how easy it had been to reverse that most basic moral rule--Thou shalt not murder--only later (during times of normalcy after the regime's collapse) to see it effortlessly again reversed to its original form. The perversity of the Nazi regime was reflected by what it had done by normal human beings, who were now tempted by the newly forbidden, namely, "not to murder, not to rob, not let their neighbors go off to their doom ... and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting [sic] from them." "But, God knows," Arendt ruefully added, "they knew how to resist temptation." (6)
The attraction of Arendt's banality-of-evil formulation is its seeming capacity to explain how so many people [in totalitarian states] could participate in evil actions. The brief answer she furnished was that many such people were neither demonic nor unusual, merely unreflective. As she thought through the problem of evil and thinking, Arendt increasingly wondered how Eichmann had become the person he was and whether such a person could have turned out differently. Her interest was no mere theoretical matter. Her encounters with Nazism …