Dr Alex Beaumont
York St. John University
Introductory lecture (mp3 file)
- ‘Truth and Politics’ from Between Past and Future. Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
- ‘The Answer of Socrates’ from The Life of the Mind. Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
- ‘Response to Gershom Scholem’ Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
- Preface to ‘Reflections on a Little Rock’ Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
* If you have difficulty getting hold of any of these readings, please contact us [email@example.com]
- selected extracts from Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia
Introduction to readings
In 1961 Hannah Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to report on the trial of the Nazi SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. During World War II, Eichmann had overseen the forcible deportation of Jews from around Europe to ghettoes and, ultimately, extermination camps. After the war he fled to Argentina, where he was captured by Israeli Mossad agents, covertly transported to Jerusalem and charged with fifteen crimes, including crimes against humanity. He was found guilty by the Israeli court and hanged on 31 May, 1962.
Arendt had numerous misgivings about the process by which Eichmann was brought to justice, ranging from his non-judicial extradition through to the legal means by which his execution was justified. However, while intensely cognisant of the historical, political, judicial and moral challenges of trying him, she was emphatic in her condemnation of the man himself. In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the book based her New Yorker report, she identifies Eichmann as a ‘new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, [but also] commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong’. The nature of Eichmann’s involvement with the Final Solution and the scale of the murder itself clearly rendered him an enemy of humankind, but while the judges ‘knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster’, there seemed to be little that was truly monstrous about him. He was a provincial and unthinking but nonetheless ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal man’ who followed orders exactly as the law governing him demanded.
For Arendt, however, it was precisely in this respect that he was morally and legally culpable. At one point in his trial, Eichmann explained that he had always sought to live his life in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative: ‘act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’. By his own admission Eichmann knew that, in administrating the Final Solution, he was in breach of this imperative, but he consoled himself with the belief that his own moral agency was less important than commitment to the the law itself – another, altogether different, interpretation of the categorical imperative. This, combined with the mediocrity of Eichmann’s character, formed the basis of Arendt’s famous concept of the banality of evil. As she writes:
[Eichmann] had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or the law of the land […] Kant, to be sure, had never intended to say anything of the sort; on the contrary, to him every man was a legislator the moment he started to act: by using his ‘practical reason’ man found the principles that could and should be the principles of law. But it is true that Eichmann’s unconscious distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant ‘for the household use of the little man.’ In this household use, all that is left of Kant’s spirit is the demand a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law—the source from which the law sprang. In Kant’s philosophy, that source was practical reason; in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.
Eichmann in Jerusalem raises some complex and challenging questions about integrity in the twentieth century. At an individual level, Eichmann lacked integrity: by his own account he was at variance with his conscience in contributing to the Final Solution; a profoundly irresponsible form of ethical chicanery was therefore necessary for him to justify his actions to himself. Moreover, the cost of his self-justification was arguably the concept of integrity itself: irrespective of the specifically Nazi conceptualisation of the relationship between individual and community (Volkgemeinschaft), if all moral agency is subordinated to the law at a philosophical level, the ‘unity’ of the self upon which a Platonic model of integrity might be developed is rendered incoherent.
This is to say nothing about the specifically juridical question of how individual guilt might be ascertained and justice administered in a mass society – another concern raised by Arendt in her book, and elsewhere in her writings. However, the question of individual accountability resonates more widely where Eichmann in Jerusalem is concerned, because its publication resulted in an enormous, sustained and lasting antipathy towards Arendt herself. The reasons for this are complex, but they can be divided into two broad categories, the first having to do with the moral implications of Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, and the second with what was perceived as an allegation of complicity by parts of the European Jewish population with the murderous regime responsible for the Shoah. The latter in particular – a fundamental misreading of the book, according to Arendt – resulted in personal turmoil: Arendt lost the respect of numerous intellectual peers, as well as many friendships that had been maintained for a good part of her adult life.
However, where Eichmann responded to his predicament in the Third Reich with an utter lack of integrity, Arendt arguably became a paradigm of the concept in her response to the controversy surrounding the report on his trial. It is thus on her response that the reading for this session of ‘Portraits of Integrity’ will focus. At stake in much of Arendt’s writing after Eichmann in Jerusalem was published are two connected issues: the obligation to think autonomously and the political difficulties of speaking the truth. In our reading material this month, the first is represented by ‘The Answer of Socrates’, originally given as a lecture at the University of Aberdeen and published in The Life of the Mind; the second is represented by ‘Truth and Politics’, published in Between Past and Future. We will also discuss two short pieces in which Arendt accounts for the radical independence of her thought. The first is her letter to her erstwhile friend Gershom Scholem explaining her position in Eichmann in Jerusalem; the second is the preface to her essay ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, published in Dissent in 1959, which controversially critiqued the NAACP’s focus on school desegregation as part of its Civil Rights campaign in the southern USA.