Hannah Arendt


The appearance of an art house film on the philosopher Hannah Arendt has sparked renewed interest in an old controversy.

Hannah Arendt

In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi colonel accused of masterminding the transportation of millions of Jews to the death camps.  Arendt was herself a Jew who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany and who had been, years before, something of an ardent Zionist.  But she had since grown suspicious of the Israeli state, seeing it as un-self-critical and indifferent to the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians.  I think it is fair to say, therefore, that she came to the trial with a complicated set of assumptions and a good deal of conflicting feelings.

As the trial unfolded, Arendt was massively put off by what she saw as the grandstanding of the prosecutors.  Their irresponsible, even clownish, antics were, she concluded, the public face of the Israeli state, which had determined to make of the Eichmann proceedings a show trial.  But what struck her most of all was Eichmann himself.  Sequestered in a glass box for his own protection, squinting behind owlish spectacles, screwing up his mouth in an odd, nervous tic, trading in homespun expressions, pleading that he was just a middle-level bureaucrat following orders, Eichmann was neither impressive nor frightening nor sinister.

Arendt never doubted that Eichmann was guilty of great wickedness, but she saw the Nazi functionary as the very incarnation of what she famously called “the banality of evil.”  One of the distinctive marks of this banality Arendt characterized as Gedankenlosigkeit, which could be superficially rendered in English as “thoughtlessness,” but which carries more accurately the sense of “the inability to think.”  Eichmann couldn’t rise above his own petty concerns about his career and he couldn’t begin to “think” along with another, to see what he was doing from the standpoint of his victims. This very Gedankenlosigkeit is what enabled him to say, probably with honesty, that he didn’t feel as though he had committed any crimes.

The film to which I referred at the outset very effectively portrays the firestorm of protest that followed Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial.  Many Jews, both in Israel and America, thought by characterizing Eichmann the way she did, she had exonerated him and effectively blamed his victims.  I won’t descend into the complexity of that argument, which rages to some degree to the present day.  But I will say that I believe Arendt’s critics missed the rather profound metaphysical significance of what the philosopher was saying about the Nazi bureaucrat.  In a text written during the heat of bitter controversy surrounding her book, Arendt tried to explain in greater detail what she meant by calling evil banal:  “Good can be radical;  evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world.”

The great moral lesson — articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt — is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.

The young Hannah Arendt had written her doctoral dissertation under the great German philosopher Karl Jaspers, and the topic of her work was the concept of love in the writings of St. Augustine.  One of the most significant intellectual breakthroughs of Augustine’s life was the insight that evil is not something substantial, but rather a type of non-being, a lack of some perfection that ought to be present.  Thus, a cancer is evil in the measure that it compromises the proper functioning of a bodily organ, and a sin is evil in the measure that it represents a distortion or twisting of a rightly functioning will.  Accordingly, evil does not stand over and against the good as a kind of co-equal metaphysical force, as the Manichees would have it.  Rather, it is invariably parasitic upon the good, existing only as a sort of shadow.

J.R.R. Tolkien gave visual expression to this Augustinian notion in his portrayal of the Nazgul inThe Lord of the Rings.  Those terrible and terrifying threats, flying through the air on fearsome beasts, are revealed, once their capes and hoods are pulled away, to be precisely nothing, emptiness.  And this is exactly why, to return to Arendt’s description, evil can never be radical.  It can never sink down into the roots of being; it can never stand on its own;  it has no integrity, no real depth or substance.  To be sure, it can be extreme and it can, as Arendt’s image suggests, spread far and wide, doing enormous damage.  But it can never truly be.  And this is why, when it shows up in raw form, it looks, not like Goethe’s Mephistopheles or Milton’s Satan, but rather like a little twerp in a glass box.

Occasionally, in the course of the liturgical year, Catholics are asked to renew their baptismal promises.  One of the questions, to which the answer “I do” is expected, is this:  “Do you reject the glamor of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?”  Evil can never truly be beautiful, for beauty is a property of being;  it can only be “glamorous” or superficially attractive.  The great moral lesson — articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt — is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.

Entire article with movie trailer . . .

Beyond Creation | Archdiocese of Washington

No sooner had God led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery, did they forsake Him and pursue idols. Moses told the people to prepare themselves to worship the Lord, and he himself went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, the people pestered Aaron the high priest and had him melt down their gold and form it into a golden calf.

Aaron proclaimed to the people, “Tomorrow is a feast of the Lord!” (Ex 32:5). And they proclaimed, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4).

The God who created them and liberated them was hardly enough for them. They also wanted a God they could control. They rejected Him, and refashioned Him in their own image and likeness.

Read more . . .

U.N. votes to recognize Palestine as ‘non-member observer state’ – The Washington Post

UNITED NATIONS — The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to grant Palestinians limited recognition of statehood, prompting exuberant celebrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and immediate condemnations from the United States and Israel.

The 193-member U.N. body voted 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions, to recognize Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” a status that falls well short of independence but provides Palestinians with limited privileges as a state, including the right to join the International Criminal Court and other international treaty bodies.

Speaking before the vote, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the U.N. actions offered the only means to salvage a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We did not come here to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel,” he said. “Rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of a state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.”

But the United States and Israel said the Palestinian bid would complicate efforts to restart stalled Middle East peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement accusing Abbas of having “violated the agreements” between the two sides, and pledging that “Israel will act accordingly.”

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And He shall purify the sons of Levi

Moses, following God‘s orders, took twelve rods, one for each tribe [of Israel], and wrote on each rod the name of the head of each tribe. Alas, there were twelve tribes, not to mention the Levites, because two had come from Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. A thirteenth rod was added for the tribe of Levi, on which Moses wrote the name of his brother Aaron, who was head of the Levites. He then took still another rod to the side, on which the names of all tribes were written so as to learn if God willed for his service priests from every tribe. All these rods were placed together in the tabernacle before the Lord. And, on the next morning, as Moses took all rods from the tabernacle, only that with Aaron’s name was covered with leaves and blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. It was the third time that the priesthood of Aaron was made clear, manifested and confirmed by God.

Read more . . . RORATE CÆLI.