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 . . .

Were Early Christians Socialists, Marxists or Communists?

In Acts 4:32-35 we see the early Christians experiment with a form of community that greatly resembles socialism or communism: selling their land and possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for distribution among the people. One might easily surmise that this is proof that the Church favors this type of government and finds that private property and private ownership is opposed to Christian values. It is the furthest thing from the truth.

However, it seems much more akin to the structure of many modern monasteries or convents where the people abandon their worldly goods and take a vow of poverty, receiving from their superiors and stewards of the goods, only what is needed. It is a way to free one from the concerns of the world so that one might have complete focus on the real purpose of life: serving God.

Though the text does not state it, I would imagine that the state of mind of these followers was not much different than those who take religious vows of poverty; seeing all worldly possessions and gains as gifts from God and therefore the real ownership belonged to God alone. Their possessions then become no more than things that were entrusted to their safe-keeping so that God’s chosen leaders might best utilize these gifts to care for the community without them becoming focused on the worldly. It is a way to heed the warning that we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24, Lk. 16:13). Obviously, this idea would not work well for an entire country as everyone would have to be of the same mind. Therefore this idea was abandoned rather quickly as a general way of life but preserved in religious orders where nuns and monks take vows of poverty to serve God and man. They leave far behind their ambitions to acquire worldly fame, power, riches or honor.

If this is true, then the belief that all goods come from God and are His to distribute is very distinct from the ideals of Socialism, Marxism or Communism. Beside the completely sectarian, and might I say obvious disdain for religion that these ideologies bear in common, they also have a differing view of who owns the fruit of their labors.

In socialism, one believes that the government owns our production and can redistribute these goods or money to those who need it. The ‘takers’ live off the ‘makers’. Many feel entitled to these benefits and have no shame in taking whatever they can get. In fact, they continually push for more and more goods that they feel are owed them and eventually comes a day of reckoning when there is not enough money from the working people to support their increasing greed for handouts. The system collapses on itself.

In Marxism as notably expressed through the National Socialist (the Nazis), the government desires to take over all industries deigned to be essential to the well being of the collective; banks, armaments, steel production, food production, health care, education and the like. They would likewise distribute goods to those who were loyal party members and those who produced the most good for their state.

Communism, on the other hand, regarded all production and wealth as owned equally by all (though the elites would always get a bit more). When you are no longer producing, you are no longer a valuable member of society and would be considered expendable.

All three systems strive for strong government controls and have a vested interest in eliminating all opposing viewpoints from the arena of ideas. Free speech is destroyed and controlled by the state to further their agenda.

So the difference between a system that considers that God is the source of all good and of all the fruit of our labor is diametrically opposed to a Godless system that views everything as the bounty of the state or collective. These systems are into exercising control of everyone and everything. There is a huge philosophical and theological difference between the voluntary surrender of goods for love of God and man and the abolishing of private property rites and the confiscation of wealth. These forms of government see always to rely on taking from the haves by the government and distributing these goods in any way they see fit – especially for the benefit of the collective. A religious vow of poverty is founded upon the sound virtues of love of God and neighbor while the other secular ideologies are founded upon the sins of power, envy and greed. The Church views people with true compassion while these ideologies view their subjects as faceless masses to be controlled and cajoled into producing what the state needs or wants. The collective always seems more important than the individual or personal freedom.

It is no wonder then that the Catholic Church’s Popes have a long history of opposing these socialist style doctrines: Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum by Pius IX, Encyclicals Diuturnum, Humanum Genus, Quod Apostolici Muneris, Libertas Praestantissimum and Graves de Communi Re by Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique Mandate by Saint Pius X, Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum by Benedict XV, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XI, Encyclical Summi Pontificatis, by Pius XII, Encyclicals Mater et Magistra, by John XXIII, Centessimus Annus, by John Paul II, Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, by Benedict XVI. All of these decry the dangers of socialism and these other ideological systems. I find it very disturbing that even among Catholics, socialism is now being viewed as a benign and perhaps even a social good that we should embrace. They somehow find it a very caring system and think that they are in agreement with the Social Justice teachings of the Church. However, social justice in the Catholic Church respects private property and stresses charity for the poor and disadvantaged but makes it a personal and Christian endeavor to take care of our poor and does not find it necessary to relegate charity to an all powerful government.

Before we let our emotions trump common sense and before we start idealizing socialist systems we should take time to read some of the above wisdom from our popes, past and present, and realize the dangers these forms of government pose to personal freedom and especially to religious liberty.

Once you do, you may want to get involved in the Fortnight for Freedom effort by our Church leaders in the US by visiting the USCCB website and seeing what you can do to preserve religious liberty in America. It is a fight worth your effort.