Jul 052012

(I am sorry, I don’t know why I didn’t record the URL’s from which the following was assembled.  Arendt’s ideas about the relationship between freedom and action appear nearer the bottom.)


Arendt’s essay  On Violence distinguishes between the concepts of violence and power. Arendt maintains that although theorists of both the left and right regard violence as an extreme manifestation of power, the two concepts are in fact antithetical. Power comes from the collective will and does not need violence to achieve any of its goals since voluntary compliance takes its place. As governments start losing their legitimacy, violence becomes an artificial means towards the same ends and is therefore found only in the absence of Power. Bureaucracies then become the ideal birthplaces of violence since they are defined as the “rule by no-one”, with whom to argue against and therefore re-create the missing link with the people it rules over.  . . .

Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt and incorporated in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.[1] It describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of “normalizing the unthinkable.” According to him, “doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.'”[2]


Reicher and Haslam have challenged Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. They agree that ordinary people can commit evil actions, but they assert that it is not simply a matter of “blind people following orders.” They point to historical and psychological evidence that suggest that ordinary people become evil when they identify with evil ideology.[3]

They cite Cesarani‘s Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, as “suggesting that Arendt’s analysis was, at best, naive.” In his work, Cesarani claims Arendt only attended the beginning of Eichmann’s trial and missed the defendant’s more revealing admissions. The author recalls that Eichmann spoke proudly of the creative measures with which he executed Hitler’s policy. To Cesarani, this was indicative of an active involvement in evil, not just a passive following of orders.[3]

Reicher and Haslam have also reinterpreted the findings of a number of landmark psychological cases, including Milgram‘s obedience studies and Zimbardo‘s Stanford prison experiment to conclude that people follow ideology, not just orders.[3] They have proposed a number of factors that can be used to explain how people become swayed by evil ideology. These factors include:

  • individual differences (not everyone will choose to commit evil)
  • crisis or group failures (people are most vulnerable under a crisis or when a social group they belong to falls apart)
  • leadership (people require a strong leader to encourage them to commit evil).[3]

Reicher and Haslam admit these are just some of the factors involved and that more research needs to be done. In part, they blame the popularity of Arendt’s banality of evil for handcuffing research for so long.[3]   .. . .

– – – – –  – – – – – – – – –

http://www.iep.utm.edu/arendt/For Arendt, the popular appeal of totalitarian ideologies with their capacity to mobilize populations to do their bidding, rested upon the devastation of ordered and stable contexts in which people once lived. The impact of the First World War, and the Great Depression, and the spread of revolutionary unrest, left people open to the promulgation of a single, clear and unambiguous idea that would allocate responsibility for woes, and indicate a clear path that would secure the future against insecurity and danger. Totalitarian ideologies offered just such answers, purporting discovered a “key to history” with which events of the past and present could be explained, and the future secured by doing history’s or nature’s bidding. Accordingly the amenability of European populations to totalitarian ideas was the consequence of a series of pathologies that had eroded the public or political realm as a space of liberty and freedom. These pathologies included the expansionism of imperialist capital with its administrative management of colonial suppression, and the usurpation of the state by the bourgeoisie as an instrument by which to further its own sectional interests. This in turn led to the delegitimation of political institutions, and the atrophy of the principles of citizenship and deliberative consensus that had been the heart of the democratic political enterprise. The rise of totalitarianism was thus to be understood in light of the accumulation of pathologies that had undermined the conditions of possibility for a viable public life that could unite citizens, while simultaneously preserving their liberty and uniqueness (a condition that Arendt referred to as “plurality”).

In this early work, it is possible to discern a number of the recurrent themes that would organize Arendt’s political writings throughout her life. For example, the inquiry into the conditions of possibility for a humane and democratic public life, the historical, social and economic forces that had come to threaten it, the conflictual relationship between private interests and the public good, the impact of intensified cycles of production and consumption that destabilized the common world context of human life, and so on.

. . .   The prioritization of the economic which has attended the rise of capitalism has for Arendt all but eclipsed the possibilities of meaningful political agency and the pursuit of higher ends which should be the proper concern of public life.

. . .   The activity of labor and the consumption of its fruits, which have come to dominate the public sphere, cannot furnish a common world within which humans might pursue their higher ends. Labor and its effects are inherently impermanent and perishable, exhausted as they are consumed, and so do not possess the qualities of quasi-permanence which are necessary for a shared environment and common heritage which endures between people and across time. In industrial modernity “all the values characteristic of the world of fabrication – permanence, stability, durability…are sacrificed in favor of the values of life, productivity and abundance.” The rise of animal laborans threatens the extinction of homo faber, and with it comes the passing of those worldly conditions which make a community’s collective and public life possible (what Arendt refers to as “world alienation”).

. . .

The fundamental defining quality of action is its ineliminable freedom, its status as an end in itself and so as subordinate to nothing outside itself. Arendt argues that it is a mistake to take freedom to be primarily an inner, contemplative or private phenomenon, for it is in fact active, worldly and public. Our sense of an inner freedom is derivative upon first having experienced “a condition of being free as a tangible worldly reality. We first become aware of freedom or its opposite in our intercourse with others, not in the intercourse with ourselves.” In defining action as freedom, and freedom as action, we can see the decisive influence of Augustine upon Arendt’s thought. From Augustine’s political philosophy she takes the theme of human action as beginning:

To act, in its most general sense, means to take initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, ‘to begin,’ ‘to lead,’ and eventually ‘to rule’ indicates), to set something in motion. Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action.

And further, that freedom is to be seen:

as a character of human existence in the world. Man does not so much possess freedom as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a beginning…

In short, humanity represents/articulates/embodies the faculty of beginning. It follows from this equation of freedom, action and beginning that freedom is “an accessory of doing and acting;” “Men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” This capacity for initiation gives actions the character of singularity and uniqueness, as “it is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever happened before.” So, intrinsic to the human capacity for action is the introduction of genuine novelty, the unexpected, unanticipated and unpredictable into the world:

The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.

This “miraculous,” initiatory quality distinguishes genuine action from mere behavior i.e. from conduct which has an habituated, regulated, automated character; behavior falls under the determinations of process, is thoroughly conditioned by causal antecedents, and so is essentially unfree. The definition of human action in terms of freedom and novelty places it outside the realm of necessity or predictability. Herein lies the basis of Arendt’s quarrel with Hegel and Marx, for to define politics or the unfolding of history in terms of any teleology or immanent or objective process is to deny what is central to authentic human action, namely, its capacity to initiate the wholly new, unanticipated, unexpected, unconditioned by the laws of cause and effect.

. . . .

Arendt’s theory holds that actions cannot be justified for their own sake, but only in light of their public recognition and the shared rules of a political community. For Arendt, action is a public category, a worldly practice that is experienced in our intercourse with others, and so is a practice that “both presupposes and can be actualized only in a human polity.” As Arendt puts it:

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men…corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition – not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam – of all political life .

Another way of understanding the importance of publicity and plurality for action is to appreciate that action would be meaningless unless there were others present to see it and so give meaning to it. The meaning of the action and the identity of the actor can only be established in the context of human plurality, the presence others sufficiently like ourselves both to understand us and recognize the uniqueness of ourselves and our acts. This communicative and disclosive quality of action is clear in the way that Arendt connects action most centrally to speech. It is through action as speech that individuals come to disclose their distinctive identity: “Action is the public disclosure of the agent in the speech deed.” Action of this character requires a public space in which it can be realized, a context in which individuals can encounter one another as members of a community. For this space, as for much else, Arendt turns to the ancients, holding up the Athenian polis as the model for such a space of communicative and disclosive speech deeds. Such action is for Arendt synonymous with the political; politics is the ongoing activity of citizens coming together so as to exercise their capacity for agency, to conduct their lives together by means of free speech and persuasion. Politics and the exercise of freedom-as-action are one and the same:

freedom…is actually the reason that men live together in political organisations at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.

. . . Arendt sees both the French and American revolutions as ultimately failing to establish a perduring political space in which the on-going activities of shared deliberation, decision and coordinated action could be exercised. In the case of the French Revolution, the subordination of political freedom to matters of managing welfare (the “social question”) reduces political institutions to administering the distribution of goods and resources (matters that belong properly in the oikos, dealing as they do with the production and reproduction of human existence). Meanwhile, the American Revolution evaded this fate, and by means of the Constitution managed to found a political society on the basis of comment assent. Yet she saw it only as a partial and limited success. America failed to create an institutional space in which citizens could participate in government, in which they could exercise in common those capacities of free expression, persuasion and judgement that defined political existence. The average citizen, while protected from arbitrary exercise of authority by constitutional checks and balances, was no longer a participant “in judgement and authority,” and so became denied the possibility of exercising his/her political capacities.

. . .

She controversially uses the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Eichmann’s actions as a member of the Nazi regime, in particular his role as chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal “final solution” (Endlosung) for the “Jewish problem.” Her characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as “banal” is not meant to position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi’s inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. From Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (where he had been brought after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.

. . . .t concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis forjudgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices.

. . .  Understanding yields positive knowledge – it is the quest for knowable truths. Reason or thinking, on the other hand, drives us beyond knowledge, persistently posing questions that cannot be answered from the standpoint of knowledge, but which we nonetheless cannot refrain from asking. For Arendt, thinking amounts to a quest to understand the meaning of our world, the ceaseless and restless activity of questioning that which we encounter. The value of thinking is not that it yields positive results that can be considered settled, but that it constantly returns to question again and again the meaning that we give to experiences, actions and circumstances. This, for Arendt, is intrinsic to the exercise of political responsibility – the engagement of this faculty that seeks meaning through a relentless questioning (including self-questioning). It was precisely the failure of this capacity that characterized the “banality” of Eichmann’s propensity to participate in political evil.

. . .

Her theory of judgement is widely considered as one of the most original parts of her oeuvre, and certainly one of the most influential in recent years.Arendt’s concern with political judgement, and its crisis in the modern era, is a recurrent theme in her work. As noted earlier, Arendt bemoans the “world alienation” that characterizes the modern era, the destruction of a stable institutional and experiential world that could provide a stable context in which humans could organize their collective existence. Moreover, it will be recalled that in human action Arendt recognizes (for good or ill) the capacity to bring the new, unexpected, and unanticipated into the world. This quality of action means that it constantly threatens to defy or exceed our existing categories of understanding or judgement; precedents and rules cannot help us judge properly what is unprecedented and new. So for Arendt, our categories and standards of thought are always beset by their potential inadequacy with respect to that which they are called upon to judge. However, this aporia of judgement reaches a crisis point in the 20th century under the repeated impact of its monstrous and unprecedented events. The mass destruction of two World Wars, the development of technologies which threaten global annihilation, the rise of totalitarianism, and the murder of millions in the Nazi death camps and Stalin’s purges have effectively exploded our existing standards for moral and political judgement. Tradition lies in shattered fragments around us and “the very framework within which understanding and judging could arise is gone.” The shared bases of understanding, handed down to us in our tradition, seem irretrievably lost. Arendt confronts the question: on what basis can one judge the unprecedented, the incredible, the monstrous which defies our established understandings and experiences? If we are to judge at all, it must now be “without preconceived categories and…without the set of customary rules which is morality;” it must be “thinking without a banister.” In order to secure the possibility of such judgement Arendt must establish that there in fact exists “an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges anew in full spontaneity every deed and intent whenever the occasion arises.” This for Arendt comes to represent “one of the central moral questions of all time, namely…the nature and function of human judgement.” It is with this goal and this question in mind that the work of Arendt’s final years converges on the “unwritten political philosophy” of Kant’s Critique of Judgement.

. . .  Kant requires us to judge from this common standpoint, on the basis of what we share with all others, by setting aside our own egocentric and private concerns or interests. The faculty of reflective judgement requires us to set aside considerations which are purely private (matters of personal liking and private interest) and instead judge from the perspective of what we share in common with others (i.e. must bedisinterested). Arendt places great weight upon this notion of a faculty of judgement that “thinks from the standpoint of everyone else.” This “broadened way of thinking” or “enlarged mentality” enables us to “compare our judgement not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgement of others, and [thus] put ourselves in the position of everybody else…” For Arendt, this “representative thinking” is made possible by the exercise of the imagination – as Arendt beautifully puts it, “To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” “Going visiting” in this way enables us to make individual, particular acts of judgement which can nevertheless claim a public validity. In this faculty, Arendt find a basis upon which a disinterested and publicly-minded form of political judgement could subvene, yet be capable of tackling the unprecedented circumstances and choices that the modern era confronts us with.

. . .  Particularly important is the way in which Arendt comes to understand power, namely as “the capacity to agree in uncoerced communication on some community action.” Her model of action as public, communicative, persuasive and consensual reappears in Habermas’ thought in concepts such as that of “communicative power” which comes about whenever members of a life-world act in concert via the medium of language.

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