[Paleopsych] Arendt's Judgment by Mark Greif

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jul 17 11:59:45 UTC 2004

Arendt's Judgment by Mark Greif
Dissent Magazine - Spring 2004

                         Responsibility and Judgment
                     by Hannah Arendt, edited and with an
                         Introduction by Jerome Kohn
                          Schocken, 2003 336 pp $25
            Letters 1925-1975: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger
                            edited by Ursula Ludz
                         translated by Andrew Shields
                          Harcourt, 2004 360 pp $28

    Dissent played a part in the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem.
    In 1963, when Hannah Arendt's articles for the New Yorker on Adolf
    Eichmann's trial in an Israeli court provoked consternation in
    intellectual journals and condemnation from the Anti-Defamation
    League, Irving Howe decided to hold a public forum, under the auspices
    of the magazine, to invite the principals to debate. Arendt declined.
    Daniel Bell and Raul Hilberg took Arendt's side, with Howe moderating,
    and met a violent clamor of opposition.
    History remembers the forum for its breakdown of civility among the
    New York Intellectuals. The immediate recriminations centered on
    whether Alfred Kazin had been shouted down. "[A]t no point-I repeat:
    at no point-was anyone, not Bell or Hilberg or Kazin, 'shouted down,'"
    Howe wrote. "[N]obody seemed to listen to what Alfred Kazin, who spoke
    up for Hannah, was saying," William Phillips offered: "In fact, as I
    remember, he was booed." The last word on the forum currently belongs
    to Ted Solotaroff, who just last year, in Alfred Kazin's America,
    published his recollection of what happened:
    [T]he rhetoric became more inflamed as each speaker tried to outdo the
    others in telling outrage. Finally, Howe introduced a survivor of the
    Holocaust and was happily translating for the audience his Yiddish
    testimony against Arendt when Kazin stood up, walked to the podium,
    and said, "That's enough, Irving. This disgraceful piling on has to
    The disgraceful piling on hasn't really stopped for forty years. Even
    today Hannah Arendt is misremembered as a betrayer of her fellow Jews.
    It's true that much of the sound and fury around Eichmann came from
    provoking habits of Arendt's own. She never defined "the banality of
    evil," the notorious phrase from her subtitle. Only a minority of
    commentators who have used the phrase since then understood what she
    meant. Arendt's style was ironic and cutting. It was as if she had
    reversed the famous esoteric doctrine of her contemporary, Leo
    Strauss, and demanded persecution from those who should have been her
    allies by creating a surface full of provocations, and leaving between
    the lines the highly traditional principles that would have
    out-moralized the moralizers. Arendt's paradoxes were calls to
    philosophical thought. But they could only have been elucidated in the
    philosophical works that the tumult surrounding Eichmann kept her from
    Two new books illuminate the perplexities of Arendt's thought and the
    controversies surrounding her. Responsibility and Judgment collects
    lectures, addresses, and essays from the era of Eichmann in Jerusalem,
    letting us see how Arendt clarified her position in response to her
    critics, and turned a reporter's insights into philosophy. Letters
    1925-1975: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger invites English-language
    readers to examine the most controversial aspect of Arendt's biography
    more recently, her love affair and lifelong friendship with the
    philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazis as Arendt fled

    The banality of evil was a simple concept. It meant the following: A
    person who committed the most evil deeds could do so without having a
    wicked heart or a criminal temperament. To Arendt, this created a
    conceptual problem. Most people who did evil deeds really should have
    a corrupt temperament. Normal people, she firmly believed, held an
    aversion to evil: "It is, I think, a simple fact that people are at
    least as often tempted to do good and need an effort to do evil as
    vice versa."
    To many of us, this wouldn't have caused a conceptual problem. In her
    era as in ours, everyday opinion made less of individual choice and
    more of circumstance. Bureaucracy reduced personal autonomy. An
    individual could be trained, controlled, or coerced. He could be made
    a "cog" in a machine; refusal is pointless if a more malleable person
    will instantly replace you. The "banality of evil" was misunderstood
    partly because it sounded so easy to assimilate to these ideas of
    reduced responsibility-all of which Arendt rejected.
    At the Eichmann trial, Arendt had a perception for which she has often
    been faulted, but which every journalist who covered Eichmann in 1961
    seemed to find. He was too normal. Mainstream magazines such as Life,
    Newsweek, and the Atlantic presented Eichmann's averageness, dullness,
    and familiarity. He had arranged Jewish deportations from Reich
    territories. He transported populations to the death camps. But unlike
    Hitler and the major Nazi criminals, who had done evil from evil
    motives, Eichmann's terrible deeds seemed to come from ambition and
    concern with his organizational task rather than a will to kill Jews.
    (This is controversial still; Arendt insisted on it.) In a
    psychological, though not a legal sense, he seemed to lack mens rea, a
    criminal mind.
    It particularly troubled Arendt that Eichmann didn't reject law or
    morality as higher-ranking Nazis did. He quoted Kant's moral theory
    accurately and claimed to follow it. He had kept his "conscience,"
    meaning he had avoided compromises, shortcuts, or the intrusion of
    personal feelings into his arrangements to transport Jews.
    The under-recognized outcome of her sense of Eichmann's "normalcy,"
    for Arendt, was a shoring up of her already demanding sense of
    individual responsibility. This emerged, in Eichmann, in two very
    different projects. One was an empirical investigation. She wanted to
    know what in Eichmann's inner makeup had allowed him not to see that
    his acts were wrong. The other was a separate task of publicity.
    Arendt was inspired to name all the ordinary people who were not being
    tried in Jerusalem, everyone from the Nazi era who had escaped
    This led to her notorious, bitter pages on the Judenräte, the councils
    of Jewish leaders assembled by the Nazis when Jewish populations were
    ghettoized and deported. To minimize the suffering of the community,
    or to have some say in a terrible process, Judenräte did such things
    as deliver lists to the Nazis, select people to be deported, and round
    deportees up with a Jewish Police. Arendt believed it was immoral
    whenever leaders of a community made exceptions for some while they
    sent others to die. This judgment against the Judenräte earned Arendt
    the permanent enmity of friends like Gershom Scholem and her mentor,
    the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld. Her many angry pages of names of West
    Germans who had escaped judgment for their Nazi past, including
    officials in the Adenauer government, did nothing to blunt the
    By judging the Judenräte, yet coolly and ironically studying Eichmann,
    Arendt seemed to her critics to be exculpating the captured Nazi and
    blaming his victims. But others' interpretations had their own
    weaknesses. The American press viewed Eichmann as a symbol of the
    possibility of having one's actions determined by bad circumstances.
    "There is an Eichmann in every one of us": anyone might be capable of
    what Eichmann had done, and must be on guard against "conformism."
    Jewish critics of Arendt's reading of Eichmann, instead, believed that
    Eichmann's normalcy was utterly an illusion or a put-on. Because
    Eichmann had been capable of monstrous deeds, he must be a monster
    To Arendt, these two positions seemed far more exculpatory than her
    own. An "Eichmann in everyone" diminished moral responsibility for
    those who crossed the line from conformism to actual evil. The idea
    that Eichmann was an utter monster, pathological and unique, refused
    realities uncovered by the trial and investigation. It set a standard
    of evil that ordinary wrongdoers wouldn't meet. This jeopardized the
    process of judging wrongs in normal people. In her critics' violent
    defense of the Judenräte, Arendt saw a fear of judgment. Why was
    everyone so afraid to do what any well-trained child could do: to
    judge those who had done wrong as wrongdoers-if not in court, then in
    speech and the freedom of their own thought-and let the chips fall
    where they might?
    There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging . . .
    [B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is
    a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could
    be expected to answer for what he has done. . . . Who am I to judge?
    actually means We're all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or
    pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or
    hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone. Hence the huge
    outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular
    Arendt's own solution to the Eichmann enigma came closer to the views
    of her critics than of the American press. If Eichmann was "normal,"
    she thought, there was still something else wrong with him to let him
    do such evil. Her answer, based on observation, was not monstrosity
    but "thoughtlessness."
    This judgment has irritated readers ever since. Eichmann could
    obviously think in the ordinary sense. Arendt's use of this word could
    only point to some philosophical concept she seemed too proud to spell
    out. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, "thinking" had two immediate meanings,
    as the two human things Eichmann seemed unable to do. He couldn't
    think from the point of view of others. Interrogated by the Israelis,
    when his own life depended on it, he treated his questioners as if
    their worries and priorities were identical to his own. And he
    couldn't see "reality": that is, he failed to respond to the facts in
    front of his eyes if he could slip into a stock phrase (as when he
    loftily promised to remember everyone, in his speech before being
    Thinking and judging: at this stage, the concepts' definitions were
    pre-philosophical, rooted in Arendt's immediate responses to
    Eichmann's character. Yet their elaboration as grounds for philosophy
    occupied her for the rest of her life.

    None but committed Arendt scholars, or those personally close to her,
    would have known that she built up an explicit moral philosophy under
    the direct influence of her insights from Eichmann. By the time The
    Life of the Mind was published, posthumously, in 1978, her late ideas
    seemed so transformed that though she credited the Eichmann trial with
    initiating them, the reader could hardly believe it. Responsibility
    and Judgment, however, publishes a set of four lectures she gave at
    the New School in 1965, "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy." Because
    this material comes from the earliest period of post-Eichmann
    philosophizing, the continuity of her thought becomes clear.
    Her task was to formulate the morality that kept average people from
    doing evil in emergency situations. The emergency she had in mind was
    Nazi Germany. She wished more people had possessed principles that led
    them to refuse the Nazis. Refusal was exhibited by rare individuals of
    every social type. Set against them, though, were those "normal"
    people who couldn't be relied on: Eichmann-types on the one hand, and
    advanced "intellectuals," her former colleagues, on the other. These
    two groups loved to judge things by rules-but in the Third Reich all
    rules had been reversed. "Thou Shalt Kill," she liked to say, became
    the First Commandment. Therefore, Arendt set herself the difficult
    task of a morality that would not depend on rules.
    Examining the history of philosophy, she found she had two natural
    allies for her concepts. The first was Socrates, who had made thinking
    the fundamental task of the good life. The second was Kant, who put
    judgment at the center of his aesthetics, in the power to identify a
    particular object, like a rose, as "beautiful" without a rule to
    follow. Kant, it's true, already had a moral philosophy. Yet his three
    formulations of the Categorical Imperative, the most impressive
    ethical rule-book of modern times, and his picture of reason giving
    law to the self, had proven inadequate protections against
    participation in the evil of the Nazis.
    Socrates provided her model of thinking. In the agora or the
    gymnasium, he questioned others to see what ideas would not stand up.
    When he was alone, thinking continued as an internal version of that
    same dialogue. It was "the silent dialogue between me and myself,"
    Arendt wrote. It made the thinker like two speakers internally,
    "two-in-one," always testing possible beliefs and actions, grappling
    with the reality of the outer situation by a kind of inner company.
    In his refusal to escape Athens when sentenced to death, Socrates also
    formulated the fundamental positive doctrine of Arendt's vision of
    morality: "it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong." Arendt saw
    this doctrine as a consequence of the conception of being two-in-one,
    an inevitable outcome of Socratic thinking. Thinking produced a kind
    of "don't step beyond this line" that moral people held as their base
    for all behavior. If a thinking person did wrong, he would henceforth
    be in the presence of a wrongdoer, himself, and the long-term attempt
    to live with himself would be worse than any punishment the world
    could give.
    But one needed to be able to judge right and wrong when it was not
    just a matter of refusing or saying "no." Arendt knew that Kant had
    "defined judgment as the faculty which always comes into play when we
    are confronted with particulars." For the judgment of a person's
    action or his character, also, Arendt realized, one had no rule that
    could fit the always particular details and always unique
    Quoting Kant's phrase, "Examples are the go-cart of judgment," Arendt
    stressed the need of exemplary persons and actions for training in
    judgment. "We judge and tell right from wrong by having present in our
    mind some incident and some person, absent in time or space, that have
    become examples. There are many such examples. They can lie far back
    in the past or they can be among the living." Exemplary wrongdoers and
    right-doers gave reason, the individual faculty of thought, its tie to
    the sensus communis. Such a common sense would keep the knowledge of
    human community intact even in an emergency like Nazism, when a whole
    society made laws that violated it.
    As a moral theory, this is coherent but extremely demanding for anyone
    with modern expectations. Arendt rejected every argument we use to
    diminish the individual responsibility of a person in extreme
    situations. Determinism by circumstance, "cog" theory, collective
    guilt-she rejected them all. She also rejected the "argument of the
    lesser evil," that it is acceptable to collaborate with an evil act if
    it might prevent or divert one greater. Participation, she insisted,
    always communicated consent. You could not collaborate with an evil
    process, whatever your motives, without in effect supporting it, and
    the practical consequences were nearly always better if enough people
    refused. She rejected a moral exception for physical coercion, even to
    the threat of death, using a formulation she had worked out with her
    close friend Mary McCarthy: "If somebody points a gun at you and says,
    'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you, that is

    Finally, though, it is her idea of judgment that is most alien to us.
    On Arendt's model, we must judge, and judge, and judge: thoughtfully,
    implacably, publicly. At both the individual level and the level of
    the community, people must always be judging the acts and characters
    of others. If you think of our current world, there may be truth to
    her charge that we are afraid of judging. We complain about people, we
    hate them, we love scandals, we opine about what people shouldn't dare
    say in public. But we would think it arrogant for one person to stand
    up and coolly say to another-"I, so-and-so, having considered it
    carefully, judge that what you, Mr. X, did, was morally wrong. I need
    no more authority to judge you than the fact that I am a fellow human
    being, and that I have judged by good examples, and asked myself what
    I, myself, could not live with doing."
    Of course, it would be a very curious world in which one constantly
    dared to judge others, and not so much one's enemies. As Arendt always
    insisted, the real moral issue was never with one's enemies, who like
    the Nazis could be so obviously evil) but with one's friends, and
    those one loved.

    Hannah Arendt would not have become political, she later believed, if
    the Nazis had not made life as a philosopher inadequate. At age
    twenty-seven, author of a published dissertation on Love and Saint
    Augustine, she was arrested for anti-Nazi activities on behalf of the
    German Zionist Organization. Upon her release, she fled Germany,
    living first in Geneva, then Paris. Deported with other "enemy aliens"
    in 1940 to the French internment camp at Gurs, released at the fall of
    France, she and her husband made it to America. In New York, she began
    the work that would make her the most important theorist of
    totalitarianism in the postwar years, while working for a variety of
    Jewish organizations. Then in 1963, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem,
    and her reputation reversed: she earned accusations of self-hatred and
    Jewish betrayal. But only after the revelations, in the last two
    decades, of her liaison with Martin Heidegger, did some commentators
    dare to tar her with the Nazi brush.
    Arendt was a nineteen-year-old philosophy student at Marburg in 1925
    when Heidegger discovered her seated in his early morning lectures. He
    initiated a love affair. ("You are my pupil and I your teacher, but
    that is only the occasion for what has happened to us.") Heidegger was
    married, thirty-six years old, and had two sons. The affair lasted a
    year, until Arendt switched universities, to Freiburg. Heidegger
    continued to summon her to meet him secretly when he traveled, perhaps
    as late as 1929.
    Letters 1925-1975 is surprisingly unrevealing. Passion is evident, on
    both sides, as is Heidegger's tremendous self-centered pomposity.
    Heidegger destroyed most of Arendt's letters; she kept his. The high
    German tone, the notes on Being mixed with romantic schmaltz, and the
    fragmentary instructions on their assignations don't add up to much.
    Read alongside Responsibility and Judgment, however, the framework of
    interpretation has to be that old question: does the philosopher live
    by her philosophy? The notion that Arendt subtly imbibed anti-Semitism
    from Heidegger is nonsense. If Arendt ever betrayed something with her
    attachment to the elder philosopher, it was her own late philosophy of
    judgment. For what Heidegger could have been made, in his genius and
    in his evil deeds, was an example.
    In late 1932 or early 1933, she confronted him directly, in the final
    exchange of their prewar correspondence. She had heard rumors of his
    abandonment of Jewish colleagues and students, reports of his
    anti-Semitism. "[S]landers," Heidegger declared all of it. He ended
    the letter with a typical guilt trip for daring to accuse him: "In any
    case, I have long since given up expecting any sort of gratitude or
    even just decency from so-called 'disciples.'"
    In 1933, while Arendt ran from the Nazis, Heidegger politicked with
    Nazi colleagues to be appointed rector of the University of Freiburg.
    He delivered a Rectorial Address giving philosophical cover to
    National Socialism, arranging for it to be greeted with the Nazi Party
    anthem, stiff-armed salutes, and cries of Sieg Heil. He undertook the
    Nazification of the university, approving the anti-Semitism that
    excluded even his own mentor Husserl, and he cut off contact with
    Jewish colleagues and dumped Jewish graduate students. Heidegger's
    enthusiastic Nazism has been well documented, despite his postwar
    prevarications, by a generation of recent German scholarship that
    turned up shameful new details as late as 1989.
    By the war's end, Arendt's letters to her husband and to the
    philosopher Karl Jaspers indicate she knew enough about Heidegger's
    actions to judge him a liar, a coward, and a participant in appalling
    deeds. She wrote sarcastically about his Nazism in a footnote to a dry
    1946 Partisan Review essay on European existentialism.
    Then Arendt met with Heidegger again, impulsively, in 1950, on a visit
    to Germany to recover pillaged cultural objects for Jewish Cultural
    Reconstruction. "This evening and this morning are the confirmation of
    an entire life," she wrote him afterward. "I became aware of . . . how
    . . . the power of the impulse had mercifully saved me from committing
    the only really inexcusable act of infidelity and forfeiting my life."
    The "infidelity" would have been to abandon Heidegger forever. In a
    few further elliptical phrases, she in essence apologized to him for
    her plan of abandonment; even repudiating the "reasons" which could
    have kept her away. One has to imagine these "reasons" were his Nazi
    In effect, she stopped judging him, at least to his face, at least
    publicly. Or, perhaps, she under-judged him: giving too much public
    credit to his deceptions, and too little to her long-standing
    intuitions about his character. Letters 1925-1975 reprints her tribute
    "Martin Heidegger at 80," delivered in 1969 on radio and published
    internationally. Knowing what we know now-though we can't say
    precisely how much of it Arendt knew-one can't help but feel that she
    soft-pedals his Nazism. She said Heidegger made a "mistake," but
    corrected it. She suggested this was to be expected in a philosopher,
    a role she evidently doesn't assume for herself. "We who want to honor
    thinkers, even if our residence is in the middle of the world, can
    hardly help but find it striking and perhaps even irritating that,
    when they got involved in human affairs, both Plato and Heidegger
    resorted to tyrants and Führers."
    Again, a crucial essay from Responsibility and Judgment helps to
    clarify matters. Late in "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," Arendt
    digresses to admit a major objection to her views about thinking and
    judgment. An ineradicable subjectivism haunts her idea of the freedom
    to choose one's company, both outer and inner. She gives her response
    in an anecdote from Cicero. Cicero is choosing between the ideas of
    Plato and the Pythagoreans, where their opinions differ. He bursts
    out: " 'By God, I'd much rather go astray with Plato than hold true
    views with these people.' " Arendt goes on as follows:
    And he lets his partner in the dialogue once more emphasize the point:
    he too would not mind at all going astray and erring with such a man
    [as Plato]. . . . The point is that . . . there comes a point where
    all objective standards-truth, rewards and punishments in a hereafter,
    etc.-yield precedence to the "subjective" criterion of the kind of
    person I wish to be and live together with.
    Heidegger was her Plato. She preferred to go astray with him than
    remain with the views of those who hewed to decency-even herself. She
    knew Heidegger as a liar, a betrayer, and a lover whom she declared
    (in private writings) she had never quite ceased to love. She also
    knew him as a genius. It is not often in history that one finds a
    Plato for one's teacher. She evaluated his philosophy, in letters to
    her husband and friends, completely separately from her gloomy
    assessments of his character. A fair sampling of readers today
    confirms the perception that Heidegger was the preeminent continental
    philosopher of the twentieth century. Though he turned to tyrants, to
    abandon him would have been to give up her "life," that is, her other
    life as a philosopher, beyond the political persona and ethic of
    judgment she tried to maintain in the world.
    This was Hannah Arendt's lesser evil. It is not excusable in the
    context of her philosophy. Elsewhere she rejected involvement with the
    lesser evil, for a good reason. "Politically, the weakness of the
    argument [for lesser evils] has always been that those who choose the
    lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil." Whether Arendt
    forgot, we can't say. But she did not judge Heidegger, as she judged
    others, or in the manner that she demanded we all judge. What Arendt
    did not know about Heidegger, and what she excused, one hesitates to
    separate. The clear thing is that she made her choice. Her philosophy
    of judgment, together with her one key refusal to judge, can be
    understood in human terms but never reconciled.

    Mark Greif is a senior correspondent at the American Prospect.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list