Hannah Arendt on Evil

I. Banality

There was a wave of think pieces about (or, perhaps more accurate, using) Hannah Arendt in 2016, surrounding the beginning of Trump’s term. Most of them focused on the Origins of Totalitarianism and its potential application to American politics.

The wave has predictably subsided.

Ironically, then, as we discuss children in cages and mass ICE detentions, Arendt’s thoughts on evil are especially pertinent now. She wrote a book in 1963 called Eichmann in Jerusalem, based on a series of articles she wrote for the New Yorker. The book ends with a phrase that is as influential as it is perplexing: the “banality of evil.”

What Arendt meant by the phrase is difficult to say, though it is possible to rule out some interpretations. Zach wrote about the idea here.

It is worth revisiting the idea and reflecting on its possible application to ourselves. In this episode of the Vim Podcast, Kevin, Gabe, Zach, and Yohana discuss numerous aspects of the banality of evil:

  • What is the history behind Arendt’s writing?
  • Does banal evil depend on exceptional evil? Can you have one without the other?
  • Can the banality of evil concept be extended beyond the Holocaust and Nazi germany?
  • Is evil, banal or exception, a negative externality of an economic system?


II. Using Arendt in American Politics

Does bringing Arendt within the context of American politics necessarily involve misunderstanding or misusing her work? Arendt is, after all, an advocate of thought, in her specialized meaning. Weaponizing her (perhaps her clout and image more than the content of her arguments) to score political points likely stands at odds with the sort of political life she envisions.

Discussions of Arendt should take note of this potential problem. This is the topic of an earlier episode of the Vim Podcast, where Kevin and Zach unpack the issues behind Arendt think pieces.


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