Hannah Arendt

A few weeks ago, my undergraduate seminar spent the week reading selections from Hannah Arendt. I’m no Arendt specialist, of course, and anyway the specialist issues weren’t the point– the seminar was about the Enlightenment tradition and what happened to it over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the re-encounter reminded me how much I admire Arendt. She’s Exhibit A-1 for us embattled twenty-first-century humanists, an example of what our kind of knowledge can do. Her story also provides some clues about why we’re not doing it here in 2015.

In case you’re unfamiliar with her, Arendt was a German Jew, born in 1906, who did a doctorate in philosophy, escaped the Holocaust by inches, and became one of America’s most prominent intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s. The bombshell event in her career was her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil, which came out first as a New Yorker series, then as a free-standing book. The book was a shocker, among other reasons because it argues (as the sub-title indicates) that evil deeds don’t necessarily come from evil people. Arendt’s Eichmann was a pathetic bureaucrat and careerist, lacking both an ethical core and the capacity for clear thinking. It’s mainly his emptiness that explains his crimes.

That idea pissed people off in 1963, and it still does fifty years later. Serious scholars are still out looking for evidence that Eichmann was actually a criminal mastermind, “one of the greatest mass murderers in history,” in the words of the American political theorist Richard Wolin. Wolin emphasizes how much is at stake in that assessment: “if Eichmann was ‘banal,'” as Arendt claimed, “then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined. Arendt’s defenders would have us believe, counter-intuitively, that it was the mentalité of dutiful ‘functionaries,’ rather than impassioned anti-Semites, that produced the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, and Auschwitz.”

Well, yes, that’s pretty much Arendt’s point, though she wouldn’t use quite those words. As she sees it, the Holocaust was actually not a unique historical event. Genocide was standard procedure for the ancient Greeks and Romans, those fathers of our Western Civilization; if your country lost a war, she reminds us, the winner killed or enslaved you. That form of genocide ended with modernity, but other forms of mass violence took its place: the “administrative massacres” of European imperialism, the resettlement schemes of Stalinist totalitarianism, industrialized warfare.

Even more shocking, Arendt tells us to expect more Holocaust-like episodes. Modern industrial society needs steadily fewer actual human beings, as the machines get steadily better at doing what once was our work. That makes most of us superfluous, killable. Back in the old days, you couldn’t kill off masses of your own people without reducing your own standard of living, because then who would do the productive work? Now the robots take care of the productivity; most of us are just surplus mouths to feed.

Arendt sees another, related dark side in the modern condition. As the robots replace us in the workplace, we’re all increasingly uncertain about our future paychecks– and we’re willing to do an awful lot to keep them coming. Meaning it’s the decent, respectable family man who’s likely to go the farthest, because he’s got the most to lose. Arendt explains: “under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time,” the caring husband and father became “an adventurer who with all his anxiety could never be sure of the next day…. It turned out that he was willing to sacrifice conscience, honor and human dignity for the sake of pension, life-insurance, the secure existence of wife and children.”

It’s a lesson about the idiocy of the super-villain theory of history. (See here for more on that.) Arendt tells us we’re all vulnerable to these specifically modern pressures, all potential evil-doers; it’s childish to keep dividing the world between good guys and bad, and we should stop doing it. Back in 1963, Arendt could take it for granted that her readers understood that idea– how the hell can it be controversial in 2015, when all the economic chaos has become so much worse??

Maybe one reason is, Arendt’s take on industrial capitalism comes pretty much straight from Karl Marx. For her as for Marx, crisis is baked into the modern economic system: modern productive forces guarantee moments of over-production and consequent lay-offs. More fundamentally, like Marx she sees a system that isn’t really designed for human beings. It has its own non-human logic, and if we don’t fit into one of the slots it offers, it’ll kick us to the curb. Those aren’t things we’re comfortable hearing in 2015, and there’s lots of pressure on contemporary intellectuals not to say them.

But if Arendt’s diagnosis sounds like Marx, her prescriptions don’t. She doesn’t talk revolution or imagine some gauzy future utopia. Instead, she pushes Culture, of the heavy-duty, old-time sort: reading the Great Books, wrestling with the Big Ideas, even learning the dead languages. She’s constantly tossing around Greek words and fancy philosophical references, and she expects us to look them up if we don’t already know them.

What good’s that supposed to do in a world of robots and mass killing? Arendt’s answer is simple and basic: it will teach us to think clearly and act well, and she gives us Eichmann as the ultimate counter-example. As she presents him, he was neither an illiterate nor a slobbering sadist, instead, simply a man who could apply only empty phrases to his situation, because he’d never acquired the ability to think seriously. In other words, he wasn’t just a “dutiful functionary” (Richard Wolin’s summary of Arendt’s view), but something more frightening– a representative modern man, full of off-the-shelf clichés and plastic reasoning, incapable of seeing through his fake words, incapable even of putting them into logical order.

As we roam our landscape of talking-heads, cable news, and politician sound bites, the Eichmann example should scare the shit out of us.

So I take Arendt’s ultimate message to us as something like this: Humanistic knowledge isn’t there just to beautify our lives or to round out our practical doings, it’s not enrichment. Instead, it’s brutally practical– it’s what separates us from “one of the greatest mass murderers in history.”

Can you get any more practical?