– Arendt on Evil – Exploring the German Philosopher Hanna Arendt’s Philosophy of the Nature of Human Evil


 – Arendt on Evil –
Exploring the German Philosopher Hanna Arendt’s Philosophy of the

Nature of Human Evil

Matthew Lipscomb – Existentialism & Phenomenology – 3/19/2013

Introduction: Character, Historical Path & Essay Goals

Hanna Arendt is one of the most fascinating individuals in philosophical history. Her life experiences as a WWII refugee and then her subsequent lifetime exploration of deep philosophical subjects mark her as a legitimate narrator of some of the more weighty and important issues that face humanity. Of these issues that she strove to honestly explore, one of her lasting and arguably most important contributions is that of her contribution to the understanding of evil. This essay will seek to explore three of Arendt’s works and correlate how they interact with this subject.
Long before she wrote her long philosophical tomes, or came to meet face to face a man that embodied the very essence of evil in the modern, public imagination – Arendt set down deep roots into the subject of evil.  As a budding scholar & doctorial student of only twenty years old, Arendt set aside the deep philosophical subjects that literally were engrained in her Jewish-German background and instead chose something radically different: Saint Augustine. As Alan Wolfe argues in his book, Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, the influence of Augustine would prove to be enormous through the long and changing journey of her career. [1]

Growing up, Arendt never saw the issue of Anti-Semitism as strongly as she would eventually come to see it.[2]  When she was 16 years old, her world began to expand both geographically & intellectually by her schooling in Berlin – after she was sent there by her mother – after an incident in her Gymnasium in Königsberg. It was here that she was introduced to Romani Guardini, a well-respected Christian Existentialist, who arguably significantly contributed to Arendt’s own Weltanschauung.[3], [4] Later, Arendt would advance in her schooling to the University of Marburg, where, at the age of 18, she would attend her first lecture, given by a certain fellow by the name of Dr. Martin Heidegger, who would eventually come to be known as one of philosophy’s greatest minds.[5] Heidegger was 35, married, and the father of two sons – but he engaged in an illicit affair with Arendt that would forever fascinate those who would later study both characters and their respective philosophical achievements. Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, by Daniel Maier-Katkin, tells the story of how it was that Arendt could be enamored of Heidegger – a man who would eventually become tied to the Nazi party by choice and by enthusiasm and therefore totalitarianism and its associated evil The reason is arguably instructive.

Part One: Evil as being teleologically non-Directive from the perspective of Left vs. Right Political dynamics: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.  (From Preface to the First Edition, The Origins of Totalitarianism)[6]

            Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism in the immediate years after WWII. Having fled Europe and watched her native country destroyed, Arendt felt compelled to give reasoning behind the wanton destruction that some felt was destined to only continue on. In it, Arendt discusses the structure of Nazi Germany and its concentration camps.[7] It is this structure, along with the other central themes of the book that serve to frame it.

The initial part of her book consists of three separate prefaces, each introducing a respective, substantive section of the book – which are later each explored in detail: anti-Semitism, imperialism, and the last part – totalitarianism. The essential, overarching essence of Origins is one of historiography. Through its pages, one finds a deep view of history and the meta-structures or metanarratives that she focuses on.  The issues of race, national identity and class are all intermingled and each also addressed. Behind each idea – there is presented its shadow: its evil.  For instance, in the section on totalitarianism, Arendt includes a section entitled ‘Ideology and Terror –A Novel Form of Government,’ in which she describes how totalitarian governments place their understanding of a law of history or nature over the rights of men – subverting and denigrating them in the name of “lawfulness”.

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments.  Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected. If it is true that the link between totalitarian countries and the civilized world was broken through the monstrous crimes of totalitarian regimes, it is also true that this criminality was  not due to simple aggressiveness, ruthlessness, warfare and treachery, but  to a conscious break of that consensus iuris which, according to Cicero, constitutes a “people,” and which, as international law, in modern times has  constituted the civilized world insofar as it remains the foundation-stone of  international relations even under the conditions of war. Both moral judgment and legal punishment presuppose this basic consent; the criminal can be judged justly only because he takes part in the consensus iuris, and even the revealed law of God can function among men only when they listen and consent to it.[8]

            In addition to her analysis of this ‘subversion’ – perhaps the greater contribution of Origins is that it makes the origin of totalitarianism neither a proverbial political ‘left’ nor ‘right’ intrinsic destiny. In fact, she argues that either side can go down its harrowing path. As Alan Wolf points out in Political Evil, this, in turn, eventually became Arendt’s contribution to what became the post-war era’s so-called Cold War and an intrinsic part of its thinking. Totalitarianism was not just a danger to the right/conservative political pew but it was – as could so clearly be evidenced – a clear and present potentiality for the right/liberal/socialist side as well.  As Wolf notes – “Without the concept of totalitarianism, the struggle between democracy and communism would have been viewed as the stuff of territory, money, and power.”[9] Arendt’s work showed that it was possible and even appropriate to argue that the path that the Communists had gone down – was the very same that the Nazi party had so hastily themselves trod.

Although the bulk & burden of its content has to do with the despair that, for her and so many others, had become indelibly etched both upon their own minds and their own histories – Arendt ends Origins with a ray of hope: the idea that though an evil era of tremendous pain and destruction had drawn to an end, there was, therefore, a beginning – and a beginning could bring hope.

But there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Iniiium ut esset homo creatus est — “that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each  new birth; it is indeed every man.   (Arendt, 1979: 478-9)

            Origins is a story of the epic tale between good and evil.[10] Wolf in Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it argues this, through his use of the term Manichean[11] – which he argues was the predominate viewpoint through which these issues were seen. He also connects this back to Arendt and her complex understanding of and philosophical anchoring in Augustine. He argues that just as Augustine eventually rejected the Manichean gnostic dualist spirit/good vs. physicality/evil dichotomy, Arendt also came to reject the overriding presuppositions that it forcefully asserts. She became more existential; more personal in her understanding of Evil – thus her book on Eichmann is representational of this movement in her understanding of both the world and evil.
One question that can be asked is did this ‘transition’ have anything to do with her affair with Heidegger? By 1934, Arendt was in exile from Germany, and her torrid affair with him well over. But the heart remembers things that the mind may forget. Heidegger, unlike Eichmann, never participated in the Nazi death squads. He remained an academic – one who, himself, experienced a degree of frustration (though seemingly inconsequential, in an honest comparison with the experiences of others) with censorship and frustration from his then-fellow Nazis.[12] Arendt may have well understood Heidegger’s naïveté, as while he was still wearing his Nazi party pin in 1936[13] As Daniel Maier-Katkin points out in Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, had Hitler “been assassinated in 1937 or 1938 he would have been lionized by his followers throughout the world.”[14] The evil that Hitler had prophesied in his own book Mein Kampf was yet to fully unfold. As it eventually did – Heidegger may have feared for his own life. His own functional involvement in the party had lasted only a year and he had been removed from academic office in 1934, by the Nazis, in what may have been a purging of the ranks of all lukewarm fascists.[15] Arendt may have been thinking of Heidegger when she wrote in Origins that “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of sympathies, with crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is the best guarantee of their loyalty.” [16]

Whether it was Augustine’s own eventual intellectual trajectory that she herself also in turn eventually followed – or her observations of Heidegger – her thoughts turned from the grand dichotomy of the good vs. evil to the one of more existential crux, such as that which she would show in her next book: Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Part Two: Evil Need not Be Large – Understanding the Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt’s The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil

Eichmann’s own attitude was different. First of all, the indictment for murder was wrong: “With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter —I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew; I just did not do it,” or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened … that I had not once to do it”—for he left no doubt that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect.   (Eichmann in Jerusalem – Hannah Arendt)[17]

            Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil began as a series of articles that were written by Arendt that appeared in The New Yorker, which had asked Arendt to cover the trial, which even at its onset had become an international focus of attention.[18] The media circus that was generated[19] was intended to highlight how great a monster Eichmann was said to be. The man that wound up writing about was to her, “terrifyingly normal.”[20] Arendt essentially details the progression of the trial. What is different from her previous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is that she moves from a macro-systematic (large scale) representation embodied by the epic good vs. evil dichotomy – to a different viewpoint, which essentially resonates from a micro-existential/psychological one. In his book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Alan Wolf points that instead of looking at the Nazi Death camps as part of the proverbial ‘means to and end’ – as she does in The Origins of Totalitarianism– in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt sees them more as a ‘means to understanding’ the individuals that made the Nazi system work. The book also marks a transition from an onto-systematic viewpoint to one of a psycho-existential means. Origins looked at the macro structures that enabled evil, whereas Eichmann examines the individual behind the system, moreover – those enabling it.

Rather then expositing a grand history, she uncovers the nature of a man  – at his level, a man who is startlingly essentially a common, simple, and non-descript individual. There is no magisterial tyrant bellowing forth on her written pages. Only a man who participated and followed through on the smallest of details – all of which added up in their totality to the crime that Arendt felt could not just never be forgotten, but had seemingly surpassed the tangible interpretive framework of anything that could even be considered “law”.[21]

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt examines the death camps from a top-down approach; exploring the dynamics of propaganda, ideology and what she termed ‘the leadership principle,’ In Eichmann in Jerusalem the subject of the camps is significantly recontextualized. It is reoriented around how individual Nazis thought about their acts and their own self-perceptions before and after them.[22]  It was this caused a tremendous stir.[23]

But it was not just her existential loci that got Arendt into trouble. She had a fascination with the Jewish Councils that had helped administrate many of the Jewish ghettos.[24] This caused outrage with many fellow Jewish writers – and they attacked her vigorously calling her a  “self-hating Jew”[25]

Here again, Wolf argues that Arendt followed the theology of Augustine. Evil was not a spectacular thing for her – rather it was decidedly commonplace in its intrinsic nature. It was dull and potentially monotonous. All that Eichmann was – was a submissive cog in a much larger machine, one that he had not cared to resist.[26] It was not that there was so much profound evil manifest in his personhood – as much as it was that there were just so many people like him[27] For Arendt, Eichmann does not represent the vibrant thinker; a man wresting with the responsibilities of life.  He is in his own words, a corpse – an automaton following in blind obedience. He even had his own word for it: Kadavergehorsam – the obedience of corpses.[28]

If – for Arendt – Eichmann embodied the non-thinking, living dead – then her next work, sought to explore what the living, thinking looked like. Arendt would spend the remainder of her life working on her monumental survey of human thought – The Life of the Mind.

Part Three: The Traditions of Evil, From the Perspective of Historical Perspectives on Thought: Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind.

The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually “condition” them against it? (Life of the Mind) [29]

            Of all of Hannah Arendt’s books – The Life of the Mind is both the least and the most about evil. Because it is a survey of human thought, it does not constantly touch on the subject; there are not entire chapters devoted to how one man can become a historical demon (such as Eichmann in Jerusalem did), nor does it devote extended explorations into how leaders de-evolve into tyrants (as did The Origins of Totalitarianism). But because it is oriented around human thought itself, human evil is the grand metanarrative; the idea hiding in the shadows – behind the work’s grand, historical stage. It is always there, even if only indirectly so. Perhaps it is this indirectness that makes it her most important contribution to the subject. The book was written as two volumes, the first entitled Thinking and the second volume Willing. Arendt died of a heart attack before she could finish the last section of the second volume entitled ‘Judging’. A collection of her papers, oriented around what was thought to have been the generally intended thrust of the section was put together in absence of her own writing, and substituted in lieu of it.[30]

True to her capabilities as a historian of thought and philosopher in her own right, Arendt assembled a thorough and comprehensive survey which passes through Socrates, the apostle Paul, and of course – Augustine. As he had found his way into her mind and elsewhere, Heidegger also found his way, once more, into her book. When she died, he telegraphed that he was ‘deeply mourning.’ He himself died less then a year later. He was 87.[31]

In a section entitled ‘The Two in One,” in the first volume – Arendt writes of Eros, knowledge and the possibility of finding evil impossible. One wonders if Heidegger was on her mind, as she wrote the words.

What I called the “quest” for meaning appears in Socrates’ language as love, that is, love in its Greek significance of Eros, not the Christian agape. Love as Eros is primarily a need; it desires what it has not.  Men love wisdom and therefore begin to philosophize because they are not wise, and they love beauty and do beauty…because they are not beautiful. Love is the only matter in which Socrates pretends to be an expert, and this skill guides him, too, in choosing his companions and friends: “While I may be worthless in all other matters, this talent I have been given: I can easily recognize lover and a beloved.” By desiring what it has not, love establishes a relationship with what is not present.

            Arendt then traces the ancient notion that evil is ultimately the absence of good, further noting that,

If thinking dissolves positive concepts into their original meaning, then the same process must dissolve these “negative” concepts back into their original meaninglessness, that is, into nothing for the thinking ego. … It looks as though Socrates had nothing more to say about the connection between evil and lack of thought then that people who are not in love with beauty, justice, and wisdom are incapable of thought, just as, conversely, those who are in love with examining and thus “do philosophy” would be incapable of evil.[32]

Conclusions: Arendtian Contributions in the Conversation about Evil and Overcoming its Potential of Existence            

Herein lies, perhaps, Arendt’s best understanding of evil. As someone who was decidedly in love, herself, with thinking – evil would naturally, potentially be easily seen as the result of those – who like Eichmann – willingly chose not to think. Though it can be argued not all evil can easily be seen exclusively through this lens – a considerable portion of it can. It is not enough to just say that all ‘evil villains are shallow thinkers’ – but it can be easily understood that many leaders will say anything to preserve their own preoccupations with ultimately shallow things: power, sex, money, etc.  All these things many seem important – but, in the great sum of things – are they really? Perhaps this intrinsically existential question is the backwash of Arendt’s own exposure to Christian theology – most notably, through Augustine. What are the important things? Arendt understands lusts as desires towards things that are not to be immediately had – but upon what gauge are we to qualify the depth and authenticity of their respective notions? Nowadays, the Nazi preoccupation with eugenics seems sadly comical in a way – but in its time it was a universally serious business. Is one generation’s seriousness – another generation’s folly?  Even today, the postmodern movement jettisons the seriousness of modernity as overrated and superficial. Are they correct? What will future generations think of the issues we consider ‘serious thinking’ today – and will future generations see them as spurious, empty and – therefore, according to Arendt – easily permutable into evil?

The risk of this thought is that it may be merely an extended product of extreme relativism.  Uncoupled as she was, from the divine absolutes of her native Jewish religion, and yet also immersed, yet not surrendered, to Augustinian Christianity – ultimately Arendt found faith in her own thinking. If she was but willing to think – she felt like she could overcome the potential for evil. But what does this say of the German nation & culture? The Germans both then and now were and are respected for their philosophical exactness. It could certainly be argued that the Germans were not thinking deeply subjectively – when they embraced and ran with the hysteria of Nazism and its subsequent terrors. But they were thinking objectively –and ruinously at that. If we can understand a process by which we can separate the authentic from the facile – then perhaps Arendt’s working understanding takes better shape. But am I left alone with Hegel and his owl of Minerva to tell me whether or not I have thought authentically about something and therefore eschewed evil? This would seem to rekindle the anxiety and place for despair that is so often associated with existentialism.

Perhaps that is the key for Arendt and one of her primary contributions: the art of thinking diligently, but also crucially with suspicion and vigilance.  But did she follow through with this? While she was reporting and writing Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt saw both sides trying to rationalize away what had happened both with Eichmann and with the extended horrors at Auschwitz. They seemed to be arguing that all of it was merely some kind of historical dialectical process a la Hegel that – at the end of the day – was actually still all quite natural, in a way – maybe even possibly necessary. Necessary and even possibly required. Required – for history to presumably move forward in true Hegelian fashion. Arendt soundly rejected this.

Who would dare reconcile himself with the reality of extermination camps, or play the game of synthesis-antithesis-synthesis until his dialectics have discovered ‘meaning’ in slave labor?[33]

            Hans Kung goes farther and points out that the horror of Auschwitz is an abruption that goes beyond reason and surely beyond any form or expression of entertainable dialectical theory.

The disgrace of Auschwitz is not to be charged to some all-powerful providence or to some dialectically wise necessity, as if it were an antithesis demanding a synthesis or a step on the road to salvation…It remains on our account, and it is we who must again wash away the disgrace from our own disfigured faces, indeed from the very countenance of God. Don’t talk to me here about the cunning of reason. [34]

            If Eichmann (and the Auschwitz he helped create) both show the limits of Hegel’s system and his theory –then what of the Metaphysics that it was supposed to replace? When asked this – Arendt would only say that she was ‘in these matters’ only a “journalist.”[35] She could not follow Augustine into Faith when she was confronted with evil in its full barbarity. The master thinker could only seem to afford a diffuse dodge. Regardless of this and in addition to her contribution of a thinking philosophy, this may be a second Arendtian contribution; the possible limits of Hegelian Dialectics. For all those who have tried to ‘get out of the system’  – Arendt may well have shown us a way – even if so, by nature of her own reticence to affirm and explore it.

Thirdly, she contributes a vision for the recognition of the signs of totalitarianism in our politics and warns us that they can come from anywhere and any party or persuasion.  Center to this – and it was her most controversial stand – is that we should strive to avoid the dynamics of deadness in our own thoughts and relations with the world.  All of us, from the greatest to the least, can become dead to justice. The most hideous horrors were carried out with the same innocuous routineness as that of checking the mail. If we are able to do these things (and maybe even make the escape from Hegelian Dialectics, in affirming a place for traditional Christian metaphysical realities -which she herself could not) then perhaps there is a place to find life through a struggle with doubt, death and desire and their counterparts – faith, life and satisfaction. Perhaps if we are willing to push these boundaries  – while burdening ourselves with the responsibilities of both our society and ourselves – we can make a way: a way past our own evils; those of the past – the present, and more so importantly – the future.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

—. The Life of the Mind. New York, NY: Harcort, 1971.

—. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, NY: Harcourt, 1994.

Maier-Katkin, Daniel. Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought – An Alternative History of Philosphy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Paperbacks, 2004.

Oxford University. Oxford Online Dictionaries. http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/Manichaeism (accessed 3 18, 2013).

Wolfe, Alan. Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012.

[1] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 57.

[2]  Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, pg. 21.

[3] Ibid. pg. 23.

[4] Weltanschauung is the German word for ‘world-view,’ which means that way that you see the world from a standpoint of personal philosophy, religious presuppositions or ethical basis.

[5] Ibid. pg. 25.

[6] Preface to the First Edition, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. vii

[7] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 60.

[8] The Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 462.

[9] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 93.

[10] Ibid pg. 93.

[11] “A dualistic religious system with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements, founded in Persia in the 3rd century by Manes (circa 216-circa 276). The system was based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. It spread widely in the Roman Empire and in Asia, and survived in eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) until the 13th century. From Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/Manichaeism)

[12] Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, pg. 105

[13] Ibid, pg. 103.

[14] Ibid pg. 104.

[15] Ibid pg. 103.

[16] Quoted in Strangers From Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, pg. 103, as from The Origins of Totalitarianism pg. 449.

[17] Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, pg. 22.

[18] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 58.

[19] Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, pgs 6-7.

[20] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 59.

[21] Strangers from Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, pg. 134.

[22] Political Evil – What it is and How to Combat it, pg. 60.

[23] Ibid. pg. 62.

[24] Ibid. pg. 61.

[25] Ibid. pg. 62.

[26] Ibid. pg. 62.

[27] Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil, pg. 276.

[28] Ibid. pg. 135.

[29] The Life of the Mind, pg. 5.

[30] The Life of the Mind, pg. 241.

[31] Strangers from Abroad – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness pg. 341.

[32] The Life of the Mind, pgs. 178-179

[33] Quoted in Evil in Modern Thought – An Alternate History (Arendt 7, 444) pg. 262.

[34] Quoted in Evil in Modern Thought – An Alternate History (Quoted in Bernstein 2, 4) pg. 262.

[35] Evil in Modern Thought – An Alternate History, pg 274.


About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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1 Response to – Arendt on Evil – Exploring the German Philosopher Hanna Arendt’s Philosophy of the Nature of Human Evil

  1. Craig Ervin says:

    I enjoyed your paper.

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