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Episode #136 ... Hannah Arendt - The Banality of Evil

2019-10-31 | 🔗

Today we discuss the work of Hannah Arendt. 

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, everyone, I'm Stephen West! This is philosophize. This just want to thank the people who subscribe on patron to make the show possible could never do this without you, today's episodes on the work of one of the best political theorists of the 20th century Hana rent. I hope you love the show today so long time. Time ago, on this podcast, we told the story about a guy named Socrates, who was sentenced to death in ancient Greece Classic story from the history of philosophy. He was accused of corrupting the youth denying the gods of the state he was found guilty the drink. Hemlock died in the round three hundred and ninety nine BC. Now one of the people who witnessed the trial of Socrates in first person, what's the student play doh and play Doh famously Socrates is put to death, leaves the city of Athens for years, and
A bit of a world tour travels all over the place. Maybe as far as N Africa based on some peoples accounts see, Plato had had enough at the time. He was angry that Socrates had been put to death. He had grown disillusioned with the political climate in Athens, something he thought. The Athenians took foolish pride and when you consider the fact that his friend and mentor was put to death under what he thought were false premises, you can start to understand why he felt this way well Hannah or rent would say that it was this moment in history that may have singlehandedly led to a mistake in the thinking of philosophers for the next two thousand four hundred years, because she would say when Plato leaves Athens and is so upset with the realm of the political that event had massive effects on his thinking. He returns back to Athens years, start starts school, the academy and when he does there's a distinct turning his philosophy, inward towards the realm of ideas for exam
in the allegory of the cave, the external world. The thoughts of the public are compared to shadows on a cave wall. He talks about eventually through the process of Philo's, emerging from that cave and witnessing the sun, which represented knowledge, in other words, something introspective and idea that was paramount to Plato. He talks about a world of ideas knowledge of these higher forms that can be arrived at introspectively by philosophers, thinking about things. In terms of the big three in ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plato, is very unique in this regard. Plato was in an make it of what Hana or rent would eventually call the contemplative life. This is the archetype of a philosopher. We've seen time and time again on the show, a flaw that resigns himself from public life, and then it's around thinking about stuff in solitude. Lock themselves away in a tower or in an academic institution, or even a secluded shack by a pond
the point is they sit around and think about stuff. That's the way progress in thinking is going to be arrived at a very general way. There's this field that if you want to think something that nobody's ever thought before talking to a bunch of people in public is just going to be a contaminating info. Just like if you surround yourself with toxic negative people, all the time, you're thinking can't help but start to tilt in that direction. These thinkers were worried that if they had too many conversations with normal everyday thinking. They might be at least less capable of making some sort of huge breakthrough. This is the contemplative life, but rent would say this isn't the only way philosophy has ever been done. In fact, the other two of the big three in ancient Greece, Socrates and Aristotle. They both thought that the life of a philosopher should be nothing like locking yourself away in some insular world. Socrates was the philosopher of the athenian Agora to him lots was engaging your fellow citizen if philosophy was ever going to produce anything meaningful
through conversation with someone else for Aristotle philosophy. And political engagement were two things that were inseparable. These two thinkers were fans of what Hana rent would eventually call the active life we have. The active life versus the contemplative life This is a key distinction, because, when Hana Rent was a young woman living in Germany just before the outbreak of world war, two, she was gauging in a life that was very similar to the contemplative life of someone like Plato. She was a student of philosophy. She no doubt would have thought of herself as a philosopher at the time but when the political events of world WAR two began to unfold, she looked at herself and started to feel like sitting around being a philosopher, was a bit naive and silly what good? locking yourself in a closet sitting around thinking about stuff all day. When the world around. You is crumbling philosophers of her and we're sitting on their hands living this safe contemplative life of Plato when what the world truly needed, she thought was a lot more people living the active life of Socrates, an heiress.
This is why, for the rest of her life, she would wholeheartedly reject being labeled a political philosopher and instead called herself a political theorist philosophy practiced in the traditional Contempla to form has failed to provide anything remotely a value in the real world, because she would say it doesn't take place in the real world. It didn't is a fundamental aspect of living as a human being on this planet. The realm of the political to begin, making her point Here she want us to divide being a human being into three primary categories: labor work and action. Let's talk, each one of them respectively and, let's start with labor the being a human being that she calls labor are the activities we all have to do. Everyday, simply maintain our biological existence, the things we gotta do every day, or else we die falling in. This category would be things like eating drinking sleeping going to the bathroom it. These kinds of activities make
a piece of what it is to be a human being, and she wants to bracket all together and put them in this category that she calls labor the next category. Behaviors that makes up what it is to be a person is what she calls work now work for Hanaa rent can be described in a number of different ways, but one way I've seen it described. That's pretty good is that work is the production of cultural artifacts. Now, what's meant by that, is part of being a human being is having a place to live right, we all got to live somewhere and as human beings we always have to live in the world. Another way you could describe that state of affairs is to say that we all ultimately have to exist within culture will somebody's got gotta, build that world and the cultural artifacts make it up the part of being a person that Hunter ENT calls work is if we all do everyday to produce that in setting the we all live in weather that, since only windows, making cars building
jizz or skyscrapers? Writing a novel, that's a part of what makes you the world write a symphony mowing the grass making a pair of sunglasses. The list goes on forever. The point is work for Hana Rent is the part of being a person that produces the world we live in, so we have labor. Then we have work and the last one is what she calls action now. Action simply put is the realm of the political, the words in activities of equal citizen who are engaged in the public realm. That is action. This is the piece of human life that encompasses what Socrates and Aristotle found so crucial in the active life. This is the part of human life forever. War is started. Every community is governed relationship between human beings in the world, managed Tejana rent this action in the political realm
is the thing that imbues our world in the cultural artifacts within it, with their meaning and what she means is without the realm of the political, a building would just be a building. A tree would just be a tree. It's not will equal free human beings decide their cultural significance in a public forum that their idea or meaning within that culture can be established? Now, let's not just gloss over how significant of a thing to say this because it may seem innocent, but beneath the surface here. This may be one of the most ruthless critiques of modernity in the 20th century, because, if a common critique of maternity is that it assumes value neutrality and doesn't adequately provide us with the way of determining the meanings or identities of things. You know, as Strauss would say, maternity, always leads us to relativism. Historicism ways of thinking like post modernism to Tejana rent postmodernism exists as a critique of the
only because the enlightenment made so many mistakes to begin with, the chief one in her eyes is that the enlightenment effectively did away with the realm of the political to get to the bottom of how she thinks this happened. Think of the Spirit of the enlightenment, for a second think of a quintessential classical enlightenment, Philosopher, for the sake of the conversation, let's talk about John Locke right, what is the role of the political realm within the philosophy of John Locke. Engage in the realm of politics so that we and sure life, liberty and property. In other words, politics is a means to an end in this politics is a means to ensuring the economic end of private property rights, but this hasn't the way we view politics, for example, in the pre, enlightenment era, active life of Socrates and Aristotle, politics wasn't a means to an end. Politics was an end in itself. In fact it was the other way around. Then you completed the activities required of you in the labor and work categories. You know
you completed the necessary maintenance of your life. You engaged in the economic realm, so that you could, How to participate in the political realm see. I can comics was seen as a means to ensuring a political end back then, as opposed to in the enlightenment, become the other way around, and this really is a hallmark of the enlightenment. Isn't it likely about last time, when you remove this ancient idea that there are final causes for things written into the universe, yeah not the structure, your societies in a way where, even if there aren't intrinsic values or virtuous people around Soci, still functions well anyway. Well, We have a long history of people being at each other's throats over political disputes. So these early enlightenment thinkers propose the idea that, if you could get people to cooperate based on mutually beneficial economic exchange they'd be much less likely to constantly be arguing about political matters, but Hana or rent would say, argue
about political matters. Engaging in the public realm is a fundamental piece of the human experience see because when it comes to identity, You can live the contemplative life of traditional philosophy. You can sit around and think about who you are all day long, but the contempt Life will never provide you with a satisfying answer to the question. Who am I? The answer to that question is only arrived at through action. How to thinks the same way. Active engagement in the public realm imbues, our are cultural relics with their meaning. It's only through our participation in the public realm that we can establish identities for ourselves, by taking action in the realm of the political you stake. A claim to your own set individual values and identity, and this is our point if it's a common criticism of the enlightenment, that people are experiencing a crisis,
identity, that the tools of enlightenment, rationalism cannot provide us with any answers to questions about values without devolving into relativism or historicism. That's because the beginning of the enlightenment, there's been a systematic exclusion of the political, the only form we've ever had establishing our own personal identity and values, but the enlightenment and its endless attempt to normative vice, to create, legalistic systems that run on mutual rational self interest. The enlightenment, Where did the political, and made it a means to an end for the sake of economics, so think of how to three parts of human life. Again, labor work and action. What the enlightenment Essentia Lee has done, then, is remove the action part of a persons life altogether. The enlightenment has turned us into what she calls economic man the citizen of modernity, is stuck in a perpetual loop between labor and work,
and all the things like values and identity that are supposed to be established through participation in the public realm feel like they're, desperately missing to us just to clarify what he's talking about here. Think about how many people talk about their place. In the world, when you ask someone to modernity who they are often times over by telling you what their job is. They'll say, I'm a plumber, but what is plum. Have to do with most questions about your values and who you are? We ask our children. What do you want to be when you grow up, not who you want to be there's a sense in which the purest form of expression for someone in a post, enlightenment world is what they do for a living constantly cycling between the fields of labor and work maintaining their biological existence during the evenings strictly, so that they can go back to work. The next and engage whatever menial level of expression, their job provides. This is what Hana rent calls economic man,
Think of other markers of identity in a capitalist society who you are often times is only in relation to what you own the kind of phone you use the kind of clothes you wear the trips you decide to go on your transactions, defy find your sense of identity, but the sense of identity it gives you in modernity is a cheap version of what used to be available to people. The whole identity feels pixelated in a way. The same way, Facebook gives you pixelated friends that mean just a little bit less pixelated expressions of approval that mean less than a real thumbs up pixelated videos that mediate your entire relationship with reality. The values of the enlightenment were a harbinger for a world to come, where people are fundamentally a cog in an economic machine rather than a person active in their communities. Politics in modernity consists of turning on the tv and being spoon FED a picture of what's going on in the world and then taking to the street
social media and screaming into the void about it. Honda or rent is going to say this. Subversion of people's ability to participate in politics began in the enlightenment, the civic republicanism that existed within many cultures of the past citizen, actively engaging in something like the greek Polis. This active engagement in the community has been replaced in modernity to writing your Congress person a letter and if you get really mad Well, then, you can make a sine wave it around in traffic and engage in some really powerful, powerful symbolism. The enlightenment has replaced the public realm of the political, with merely a public economic game. That's being played, this isn't just a criticism of capitalism, though she's, equally critical of Marxism as a system of thinking that emerged out of the enlightenment that views people fundamentally as things that fulfill an in economic role rather than political actors, one of the ultimate ambitious in games of Marxist
to create a society were engaging in things like politics being used as an instrument won't be necessary anymore, and this classless politicize society is obviously not something Hunter enters. A fan of. In fact, she thinks both Capitalism and marxism by aiming to reduce everything to economics, robs people of a crucial piece of their humanity. To put it bluntly, enlightenment by doing away with political engagement, dehumanizes people. Now it's right here that we can understand where she's coming from when she begins her exploration into one of the most famous books, the origins, hotel tearing ism and if it wasn't entirely obvious by the title of the book, this is a period in Hana Rinse work where she's looking at the political situation that's around or in the world and to route world war. Two and beyond she seeing all these new forms of totalitarianism, on the rise and she's trying to figure out two things: one: how did the system's ascend to power in the first place and then to once they're in power? How did they maintain power despite doing unspeakable thing,
things to their citizens. The answer to these two questions begins with modernity, systematic exclusion of the political realm and she'd say it's not a coincidence that when you look at the structure of these twentieth century totalitarian regimes, free political discourse among equal citizens is never even close to one of their priorities. In fact, it's the opposite political detractors will often mysteriously disappear or be silenced. Things like the night of the long knives, to name one example of many, the ultimate goal of these regimes being to turn entire populations of people into what she calls an animal aberrants and what she's referencing is actually an older idea from Marx Marx was responding to a common question. Bring his time a period when Charles Darwin is also doing his work, and the question is this: what is it that truly separates human beings from all other animals in the animal Kingdom Walt there were a lot of people that live to answer that question with human beings. Just think in a far superior way than all the other animals, but marks with this concept of
animal aberrans is going to say that, yes, there are differences in our brains, but what fundamentally separates us is not so much our ability to think better the roles we play within societies as laborers. In other words, we labor better than other animals and for all the attempts by Karl Marx to remove people from what he saw as the chains. Capitalism from the alienation of the self that's caused by capitalism. Hana rent is going to say that even if he successfully removes the chains of capitalism, he still leaves the citizens of modernity and the rest of his thinking locked in the chains of the entire economic task of the enlightenment. She takes the term audible, operons and re purposes it to point out what she these, as a flaw in marxist thinking, she says, quote a mass society of labor's such as Marx, had in mind when he spoke of quote socialize. Mankind consists of world with specimens of the species mankind, whether they are household slaves, driven into their predicament by the violence of others or free, performing their functions willing
end quote. What she's saying here is that when you're a person living in modernity and the primary mission of your life is to fulfill some sort of economic role when your life is reduced to work and labor, and the you know the political realm is taken out of the equation, you are left to feel like what she calls a world less specimen. She says the common criticism of the enlightenment that it alienates. The self is not going far enough. This is a case of world alienation. She says By subverting the political, the enlightenment, light Usta World where we can no longer imbue our cultural, artifacts and our world with meeting what we're left with. She thinks mass societies of laborers that feel constantly and utterly disconnected from the world that they live in. She goes on in her book. The human condition quote This world, lessness of the Automall aberrans to be sure, is entirely different from the active flight from the publicity of the world which we found inherent in the activity of good
works. The Automall Aberrans does not flee the world, but is ejected from it. In so far as he is imprisoned, in the privacy of his own body, caught in the fulfillment needs in which nobody can share and which nobody can fully communicate. In quote what she say is that maturity is produced a world where there is no actual public. For people to engage in anymore. We are imprisoned in our own pride, lives of labor and work, and in this regard we are alienated from the public world through this long process of the emancipation of labor hundreds of years We have convinced the citizens of modernity that the action portion of their life, where they Their sense of identity is to their jobs or how they contribute to the most important thing: a public economy condom, we traded a public realm of political engagement for a pub economy and mistakenly concluded that they're producing the same thing for people. Once again, we don't have a public realm anymore. What we have she says, our private acts out
open and a mass society of labor's that see themselves in terms of a role they play in an economy, and she says when you do this. This inevitably leads us to this outcome quote the outcome is what is euphemistically called mass culture. And it's deep rooted trouble is a universal unhappiness. Do one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, on the other, to the persistent ends of the animal operons to obtain a happiness which We achieved only wear lice processes of exhaustion and regeneration of pain and release from pain strike. A perfect balance, in quote this picture of the average citizen of modernity, a world lez alienated economic Kog, immersed in a culture that they have no real recourse to change. This is the type of rootless person needs to exist in mass. If you want to explain the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, people live their lives. State of malaise starving for
of identity or meaning beyond what they do for a living or how that contributes to a global economy, but then, while they're starving for this identity. Post Treaty of Versailles feeling disenfranchised political group comes along in Germany and gives people something meaningful to feel. A part of this is the horror of what modernity reduce a society of economic cogs that lack of political voice and uh dying to move on behalf of something and a political group with evil intentions, pulling the levers of the machine, see after world WAR, two Honda rent like everyone else trying to get to the bottom of what exactly happened in Germany that allowed for the rise of something like the third Reich. How could something like this happen? Again? but this totalitarian regime ascend to power in the first place, and how did they maintain power? once they got there. Well, common explanation It was being given by commentators during the time of Hana Rent is at the
It's in Germany were some sort of historical anomaly. Then a bunch of the most evil people, whoever lived, got together. Cole, wanted the National Socialist Party and carried out their evil plan of world domination. No, they they commissioned the most evil people. They could find a head of the different parts of the regime the addictive german people post World war. One work disproportionately filled with soldiers that were willing to do unspeakable things to innocent people. The third Reich was essentially an evil death cult that sees the power and, through some perfect confluence of events, were able to carry out their plan on a rant, takes an extremely controversial position at the time and disagrees with the synopsis. First of all, she probably want to let's not give the Nazis credit where credit isn't due right. The third Reich wasn't the result of some evil genius, formulating the perfect plan and executing it. What had been Germany can be easily explain by the situation that modernity has produced in the world and the isn't a more straightforward example of this than the
she describes in her work. Eichmann in Jerusalem, so shortly after world war. Two, these were being put on trial for war crimes, one such person a man by the name of Adolf Eichmann. Now I can surprise Mary job during the war was behind a desk. His job has been described by many as a desk murder because he would essentially subpoena. The desk look at names and numbers on a piece of paper and then send people to Auschwitz prisons or other horrible fates, were, they would often go on to die when Adolf Eichmann was put on trial, he was presented to the public inside of a glass booth. When people showed up to see him testify, they were expecting to see evil incarnate a demon encased in a glass booth justifying we did for the Nazis to his death. What they actually got from the perspective of Hana or rent with something much much scarier than that? What they got is what seemed like an ordinary guy. He wasn't in
genius, in fact, as far as Hannah Arendt could tell, he wasn't really that smart at all, he often spoke using tired cliches. He wasn't original, he wasn't witty, he wasn't charismatic. More relevant than anything else, though he wasn't filled with hate towards the people he was sending to their deaths. The scariest part of the I'll be Adolf Eichmann is the realization that these unthinkable crimes against innocent people were committed by some. Who seem to be an average person just following orders this was not a man motivated to do what he did because of a racist ideology. Was a man motivated because he was trying to get a promotion? This is a Cortana or rent would later call the banana give evil when an evil act is committed, it is rarely carried out by some dastardly villain with bad ingens twirling his mustache, like in the cartoons. True, evil can be carried out by ordinary non hateful people who are
doing their jobs or abiding by the laws of their country, all that it takes to hunt for someone to go from an average citizen to a hatchet man evil regime. That transformation occurs when people decide that they're going to stop thinking for themselves, and get their identity and values from some other group. That's handing them out the the version of the political realm, our inability to create our own identity and values, has created world where this very transformation is a much easier process to fall into when people look into the past of Aikman, didn't see some long list of evil causes he supported trying to find some way. You could murder people and have it be legal, what they saw with a long list of him being what they called a joiner. Someone who throughout his life has joined group after group in the interest Someone telling him who he should be He says it in his own words. At the trial, he says quote. I sensed we have to live in leaderless and difficult individual life
I would receive no directives from anybody know or Here's an commands with any longer be issued to me know pertinent. Ordinances would be there to consult in brief a life never known before, lay ahead of me and quote Hana Hunter rent. This is not an evil genius. Talking here. This is a man who chose the path of not thinking. This is how you can slain how a german population of people not filled with hate towards anybody, can carry out the kind of things they did. Hunter. It would say when looking for an answer to your first question of how totalitarian bridge send the power. It is absolutely crucial that we under The Nazis did not seize power. In Germany, they were elected because a world lez I population of economic cogs dying to move for something the political realm where they could establish their own values. They were given something to move for that.
Is the banality of evil, as it truly presents itself in the world. This is a good time to underscore just how important the realm of the political is for Hana Rent because comes to answering her second question of how regimes maintain power once they acquire it, modernity Exclusion of the political realm in the active life of the individual is a big part of it see totality Arianism needs, a unified, homogeneous, simple message to ever get off the ground, and because of this, the goal of totalitarianism is always to lump. The entire population into one giant, terrified voice that lacks diverse, This is why they often don't allow for political dissent. This is why they don't like the idea of Equal citizens engaging in an open form of discussion, Hana, rent, would say. The enemy of totalitarianism is plurality. The political realm
is the only place where a plurality of voices can be heard. Totalitarianism can only subsist by reducing people to what she calls. A bundle of reflexes She means is merely a bundle of reflexes, because they've been d an iced by their lack of a political voice and constantly on edge because of the threat of violence from the group in power. Hunter rent calls this process systematic terrorism and the scariest part about it is that in so many ways it resembles exactly what you'd expect to see if Enlightenment philosophy is left to play out to its end game to not be engaged in. The active life is a mistake to Hana rent, but she want us to understand that not living the active life can take on me. Different forms. You could surrender your responsibility to think fall. When identity, given to you by someone else, the mistake made by people like Adolf Eichmann, but you could just as easily become accessory to evil being carried out in the world.
I sitting around thinking about stuff all day like so many traditional philosophers have done in the past. This is why she doesn't want to be thought of as a political philosopher, because so many philosophers sheets seen. Lead by the example of sitting quietly in an academic institution theorizing about Abstract. All day long, but never taking action on anything. She want us to realize that this contemplative lifestyle has real consequences in the world. You can't in Lee and benignly theorize about things by yourself and just expect things to in there The sad reality of living the contemplative life is at this passive inactive approach. Almost all this leads to your ideas, being co, opted and used by people that are actually engaging in the active life philosophy, and politics will always be closely connected to each other and to deny that fact,
is to be willfully complacent so that you can sit in the tower alone, where it's safe, safe, at least for now. She would say: Frederick Nietzsche, is a great example of someone whose work was misinterpreted misappropriated and then used as a philosophical justification for the third Reich Hunter or rent would want us to realize that when you resign yourself from public life, you resign yourself from the process of determining the cultural significance of things in the world and if you're a philosopher Klute, every piece of philosophy that you will ever write down, because if there's anything, the banality of evil can show us it's that it only takes an absence of active equal citizens engaged in the public realm for to tell Tarian ism to flourish. Thank you for listening I'll talk to you next time.
Transcript generated on 2019-11-04.