The Line Dividing Good & Evil
What if the greatest acts of evil are committed by ordinary people?
Hannah Arendt was a Jewish-German political philosopher who fled Germany in 1933, and then Europe in 1941, to begin a new life in America.
After the war, having escaped the fate of millions of other Jewish people in the Holocaust, Arendt tried to reason through the madness. Seeking answers, she travelled to Israel in 1961 to attend the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat. Eichmann was convicted and sentenced to hang for his incommensurate crimes against humanity, including his supervision over, and direction of every part of the implementation of the Final Solution.
In her report on the trial, Arendt wrote that half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal” — “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude towards his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable.”
“They knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster...The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, & still are, terribly & terrifyingly normal.” -Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report On The Banality of Evil
“They knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster...The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, & still are, terribly & terrifyingly normal.”
What if the greatest acts of evil are committed by ordinary people?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the following memory in the Gulag Archipelago. A high-ranking soldier, he is arrested by the Soviets while still in uniform, following victory against the Nazis. On his way to the Gulag, he takes pleasure in allowing what he then perceives to be a lesser man than himself carry his heavy luggage.
Reflecting upon his life, Solzhenitsyn writes,
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead* of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Evil is often depicted as a fantastical fairytale about some other people from some other time, in a faraway land, victimized by some evil external force, complete with cartoonish villains and heroes. Evil is grandiose and easily identifiable; it wears a specific face and has a life of its own. It certainly does not require the collaboration of perfectly regular, seemingly-good people, nor could we ever be unenlightened enough to let such an occurrence repeat itself through us.
By imagining Evil as a great, dark, foreign spectre with a life of its own, we move further away from our ability to understand it. By dividing people into black and white categories, good vs. evil, us vs. them, we deny its true nature, which is part of our nature. Evil does not exist in a vacuum, and by dismissing evil as an enigma far- removed, we shut down the capacity to see it in others, and in ourselves.
And if the potential for evil resides in all of us, what is it that triggers its expression? It is nothing extreme. In fact, it is the reverse. Evil is ordinary. Arendt wrote:
“Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet--and this is its horror--it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”
“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”
When people do not think, others can put thoughts in their heads. If the greatest acts of evil are committed and accomplished by ordinary people who have lost their ability to think, this leaves a wide gap easily filled with propaganda.
“The effectiveness of (this kind of) propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explains the notion of the masses hypnotized by an enormous lie:
“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.
Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
We are living a lie now, and we know it. The question is, will this one end differently?
“How far this current wave of evil will ripple, and how deep this modern totalitarianism may entrench itself, might depend on how terrifyingly normal it remains in the eyes of ordinary people.”
How far this current wave of evil will ripple, and how deep this modern totalitarianism may entrench itself, might depend on how terrifyingly normal it remains in the eyes of ordinary people.
May ordinary individuals muster enough courage and self- awareness to find the line of good and evil dividing our own hearts, naming and rejecting evil when we see it; most of all, when we see it in ourselves. Repudiating the delusion thrust upon us and demonstrating all of its fallacies provides the masses with an alternative map of reality, one that exchanges propaganda for truth. If history lends prediction to the future, then our fate depends on the sum of our personal choices and moral conviction, and perhaps above all, our ability to think.