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International Journal of Philosophical


Studies
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From Radical to Banal Evil: Hannah Arendt against the


Justification of the Unjustifiable
James Phillips
Online Publication Date: 01 January 2004
To cite this Article: Phillips, James (2004) 'From Radical to Banal Evil: Hannah
Arendt against the Justification of the Unjustifiable', International Journal of
Philosophical Studies, 12:2, 129 - 158
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/09672550410001679828
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09672550410001679828

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International Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol.12(2), 129158

From Radical to Banal Evil:


Hannah Arendt against the
Justification of the Unjustifiable
James Phillips
Abstract
Two central strands in Arendts thought are the reflection on the evil of
Auschwitz and the rethinking in terms of politics of Heideggers critique of
metaphysics. Given Heideggers taciturnity regarding Auschwitz and
Arendts own taciturnity regarding the philosophical implications of Heideggers political engagement in 1933, to set out how these strands interrelate is
to examine the coherence of Arendts thought and its potential for a critique
of Heidegger. By refusing to countenance a theological conception of the evil
of Auschwitz, Arendt consolidates the break with theology that Heidegger
attempts through his analysis of the essential finitude of Dasein. In the light
of Arendts account of evil, it is possible to see the theological vestiges in
Heideggers ontology. Heideggers resumption of the question concerning the
categorical interconnections of the ways of Being entails an abandonment of
finitude: he accommodates and tacitly justifies that which can have no human
justification.
Keywords: Arendt; Heidegger; evil; Auschwitz; ontology; existence

What did Arendt understand by evil?


It is well known that she did not hold the one position. The question,
then, is how her various statements concerning evil relate, if at all, to one
another. What is at stake is a response to Auschwitz and, by inference, to
Heideggers silence concerning Auschwitz.
In the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950),
Arendt writes:
And if it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an absolute
evil appears (absolute because it can no longer be deduced from
humanly comprehensible motives), it is also true that without it we
might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil.
International Journal of Philosophical Studies
ISSN 09672559 print 14664542 online 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/09672550410001679828

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Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not


merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) one
after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated
that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only
in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this
time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must
remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined
territorial entities.1
Confronted with a vertiginous feeling of loss and futility before the facts of
totalitarianism, Arendt insists that something be learnt from the experience
as security against a repetition, that some good must be made to come of
it. An absolute evil had appeared, and on the basis of a knowledge of the
truly radical nature of evil the old safeguards of human dignity, having
been exposed as brittle abstractions, must be replaced by a new, concrete
political principle. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt expounds evil
as radical in order to argue for a fundamental review of existing
institutions, laws and bodies of thought. If she subsequently refuses to take
evil seriously, it is because the thesis of the radicality of evil is at odds with
the very political principle that she will propose as a reply to the experience
of totalitarianism.
Strictly speaking, Arendt never stops taking evil seriously. The banalization of evil in her later works arguably even corresponds to an increasing
preoccupation with evil. Arendt refuses to take evil seriously so as to avoid
justifying it. The radical, in its insuperability and independence, calls for
accommodation. Only within a more encompassing, which is to say more
abstract, conception of the world can evil be acknowledged in any
radicality: the abstractness by means of which evil is acknowledged is at the
expense of a comprehension of humanity and its definitive concreteness.
Finitude, in terms of which both Heidegger and Arendt understand what it
is to be human, is misunderstood in order to make sense of evil. Lacking
the prefaces plea to make of the fact of the camps an occasion for a change
for the better, a passage from the body of The Origins of Totalitarianism
already defines evil as the unjustifiable:
It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot
conceive of a radical evil, and this is true both for Christian theology,
which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as
for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at
least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he
immediately rationalized it in the concept of a perverted ill will that
could be explained by comprehensible motives. Therefore, we
actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a
phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering
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reality and breaks down all standards we know. There is only one
thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has
emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become
equally superfluous.2
Evil has shown itself to be radical, to stand on itself as an independent
principle, because the evil of totalitarianism has not come from any good.
As the excerpt from the preface and this excerpt from the body of the work
make clear, one aspect of the absoluteness of the evil of totalitarianism is
its absolution from comprehensible motives. The root of evil does not lie
in the mind of human beings, namely in that which decides between good
and evil. Evil, for Arendt, does not have its root in human freedom. Given
that the radicality of evil is its independence both from the good and from
freedom, it cannot be justified in their names.
The thesis of the radical nature of evil is later abandoned. Eichmann in
Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is not a study that limits itself
to evil in its banal aspect. In her reply of 24 July 1963 to Gershom
Scholems objections to the book, Arendt states her conviction that evil as
a whole is banal:
You are quite right: I changed my mind and do no longer speak of
radical evil. It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never radical,
that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any
demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world
precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is thoughtdefying, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to
the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated
because there is nothing. That is its banality. Only the good has
depth and can be radical.3
Evil is thought-defying not because it is too deep to be fathomed, but
because its superficiality does not permit it to be fathomed at all. In The
Origins of Totalitarianism, evil is radical because it is independent, but here
its very independence is its rootlessness. The radicality of evil is, properly
speaking, its banality. Evil cannot be understood because it cannot be seen
in relation to anything else. As it is without relation to anything, there is
nothing by which it could be justified.
Richard J. Bernstein, in his essay Did Hannah Arendt Change her
Mind? From Radical Evil to the Banality of Evil, contends that Arendts
two positions can be reconciled:
What Arendt means by radical evil is making human beings
superfluous eradicating the very conditions required for living a
human life. This is compatible with what she says about the banality
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of evil. Eichmann lacked the thoughtfulness to even grasp that this


was the consequence of his monstrous deeds.4
Interpreting Arendts two positions in this way, as reflections on different
matters, Bernstein succeeds in resolving the conflict between radical and
banal evil. Yet he does not succeed in clarifying why Arendt explicitly says
to Scholem that she changed her mind.
The account of the banal nature of evil is less a retraction of the thesis
in The Origins of Totalitarianism than its revision and refinement. In this
respect, the following passage from The Origins of Totalitarianism
constitutes, with its denunciation of dialectics, an indispensable warning
against misreadings of the later position:
The fearful imagination has the great advantage to dissolve the
sophistic-dialectical interpretations of politics which are all based on
the superstition that something good might result from evil. Such
dialectical acrobatics had at least a semblance of justification so long
as the worst that man could inflict upon man was murder. But, as we
know today, murder is only a limited evil. The murderer who kills a
man a man who has to die anyway still moves within the realm of
life and death familiar to us; both have indeed a necessary connection
on which the dialectic is founded, even if it is not always conscious of
it. The murderer leaves a corpse behind and does not pretend that his
victim has never existed; if he wipes out any traces, they are those of
his own identity, and not the memory and grief of the persons who
loved his victim; he destroys a life, but he does not destroy the fact of
existence itself. [ . . .]
It is the appearance of some radical evil, previously unknown to us,
that puts an end to the notion of developments and transformations
of qualities. Here, there are neither political nor historical nor simply
moral standards but, at the most, the realization that something
seems to be involved in modern politics that actually should never be
involved in politics as we used to understand it, namely all or nothing
all, and that is an undetermined infinity of forms of human livingtogether, or nothing, for a victory of the concentration-camp system
would mean the same inexorable doom for human beings as the use
of the hydrogen bomb would mean the doom of the human race.5
Evil, for Arendt, can no longer be played off dialectically against the good,
since evil, as it has burst forth under totalitarianism, is the very
impossibility of human beings. Radical evil is the abolition of the fact of
existence. Murder, by contrast, is a limited evil: it wipes out an existence
but stops short of wiping out all recollection of the existence of the
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murdered. Non-being, as the way of Being of the murdered, remains in


contact with the other ways of Being by means of the memory of the living.
The evil of the rupture of non-being is subordinate to the affirmation of
Being as such. Radical evil, on the other hand, leaves nothing behind, no
trace that could be taken up and worked through dialectically, since it is the
impossibility of the human agent that engages in dialectics.
In On Violence (1969), hence after she changed her mind, Arendt
reiterates her opposition to a dialectics of good and evil and to the belief
in the recoverability of evil. She condemns the Hegelian and Marxist
recastings of theodicy:
The old philosophical prejudice that evil is no more than a privative
modus of the good, that good can come out of evil; that, in short, evil
is but a temporary manifestation of a still-hidden good. Such timehonored opinions have become dangerous.6
Evil, whether in its radical or its banal conception, is not to be viewed as
instrumental to the good.
At the beginning of The Life of the Mind Arendt makes the same claim
for the originality of her conception of the banality of evil as she had made
in The Origins of Totalitarianism for the originality of her conception of the
radicality of evil:
The immediate impulse came from my attending the Eichmann trial in
Jerusalem. In my report of it I spoke of the banality of evil. Behind
that phrase, I held no thesis or doctrine, although I was dimly aware of
the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought literary,
theological, or philosophic about the phenomenon of evil.7
The Life of the Mind will involve the attempt to provide a doctrine
insupport of the phrase the banality of evil.
In the second volume, Willing, Arendt discusses the deceptively similar
conception in medieval theology of evil as a mere privation. Expounding
the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, she writes:
No being, insofar as it is, can be said to be evil, but only insofar as it
lacks Being. [. . .] Evil is not a principle, because it is sheer absence,
and absence can be stated in a privative and negative sense. [. . .]
Because of its privative character, absolute or radical evil cannot
exist. No evil exists in which one can detect the total absence of
good. For if the wholly evil could be, it would destroy itself.8
Absolute or radical evil, for Proclus, for the author of the Corpus
Areopagiticum and the other Christian opponents of Manicheism as much
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as for late Arendt, cannot exist because it cannot take root. By aligning
being with goodness, Aquinas is able to discount the possibility of radical
evil since in the absoluteness of its non-being, radical evil absolves itself
from any relation to what is: it is simply that which is not. Evil is abashed
by life, namely by that which Arendt calls the first principle of the thought
of Aquinas and which could be called, with still more right, the first
principle of her own thought. The triumph over evil is assured from the
start for Aquinas because the first principle of his thought is the life of the
God of monotheism. The banality of evil in the Christian world is its
powerlessness against the life that is the Whole. What Arendt understands
by the banality of evil is not the powerlessness of evil, since the life against
which it is drawn up in opposition is the life of finite human beings. Evil is
banal for Arendt not because it cannot destroy life; it is banal because it
can.
Late Arendt shares the Scholastic position on the non-existence, the
nothingness of radical evil for reasons that have little to do with
eschatology. Evil does not need to be radical in order to be irredeemable.
As Arendt makes clear in her correspondence with Jaspers, the terms on
which she approaches the problem of evil are not theological. After reading
the final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Jaspers questioned
Arendt: Hasnt Jahwe faded too far out of sight?9 In her reply of 4 March
1951, Arendt writes: All traditional religion as such, whether Jewish or
Christian, holds nothing whatsoever for me any more. [. . .] Evil has proved
to be more radical than expected. In objective terms, modern crimes are
not provided for in the Ten Commandments.10 Despite this unambiguous
declaration of her lack of interest in religion as a response to the radical
evil of totalitarianism, when Arendt advances a decade later the thesis of
the banality of evil, Jaspers exclaims: Now you have delivered the crucial
word against radical evil, against gnosis!11
Arendts target, however, was not gnosis but the anti-political glamour of
evil. In a posthumously published interview she outlines her ambition: To
destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force, to take
away from people the admiration they have for the great evildoers like
Richard III.12 For Arendt, Eichmann was the true representative of evil
because he embodied its banality. She is not open to Jaspers suggestion
that the banality characteristic of Eichmann is missing from a Goebbels or
a Hitler. Jaspers, who prior to the trial imagines an Eichmann giving vent
and publicity to a sham Shakespearian rhetoric of genocidal anti-Semitism,
meets with Arendts curt dismissal of the risks. Even if Eichmann had
possessed Goebbels oratorical gifts, any attempt to invest his appearances
in court with the satanic nimbus of the villains of tragedy would, in her
opinion, have simply been ludicrous. Arendts flippancy in the face of the
enormities of Nazism, so offensive to many of her readers, is both sincere
and strategic. She employs her considerable talents for derision to take
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apart evils mythical allure. In the 1945 text Organized Guilt and Universal
Responsibility, for example, she sardonically attributes to Hitlers sympathizers in high society a romantic predilection for pirates.13 There was no
pact with the devil, only imprudence, unworldliness and conceit. In the
decades after the fall of National Socialism, evil, for Arendt, withers to a
banality, not because she finds her way to belief in an omnipotent Creator
but because evil is nothing in itself and must be seen, politically, as
nothing.
If Arendt sedulously strips evil of its radicality, which is to say its depth
and independence, it is in order to counteract a possible resurgence of the
magnetism that evil had exercised in pre-war Europe on what Arendt
sarcastically terms the elite. But where one Christian theologian after
another is able to bear witness to the nugatoriness of evil within the
spectacle of the cosmology of monotheism, Arendt does not have that
recourse. What, then, is her argument (as distinct from her political
motivation) for the claim that evil is nothing?
In order to see clearly the originality of Arendts argument, it is perhaps
best to compare it with that of Aquinas. The latter, in his Summa
Theologiae, Ia. 14, 10, writes:
Aristotle says that an intellect that is not in potentiality does not
know privation. But evil is privation of good, as Augustine says.
Therefore, since Gods intellect is never in the state of potentiality but
always in that of actuality, [. . .] it would seem that God does not know
evils. [. . .] To know a thing only through something else is to have
imperfect knowledge if the thing is knowable through itself. But evil
is not knowable through itself, because evil of its very nature is the
privation of good. And thus it cannot be defined or known except
through good.14
That which evil possesses of its own is merely its vacuity and unreality. It
thus frustrates the understanding, as Arendt says to Scholem, because it is
not knowable through itself.
Evil is not, according to Aquinas, a principle of a nature independent of
the good (it is not radical). Evil is evil with reference to a good, and with
reference to the greatest Good it dissipates as evil and reveals, according to
Ia. 49, 3, its fitness within the Whole:
As for those who upheld there were two first principles, one good and
another evil, their mistake sprang from the same root as that of other
strange beliefs of the ancient philosophers, namely they did not
consider the universal cause of the whole of being, but only the
particular causes of particular effects. On this account when they
discovered that by the strength of its own nature one thing was
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damaging to another they reckoned that the nature of that thing was
evil; for example, that fires nature was bad for burning down some
poor mans home.
The goodness, however, of a thing should not be assessed from its
reference to another particular thing, but on its own worth according
to the universal scheme of things, wherein each, as we have seen,
most admirably holds an appointed place.15
It is in its relations to particular beings that a thing can be judged evil; what
a thing is in itself, in its being and its relation to the Whole and the
goodness of the Whole, is necessarily good. The phenomenon of evil, for
Saint Thomas, is the corollary of a limited perspective.
Arendt does not venture this argument in defence of her claim of the
banality of evil. In The Life of the Mind she rejects it for the sake of
freedom:
Could it be that professional thinkers, basing their speculations on the
experience of the thinking ego, were less pleased with freedom than
with necessity? This suspicion appears inevitable when we consider
the strange assembly of theories on record, theories trying either to
deny outright the experience of freedom within ourselves or to
weaken freedom by reconciling it with necessity by means of
dialectical speculations that are entirely speculative in that they
cannot appeal to any experience whatsoever. The suspicion is
strengthened when one considers how closely all free-will theories
are tied to the problem of evil. Thus Augustine begins his treatise De
libero arbitrio voluntatis (The Free Choice of the Will) with the
question: Tell me, please, whether God is not the cause of evil? It
was a question first raised in all its complexity by Paul (in the Letter
to the Romans) and then generalized into What is the cause of evil?
with many variations concerning the existence both of physical harm
caused by destructive nature and of deliberate malice caused by
men.
The whole problem has haunted philosophers, and their attempts at
solving it have never been very successful; as a rule their arguments
evade the issue in its stark simplicity. Evil is either denied true reality
(it exists only as a deficient mode of the good) or is explained away
as a kind of optical illusion (the fault is with our limited intellect,
which fails to fit some particular properly into the encompassing
whole that would justify it), all this on the unargued assumption that
only the whole is actually real (nur das Ganze hat eigentliche
Wirklichkeit), in the words of Hegel. Evil, not unlike freedom, seems
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to belong to those things about which the most learned and ingenious
men can know almost nothing.16
Arendt impugns the history of philosophy for its aversion to freedom. She
wishes to unsettle the nexus in which freedom has been shackled to evil and
then explained away through evils dissolution in the Whole. The history of
philosophy has always already turned away from evil because evil is
nothing. For Arendt too, evil is nothing, but she does not turn away from
it. Philosophy turns away from evil towards necessity. Arendt, who is more
pleased with freedom than with necessity, does not turn away from evil,
not because evil is necessary for freedom but because in its nothingness,
against which the vita contemplativa is invulnerable, evil poses a danger to
the political.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt does not yet speak of the
banality of evil, but she does speak of its nothingness. Evil, as it had
appeared with the concentration-camp system, threatens the undetermined infinity of forms of human living-together with the nothingness
of the extinction of human beings. It is this threat above all which
constitutes for Arendt the historical novelty of Auschwitz. Everyone had
become a candidate for extermination. The list of groups to be killed, or so
at least it seemed to Arendt, was open-ended. In the last months of the war,
plans were afoot for the elimination of any German citizen with a
hereditary illness. The evil of previous wars had always drawn back from
the desire to exterminate all participants and onlookers. The vita
contemplativa, mistaking its life for the life of the eternal, is no longer equal
to the task of confronting the nothingness, which is to say the dangerous
banality, of evil. For the history of philosophy, the nothingness of evil is still
meaningful as one moment of the indestructible life of the eternal. For
Arendt, on the other hand, evil is banal because setting itself against the
destructible lives of finite human beings it sets itself against that in which
the meaningful alone has its being. The fragility of human life has proven
the absurdity of dialectical manuvres against evil. Arendt takes seriously
the banality of evil in order to avoid accommodating it by endowing it with
a meaning. She does not dismiss it and lapse into silence, but nor does she
place it alongside the infinity of forms of human living-together. Evil is
banal because it is the incomprehensibility of sheer meaninglessness: the
term evil is without a referent. The meaningfulness of evil, as the
thinkability of the non-existence of human beings, is, in Kantian terms, a
transcendental illusion: it is an ineradicable concomitant of our powers of
abstraction. Every attempt to assign evil a meaning and an attempt is
always already made so long as human beings exist inevitably reaches
beyond the absolute banality of evil. In this regard Arendts treatment
recalls the remark with which Karl Kraus opens The Third Walpurgisnacht:
When it comes to Hitler, nothing occurs to me. The experience of
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totalitarianism had exhibited the Signifier in its vulnerability as resting on


the eradicable fact of human existence. Where Thomas Aquinas gives evil
both a moral and an extra-moral sense such as blindness and loss of a limb,
Arendt so to speak understands evil as nonsense. If, for Arendt, the evil
towards which National Socialism was rushing was, as an insuperable
aggravation of the limited evil of murder, at first radical, later she changes
her mind and changes her definition of evil: evil is nonsense.
The good undergoes a corresponding transformation. The good is still
opposed to evil, for Arendt, but as that which has depth is opposed to
thought-defying banality. It lies in the nature of this opposition that it does
not define the good: the nonsense of evil that would be a dialectical
moment in the constitution of the identity of the good is not the
unmediated nonsense of the extinction of human beings. The good is the
undetermined infinity of forms of human living-together. The good is that
which is. If Arendt posits human life, and not the God of Scholasticism, as
the Being of that which is, it is not without abandoning the philosophical
structure of medieval theology. Given that the manifest fragility of human
life renders it irreconcilable with evil, Arendts humanism is not a
successor to the totality of monotheism.
It must accordingly also be distinguished from the philosophy of Hegel.
In the 1954 text Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical
Thought, she pronounces what she interprets to be historys sentence on
Hegel:
Hegels grandiose effort to reconcile spirit with reality depended
entirely on the ability to harmonize and see something good in every
evil. It remained valid only as long as radical evil (of which, among
the philosophers, only Kant had the conception, if hardly the concrete
experience) had not happened. Who would dare to reconcile himself
with the reality of extermination camps or play the game of thesis
antithesissynthesis until his dialectics have discovered meaning in
slave labour?17
Hegel dared what no one after Auschwitz would dare. To reconcile oneself
with the reality of extermination camps is not so much morally offensive as
impossible, since the reality that the concentration-camp system was wholly
intent on realizing was the non-reality of the human agent of reconciliation.
Hegels audacity, however, is directed not at evil in the first instance but at
Scholasticism. He puts himself in the place of the God of medieval
theology and thereby has done with the unsettling possibility that nonbeing constitutes for finite human beings. Non-being is never even
considered as the problem of the unthinkability of unmediated non-being.
For Hegel, non-being is always already subject to the labour of the
concept. He is able to carry out philosophys perennial dream of saving
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appearances, of wresting truth from the illusoriness and mitigated nonbeing of the phenomena of the world of the senses, only because he adopts
from the outset the perspective of eternity. Hegel is exclusively preoccupied with the essential, and on his demand evil, which is hollow and
has no essence of its own, can but surrender the good. But, as Arendt insists
in her reply to Eric Voegelins review of The Origins of Totalitarianism,
there is nothing to save in Auschwitz; there is no good to be recovered from
its evil.18 Hegels success in uncovering the moment of good that is the
truth of every evil is at the expense of the truth of his own human finitude.
The God who survives the annihilation of humanity to survey the good of
the perfect appointment of the universe in all its parts differs fundamentally from the human being who usurps the vantage point of God without
ceasing to be human. And yet this God likewise holds nothing whatsoever
for Arendt. She is at no stage a thinker of totality, and the very least that
can be said of her claim concerning the banality of evil is that she is not
trying to make sense of evil by referring it to the Whole. It is by refusing
to make sense of evil that Arendt breaks with the philosophical
tradition.
Arendt is rare among theorists of freedom in that she has no use for evil.
Evil ceases to be the price of freedom. Not only does it not show itself
within the open space of freedom, but it does not constitute the limit by
which freedom has traditionally at once curtailed itself and liberated itself
from the necessities of behaviour and the laws of nature. For Arendt, evil
is no longer the non-ethical moment of the ethical, the free abdication of
freedom. Even if the freedom of the undetermined infinity of forms of
human living-together faces a limit in the evil of sheer non-being, it cannot
compromise itself with this limit since any compromise would involve a
mediation of that which cannot be mediated. Evil relinquishes its role, and
hence the justification that came with its role, in marking out the distinct
space of freedom. By refusing to justify evil, Arendt disentangles freedom
from the ambiguity of evil and transfigures it.
This ambiguity is a favoured topic of discussion among Christian
theologians. Saint Anselm, for instance, interprets evil as the free
abdication of freedom. Sin is the consequence and abolition of freedom. In
order to be truly free, freedom in its traditional conception must have the
possibility of renouncing itself.19 Evil is the possibility and responsibility of
freedom: it is the proof of human freedom.
Freedom does not stand in need of proofs: for Arendt as for Kant,
freedom is a fact. With her thesis of the banality of evil Arendt by no means
intended to rob freedom of its proof and criticize the notion of
responsibility. It was far from Arendts mind to exonerate Eichmann, and
she was surprised and irritated when this construction was imposed willynilly on her report of his trial. On Arendts analysis, Eichmann was
culpable because in his official capacity as head of the Bureau for Jewish
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Affairs in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt he abdicated the exercise of his


faculty of judgement. He judged inasmuch as he applied Nazi policy to
potential deportees, but he refused to judge Nazi policy itself. The banality
of evil denotes less the unfreedom of a bureaucrat than the nonsense
towards which Eichmann thoughtlessly and culpably strove.
Arendts phrase the banality of evil signals a dispute with the necessity
of proofs of freedom, not with freedom itself. To declare evil banal is not
to place evil, and by traditional inference freedom, among the extra-moral
phenomena of a world governed by the laws of nature. In any case, for
Arendt, it is non-being rather than nature that is banal. The banality of evil
is the irrelevance of unmediated non-being to the constitution of what is.
Being is a fact threatened by non-being, instead of a thesis dialectically
informed by it. Unmediated non-being, as it lacks any relation to what is,
cannot relate to freedom as its proof. Through abolishing the fact of
existence, absolute evil extinguishes the freedom of the infinite variety of
forms of human living-together. This freedom does not need to be proved
to exist as it is the fact of existence itself. Kant curiously but carefully
names freedom a fact. Freedom is a fact, a positum, a given. It is givenness
as such. Arendts freedom, as the fact of existence, is the fact of the
indeterminacy (the non-identity with essence) of existence. Philosophys
flight, initiated by Plato, to the necessity and objectivity of the Ideas of the
vita contemplativa is a dereliction of existence and its fragility in favour of
essence and its indestructibility.
For Arendt, philosophy withdraws from freedom through abandoning
the existence of finite human beings for the immutability of the eternal. In
her conception, freedom is a freedom for rather than from determination.
To exist with the concreteness of a finite being is to be free. In The Life of
the Mind Arendt offers an Augustinian elaboration (she might say
correction) of Sartre: We are doomed to be free by virtue of being
born.20 And according to Crises of the Republic, the freedom that Arendt
identifies with action is a birthright:
Philosophically speaking, to act is the human answer to the condition
of natality. Since we all come into the world by virtue of birth, as
newcomers and beginnings, we are able to start something new;
without the fact of birth we would not even know what novelty is, all
action would be either mere behavior or preservation.21
We are able to start something new, initiate a novel determination of what
is, because we are born and not eternal. Without the fact of natality all the
theories of behaviour and preservation would be correct.
Arendt assiduously suspends teleology in her expositions of the freedom
of human action. Freedom is the good and the good has no Law; it
manifests itself as novelty. Arendt is simply not interested in the various
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projects of ethical reconstruction undertaken since the end of the Second


World War. In her judgement, these attempts at a restoration of values and
an establishment of a banister for action are risible. They do not furnish
a new guarantee of human dignity as intended and as the age, according to
Arendts preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, demands. This new
guarantee can be found only in a new political principle, which is to say in
the freedom for action in the non-totalizable world of finite human beings.
Arendt wishes to rediscover the openness of the political after millennia
of suppression beneath the drive to totality of philosophy, ethics and
teleology.
If Arendt excludes a great deal from her definition of the political, it is
not because she reserves the name for a very narrow range of human
activities. On the contrary, she wants to wrest the political from everything
that prevents it from revealing itself as the heart of the human condition.
To be born is to act and to act is to be political. In her essay on Hermann
Broch in the collection Men in Dark Times, Arendt warns against
transgressive application of teleological categories:
The endsmeans category, to which all doing and all producing are
necessarily bound, always proves to be ruinous when applied to
acting. For doing, like producing, starts with the assumption that the
subject of the acts fully knows the end to be attained and the object
to be produced, so that the only problem is to find the proper means
to achieve these ends. Such an assumption in turn presupposes a
world in which there is only a single will, or which is so arranged that
all the active ego-subjects in it are sufficiently isolated from one
another so that there will be no mutual interference of their ends and
aims. With action the reverse is true: there is an infinitude of
intersecting and interfering intentions and purposes which, taken all
together in their complex immensity, represent the world into which
each man must cast his act, although in that world no end and no
intention has ever been achieved as it was originally intended.22
Action has no ends by which it can be judged a success or failure, no
Platonic Idea to which it is subordinated. Politics, as it is for Arendt the
space of action, flourishes and fades away: it does not primarily set itself
tasks to be carried out. Arendt is impatient with anyone who would cite the
economic mismanagement of the Soviets and Rate as arguments against
them as political bodies. On Revolution contains the following defence of
the actors in the uprisings of 1917 and 1919:
The same men, entirely capable of acting in a political capacity, were
bound to fail if entrusted with the management of a factory or other
administrative duties. For the qualities of the statesman or the
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political man and the qualities of the manager or administrator are


not only not the same, they very seldom are to be found in the same
individual; the one is supposed to know how to deal with men in a
field of human relations, whose principle is freedom, and the other
must know how to manage things and people in a sphere of life whose
principle is necessity.23
Kants distinction between the moral (the realm of freedom) and the
technical (the realm of means and ends) becomes for Arendt a distinction
between the political and the technical. Politics is Arendts ethics.
Insensitive to Arendts objections to the hegemony of the endsmeans
category, Margaret Canovan writes: It is not quite so obvious as she seems
to think that it would be better to have a country run by the sort of people
who run voluntary organizations than by careerist politicians.24 What is
meant here by better? Is a country, according to Arendts conception of
politics, something to be run at all? Judged by alien categories, action is
frequently seen to fail. Failure is not in itself an argument against action.
Relying on the historical studies of Anne Querrien, Deleuze and Guattari
look past the failures of Gothic architecture (the collapse of the cathedrals
at Orleans

and Beauvais at the end of the twelfth century) to the collective


experimentation the minor science of the journeymen who built
them.25 Although it proceeds outside the sway of absolute forms, action is
not indeterminate: it generates its own determinacy. Action is existence
become a power of determination. It is without a banister, without what
Deleuze and Guattari call the templates of Royal science.
Action, for Arendt, is specifically political. Arendts conception of
politics is, from one angle, startlingly narrow (she excludes the private and
the social as well as phenomena such as totalitarianism), and, from another,
unusually broad. To act, since this involves dispensing with the categories
of teleology in favour of collective experimentation, is to be political.
Arendt privileges the Greek polis in her exposition of her concept of the
political because for certain periods at least in its history the polis did not
submit itself to rule. The polis is, for Arendt, an example rather than an
object of nostalgia, and as an example of isonomy it cannot convert into a
rule for other communities and ages. Arendts archaeology of the notion of
the political does not end in a call for a return to the Greeks. What attracts
Arendt to the Greeks is their greater understanding of the continuous
dislocation of human plurality. A community can never congeal into a
homogeneity because it is always being intruded upon by the newcomers
who take the place of the dead. It is only out of neglect for the character
of human plurality that something or someone is ever raised over and
against the community to make sense of it as a unity. On Revolution
accordingly denounces the absurdity of absolute monarchy, which had
placed an absolute, the person of the prince, into the body politic, an
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absolute for which the revolutions then erroneously and vainly tried to find
a substitute.26 The inventiveness of freedom is obscured by political
absolutes, which are self-contradictory because absolutes are irreconcilable with human plurality. In pulling a community into line, the absolute
erases the distance of the freedom of human plurality from the phenomena
appropriated by the so-called laws of nature. The absolute puts itself
forward as the unity of plurality when it lies precisely in the nature of
human plurality to be always already united; united not in the logical sense
of a point of indifference but in the mutual interweaving and contestation
of activities and identities.
We are free inasmuch as we are many. Even the freedom of the solitary
thinker is, for Arendt, the freedom of the plurality populating his or her
solitude. Solitude, because it is populous, is distinct from loneliness and its
inactivity and invisibility. The solitary is already a polis. For all her
fascination with the classical polis, Arendt is loth to abandon late
antiquitys deepening insight into the populousness of solitude. If the
following passage from On Revolution speaks of the visibility of the public
realm, it must be borne in mind that Arendts work as a whole constitutes
a redefinition of visibility:
The Greeks held that no one can be free except among his peers, that
therefore neither the tyrant nor the despot nor the master of a
household even though he was fully liberated and was not forced by
others was free. The point of Herodotuss equation of freedom with
no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming the rule
over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose
company he could have been free. In other words, he had destroyed
the political space itself, with the result that there was no freedom
extant any longer, either for himself or for those over whom he ruled.
The reason for this insistence on the interconnection of freedom and
equality in Greek political thought was that freedom was understood
as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and
that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw
them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man needed
the presence of others. Freedom itself needed therefore a place where
people could come together the agora, the market-place, or the
polis, the political space proper.27
The abolition of the absolute is physically manifest in the polis, whose
centre is not the restricted site of the palace but the open space of the
agora. Only the free man is, in the Greek sense, visible. To be seen means
not merely to be an object perceived by an eye: it means to be seen, judged
and remembered. The proposition that the truly visible is the permanent
forms, of course, the principle of Platos doctrine of Ideas. Needless to say,
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Arendts point in directing attention to the Greek polis in her discussion of


freedom is not to align freedom with the ownership of slaves but rather to
emphasize that the essential visibility of the free Greek depended on the
presence of others. Arendt declares in her biography of Rahel Varnhagen:
Without a stage-set man cannot live.28 Freedom is collective. The visibility
of the free is, strictly speaking, the collective act of constituting the identity
of the free: the role of the eye is metaphoric. Visibility is the condition of
possibility of action. It is by situating itself in the visibility of the public
realm that an act discovers its difference from (and the implausibility of)
the laws of nature and behaviour.
Arendt, who takes over from Kant a distinction between the realms of
nature and human freedom, was nonetheless willing towards the end of her
life to consider the arguments of the biologist Adolf Portmann against the
identification of the natural world with unfreedom. In the first volume of
The Life of the Mind she calls Portmanns morphology highly significant
on account of its contestation of reductions of the animal world to
functionalism.29 Action, for Arendt, is able to throw off the hegemony of
utility because the eyes of others open a space for the freedom of the
sheer functional superfluity of display. In his studies of marine snails
Portmann questions the tying of the variety of the visible world to the
existence of organs of sight. Proposing that the flamboyant colouration of
the Opisthobranchia cannot possibly possess any kind of survival value,
Portmann writes in New Paths in Biology of such phenomena without
addressee: Many of these must have existed before the emergence of the
first eye, and yet were examples of self-expression.30 With regard to
phenomena inexplicable in terms of function and utility, Portmann speaks
of the self-expression of species where Arendt would speak of action and
politics and Deleuze and Guattari of collective experimentation. Freedom
is not the preserve of human beings but reaches into the depths of what is;
indeed, freedom is the depth and radicality of what is. Portmanns research
into the unaddressed phenomena of early forms of life does not amount to
evidence against Arendts claim of the interrelation between freedom and
visibility because what Arendt, following the Greeks, understands by
visibility is being-with-others. And being-with-others implies freedom
because it denotes the constitutive openness of the identity of a being to
the essentially volatile field of plurality. Arendtian plurality is the
guarantor of freedom since it resists the subordination to the One of
metaphysics, namely that which all lawfulness presupposes.
The plurality that composes the public space is not the sum of unitary
human beings. Just as plurality cannot be subsumed under any unity, it
cannot be analysed into unitary beings. It is a question of neither an
identifiable whole nor identifiable parts. Totalitarianism is, for Arendt,
evidence that the mass convocation of the lonely, each in his or her isolated
unitarity, is insufficient to inaugurate the volatile life of the political. The
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lonely, unable to keep themselves company and exposed in their complete


alienation from others, seemingly lack the solitarys means of hindering
identification. The lonely surrender themselves too readily to the exercise
of the rules of logical instantiation and the dominion of the One: each can
be recognized as one x.
Arendts notion of the political, of the plurality of human living-together,
recalls Heideggers analytic of Daseins Being-with-one-another. But her
writings should not be interpreted as a recasting, in a more accessible and
less technical prose, of certain themes in the work of her former teacher.
This can be made clear by a discussion of the account of evil that Arendt
situates at the centre of her thought. Heideggers work is silent on the evil
of Auschwitz, and Arendts account furnishes Heideggers work not so
much with its complement as with its immanent critique. Through her
account of evil Arendt pursues an understanding of human finitude, of
precisely that which Heidegger put forward as essential to the question of
Being. Heidegger, for Arendt, is still too much of a metaphysician.
In what way is Arendt Heideggerian? The proximities, avowed and
disavowed, overdetermined and subterranean, are indispensable to the
force of her critique. Arendts opposition to political absolutes resembles
Heideggers opposition in 76 of Being and Time to the traditional logic of
universals in history: In no science are the universal validity of standards
and the claims to universality which the they and its common sense
demand, less possible as criteria of truth than in authentic historiology.31
Dasein, which is essentially historical, which is the temporality itself that
metaphysics has always misinterpreted, cannot be understood within the
framework of the logic of universal and particular. In its transcendence, in
its stepping beyond as a Being-with-one-another, Dasein cannot be
contained in the self-presence of that which is unitary and hence
identifiable: it does not lend itself to subsumption under a universal. When
Arendt, in the early text What is Existential Philosophy?32 and again in
The Life of the Mind,33 charges Heidegger with ontological isolationism,
she peremptorily dismisses all that Heidegger has to say concerning
Mitsein. Despite her asseverations to the contrary, Arendts plurality is not
the political obverse of Heideggers Dasein. It is not here that the
differences between her thought and Heideggers announce themselves.
Arendts concept of natality as a seemingly indisputable reversal of
Heideggers preoccupation with mortality is likewise a red herring, since
natality disrupts the homogenization of a community through the arrival of
newcomers and mortality disrupts the identification of Dasein by withholding itself as the future event of Daseins simultaneous completion (its
unification and recognizability as one x) and dissolution.
If Arendt differs from Heidegger and it is Heidegger who bears the
brunt of her critique of the vita contemplativa and its tendency to theodicy
it is in being still closer to the Greece of the pre-Socratics. The
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unconcealedness (aletheia) of the visibility of Arendts political realm is not


the truth of metaphysics. Where Heidegger retreats from the unconcealedness of truth as correctness and advocates, in the rectoral address of 1933,
a Promethean confrontation with the concealed, Arendt rediscovers, in
defiance of two and a half millennia of metaphysics, the mendacity of
Greek light. To be seen, for Arendt, is to be free; it is not to be identified
as a determinate being in the light of presence. Heidegger the Catholic is
still more iconoclastic than Arendt because for him the visible, at the
expense of an understanding of Being as such, perniciously fixes the gaze
upon itself and its presence.
In Platos Doctrine of Truth, Heidegger regrets the enfeeblement of the
encounter with the concealed: Originally for the Greeks hiddenness, as an
act of self-hiding, permeated the essence of being and thus also determined
beings in their presentness and accessibility (truth).34 Before Plato, the
concealed still allowed itself to be encountered. But the subsequent
straitening of aletheia to adequation marks a withdrawal of the concealed
and a forgetting of the truth of Being:
Truth is no longer, as it was qua unhiddenness, the fundamental trait
of being itself. Instead, as a consequence of getting yoked under the
idea, truth has become correctness, and henceforth it will be a
characteristic of the knowing of beings.
Ever since, there has been a striving for truth in the sense of the
correctness of the gaze and the correctness of its direction. Ever since,
what matters in all our fundamental orientations toward beings is the
achieving of a correct view of the ideas.35
Heidegger, like Arendt, does not equate visibility as such with correctness.
This equation has its historical starting point with Plato. But Heideggers
response to Platos preparation for the forgetting of the essence of truth is
to seek to approach the concealed. He is insusceptible to the humour of
icons. Even though he is convinced of the distorting effect of the light of
publicity (this is clearly enunciated in the analysis of the they in 27 of
Being and Time), Heidegger does not deploy it against Platonism. In
Heideggers Auseinandersetzung with metaphysics, in comparison with
Arendts, there is much more of the darkness of the Christian soul than the
mendacious light of the classical polis.
Platonism, in Arendts account, is the abolition of the openness of the
agora rather than the oblivion of the originary concealment of Being.
Platonism is hence anti-political because it endeavours to resolve the
undecidability of opinion and establish the rule of the true. Isonomy, as
the defining experiment of the Greeks, is to come to an abrupt end with
the inauguration of Platos philosopher-king. Plato is the enemy of
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Greece. He is the enemy of the sophists, of those buffoons and priests of


isonomy who wandered from city to city, restoring the undecidability of
truth-claims and exorcizing the spectre of absolutism. Cosmology is to be
brought under the rule of the Ideas, less than two centuries after it had
liberated itself from the rule of Zeus and all other singular principles in
the isonomic cosmology of Anaximander with its delicate equilibrium of
forces.36 Betraying the practice of Socrates, Plato offers in place of
consternation the security of a measure. Freedom and the fragility of
human existence retreat in readiness for the theological interpretation of
evil.
Paradoxically, it was out of love for Socrates that Plato broke with earlier
Greek thought. In What is Authority? Arendt writes:
It was after Socrates death that Plato began to discount persuasion
as insufficient for the guidance of men and to seek for something
liable to compel them without using external means of violence.
Very early in his search he must have discovered that truth, namely,
the truths we call self-evident, compels the mind, and that this
coercion, though it needs no violence to be effective, is stronger
than persuasion and argument. The trouble with coercion through
reason, however, is that only the few are subject to it, so that the
problem arises of how to assure that the many, the people who in
their very multitude compose the body politic, can be submitted to
the same truth. [. . .] This is the central predicament of Platos
political philosophy.37
The multitude, who had killed Socrates (but whose judgement Socrates had
nonetheless acknowledged), are to be relieved of the power to pass
judgement. That which Heidegger laments in Platos doctrine of Ideas
Arendt ascribes to Platos anger over the death of Socrates. Plato betrays
his own understanding of truth in order to achieve his anti-political end:
The ideas become measures only after the philosopher has left the bright
sky of ideas and returned to the dark cave of human existence.38 A little
later in What is Authority? Arendt expands:
For the original function of the ideas was not to rule or otherwise
determine the chaos of human affairs, but, in shining brightness, to
illuminate their darkness. As such, the ideas have nothing whatsoever
to do with politics, political experience, and the problem of action, but
pertain exclusively to philosophy, the experience of contemplation,
and the quest for the true being of things. It is precisely ruling,
measuring, subsuming, and regulating that are entirely alien to the
experiences underlying the doctrine of ideas in its original
conception.39
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Platonism, or the doctrine of Ideas interpreted as templates, is neither


political nor, strictly speaking, philosophical. In Truth and Politics Arendt
contends:
One can understand that the philosopher, in his isolation, yields to
the temptation to use his truth as a standard to be imposed upon
human affairs; that is, to equate the transcendence inherent in
philosophical truth with the altogether different kind of transcendence by which yardsticks and other standards of measurement are
separated from the multitude of objects they are to measure, and one
can equally well understand that the multitude will resist this
standard, since it is actually derived from a sphere that is foreign to
the realm of human affairs and whose connection with it can be
justified only by a confusion.40
The realm of human affairs does not submit to standards since its
difference from the realm of the laws of nature lies in its very resistance to
standards and yardsticks. Its freedom is the free play of opinion. Truth, as
Arendt continues, can merely embarrass itself by forcing its way into the
public realm:
Since philosophical truth concerns man in his singularity, it is
unpolitical by nature. If the philosopher nevertheless wishes his truth
to prevail over the opinions of the multitude, he will suffer defeat,
and he is likely to conclude from this defeat that truth is
impotent. [. . .] In the [. . .] event that his truth should prevail without
the help of violence, simply because men happen to concur in it, he
would have won a Pyrrhic victory. For truth would then owe its
prevalence not to its own compelling quality but to the agreement of
the many, who might change their minds tomorrow and agree on
something else; what has been philosophical truth would have
become mere opinion.41
The central predicament of Platos political philosophy is that it dissolves as
philosophy in entering the domain of politics. It sets itself against the free
play of opinion and thus against the freedom of the public realm. The
Greek polis is not so much illumined as darkened by Platonism, since the
light of the classical polis was the openness in which all free men could step
forth in their variety and dissent. The Platonic Idea, by pronouncing against
them as simulacra of itself, returns the many to the obscurity in which they
lived under despotism. The Greek love of glory and deception are tied up
with the public space of isonomy, a space in which each individual had at
least the chance to appear and shine in the eyes of others because it was
a space that did not decide in advance what could be.
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Deception is not evil in Arendts sense. Evil is the closure of the space of
the decision between falsehood and truth. Evil does not deceive; it destroys
both the true and the false. Consummate evil, as projected by the Nazi
genocide, leaves no traces. Deception, on the other hand, as it presupposes
the ability to concede that things could be otherwise, stands in need of
existence and its freedom. Consummate evil has little in common with the
evil of Pericles Athenians, with which, by contrast, Arendt almost seems to
feel a certain sympathy. According to the funeral oration recounted by
Thucydides, the Athenians had left behind among their neighbours
monuments to their good as well as evil. This evil which is to be
remembered is not the evil of the oblivion into which Nazism sought to
disappear with its crimes. The Athenians left behind monuments to their
good and evil because what the classical polis desired above all was to
scintillate in the variety and complexity, in short, the isonomy, of its
appearances.
Arendt sides with the classical polis. She sides with opinion against truth,
but she does not base her decision on a mere opinion about truth. Truth, for
Arendt, at once presupposes the freedom of human plurality and conceals
it. In this respect, Arendts account resembles Heideggers archaeology of
the traditional understanding of truth in On the Essence of Truth.
Heidegger asserts:
Freedom, conceived on the basis of the in-sistent ek-sistence of
Dasein, is the essence of truth (in the sense of the correctness of
presenting), only because freedom itself originates from the originary
essence of truth, the rule of the mystery in errancy.42
Human Dasein in-sists, i.e. holds fast to what is offered by beings,43 and
ek-sists, i.e. is exposure to the disclosedness of beings as such.44 By always
already stepping beyond itself, beyond its unity and possible subsumption
under a concept, Dasein, which is essentially Being-with-one-another, loses
all measure and errs. Dasein has no telos by which it or its actions could be
properly judged. It is essentially errant, and it is only as such that it can
traverse the distance between a statement and its referent and thereby
constitute the condition for the understanding of truth as adaequatio rei et
intellectus. It is to Daseins errancy that Heidegger gives the name of
freedom. This errancy is prior to any failure to meet a given standard:
Humans err. Human beings do not merely stray into errancy. They
are always astray in errancy, because as ek-sistent they in-sist and so
already stand within errancy. The errancy through which human
beings stray is not something that, as it were, extends alongside them
like a ditch into which they occasionally stumble; rather, errancy
belongs to the inner constitution of the Da-sein into which historical
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human beings are admitted. Errancy is the free space for that turning
in which in-sistent ek-sistence adroitly forgets and mistakes itself
constantly anew.45
Human beings err inasmuch as they are free. Error rises up, for Heidegger,
against the derivative authority of truth as correctness, of templates and
banisters. Truth itself, because it involves a falling away from the
originarity of error, remains in error. Freedom is thus able to reclaim the
sphere of truth and the necessity of the laws of nature.
By contesting the hegemony of the endsmeans category on the basis of
the primacy of freedom, Arendt can look upon error far more dispassionately than any teleologist, and even accommodate it. But her rupture with
teleology does not mean that she accommodates evil. Instead, she redefines
it: evil is that which cannot be accommodated because it is the destruction
of the fact of existence. Death destroys existence, but evil, which is the
aggravation of death, destroys the very fact of existence because it
extirpates all trace of the deceased and strips the survivors of the freedom,
in other circumstances identical with existence, to remember and recognize. Evil is thus the consummation of the decline of the classical polis as
the historical site of freedom.
The end of the Greek polis, its retreat rather than its extinction, is the
triumph of the vita contemplativa in the birth of metaphysics and
Christianity. At first sight, Arendts interpretation of Heidegger as an
exponent of the vita contemplativa is puzzling, but it can be argued that
Arendt only seemingly misreads Heidegger. She understands his thought
so intimately that she can allow herself, on occasion, not to be taken in by
the letter of what he says. Such a hermeneutic practice would be
inadmissible if Arendt, on the basis of reflections on the problem of evil,
were not able to offer an assessment and critique of Heideggers central
question concerning Being.
In The Life of the Mind, remarking on Heideggers notion of errancy in
On the Essence of Truth, Arendt advances the following inaccurate
paraphrase:
But, just as, in Being and Time, this guilty self could salvage itself by
anticipating its death, so here the erring Dasein, while lingering a
while in the present realm of errancy, can, through the thinking
activity, join itself to what is absent. There is the difference, though,
that here the absent (Being in its enduring withdrawal) has no history
in the realm of errancy, and thinking and acting do not coincide. To
act is to err, to go astray.46
Heidegger, however, does not exclude thought from the errancy of human
beings. Indeed, for Heidegger we are not yet truly thinking precisely
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because philosophy has always shrunk back from error. Heidegger is not a
Platonist, and he is so emphatic on this point that Arendts interpretation
cannot help appearing wilfully obtuse. The expositions of Being-in-theworld and the criticisms of the abstractness of the subject could not be any
less ambiguous in declaring Heideggers opposition to the theoretical
standpoint of the vita contemplativa.
For a moment, in The Human Condition, hence in a work that never
mentions his name, Arendt skirts the region in which Heidegger is
ostensibly at home:
There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm
in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern
with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous
loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.47
Heideggers modernity is his concern with the mortality of Dasein as
opposed to the immortality of the glorious deed and the eternity of the
unchanging Ideas. Heidegger is not a Greek in the heroic or the
metaphysical sense. He is not an Augenmensch; if anything, his work
constitutes in the history of philosophy the formulation of the most
uncompromising suspicion of visibility and presence. Heideggers modernity does not mark the triumph of the spectator over the actor of the Greek
polis but rather the possibility of putting into question the privileged status
of the spectator by inquiring into the hidden counter-essence of the
visibility of both the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.
Arendts misreading is strategic. Its obfuscations show up, however, in
the obfuscations of her commentators. In The Thracian Maid and the
Professional Thinker: Arendt and Heidegger, Jacques Taminiaux reiterates
Arendts classification of Heidegger as a theoretician:
Heidegger too thinks that praxis is the appearing of each one in his
ownmost individuality, his own way of excelling. Yet, because
excellence in his eyes resides in bios theoretikos given over to the
solitary contemplation of Being, he merely retains from the Aristotelian praxis what puts him on the way to speculative excellence.48
Certainly excellence, in Heideggers judgement (putting aside everything
that could be said against excellence as timidity before the errancy of
Dasein), resides in the understanding of Being, but that this understanding involves an exclusion of plurality and a valorization of theory is
a construction at odds with Being and Time. Being cannot be understood
by an entity that withdraws itself from others and suppresses the truth of
its Being-with-others just as fallenness into the everyday is, for Heidegger, in no way something negative and self-evidently inferior to the vita
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contemplativa. The thinker has to abandon the metaphysical persona of


the aloof thinker if he or she is to think Being in its historical
concreteness.
If Heidegger draws a distinction between thought and action in the
opening of the Letter on Humanism , it is not in order to give a new
lease on life to the old distinction between theory and praxis. Heideggers
objection to praxis is not that it is ensnared in the concrete and cannot
attain to the vision of eternity vouchsafed the vita contemplativa; on the
contrary, Heidegger criticizes praxis for being insufficiently concrete:
We are still far from pondering the essence of action decisively
enough. We view action only as causing an effect. The actuality of the
effect is valued according to its utility. But the essence of action is
accomplishment. To accomplish means to unfold something into the
fullness of its essence, to lead it forth into this fullness producere.
Therefore only what already is can really be accomplished. But what
is above all is being. Thinking accomplishes the relation of being to
the essence of the human being.49
Very quickly and succinctly Heidegger throws the language of theory and
praxis out on its ear. Like Arendt, he denounces the situating of the truth
of action in the causing of an effect. This, as the But in his next sentence
indicates, is not what Heidegger means by the accomplishment of action.
What praxis accomplishes, when it is properly praxis, is not the abstraction
from itself that is its effect but rather Being. Thinking, when it is properly
thinking, is the act that produces Being. Neither theory nor praxis, as they
have been traditionally conceived, is what Heidegger understands by the
action of thought, because they are both too contemplative, too abstract
from the concreteness of Being itself. They are not productive in
Heideggers sense.
Production, for Heidegger, has clearly nothing to do with what Arendt
analyses as fabrication in The Human Condition (or with that which
Heidegger himself expounds later in the Letter on Humanism in a
discussion of Hegel and Marx). Dana Villa, in Arendt and Heidegger: The
Fate of the Political, grasps too soon at a difference between his two
subjects:
Because the predominance of poiesis is built into our most basic
ontological categories, the subsumption of praxis by poiesis is almost
a foregone conclusion. Arendts single-minded attempt to rescue
action from the distorting metaphors of politics as making or plastic
art flows, I would suggest, from her appreciation of what Heidegger
discovered when he went back to the ground of metaphysics.
Unsurprisingly, Heidegger was to remain blind to his own insight.50
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Villa believes that Heidegger remains bound to a productionist metaphysics, and thus to techne, when he turns to poetry and compares poetry and
the State. But what Heidegger understands by poetry is as removed from
the ordinary connotations of poiesis as his understanding of producere. In
a note from 19401, Heidegger distances his conception of poetry from
techne: Poetry [Dichtung] no longer as art; with the end of metaphysics
the end of art techne.51 Arendt, and her commentators in her wake,
cannot pull clear of Heidegger.
But the accuracy of Arendts reading cannot be brought into doubt by
adducing passages in Heidegger where he criticizes the prejudices of the
vita contemplativa concerning action and plurality. In Arendts judgement, Heidegger protests in vain his innocence of these prejudices. His
devotion to the question of Being renders him incapable of properly
addressing action and plurality because it blinds him to freedom.
Freedom goes unthought in the meticulous and unyielding attempt to
ground and reformulate the Scotist claim concerning the univocity of
Being. Heideggers thinking was always to revolve around the task, as it
is outlined in 1 of Being and Time, of securing the unity of the many
ways of Being:
Aristotle himself knew the unity of this transcendental universal as
a unity of analogy in contrast to the multiplicity of the highest generic
concepts applicable to things. With this discovery, in spite of his
dependence on the way in which the ontological question had been
formulated by Plato, he put the problem of Being on what was, in
principle, a new basis. To be sure, even Aristotle failed to clear away
the darkness of these categorial interconnections. In medieval
ontology this problem was widely discussed, especially in the Thomist
and Scotist schools, without reaching clarity as to principles.52
Aristotle fails to illuminate the categorial interconnections between the
various ways of Being, furnishing with his conception of a unity of analogy
only an unsatisfactory substitute for what Heidegger names at differing
stages the meaning, truth and place of Being. Heidegger seeks a unity
that does not unite in the way a genus unites. A genus unites by means of
common properties, whereas the variety in the ways of Being is not
explicable in terms of incompletely shared sets of properties. The many
ways of Being are the equivocation of Being. If the unity that Heidegger
seeks is not a common property, it is also not the unity of the Aristotelian
One. For Aristotle, unity can be said of every being inasmuch as it is one,
in the sense of being identifiably distinct as one x. Heidegger, who sets out
to make sense of the equivocation of Being in his existential analytic,
discovers in Dasein a being that stands outside the sway of the One.
Dasein, because it ek-sists, because it is merely towards its own death and
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unity, is equivocal. Heidegger proposes Dasein as the necessarily peculiar


unity of the ways of Being.
Is the peculiarity of this unity sufficiently different from a homogeneity
to prevent the closure of the space of freedom under its sway? Does any
unity recover existence and its indeterminacy, the polis and its isonomy for
the paternalism and anti-political rule of the home? Is Heideggers Being
simply another term in the series: Father, God, Law? Nancy, in The
Experience of Freedom, objects to the insufficiently peculiar unity of
Dasein. In much the same manner that Arendt presents Heidegger as a
dishonest adherent of the vita contemplativa, Nancy calls Heideggers
discussion of evil in his 1936 lecture course on Schelling a theodicy in the
form of an ontodicy.53
For Heidegger, Schelling fails to transform Western thought because by
positing God as the unity of good and evil he falls short of an
understanding of finitude. The opposition between good and evil, and
hence that which defines them as what they are and which defines them in
their unity, rests upon the possibility for either good or evil, and only a
finite being has possibilities. For Heidegger, only Dasein can be the unity
of good and evil. It is not a unity that blunts their contradiction but rather
the site where the decision is made regarding good and evil. The infinite
being, as wholly actual, has already made the decision for the good. Evil
survives, for Scholasticism and for Heidegger, in the realm of the possible.
From the perspective of Christian monotheism, the evil of an act is not so
much an actuality as a reservation towards the actuality of the divine work
of which it is inescapably a part. Evil is a possibility only so long as it can
be realized, but as soon as it is realized, it shatters against the goodness of
the actual. Evil has thus an interest in not going too far. Arguably for
Arendt, Heidegger fails to transform Western thought because by positing
Dasein as the unity of good and evil he falls short of an understanding of
finitude. The Scholastic discourse of evil as possibility entails an incapacity
to treat the threat of Auschwitz with the proper seriousness. Of course, the
evil by which Arendt understands Auschwitz is a possibility, but it is not at
all a possibility that shatters against the indestructible goodness of the
actual in being realized: the evil foreshadowed in Auschwitz is not human
freedom but the actuality of non-existence.
To be sure, Heidegger delivered his lecture course prior to the
extermination, but when he came to publish the course after the war, the
inadequacy of this formulation in the light of Auschwitz and the necessity
of rethinking the nature of evil passes without comment. The evil of
unmediated non-being presaged in Auschwitz does not submit to its yoking
in any unity. In making of man what God was in earlier ontology54
Heidegger relinquishes his own insight into the finitude of human Dasein
and retires to the supposedly impregnable vantage point of the vita
contemplativa. Heidegger criticizes Schelling for not treating evil in terms
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of human finitude, and yet he himself retains the dispassionate view of evil
proper only to the indestructible. Having pursued a critique of the
ontological tradition on the basis of a more originary understanding of
temporality obtained through his analysis of human finitude, Heidegger
endangers his own project through his equanimity regarding evil. On her
guard against the eternalist prejudices of the vita contemplativa, Arendt
experiences the utter and hence banal irreconcilability between the
existence of finite human beings and evil.
Even as he defends Schelling against Heideggers reading, Nancy
suggests that Schelling, and Heidegger similarly and with a far more
sinister historical corollary, has no genuine understanding of freedom.
Nancy asks:
Is it possible to say that the thinking of being, at least as Heidegger
was able to announce it, has escaped the profound logic and tonality
of the idealism of freedom, according to which freedom for good and
evil is first established and can only be established through evil, and
must therefore, whether it wants to or not, in one way or another
justify evil, which means dialecticize it, as is the case when discord is
at best what makes unity appear? [. . .] At what point does this
identity, specifically presented as not being one, cease dialecticizing
itself and producing a superior identity, the result of which seems to
be nothing other than a deaf return to a theodicy or logodicy, this
time in the form of an ontodicy? And yet, why does being need a
justification if it is not and does not cause unless we must ask
ourselves whether it isnt the unjustifiable that, in spite of everything,
we want to justify? (This clearly means: to what extent, in spite of
everything and everyone, did Heidegger silently justify Auschwitz?
Yet this also means, above all for us: to what extent is this silent
justification not a weakness of the very thinking of being, understood,
as we are trying to do here, as the thinking of freedom or of the
generosity of being?)55
In Schellings Idealism, the justification of evil in the name of freedom
corresponds to a spurious conception of freedom. In such a conception,
freedom is liberated from the rule of necessity only to the extent that it now
itself invests the position of necessity and justifies whatever is in return for
its ratification. Heidegger does not openly justify evil, but inasmuch as he
attempts to uncover the superior identity of the manifold ways of Being, his
silence regarding Auschwitz must be suspected of harbouring an ontological motivation. From the aloof vantage point of the thinker of the truth
of Being, even the unjustifiable must have its appointed place in the
ontological totality. The prejudices of the vita contemplativa, as Arendt
intimates, prevent Heidegger from speaking out and actively intervening
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against the extermination of his fellow human beings. What Arendt takes to
be the anti-metaphysical lesson of Auschwitz is lost on him. Non-being, as
it threatened to assert its hegemony in the extermination, is not simply one
of the many ways of Being. Non-being is unthinkable. For all the
vociferousness of his confrontation with Plato, Heidegger implicitly
subscribes to the founding thesis of metaphysics in Platos Parmenides:
non-being is. Arendts meditations on the pre-Socratic polis are properly
understood only if they are seen as a response to Auschwitz and not as a
flight into nostalgia and the Graecomania once endemic to Germanspeaking intellectuals.
It is not an issue of a choice between fundamental ontology and ethics,
between Heideggers question of the categorial interconnections of the
ways of Being and Arendts political opposition to totalitarianism.
Unjustifiability threatens rather than extinguishes ontology. The question
of the categorial interconnections of the ways of Being is ill served by any
restoration or reinvention of theodicy. Through justification the unjustifiable is presumed to be understood when it can only ever be misunderstood.
The unintelligibility with which non-being withholds itself from the sway of
the proposed categorial interconnections is to be rendered intelligible as
unintelligible. This means that it is to be considered a block to any answer
to the question of the categorial interconnections, but not to the question
itself. The question of the categorial interconnections asks after unity and
in the name of the unjustifiable must work, perhaps even more vehemently,
against it. Dasein, as the meaning of the originary finitude of Being, as the
being-outside-of-itself of ecstatic temporality, must be grasped in the
impossibility of its unity. Ontology, if it is to be itself, must come asunder
and must never cease coming asunder against the unjustifiable.
University of Queensland, Australia
Notes
1 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967),
pp. xxxxxxi.
2 Ibid., p. 459.
3 Arendt, Letter of 24 July 1963 to Gershom Scholem, in The Jew as Pariah, ed.
Ron H. Feldman (New York: Grove Press, 1978), pp. 2501.
4 Richard J. Bernstein, Did Hannah Arendt Change her Mind? From Radical
Evil to the Banality of Evil, in Larry May and Jerome Kohn (eds) Hannah
Arendt: Twenty Years Later (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), p. 142.
5 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 4423.
6 Arendt, On Violence (London: Penguin, 1970), p. 56.
7 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978), p.
3.
8 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978), p.
118.

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9 Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correspondence, ed. Lotte Kohler and Hans
Saner, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1992), p. 165.
10 Ibid., p. 166.
11 Ibid., p. 525.
12 Roger Errera, Hannah Arendt: From an Interview, New York Review of Books,
26 October 1978, p. 18.
13 Arendt, Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, in Essays in Understanding: 193054, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company,
1994), p. 126.
14 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, ed. and trans. Thomas Gilby and
others (Oxford: Blackfriars, 1964), Vol. 4, pp. 357.
15 Ibid., Vol. 8, pp. 1435.
16 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, pp. 334.
17 Arendt, Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought, in
Essays in Understanding: 193054, p. 444.
18 Arendt, A Reply to Eric Voegelin, in Essays in Understanding: 193054, pp.
4018.
19 Cf. Kant, Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion, trans. Allen W.
Wood in Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (eds) Religion and
Rational Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 411: In
paradise the human being here appears as a darling of nature, great in his
predispositions but crude in his cultivation. Thus he lives undisturbed, led by
his instincts, until finally he feels his humanity, and in order to prove his
freedom, he falls. Now he no longer is an animal, but he has become an
animal.
20 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, p. 217.
21 Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), p.
179.
22 Arendt, Hermann Broch, in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace
& World, 1968), pp. 1478.
23 Arendt, On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 274.
24 Margaret Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (London: J. M.
Dent, 1974), p. 124.
25 Gilles Deleuze and Felix

Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and


Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone, 1988), pp. 3645.
26 Arendt, On Revolution, p. 158.
27 Ibid., p. 31.
28 Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (London: East & West Library,
1957), p. 177.
29 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking, p. 27.
30 Adolf Portmann, New Paths in Biology, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (New York:
Harper & Row, 1964), p. 154.
31 Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson
(London: SCM Press, 1962), p. 447.
32 Arendt, What is Existential Philosophy?, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber in
Essays in Understanding: 193054, p. 180.
33 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, p. 187.
34 Heidegger, Platos Doctrine of Truth, trans. Thomas Sheehan in Pathmarks,
ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.
171.
35 Ibid., p. 179.

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36 See the political and historical exposition of Anaximanders cosmology in JeanPierre Vernant, The New Image of the World, in The Origins of Greek Thought
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 11929.
37 Arendt, What is Authority?, in Between Past and Future (New York: Viking,
1968), pp. 1078.
38 Ibid., p. 109.
39 Ibid., pp. 11213.
40 Arendt, Truth and Politics, in Between Past and Future, pp. 2378.
41 Ibid., p. 246.
42 Heidegger, On the Essence of Truth, trans. John Sallis in Pathmarks, p. 151.
43 Ibid., p. 150.
44 Ibid., p. 145.
45 Ibid., p. 150.
46 Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, pp. 1934.
47 Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p.
55.
48 Jacques Taminiaux, The Thracian Maid and the Professional Thinker: Arendt and
Heidegger, ed. and trans. Michael Gendre (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), p. 94.
49 Heidegger, Letter on Humanism , trans. Frank A. Capuzzi in Pathmarks, p.
239.
50 Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1996), p. 170.
51 Heidegger, Metaphysik und Nihilismus, ed. Hans-Joachim Friedrich in the
Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 67 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1999), p. 108.
52 Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 22.
53 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom, trans. Bridget McDonald
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 132.
54 Arendt, What is Existential Philosophy?, in Essays in Understanding: 193054,
p. 180.
55 Nancy, op. cit., pp. 1312.

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