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Arne Johan Vetlesen

Hannah Arendt on
conscience and evil

Abstract Though there exists a vast literature dealing with Hannah

Arendt’s thoughts on evil in general and Adolf Eichmann in particular, few
attempts have been made to assess Arendt’s position on evil by tracing its
connection with her reflections on conscience. This essay examines the
nature and significance of such a connection. Beginning with her doctoral
dissertation on St Augustine and ending with her posthumously published
studies in The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s oeuvre exhibits strong thematic
continuity: the triad thinking–conscience–evil forms its most enduring core.
A puzzling core, to be sure, considering the controversies triggered, es-
pecially regarding her notion of the ‘banality of evil’. By placing the role of
conscience at the very center of Arendt’s lifelong reflections, this essay
explores the – in many ways related – influence exerted by St Augustine and
Heidegger. Heidegger’s conception of conscience in Sein und Zeit is identi-
fied as a crucial source for understanding – so the claim holds – why Arendt
found Heidegger’s philosophy particularly wanting as regards the question
of evil.
Key words Arendt · Augustine · conscience · evil · Heidegger · Socrates ·

Conscience does not figure among the topics for which Hannah
Arendt’s work is most known. One searches in vain for an essay or a
book of hers devoted to it. To present-day readers, Arendt is associated
first of all with the notion ‘the banality of evil’, coined in her 1963 book
Eichmann in Jerusalem (cited as EJ). Arendt’s endeavour, nay struggle
to come to terms, philosophically if not morally, with Eichmann and
his kind of (doing rather than being) evil, forced her to consider again
and again the interrelation between thinking, willing and judgment, on
the one hand, and evil-doing, on the other. It may be said that her

PHILOSOPHY & SOCIAL CRITICISM • vol 27 no 5 • pp. 1–33

Copyright © 2001 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
undertaking was to see how much light philosophy – meaning thinking
as such, not the academic discipline – can throw on evil.
So what about conscience? As I said, conscience is no salient topic
in Arendt. However, this is not the whole truth. As soon as one starts
to trace Arendt’s reflections on evil in her oeuvre, one finds that she
from early on explored a connection now overshadowed by the afore-
mentioned one between thinking and evil – namely, a connection
between conscience and evil. Once we learn to appreciate this, we realize
that conscience is the thematic fellow-traveller of evil in Arendt’s work
from beginning to end, so that if evil is regarded as the most constant
and as it were ubiquitous theme in her work, conscience accompanies
that theme as its inseparable, though often neglected, shadow.
In this essay, the task I set myself is to bring the significance of con-
science out into the open. My thesis is not that doing so will enable us
to sort out all the puzzles and dissolve all the aporias for which Arendt’s
reflections on evil are famous. My claim is weaker: that drawing sys-
tematic attention to how conscience figures in the latter will help us to
attain a better grasp not only of her view – or rather views – on evil
but also of the nature of Arendt’s philosophical relationship to
Heidegger. The issue of evil – and, as we will see, conscience – provides
us with a head-on way of assessing some crucial differences between
Arendt and Heidegger – contra a provocative thesis that I shall consider,
which was put forward by David Luban.
In what follows, I shall start by bringing in some excerpts from
Arendt’s first major work, her doctoral dissertation on St Augustine. I
then move to her late meditations on The Life of the Mind, in the course
of which Arendt, on the reading I shall develop, works out two distinct
models of conscience and its link to evil-doing, one associated with
Socrates, the other with Heidegger.

Assessing the influence of Augustine

Love and Saint Augustine (cited as LAS) is Arendt’s 1929 Heidelberg
dissertation. Its long second part is entitled ‘Creator and Creature: The
Remembered Past’. I shall quote the central passages where Arendt lays
out St Augustine’s understanding of conscience:
Against the security of habit, the law calls on conscience. Conscience is ‘of
God’ and has the function of pointing to the Creator rather than to the
creature. Since conscience is of God, it lets us refer back directly to the
Creator. . . . In the human world established by man, the individual no
longer stands in isolated relation to his very own ‘whence’; rather, he lives
in a world he has made jointly with other men. He no longer hears what
he is from conscience, which is of God, but from ‘another’s tongue’ (aliena
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
lingua). He has turned himself into a resident of this world, one who is no
longer of God alone but owes what he is to this world which he helped to
establish. This alien tongue determines man’s being, whether good or evil,
from outside and from what man has founded. Conscience speaks in our-
selves against this alien tongue, and it speaks so that the one addressed
cannot escape: ‘An evil conscience cannot flee from itself; it has no place
to which it may go; it pursues itself.’ . . . Conscience directs man beyond
this world and away from habituation. As the voice of the Creator, con-
science makes man’s dependence on God clear to him. What the law
commands, conscience addresses to the one who has already succumbed to
the world in habit. The voice of the law summons him against what ‘habit
previously entangled him in’. The estrangement from the world is essen-
tially an estrangement from habit. While man lives in habit, he lives in view
of the world and is subject to its judgment. Conscience puts him coram
Deo, into the presence of God. In the testimony of conscience, God is the
only possible judge of good and evil. This testimony bears witness to man’s
dependence on God, which he finds in himself. The world and its judg-
ments crumble before this inner testimony. There is no fleeing from con-
science. There is no togetherness and no being at home in the world that
can lessen the burdens of conscience. (LAS, 84f.)
Since no part in this universe, no human life and no part of this life, can
possess its own autonomous significance, there can be no ‘evil’ (malum).
There are only ‘goods’ (bona) in their proper order, which may merely seem
evil from the transient perspective of the individual. This quality of
goodness does not arise from the particular things themselves, but is
bestowed upon them by the universe. . . . Being is for Augustine, as it was
for the Greeks, the everlasting, forever lawful structure and the harmony
of all the parts of the universe. The appropriate interpretation of wicked-
ness . . . is then as follows: . . . that person is wicked who tries to escape
the predetermined harmony of the whole. (LAS, 60f.)

We gather from these quotes that Arendt is referring to Augustine’s

mature, post-Manichean position on evil. As Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott
and Judith Chelius Stark remind us, ‘Augustine moved from a belief in
the material reality of evil during his Manichean period (De Libero
Arbitrio) toward his “mature” position in which evil is described as a
bondage to habitual sin, a worldliness that free will is powerless to break
(De Natura et Gratia)’ (Scott and Stark, 1996, in LAS, 130). In City of
God (cited as CG), Augustine wrote that to seek for the cause of evil
‘is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence’ (CG, 480). God is ‘exist-
ence in a supreme degree’ (CG, 473), and ‘the only contrary nature is
the non-existent’ (ibid.). Hence evil, the ‘contrary nature’ to the
supremely good God, ‘is not a matter of efficiency, but of deficiency; the
evil will itself is not effective but defective’ (CG, 479). In this way, evil
is denied a specific reality to itself; ontologically, it has no standing, no
facticity at all. This Augustianian notion of evil as ontologically null
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
and void, as non-being, as sheer negativity, is unmistakably present in
Arendt’s 1963 exchange with Gershom Scholem over Eichmann. Trying
to explain what she meant by speaking about the ‘banality’ of evil,
Arendt points out that ‘Only the good has depth and can be radical’.
Hence thought, ‘the moment it concerns itself with evil, is frustrated
because there is nothing’ (Nach Auschwitz, 1989; cited as NA, 78).
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. What matters, at this point,
is that in her doctoral dissertation on Augustine, Arendt deals with con-
science only in light of its connection with evil or, to be more precise,
its connection with the distinction between good and evil. This distinc-
tion emanates from the law; it is not for man to author it, only to receive
and observe it. As we saw, conscience is what puts man into the presence
of God; ‘in the testimony of conscience, God is the only possible judge
of good and evil’.
For my purposes, the influence on Arendt’s thought emanating from
Augustine’s description of evil as ‘a bondage to habitual sin’ is particu-
larly significant. What leads man away from God is what leads man
into sin, into evil – namely, to succumb to the world in habit. The
world’s language is another tongue than that of the law, of God; it is
evil to the extent that it ‘determines man’s being, whether good or evil,
from outside and from what man has founded’ (LAS, 82). Arendt quotes
Augustine’s contention in his Confessions that ‘the law of sin is the force
of habit’. Through habit, ‘covetousness constantly seeks to cover [man’s]
real source by insisting that man is “of the world”, thereby turning the
world itself into the source. Thus man’s own nature lures him into the
service of “things made” instead of to the service of their Maker’ (ibid.).
Sin springs from insistence on our own will. Arendt cites Augustine’s
central claim that ‘humankind’s inclination to value its sins is not so
much due to passion itself as to habit’. To which Arendt adds, by way
of summing up Augustine’s doctrine:
The inclination to sin springs more from habit than from passion itself,
because the world man has founded in covetousness is consolidated in
habit. The creature, in the search for its own being, seeks security for its
existence, and habit, by covering the utmost limit of existence itself and
making today and tomorrow the same as yesterday, makes it cling to the
wrong past and thus gives it the wrong security. (LAS, 83)

I have dwelled on Arendt’s detailed exegesis, and indeed affirmation,

of Augustine’s understanding of the nature of evil because recent com-
mentators on Arendt have set out to argue that her approach to Adolf
Eichmann is distinctly Augustinian. The claim is that her early pre-
occupation with Augustine commands much more than merely his-
torical interest. In fact, it can be seen to exert an enduring impact upon
Arendt’s thinking. Nowhere is this more evident than in Arendt’s
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
analysis of Eichmann, of Eichmann’s kind of evil, put on paper more
than 30 years after the dissertation on Augustine. Or so the claim has
I shall mention two instances of how this argument is made in recent
Arendt scholarship. In their interpretive essay accompanying the 1996
English publication of Arendt’s disseration, editors Scott and Stark
suggest that it was Arendt’s renewed encounter with Augustine in the
early 1960s which enriched her ‘examination of the paradox of evil
which is not “radical” but pedestrian, bourgeois, and seemingly rooted
in everydayness’ (LAS, 120). They continue: ‘Augustine’s paradigm of
immobilized will entrapped in habituated worldliness could perhaps be
applied to Eichmann, the routinely civilized bureaucrat incapable of the
critical distance necessary for moral judgment’ (LAS, 121).
The second instance is David Luban’s essay ‘Banal Evil and Radical
Evil’ (1997; cited as BE). Quoting the Augustian idea that ‘the inclina-
tion to sin springs more from habit than from passion itself’, apparently
affirmed by Arendt in her discussion of it (cited above), Luban draws
the conclusion that this idea ‘perfectly fits Arendt’s Eichmann’ (BE, 10).
The influence beginning to loom large here, is not only that of
Augustine but that of Martin Heidegger. Whereas Scott and Stark
restrict themselves to a brief indication of the Heideggerian flavour to
Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality’ of evil as applied to Eichmann, Luban
makes its Heideggerian heritage into a major interpretative thesis of his.
And on an interpretive level, there is nothing far-fetched about this
suggestion. Augustine’s influence on Arendt is already accounted for;
moreover, I agree with Scott and Stark that Arendt in all probability
‘renewed’, perhaps even reinforced, her debt to Augustine’s (mature)
views on evil at the time of her pondering over the case of Eichmann.
Allowing for all this is tantamount to conceding Luban’s claim about
the no less crucial – and again enduring – impact exerted by Heidegger.
The bridge, as it were, between the different observations made here, is
that Heidegger himself started out strongly influenced by Augustine.
And it is well known that the young Arendt who pursued an interest in
Augustine, did so while still studying with Heidegger (though personal
reasons were to force her to leave Marburg and take her dissertation to
Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg), the Heidegger who for his part was still
young enough to be under the philosophical influence of Augustine.
Luban’s thesis is twofold. First, it holds that Arendt’s dissertation
presents an account of ‘the moral psychology of sin’ that, apart from
drawing explicitly on Augustine, contains phrases that ‘are straight out
of Being and Time’, Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus, the preparatory
lectures for which Arendt attended in the mid-1920s while a student of
Heidegger’s in Marburg. Luban singles out two ideas in particular, which
he takes to be unmistakably Heideggerian: namely, the idea that ‘the
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human creature masks “the utmost limit of existence” by everyday
routines’; and the idea that ‘the sinner is seeking a secure existence and
that he does so by trying to make everything routine’ (BE, 10). The second
part of Luban’s thesis is that young Arendt’s Augustinian–Heideggerian
account of sin ‘perfectly fits Arendt’s Eichmann’ (ibid.), as I said above.
I think that Luban’s thesis is partly right, partly wrong. To be sure,
the chains of influence in play are beyond dispute, the Augustine–
Heidegger one no less than the Heidegger–Arendt one. However, the
most interesting, indeed the provocative, part of Luban’s thesis – i.e. that
Arendt, albeit largely implicitly, found the philosophically appropriate
framework for understanding Eichmann ‘the sinner’, the evil-doer, in
Heidegger’s Being and Time – is something I find very problematic. Why?
My reasons are several. The parts of Being and Time alluded to in
Luban’s thesis are to be found in that work’s famous section on das
Man. Here, Heidegger introduces and explains his notions of fallenness
(‘Verfallenheit’), everydayness (‘Alltäglichkeit’), idle talk (‘Gerede’),
ambiguity (‘Zweideutigkeit’), curiosity (‘Neugier’), and – on a more
existential level, by way of summing up what being immersed in these
phenomena amounts to – inauthenticity (‘Uneigentlichkeit’). Space for-
bids me to go further into these notions here; I must assume their famili-
arity, as I must assume that of Being and Time in general. What is
decisive, in my view, is this: Heidegger situates the phenomena referred
to, as well as the attitude or mode of being-in-the-world of the indi-
vidual Dasein they comprise, in the public sphere (‘die Öffentlichkeit’).
Indeed, the link he establishes between the two – inauthenticity and the
public sphere – is so intimate as to render the two inseparable. They
end up as two sides of the same coin.
This being so, the question is where this leaves Arendt. My critical
claim as against Luban’s thesis is that Arendt, throughout her writings,
leaves the reader in no doubt as to the low esteem in which she holds
Heidegger as a thinker of matters moral and political. Even granted that
he is a great thinker, the areas of morality and politics are those in which
he erred most, with the gravest consequences; the ‘greatness’ of his
mistakes here holds both on a personal plane (i.e. his long-standing and
never publicly regretted support for the Nazi regime) and on a theor-
etical and philosophical one, the latter being what matters most for my

‘I cannot possibly want to become my own adversary’: the

Socratic bottom line
With this we may start to appreciate the irony contained in Luban’s
thesis: that Heidegger, of all philosophers, is held to be the one upon
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
whose account Arendt draws when she is searching for a philosophi-
cally satisfactory understanding of the evil brought by the Nazi regime
in the Gestalt of one of its chief perpetrators, Eichmann. For one thing,
we must bear in mind that Arendt was determined that understanding
such evil was no value-free or normatively neutral task; understanding
here necessarily would entail condemnation of the object at hand.
Setting aside for once her temperamental reluctance to elaborate on
methodological issues, in Arendt’s 1953 reply to Eric Voegelin’s criti-
cisms of her study of totalitarianism she says that she ‘quite consciously
parted with the tradition of sine ira et studio’ when writing on evil. Con-
ditions which are against the dignity of man can be properly studied
only on the condition that one permits one’s indignation to interfere.
The indignation she as author feels when studying man-made evil or
excessive poverty is an adequate response to the ‘inherent qualities’ of
the subject-matter (see 1994, Essays in Understanding, p. 403; cited as
EU). As far as I – and, I suspect, Arendt – can see, there is no trace of
such a methodological stance in Heidegger, as is brought out in, say,
Adorno’s complaint about Heidegger’s ‘ontologization’ of ‘merely ontic’
phenomena such as human suffering. Second, that ausgerechnet
Heidegger should be the one to stand forward as having worked out a
proper framework for the appreciation of what evil is, of how it is
orchestrated and enacted in the 20th century, is not only ironic. It is
improbable and in need of more substantiation than offered by Luban.
But so is my dismissal. Though demonstrably ironic, Luban’s thesis
may still be valid. To help us see the reasons why it is not valid, other
works of Arendt’s need to be consulted.
In the important Introduction to the first volume of her post-
humously published trilogy The Life of the Mind, entitled Thinking
(1978a; cited as LM, I), Arendt herself provides the link between the
puzzle her early-1960s encounter with Eichmann had left her with and
her look for a possible answer in philosophy, that is to say, by way of
an inquiry into the faculties of the mind. Arendt writes:
The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such,
the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract
attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be
among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even
actually ‘condition’ them against it? (The very word ‘con-science’, at any
rate, points in this direction insofar as it means ‘to know with and by
myself’, a kind of knowledge that is actualized in every thinking process.)
And is not this hypothesis enforced by everything we know about con-
science, namely, that a ‘good conscience’ is enjoyed as a rule only by really
bad people, criminals and such, while only ‘good people’ are capable of
having a bad conscience? (LM, I, 5)
Late Arendt seems to echo early Arendt in at least one crucial
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
respect: she cannot inquire into evil without simultaneously invoking
the role of conscience. True, in her last reflections the presence of
Socrates overshadows that of Augustine. But this shift of explicit debt
should not mislead us so far as her substantial approach to evil is con-
cerned. To see this, consider the following passage:
Because thought’s quest is a kind of desirous love, the objects of thought
can only be lovable things – beauty, wisdom, justice, and so on. Ugliness
and evil are almost by definition excluded from the thinking concern. They
may turn up as deficiencies, ugliness consisting in lack of beauty, evil, kakia,
in lack of the good. As such, they have no roots of their own, no essence
that thought could get hold of. If thinking dissolves positive concepts into
their original meaning, then the same process must dissolve these ‘negative’
concepts into their original meaninglessness, that is, into nothing for the
thinking ego. That is why Socrates believed no one could do evil voluntar-
ily – because of, as we would say, its ontological status: it consists in an
absence, in something that is not. . . . It looks as though Socrates had
nothing more to say about the connection between evil and lack of thought
than that people who are not in love with beauty, justice, and wisdom are
incapable of thought, just as, conversely, those who are in love with examin-
ing and thus ‘do philosophy’ would be incapable of doing evil. (LM, I, 179)

Though dealing here with Socrates rather than Augustine, the point
highlighted by Arendt is one on which the two concur: namely, that evil
possesses no positive ontological status, only a negative one. However,
the overall thrust of Arendt’s reflections here is clearly inspired more by
Socrates than by Augustine. Arendt, that is, concentrates her attention
on the – initially only hypothesized – connection between thinking and
evil, whereas Augustine, we may say somewhat more traditionally, had
focused on the connection between willing and evil.
A brief reminder is in place. After witnessing Eichmann during the
court proceedings in Jerusalem, Arendt was – and for ever remained –
‘struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to
trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or
motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer . . . was quite
ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous’ (LM, I,
4). This reasoning, based on her impressions of Eichmann’s conduct, led
Arendt to the idea that ‘the only notable characteristic’ of his was ‘some-
thing entirely negative’: it was ‘not stupidity but thoughtlessness’ (ibid.).
Hence the characteristically Augustinian path to exploring man-made
evil, that of willing evil, of doing it as a voluntary, chosen act (recall
Confessions VIII, 5, 12: ‘It was by [the mind’s] will that it slipped into
the habit’), is not embarked upon in the course of Arendt’s philosophi-
cal struggle with the case of Eichmann. Her reason for deciding against
this path seems, at least at first, to be of an impressionistic, indeed ad
hoc, nature: it became decisive for her choice of strategy that Eichmann,
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seemingly so indifferent, so mediocre, so unaffected by any ‘deeper’
inner motives, appeared more driven by something negative than by
something positive: by thoughtlessness rather than by a strong will (be
it a wicked one).
Before I proceed, three brief observations. First, it is probably
correct to say that Arendt, the thinker, never entertained the thought
that thinking – emphatically per se – could lead to evil: that thinking
may actively side with or even produce evil. That is to say, she never
pondered the hypothesis that there might exist – and indeed might be
exemplified by Eichmann – a positive or even necessary connection
between thinking and evil-doing. She built into her idea of thinking the
unscrutinized axiom (a philosopher’s predilection, to be sure) that
thinking is good – if and when morally assessed. As against this, one
could suggest, as does Zygmunt Bauman (personal communication,
2001), that Eichmann was an exemplarily thoughtful man, though I
would add that his thoughtfulness was one constrained by the demands
of Weberian ‘Zweckrationalität’: it was suited to practical-technical
tasks such as organizing the most efficient means to attaining a given
end, instead of questioning or determining that end as such. Hence, if
it was because Eichmann was so rational that he could be such an effec-
tive executor of evil (Bauman), the rationality implied is the restricted
one of instrumental reason. Secondly, it must be said that Arendt from
beginning to end inquired along an overtly intellectualist path, with no
attention being given to the alternative hypothesis that Eichmann’s
failure may have been one of lack of feeling (empathy) rather than lack
of thinking (see the case for this made in Vetlesen, 1994). Finally, the
‘banality’ Arendt speaks of in connection with evil via the Holocaust,
does not mean that the evil committed here is banal, but that men with
banal (as opposed to deep-seated, monstrous) motives (loyalty,
careerism) may commit it. Hence the pair banality–evil is not meant to
be an equation. It lacks the symmetry that is expected of equations.
Rather, what I take to have puzzled Arendt so much, is the blatant dis-
symmetry between the deed and (one of) the doers. Banal men, men
with banal motives, can perfectly well commit radical evil. Though
perhaps surprising, even shocking, this is, strictly speaking, no paradox,
as Luban finely observes at the end of his essay.
So much for Arendt’s choice to inquire into thinking, as opposed to
willing, when reflecting upon evil à la Eichmann. However, this does
not entail that Arendt follows in Socrates’ footsteps without qualifi-
cations. Though arguably criticizing Plato more than Socrates (telling
the difference being notoriously hard), Arendt hastens to add the follow-
ing to the passage quoted above: ‘If there is anything in thinking that
can prevent men from doing evil, it must be some property inherent in
the activity itself, regardless of its objects’ (LM, I, 180).
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
Let us return to our main concern, Arendt’s understanding of how
exactly the relevance of conscience to evil is to be appreciated. To
approach the heart of the matter, Arendt takes us back to Socrates’
teaching in Gorgias, where according to her we come across the only
instance in his many dialogues where we are justified in speaking of a
teaching in the positive sense:
The two positive Socratic propositions read as follows: ‘It is better to be
wronged than to do wrong’. The second: ‘It would be better for me that
. . . multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being
one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me’. . . . It
would be a serious mistake, I believe, to understand these statements as the
results of some cogitation about morality; they are insights, to be sure, but
insights of experience (LM, I, 181), ‘arising out of the thinking experience
as such’. (LM, I, 183)

Arendt goes on to remind us that ‘the only criterion of Socratic

thinking is agreement, to be consistent with oneself; its opposite, to be
in contradiction with oneself, actually means becoming one’s own
adversary’ (LM, I, 186). The principle behind this criterion is explicated
in Aristotle’s formulation of the famous axiom of contradiction. It is
deemed axiomatic in that ‘we must necessarily believe it because . . . it
is addressed not to the outward word [exo logos, that is, to the spoken
word addressed to someone else, an interlocutor who may be either
friend or adversary] but to the discourse within the soul, and though
we can always raise objections to the outward word, to the inward dis-
course we cannot always object’, because here the partner is oneself,
‘and I cannot possibly want to become my own adversary. This insight
is won from the factual experience of the thinking ego’ (LM, I, 186).
Thinking, then, is that peculiar soundless dialogue between me and
myself that I am, referred to by Socrates as my ‘being one’, and which
highlights the even more peculiar fact that I can think only by way of
being, indeed enacting (my) ‘two-in-one’. In thinking, I always return
to myself, since I am my own partner. To repeat, the Socratic bottom
line is that ‘I cannot possibly want to become my own adversary’: this
is Socrates’ experientally won insight into a peculiarly normative feature
of the human existential predicament. Whatever I do, in the external
world where actions are performed, the – ineliminable and unchosen –
fact is that I am forever condemned to returning to myself, to live with
myself. And that is precisely what I must will, so to speak: I must will
to live with myself, reconciled with myself and the acts I have done,
which define me, who I am, who I aspire to be, as opposed to living
against myself. The famous bottom line, in short, is that if I choose to
commit murder, I condemn myself to living in the company of a
murderer for the rest of my life: and who can possibly will such a fate?
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Conscience and temptation
This brings us, and Arendt, back to conscience. Although we have not
yet employed the term, conscience is what links up with thinking as just
understood. Arendt writes:
Later times have given the fellow who awaits Socrates in his home the name
of ‘conscience’. . . . Conscience, as we understand it in moral or legal
matters, is supposedly always present within us, just like consciousness.
And this conscience is also supposed to tell us what to do and what to
repent; before it became the lumen naturale or Kant’s practical reason, it
was the voice of God. Unlike this ever-present conscience, the fellow
Socrates is talking about has been left at home; he fears him, as the mur-
derers in [Shakespeare’s] Richard III fear conscience – as something that is
absent. Here conscience appears as an after-thought, roused either by a
crime, as in Richard’s own case, or by unexamined opinions, as in the case
of Socrates. . . . What causes a man to fear it is the anticipation of the
presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home.
Shakespeare’s murderer says: ‘Every man that means to live well endeav-
ours . . . to live without it’, and success in that comes easy because all he
has to do is never start the soundless solitary dialogue we call ‘thinking’,
never go home and examine things. This is not a matter of wickedness or
goodness, as it is not a matter of intelligence or stupidity. A person who
does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say
and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he
will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor
will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being for-
gotten the next moment. Bad people – Aristotle to the contrary notwith-
standing – are not ‘full of regrets’. . . . Everybody may come to shun that
intercourse with oneself whose feasibility and importance Socrates first dis-
covered. . . . A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop
its own essence – it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthink-
ing men are like sleepwalkers. . . . Conscience’s criterion for action will not
be the usual rules, recognized by multitudes and agreed upon by society,
but whether I shall be able to live with myself in peace when the time has
come to think about my deeds and words. Conscience is the anticipation
of the fellow who awaits you if and when you come home. (LM, I, 191)

What merits emphasis in this passage is Arendt’s acute awareness

of the precariousness of the thinking process, and by implication of the
authority yielded by conscience understood as premised upon the
thinking activity as such. As Arendt notes, ‘Socrates’ presupposition is
of course: if you are in love with wisdom and philosophizing; if you
know what it means to examine’ (LM, I, 182; emphasis added). Though
man is the thinking animal, to engage in thinking, in the strong sense
of letting thinking take its own course, without being able to tell, let
alone control, where that course will eventually end, is not something
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
every human individual is likely to do. Socrates detected a peculiarly
normative feature of his human existence because he engaged in
thinking; through thinking, he discovered an unchosen feature of his
existence - i.e. the need to remain one’s own friend, not to become one’s
own adversary. But although what he discovered is prior to what is
optional, that by which he discovered it – thinking – is something it is
possible to shun. Not that Arendt wants to restrict thinking to a small
elite, be it philosophers or intellectuals. Arendt is not an elitist in this
respect. What she is getting at is a lesson learned by hard-earned experi-
ence: in committing oneself to thinking, in committing oneself to stay
loyal to what conscience, the by-product of thinking, upholds as right
and wrong, the individual takes it upon himself to think, judge and act
according to his own standard only. This is one reason why Socrates
remains the towering historical example: in thinking, in following what
it takes to judge and act so as to remain friends with oneself, the indi-
vidual must be prepared to carry the all-too-likely consequence: that he
or she comes to be at odds with society.
Before we proceed to see what light this may throw on the task of
coming to grips with Eichmann, two dense passages from The Life of
the Mind aptly sum up Arendt’s findings:

If thinking – the two-in-one of the soundless dialogue – actualizes the

difference within our identity as given in consciousness and thereby results
in conscience as its by-product, then judging, the by-product of the
liberating effect of thinking, realizes thinking, makes it manifest in the
world of appearances, where I am never alone and always too busy to be
able to think. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge;
it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this, at
the rare moments when the stakes are on the table, may indeed prevent
catastrophes, at least for the self. (LM, I, 193)
The ‘silent sense’ . . . in practical and moral matters it was called ‘con-
science’, and conscience did not judge; it told you, as the divine voice of
either God or reason, what to do, what not to do, and what to repent of.
Whatever the voice of conscience may be, it cannot be said to be ‘silent’,
and its validity depends entirely upon an authority that is above and
beyond all merely human laws and rules. (LM, I, 215)

Thinking is utterly demanding and absorbing, and yet utterly pre-

carious; a life without it is not only possible, but more common than
we like to think (sic). Conscience, the by-product of the activity of
thinking, likewise is utterly demanding and uncompromising, and yet
utterly precarious; to disavow its authority is only too tempting,
especially at times when society all around unanimously articulates a
message that goes in the opposite direction to the ‘silent inner voice’
of conscience.
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
This, of course, marks Eichmann’s proper entry into the picture. As
for his conscience, Arendt does not have that much to say of it in her
Eichmann in Jerusalem. Yet what she does say is head-on:
Eichmann’s conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and
eagerness with which ‘good society’ everywhere reacted as he did. He did
not need to ‘close his ears to the voice of conscience’, as the judgment has
it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a
‘respectable voice’, with the voice of respectable society around him. That
there were no voices from the outside to arouse his conscience was one of
Eichmann’s points. (EJ, 126)

One of the disquieting lessons to be learned from Eichmann, Arendt

tells us, is that it is perfectly possible for conscience to be so co-opted,
so corrupted by (a corrupt) society, that it completely ceases to yield the
kind of subversive authority ascribed to it in the Socratic model, to
which, as we have seen, Arendt subscribes. Her depiction of how this
happened in Nazi Germany is a classic:
And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of con-
science tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill’, even though man’s natural
desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s
land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill’,
although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is
against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third
Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality
of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelm-
ing majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob,
not to let their neighbours go off to their doom. . . . But, God knows, they
had learned how to resist temptation. (EJ, 150)

Though highly suggestive, I believe that this passage reveals at least

one major shortcoming in Arendt’s approach. On the positive side,
Arendt demonstrates her grasp of the dramatic shift in evil, in the way
evil comes about, that is so crucial to understanding the Holocaust.
What I have in mind is the societal normalization, the making into
routine, along so many dimensions and within so many institutions, of
the multitude of decisions and actions that in sum facilitated the
implementation of the so-called Endlösung. In so many ways, the tables
are being turned: instead of the murder counting as socially, legally and
morally illicit, instead of the murderer appearing as a breaker of expec-
tations, rules and laws, what we find here is murder being given a differ-
ent status altogether: as socially upheld, as legally sanctioned, nay
demanded, and as morally praiseworthy. Conversely, we find that
deciding not to murder, not to rob, is the conspicuous stance, the one
for which an explanation will be sought, the one for which the indi-
vidual in question carries the onus of proof, the burden of argument.
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
The non-murderer by choice, by conviction, is suddenly the odd one
out, the one against the many.
To repeat, this is well captured by Arendt; indeed, few have captured
the enormity of the shift so clearsightedly, and so early, as Arendt. As
we know, she spent her entire post-Holocaust life wrestling with the
consequences – politically, morally, philosophically.
As indicated, however, the famous passage cited is also one where
we may start recognizing the limits to Arendt’s approach. Her reason-
ing here is based on the notion of temptation. Evil having become
routine, the novel normalcy, a matter of run-of-the-mill as opposed to
something outrageous, something subverting the integration of society
and posing a severe threat to the well-entrenched socio-political goals
of order, predictability, Parsonian pattern-maintenance, and the like, evil
instead has so thoroughly taken hold in the entire fabric of society as
to permeate and corrupt it to the core. In short, evil as (the novel)
normality means that evil loses its characteristic quality of temptation.
Supposedly the attraction exerted by (doing) evil lay precisely in its
quality of being forbidden, taboo, dangerous.
So being forbidden can no longer be the lure of evil. With the tables
so thoroughly turned, temptation would have to shift object, as it were:
it would move from murder to not-murder, the latter now representing
the socially forbidden act. But this temptation is the one a majority of
modern individuals – evidently – has today learned to resist, at least in
a totalitarian society.
The steps in Arendt’s reasoning appear logical enough. My critical
question is whether she, in invoking the role of temptation at both sides
of the shift (before as well as after), is not losing track of a vital insight.
My first claim is that temptation is not a necessary or indispensable
part of (doing or not-doing) evil. In a sense, to say this is to repeat, and
thus confirm, Arendt’s own finding. What remains problematic, how-
ever, is her hermeneutic prejudice that temptation is apt to lead us to
where evil is. My trouble, otherwise put, is not with her finding – i.e.
that we have evil here without having temptation – as such but with her
surprise at it. My hunch is that the prejudice she brings to bear on evil,
Nazi (Eichmann) style, is part of a heritage from Augustine: that is to
say, a moral psychology of evil (or ‘sin’) centred on how the human
individual, due to a more or less sinful nature, due to his ‘natural’ desires
and inclinations (yes, we are getting close to the Triebfeder of Kant), is
so to speak constitutionally susceptible to a temptation to do wrong
(evil), meaning to break the law as laid down by God, to turn away
from God, to set up and cherish his own world, neglecting that created
by God. In a word, the Fall, and what follows in its wake.
In deliberately phrasing it thus, we are landed in the Heideggerian
territory, not only the Augustinian one: the Fall as the world permeated
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
and levelled by idle talk, by shallowness and flight; or – post-Kehre – a
world eaten up by techne and Wille zur Macht run amok. But let us try
to take one point at a time; we shall return to Heidegger in due course.
It is tempting (sic) to suggest that Arendt’s expectation to find that where
there is evil there will invariably, due to man’s nature and the moral psy-
chology erected on (those assumptions about) that nature, also be temp-
tation, is an expectation of religious (Christian) origin, manifest in
Augustine. Arendt should not be so surprised that the evil orchestrated
by the Nazis, and by Eichmann in particular, representing the form evil
may assume in a modern, secular society, as ideologically inspired by a
secular Weltanschauung, turns out to be an evil unaccompanied by the
quality of temptation. When the latter is not found, this is so because
the expectation to find it belongs within a religious outlook – and society
– now dated.
But this doesn’t take us very far. It suggests that the evil Eichmann
participated in is secular evil, and that such evil may be enacted without
temptation being what drives these evil-doers to their doing evil. Thus
put, the suggestion is predominantly negative. It holds temptation to be
absent; it leaves the obvious question – What made them do it if temp-
tation did not? – unanswered.
Arendt did not pose the question for herself in this manner. Nonethe-
less, she does make some observations that help to illuminate it. To her,
Eichmann was a conformist. His conformity with the demands made
upon him by his social environment was to persist no matter how extreme
that with which he conformed was. Indeed, his undiminished prepared-
ness to go along with, even to outstrip, the most extreme of orders, in
my opinion spells Eichmann’s fanaticism, though Arendt refuses to use
the word. Eichmann elevated the laws of the party, or, more to the point,
the (spoken more often than written) words of the Führer, to the status
of law, a law standing above all other moral or legal authorities and
bodies, be they religious or secular or whatever. He lived according to
the dictum that Führerworte haben Gesetzeskraft. Needless to say, this
thoroughgoing conformism of his is part of the reason why Eichmann
appeared so normal, so ‘terrifyingly normal’, so inconspicuous a figure
in his times, a loyal member of his society, in all matters ‘a law-abiding
citizen’, to quote Arendt’s phrase. Commenting on Eichmann’s stubborn
determination to proceed at all costs with the implementation of the
Endlösung in the late fall of 1944, whereby he disobeyed the order from
his superior Himmler to the effect that he (Eichmann) contribute to
stopping the killings (as part of an arrangement with the Allies Himmler
was involved in at the time), Arendt concludes the following from
Eichmann’s unfailing loyalty to Hitler: ‘The very uncomfortable truth of
the matter probably was that it was not his fanaticism but his very con-
science that prompted him to adopt his uncompromising attitude during
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
the last year of the war’ (EJ, 146). Even when tempted by Himmler to
take part in finding a way out, a way to save himself in the face of the
imminent Totalverlust of the Third Reich, Eichmann demonstrated what
in his own view amounted to his untainted moral character, his unfail-
ing subscription to the Kadavergehorsam he boasted of with reference
to the SS. No ordeal was to prove too demanding for him; no ‘tempta-
tion’ was such as to make him yield and become a detractor. As Arendt
puts it: ‘No exceptions – this was the proof that he had always acted
against his “inclinations”, whether they were sentimental or inspired by
interest, that he had always done his “duty” ’ (EJ, 137).
According to Dana Villa (in his essay ‘Conscience, the Banality of
Evil, and the Idea of a Representative Perpetrator’), what primarily
interested Arendt in Eichmann ‘was not the absence of conscience;
rather it was the fact that Eichmann’s conscience did not function in the
expected manner since it was based on a conflation of morality with
legality. As a result, he was troubled only by the temptation to do good,
that is, to disregard his duty under the laws of a criminal regime and
“be soft” ’ (Villa, 1999: 45).
Granted that Villa has succeeded in stating Arendt’s position cor-
rectly, his way of articulating it helps us spot its shortcomings. It is not
clear to me from the documentation available about Eichmann’s per-
sonality and conduct that ‘doing good’ in any meaningful, and bio-
graphically correct, way represented a ‘temptation’ to him. Besides,
Villa’s use of ‘good’ is question-begging. To imply that non-participation
in the final solution would amount to doing good, not only by ‘our’
current standards, but (more importantly here) in the eyes of Eichmann
himself, is to implicitly ascribe to Eichmann the belief that what he did
do was ‘bad’ and what he did not do was wrong. But this is to pre-
suppose that the standard by reference to which Eichmann distinguished
right from wrong is the very same standard that we – who find his deeds
immoral in the extreme and who condemn him on that score – use;
indeed, use in our very act of condemning him. My counter-claim here
goes in the opposite direction from Villa’s. If we are at all to employ
the term – the psychological category – of temptation to Eichmann’s
behaviour, we would have to bend it to the other side, as it were. What
‘tempted’ Eichmann in a manner visible on the overt level of his behav-
iour, seems to have been this: to excel, to do even more than expected
and demanded of him by his superiors. This then is Eichmann’s per-
verted version of the phenomenon known as supererogation: Eichmann
was constantly seeking to go beyond the call of duty. But he was never,
it seems to me, tempted to go in the opposite direction, the one with
which Villa associates temptation – namely, to make decisions and
commit actions that would amount to his going against the call of duty,
as he understood it. For reasons I shall return to when discussing Žižek,
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
Eichmann in my view exemplifies a coinciding (‘Zusammenfall’) of what
is strictly opposed in Kant namely, his inclinations on the one hand and
the commands of the (Nazified, not Kantian) law on the other. In that
case, Eichmann was two-in-one (Socrates), only the two – desire and
duty, or id and super-ego – were not in conflict but were allied forces,
seeing to it that he never wavered from his course once he embarked
upon it. Hence, no remorse, no pangs of bad conscience, no combat
inwards, no opposition outwards. In a word, a fanatic.

Did Eichmann have a conscience?

However, the more fundamental question to ask is whether Arendt is
consistent when she attributes a conscience to Eichmann. In her import-
ant 1971 lecture ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ (1971; cited as
TMC), Arendt raises the same set of questions that I quoted from her
‘Introduction’ to Thinking. Immediately preceding her often-cited
question ‘Could the activity of thinking as such . . . be of such a nature
that it “conditions” men against evil-doing?’, she formulates a no less
crucial question, regrettably omitted in her later work: ‘Do the inabil-
ity to think and a disastrous failure of what we commonly call con-
science coincide?’ (TMC, 418).
Now where does this lead us as regards my question about whether
Arendt is consistent in presuming a conscience in Eichmann? Recall her
central claim: Eichmann was thoughtless; ‘mere thoughtlessness’, as
opposed to wickedness of heart, in her view turns out to be at the core
of his evil-doing. The notion about the ‘banality’ of evil as epitomized
by Eichmann follows from this finding.
Return to my question. If thinking and conscience are interdepen-
dent to the point of coinciding; if, in other words, conscience is the by-
product of thinking; then it seems to follow that the absence of the one
must imply the absence of the other. As applied to Eichmann: when
Arendt holds him to be thoughtless, to not-engage in the soundless inner
dialogue called thinking, then she is logically compelled to hold also
that he has no conscience, that no authority of the type termed ‘con-
science’ is operative in him.
If this is correct, it appears that Arendt (and later Villa) is contra-
dicting herself when she attributes his depicted uncompromising attitude
to ‘his very conscience’. Her own premises – i.e. her understanding of
the intimate connection between thinking and conscience – disallows
her (and everyone desiring to follow her) presupposing as a matter of
fact that he had a conscience. Hence it appears that Villa gets it plain
wrong: absence of conscience is what we must assume in Eichmann, if
we are to follow through on Arendt’s own logic.
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
But though logically consistent in this Arendtian sense, is not the
notion suggested here – that Eichmann lacked conscience, and that this
lack perhaps signifies the core of his moral failure – outright implaus-
ible? Doesn’t every individual have a conscience – a conscience of some
sort, that is, be it a courageous and oppositional one (Socrates springs
to mind), or be it a corrupt and conformist one (Mitläufer of all kinds
springing to mind)? In this vein, Villa’s conclusion is that ‘Eichmann’s
case demonstrated how conscience . . . is perverted: it no longer tells
individuals what is right and what is wrong. But neither is it totally
silenced, for it continues to tell people like Eichmann what their
“duty” is’ (Villa, 1999: 45) – the trouble being that the duty in question
entails participating in deeds that are outrageously immoral, and that
the conscience assumed to be operative in Eichmann is unable to
identify them as immoral (again, when judged by our standards, that
Let us examine the common assumption hinted at: that we expect
conscience to sanction resistance against evil, not to condone evil, let
alone encourage or even demand participation in it. Now of course,
once articulated like this, the assumption strikes us as historically
naive: it has been proven empirically wrong in so many cases as to
merit losing its initial plausibility. Indeed, in putting it like this we are
not in virgin territory. In recent history, the tendency to view con-
science as less than heroic, and instead as the moral authority typically
adhered to by those lacking in courage, resolve and life-affirming
vitality, is famously inaugurated by Nietzsche’s account of slave (as
opposed to master) morality. Nietzsche’s contempt of conscience – be
it religious, be it secular, it doesn’t matter – is matched, in fact, by
Hitler’s; Hitler who repeatedly said that conscience is a Jewish inven-
tion, that it advocates pity and softness where unsentimental harsh-
ness is called for, and hence elevated to a salient Nazi virtue, one often
invoked in Himmler’s ‘moral’ rhetoric regarding the extermination of
the Jews. Now Freud, in linking the peculiar authority of conscience
with the superego, which in its turn he understood as the individual’s
internalization of the (normative) standards of behaviour laid down in
his or her society and as typically transmitted to the child by the
parents, formulated what is probably the most widespread notion of
conscience in modern secular society. More recently, a host of authors
writing loosely within a psychoanalytic tradition have been only too
eager to apply this notion of Freud’s to the case of Nazi immorality.
Thus, in their book Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Alexander and Mar-
garete Mitscherlich speak of the Führer as the ‘externalized superego’
and the immensely idealized object of the loyal Nazi. Although such
an externalized superego can succeed in guiding the individual’s inner-
most thoughts and aspirations only insofar as it is being internalized,
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
what is thus internalized, speaking as it were ‘within’ the individual
with the voice of conscience, is a law whose origin is heteronomous
not autonomous, to employ the Kantian distinction. The commands
the individual obeys are not of his own making; they are the commands
addressed to the individual from without – i.e. the Führer as a factu-
ally existing authority and law-maker, an inner-wordly or mundane
one yet standing ‘above’ all other authorities – but qua internalized
they merge with body and mind of the individual at their receiving
end. By investing all their moral energies into the Führer, by seeking
to overcome their impotency by merging with and partaking of the
omnipotency of the Führer, the individual is ‘nothing’, is empty and
astray without him, just as the Führer declares himself as being nothing
without ‘his’ chosen people. A symbiosis of sorts then, albeit an asym-
metrically structured one.
More recently, the Slovenian School associated with Slavoj Žižek
has taken this model a step further. Žižek speaks of the Führer as a
master onto whom the individual deposits his conscience-cum-
superego. This radicalizes the notion of Entlastung upon which the
Mitscherlichs’ study, as well as Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom
before it, were premised. When conscience – its origins as well as its
substantive content, its whence as well as its specific demands – is
deposited in the fashion proposed by Žižek, the individual is its recipi-
ent in the radically passive manner of seeing him- or herself as its mere
executioner. There is less of a need here to identify, to the point of
identity-blurring symbiosis, with the Führer. Rather, what is psychically
in play is the desire of the individual to be the obedient instrument of
the desire (Lacan’s jouissance) of someone else, i.e. the master. On
Žižek’s analysis, the attractiveness of totalitarianism for many of its
most ardent followers consists in precisely this motif: the Führer, in
commanding evil-doing, often of a kind involving self-sacrifice, offers
the individual perpetrator a legalized, positively sanctioned space for a
peculiar sadism – the sadism of experiencing joy by way of enhancing
the joy of the master whose elected victims are now being tracked down
and inflicted pain upon by his loyal followers-cum-instruments.
Choosing to take up a position as a mere instrument for the will of the
Big Other is termed the ‘truly perverse attitude’ by Žižek (1997: 222);
it entails the Sartrean bad faith that ‘it’s not me, doing what comes to
pass; it’s none of my responsibility’. According to Žižek, this is pre-
cisely what is strictly forbidden within Kantian ethics. In this scenario,
the voice of conscience is again effectively that of the master, its
internalized external source. But more radically than in the Mitscher-
lich model, assumption of personal responsibility for the conscience
obeyed is altogether shunned. This individual is a mere instrument from
beginning to end, one never aspiring to any ‘higher’ status.
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
The role of conscience in Being and Time
This psychoanalytically inspired analysis is in fact wholly compatible
with observations made by Arendt (despite her well-known misgivings
about Freud). I wish to bring this out by focusing on three points in
As already noted, the conscience we are dealing with here is proof
of the individual’s heteronomy not autonomy. It inverts the Kantian
notion of conscience in the further respect of presenting the individual
as a mere means (to the ends set by others). Actively put: in making the
ends of a master into his own ends, the individual allows himself to turn
into a mere means in his persecution and eventual killing of persons
who are regarded not as (Kantian) ends in themselves but as mere
means. What results is a double dehumanization, in which that visited
upon the victim is echoed in that self-inflicted by the executioner.
To appreciate how close this is to Arendt’s own analysis, we need
only recall her account of the murder of the moral person in man in
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; cited as OT):
The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous . . . robbed
death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. . . . This attack on the
moral person might still have been opposed by man’s conscience which tells
him that it is better to die a victim than to live as a bureaucrat of murder.
Totalitarian terror achieved its most terrible triumph when it succeeded in
cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making
the decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal. When a
man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his
friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense
responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate
murder of his own family – how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer
between good and evil, but between murder and murder. Who could solve
the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to
choose which of her three children should be killed? Through the creation
of conditions under which conscience ceases to be adequate and to do good
becomes utterly impossible, the consciously organized complicity of all men
in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus
made really total. The SS implicated concentration-camp inmates – crimi-
nals, politicals, Jews – in their crimes by making them responsible for a
large part of the administration, thus confronting them with the hopeless
dilemma whether to send their friends to their death, or to help murder
other men who happened to be strangers, and forcing them, in any event,
to behave like murderers. The point is not only that hatred is diverted from
those who are guilty (the capos were more hated than the SS), but that the
distinguishing line between persecutor and persecuted, between the
murderer and his victim, is constantly blurred. (OT, 452f.)

Arendt is fond of citing David Rousset’s observation that ‘victim

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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
and executioner are alike ignoble; the lesson of the camps is the brother-
hood of abjection’ (OT, 453). One must realize the radicalness of what
is contended here: it belongs to the very logic of totalitarian terror that
today’s executioner may become tomorrow’s elected victim. No one,
regardless of sides taken so far, of merits achieved, of loyalty demon-
strated and sacrifices carried, shall feel safe. Arendt calls this the utmost
proof of the ‘superfluousness of man’ – the total exchangeability and
indispensability of today’s follower as well as today’s victim – which
Nazism on her view starts out ideologically asserting and ends by all
but nearly having made into the truth about human beings.
The second point is closely related to the first. In Willing, the second
volume of The Life of the Mind (1978b; cited as LM, II), Arendt notes
that willing was sometimes understood as the principium individuatio-
nis, the source of the person’s specific identity. Now in her 1971 lecture
as well as in Thinking, Arendt singles out Socrates as the philosopher
par excellence to demonstrate, by example, that conscience – that is,
Socrates’ daimon – can function as the person’s principium individua-
tionis. In staying loyal to what – precisely and emphatically – his daimon
told him, come what may, Socrates has gone down in history as one
who epitomizes conscience, that inner voice, as an authority standing
above and thus, in times of conflict, defying what the many – society
around him, including positive law – hold as right and wrong.
But in Willing Arendt points to another philosopher who, on the
face of it, attributed much the same significance to conscience as did
Socrates (or rather, as we do with reference to Socrates). This philoso-
pher is Heidegger, and the work in question is Being and Time. Arendt
stresses how the self, in that work, ‘becomes manifest in “the voice of
conscience” (“Ruf des Gewissens”), which calls man back from his
everyday entanglement in the “Man” and what conscience, in its call,
discloses as human “guilt”, a word (“Schuld”) that in German means
both being guilty of (responsible for) some deed and having debts in the
sense of owing somebody something’ (LM, II, 184). Arendt explains:

The main point in Heidegger’s ‘idea of guilt’ is that human existence is guilty
to the extent that it ‘factually exists’; it does not ‘need to become guilty of
something through omissions or commissions; [it is only called upon] to
actualize authentically the “guiltiness” which it is anyhow’. . . . The concept
of ‘being thrown into the world’ already implies that human existence owes
its existence to something that it is not itself; by virtue of its very existence
it is indebted: Dasein – human existence inasmuch as it is – ‘has been
thrown; it is there, but not brought into the there (“da”) by itself’. (ibid.)

What conscience demands, then, according to Heidegger, is that the

individual accept his ‘indebtedness’. He who defies the call of conscience
is in effect he who takes himself to be the source of his existence. In
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
actuality, however, existence is given, is thrown at one, is received by
one, in a non-optional, ineluctive manner. Of whom does this remind
us, if not Augustine? What we encounter here is what I shall call
Heidegger’s secularized Augustianism.
To Heidegger, defying and denying man’s indebtedness on the funda-
mental level of existence, of man’s very being-in-the-world, is not the
upshot of hubris, or of the free will man is endowed with (according to
Augustine). Instead, inauthenticity (‘Uneigentlichkeit’) is what causes
the individual to ‘forget’ Being and to remain distracted by the super-
abundance of mere entities. Inauthenticity as the characteristic sign of
what it means to not-hear the ‘cry of conscience’ points to das Man, the
‘them’, the plurality of men, in two directions, as it were: first, in-
authenticity is nourished, sustained and reinforced by the individual’s
membership in and everyday partaking of das Man; second, inauthen-
ticity means that das Man is turned into what is conceived as the only
way to be in the world and to frame, orient and understand one’s being-
in-the-world. The individual exists only in the manner of das Man; das
Man determines his every manner of conceiving his own being – includ-
ing the whence – the ontological source – of that existence, which is
held to be neither some transcendent source (say, a creator God, as in
Augustine) nor the individual himself (which would entail a completely
mundane ontology à la early Sartre). Rather, what constitutes the indi-
vidual according to das Man is something entirely vague, impersonal
and anonymous.
Heidegger’s notion of inauthenticity as the individual Dasein’s aban-
donment to das Man can be regarded as his (again secular) equivalent
to the inner-wordly phenomena and modes of conduct Augustine desig-
nated by the word ‘habit’. Now, whereas in Augustine the life of habit
presupposes and thus manifests the will – the will as precisely a will free
to defy the law of God, man’s creator – in Heidegger the inauthenticity
tantamount to a life in habit reveals not the individual’s capacity for
strong and as it were defiant resolve, but the opposite: it reveals a kind
of decision that is such that the one who makes it conceals its status as
a decision, since to identify with das Man is to enact das Man – i.e. (a)
nobody as distinguished from a somebody in particular.
More important than the differences from Augustine now emerging,
though, are the differences from Socrates. For the fact is that Arendt
finds only Socrates, and not Heidegger, to present us with a valid model
of conscience as a principium individuationis. Why? Arendt states her
reason in the following parenthesis in Willing: ‘It apparently never
occurred to Heidegger that by making all men who listen to the “call
of conscience” equally guilty, he was actually proclaiming universal
innocence: where everybody is guilty, nobody is’ (LM, II, 184).
On the face of it, this objection, principal and general as it is, can
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
easily be made to target Augustine as well as Heidegger. This is so in
the sense that it takes issue with every model of conscience – and by the
same token, of guilt – which introduces and situates ‘guiltiness’ at so
basic a level of man’s existence as to originate in the sheer fact of that
existence as such. Put more simply, if ‘being guilty’ is a predicate, as it
were, of ‘factually existing in the world’, then every human individual
who ever lives, regardless of what he or she thinks and does, must be
deemed equally guilty. It follows that such guilt, call it generic, is clearly
unsuited to function as a principium individuationis, especially so in a
morally and politically relevant manner.
In Sein und Zeit (1979; cited as SZ), Heidegger reinforces this
impression when he focuses on the cry of conscience and on anxiety
(‘Angst’) as experiences which ‘nicht und nie von uns selbst, weder
geplant, noch vorbereitet, noch willentlich vollzogen werden’ (SZ, 275),
but which, for all that, are the experiences without which insight into
the crucial ‘Schuldigsein des Daseins’ is impossible. The cry of con-
science is the privileged access to appreciating one’s (‘Dasein’’s) original
guilt, understood as the ‘Nichtmächtigkeit gegenüber dem eigenen Sein’
(Merker, 1988: 189). In starting out with guiltiness, with guilt as part
of man’s essence (‘Wesen’), Heidegger’s scenario is that of the world
after the Fall, that is to say, a world in which authenticity can be attained
only by way of negating what is given. The cry of conscience thus has
the function of awakening individual Dasein from its factual inauthen-
ticity, as if from a deep sleep. So instead of inauthenticity prevailing as
the result of authenticity having been negated, it is the other way round.
Though there may have been a haven, and a universal innocence, prior
to this all-pervading guilt and inauthenticity that we now are in the
midst of (‘das Man’ as Heidegger’s secularized post-Fall human con-
dition), such a state is only in abstracto, a kind of ‘Ursprungsmythos’
without existential relevance. What counts is that authenticity requires
a conversion from what is, meaning from what we all equally are.
But there is more. Arendt’s terse yet sharp remark that ‘where every-
body is guilty, nobody is’ is worth dwelling upon – not only in its own
right but especially so in the context of discussing Heidegger. Readers
of Arendt will know that this is the very remark she was to reiterate
again and again when commenting on the Nazi regime in general and
the Holocaust in particular. To those who proclaimed that all Germans
– or less crudely, all Nazis – were equally guilty, she objected that in
that case, nobody is. To her, collective guilt is a non-starter when it
comes to understanding, not to mention punishing, the crimes in
question. However, the real thrust of her objection cuts deeper. Arendt
was convinced that in holding (all members of) a collective to be guilty,
those eager to condemn totalitarian crimes in fact unwittingly echoed
and cognitively repeated the very logic producing those crimes in the
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
first place. Elsewhere, I have analysed this (genocidal) logic in terms of
collectivizing the notion of human agency, including the notions of
responsibility and guilt (Vetlesen, 2000). The basic fault with the offered
reasoning consists in locating the category of guilt at a level presumably
preceding the level of individually made decisions and actions. Accord-
ing to Nazi (or Stalinist) logic, all Jews (or kulaks) are equally guilty.
Guilt here designates collectively as opposed to individually, be it by
reference to race or class (or, today, ethnicity). What is effaced here in
theory is only too likely to be later effaced spritually and physically: the
distinctiveness of the human individual, associated by Arendt with every
man’s natality, every individual’s capacity to begin something new in the
It may be said that there is a place for genuine individuality in
Heidegger’s notion of conscience. Individuality in its emphatic quality
is manifested in the how, that is to say, in the particular way in which
an individual, as opposed to others, chooses to relate to a guilt which
is common to all individuals because it is at a generic level (the level of
existence pure and simple). Indeed, in putting it like this we may identify
a notion of individuality, as well as of authenticity, shared by religious
and secular (or outspokenly atheistic) philosophies alike: in Kierke-
gaard, say, each individual will relate to his indebtedness to God in his
own distinct manner; in Sartre, say, each individual will relate to his
(generic) predicament as a being whose ‘existence precedes its essence’.
While doubtless true, this rejoinder will not satisfy Arendt. The indi-
viduality she is after is not to be confined to the level – or area – of
relating-to; i.e. to something given, and given in the same basic way to
each and everyone, at that. For Arendt, not only the how but also the
what of that which guilt is taken to be about, to refer back to, has to
be something truly of the single individual’s own making: something he
or she has brought about him- or herself, as opposed to something given;
something that could have been otherwise, but which is brought into
the world by way of the human capacity for action. When it comes to
what constitutes individuality, what makes it into a morally relevant
category, there is no prior or deeper level – say, an ontological one – to
that constituted by Aristotelian–Arendtian praxis. To put it a bit too
simply: whereas Heidegger locates individuality, and indeed freedom, at
the level of being, Arendt locates these notions on the level of action.
The difference is seminal. When Dana Villa, in his very fine book Arendt
and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political, argues that Heidegger’s
advocacy of ‘thinking freedom existentially and ontologically’, that is,
‘as a “mode of being” rather than as a capacity of the subject’, is part
of what Arendt took over, or rather appropriated, from Heidegger, I
think he is wrong (see Villa, 1996: 118f.). Freedom – as well as the series
of capacities flowing from it, judging and acting in particular – is a
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
capacity of the subject on Arendt’s view, with the Hegelian qualification
that the subject be seen as constituted from the very first by its partaking
of intersubjective relations.
This takes us to the third point I wish to make. Once we say guilt,
once we assume the existence of guilt in some individual, we implicitly
assume a conscience. A ‘bad conscience’ is the paradigm, so to speak,
of declared guilt; the latter is facilitated by the former. I take this to hold
for both religious and secular/atheistic metaphysical outlooks; con-
science and guilt are not the prerogatives of the former.

Arendt’s advocacy of the Socratic model of conscience

Having established this, we are ready to discuss the specific feature of
Socrates’ model anticipated above. In Thinking, Arendt makes a dis-
tinction between two types of conscience. She observes that ‘It took
language a long time to separate the word “consciousness” from “con-
science”. . . . Conscience, as we understand it in moral or legal matters,
is supposedly always present within us, just like consciousness’ (LM, I,
190). She then continues: ‘Unlike this ever-present conscience, the fellow
Socrates is talking about has been left at home; he fears him . . . as some-
thing that is absent. . . . This conscience, unlike the voice of God within
us or the lumen naturale, gives no positive prescriptions (even the
Socratic daimon, his divine voice, only tells him what not to do); in
Shakespeare’s words “it fills a man full of obstacles” ’ (ibid.).
The Socratic type of conscience identified here is noteworthy for the
crucial characteristic it shares with what Arendt elsewhere emphasizes
about thinking – that is to say, for its sheer negativity, its posing a not,
a Neinsagen, instead of issuing positive prescriptions in the sense of
telling us what to do. ‘Thinking as such’ is ‘out of order’, writes Arendt
in her 1971 lecture, citing Heidegger (TMC, 424). Thinking is result-
less by nature. The consequence is that ‘thinking inevitably has a
destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values,
measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of
conduct we treat of in morals and ethics’ (TMC, 434). Instead of guiding
our action, thinking paralyses it; as the saying has it, we stop and think,
thinking being so demanding, so transcending of what is at hand, what
is present thanks to our senses, as to effectively interrupt all other
activities and undo all achievements, question all established certainties.
Though quite possible, a life without thinking, according to Arendt, ‘is
not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers’ (LM, I, 191).
This last remark immediately takes us back to Eichmann. What
Eichmann lacked beyond the shade of doubt, is conscience of the type
epitomized in Socrates. His lack of such conscience dovetails with his
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
lack of thinking; the two lacks are inseparable. Thus it is that Arendt,
true to these premises, was so struck in the Jerusalem court with
Eichmann’s conspicuous lack of spontaneity, of life, of being real and
alive in a basic human sense. It is as though his entire life had been lived
devoid of the quality of negativity in the sense brought out in the above
account of thinking and conscience. His had been a life ‘framed’ by
positivity, by loyalty to positivity. Unlike the Kantian moral law, which
in the standard Hegelian critique is castigated for its ‘formalism’, its
emptiness and indeterminacy, the laws, rules and instructions by which
Eichmann lived and to which he continued clinging long after doing so
became dysfunctional, were always of a kind telling him what to do.
Hence the laws by which Eichmann lived disallowed for phronesis, the
act of judgment by which the agent endeavours to bring what is formal
and indeterminate to bear upon what is concrete and particular, namely
the situation at hand. In the Nazi universe, by contrast, such mediation-
by-judgment is effectively foreclosed. The subversive power of negation,
of doubting, of questioning, are all conspicuous by their absence. In
Arendtian terms, the faculty of judgment is inoperative because the
individuals its exercise presupposes are virtually non-existent. The
faculty of judgment is eminently precarious in this historical-political
Admittedly, if our conclusion after our long discussion is only – and
simply – that Eichmann was a man without conscience in the Socratic
sense, disappointment may arise. Is this all there is to it? Doesn’t this
conclusion only confirm what we expected right from the start?
There is more to it. To see what, we need to make a final return to
David Luban’s thesis, we recall, is that Eichmann is a figure ‘straight
out of Being and Time’. Eichmann, ‘wrapped in his protective shell of
bureaucratic euphemism and jargon’, confirms the idea – found in
Augustine and then in Heidegger – that ‘sin arises from habit rather
than passion’ (BE, 10). Eichmann epitomizes what it means to ‘seek
security’ for his existence by devoting himself – or abandoning himself
– so thoroughly to ‘everyday routines’ that he never starts to conceive
and enact his possibilities of being-in-the-world in an authentic way.
On the basis of my discussion above, I do not find this part of
Luban’s thesis invalid. What I nevertheless (still) question, is his twofold
implication that Arendt may have been inspired by Heidegger’s analysis
of das Man and of the public sphere no less than by Augustine’s expla-
nation of evil as springing from habit rather than from passion (Arendt’s
‘wickedness of heart’), and that Arendt would agree with him (Luban)
that Heidegger’s analysis in Being and Time is to be regarded as a valid
understanding of evil – or more to the point, of how evil-doing comes
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
As I said earlier on, it may be the case that Heidegger exerted as
powerful an influence upon Arendt in the relevant parts of her disser-
tation as did its explicit topic, the thought of Augustine. However, the
issue I wish to take with Luban’s thesis is not primarily concerned with
this interpretatory matter. It has to do with whether Heidegger can
possibly be held to have offered what in Arendt’s view is a valid analysis
of the conditions under which evil-doing takes place. (It is worth noting
here that Heidegger, in Being and Time, nowhere talks about evil as
such; the connection made here between habit and what Heidegger
might have said about evil, rests upon an interpretive extrapolation on
Luban’s part. That said, Heidegger’s non-talking about evil is very much
part of Arendt’s enduring problem with him.)
I have already mentioned one reason for holding Luban to be
mistaken. This is the remark of Arendt’s to the effect that it is funda-
mentally wrong-headed – not to mention politically and legally danger-
ous – to speak of guilt in a generic (collectivized) sense, as opposed to
a sense that from the very beginning views guilt as a matter of a distinct
individual’s doing something he ought not have done (or not doing some-
thing he ought to have done). Clearly the notion of guilt developed in
Being and Time, referring as it does back to man’s indebtedness to his
very existence as something given prior to any act flowing from his inten-
tionality and volition, is a notion of guilt at what Arendt would deem
a pre-individual level, one prior to or ‘deeper’ than ethics, morals and
politics. Now the latter, of course, are precisely what matters for Arendt.
Someone may retort that Heidegger, especially the early one pri-
marily intended in Luban’s thesis, is an existentialist, and that, as part
of that outlook, what he has to say about ‘care’ (‘Sorge’) and ‘res-
oluteness’ (‘Entschlossenheit’) and the like must be understood in an
emphatically individualist manner.
My answer is that this does not help. To the extent that it is true,
interpretatively speaking, the individualism referred to in early
Heidegger is of a kind Arendt unequivocally disagrees with. When we
realize this, we are much closer to seeing why – on my reading –
Heidegger’s analysis of das Man and the public sphere on Arendt’s view
leads us astray when it comes to understanding the nature of evil and
The book of Arendt’s most relevant here is The Origins of Totali-
tarianism. Arendt writes:
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relation-
ships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all
relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have
lost contact with their fellow-men as well as the reality around them; for
together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and
thought. (OT, 474)
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
All thinking . . . is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and
myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the
world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom
I lead the dialogue of thought. The problem of solitude is that this two-in-
one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable indi-
vidual whose identity can never be mistaken for that of any other. For the
confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people; and it is
the great saving grace of companionship for solitary men that it makes
them ‘whole’ again, saves them from the dialogue of thought in which one
remains always equivocal, restores the identity which makes them speak
with the single voice of one unexchangeable person. (OT, 476)

Two statements in particular are decisive for my argument. First,

ideological thinking of the kind chacteristic of totalitarian Nazism or
Stalinism is held by Arendt to succeed ‘when people have lost contact
with their fellow-men as well as the reality around them; for together
with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and
thought’ (OT, 474). In a totalitarian society, permeated by a terror which
renders everyone insecure, experience and thinking are undermined to
such a degree as to become effectively impossible. For want of these fac-
ulties, and by implication of conscience à la Socrates as a by-product of
the inner dialogue of thinking, individuals become incapable of thinking,
judging and acting for themselves, in a fashion expressing their unique
individuality and manifesting their natality, their quality as beginners in
the world. As Arendt stresses, man’s spontaneity is the crux of what total-
itarian domination strives to eliminate. Now this is what may come to
pass, says Arendt, when ‘people have lost contact with their fellow-men
as well as the reality around them’. There are two ways of designating
the two objects of this contact in Arendt: most of the time, she locates
it in the public sphere, understood as the social arena where individuals
come forward before an audience to be recognized in their uniqueness,
to have their words remembered and their deeds retold after the speaker
and actor him- or herself has passed away. Thus phrased, the historic
model Arendt alludes to is that of the polis, of course. However, notably
in The Human Condition, Arendt developes a somewhat different model
to make much of the same point. In that work she speaks about ‘the
common world’, the peculiarly human world set up ‘between’ men and
nature, as it were, as that Zwischenbereich which comprises the spiritual
as well as artefactual (‘gegenständliche’) products of men’s activities in
the world. The always-already-begun and always-continuing process
whereby the multitudes of men existing on earth contribute to erecting
and maintaining a common world between them, is a process in which
what is in reality an ‘artificial’ (meaning thoroughly man-made) world
gains temporal permanence and a cognitive solidity or objectivity. The
common world is indispensable for man’s ability to orient himself in his
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
existence; from it, every individual will draw the resorces by means of
which he or she creates his or her meaning(s), values, beliefs.
The Hegelianism (‘objective spirit’) implicit in Arendt’s notion of
the common world is, to my knowledge, never mentioned in her work.
No wonder, considering how critical she was of Hegel, especially in
matters of political philosophy and Geschichtsphilosophie. I shall not
be going into that (see Vetlesen, 1995). For my present argument, it
suffices to point out the importance of her notions of the public world
and the common world as the two principal places in her thinking where
she fleshes out her assertion that ‘for the confirmation of my identity I
depend entirely upon other people’ (OT, 476). This is the second state-
ment of hers that I find unmistakably Hegelian in spirit. In terms of a
general philosophical position, what these statements testify to is
Arendt’s version of intersubjectivist theory of selfhood and identity,
indeed even of thinking and judgment. The latter two, as well as con-
science, are not faculties of the mind which belong to each and every
human being independently of historical circumstance; rather, these are
precarious faculties, operative in the individual only when historic and
socio-political conditions permit them to be developed – as was brought
out so dramatically in the event of totalitarianism. Nor are the faculties
in question to be conceived of in an individualist manner, as belonging
to the individual as such, presupposing only that he or she – in exis-
tentialist manner – is ready to listen to the call of conscience so as to
view and enact his or her possibilities of being-in-the-world emphati-
cally, meaning authentically, as his or her own – that is to say, as
received from and formulated by no one else, especially not das Man.
My allusion to Heidegger explicates the point that I am driving at:
what in Heidegger is presented as the arena where habit flourishes,
where inauthenticity reigns, and where evil-doing finds its social basis
(Luban’s thesis), is in Arendt the exact opposite – namely, the sphere
where individuals are constituted as individuals überhaupt capable of
thinking and judging, thus of developing and displaying the faculties
required for resisting and opposing evil and evil-doing.
Of course, the issue is more complicated. Arendt was struck by
Eichmann’s apparent craving for a ‘secure existence’ and by his trying,
to the point of obsession and at the cost of appearing ridiculous to
others, ‘to make everything routine’, to cite the features Luban high-
lights in Heidegger’s account of das Man. At this point, however, caution
is called for. Categorial levels and conceptual differences are involved
here that need to be separated, but which tend to be blurred in Luban.
The chief mistake is to render Heidegger’s notions of das Man and
Öffentlichkeit identical with the public sphere, with the social arena
where individuals meet, talk and interact. The second mistake is to render
the inauthentic mode of Dasein’s being-in-the-world into the mode of
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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
being that, by conceptual definition, characterizes the activities located
within the public sphere. Put in concrete terms with respect to Eichmann:
Eichmann did examplify a craving for a secure existence, an obsessional
clinging to routines, and the like. Yet his having done evil does not mean
– or prove – that ausgerechnet these behavioral features of his are what
made him do evil, are what in some causal sense help to explain his doing
evil. Furthermore, the features in question do not necessarily refer us to
the public sphere. True, the features may be fostered in some type of
public sphere – for instance, that formed by Eichmann’s (Nazi) col-
leagues, in this type of environment and at this specific point in history,
in Germany – but not in the public sphere as such. There are many public
spheres, many arenas of social exchange and Mitsein, some of which may
foster inauthenticity among their participants, while others will not. The
connection made by Heidegger and unquestioned at this point of Luban’s
thesis, namely between public sphere and inauthenticity, is not a neces-
sary one; it is made by Heidegger’s conceptual fiat, presumably as part
of his conservative Kulturkritik of contemporary mass society.
As I read Arendt, her position entails a claim that Heidegger errs
on two sides, as it were. On the negative side, Heidegger is wrong to
associate or even identify inauthenticity with das Man, and das Man
with what in Being and Time is left standing as Öffentlichkeit per se,
for lack of alternative notions of public sphere and social exchange, ones
with which an authentic mode of being Dasein, of enacting Mitsein,
may be associated. On the positive side, Heidegger is wrong to associ-
ate or even identify the path to developing an authentic mode of being
Dasein with the individual’s resolve to renounce the entire series of
social phenomena, values and opinions – dismissively summed up by
Heidegger as the ‘idle talk’ typical of das Man – that he associates with
the public sphere. Even when viewed on its more immanent premises,
the notion of Sorge as Dasein’s worry or concern with itself, as taking
care of itself in an authentic manner, especially in the face of death, is
too restrictedly individualist to satisfy Arendt; it conceives only of
responsibility for oneself, not for others. In conclusion, then,
Heidegger’s two mistakes appear as complementary: he has failed to
identify successfully where and why the threat to authenticity arises; and
he has failed to identify successfully where and why the conditions fos-
tering authenticity arise.
If Heidegger is (doubly) mistaken, what would it take to get the con-
nections right? To make a long answer into a very short one, the view
I take to be advocated by Arendt is that the basic philosophical – or
philosopher’s – mistake in this area consists in framing the issue as one
of an either/or. Either one wholly affirms the solitary path, that of
developing authenticity, responsibility and the like by way of leaving the
mass and its noise behind (in more or less Nietzschean style); or one
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
relinquishes the model of solitariness altogether and affirms a mode of
existence that is social, meaning intersubjectively structured (Hegel)
from beginning to end. The remarkable thing about Arendt is that she
rejects both alternatives. For her, no such either/or is involved. Instead,
what is required of the individual is that he or she, by trial and error,
develop his or her peculiar modus vivendi between the two, that is to
say, the optimal balance to be attained in a life of going back and forth,
again and again, between the silence of the inner dialogue that one is,
and where the voice of Socratic conscience has a prospect of being heard
and heeded, and the noise emanating from the public(s) formed by the
plurality of men, i.e. those others necessary for the single individual’s
ability to know who he or she is. That precisely no one can do by relying
only on purely inner or subjective (re)sources. Standing up against evil
– even the evil performed by all of society around one – is something
the single individual does, or fails to do. Yet it takes social resources in
general and an intersubjectively formed identity in particular to become
someone capable of standing up for what one stands for.
To those who, in the course of my discussion, have entertained the
thought that the solitariness of Socrates, Arendt’s positive model for a
conscience capable of resisting evil, is echoed in the solitariness of the
authentic Dasein of Heidegger, so that a striking similarity is found
where my argument would disallow it, it must be recalled that Socrates’
path to finding out what he stood for, though at the end of the day
ending in a solitary gesture of defiance of society around him, was from
beginning to end a path finding its direction by way of endless encoun-
ters and profound dialogues with others. If anything, it was a social
path to what wound up as a solitary position. Though impressive
beyond comparison as a historic model, the precisely historic example
of Socrates should not tempt us to draw false philosophical conclusions.
Socrates’ ought not to be taken to represent a necessary predicament.
The almost complete corruption of society, of the many, which
Heidegger, without argument (and in that sense unphilosophically),
makes into a philosophical axiom about society and the many, spelling
the Verfallenheit of das Man, should instead be understood as a his-
torical and contingent matter, one determined by the actions of men;
men in the affirmative Arendtian plural. Sometimes the individual is evil,
and at odds with surrounding society on the grounds of that evil. And
sometimes the individual resists evil, and is in conflict with society on
the grounds of that resistance. There is no conceptual, let alone a priori
one-to-one, connection between the two.
Department of Philosophy, University of Oslo, Norway

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Philosophy & Social Criticism 27 (5)
The following abbreviations for works listed in this bibliography occur in the text:

BE = ‘Banal Evil and Radical Evil’; Luban, 1997

CG = City of God; Augustine, 1984
EJ = Eichmann in Jerusalem; Arendt, 1963
EU = Essays in Understanding; Arendt, 1994
LAS = Love and Saint Augustine; Arendt, 1996
LM, I = The Life of the Mind, Vol. I; Arendt, 1978a
LM, II = The Life of the Mind, Vol. II; Arendt, 1978b
NA = Nach Auschwitz; Arendt, 1989
OT = The Origins of Totalitarianism; Arendt, 1951
SZ = Sein und Zeit; Heidegger, 1979
TMC = ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’; Arendt, 1971

Arendt, Hannah (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt.

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.
Arendt, Hannah (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking.
Arendt, Hannah (1971) ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’, Social Research
38: 417–46.
Arendt, Hannah (1978a) The Life of the Mind, Vol. I, Thinking. London: Secker
& Warburg.
Arendt, Hannah (1978b) The Life of the Mind, Vol. II, Willing. London: Secker
& Warburg.
Arendt, Hannah (1989) Nach Auschwitz. Berlin: Tiamat.
Arendt, Hannah (1994) Essays in Understanding 1930–1954, ed. J. Kohn. New
York: Harcourt.
Arendt, Hannah (1996) Love and Saint Augustine, ed. J. V. Scott and J. C. Stark.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Augustine (1984) City of God. Harmondsworth, Mx: Penguin.
Bagge Laustsen, Carsten (1998) ‘Sagen Eichmann. Om ondskap, totalitarisme
og etik’. Århus.
Freud, Sigmund (1984) On Metapsychology. Harmondsworth, Mx: Pelican.
Fromm, Erich (1960) Escape from Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Heidegger, Martin (1979) Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
Luban, David (1997) ‘Banal Evil and Radical Evil’. Unpublished manuscript.
Merker, Barbara (1988) Selbsttäuschung und Selbsterkenntnis. Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp.
Mitscherlich, Alexander and Mitscherlich, Margarete (1967) Die Unfähigkeit
zu trauern. Munich: Piper.
Scott, Joanna V. and Stark, Judith C. (1996) ‘Interpretive Essay: Rediscovering
Hannah Arendt’, in Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine. Chicago,
IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 115–212.
Vetlesen, Arne Johan (1994) Perception, Empathy, and Judgment. University
Park, PA: Penn State Press.
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Vetlesen: Hannah Arendt on conscience and evil
Vetlesen, Arne Johan (1995) ‘Hannah Arendt, Habermas, and the Republican
Tradition’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 21(1): 1–20.
Vetlesen, Arne Johan (2000) ‘Genocide: a Case for the Responsibility of the
Bystander’, Journal of Peace Research 37(4): 519–32.
Villa, Dana (1996) Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press.
Villa, Dana (1999) Politics, Philosophy, Terror. Essays on the Thought of
Hannah Arendt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Žižek, Slavoj (1997) The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso.