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Defining Evil Away: Arendt's Forgiveness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Abigail L. Rosenthal*
Brooklyn College of The City University of New York


Arendt claims that evil is banal and its perpetrators merely shallow. Deliberate evil she takes to be extremely rare. However, nonrare examples of deliberate evil, whose aim is to spoil one's story, abound in everyday life. Arendt also makes forgiveness personal, not requiring repentance. This prompts a consideration of certain personal relations among philosophers. Heidegger's relation to Husserl shows a betrayal of teacher by student. His seductive and philosophic power over Arendt, a betrayal of student by teacher, should not be dismissed in terms of reductive Freudian notions. Faced with a real feminine predicament, Arendt made the wrong choices: in her exoneration of Heidegger, her report on the Eichmann trial, and her exculpatory doctrine of evil.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011

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1 Arendt, Hannah, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ (1971) in Kohn, J. (ed.) Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003)Google Scholar, 159.

2 Rosenthal, Abigail L., A Good Look at Evil (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987)Google Scholar, 163–80, 189–207. A relevant subsection, anthologized as ‘The Right Way to Act: Indicting the Victims’, can also be found in Rosenberg, A. and Meyers, G.E. (eds.) Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988)Google Scholar, and Gottlieb, R.S. (ed.) Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

3 Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1964)Google Scholar.

4 Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, Second Edition with an Introduction by Canovan, Margaret, 1998)Google Scholar.

5 On the Yale electric shock experiments, see Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974)Google Scholar. On the Stanford Prison experiments, see Zimbardo, Philip, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Bad (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008)Google Scholar.

6 Arendt, The Human Condition, 240.

7 Quoted in Maier-Katkin, Daniel, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)Google Scholar, 135. Maier-Katkin's source is Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correspondence, 1926–1969, eds. Kohler, Lotte and Saner, Hans; tr. Kimber, and Kimber, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992)Google Scholar.

8 Arendt, The Human Condition, 240–43.

9 The biographer of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Hitler regime, reports, ‘There were days when he was overcome by what he later called his “accidie, tristitia, with all its menacing consequences.” … His own power to control and influence others shocked him.’ Eberhand Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography tr. Mosbacherb, Ross, Clarke and Glen-Doepel (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1970Google Scholar; Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2000), 506. A different example of the self-subverting power of success is in E. M. Forster's charming Room With A View. Lucy, the novel's heroine, has finally succeeded in breaking off her engagement to a foppish young man. But she does so on a pretense and soon feels the captive of her pretense. ‘It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words.’ Room with a View, (Cassia Press, 2009)Google Scholar, 143.

10 Arendt, ‘Shadows’, in Ludz, Ursula (ed.), Letters: 1925–1975, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger tr. Shields, Andrew (New York: Harcourt Inc., 2004Google Scholar; Briefe 1925–1975, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1998Google Scholar), 15f.

11 Arendt, ‘Some Questions of Moral Philosophy’, (1965–66) in J. Kohn (ed.) Responsibility and Judgment, 90–97.

12 Arendt, The Human Condition, 24l, and ‘Some Questions of Moral Philosophy’, op. cit. 73f, 125f.

13 Arendt, The Human Condition, 237, 241.

14 Seventh Letter 324.

15 Phaedrus 277.

16 Nicomachean Ethics 1096a.

17 Spiegelberg, Herbert, The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, vol. one (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 77, 277. Heidegger also claimed that Brentano's The Manifold Meaning of Being, given to him at the age of eighteen, significantly influenced his development as a philosopher. See Farias, Victor, Heidegger and Nazism tr. Burrell, and Ricci, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989Google Scholar), 18.

18 Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad 67f. Husserl's crucial support for Heidegger in his previous appointment as associate professor at the university of Marburg is detailed in Farias, Heidegger and Nazism 57–60. With Husserl's backing as ‘his most valuable assistant’, Heidegger taught for five years at Marburg, starting in 1923. But not before ‘the publication of Being and Time in Husserl's Jahrbuch in 1927 did the ministry agree to Heidegger's appointment [as associate professor].’ When Heidegger left Marburg to take the professorship of philosophy at Freiburg, from which Husserl had just retired, the Marburg faculty pressed him to stay. ‘The principal argument he gave was that his master, Husserl, had requested his collaboration in pursuing research together.’ Farias notes that he has ‘been unable to reconstruct the precise circumstances of Heidegger's return to the faculty at Freiburg because the relevant papers are not accessible. But we can assume that Husserl strongly supported Heidegger's return.’ Ibid. 68.

19 My account of the political context in which Heidegger was named Rector is drawn from Farias, who appears to have painstakingly assembled the available pieces of evidence, (Heidegger and Nazism, 83–86). The ceremony of his investiture, and the place of the Rector's Address in the spectrum of approaches to the nazification of the university is also described in Farias, (Ibid. 96–112).

20 Ibid. 118f.

21 Maier-Katkin, Stranger From Abroad 97, where Arendt is also quoted as writing to Jaspers, ‘signed by anyone else, Husserl would have been indifferent and could have risen above it; but as it came over Heidegger's signature it almost killed him.’

22 Arendt, letter #116, containing her public tribute to Heidegger, in Letters, 148–63, 151. In an earlier-published English version, ‘Martin Heidegger at Eighty’, tr. Albert Hofstadter, it appeared in the New York Review of Books, October 21, 1971.

23 For a fine-grained evaluation of this fact, see Lang, Berel, Heidegger's Silence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

24 The range of philosophers' opinions in the Heidegger controversy is surveyed in Lang, Heidegger's Silence, 86–90; in Tom Rockmore and Joseph Margolis' foreward to Farias, Heidegger and Nazism, and most recently, in Tom Rockmore's forward to Faye, Emmanuel, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933–1935, tr. Smith, Michael B. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009Google Scholar; Heidegger, l'introduction du Nazism dans la philosophie, Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 2005)Google Scholar.

25 See Lang, Heidegger's Silence, 95–100.

26 Arendt, Letters, 160.

27 The view that Heidegger was a Nazi before he was a philosopher, and that his philosophy is only his Nazism decked out in obscure coinages, is urged most strongly in Faye, op. cit. n. 24, 12–30, 65, 74, 92, 149, 243f, 287, 291ff.

28 Wyschogrod, Michael, The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (New York: The Seabury Press, 1983), 152160Google Scholar.

29 Heidegger, Martin, ‘What is Metaphysics’ in Krell, D. Farrell (ed. & trans.), Basic Writings, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993)Google Scholar, 103. Originally a lecture given June 24, 1929, the German publication of Was ist Metaphysik is in Heidegger, Wegmarken (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1967). In Krell, ‘Das Nichts selbst nichtet’ is translated, ‘The nothing itself nihilates’.

30 Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith, 159.

31 Cf. Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith, 156 and Andrea Dworkin who describes intercourse as the inherently asymmetric act by which the woman ‘is occupied, physically, internally, in her privacy.’ Quoted in Rhoads, Steven E., Taking Sex Differences Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004)Google Scholar, 111.

32 Martin Heidegger, letter #1, in Letters, 3.

33 Arendt, letter # 89, ibid. 124.

34 Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. Liliane Weissberg (ed.), Winston and Winston (trans), (Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins Paperbacks Edition, 2000; Leo Baeck Institute 1957), 5. The study was published in English after the war, but also submitted as Arendt's Habilitation thesis in a claim against the West German government that she began in 1957 and was finally successful on appeal in 1971. At that time, she was awarded the title of professor of philosophy, retroactive to July 1, 1933 with reparations. Introduction, 39–41.

35 Arendt, ibid., quoted from Arendt's first sketch of the project, March 24, 1930, Weissberg's Introduction, 31. Weissberg's source is Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correspondence.

36 Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen, 123.

37 See Trilling, Lionel, Sincerity and Authenticity: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1969–1970 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, Harvard Paperback, 1974), 131ff, 138, 140–159Google Scholar; also Williams, Bernard, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, 189ff, 200, 204f. Some of the blinders that can be worn with this view of authenticity are noted in Rosenthal, Abigail L., ‘Moral Competence and Bernard Williams’, Philosophy 81 (2006): 255–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Barnes, Hazel E. (trans.) (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956)Google Scholar, 55f.

39 Rhoads, Taking Sex Difference Seriously, 105–108.

40 Maier-Katkin, Stranger From Abroad, 170ff.

41 Ettinger, Elzbieta, Hannah Arendt Martin Heidegger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)Google Scholar, 29.

42 Ibid. 45, quoted from a March, 1951 letter by Arendt to Jaspers.

43 Letter to Mary McCarthy quoted in Maier-Katkin, Stranger From Abroad, 277; interview with Günter Gaus quoted in Weissberg's Introduction to Rahel Varnhagen, 25.