Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hanna Arendt’s essay Truth and Politics. Together with George Orwell’s 1984, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism published in 1951, has experienced a comeback after the arrival of Trump and his suite of alt facts.
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born in Germany, she fled the country during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In 1961, Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the organisers of the Holocaust. Arendt was struck by the fact that Eichmann was not a menacing monster.
The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.
Arendt realized that Eichmann discredited the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from “normal” people. She sparked controversy with her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She was even accused of blaming the victims.
The banality of evil is not, according to Arendt, that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us. Arendt thought his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional. She did not denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, nor that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity.
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.
Though not exactly Arendt’s point, many concluded that situations such as the Holocaust can make even the most ordinary of people commit horrendous crimes with the proper incentives. In fact, the banality of evil, the prospect of a monster hiding inside all us, is both dreadful and seductive.
In our age of complex bureaucracies, so much cruelty is simply the result of normal, everyday, “real” people doing what they think is most pragmatic. As the philosopher Bernard Williams said, “the modern world…has made evil, like other things, a collective enterprise.”
Truth and Politics came at a time when Arendt was still being criticised for Eichmann in Jerusalem, and I assume, Arendt herself was well aware that truth is often, if not always, annoying when she wrote it:
Throughout history, the truth-seekers and truthtellers have been aware of the risks of their business;
Because those who force their fellow-citizens out of falsehood and illusion will be in danger of his life:
“If they could lay hands on [such a] man . . . they would kill him,” Plato says in the last sentence of the cave allegory.
Arendt reflects about the opposite, irreconcilable interests of politics and truth.
Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, because it has little indeed to contribute to that change of the world and of circumstances which is among the most legitimate political activities
Truth carries within itself an element of coercion. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change. Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. Unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. In their stubbornness, facts are superior to power.
Truth, though powerless and always defeated in a head-on clash with the powers that be, possesses a strength of its own: whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it. And this applies to rational or religious truth just as it applies, more obviously, to factual truth.
Reading the essay today, 50 years later, you realise that 50 years is nothing. Although we usually like to see and describe our society progressing at furious speed, some things do change very little, or nothing. One of them is truth, the inconvenience of truth, the banality of truth.
Featured Image: Hannah Arendt. Detail of a painting by Werner Horvath