Much of Hannah Arendt’s late writing can be read as an attempt to formulate a positive answer to the question she poses at the beginning of The Life of the Mind, her last, unfinished book: “Could the activity of thinking as such . . . be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”1 As Arendt tells it, what had prompted her interest in the relation between thinking and evil was the experience of observing Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Here was a man whose monstrousness, she famously and controversially concluded, was the result not of sadism or stupidity but of his unmitigated thoughtlessness, his inability to think with and for himself. The most conspicuous evidence for this debility, according to Arendt, was the “macabre comedy” of Eichmann’s language, a dull procession of “clichés, stock phrases, [and] standardized codes of expression,” whose primary function seems to have been to shield their producer from any genuine contact with reality.2 To watch the former SS officer respond to his Israeli interrogators, she writes, was to see a man waging a “heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeats him”—a spectacle that would have been comical if it were not for the horrors that it bespoke.3 For Eichmann’s “inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think,” which, in turn, is what made him into such an efficient cog in the Nazi machine.4 This ludicrous bureaucrat, who always said the same things using the same words, was, for Arendt, the embodiment of the banality of evil.
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