Hannah Arendt and Banality

There is something about the word banal. I just find myself liking the way it feels in my head, on my tongue. Banal – for an ordinary, common, cliché, overworked, overused, kind of word, there is just something about banal that feels fresh, original and interesting to me. But that probably has to do with my earliest substantive encounter with banal. I was introduced to the word through Hannah Arendt, and her use of the phrase “the banality of evil.”

Hannah was a Jewish German born political theorist. She escaped Europe during the Holocaust and became an American citizen. Her theoretical work dealt with the nature of power, democracy, authority and totalitarianism.

In 1961 she was working for the New Yorker, and was sent to observe the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her observations and reporting evolved into the book: “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil.”  That was where she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” In the book she wondered if evil is always intentional, or if perhaps some people thoughtlessly obey orders or follow group opinions without critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inactions, none the less, leading to the perpetration of evil in the world.

Here are two of the many quotes from Hannah that resonate for me

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

So, for all of this? Let us always remember to be awake, to be aware, to think about the long and short term implications of our everyday actions. What we do, what we choose to do, it all makes a difference. Life lived fully, life lived well is anything but banal.

 

 

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