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Ursula Ludz Arendt’s Observations and Thoughts on Ethical Questions HANNAH ARENDT WROTE THAT AFTER AUSCHWITZ “THE PROBLEM of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe,” just as death became the fundamental question after World War I (Arendt, 1994b: 134).* The extent to which this assertion went against the grain of the dominant philosophical discipline of “ethics” can be judged by a recently published book by Wilhelm Vossenkuhl (2006), professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, entitled The Possibility ofthe Good: Ethics in the 21st Century. The first sentence reads: “All questions of ethics are accompanied by two closely related ques­ tions: what is the good, and how is it possible to achieve the good in the context of a good life” (Vossenkuhl, 2006; translations in this paper from the German for which no English editions were available are the author’s). No mention ofthe evil here, not even in the index. As is widely known, Arendt was concerned little with the interests of professional philosophers. She had her own agenda, and this agenda with regard to ethics or moral philosophy is the subject of this essay. I It was in 1944-1945, in a review of Denis de Rougemont’s book The Devil’s Share in Partisan Review, that Arendt expressed her belief that after Auschwitz the question of evil would become fundamental (Arendt, 1994b). However, she did not immediately write a book or an social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 797 essay on evil, nor did she focus on the theme of “moral” as opposed to “immoral” behavior. Nevertheless, evil as a subject remained in her mind, which is evident from the fact that in June 1950 she began her Denktagebuch (Thought Journal) with a moral-philosophical reflec­ tion on forgiveness, revenge, and reconciliation: “Radical evil is what should not have happened, i.e., what one cannot reconcile with___It is something for which one cannot take responsibility, because its conse­ quences are unforeseeable and because, given these consequences, there is no penalty that would be adequate. This does not mean that every evil must be punished; but it must be punishable, even if one chooses to be conciliatory or is able to disregard it” (Arendt, 2002: 5). A similar thought is found in the “Concluding Remarks” to The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Arendt wrote almost at the same time. There she does not use the expression “radical evil,” but rather “absolute evil.” Yet, in both cases she does not elaborate on the concept of evil. In retro­ spect, one can say that it was important to her to put down that this evil, radical or absolute, “could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice” (Arendt, 1951:433), and thus was “unpunish­ able” and “unforgivable.” But at the time she did not follow up on the topic. It is one of the “trains of thought” (in Margaret Canovan’s phrase) that she abandoned for several years. The situation changed when she wrote her report on the Eichmann trial more than ten years later.1 She subtitled the book “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” but she did so spontaneously, and may not have ascer­ tained what she was doing. On December 29, 1963, she wrote to Karl Jaspers2 that her husband, Heinrich Bliicher, once had said that evil is a “surface phenomenon,” that this remark came to her mind when she was in Jerusalem, and that this recollection “gave rise to the subtitle” (Young-Bruehl, 1999). Some weeks earlier, in a letter to Mary McCarthy, she explains that the book presents a “faithful description of a phenome­ non”and that from this phenomenon “many conclusions can be drawn,” the most general being “the banality of evil’” (Arendt and McCarthy, 1995:152). 798 social research The “idea” that came to Arendt’s mind in Jerusalem or the “conclusion” that she referred to in her letter to Mary McCarthy was far-reaching, not only for the critical reception of the book in vari­ ous countries, with which Arendt had to cope, but also with regard to Arendt’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 797-810
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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