Why I Write
Arendt on Eichmann's Inability to Think
The philosopher Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for her book The Origins of Totalitarianism – considered the definitive account of the rise of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia when published in 1951. A brilliant woman of Jewish descent in early 20th century Germany, Arendt studied under the philosopher Martin Heidegger. When WWII hit, she immigrated to the United States by way of Prague, Geneva, and Paris, evading the Nazis before they could snatch her up. In the US, she reached infamy, at least in many circles, for another book: Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book, originally commissioned as a five-part article for The New Yorker in 1963, has sold over 260,000 copies in its English version alone. In it, Arendt attempts to understand, with her impressive skills of rumination, the life and work of Otto Adolph Eichmann.
As an SS bureaucrat, Eichmann came into his vocational own while efficiently organizing the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. He never killed a Jew himself. Nor did he ever order the death of a Jew directly. He merely found ways to expeditiously export them to slaughter, saving the Nazis heaps of time and money. He had read Jewish history. He even reported that he respected Zionists and chastised his fellow Nazis when they mocked them. Although Jewish herself, Arendt refused to demonize him – to do so would have been both to elevate his position and obscure our understanding of evil in her eyes. She took his self-understanding seriously, and what she quickly noticed was he was unable to say anything that was not a cliché. Eichmann had indeed committed evil acts and as such was evil, but what surprised Arendt more than anything was this:
The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the world and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Eichmann’s vocational successes were dependent upon his lack of empathy and his lack of empathy was, according to Arendt, fixed to his inability to think.
The Role of Thinking
I find Arendt's thesis both fascinating and terrifying.
It's fascinating to contemplate how our ability to think from the perspective of another opens up reality to us. It makes sense – the first step out of solipsism and narcissism is understanding that your experience is not all-encompassing. And to grasp this you must first realize you are one among many.
But it's also terrifying. How much do we miss of the Real because we fail to think from the perspective of another? What treasures have we all passed by in our stubborn flight from those we don't understand? When you add to it the second part, that one who cannot think will lack empathy and, at the very least, be more likely to participate in gross systems of injustice if not all out genocide, Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann becomes a clarion call for thinking.
What motivates my writing is that I see this tendency, this refusal to think in general, and from the perspective of another in particular, all around me in our present time – not to mention in myself.
Thinking Isn't Easy
Attempting to think, to understand the world from another’s perspective, to question one’s own commitments, is a painful and scary task. I wasn’t taught to do this growing up in Church. I was taught just the opposite. I was taught to prove my point of view, to argue that homosexuality (and yes, that’s, sadly, what we called all members of the LGBTQ community, blindly following the ideologically influenced shift in Biblical translations of the Greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi that began in the 1940s) was indeed an abomination, to convince someone they were a sinner in need of the product I was selling — Jesus, or at least my tribe’s version of him. But before I go and get my self-righteousness agnostic panties in a twist, let’s remember that it’s not only the religious fundamentalists that do this. If you want to see the other side of the fundamentalist coin, just pick up a book by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or listen to me talk about how backward fundamentalist Christians are on a night when I’m feeling particularly slighted by the Church.
No, most of us, whether religious or not, don’t want to think from the perspectives of others, especially not from the perspectives of those we disagree with. This type of thinking requires that we open ourselves up to the possibility we could be wrong, that the boxes we use to categorize and thus to navigate the world might not only be too small but entirely inappropriate. This type of thinking requires a determined look into the abyss where we find the humanity of monsters like Eichmann and the monstrous in ourselves. This type of thinking is what draws me to reading. It's what draws me to story. It's what entices me to write.
It’s painful to think like this, but it’s also exhilarating. It causes discomfort, but it opens up the world to us in all its beauty in ways impossible otherwise. This type of thinking is personal – at times intimate, at times abstract, at times absurd, at times humorous. This type of thinking is our human right, our human task, and a part of our human goal both collectively and as individuals. It is this type of thinking that allows us to understand ourselves, the world we inhabit, and those who inhabit it with us.
With clear understanding, we are better able to love. And these days, we desperately need love. In fact, the two Johns – John the author of the three New Testament epistles that bear his name and John Lennon – may be right: God may be love and love may be all we need. Not that I believe in that God-shit any longer. But I do want to think with understanding and love as my goal. I want to think clearly and courageously. I think best when I write.