How is it that the most unremarkable and small-minded stupidity can accomplish evils of such enormous magnitude?…
In Eichmann at Jerusalem, the book that collects the articles she wrote for The New Yorker about the 1961 trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt puts forth her arresting thesis about “the banality of evil.” She observed something that she had not expected to see; namely, that Eichmann seemed to be more of a bureaucrat than a monster.
The controversy that Arendt’s frequently misunderstood thesis generated is well dramatized in the 2012 film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta. The very impressive performance in it by talented actress Barbara Sukowa takes what could have been an overly intellectual film and transforms it instead into a gripping exploration of the nature of great evil.
What should our response be to the banality behind great evil, given the unexpected challenge that such banality presents to our ordinary understanding of things? We can readily imagine ourselves bravely defeating vile villains, but the fact of the banality of evil, i.e., of banality as the most frequent motor of great evil, should shake us out of our mythical daydreams. The delusion that a single hero, acting alone, can save the day, is shattered when we come to realize the cumulative power of thousands of “nobodies” who, by a bureaucratic renunciation of the primacy of personal motives and intentions, serve in the dumbest way as the vacuous instruments of a political ideology.
The same actor and director team, Barbara Sukowa and Margarethe von Trotta, is also responsible for the stunning 2009 film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, which takes the life story of that fascinating Doctor of the Church and dramatizes it in a similarly compelling way. The obstacles that both Hannah Arendt and Hildegard von Bingen faced, moreover, are comparable with respect to the banality of the evil they witnessed irrupting into their lives.
In the case of Saint Hildegard, the Vision film highlights the theme of envy, which is a quotidian human motive that nonetheless commonly lies at the root of much great evil. Saint Hildegard’s profound encounter with the destructive power of envy is something to which the viewer of the Vision film can readily relate, simply because envy is frequently so banal in its many daily manifestations. Envy is a stupid and irrational motivation precisely because it erases the possibility of truly human community, due to the fact that it drags people down to the level of animal competition, something which can never truly fulfill the higher aspirations of our spiritual nature.
The unexceptional nature of habitual stupidity is what allows us to fruitfully compare the scenarios of Hannah Arendt and Vision. The thesis that Arendt puts forward, in a dramatic way, about Eichmann, is not a denial of his own human agency, nor a refusal to find him responsible for his horrifying role in the Holocaust. Moreover, the fact of gratuitous acts of cruelty by the Nazis should not be taken as refutations of Arendt’s “banality of evil” idea. The merit of her thesis, rather, is to draw attention to the vacuously craven way of thinking according to which bureaucratic functionaries accomplish awful things. Her idea is that the horrors they unleash are wildly disproportionate to the paltry stupidity that in fact sets those horrors in motion.
From a philosophical point of view, this is something to wonder it. How is it that the most unremarkable and small-minded stupidity can accomplish evils of such enormous magnitude? To be sure, the culpability of the human agent remains. But it is very strange that the most banal motives of bureaucrats can end up serving ideological purposes that transcend mere banality, swelling into gross evils.
Perhaps the best way to understand “the banality of evil” is in light of this fundamental metaphysical rule: “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end,” which Thomas Aquinas, in a nice touch, quotes at the very beginning of his primer on metaphysics, De ente et essentia (“On Being and Essence”), a saying which has its origin in Aristotle’s De caelo (“On the Heavens”). We could take our inspiration from the Latin phrase written by Aquinas (“parvus error in principio magnus est in fine”) and use it to rename Arendt’s insight into “the banality of evil” with this title: “The Parvus Principle”.
The banal motives of a bureaucrat seeking miniscule career advancement, or the ridiculously petty jealousies of an insecure co-worker, are each examples of the parvus error (“small mistake”) from which the magnus in fine (“big one in the end”) can take its origin.
The origin of evil was a longstanding object of study for Arendt. In a recent essay on Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Roger Berkowitz writes in appreciation of her analysis of how a parvus error, if left unchallenged by good people, can eventually become magnus in fine. In order to arrive at guiding principles for reflection on the political situation of our own time, Berkowitz quotes Arendt’s warning in that book about how “the road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents.”
In a refreshingly fair-minded and judicious rejoinder to those who have lost all perspective, by their coming down with a serious case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, Berkowitz writes: “It is altogether too early to judge whether President Trump heralds a coming totalitarian rule.” The unhinged critics, however, themselves adopt and mirror President Trump’s own lack of decorum; they unreflectively imitate his own lack of sober restraint. But this is a departure from common sense, as Berkowitz observes: “Common sense insists that we not abandon reality and imagine that the United States is experiencing totalitarianism.”
Yet because President Trump does undeniably possess serious character flaws, it is also only common sense to meditate on the ways in which those flaws could mushroom into something unexpected. After all, “The Parvus Principle” of Aristotle and Aquinas is a common sense principle, mooring us in reality. “There is a voice in each one of us, wheedling us with common sense, telling us that Trump is simply another instantiation of American populism. That voice is likely correct,” writes Berkowitz.
However, Berkowitz’s contribution is to use his expertise in Arendt to argue that it seems legitimate to be wary about “Trump’s mania for disruption—not his policies.” Authoritarian stupidity is a mania that can take many forms, metastasizing from parvus to magnus across a wide spectrum of human political experience. Accordingly, Berkowitz offers historical perspective on how President Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric could go from parvus to magnus along the lines of a multiplicity of possible trajectories familiar to a historian:
“His policies are generally conservative and thus announce a need for limited government and limited power. On the other hand, the president’s infinitely confounding tweets recall the anything-but-conservative mood of destruction identified with pre-totalitarian movements. Trump’s mania for disruption—not his policies—is reminiscent of the many movements that dominated Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. While two of these ended in totalitarianism, the majority led instead to more typical authoritarian regimes. In our contemporary focus on Nazism and Bolshevism, we frequently forget that nearly every country in Europe was already ruled by democratically elected dictatorships at the outbreak of World War II.”
It is only fair to note that “the president has not offered anything like a racial, antisemitic, or islamophobic justification for slavery, expulsion, or genocide,” but for Berkowitz it is also fair to note that the reality-denying tendencies of President Trump’s rhetoric could be the parvus error from which worse things might grow into a worst-case scenario. While the establishment media and the Democratic Party are unfair to President Trump in many ways, Berkowitz notes an important difference between their frequent denials of reality and the president’s own denials of reality:
“Much like the movement led by President Trump, the opposition also has characteristics of a reality-denying movement. There is an important difference, however, between President Trump’s falsifications and those of his critics. Neither Sanders’s followers nor Trump’s critics in the media have broken free from reality as radically as has President Trump. They continue to respect that there is an impartial truth.”
Yet this does not mean that, in the end, President Trump’s habitual parvus error (of sending “little” tweets: i.e., using the newest digital media in the stupidest and most impulsive ways) will become magnus in fine in all the worst ways imagined by his most vicious critics, as if an American Hitler were at hand. The banality of evil need not manifest itself in the worst totalitarian ways, because there is no rectilinear or irresistible inevitability to “The Parvus Principle” in human affairs.
One of the most banal experiences of an American worker is to have an authoritarian jerk for a boss. But there are many ways of being a jerk; as Aristotle also said, “‘Being’ is said in many ways.” From this metaphysical standpoint, then, perhaps an American citizen may nonetheless take comfort in any early failures of the Trump presidency. The banality of stupidity could then be disarmed, as Hannah Arendt sought to do, simply by naming it for what in fact it really is. The difficulty in doing this, however, should not be underestimated; describing the enormity of task, Marshall McLuhan said, “When the Emperor appeared in his new clothes, his courtiers did not see his nudity, they saw his old clothes.”
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 Roger Berkowitz, “Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Los Angeles Review of Books (March 18, 2017): <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/arendt-matters-revisiting-origins-totalitarianism/>.
 Marshall McLuhan, “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment” (1966), in Marshall McLuhan Unbound (Gingko Press, 2005).