The movie poster for Hannah Arendt (2012)
This outstanding 2012 film
tells the story behind Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” while explaining the horrific ability of the modern bureaucratic state’s potential to convert human beings into abstractions and parts of a process.
The film also offers a glimpse, if to me a somewhat inconclusive one, into Arendt’s professional and personal relationship with Martin Heidegger, a still-influential, profound, puzzling philosopher who at least briefly affiliated himself with the Nazis.
Already an acclaimed political philosopher for her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (waiting on my shelf), Arendt secured a deal with the New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, considered a “one of the major organisers of the Holocaust.”
Part of Arendt’s series in the New Yorker suggests Eichmann believed he was merely playing a role in a process and merely following orders, so he did not believe he had a direct role in the killings of millions of Jews. This perspective strains friendships while setting Arendt on a quest to understand the nature of evil. (She did, however, believe a court in Jerusalem did the right thing by ordering Eichmann’s execution.)
But these historical and biographical details don’t carry the film. Barbara Sukowa‘s portrayal of Arendt lured me in and carried me through. Perhaps Sukowa’s most compelling moment is her portrayal of Arendt’s defense of her perspective in a packed college lecture hall. Here we find the phrase “crimes against humanity.”
The film is available for streaming on Netflix. If you don’t demand explosions, gun fights, bikinis, or slapstick in every movie you watch, play this film tonight.
Updated Dec. 19.
“In understanding the self as an achievement, something I must become, Kierkegaard has already distinguished his view from the sort of conception of the self associated with the French philosopher Rene’ Descartes. Descartes saw the self as a unified ego, a consciousness that was necessarily transparent to itself. What Descartes sees as the essence of the self, Kierkegaard views as the goal. Before selfhood proper begins, the pre-self is a complicated mixture of sometimes conflicting desires and tendencies. This is made possible by what we might term the self’s ‘natural dissociation.’ That is, I am not clearly aware of every aspect of myself.” — C. Stephen Evans, Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counseling & Pastoral Care (1990)
Furthermore, think about what Michael Polanyi says in The Tacit Dimension: “We can know more than we can tell.”
To be able to do something does not necessarily mean we know how to explain our ability to do it; to know something does not necessarily mean that we know how we know it.
As someone else has noted in relation to Polanyi’s work, I might be able to take a bicycle around a corner. I might not be able to explain all the physics and mechanics of the process.
This seems to indicate that part of ourselves is not fully integrated with another part of ourselves. This makes Kierkegaard, in the sense mentioned above, seem closer to reality than Descrates. We probably aren’t fully available and transparent to ourselves, and becoming fully available and transparent to ourselves, a noble goal, probably takes time.
That being said, being able to do something does not require you to be able to explain all of how you do it. One could suggest that the ability to do something, without having to give an Enlightenment rationalist’s account of the process, would be a good thing. That might have been the direction of Heidegger.
Also see Our Intellectual Positions and Our Hearts.