Once the war was over and some prominent Nazis were brought to justice, Arendt attended the trial in Jerusalem of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust.
The experience left an indelible impression upon her, one that would shape the trajectory of her philosophical thinking. What she observed was that, much to her surprise, Eichmann wasn’t the incarnation of evil that she expected to encounter. His actions were monstrous, yes; but he was remarkably ordinary or “banal,” to use Arendt’s term of choice.
What struck Arendt was Eichmann’s “curious, but authentic, inability to think.”
“However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”
Eichmann didn’t subscribe to any “theory or doctrine,” exhibited no “particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction;” his “only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness.”
Note, Arendt did not intend her characterization to be interpreted as commentary upon Eichmann’s IQ. Nor, for that matter, did she mean to suggest that he was literally incapable of thinking critically. Rather, her point was that Eichmann showed no will to think beyond the clichés—the memes, bumper sticker slogans, and hashtags—of his day.
Because of his reliance upon “clichés,” “stock phrases,” and “conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct”—all of which “have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality,” “against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence”—numerous “inconsistencies and flagrant contradictions” littered Eichmann’s testimony in court.
Yet he showed no signs of being in the least “bothered” by them.
Upon her experience with Eichmann, Arendt began to revisit an ancient thesis, one taken for granted by earlier generations of philosophers, that between the will to think and moral character there is an inseparable connection.
“Is evil doing, not just the sins of omission but the sins of commission, possible in the absence of not merely ‘base motives’ (as the law calls it) but any motives at all, any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it, this being ‘determined to prove a villain,’ not a necessary condition for evil-doing?”
Continuing, Arendt writes:
“Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evil-doing?”
It is crucial for the reader to recognize that the phenomenon that she witnessed in Eichmann she knew was one that is endemic to human beings generally.