Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
For the next few days, I will be posting in three parts the paper that I gave at the New Foundation Fellowship gathering last month near Casper, Wyoming, U.S.A. As readers might surmise from the title, this paper examines the question of where resides the power to counteract and overcome evil. Nowhere are the essential criteria for victory over evil upheld and identified more succinctly than in Jesus's rebuttal of Satan, which occurs in the first 17 verses of the fourth chapter of Matthew. As the third part of this paper examines that passage, I hope the reader will refresh his or her memory beforehand.
Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10).
Hannah Arendt was a philosopher and political theorist who left Germany in the early '30s. After having done relief work in France for some years, she was briefly held in a detention camp when France fell to the Nazis. She fled to the United States in 1941 where she taught and wrote for several decades. Some may be familiar with the phrase “the banality of evil” that she coined while covering the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in the early ‘60s. It was Eichmann's "absence of thinking," Arendt wrote, "that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing...possible in default of not just 'base motives'...but of any motives whatsoever....Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?" (The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978)
Arendt came to believe that the great destruction wreaked during the times of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism was a direct result of the refusal to exercise our human capacity for critical thought. The forfeiture of reason opened the way for chaos and destruction, she claimed. The following is an excerpt from a monologue in the film titled Hannah Arendt:
This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.
At another point in the film, Arendt defines radical evil as the continual obliteration of sense within daily surroundings that occurred in the concentration camps. Senselessness made superfluous the high mental functioning that distinguishes us as human beings. Thus, Arendt argued, the obliteration of sense was intended to make "human beings superfluous as human beings." In a classroom scene, she lectures her college students:
Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable sinful motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. In the concentration camps, men were taught that punishment was not connected to a crime, that exploitation wouldn’t profit anyone, and that work produced no results. The camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless: where, in other words, senselessness is daily produced anew.
Later Arendt wrote in a personal letter that evil was “thought-defying,” that its nothingness precipitated a frustration of thought. In that same letter, she modified her earlier view on radical evil.
I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil”....It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth and can be radical. (Letter to Scholem 7/24/63)
Arendt thought that evil spreads when man forfeits his capacity to think deeply. She later concluded that thought is frustrated by evil, as "thought tries to reach some depth," and evil has no depth. She rightly saw that evil destroys man, and man cannot overcome it by his own power.
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