Without community, humans feel alienated and aimless: there is a link between “homelessness” and “existential anxiety.” Additionally, we cannot possess “meaningful character,” as argued by James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character. Lacking community and character, we are impoverished to resist what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil,” and yet paradoxically community/character is the very lubricant that makes “the banality of evil” possible.
To expand on Hunter’s argument here briefly — I will go into far more depth later on — he writes that ‘[t]he social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present.’1 Hunter argues:
‘Morality is always situated — historically situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral philosophical or religious truth.’2
‘Grounded in this way,’ Hunter argues ‘ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient’.3 ‘When the particular cultures of conviction are under-minded and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.’4 Hunter writes:
‘Character is formed in relation to convictions and is manifested in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation. This being so, the demise of character begins with the destruction of creeds, the convictions, and the ‘god-terms’ that made those creeds sacred to us and inviolable within us.’5
Strangely, ‘[t]his destruction [of character] occurs simultaneously with the rise of ‘values’. Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities. The very word ‘values’ signifies this reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and ‘lifestyle’ […] bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred.’6 ‘Formed against a symbolic order made up of ‘values’ and differing ‘lifestyles’ is the Self — malleable, endlessly, developing, consuming, realizing, actualizing, perfecting — but again, something less than character.’7
With community gone, character is gone or at best undefinable as itself, though character seems to still be present with the idea of “the self” ever-growing in popularity. For Hunter, the ‘implications are simultaneously liberating and disturbing’ of our community-less and hence characterless age.8 ‘Dostoyevsky had it about right,’ Hunter claims, ‘everything becomes possible — every violence, every deed of corruption, every mockery of justice, every act of indifference — because there are no inhibiting truths’.9 If this is correct, our age in which character is gone is an age that is primed to fall victim to “the banality of evil.” The following thoughts on Hannah Arendt are greatly inspired by the brilliantly written essay by Ada Ushpiz, titled “The Grossly Misunderstood “Banality of Evil” Theory.”
Like all great minds, Arendt is misunderstood. She did not believe anyone could become a Nazi or that evil didn’t exist; her famous phrase is about how evil occurs within a communal or national ideology that makes evil “everyday,” “thoughtless” like a daily routine. Evil is indeed evil, but it is justified relative to the premises and axioms of the ideology within itself and made “invisible” in plain sight: the mind’s eye is closed, so the eyes do not know what they see. There is a sense in which people “obey” ideology, but for Arendt, Nazism wasn’t so much a question of “unquestioning obedience” as it was that Nazism established a kind of routine and way of life that people came to believe was rational and even good to live out (“thoughtlessly,” like how most Americans live out various traditions and work schedules society forces upon them that questions make harder to live out).
Nazism redefined the kind of life that “good hard-working people” should live, and Nazism redefined it in such a way that those average people could agree “without a second thought.” Everyday people didn’t so much feel forced to follow; rather, they felt like they believed in and lived out what “any good German” would believe in. Within the ideological system of Nazism, it was “objectively true” that “any good, hard working German” would in fact be a Nazi. How did Nazism achieve this incredible ideological shift? I’m not sure if even the Nazis could tell you: it seems to be a matter of “high order complexity” (to allude to “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose), grounded in Germany history, values, and the like. The point that matters here is that “the banality of evil” is more about what (evil/good) becomes “everyday” within an ideology versus top-down control. Considering this, there cannot be a “banality of evil” without a culture, history, and community, for these are the necessary conditions for ideology. Paradoxically though, as will be discussed, these are also the necessary conditions for the character which can oppose “the banality of evil.” What makes possible Bonhoeffer is also what makes possible Hitler, a strange paradox that may convince us to resist wanting to “belong again” despite the unhappiness that may result from homelessness.
Arendt resisted calling Eichmann a “small cog” in a Nazi machine; rather, she argued Eichmann was more so a plant that grew emergently and organically within the garden of Nazism (that he then helped keep alive): as Hayek argued about the economy being an organic entity versus an engine that could be tuned, so Nazism (and any ideology for that matter) is an (ideological) environment more so than a machine. Yes, authority has a role in making that environment come into existence and perhaps the environment is impossible without it, but the environment is necessary for the authority to have meaning and weight. There cannot be a “Milgram Experiment” in a society that doesn’t accept the “social contract” that “scientists know what they are doing;” there cannot be a “Stanford Prison Experiment” where there is no “social contract” on the legitimacy and role of prisons and police officers. Does the authority create the (ideological) environment first or does the environment emergently give rise to the authority? That is chicken and egg question, and the answer may change between civilizations; here, I will only argue that the two require one another, for authority always requires some “symbolic order” (and corresponding, accepting ideology) in order to in fact have and be “authority.”
For Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” was more an ideological phenomenon that organically and emergently gave rise to authoritarianism (that retrospectively legitimized that “banality of evil”) versus a product of authoritarian control, command, and design. In a sense, “the banality of evil” is more “free market” than “centrally planned,” even though it might be the case that an authoritarian regime may emerge out of and then over the organic and ideological “banality of evil.” For Arendt, ideas were primary; authoritarianism, secondary. In a way, her thought is like Deirdre McCloskey, who stresses that American Capitalism was primarily a result of ideas, not geography, not access to resources, etc. — other factors play a role, but thinking changes everything. Hence, for Arendt, fighting against evil was a battle of ideas not just amongst intellectuals, but amongst the most everyday of people.
1Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
2Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 11.
3Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 11.
4Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 12.
5Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
6Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiii.
7Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.
8Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.
9Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.