Modern Intellectual History



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ILLUMINATING EVIL: HANNAH ARENDT AND MORAL HISTORY 1


GEORGE COTKIN a1
a1 Department of History, California Polytechnic State University

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Abstract

Hannah Arendt's well-known examinations of the problem of evil are not contradictory and they are central to her corpus. Evil can be banal in some cases (Adolf Eichmann) and radical (the phenomenon of totalitarianism) in others. But behind all expressions of evil, in Arendt's formulations, is the imperative that it be confronted by thinking subjects and thoroughly historicized. This led her away from a view of evil as radical to one of evil as banal. Arendt's ruminations on evil are illuminated, in part, by concerns that she shared with her fellow New York intellectuals about the withering effects of mass culture upon individual volition and understanding. In confronting the challenges of evil, Arendt functioned as a “moral historian,” suggesting profitable ways that historians might look at history from a moral perspective. Indeed, her work may be viewed as anticipating a “moral turn” currently afoot in the historical profession.

(Published Online October 4 2007)



Footnotes

1 This essay has been greatly improved by the comments of Charles Capper and the anonymous readers for MIH. I thank James Hoopes, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Ann Schofield for always helping with early and late drafts. Many scholars have either read this piece or material for the project on philosophy and morality of which it is a part. Thank you to: Paul S. Boyer, Ronald Bush, Howard Brick, Kirsten Fermaglich, Raymond Haberski, Melody Herr, Larry Inchausti, Bruce Kuklick, Steven Marx, Kevin Mattson, Andrew Morris, Lewis Perry, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Joan Rubin, Stephen Tootle, and Martin Woessner.