Thursday, 10 November 2005


One of the lessons of the Twentieth Century must surely be what Hannah Arendt described as "the banality of evil." In a century ravaged by totalitarian evil, the evildoers themselves can be characterised particularly by their sheer ordinariness: Hitler's dinner-table conversations for example are memorable for little more than their mind-numbing dullness; and describing Adolf Eichmann at his trial, Arendt commented, "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous... 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."

Why am I writing about this today? Because Andrew Bernstein has published a brilliant five-part analysis of evil at CapMag, Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil, which you all should read. Straight up. (Yes, this will be in the end-of-year exam so make sure you read it all.)

"Evil men hold enormous power in the world," notes Bernstein, "and it is not an exaggeration to say that they threaten our prosperity and our lives." You do need to understand these pricks and the precise form of their destructive power, particularly how these emissaries of destruction and banality acquire their power. That is one of the chief questions Bernstein is attempting to answer, and he begins by defining the nature of evil:
Ayn Rand has shown that the evil is the irrational, willful denial and evasion of the facts of reality. It is the deliberate defiance of the facts and laws of nature, a spitting in the face of existence. Human survival requires rationality, a commitment to discover and act on the full truth. Evil men stand opposed to this – to reality, to the rational, to every value on which human life depends.
As Ayn Rand identified, the nature of evil means it is impotent -- its impotence in part deriving from that inability to think that Arendt identified in Eichmann -- meaning that for evil to survive and flourish, it is by its very nature parasitical on the virtuous, the productive, and the efficacious. For evil to flourish it requires more than what Edmund Burke described -- that good men do nothing; for evil to flourish it requires that good men put their own head in the noose. And history shows they have, in great numbers.

Good people have beaten a path to put themselves in the cause of evil. As Albert Speer reflected many years after putting his own unique skills in the service of Adolf Hitler, both gave something to each other they needed: Speer gave to Hitler his own prodigious productive ability, without which the Nazi war machine would never have been able to destroy so widely and so well; Hitler in return gave to Speer the affirmation Speer's weak soul needed. Where Speer had power in the sphere of reality, Hitler had power in the sphere of the spirit -- at manipulating people he was a certified genius. Hitler did not command reality directly: he collected souls like Speer who did it for him.

Hitler and other evil geniuses were masters at using the ethic of sacrifice for their own ends, withthey themselves being sure to pick up the sacrifices. Find out just how they get away with it, where that ethic comes from, and why it's so wrong, all in Andrew Bernstein's Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 1 of 5).

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