Kathy Jones began the first session of the NEH Seminar on Hannah Arendt with a provocative question implicit in Arendt’s work: why do we hold on to monsters and saints? Why do we cling to the view that only monsters are capable of committing evil and only saints are capable of virtue? We seek to penetrate heinous acts in order to discover the demonic intentions in the character of the actor, and we are quick to award sainthood to persons who act altruistically or heroically, but the challenge is to move beyond monsters and saints to the human.
Kathy described a traumatic event that occurred in 1995, when she was teaching at San Diego State University as the chair of the Women’s Studies department, and which she has detailed in Living Between Danger & Love. One of her students, who had been an activist for women’s issues on campus, a self-defense instructor, and head of the Women’s Resource Center, was murdered by her boyfriend. The young man was charged with first degree murder and convicted, but later hung himself in prison. The murder shocked the students and faculty.
The experience also challenged the way Kathy understood human action and responsibility. She came to understand through her reading of Hannah Arendt that human beings are capable of both egregious evil and the greatest good, but they are neither monsters or saints. This shift in perspective led Kathy to view the young man as a human being, to let go of the monster and allow the human being behind the actions to emerge.
This story resonates with the first book we will be reading Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this book, Arendt challenges readers to let go of the monster they think Adolf Eichmann was, not to exonerate him, nor to claim that we are all “little Eichmanns,” but to see Eichmann as a human being who is capable of thoughtlessly sending millions to their deaths. She wanted to confront her readers with the most shocking fact about Eichmann: that he was a normal human being.
Later in the session, Kathy discussed some of the controversial issues surrounding Arendt’s life: her relationship with Heidegger, her view on the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and her commitment to her Jewish identity. Was Arendt the monster her critics made her out to be: a self-hating Jew who slept with a married Nazi? Or was she the saint that her defenders describe? My own devotion to Arendt’s thought made me quick to defend her against her critics, but slow to let go of her sainthood.
By the end of the session, Kathy reminded us of a quote from Arendt’s essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” in which she writes, “who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose I myself would be incapable of committing it? Even the judge who condemns a man for murder may still say, and there but for the grace of God go I(Arendt, p. 19)!” Our judgments presuppose our capacity for evil because we can only hold someone responsible for an action that he was free not commit, freedom entails the capacity for good and evil. Letting go of monsters and saints does not mean that we cease to make judgments, on the contrary, it is precisely because we recognize that human beings are free agents and that their actions are unpredictable and irreversible that we make judgments. It is also why we forgive, because as Arendt points out in The Human Condition, ”Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell (Arendt, HC, V.33, p. 237).” When we hold on to monsters and saints we confine human beings to a single deed, a fate we would not wish for ourselves.