However, it is important to note that, by wrongly reducing history to an issue of moral duality between good and evil, all the social, cultural, and ideological complexities that led to the rise of Nazism in Germany are completely ignored in favor of the persona of Hitler. And still, even though scholastic history books are allowed to do so, any attempt by the popular media to reevaluate the historical position of Hitler, avoiding the moral demonization of his character, is likely to find controversy and a strong opposition.
While the controversy over Arendt's idea has continued, the phrase banality of evil has slipped easily into the language, becoming a commonplace, almost a banality itself. Journalists and others freely apply it as an all-purpose explanation--for the racist treatment of African Americans, the terror of Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, and even, in the case of one theater critic, the betrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. In the intellectual world, it remains an idea of consequence. Bernard Williams, Britain's pre-eminent moral philosopher, cites Arendt in declaring that "the modern world . . . has made evil, like other things, a collective enterprise." It is remarkable how much enthusiasm has been aroused by an idea that is so deeply flawed.
Banal is not a word that one would normally associate with evil. Its modern meaning--commonplace, trivial, without originality--did not arise until the 19th century. In feudal times, banal referred to land or property held in common, or property that feudal tenants were required to use, such as a "bannal-mill." By the 1830s, the neutral word signifying what was held in common had become a pejorative signifying ideas--often concerning scientific and commercial progress--that were popular with the rising middle class. In France, where the term had much the same career, the novelist Gustave Flaubert complained in 1862 that his country had become a place where "the banal, the facile, and the foolish are invariably applauded, adopted, and adored"--a development he blamed largely on the increasing popularity of that most modern creation, the newspaper. "The banality of life," he declared in another letter, "must make one vomit with sadness when one considers it closely." His Madame Bovary (1857) can be seen as a portrait of a woman with profound longings that she can express only in banal language.
Glimmerings of her banality thesis appeared in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), her first book, in which she argued that the rise of totalitarianism had pointed to the existence of a new kind of evil: "absolute evil," which, she says "could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, thirst for power, and cowardice." She often said that traditional understandings of evil were of no help in coming to grips with this modern variant, and she may have wanted to attend the Eichmann trial, which she covered for the New Yorker, in order to confront it and clarify her ideas.
Perhaps Arendt was so insistent that Eichmann was an ordinary bureaucrat because she thought the key to the evils of the modern world was the increasing power of bureaucracies. In The Human Condition (1958), she argued that bureaucracy, which she defined as "rule by nobody," is "not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its cruelest and most tyrannical versions." In this she was influenced by the great sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), who spoke in despairing terms about the rise of bureaucratic man. "It is horrible to think," he declared, "that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to their jobs and striving towards bigger ones." Arendt, in the postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem, strongly echoes Weber: "The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them." In her view, Eichmann was so much the bureaucratic man that he "never realized what he was doing [emphasis in original]." 2b1af7f3a8