A Twitter friend of mine put up the famous Hannah Arendt quote about evil:
Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
That is the quote written in relation to the trial of Eichmann. To Arendt, Eichmann seemed such a zero. Just this nobody of a man who, using first-rate bureaucratic methods, sent millions to their deaths. I’ve never fully accepted that view. I think that Arendt – and many others – wanted a simple explanation which also denigrated the evildoers. So, Eichmann wasn’t thinking – had he paused for a moment to think about what he was doing, he would have stopped. So the theory goes. And it might have been true, to a certain extent. It all depends on what the person thinks about.
I don’t believe in the mindless human being. Even the simplest among us are still capable of thought. Absent some serious physical malfunction in the brain, every human being can figure things out. Some obviously better than others, but everyone can. It is how we survive given how incapable we are of surviving on sheer physical strength. At some point in his life, Eichmann thought about things – perhaps he was stupid, but he still thought about them and came to the conclusion that having Jews and other “subhumans” around was bad for people. Real people, in his mind, being only Germans. His actions then flowed from that as did all of the Nazis.
While in Hitler’s mind massacre may have always been in the cards, for most Nazis it wasn’t. Hans Frank spoke of the innocence he and his fellow Nazis had when the rose to power – claiming that had you told them in 1933 about 1945, they wouldn’t have believed it. For most of them, this was perhaps true.
But even in those supposed days of Frank’s innocence in 1933, he was ordering people arrested and putting his well trained legal mind to work providing quasi-legal justification for the actions. And that gets me to my view of why evil happens. It is fun. I take Chesterton’s view of evil:
If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
I think Ms. Arednt was denying the cat. And I think this denial is because people who don’t believe in any real God still want to believe that there is objective right and wrong. That anyone who thinks will, you see, end up thinking as they do. Arednt, of course, was a secular, Socialist German Jew. Not much room for God in that worldview. But she had to figure out how the Nazis could happen. On the other hand, I doubt she spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the Communists could happen. But that isn’t what detains us here. I think Chesterton had it right. So right, in fact, that I used his insight in the upcoming Book VII of the Mirrors series. Set about twelve years after Book V: Kings and Queen (which I’ll be releasing next month), two of the main characters discuss how one of them used to be one of the bad guys (I’ve blanked out the names so there isn’t any spoiler here):
As they rode along, **** found himself right next to ****. For the first time, he didn’t feel angry about that.
“Thanks, again, for helping me,” **** said.
“You’re welcome, once again,” **** replied.They rode along again for a few minutes.
“You were with them, ****. What was it like?”
“The enemy. What was it like?”
“It was glorious,” **** said to ****’ surprise. **** noticed the look on ****’ face.
“You won’t have read him here, but there was a very wise man who wrote poetry and books back in my home world: he pointed out that there is an exquisite pleasure to be had in skinning a cat.”
“Small animal. But, mainly, he wasn’t trying to horrify people: he was pointing out that in doing evil, there is great pleasure to be had. It is false pleasure and it leads to genuine death, but it is pleasure. If it wasn’t there, people would be evil far less often, if at all. It is in all of us, ****. Me. You. Even your mother. The capacity to do evil is there.”
“This I know from the priests,” **** said. “But what was it like while you were in it?”
“As I said, glorious. I had power and no limits and I could do as I wished and no one would ever call me to account. I took what I wanted and anyone who even looked crossways at me got the axe. It was fun, ****. It is like the most heady wine you’ve ever had and the more you have, the more you want. And the further you go down, the harder it is to come back.
That, I think, is the best explanation for evil. Not bad; evil. There’s a difference. A man who kills another because he caught him with his wife has done bad, but not evil. But the action of shoving a Jew into a gas chamber is no different in kind (though massively different in degree) than robbing a man of his wallet or forcing a woman into sex: it is the fun of being able to do something to someone who either cannot or dares not resist. Solzhenitsyn noted this as well: how it was clear that some interrogators, faced with a determined prisoner, just let themselves go and felt like real men when they had beaten a defenseless person to a pulp.
And as my character notes, the more you do it, the worse you get and the harder it is to crawl back. A Nazi scharfuhrer who beat up a Jew in Nuremberg in 1933 was probably just the sturmbannfuhrer to command an Einsatzcommando in 1941. And though there are plenty of stories of Nazi executioners having psychological problems, its not like they stopped killing…nor are there many recorded cases of Nazis even going easy on the people they had at their mercy. Indeed, it just seemed to get worse as time went on.
And I think it became almost a competition to see how utterly rotten you could be. A sort of game: “what if I did this to them?”. And then the fun of really going to town on those who finally had enough. Plenty of cases like this in Nazi Germany, and in Stalin’s camps. But, also, in our run of the mill criminals. They don’t start off being the most horrific things they did. Usually started small and then got hideous as time went on. And the key to that is to understand that the “rush” as it were gets harder to achieve. You forced the Jewish lawyer to clean the latrine with a toothbrush and that was a kick…but, once you’ve done that a few times, the rush fades. What else can we do to him? What else can you do to the man you’re robbing? What else can you do to the woman who’s house you broke into? On and on like that – and as noted, the further you go the worse and the harder to stop.
But it isn’t just the evil of physical brutality: there is also emotional evil. The ability to get people to lie on command. To make them say things which sh** all over their own beliefs. This is where our Social Justice Warriors get their fix. The mental torment they put people through is the point. You’ve seen it – like when some impeccably Liberal person is dragged through the mud because they have one opinion which is now decreed to be outside the Party Line. The author of the Harry Potter books is a prime example of this – good for her that she’s rich enough to survive it, but the bottom line is that because she refused to subscribe 100% to the Trans agenda (her objection was that it erased biological women), she was subjected to massive invective…and even though it didn’t get her, it still was very pleasant for those doing it…because it scared everyone on the Left who didn’t have her resources to toe the line. Imagine that – you’re a complete nobody of a purple haired xir…and now people are afraid to cross you because they’ll face social ruin if they do. That is a massive boost to the ego.
And I think this is why punishments used to be so savage. Or, at least, part of the reason. It was a mix of trying to beat civilization into people and to let evil people know that while there is a great pleasure to be had in evil, the end result is to be hung, drawn and quartered. If you’re not entirely familiar with that process, look it up: it was quite grisly. And these days we read about how the people cheered when it happened and we’re all supposed to feel that those cheering were more evil than the condemned. But, it wasn’t so: what the people were cheering was a complete rat-bastard who thought it was fun to do evil getting what he deserved.
Anyways, that is how I view the matter. That in order to stop evil, you have to take away the pleasure those who engage in it feel. That you have, in your turn, to make things so miserable for them that they’ll, possibly, at last understand why what they did was bad.