What Does Strauss Have to Do With Arendt?
Can “German Nihilism” and “The Banality of Evil” Coexist?
As addressed in the papers discussing Missing Axioms by Samuel Barnes (“The True Is Veiled in Blood” and “The Problem With Identifying Nihilism That Isn’t There”), Leo Strauss warned that “German Nihilism” was not “nihilism” as typically understood, but a desire for “a life of high values and ideals or nothing at all.” For Strauss, what Nazism represented was a desire to return to “great heroism” that was so extreme that Nazism was willing to burn everything down in the process and/or “go down fighting.” And yet Hannah Arendt described Nazism as characterized by “the banality of evil,” which seems like the exact opposite of what Strauss described, so what does Strauss have to do with Arendt?
“The banality of evil” does not treat evil as “boring” but as instead a state in which evil becomes “everyday” and “thoughtless” (the phrase “the routine of evil” would almost get closer to the truth). This suggests one reason why Arendt and Strauss are considered opposites—a misunderstanding of the word “banality”—but we can start to see how Strauss and Arendt can come together, for while “German Nihilism” can be an extreme desire to regain values, heroism, ethics, and other “givens,” “the banality of evil” is what can emergently set in within those “givens” (once they are (re)established).
As stressed throughout “Belonging Again,” “the banality of evil” doesn’t refer to some “Milgram Experiment” where average citizens do what they are told, like people pressing an electric shock button because someone in a lab coat told them to do it. Eichmann is often viewed as a paramount example of “following orders” mindlessly, and though “thoughtlessness” is important to Arendt’s philosophy of evil, that “thoughtlessness” is critically distinct from what is described in the Milgram Experiment (even if there is overlap). The source of Arendt’s “thoughtlessness” is not primarily from authoritative leaders, but from the “givens” of a social order (in which the leaders can be “caught up” just as much as the citizens). It emerges within (versus “over”) the everyday interactions, images, ideas, values, and the like which compose a people’s normal lives. Evil that occurs this way is “banal” because it is “everyday,” not because it is a kind of bored and mindless following of leaders. And since every revolution, social uprising, and the like must eventually establish a new “everyday way of life” (or “banality”), there is no “movement” which can avoid the possibility of “the banality of evil.”
“German Nihilism” can be helpful to explain how Nazism rose to power, and “the banality of evil” can describe the state which arose once “German Nihilism” prevailed. But this suggests a great irony, for “German Nihilism” seems to arise precisely against banality and a general loss of grandeur. Eichmann can be viewed as the opposite of a “German Nihilist,” a kind of failure, and yet Eichmann might be its logical outcome.
As discussed in “The Age of Hysteria” by O.G. Rose, Freud could prove useful for grasping this irony of Nazism through masculine and feminine archetypes. Freud associated masculinity with rationality and femininity with truth, and though this may sound sexist, it’s critical to realize that “rationality” for Freud was primarily a mechanism of self-deception, exercised for the sake of avoiding truth versus for discovering it. Freud associated females with truth because females were forced by their very bodies (menstruation, pregnancy, etc.) and “lot in life” to accept “real life,” and in “the truth of real life” being hard, hysteria was a natural response to it. But note what this means: women are more hysterical than men because they better know the truth, while men are less hysterical and more rational because they are more self-deceived. Men are more likely to question and “seek the love of a princess” because they don’t realize that their high ideals and visions of what awaits them are idealistic and/or delusional.
“The Age of Hysteria” elaborates on these points, but here we can associate “German Nihilism” with masculinity and “the banality of evil” with femininity. The “German Nihilist” rises up to restore a life of grandeur, as the male embarks on a quest with similar hopes, only for both to eventually encounter “the hysterical truth” that grandeur (as socially constructed) was always idealistic and delusional. The “German Nihilist” and male then fall into disillusionment and/or back into a new “everyday routine,” for both learn that questing cannot last forever: eventually, one must stop and turn the road into a home. Hysteria can then set in (say when the “German Nihilist” who opposes becoming someone like Eichmann eventually does—as if pulled in by a blackhole—or when the male who became a heroic knight to save a princess from capture then becomes a grumpy and possessive overlord of a home), motivating a new cycle of hope, denial, and disillusionment.
Perhaps the “German Nihilist,” in changing the social structure, can establish a new “everyday routine” that is closer to what the “German Nihilist” envisioned, and in this way the “German Nihilist” may not be totally disillusioned like the masculine knight who realizes that Don Quixote awaits. Still though, the “German Nihilist” cannot “quest” forever, and eventually his or her fight to restore “higher ideals” must end in either defeat or the reestablishment of a (“banal”) social order (around new “givens”). Once that occur, the “German Nihilist” can fall into “a banality of evil” (though perhaps the lifelessness of this can be avoided with “scapegoats,” a new quest to stop evil, suggesting the role of the Jewish people in Nazism).
The Nazis rose up to restore Germany to its “former glory,” and once the Nazis succeeded taking over, Nazism become part of everyday life. Once the Nazi way of “higher ideals” was established (according to them), and once those ideals became commonplace and every day, then a “banality of evil’ within them was “possible.” Wherever there are “givens,” “thoughtlessness” can happen, and yet perhaps all “givens” are supposed to stop banality from reemerging. But time defeated even Ozymandias.
In closing, a similar irony may arise regarding Girardian scapegoats, where a person is killed to “save the (great) society,” but once that scapegoat is dead to establish and/or reauthorize “givens,” “the banality of evil” becomes possible. René Girard called scapegoating “sacred violence,” and perhaps all masculine quests for the feminine entail kinds of “sacred violence” (forms of violence we rationalize). Similarly, the Nazis used the Jewish people as “scapegoats” for their new social order, which would suggest that (new) “givens” tend to be established through blood (even if only through the martyr to provide “givens” a sense of plausibility, as discussed in “The Truth Is Veiled in Blood” by O.G. Rose).
Ultimately, wherever the admonishments of either Strauss or Arendt are ignored, blood will easily be found, and the blood of “German Nihilism” easily leads into the blood of “banal evil.” Then, once life becomes banal, another round of “German Nihilism” can start in reaction against that banality. Strauss can flow into Arendt, as Arendt can reenergize another movement of Strauss. And once that movement ends, the cycle can begin again. Today, now that we are armed with nuclear weaponry, can the cycle continue without it eventually crushing us under its wheel?
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