The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil
Hannah Arendt, the life of mind (1978)
Vincent Webbink 5S
I’ve chosen this quotation because it was the one that most appealed to me. I want to know what she means with this saying. Good and evil is something that plays a part in everybody’s life so it’s a good thing to think about. Are people innately good or evil? Most people don’t think about being good or bad. They just live their lifes, but in some situations you have to think about it because the decisions you made could be crucial. World War II was one of those situations.
In this essay I mention the following points:
Hannah Arendt and her ideas about evil and totalitarianism
Plato’s view on good and evil
Good and evil in the Chinese philosophy
Good v.s evil
Who was Hannah Arendt?
Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was a German-American political thinker. Although she’s often described as a philosopher, she didn’t want to be labeled like that because philosphers are seen as ‘man in singular’. So she named herself a political thinker, she dealt with subjects such as the nature of power, politics, authority and totalitarianism
Hannah was born in Linden in a Jewish family in Germany and grew up in Köningsberg (the birthplace of Immanuel Kant) and Berlin. In 1924 she started studying philosophy and theology in Berlin. In 1933 Arendt was active in zionist politics and therefore she got arrested by the Gestapo, she had to spend eight nights in prison. After that she had to leave Germany and she fled to Paris where she continued being active in zionistic organisations.
In 1941 she left for New York where she worked for the German Jewish magazine “Aufbau”. In the United States she learned the things that would make her famous. She worked for different publishers and also started writing her own books.
Her first work that has been published is The Origins of Totalitarianism. Another of her works is A Life of Mind, that was published in 1978, three years after her death. In this book is her quote “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil”.
Good and evil
This quote can be interpreted in different ways. Does Arendt mean that most people don’t know that what they’re doing is evil or does she mean that people can’t make up their mind because they don’t know whether they want to do good or evil.
Arendt was one of the millions of Jews in World War II. As a philosopher or political thinker, as she prefered to be called, she asked herself many questions about the evillness of people, because of the war. Why was there so much hate against the Jews, against her? She saw a lot of Jewish people being transported to concentrationcamps. How was it possible that suddenly everybody was so evil? I guess the World War II reflects her ideas of the evilness of people. I believe it’s true that most evil is done by people who’ve never really questioned themself whether they want to be evil or not. Lots of serial killers have a mental disorder, if they hadn’t have one they probably wouldn’t kill people. It’s their mind that makes them kill all those people even though they maybe don’t want to. I don’t say that all serial killers have a mental disorder or that those who have can’t help what they’re doing, but I do believe it plays part in their actions. Although never made the choice to be evil, there are people who did. People who’ve chosen the ‘wrong path’ because they thought it would make them more powerful. Just look back in history, Adolf Hitler is seen as an evil person by almost everybody, because he chose to be evil, he became evil.
When we look back on WOII history shows us it starts with one man, Adolf Hitler. He is the one who started with all the evil. It’s the way he brought his story that people believed him. The times were dificult and he was very convincing. The Jews were an easy target, he just blamed them for the economic crisis and suddenly everybody agreed with him. But they probably didn’t know his intentions were filled with so much hate. Though so many people tortured, captured and even killed Jews.
Was every single one of them an evil person, just like Hitler? I don’t think so, and that’s also what Arendt’s quotation wants to tell us. They were all told so many times the Jews were bad people they started to believe it. Because it was wartime life was difficult for everybody and this influenced making choices. I think it is much easier to choose ‘good’ when your own life is easy. The Jewish people were seen as animals, nothing more than that, and killing an animal is a lot easier.
Hannah Arendt about totalitarianism
“Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.” This is a quotation from Hannah’s book the Origins of Totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is one of the subjects that Hannah Arendt often thinks and writes about. In this book she asked herself how totalitarian regimes like Nazi-Germany can arise. How can a democracy change so fast to something really different. She says that in a totalitarian regime terror and violence are being used to intimidate people and fear is the most important mechanism. In a totalitarianism citizens begin to distrust each other. She also says totolitariansm can only develop in countries with a large population. There has to be enough manpower. Her ideas about totalitarianism reflects her ideas about evil.
Plato about good and evil
Plato thinks people are innately evil. That doesn’t mean everybody is evil because he also thinks that you can become a good person by learning the qualities of a good human being. The idea that you are born as a bad person comes from the “original sin” idea of Adam and Eva. Because they sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit and got bannend from paradise we are born with sinful desires. I don’t think we’re born evil, we may be born with some sinful desires because I think that’s just human. But despite that we are born as an unwritten paper (Tabula rasa) and what’s gonna be written on that paper depends on how we’re going to live our lifes and which decisions we make.
Good and evil in Chinese philosophy
Chinese philosopher Mencius based his entire philosophy on two basic propositions. The first one is that men’s original nature is good, the second one is that men’s original nature becomes evil when his wishes are not fulfilled. So people are good but they have to be satisfied because otherwise they will become evil. Philosopher Wing-Tsit Chan wrote on this subject: “If you let people follow their feelings (original feelings), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by the saying that human nature is good. If a man does evil, it's not the fault of his natural endowment”
According to Mencius all men have a mind that can not bear to see other people suffer. As an example he uses that when you see a child fall into a well, your first reaction is trying to save the child. You don’t save the child to get praised by the public but because of human’s originally good nature.
I think it’s true we have an original good nature, that’s why we care and help people. Of course sometimes it’s self-interest but not all the time, and that shows us that we aren’t innately evil people.
Hitler and Gandhi; good vs. evil
Good and evil are both important aspects of life, whether you want it or not. I think everybody has to make decisions in their life that have to do with good and evil. It doesn’t say everybody has to make such a big choice as some people in the WOII had to make.
Somebody who’s seen as a good person is Mahatma Gandhi. He and Hitler both stood for something and wanted to accomplish their ideals. But their ideals are completly different, and so are the ways they fought for their ideals. Gandhi literally didn’t even fight for it. Everything he achieved he did without using any violence, in contrast to Hitler. So you can say that Gandhi is a good person. He wanted to help his people, and did it all in a peaceful way. Hitler didn’t. They’re complete opposites. Gandhi is good, Hitler is evil. But who will win in the end? Hitler didn’t win the war and eventually killed himself. Gandhi achieved things but eventually got killed. I don’t think you can say that good will overcome evil or otherwise. It depends on the situation, both Hitler and Gandhi ended up tragically.
Though almost everybody sees Hitler as a bad person, it’s notable that Gandhi didn’t think he was. He even wrote Hitler a letter in which he told him he didn’t think he was a bad person. On 10 May 1940 Gandhi wrote to Hitler: "We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents."
It’s clear that good and evil is a subject with lots of different opinions. Probably we’ll never know if men is born evil or good, or something in between. History has shown us that evilness is something we can’t deny. World War II is a good example that shows us a lot of people can’t make up their mind and therefore are more evil than they actually are. Good and evil will always be a philosopical subject because it’s something of all times. The question is; is there ever going to be a world without evil? Or is evilness something we have to live with, because it’s a part of life?
I think Hanna Arendt’s quotation is right. It is really sad that most evil is done by people who can’t make up their mind to be good or evil, because if they could make up their mind the world would be a less evil place.