According to Arendt’s emphatic and paradoxical thesis, [Eichmann] was an enemy of humanity from “thoughtlessness.” “It was a sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period” (285; G: 57).* This (and only this) is what the phrase regarding the “banality of evil” was meant to capture. (In spite of its prominent role in the subsequent controversies, this phrase occurs only once in Arendt’s book itself [250; G: 371], and then once again in the “Postscript” [the “preface” to the German edition, 285; G: 57].) The evil in question is banal precisely because it can only be described in the most banal of terms, in a way that borders on the seemingly innocuous, as when Arendt says that Eichmann, in contrast to figures such as Iago, Macbeth, or Richard III, “merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing” (285; G: 56; all emphasis in quotations in original unless otherwise noted). Yet this banality refers to something utterly fundamental: to lack thought is to be incapable of breaking through the “mechanism” of second nature, which automatically and immediately connects situations, impressions, and opinions with one another. It is to be incapable of considering what one does in terms of a possible alternative, or indeed even simply from another perspective — incapable of judging the rightness or appropriateness of one’s actions. This “almost total inability [on Eichmann’s part] ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view” (45; G: 124) is nothing less than the “inability to think” (47; G: 126).

Lack of thought is the essence of intellectual and spiritual incapacity — the lack of spirit or the incapacity for freedom. It is clear straight away why it is a fundamental problem for any legal process to be faced with a perpetrator of this kind. If it is a condition of justice for any act of legal judgment that the one judged is able in principle to pass this judgment himself, then he must be able to judge in order to be able to be judged. We can clearly see this from the fact that consciousness of committing wrong or “intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime” (274; G: 401). Individuals for whom this is not the case, those who cannot speak for themselves since they are incapable of conducting themselves on the basis of their own judgment, are not liable or “competent” to stand in judgment before a court. But this does not apply here. The pathological case, where the law declares such judgment is impossible, must always represent the exception to normal practice. But Eichmann is (or was) the normal case. Law can only work with the following alternative: either the agent is incapable of judgment, and then he is a pathological or abnormal case who is, exceptionally, not judged by the legal process; or the actor is a normal case, and then he is capable of judging and can therefore be judged in a legal process. But this alternative breaks down in the case of an agent such as Eichmann, for in the world of National Socialism the capacity to judge freely or judge for oneself had itself become, if not wholly impossible, then certainly the improbable exception.

*This passage is excerpted from “At the Brink of Law: Hannah Arendt’s Revision of the Judgment on Eichmann” by Christoph Menke, which appeared in Social Research Volume 81 No. 3, Fall 2015. Citations in this excerpt refer to the German translation of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Eichmann in Jerusalem: Ein Bericht von der Banalität des Bösen, translated by Brigitte Ganzow, with a preface by Hannah Arendt, Munich: Piper 1986.