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Goodness exists, even in the darkest of moments. It is worth remembering this—that the violence and brutality of the war did not only bring out the worst in people. The darkness also inspired goodness, bravery, and responsibility. There are countless examples of people who, often at great risk to themselves and their own lives, chose to quietly protest against the violence and cruelty sweeping across Europe. They organized in resistance movements, helping people escape and hiding Jews from the Nazis.
Hannah was one of those brave people who refused to bow to darkness and evil. Before she was forced to leave Germany, she worked secretly to collect evidence of anti-Jewish propaganda. In France, through her work with Youth Aliyah, she helped many Jewish children and teenagers leave Europe for a new life in Mandatory Palestine. During her years in Paris she also helped Jewish refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia find their footing in a new country. She always did more than she had to. That is one way of defining goodness: doing more for others than one is required to do.
Despite this, Hannah herself flinched at the concept of “goodness,” and questioned its place in the political sphere. In The Human Condition (1958), the book in which she addresses the concept most systematically, she takes Machiavelli’s discussion of goodness as her starting point. Machiavelli dismisses goodness as political virtue, and teaches, perhaps deliberately provocatively, the art of “how not to be good” instead. Of course, this should not be understood as a rejection of the personal virtue of goodness, by either Machiavelli or Hannah. Instead, it is an expression of the idea that goodness is not a principle that has any place within the political sphere. Goodness is a concept with metaphysical dimensions, a concept that can much too easily be commandeered by various religious ideologues and potentates. In essence, Hannah’s hesitant attitude toward goodness as a guiding principle within politics is a defence of secularism—the idea that worldly and spiritual affairs should be kept separate. Religion and religious arguments have no place in political, societal discourse.
This is also part of Kant’s fundamental approach to ethics. In the archipelago of thought through which Kant navigates, goodness, truth, beauty, and other values are all separate islands. Kant does not champion “goodness” as the highest value. Instead, he argues that human beings should act in accordance with goodwill, meaning they should obey the categorical imperatives: you must not kill, and you must not lie. According to Kantian ethics, truth is superior to goodness, simply because truth is verifiable—in other words, something is either true or it is false. Goodness, on the other hand, is more a matter of preference or taste.
In 1988, the Swedish-Finnish writer Willy Kyrklund illustrated Kant’s argument in his typically cutting way, in an essay titled “On Goodness”: “The history of humanity shows us that goodness is in constant growth. Ideas of goodness and demands for goodness have, over the millennia, come to occupy an ever-greater position in our imaginations and societies.” In his inimitable, gently mocking style, Kyrklund dissects Western civilization’s obsession with the slippery phenomenon of goodness. “A good thing,” he writes, “can be any old idea or its material hypostasis. A recognized good thing is anything considered good by a group of people.” Following this vague statement, he continues with a list of the types of things that are, or have been considered, good over the years: “sacred cows, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Coca-Cola, sexual abstinence, Hammarby, ice hockey teams, women’s rights, sunbathing, winter bathing, mud baths, showers.”
Goodness, Kyrklund goes on, also happens to be of vital importance in the art of war. In order for a war to be declared in the first place, at least one side needs to invoke “a good thing.” If both parties invoke a reasonable thing, there will be no war, because any conflict of interest can be resolved in a sensible manner. The latter occurs fairly infrequently, however, because reason does not enjoy the same popularity as goodness, and therefore cannot achieve anywhere near the same level of political impact. Thus, the good thing tends to be invoked in place of the reasonable argument, laying the foundations for conflict and war.
In the world of politics in particular, Kyrklund writes sarcastically, goodness is an imperative; it is the chief requirement for political success. Every dictator needs a following that will celebrate him as a god, paving the way to power. Hand on heart, who would ever vote for an evil person? “Fortunately,” Kyrklund continues, “the supply of good people is plentiful.”
Things have scarcely changed since Kyrklund came to this conclusion. Yes, the “good” are growing in number, while the reasonable continue to decline. There are also more wars and intractable conflicts, through which the good thing must be defended while reason is relegated to the corner. Once goodness has begun to develop, as Kyrklund writes, it cannot be stopped. It soon detaches itself from any connection to the individual’s own welfare; it becomes detached from interests of survival and becomes idealism.
The good person fights for a good thing, and therefore anyone who protests against this—thereby promoting “bad” things—is a bad person. “It is easy to see the importance of idealism to morale in the army,” Kyrklund writes. The war for the good never ends—there are always enemies of the good that must be fought, whatever the cost. Indeed, goodness is hard to argue with. Goodness is, in Kyrklund’s opinion, arbitrary, and to say that something good is bad implies from the very outset a contradictio in adiecto, a self-contradiction.
Hannah never read Kyrklund’s scathing essay on goodness, of course, but she likely would have appreciated it. In a letter to William O’Grady, a student who took part in her seminars in Chicago during the 1960s, she expresses a similar position toward “goodness” and “good people.” In his original letter to Hannah, the young student describes his efforts to be a “very good person,” to which she replies: “I don’t quite know what you mean when you say ‘good,’ but I know that the wish to be ‘good’ is an even greater temptation than the wish to be ‘wise.’ That is precisely what we cannot be.”
In her essay on Bertolt Brecht, published in Men in Dark Times in 1968, Hannah presents a similar argument based on Brecht’s understanding of the lure of goodness: Schrecklich ist die Verführung zur Güte—“terrible is the temptation to be good.” As Kant argued, if there is such a thing as a temptation to do evil, there is also a temptation to do good. And not just that, Hannah writes: there is also a temptation to be good. In her essay on Brecht, she describes his attempts to be a good person—attempts which ultimately led to him doing evil deeds instead.
There had been a time when Hannah admired Brecht. During her years in Paris, he was considered almost a martyr in the circles in which she moved, a hero who had been forced to leave Germany because of his political convictions. Compared to the intellectuals who had disappointed Hannah after Hitler’s rise to power, Brecht was admirable, someone who stood up for his beliefs and refused to bow to authority.
The poem Walter Benjamin had brought back to Paris after his visit to Brecht in Svendborg had provided both Hannah and Heinrich with comfort and courage while they were interned and separated from each other. But Brecht’s behaviour after the war, once Germany was divided between East and West, and once the capital, Berlin, was split in two, did not impress Hannah.
His crime was not, Hannah writes, that he was a communist during the 1920s and ’30s—being a communist in Europe at that time was more a mistake than a sin. No, his crime was that he persevered in his beliefs even once he settled in East Berlin, where he could see with his own eyes the impact communism was having on the people. Hannah’s disappointment in Brecht is tangible in her essay. He should have known better.
After the end of the war and his years in exile in Scandinavia and the United States, Bertolt Brecht moved back to Europe. Life had become uncomfortable for him in America. In 1947, he was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee about his relationship with communism and the Soviet Union. Shortly after this, he travelled to Zurich, Switzerland, before ultimately settling in East Berlin in 1949. There, against his better judgement, he chose to remain loyal to the communist regime. In her essay on Brecht, Hannah writes that he was perfectly aware of Stalin’s ravages and the failures of communism, but that his revolutionary dreams led him astray. Brecht understood from an early stage that communism demanded evil deeds in order to achieve its ultimate aim, the workers’ utopia: “He had scarcely joined the Communists before he found out that in order to change the bad world into a good world it was not enough ‘not to be good’ but that you had to become bad yourself, that in order to exterminate meanness there should be no mean thing you were not ready to do.”
Brecht was manipulated by an evil system that claimed to be good, a system that claimed to treat everyone the same way, but which in reality repressed them and kept them shackled in poverty. In Me-ti, Buch der Wendungen, published after his death, Brecht self-mockingly describes a suitable punishment for the good man who has lost his way:
So listen: we know
You are our enemy. That’s why we now want
To stand you against a wall. But considering your services
And good qualities
Against a good wall and shoot you with
Good bullets from good rifles and bury you with
A good shovel in good earth.
Hannah could not bear sanctimonious people, those who wore their goodness like a uniform, showing off their good deeds as though they were gemstones. In The Human Condition, she draws a connection to Jesus’s sermons on good deeds. “The one activity taught by Jesus in word and deed is the activity of goodness, and goodness obviously harbours a tendency to hide from being seen or heard. Christian hostility toward the public realm, the tendency at least of early Christians to lead a life as far removed from the public realm as possible, can also be understood as a self-evident consequence of devotion to good works, independent of all beliefs and expectations,” she writes, finding support for her belief that politics and religion, society and the church, should be kept separate.
“For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness’ sake. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful as organized charity or an act of solidarity,” she continues, concluding that goodness exists only when it is performed not as goodness. “Whoever sees himself performing a good work is no longer good,” she writes, almost as an echo of Kant.
Kant’s requirement for absolute altruism is very strict, possibly too strict—after all, an act that has good consequences is, in all likelihood, good, whether the person carrying it out praises themselves for doing good or not. When assessing the moral value of an act, we can start either from the intention of the person carrying out the act or from the consequences of the act itself. As a deontological, duty-based ethicist, Kant argues that it is the intention that counts in the assessment of the moral value of an act, but the weakness of this approach is that it is incredibly difficult to assess a person’s intention. The alternative, therefore, is to assess the consequences rather than the intention.
But then we must also consider exactly which consequences we mean—the immediate consequences, or more long-term? Direct or indirect? Furthermore, we must ask who is included in our moral considerations—meaning, consequences for whom? For me? For my family? For everyone in my country? For everyone on earth? In the assessment of the moral value of an act—is it good or evil, right or wrong—we must therefore use reason rather than rely on our emotional reactions.
After all, morality is not primarily a matter of emotions. Considering ethical dilemmas and moral problems demands reason and rationality. We must argue rather than feel.The antidote to evil is not, as one might instinctively assume, goodness, even if good and evil are each other’s antithesis. Hannah argues that the antidote is reflection and responsibility. When people cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting, that is when evil grows. In Responsibility and Judgment she writes of the risks in viewing the philosophical statement that “nobody does evil voluntarily” as a reasonable description of human nature; the statement leads to another assumption, namely that “everybody wants to do good.” The sad truth, Hannah writes, is that evil deeds are typically carried out by people who have not made a decision to be good or evil. They have simply not chosen a side.
Dr. Ann Heberlein is the bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including A Little Book on Evil, A Good Life, the autobiographical I Don’t Want to Die, I Just Don’t Want to Live, and her latest On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt.
Alice Menzies is a literary translator from the Swedish and has translated works by several contemporary Swedish writers, including Fredrik Backman and Sofia Lundberg. She lives in London.
This essay is adapted from Chapter 12 of On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt, copyright © 2020 Mondial and Ann Heberlein. English translation copyright © 2021 Alice Menzies. Reprinted with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto.