The Banality of Philosophy: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci By Kevin Kennedy

Photo of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

On January 20, 1942, a group of senior SS-officers and other high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxurious villa, located on the picturesque Wannsee lake in southwestern Berlin, to discuss their plan to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. They had been invited there by Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS and one of the main architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question.”

One of those present at this “Wannsee Conference” wast he 36-year-old SS-Obersturmbahnführer (lieutenant-colonel) Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962). At the time, Eichmann led the SS-Department IV b 4, which was responsible for the transportation of Jews to the ghettos, concentration camps and killing facilities in eastern Europe. He was also entrusted with organizing the conference, with writing the notes for Heydrich’s address to the participants and with producing a memorandum of what had been discussed and decided there (a document which would later provide crucial historical and legal evidence for the Holocaust).

After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived for many years incognito, but in1 960 he was abducted by Israeli secret agents and brought to Israel. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, pronounced guilty of several major crimes – including mass-murder– and, on May 31, 1962, he was executed by hanging.

The Eichmann trial sparked a worldwide controversy after the publication in 1965 of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt.[1] She had covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and had been granted access to Eichmann’s written testimony of his life. At the trial, Eichmann depicted himself as a simple bureaucrat who had only followed orders. (At one point, he blurted out the claim: “The popes ordered: I had to obey!”)

Eichmann’s perverted sense of duty, which had apparently left him oblivious to the suffering of his victims, inspired Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Eichmann appeared to Arendt not as a monster, but as a “clown” – a pathetically ordinary man who had sent countless innocent people to their deaths out of sheer thoughtlessness.[2] The problem with Eichmann, and with countless Germans like him, Arendt argued, was that they lacked the moral imagination to see the human consequences of their actions.[3] According to Arendt’s critique, Eichmann showed that evil need not be the result of malevolent intent, but of a simple failure to think. (Critics of Arendt were incensed because they believed that she had humanized a monster and therefore relativized his guilt. Many were also outraged because she had pointed out the complicity of some Jews in their own people’s destruction.)

Now, Adolf Eichmann has also become a regular topic of discussion within the Modern Stoicism community.  As many readers no doubt already know, one of the movements more prominent writers, Massimo Pigliucci, regularly presents Eichmann as a prime example of amathia, an ancient Greek philosophical concept, going back to Socrates, denoting a “lack of wisdom” which results from a failure to use one’s rational faculties. The term can also be understood as a kind of ignorance which results from a refusal to learn.[4]

Amathia can have horrific consequences, causing severe harm to others, even though the perpetrators harbor no evil intent. Socrates and Plato, as well as their respective students and schools of philosophy, shared this view. According to them, men and women never commit evil intentionally. Rather, they do evil because they lack the knowledge of what is truly good. Like the ancient Greek anti-heroine Medea – whom Massimo presents as a kind of “poster-girl” for amathia – they believe their acts are good or necessary. But they are tragically mistaken.[5]

The Stoics also adopted the doctrine of amathia. Marcus Aurelius, for example, states that if men do rightly what they do, we shouldn’t be displeased, if not, clearly they do it involuntarily and in ignorance. As every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so it is deprived of the power of delivering to each man what he deserves. (Meditations, 11:18.) But intellect, by itself, is no safeguard against amathia. It needs to be guided in the right direction and exercised – something which Eichmann failed to do. Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann as

perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I meant by banality.[6]

 Arendt herself did not use the concept of amathia to analyze Eichmann’s debased moral condition. It seems rather that the philosopher Glenn Hughes was the first to view the Nazi atrocities as examples of amathia.[7] Massimo agrees with Arendt that Eichmann exhibited “intelligent stupidity” and he also concurs with Hughes that his crimes against the Jews resulted from amathia.[8] For Massimo, the case of Eichmann confirms the Stoic belief that people commit evil out of ignorance, an argument Massimo repeated at the 2017 Stoicon.[9]

Human beings can indeed do terrible things out of ignorance. History shows this over and over again. But the assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust. In the case of Eichmann, moreover, it’s completely mistaken. He, like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing, but it didn’t bother him in the least. He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. He acted knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Far from being a mindless automaton who was simply “following orders,” Adolf Eichmann went far beyond “the call of duty” in his efforts to hunt down Jews and send them to their deaths. He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.

Outside of academic historical circles, however, this insight into Eichmann’s actions has not yet spread very far, not least because of the powerful influence of Hannah Arendt. Too many discussions about Eichmann – especially among philosophers – are still based on Arendt’s book about him.  But the historical research on Eichmann and the Holocaust have since advanced far beyond Eichmann in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be conversant with the current state of the research should read the work by the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stagneth: Eichmann before Jerusalem.[10]  

Stagneth, like other contemporary Holocaust researchers, has availed herself of the many sources that have come to light since Eichmann’s trial. The most important of these regarding Eichmann are The Argentinian Papers, a compilation of writings by Nazis living in Argentinian exile, hoping to bring about a “Fourth Reich.” Among the Papers is a series of interviews Eichmann gave to its compiler and editor, the Dutch journalist Willem (“Wim”) Sassen (1918-2001), consisting of 1,300 written pages and 25 hours of taped material.

Some doubt the credibility of Sassen, who was a veteran of the Waffen-SS (he was a member of its voluntary Dutch division). Sassen also wrote for right-wing extremist publications after the war and belonged to a support network of exiled Nazis hiding in South America, a group that included the notorious Todesengel (“Angel of Death”) of Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele (1911-1979).[11] But it could also be argued that Eichmann would feel much freer to express his true convictions to a fellow SS-man than he would be to an Israeli prosecutor. In any event, Eichmann valued the Papers highly, instructing that they be published in the case of his death or capture.[12]The autobiographical testimony of Eichmann which Arendt used as a main source for Eichmann in Jerusalem, was actually written by him as part of his contribution to The Argentinian Papers. But it was fragmentary, and without the wider context of the entire document, which includes much more damning information about Eichmann, and which was not fully available in Arendt’s time, it was easier for her to view him as a technical bureaucrat instead of the vicious anti-Semite that he was. (In Arendt’s defense, the court that tried Eichmann also refused to admit the parts of the Papers they had as evidence, because their authenticity had not yet been verified.[13])

Furthermore, it now looks as though Hannah Arendt was not going to let any contrary evidence cast doubt on her novel and provocative interpretation of Adolf Eichmann and his crimes. One of the Israeli state prosecutors at the trial, Gabriel Bach, spoke in 2012 of what he saw as Arendt’s willful ignorance regarding Eichmann: “She misrepresented essential facts or ignored them”. When Bach first read Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was “astounded” to discover that Arendt, who had access to all the relevant documents at the time, had twisted the meaning of some of the most important of them into their opposites, “such as that Eichmann had clearly countered some of the clear orders of Hitler, in order to do even more damage.”[14] In truth, the evidence for Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that it becomes hard to understand how anyone could still doubt it. But for many, it seems, that appears preferable to admitting that Hannah Arendt could have been so terribly mistaken.

As Stagneth says:

Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.[15]

What motivated Adolf Eichmann in his innermost being can never be proven without a doubt. We have to judge him on his deeds. But they alone are more than enough to damn him as a perpetrator of evil who was anything but banal. (Readers who find the term “evil” too theological are welcome to use the alternative “heinous crimes.”) After being sent to Budapest to organize the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the death camps, Eichmann gave graphic descriptions of how he saw his role there. “Do you know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” “I keep the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” “I’m having the whole filthy band of Jews in Budapest murdered!”[16]

And it wasn’t the case that Eichmann was some kind of “desk criminal,” a pencil-pusher with no first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to “imagine” the suffering of his victims: he witnessed it first-hand. In Vienna, Eichmann personally participated in raids on the Jewish community there. It was his idea that “Jewish councils” also be set up in Vienna, so that the Jewish communities themselves assisted their persecutors in getting Jews to emigrate, while leaving their wealth and valuables to the Nazis.[17]

In an autobiographical text Eichmann wrote in prison – one which Hannah Arendt never saw, and which was then kept secret by the Israeli government for 15 years – he recalled witnessing many mass-killings. The sights were so grisly, he lamented, that he could only tolerate them by drinking heavily. He wrote that one mass-shooting he saw in Minsk was so bad he had to “drink schnaps like water.”[18] Nevertheless, Eichmann actively pursued the discovery of more efficient means of killing Jews. He held discussions on this topic with Rudolf Höss (1901-1947), commandant of Auschwitz, in the camp itself. Eichmann also personally inspected the gas trucks at Chelmno and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Far from being a passive recipient of orders with no convictions of his own, Eichmann proved himself, repeatedly, to be a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who showed tremendous energy and initiative when it came to the dispossession, transportation and mass-murder of Central Europe’s Jews.[19] In one of his interviews with Willem Stassen, Eichmann even belittled those who committed atrocities and then tried to distance themselves from their actions once the circumstances had changed. No one should claim they were only following orders, he said. “That is cheap nonsense, that’s just an excuse,” adding that humanitarian considerations only served to help “one comfortably ensconce oneself behind orders, edicts and laws.”[20]

To return to the central point, Massimo, as well as most Stoics, would no doubt contend that, while Eichmann certainly committed horrific crimes, he nevertheless did so out of amathia, out of ignorance of the true philosophical Good. In fact, Massimo anticipates criticism of using amathia to explain Nazi atrocities:

Whenever I say this [that Eichmann acted out of ignorance], someone is guaranteed to get outraged. What? Do I seriously mean to say that Hitler wasn’t evil? How could I possibly be so naïve? Or perhaps I harbor questionable sympathies? But as with many terms in philosophy, ‘evil’ and ‘ignorance’ don’t mean quite what we expect.[21]

In truth, both Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as well as the ancient Greek concept of amathia are complex ideas that defy “common-sense” thinking. In each case, the proposition is that those we consider to be evildoers are actually motivated by what they consider to be “good” or necessary. That is to say, they do not believe that they are doing “evil.” Some members of the Modern Stoicism Facebook group, responding to the same critique presented here, have agreed with Massimo that Eichmann indeed thought he was “doing good”, in the sense that he believed that ridding the world of Jews was necessary. In fact, in the most notorious part of The Argentinian Papers, Tape Number 67, Eichmann seems to confirm this view. Speaking at what was probably a small gathering of Nazis in Argentinian exile, Eichmann proclaimed: “What is useful for my people, is for me a sacred command and a sacred law. Jawohl.[22]

Nevertheless, to argue that Eichmann acted out of an ignorance of the good is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Nazis considered to be their world-historical mission: namely, to eradicate all obstacles to the ultimate triumph of the Germanic peoples in the racial struggle for survival. They knew full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. As the Yale historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race.[23] They therefore had to be eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.

Eichmann’s own familiarity with philosophy also went much deeper than what Arendt knew (or could have known at the time). Today we know that Eichmann was not only familiar with Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but he could also carry on fairly sophisticated discussions about them and their ideas. But he rejected the humanist elements of Western philosophy because they were incompatible with the crude social Darwinism favored by the Nazis. It was only in Jerusalem, when he was on trial for his life, that Eichmann concealed his own systematic anti-humanist world-view and placed his own ideas within the Western philosophical canon.[24]

Moreover, as Bettina Stagneth warns us, we should not to dismiss the “atavistic” ideology of Eichmann and the Nazis as “pseudo-philosophy.” Many academic philosophers at the time shared such views, including the man who arguably became the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Heidegger, referring to the tradition of Western rationalist thought, proclaimed: “We have renounced the idolization of an abysmal and powerless reasoning. We see the end of the philosophy which serves that.[25]” 

Adolf Eichmann committed evil purposely, willingly and knowingly.  There is a lesson here for modern Stoics: Just as the ancient Stoic belief in a sentient, wise, benevolent universe needs to be revised in the light of modern physics, so the Stoic doctrine that people only do evil out of ignorance needs to be modified in the wake of the Holocaust. Sometimes evil is done in full knowledge of its nature and its consequences.

To be sure, this is no new insight. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, believed that humans do evil, whether in the form of stealing pears or terrorizing entire populaces, precisely because they delight in the pleasure “of doing what we should not do”.[26] By breaking moral customs, norms and laws, men and women set themselves above the rest of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Stoicism is helpless in the face of it. A Stoic education, for instance, could help prevent people from becoming evil in the first place. But we must also keep in mind that success is not guaranteed. Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus must have received quite a dose of Stoic philosophy while he was growing up, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst tyrants to ever sit upon the imperial throne of Rome. Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism can guide our own actions as we try to respond to the consequences of evil, an important consideration in our own time, which is characterized by authoritarian demagogues, racism, terrorism, the ruthless exploitation of our natural resources and the reckless accumulation of individual wealth in full contempt of the general social welfare.

Before concluding, I would like to mention that I originally expressed my disagreement with Massimo on this subject on the Modern Stoicism Facebook page. Massimo generously devoted the time to give me a thoughtful response – for which I remain grateful – but he still begged to disagree. Massimo wrote: “Eichmann is a perfect example of amathia because he lacked wisdom, or he would have understood that what he was doing is ‘evil.’ The point is that he didn’t get up in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’ but rather ‘how can I do my job well today?’ He may have ‘reflected’ on what he was doing, but from a standpoint of ‘ignorance’ (i.e., unwisdom, i.e., amathia).”[27]

Massimo here restates his argument that Eichmann acted out of ignorance of what is truly good. Again, this is to suggest that Eichmann, and all the other Nazis like him, murdered several million human beings because they weren’t thinking like Stoics. To reiterate, this appears to me to be both true, on one level, but also to be a banalization of the Holocaust. Moreover, Massimo remains mistaken about Eichmann, just as Hannah Arendt was. The historical record shows that Eichmann did not “get up in the morning thinking how he could do his job well” – in the sense that the kind of job he was doing didn’t matter. Eichmann’s words and deeds demonstrate instead that he devoted careful and sustained thought to how he could best execute the Nazi plan to humiliate, rob, expel, torture and murder Europe’s Jews.

In that sense, he truly did get up in the morning and ask “what kind of evil” he could do that day. Adolf Eichmann knew what he was doing. He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival. That is why, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews had to be destroyed. Adolf Eichmann pursued this goal with energy, initiative and commitment. As the historian and Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer puts it: “He was evil, but not banal. He read constantly, was highly intelligent and possessed broad knowledge. He referred to philosophy, to Kant. Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal.”[28]

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, lecturer, writer and commentator who lives and works in Potsdam, Germany. He is also the father of two children and a long-distance runner. He lectures on Prussian history, modern German history, and the Holocaust. In addition, he works as a local guide in Potsdam, Berlin and Dresden, and as a tour manager in Central Europe.


[1] In a 1965 West German television interview, Arendt said she rejected the label of “philosopher” for herself. Philosophers thought in eternal and universal categories, she said, something which she felt was no longer possible in the modern age. Arendt preferred to describe herself as a “political theorist,” Hannah Arendt and Political Theory. Challenging the Tradition, Edinburgh 2011, p. 1; for a discussion of the controversy: “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt. Introduction by Amos Elon, in Hannah Arendt,” Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, London, 2016, vii-xxiii.

[2] Arendt, p. 54.

[3] Arendt, p. 150.

[4] Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, London 2017, pp.115-116.

[5] Pigliucci, pp. 109.110, 117-119.

[6] Interview with Hannah Arendt, quoted in Pigliucci, p. 113.

[7] Pigliucci, p. 116.

[8] Pigliucci, p.112-113.

[9] Do People Commit Evil out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci, https://modernstoicism.com/do-people-commit-evil-out-of-ignorance-by-massimo-pigliucci/ (last accessed on October 19, 2018).

[10] Bettina Stagneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders, Hamburg, 2004. (English version: Stagneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer, New York 2015.

[11] Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht: https://www.fritz-bauer-archiv.de/index.php/genocidium/eichmann-vor-gericht (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[12] Stagneth, p. 535.

[13]The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. German philosopher Bettina Stangneth reexamines the Nazi commander—and the true nature of evil”: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-lies-adolf-eichmann-told/381222/ (last accessed on October 21, 2018).

[14]  Als ich später ihr Buch las, war ich um so erstaunter, dass sie einige der wichtigsten Dokumente zum Teil ins Gegenteil verkehrt hatte – unter anderem die, die beweisen, dass Eichmann klar Führerbefehle hintergangen hatte, um noch mehr Schaden anzurichten, https://www.welt.de/kultur/history/article106393105/Er-sah-Leichenberge-und-stritt-fuer-einen-Anzug.htm (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[15]“The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. . .”

[16] Ich bin ein Bluthund! Ich lasse die Mühlen von Auschwitz mahlen! Ich lasse das ganze jüdische Dreckspack von Budapest umlegen!, Stagneth, p. 80.

[17] Stagneth, pp.31.34.

[18] Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Der Spiegel (33/99), http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).

[19] Stagneth, pp. 59-60, p. 63, p.80

[20] . . .das ist billiger Mumpitz, das ist eine Ausrede; humanitäre Ansichten [dienten nur dazu] sich bequemst hinter Verordnungen, Erlass und Gesetz zu verstecken, Stagneth, p. 285.

[21] Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic, p. 113.

[22]  Was meinem Volke nützt, ist für mich Heiliger Befehl und heiliges Gesetz, Stagneth, p. 391.

[23] Timothy Snyder, Black Earth. The Holocaust as History and Warning, New York 2015, pp.4-6.

[24] Stagneth, p. 288.

[25] Wir haben uns losgesagt von der Vergötzung eines boden- und machtlosen Denkens. Wir sehen das Ende der ihm dienstbaren Philosophie, Stagneth, 289. Heidegger made that statement at an electoral gathering of German scholars on November 11, 1933.

[26] St. Augustine’s Confessions or Praises of God in Ten Books, Dublin 1746, p. 47.

[27] https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism/search/?query=Kevin%20Kennedy (last accessed on March 15, 2018.

[28]Er war böse, aber nicht banal. Er hat immerfort gelesen, war hochgradig intelligent und von breitem Wissen. Er bezieht sich auf die Philosophie, auf Kant. Arendt hatte Unrecht. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal. Der Spiegel, 33/1999,http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

28 thoughts on “The Banality of Philosophy: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci By Kevin Kennedy”

  1. As the OP says, Medea is Massimo’s “poster-girl” for amathia. So, if we’re trying to decide whether “amathia” applies to Eichmann, we should consider how Eichmann’s case compares and contrasts to Medea’s.

    Now, Medea kills her children with full awareness of what she was doing. And she knows how heinous her actions are. She is herself horrified by her own intentions. She has to steel herself to commit murder:

    Why linger we
    As not to do that horror which yet must be?
    Come, oh my woeful hand, take take the sword:
    On to my new life’s mournful starting point,
    And be no coward, nor think on thy boys,
    How dear, how thou didst give them birth. Nay rather
    For this short day forget they are thy sons:⁠
    Then weep them afterwards.

    Medea, Euripides (trans. Augusta Webster).

    Now, Massimo takes Medea’s killing of her children to be the canonical example of amathia. Therefore, this kind of self-awareness is not just consistent with, but literally paradigmatic of amathia as Massimo understands it. Whatever Massimo means by “amathia”, it’s evidently possible to possess all of Medea’s qualities and yet to act as a result of amathia.

    So, if you’re going to argue that amathia doesn’t explain Eichmann, then it just won’t do to point to features that he shares with Medea.

    The OP well describes Eichmann’s self-awareness, his horror at the sight of Jews being shot, and the initiative and willful energy with which he committed his crimes. But these are all qualities shared with Medea. She too was self-aware. She too was horrified by her crimes. And yet she too vigorously pursued their commission. These qualities might rule out “banality” in Arendt’s sense. But they don’t rule out amathia in Medea’s case, so they can’t rule it out in Eichmann’s, either.

    On the other hand, there are differences between Medea and Eichmann, too. For example, Medea loves her children. It is in spite of her love for them that she thinks, nonetheless, that killing them is what she ought to do. Eichmann, on the other hand, had no love for his victims. If he felt at all conflicted, it wasn’t because he held his victims dear as Medea held her children. Squeamishness at watching the murders that he had ordered is a different kind of conflictedness.

    So, is this the relevant difference between Medea and Eichmann? Is this the difference that separates Eichmann from amathia? I don’t know. But if Medea has amathia while Eichmann does not, it is going to have to be because of some difference between them—if not this one, then some other. It can’t be because of qualities that they share.

  2. I think this really comes to how we define “evil” and “good”. And what function does it serve when Stoics philosophers argue that people do bad things out of amathia.

    The problem with the usual meaning with “evil” is that somehow it suggests horrific crimes are committed by some mysterious force that comes out of nowhere. But the amathia interpretation asks us to think more of the concrete factors that have influenced people’s thought and ideas which pushed them to commit the crimes.

    1. Hello Xing,

      Thank you for your comment. Like you, I reject the existence of “evil” as some kind of demonic, otherworldy force. As I mentioned in the essay, those who feel uncomfortable with the term are welcome to substitute it with “heinous crimes.” I also believe that gaining a deeper knowledge of historic crimes such as the Holocaust requires that we try to understand the motivations of the perpretators, no matter how distasteful we may find their personalities. But I also still maintain that the concept of amathia goes too far in the direction of sympathy, suggesting that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews in a fit of moral absentmindedness.

      All the best,

      Kevin

  3. Mr. Kennedy,

    This is a very good presentation and the comments it inspired just add to it.

    The examination of sins of omission as opposed to commission needs to be the subject of a wide ranging discussion – especially with what’s happening around our world today.

    On a personal note, what I know of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and Adolf Eichmann’s partition in it has me pretty much convinced his sins were those of commission not omission or “amathia”.

    1. Mr Knox,

      Thank you for reading my essay. Obviously, I am in total agreement with you. You are also correct in your assessment of our current condition. It appears that, once again, there are people in high places whose policies cause real harm to their citizens, but they fail to acknowledge their responsiblity for it.

      All the best,

      Kevin

  4. “He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival.”

    This is exactly how I interpret Massimo’s point. Nazis were horribly mistaken about human nature (as some prominent moral philosophers like Kant) and convinced that they were doing good. The author says it clearly, they were cleansing the world of what they saw as Jewish lies. Does this make their actions less horrible? I don’t think so. Moreover, Massimo’s point is useful for considering that they were not monsters, but humans, horribly mistaken ones of course. But to regard them as “evil” or “monsters” is in some sense to ignore that there were reasons behind their actions, reasons grounded in psychology, in the reasoning they used to construct they worldview. If we disregard these reasons we are undermining our possibilities of preventing this from happening again. If we regard them as monsters, we face the danger of avoiding an honest inquiry into human nature, because that’s what they were, humans. To think otherwise is to think like them.

    1. Hello Rene,

      Thanks for your comment. From a purely Stoic point of view, you and Massimo are correct. I agree that we should not view any human beings, even those who do horrible things, as “monsters” in some kind of supra-human sense. I do, however, maintain that those people can still commit their crimes in full knowledege of their abhorrent nature.

      All the best,

      Kevin

  5. Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for this very insightful article. I feel further educated in the Nazi regime now! 😊

    I’ve been long been a big fan of Massimo’s work. In the past, I often find people that argued against him lacked reasons, sometimes just simply rude. However, I must say this time you’ve totally convinced me otherwise.

    Stoics historically have cared very deeply for the human world, and have frequently taken as their duty to make their communities as wise as possible. I came across a passage by Diogenes (not the cynic) the other day and it basically said an evil government is indeed a very bad thing.

    “some bad things are in the soul, i.e., vices and vicious actions. The external ones are having an imprudent fatherland and an imprudent friend and their unhappiness.”

    – Diogenes Laertius , 7.96

    I believe now there’s external evils, such as the Nazis. While it’s entirely possible that we can remain happy with ourselves despite what the Nazis did, we MUST oppose such evil regimes.

    1. Hello Victoria,

      Thank you for your comments. To be honest, I felt very uncomfortable criticizing Massimo’s views about amathia. He is a brilliant scholar who’s long ago forgotten more philosophy than I could ever hope to learn. I’ve never read anything by him that I thought was objectionable until now. But I will continue to read and listen to him. I remain confident that he still has much to teach me.

      If I may speak for Massimo: He would agree with you that evil regimes must be oppposed. He acknowledges the horrific nature of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. He and I simply disagree as to the deeper motivations of the perpetrators.

      All the best,

      Kevin

  6. For me the most importantant consideration in this debate is the banality that we revise Stoic doctrine apropos a provident universe and divine reason. In such a universe good and evil are meaningless terms, or merely cultural–or indeed natural! Nature knows nothing of evil and is red in tooth and claw.
    In socio-cultural terms, the Holocaust was indisputably evil.

  7. This article articulates much of my own difficulty with the idea that no one does evil intentionally. As others have said at some level when we do things we know we really should not do we rationalise/ justify for ourselves even momentarily that what we are doing is for a ‘good’ . But crimes against humanity, genocides although committed by large groups of people some of whom must be acting in what can only be thought of as moronic ignorance( following orders) the architects of these plans are not just acting viscerally in a moment of perceived good for them. They are reasoning and planning long term atrocities on others that they characterize as sub human to themselves and to indoctrinate their henchmen. ‘The first casualty of war is the truth’! As a Stoic you try to see the humanity in all people, even when they act in ignorance, and you try to show by your actions and teaching so that those who to us appear to be acting in ignorance can learn of their amathia and understand the true good and evil. Bear and forbear! We see them as acting in ignorance from our Stoic point of view, but they see us as acting in ignorance from their non Stoic point of view! We are trying to play the game based on the rules of soccer, they are playing the game based on the rules of rugby for an analogy. I do not think ‘evil’ exists out there in the universe, nor does ‘good’ exist, but we as humans define what is accepted as good or evil in relation to ourselves. This both applies at an individuals level, or our tribes level ,or our religion/beliefs level.
    Yes I think we are wrong when we intentionally inflict hurt, pain ,death on other individuals or groups in the name of individual retribution or revenge, religious or politically or philosophically motivated justification to exterminate others who think differently. This is where Stoicism and the tools it offers can help us as individuals, and as a society to both understand and to correct and even to condem others who act in ways that are less than human( Marcus : when men are inhuman[a judgement we are making], take care not to treat them the way they treat other humans. [a reasoned response we make] ). Eichmann saw Jews as less than human, Stoics see those acting with amathia as not being true to human nature( not acting truly human) but we don’t want to exterminate them but to help them to be a better person! Remember reason in itself is not intrinsically good, it is how it is used and the choices based on it, it can be directed to good or evil ends!

  8. “As the Yale historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race.[23] They therefore had to be eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.”

    This is precisely correct and precisely why “good” and “evil” are in quotes.

    The Nazi’s conception of “good” is not the same as the conception of “good” as held by Kennedy.

    “They knew full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. ”

    They did not see the Jews as innocent human beings, they saw them as barely human at all, and all to readily to sacrifice them on the alter of their own self defined “good” of the historical destiny of the German people.

    That I don’t accept your idea of “good” doesn’t mean that I am doing “evil”, it just means you think I am doing “evil”…In my own mind, I am a hero fighting the good fight.

  9. Thank you for the thought-provoking essay. That said, I agree with Massimo that when all is said and done, the Nazi ideology was was flawed and ignorant. The Nazis believed in domination versus cooperation of the human species. This line of thinking ultimately leads to a belief that one can dominate nature and the laws of the universe, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of humanity. Nazis would not be immune to this fate.

  10. An excellent and well-crafted essay, and I’ll certainly try to take these points into account when I think about the examples that are so often used to illustrate Amathia. And it is certainly important that we discuss our Stoic principles in a way that doesn’t seem to trivialize or downplay the reality of evil, as colloquially understood. Stoics care deeply about Justice, after all.

    A big piece of the puzzle is missing in this post, however: the distinction between abstract, cognitive knowledge of good and evil, and the actual moment-by-moment beliefs that guide our emotions and decisions on the other.

    As Kevin and many other people have pointed out, there are obviously real-world cases where people “knew what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.” Prima facie, this seems to contradict the picture painted by Socratic psychology.

    Therefore, if we take Massimo’s notion of whether a person gets “up in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’” as a *litmus test* or *definition* of amathia, then amathia clearly cannot explain all evil! Q.E.D.

    But I, for one, have never viewed amathia this way. It seems clear to me that amathia is a much deeper kind of ignorance, such that even if we can verbally or cognitively acknowledge that, say, “killing my mother is wrong,” when we choose to do it anyway, it is because we nevertheless believe—if only for a fleeting moment—that “killing my mother” (or even “being evil”) is what is “good” or “excellent” for me personally.

    In this view, Amathia doesn’t so much describe an abstract commitment to doing good as the real, down-to-earth throws of *temptation*: where sure, we quote-unquote “know” that eating that tub of ice cream is gluttonous and will have negative consequences, but a huge part of our brain is nonetheless pulsating with an irrational, died-in-ink belief that this ice cream is what will really make us happy! This kind of struggle is core to Stoic practice: we work day by day to take our cognitive knowledge of ethical and emotional principles, and make progress toward working them down as “dye” to color our character in positive ways (Meditations, 5.17).

    In such a situation, it’s the deeper impulses and intuitive beliefs that lead us to act that define our deepest drives and character. Our abstract ability to name “goods” and “evils” when asked to do so, by contrast, has very little to do with our true character—our true beliefs.

    So, Massimo may very well be in error in his interpretation of Eichmann, and his focus on people who ask “‘what sort of evil can I do today?’” does perhaps suggest a model of amathia that is indefensible.

    But it seems we can easily repair the weaknesses in his interpretation by looking, as the Stoics did, at the deeper beliefs and emotions that ultimately guide our actions. People may very well exist who *do* say “what sort of evil can I do today?”—but even then, it is because on some level and in some sense, if only for a moment, they believe that “evil” is “good for them.”

    That is ignorance—amathia. But true enough, it is hardly a “banal” kind! To the contrary, it is an especially deep and pernicious kind of ignorance, and it’s my opinion that Socrates was trying to point us to an especially deep and pernicious form of immorality when he cast virtue in terms of “knowledge” and “ignorance.”

  11. It is difficult to categorize horrific events such as the Holocaust as being the result of something other than evil. However, I am in agreement with Stoic thought – humans commit evil acts because they lack wisdom of what is truly good. This idea makes sense to me in view of human behaviors throughout history. Historically, human beings have considered many behaviors as acceptable or good rather than evil, such as slaughtering native populations in “newly” discovered lands, enslaving other human beings, and treating women as property (raping them, beating them, committing them to asylums, taking their children). People have committed horrible acts that they have been able to justify within the context of time and culture. Do we believe that all of these people were evil or committed evil acts?
    The Holocaust, while abhorrent, exemplifies how human behavior can be misguided due to a lack of wisdom. Yes, I am sickened and disgusted by many human behaviors but I do think they are the result of a lack of wisdom, amathia, rather than evil.
    Present day behaviors that many of us ignore include the inhumane treatment of minorities, immigrants, and those incarcerated in prisons. Many of us also contribute to the mass cruelty and slaughter of animals for food and clothing. Are these evil acts or are they the result of a lack of wisdom (amathia)? The fact that many will argue whether certain acts are evil contributes to the idea that behaviors result from a lack of wisdom.

  12. A very interesting analysis of Eichmann’s thinking as a nazi by Kevin Kennedy and a serious warning not to be fooled by the intelligent lies of an evil man.

    During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 Eichmann discussed Kantian ethics with his judges to convince them that he tried to live according to Kant’s categorical imperative and that he did not have evil intentions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl1dGuiA9tU (from 6:26).

    In her book Eichmann before Jerusalem Bettina Stangneth showed that Eichmann rejected Kantian ethics in the memoires he wrote in Argentina in 1956. Eichmann was intelligent enough to understand and to reject Kantian ethics and to use it as a weapon in the battle against what he considered to be his racial enemies.

    In their verdict the judges called Eichmann “cunning”, which is a much better qualification than “banal”.

    You can find the verdict at http://www.nizkor.org. See especially paragraph 243:

    “We now add that his entire testimony was nothing but one consistent attempt to deny the truth and to conceal his real share of responsibility, or at least to reduce it to a minimum. His attempt was not unskilful, due to those qualities which he had shown at the time of his actions – an alert mind; the ability to adapt himself to any difficult situation; cunning and a glib tongue.”

  13. Hello
    Interesting text.
    Indeed, evil is not banal as the author of the text says. However, in my opinion, the author fails to distinguish “theoretical learning” from “wisdom”(which also involves practice or even acting). It seems Eichmann had information about the Western philosophical tradition, but considered it erroneous. The Eichmann’s strongest belief was that the good lies in the Nazi ideal.

  14. Eichmann pursued where he conjectured “good” was to be found. That sadly was in the eradication of the Jews. His conception of humanity was limited to a certain race. That is ignorance. He sought his good in what we define as evil. He thought his philosophy higher and more important than Western values. I guess I would not call it so much as banality as incorrect thinking/feeling/acting which created a seriously flawed individual. I think if you take one next step after evil -it falls back to ignorance of where the true good lies. I guess you could always ask why does one pursue evil? There has to be a next step and it would seem one is pursuing where they believe their “good” is to be found (power, greed etc). An incorrect conceptualization of good or the path to pursue it.

  15. “If a man could only subscribe heart and soul, as he ought, to the doctrine, that we are all primarily begotten of God,… I think that he will entertain no ignoble or mean thought about himself.” [I.III. ‘Epictetus, the discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual and Fragments’ Translated by W A Oldfather.]

    This is the reason it is claimed that no man is intentionally evil for, according to Stoicism, it is here that the ignorance lies.

    What person would do evil, let alone think evil, if they have fully internalised and followed the Stoic teachings about God.

    This is not some modern philosophical view of good and evil. It is a fundamental spiritual belief that a Stoic needs if they are to follow and understand the teachings of Stoicism.

    The Stoic belief is that fundamentally God is good. And it is from this absolute belief that comes all of the Stoic ethics including an understanding of what Stoicism means by determinism and providence, both regards what God (the Cosmos and Fate) throws at us, but also how we use the fact that we are ‘begotten of God’ to take part in using forethought to help determine what happens next in the play of life.

    In Stoicism it is the ignorance about our oneness with God that leads to ignoble thoughts about ourselves, which in turn leads to ignoble actions against society.

    ‘For I regard God’s will as better than my will. I shall attach myself to Him as a servant and follower, my choice is one with His, my desire one with His, in a word my will is one with His will.’ [IV.VII. ‘Epictetus, the discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual and Fragments’ Translated by W A Oldfather.]

    All this talk of Adolf Eichmann and trying to look as to if he saw his actions as good or evil is to miss the point. His ignorance was more fundamental. He did not believe in God.

    In Stoicism, the only true good is God and we are exhorted to align ourselves with God so that we may also be as good as we can. No person who does not believe in God can do this for they do not have the correct target to aim for.

    They are blinded to what is needed to ‘live in accord with Nature’.

    Adrian Lever

      1. Hi Klaas,

        I have to admit I have not studied what Eichmann believed or did not believe. As it is I apologise for my use of ‘shorthand’. Having referred to ‘the Stoic teachings about God’ I would have hoped that further reference by me to God in my comment would be seen as referring to ‘the Stoic view of God’ and it is this view that is the basis of Stoicism.

        It is clear from a study of Stoicism that the Stoic view of God needs to be fully understood, as when the Stoic view of God, determinism and providence is omitted or perverted, then the whole of the Stoic system ‘is broken backed’ (as per A A Long).

        As to another comment that states “a belief in God does not prevent bigotry”, this is true, which is why the Stoic view of God is a rational view rather than just blind faith and which is why Stoicism tries to encourage its followers not to be bigoted and this is done by ‘seeing Nature in her nakedness’.

        Unfortunately, on this and a many other platforms, it is to be seen that a lack of belief in God also does not prevent bigotry. So it comes down to the fact that God is not a common factor when it comes to bigotry and so is not to be equated with bigotry. Bigotry is a state of mind of the ignorant person – regardless of if they believe or do not believe in God.

        This is why many an atheist needs to be very careful when denying God, especially God as seen by Stoicism, for equating God with ‘evil’ enacted by mankind can often come across as a bigoted view. 🙂

        Adrian Lever

  16. Excellent essay. I greatly admire Kevin Kennedy’s attempt to disprove the Socratic claim that people do evil because they mistakenly think they’re doing good. But I think success proves elusive here, as it so often does, because rather than seeking to eliminate evil, the Socratic claim simply to describe its mechanics. To say that Eichmann chose the “atavistic” ideology of the Nazis over Western values is to suggest that he thought the one good and the other bad. And he pursued the former even to the point of suppressing his own visceral sense of right and wrong. That doesn’t mean he didn’t commit heinous crimes. But it does show how he justified them to himself. Fortunately, Socrates (or was it Plato?) indicated an alternative for those who want to escape delusional thinking and avoid committing evil.

    1. An alternative explanation of Eichmann’s position: he did not believe in good and bad, but in the right of the strong to rule over the weak, like Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil and Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias. It is very hard to refute this position with reasonable arguments, as Plato showed in Socrates futile attempts to prove Callicles wrong.

    2. Agreed. I’m unfamiliar with Arendt’s work, but somewhat versed in the concept of amathia. The author seems to interpret ignorance in the “I didn’t know” sense rather than the “I believe wrong to be right” sense. If the meaning were the former, he might be correct in pointing out the danger of concluding that education could cure evil. But given the latter meaning, only wisdom, which is acquired through practicing virtue, could help. Wisdom would likely be unattainable to someone who is passionately committed to a definition of “good” that is so incorrect and vicious. Thus, pity is an appropriate reaction to such people. Deal with them, prevent them from inflicting further damage, but no need to hate or fear them. Accepting the amathia concept doesn’t change the action we need to take, it just keeps us from damaging ourselves in the process of exercising justice.

  17. An interesting contrast of views.
    The phrase the banality of evil was part of my education at Essex University in the 1960s, but I do not recall discussing what it meant, in depth.

    1. Bigotry (including racism, sexism, religious hatred etc.) has been described as a failure of the imagination. It is one’s failure to see the targets of one’s hatred (the “other”) as being as individually human as oneself. Instead the bigot sees such persons as de-humanized abstractions. Dehumanization is the first step to genocide because the “other”, having been rendered not human (i.e. less than human) is no longer eligible for, much less entitled to, consideration as a person entitled to human rights. In the extreme case of the holocaust, many NAZIs were perfectly capable of being loyal and generous with each other while consigning Jews to the death camps. One group was viewed by the NAZIs as human; the other was not. Many minority groups continue to experience such de-humanization.

      This failure of the imagination is a kind of ignorance or amathia, not based solely on a lack of facts or lack of reasoning, but also on a lack of feeling: a lack of sympathy or compassion or magnanimity – in short, a lack of wisdom. In this sense, I believe Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” is quite apt. The narrowness of the bigot is not just a narrowness of mind, but also a narrowness of feeling. This is why, no matter how zealous the bigot’s hatred and how vicious the bigot’s actions, the result is banal.
      Think of James Alex Fields Jr., the murderer at the Charlottesville Virginia protest in 2017.

      Unfortunately, as we know now more than ever, a belief in God does not prevent bigotry.

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