Supposing you are familiar with the famous tale, please fast forward to the scene where the Big Bad Wolf, having already taken care of the grandma, has now cornered the Little Red Riding Hood. The hunter shows up – because women need always to be rescued by a man in the fairy tales, do not get me started on the gender issues…. – and saves the Red Riding Hood. The minute he is about to shoot the Big Bad Wolf, the Red Riding Hood jumps in to stop him: ‘Wait! What if someone ordered the Wolf to do this evil thing? Shouldn’t we first try to understand why he did it?’
Now replace the grandma with 6 million Jews, replace the Big Bad Wolf with Adolf Eichmann, replace the hunter with the Jerusalem District Court and pretty much all the internationally community, and finally replace the Little Red Riding Hood with Hannah Arendt. Who?
As it is more often the case than not, I run into this woman’s mind while I was going for something else. Hanna Arendt was a political scientist and philosopher, renowned for her work on totalitarianism among other things. Arendt, a German Jew that had herself fled from the concentration camps at the last minute, volunteered to cover for the NY Times the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem after the Mossad captured him. Eichmann was the Logistics Manager of the SS, i.e. responsible for the transportation of Jews in the ghettos and camps. During the trial, Eichmann consistently argued that he was just following orders he was obliged to follow, that he didn’t take any initiatives and showed almost no signs of confusion or second thoughts implying a bad conscience. The NY Times published her report (more of a philosophical essay) on the trial and the response was just a tad far from loving. She received tones of threats, lost some of her Jewish friends and she was asked to resign from her lecturing position in the university.
All because Arendt asked us to try and understand the Big Bad Wolf:
“Is evil-doing, not just the sins of omission but the sins of commission, possible in the absence of not merely ‘base motives’ (as the law calls it) but of any motives at all, any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it, this being ‘determined to prove a villain’, not a necessary condition for evil doing? Is our ability to judge, to tell right for wrong, beautiful from ugly, dependent upon our faculty of thought? Do the inability to think and a disastrous failure of what we commonly call conscience coincide? The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent from results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evil-doing?”
In her article ‘Thinking and moral considerations’ which I came across to, she mostly deals with defining thinking, namely as an opposition to knowing. Knowing is the intellectual activity that seeks verified knowledge, one that it is useful and can be put into practice. On the other hand, thinking seeks meaning, thinking is satisfied only within thinking itself, it is never-ending and does nothing but perplexing us. She analyses this duet by bringing in – who else? – Socrates. The guy thought all day long and knew nothing. Socrates’ analysis leaves us with the unfruitful tautological conclusion that those who seek good, justice and all these nice things are the ones who think. However, in the process a very interesting correlation emerges: the relationship between thinking and conscience. Provided the latter splits the one into two:
“For Socrates, this two-in-one meant simply that if you want to think you must see to it that the two who carry on the thinking dialogue be in good shape, that the partners be friends. It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him?”
Truth be told, Arendt perplexed my mind in about a zillion ways. For example, I had a hard time finding a thinking process that did not aim at knowing. How is thinking, i.e. understanding yourself, others or the world different from knowing about them, especially if we suppose that there is no true world but only the apparent one? Is not Socrates’ way of exposing the limitation of knowledge nothing but another route to knowledge? And so on.
Nevertheless. The whole point is merely asking the question about the Big Bad Wolf. However, how would that make any difference? The grandma may have escaped out of Wolf’s belly, but the ending for the 6 million Jews was not as lucky. Since you either have conscience or not, since there are people who think and people who don’t, there will always be Big Bad Wolfs.
Well, not quite. You may not be able to identify with Eichmann, but evil is in us all. We are all capable of bad deeds, worse than we may imagine, and we are mostly committing them when we are doing what we must do. So I’ll leave you off with a classical philosophical puzzle. Imagine you are the captain of a boat. There is an accident and the boat starts sinking. On the boat, there is a person you love and some other guy. You only have one life vest for the two of them. What would you do? Who would you pick? Oh, I thought so..And you think that’s ok?