Hannah Arendt, evil and the eradication of thought

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Abstract

Evil deeds may be committed intentionally or out of madness, but it is those who follow orders that present us with the most complex moral, philosophical and psychological questions. In writing about the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt argues that “in granting pardon, it is the person and not the crime that is forgiven; in rootless evil there is no person left whom one could ever forgive.” Arendt postulates that “being a person” necessarily entails the acts of memory and thought. This paper explores Arendt’s ideas on memory and thought and how these processes can become subverted in the service of a higher order. Clinical material illustrates Whitmer’s idea of dissociation as an “impairment of subjectivity” as distinct from Freud’s view of dissociation as a form of repression. This shift in theoretical perspective sheds new light on our understanding of the totalitarian state of mind, i.e. of the mind of a “nobody”, and the conditions within which evil is committed.

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