With the release of the new biopic “Hannah Arendt,” about the political philosopher’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, you can expect to be hearing a lot of Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil.”

Arendt famously saw in Adolf Eichmann (one of the key logistical organizers of the Holocaust) not a raging anti-Semite who delighted in murder, but a pencil-pusher who became a workaday tool of genocide merely by unreflectively and diligently following orders.

Critics of Eichmann In Jerusalem believe that Arendt, a great thinker but incompetent court reporter, was duped by Eichmann: Eichmann was in fact a racist true-believer, as were thousands of his countrymen, who did not “blindly” follow orders but became “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Furthermore, Ron Rosenbaum has urged the abandonment of the banality of evil on more general grounds: it denies the reality of conscious, willful, knowing evil.

But apart from the specifics of Eichmann and the Holocaust more generally—a still-raging debate I dare not touch—Barry Gewen reminds us why the “banality of evil” is in fact an important concept, a call to action:

Arendt’s approach was unyieldingly universalistic. Her analysis of Eichmann was a demand for individual responsibility, an insistence on the need constantly to exercise personal choice, whatever society might dictate. This is a cold ethic, as severe as Kant’s, so difficult it has a quality of the inhuman about it. For who among us can maintain the unceasing moral awareness she calls for? [emphasis mine]

The citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a largely Huguenot village, rescued over five thousand Jews from Eichmann’s ilk in occupied France. But this was by no means inevitable: when the town’s church community tried to secure promises to help the anticipated stream of refugees, the townspeople largely refused. As James C. Scott recounts in Two Cheers for Anarchism (reviewed for TAC here), they only changed their minds when the Jews began to arrive:

The pastors’ wives found themselves with real, existing Jews on their hands, and they tried again. They would, for example, take an elderly Jew, thin and shivering in the cold, to the door of a farmer who had declined to commit himself earlier, and ask, “Would you give our friend here a meal and a warm coat, and show him the way to the next village?” The farmer now how had a living, breathing victim in front of him, looking him in the eye, perhaps imploringly, and would have to turn him away…

Once the individual villagers had made such a gesture, they typically became committed to helping the refugees for the duration. They were, in other words, able to draw the conclusions of their own practical gesture of solidarity—their actual line of conduct—and see it as the ethical thing to do. They did not enunciate a principle and then act on it. Rather, they acted, and then drew out the logic of that act. Abstract principle was the child of practical reason, not its parent.

Francois Rochat, contrasting this pattern with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” calls it the “banality of goodness.”

The pastors’ wives answered Gewen’s question: Who can maintain unceasing moral awareness? None of us—our moral reasoning fails us constantly. We need, it would seem, to have our neighbor constantly put before us, his suffering shown to us.