CT 1: Self-Knowledge and Ethics

Simone Weil

We experience good only by doing it. We experience evil only by refusing to allow ourselves to do it, or, if we do it, by repenting of it. When we do evil we do not know it, because evil flies from the light.

 Does evil, as we conceive it to be when we do not do it, exist? Does not the evil that we do seem to be something simple and natural which compels us? Is not evil analogous to illusion? When we are the victims of an illusion we do not feel it to be an illusion but a reality. It is the same perhaps with evil. Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.

 As soon as we do evil, the evil appears as a sort of duty. Most people have a sense of duty about doing certain things that are bad and others that are good. The same man feels it to be a duty to sell for the highest price he can and not to steal, etc. Good for such people is on the level of evil, it is a good without light.” —Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (p.121)

Some might think it odd to begin this section on self-knowledge and ethics with a lengthy quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil concerning the distinctions between good and evil. Weil’s statement on what evil is relates to Socrates’ statements that “No one knowingly does evil” and “It is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it”. In our discussion of Plato’s Cave, we saw that for Plato, morality is entirely internal and that evil is not the opposite of good but is the deprivation of good, or “good without light” as Weil states. What we call “morality” is based on self-knowledge or what the Greeks called phronesis or good judgement regarding the things that are in our own self-interest. Evil begins with our own self-deception regarding what is in our best interests; it is a choosing of the “shadows” instead of the light that is the good. For the Greeks, aletheia was our “uncovering” of beings from the darkness or hiddenness in which they repose; it was bringing the beings to light. As evil is the deprivation of good, it is also the deprivation of truth.

If we remember our original starting point in the blog in Plato’s Cave, even the shadows contain some truth because they are made possible by the light of the fire kept by the opinion-makers, the sophists, inside of the Cave and the diffused light of the sun which is outside the Cave, and the shadows are those beings that experience the deprivation of the sun’s light and are deprived of the sun’s light. For Plato, they are “non-beings” in that they are not what they truly are. Because the shadows are non-beings, they are the illusions and delusions that seduce us into thinking that they are “real” and are necessary to our well-being and our happiness. https://mytok.blog/2018/06/28/personal-knowledge-understanding-the-shadows/

What occurs when thinking or reasoning is not involved in practical action? To explore this we will attempt to understand the phrase the “banality of evil”, a concept which comes from the philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). We often wonder how it was/is possible that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, such as the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia or the Nazi carrying out of the European Jewish Holocaust during World War II, could possibly act in such horrific, evil ways. Arendt’s thesis is that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state (or institutions) and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats. They conceive of their actions to be their duty. Eichmann’s appearance and responses to his accusers have been echoed in eerily similar, familiar ways by those accused of the Khmer Rouge massacres over the past few years.

What Arendt had detected in Eichmann when viewing the process of his prosecution and his trial was thoughtlessness. Eichmann’s ordinariness was demonstrated  in an incapacity for independent critical thought: “… the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Arendt continues: “When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

In an article “Normalizing the Unthinkable” (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1984), Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was “normalized” for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: “[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed.” Peattie focused on the parallels between routinization in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the “unthinkable” is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. “Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone.”

The point being made here is that human beings in the everydayness of their dealings within the “lens” of technological world-view are incapable of the capacity for thinking that reflects on the wholeness of their activities when they are given over to the “they-Self”, the society or community of which they are a member. This giving over may express itself in loyalty to superiors (as it did with Eichmann), with patriotism, or in the currently common populism that is erupting throughout the world.

Arendt notes that there is a most sinister “innocent appearance” or commonplace “normality” to our activities whether it is manufacturing food, bombs or corpses when these activities become rootless, mechanized and routinized.  Almost 10 years after Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reaffirms in Thinking and Moral Considerations this same dimension of evil: “… the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Arendt asks the question: “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 of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evil-doing?” But in the technological world, all our thinking is a striving for results. Where are we to find genuine thinking when we are dominated by a drive to produce results and we see it as our duty to produce results, and in our exhaustion from our efforts, all we wish for is to be entertained by our thoughtless arts?

When I speak of the “sinister innocence” of the appearance of evil as a phenomenon, I am referring to the quote from Simone Weil that begins this reflection. Weil sees “the surface phenomenon” as the phenomenon of evil in the same way that the shadows in the Cave that “enthrall us” are the “illusions” of an absent reality, the Good. Arendt, who cannot allow herself to assert something like “the highest good”, continues:

“I mean that evil is not radical, going to the roots (radix), that is has no depth, and that for this very reason it is so terribly difficult to think about it, since thinking, by definition, wants to reach the roots. Evil is a surface phenomenon, and instead of being radical, it is merely extreme. We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think, that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life. In other words, the more superficial someone is the more likely will he be to yield to evil. An indication of such superficiality is the use of clichés, and Eichmann …was a perfect example.” 

Whereas Arendt sees evil as “extreme” and a “surface phenomenon”, Weil sees evil as the false reality of our everyday being-in-the-world since our being is “deprived” of the good unless we are thoughtful and attentive to it and wrest it from its hiddenness. Arendt sees thinking as necessary to prevent us from doing evil, but she is unclear regarding thinking’s direction when she says “reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life”. What exactly is that “horizon” and that dimension in the technological? In the society that accepts that “Time is money” and where “results” are most important, where are there moments to be reflective upon one’s being-in-the-world and actions? In the entry that explores “Understanding the Shadows”, I have attempted to make clear that the surface of phenomenon is all that we care about in the modern and that this has been in the making for hundreds of years.

Arendt in her later thinking says:  “It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying’, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical.” (Hannah, Arendt, The Jew as Pariah – Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. (New York: Grove Press, 1978), p. 251.)

In Plato’s Republic Bk. 6, Plato describes all forms of human community as ‘a Great Beast’ whether it be that of a city, society or a culture that one gains some freedom from through recognizing it as such, and from this turning away receives the freedom to move towards the light. The metaphor of the Beast is an analogy to the ‘they-Self’, and the Cave of Bk. 7 of Republic is a literal description of being in ‘the belly of the beast’ and the ‘turning’ and ascent to remove or extricate oneself from the Beast’s control. Service to the Great Beast in Republic, our desire for social recognition and “empowerment”, is the great temptation or enchainment which prevents one from seeking the Good. The “giving away of oneself”, the greatest good or the highest end for human beings, that is spoken of by the saints is eerily demonstrated in the deprivation of that giving away shown in that giving away of one’s freedom to think in those who could and would potentially engage in the most heinous crimes. Power, the illusion of the control of necessity and chance, is the temptation. It is thus that we enter the world of the sophist and politics. https://mytok.blog/2019/11/22/ot-5-knowledge-and-politics-part-1/

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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