The concept of “the banality of evil” devised by Hannah Arendt half a century ago and indelibly linked to her mistaken characterization of Adolf Eichmann has remained both popular and controversial. Although the concept preceded the rise of the postmodern sensibility and the associated moral relativism, it has considerable affinity with both. Its popularity among Western intellectuals has two likely explanations. In the first place “the banality of evil” had a refreshing, iconoclastic, and demystifying aspect, and carried the promise of originality. It sent the message—always welcome by intellectuals—that there is a gulf between appearance and reality, that things are not what they seem to be, that even evil can be deconstructed, and those personifying it recast as mundane or banal. When first introduced, the concept was defiantly unconventional as it linked two hitherto opposed concepts:...


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