Critical Thinking

Hannah Arendt

Watching the film biography of Hannah Arendt brought me back to the works of the German – Jewish philosopher best remembered for her controversial study of Adolf Eichmann and his 1961 trial for orchestrating mass murder. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt described the Nazi bureaucrat as all too ordinary, as “terribly and terrifying normal,” as utterly commonplace and banal, almost, in fact, as “everyman.” To her critics, this view of Eichmann seemed to diminish the magnitude of the crimes in which he was implicated, making the Holocaust itself seem banal, simply another massacre among the many massacres of history, although on a larger than average scale. It also carried the implication that anyone or almost anyone might have done what he did either to Jews or anyone else if the circumstances of the day had been different.

Arendt saw Eichmann as a man who refused to think, who had sunk into a semi – robotic mode of existence, obeying orders without question, doing his duty as a good subject of the state, signing over his conscience to the cause he was serving. Thinking, in her view, saves us from evil; not thinking causes us to fall into evil. This is a daring proposition. For her, thinking was an inner Socratic debate in which one questions oneself constantly, challenging one’s own fixed ideas, considering and re – considering everything that presents itself to the mind, the “soundless dialogue of the I with itself.” To not think is to die, morally speaking. The moral danger arises when we decide that we have found all the answers, so that we do not need to think any further, in other words, when we are swept away by ideologies.

An ideology is an idea that has been elevated into a truth, Truth with a capital T, or, as Arendt maintained, the logic of an idea expressed in its most extreme and intolerant form. In social terms, ideological convictions produce a conformist mentality, which in turn makes us slaves to what is now labelled “groupthink,” meaning mass conformity to popular truisms. It was groupthink that led to unquestioning obedience in Nazi Germany as soon as an evil ruler assumed the mantle of authority and legitimacy during a troubled era. It was groupthink that spawned a host of Eichmanns, “sleepwalkers” in a totalitarian state.

Conformism is as prevalent today as in the past. The recent scandal involving frosh week rape chants at two Canadian universities is obvious proof of how easily people can descend into a herd mentality, especially when peer pressure and other emotions come into play. Did the offending students listen to what they were shouting? Did they care? But non – conformism can also signify a refusal to think, being different only for the sake of being different, the rebel against society, the proverbial outsider, the chosen outcast. This too represents a kind of conformism, all too familiar even if it is usually harmless. Thinking is dialectical, not ideological; thinking is integral to what we call the human conscience or that inner voice that tells us when we are wrong and keeps us on the right track. In religious terms, it is seen as the voice of God.

Are religion and ideology the same? Arendt, who knew some Christian theology, especially Augustine and Kierkegaard, and who liked to refer to the New Testament, almost certainly did not believe so. Insofar as the great religions all make truth claims, they do in fact contain an ideological element, and, for this reason, are vulnerable to distortion. Truth with a capital T, truth that defines its dictates as the “true” faith or the “true” version of the true faith, truth that can stand no contradiction, truth that excommunicates all error and all who embrace error, is certainly ideological, and no religion is immune to its insidious appeal. At the same time, the great religions all possess the power of reformation, which is the power of self – criticism and self – correction; otherwise, they would never have passed the test of history.

Protestants above all should cherish the never – ending necessity of self – criticism. Theology, as opposed to dogma, represents critical thinking, and it is critical thinking that saves the Christian faith and Christians themselves from banality.


About Alan Davies

Alan Davies is a retired professor of religion. His last article for the Record, in January 2011, was on the plight of the Roma.