Friday, March 24, 2017

Good thinking

I'm reading the new book by the wonderful Elizabeth Minnich, a vindication and updating of her teacher Hannah Arendt's arguments about the "banality of evil" for our times. I think she's probably right that Arendt would have spared herself lots of controversy if she's spoken instead of the "evil of banality," which Minnich unpacks as our own dumbest, densest, out-of-touch, compartmentalized, autopilot, clichéd, conventional, inattentive, greedy, careerist, and, enabling all that, thoughtless selves (122).

I'll have more to say about the book when I've finished reading it, but for now let me express my delight that Minnich includes a whole section on Goodness. The central distinction of the book is between the "intensive evil" of spectacular individuals and the "extensive evil" engaged in by great numbers for extended periods of time which is what really enables and enacts the greatest evils. Good comes in both sorts, too, Minnich argues, and imagining good only in its supererogatory saintly heroic "intensive" forms obscures the value of "extensive good." (The points on 126, below, are key.)

[E]ducating more of us to be prepared to martyr ourselves sadly means only that we will continue to need martyrs. (140)

She cites the work of Philip Hallie (who was at the center of one of my very first classes at The New School), but favors a less awestruck understanding of the "banality of good." It doesn't just seem ordinary and natural to those practiced in it. The work of good is itself banal. Resisting the blandishments of "extensive evil" is a demanding, even exhausting practice, requiring a complicated mix of attention, effort, collaboration and persistence.

To be and do good is more work than to be bad, even evil: you have to stay awake, and you have to practice both independence of mind and cooperative action, both open attentiveness and active reflection, direct simplicity and understanding of complex, changing contexts. (160)

I haven't thought about my own unfinished work on what I was calling "the problem of good," then "the problem with good," for a long time, but it's coming back to me as I read Minnich. I'd part ways with her at some point, because, while both feminist thinkers, she's less interested than I am in the ethics of care, which seems to me central to the theoretical elusiveness of good. But I haven't finished her book yet!

Elizabeth Minnich, The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death
Importance of Thinking (NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

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