(image: Alcibiades and Socrates, by Marcello Bacciarelli, 1776-77)
According to Socrates, the only evil is ignorance. This phrase has always been controversial, because it seems to be immediately refuted by the very well known fact that lots of people do bad things in full knowledge of what they are doing. Adolf Eichmann, for one, was not just a low level bureaucrat who followed orders during the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews. He was a high level officer who deliberately helped planning the deportations and killings, and who was openly proud of his “work.”
But it is always dangerous to dismiss something that a philosopher of the caliber of Socrates said, on the grounds that it seems prima facie (as philosophers are fond of saying) absurd. Far more likely it is that you have not fully understood what he meant. If that same Socratic attitude, moreover, was then adopted and made part of their central philosophy by the Stoics, you can bet that there is more than meets the eye.
When I asked my colleague Nick Pappas, a careful and renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, about that famous Socratic phrase, he explained that the word actually used by Socrates is “amathia,” elaborating:
“The root verb is ‘manthano,’ to learn. So etymologically the word just means a state of not having learned. Heraclitus uses the word a couple of times to mean extreme ignorance. It appears with more moralistic judgment in Euripides (Phoenissae, Medea, Bacchae), where it can mean stupidity or boorishness. These sources come before Plato. Within Plato the most interesting passage might be the Alcibiades Major 118a-c. There Socrates distinguishes the mere ignorance of ‘agnoia’ from the ‘amathia’ that Alcibiades and Pericles had.”
Now Pericles and Alcibiades were not ignorant. On the contrary, they were among the most highly educated of Athenians. They were also not stupid. Again, we are talking about two brilliant minds. And they did what they did, in particular with regard to the eventually disastrous conduct of the Peloponnesian War by Athens, in full knowledge. Moreover, when Alcibiades repeatedly switched sides -- from Athens to Sparta, then back to Athens, then to the Persians -- he knew that he was doing something that his fellow citizens would consider wrong. But he thought so highly of himself, almost a god walking among men, that he felt entitled to do it. From his point of view, whatever course of action he decided on was the right one.
Socrates, of course, understood all too well that smart, educated and ambitious people are particularly prone to suffer from amathia, a sort of willful lack of wisdom. And he also knew that this condition typically leads not just to such people’s ruin, but to the ruin of entire populations that follow them (often out of mere ignorance or stupidity, i.e., agnoia).
All of this is germane to an article recently published in Modern Stoicism by Kevin Kennedy, who -- like many others I have encountered -- really dislikes my writings on amathia because he feels that they cheapen horrors such as the Holocaust.
Kennedy focuses on my discussion of the Eichman case as presented in How to Be a Stoic. He correctly points out that Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as an example of “the banality of evil” has been criticized on the basis of both some inaccuracies in Arendt’s original account and because of new documents about Eichman that emerged after the trial. This is all true, but makes no difference at all to my argument. In fact, if anything, it reinforces it.
Had Eichman simply been a mindless bureaucrat who was following orders, he would have been no different from countless other Germans who allowed Nazism to flourish between 1933 and 1945. Those Germans were in turn no different from the Italians under fascism, the Athenians under Pericles and Alcibiades, even a good chunk of contemporary Americans under Trump. (No, I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m comparing the mindlessness of so many people who support obviously bad leaders, across time and cultures.) Those people were all victims of agnoia, not amathia.
Amathia is the more interesting condition because it illuminates in a new way the otherwise mysterious fact that some individuals with all the advantages of smarts and education still manage to engage in seriously immoral acts. In fact, Kennedy himself not only does not refute my (well, really, Socrates’) argument, he repeatedly falls into contradiction throughout his article. For instance, he writes:
“[Eichmann] like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing. … He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. … He did so not just to please his superiors -- as the Eichmann-myth would have it -- but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.”
Precisely. Yes, the Nazi were aware that they were in violation of Western religious-philosophical thought. But they also were convinced that such tradition was corrupted, embodying the wrong morality, so to speak, and not one that would lead to the rightful (as they saw it) flourishing of the German nation and the Aryan “race.” That is a textbook case of amathia. Eichmann & co. did not get up in the morning, stand in front of a mirror and ask themselves with an evil grin: “what sort of horrors can I possibly commit today?” No, they were functioning under a different “morality,” and they were convinced that they were right. So was Alcibiades, and his righteousness cost the lives of tens of thousands of Athenians during the disastrous expedition against Syracuse.
Why think of people’s behaviors in terms of amathia rather than in the more stark, and psychologically satisfying, age old concept of good vs evil? Because Manichean, black and white conceptions of the world are not only not informative, but positively misleading. The world is complicated, and people even more so. It’s easy, and it feels good, to simply slap the label of “evil” on someone else and be done with it. But that label explains nothing, and does not prepare us for the next round of trouble, which is sure to come.
Kennedy doesn’t want any part of this, however. He writes:
“The assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust.”
But we are never told exactly why invoking amathia as an explanatory concept is “a grotesque banalization.” There is nothing banal in Socratic and Stoic philosophy, though there certainly are paradoxa, a word that originally simply meant “uncommon opinions.” Kennedy seems to be confusing two very distinct concepts, understanding and justification, and it is precisely this confusion that leads him to be incensed by my suggestion that Eichmann was suffering from amathia. But to attempt to understand human actions is not at all the same as justifying them.
One of my literary and academic role models, the semioticist Umberto Eco, wrote a highly controversial editorial in a major Italian newspaper immediately after the attacks on 9/11, 2001. The title of the editorial was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco pointed out at the onset that what he wanted to do was to understand, not to justify. Nothing justifies the horrific destruction brought on New York City that day, but to say -- as then President Bush did say -- that the attacks were due to the fact that “they hate our freedom” is not only wrong, it truly is a “grotesque banalization.” Bin Laden was responding to decades of unwelcome interference by the US government in Middle Eastern affairs, not to mention to the presence of American military bases on what he considered sacred soil. That, in part, is what made him possible for him to recruit people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they thought was the greater good. Ironically, for those people it was the United States who was “the Great Satan.” See how easy, and irresponsibly dangerous, it is to slap the “evil” label and cause mayhem?
So, contra Kennedy, I think the concept of amathia is crucial not just to Stoic philosophy, but to our attempts to understand why people do horrific things. Such understanding is most certainly not aimed at justifying the Holocaust or anything else. Rather, it is aimed at preventing future occurrences of such horrors, by deploying strategies aimed at decreasing the likelihood that future leaders will suffer from amathia. Let’s start by making the teaching of practical philosophy mandatory, if not for the general population at least for anyone elected to public office, and see if we can’t manage to reduce the chances of seeing another Eichmann, or Alcibiades.