Although based on a massive misunderstanding, an insistent charge against Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil is that she diminishes the extraordinary moral destructiveness of the camps. Yet in The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt provides the most penetrating ethical analysis of camp practices we have. The Nazis discovered that being human is not an essence or a given quality but a standing or status that is bestowed on our social fellows; what they then demonstrated in the camps is that this standing or status could be destroyed while its bearer, the solitary living body, remained alive.
Jay Bernstein is Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His publications include Art and Aesthetics after Adorno (2010); Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (2005); Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2001), and The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (1993).