The most famous of the five books is either Eric Hoffer’s analysis of mass movements, “The True Believer,” or “Obedience to Authority,” psychologist Stanley Milgram’s account of the chilling experiments that revealed how ordinary people could be turned into torturers. Complementing these, Erich Fromm’s “On Disobedience” looks at how human progress has always depended on those who break away from the yoke of tradition and received opinion. Also included are a selection of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings “On Truth and Untruth,” chosen and translated by Taylor Carman, and Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age,” translated by Alexander Dru, in which the Danish philosopher reflects on the relationship between thought and action in a time when, in his words, “nothing happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”
Because all human beings are both unique individuals and members of various tribes — we grow up in a family, are citizens of a nation, believe in a religion — our lives are balanced between opposing tugs and polarities. Too much emphasis on the self can lead to obnoxious egotism, or desperate loneliness or alienation and paranoia. Too much devotion to a community can morph into racism, xenophobia, mass hysteria and other forms of fanaticism.
In Eric Hoffer’s view, “there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts” people “might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.” All mass movements, he stresses, “irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance.”
An authoritarian movement initially appeals most to the poor, the insulted and injured, the dispossessed and the bored. A charismatic leader suddenly proffers a new hope, some rosy vision of a better life, an escape from a debased existence. Dazzled by the glorious time just around the corner, a movement’s followers can then accept crude absurdities and trivial nonsense as eternal truths. Paradoxically, as Hoffer emphasizes, to be most effective, “a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in.” It actually gains power by being unintelligible, totally make-believe and, most importantly, “unverifiable.” The leader’s devoted base can then be “urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds.” Eventually, he adds, “all active mass movements strive . . . to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.”
In a chapter titled “Unifying Agents,” Hoffer notes that “there is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go to when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom — freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.” There, in kernel, are some of the conclusions of Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority.”
Here is the setup: Two people come to a laboratory to participate in an experiment, ostensibly about how punishment affects memory and learning. One is designated the “teacher,” the other the “learner.” Whenever the learner makes a mistake in answering certain questions, the teacher is told to administer an electrical jolt of ever-increasing intensity. In reality, the learner is an actor and there is no shock. But as the experiment goes on, the learner will eventually pretend to scream in agony. If the teacher hesitates to continue, he or she is firmly instructed to carry on, that such reactions are to be expected. “The aim of this investigation was to find when and how people would defy authority in the face of a clear moral imperative.”
Alas, “with numbing regularity, good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe.” In the catchphrase used by so many Nazi concentration camp guards, “they were just following orders.” When asked why he gunned down scores of unarmed Vietnamese at My Lai, including babies, an unnamed American soldier answered, “I was ordered to do it, and . . . at the time I felt like I was doing the right thing.”
Appropriately, Erich Fromm’s “On Disobedience” warns against such immoral conformity, as well as “hysterical nationalism” and the dehumanizing pressures of industrial civilization. In the modern world, he laments, “we produce machines that are like men and men who are like machines.”
Ultimately, these three books — along with the Nietzsche and Kierkegaard — should be read as humanist manifestos. Evil triumphs when we view living human beings as abstractions. These days, in particular, we need to show tolerance, empathy and goodwill to others. The United States is part of the world, not separate from it. As Eric Hoffer sadly observed: “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
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