Pg 277 – They Thought They Were Free
Freedom is nothing but the habit of choice. Now choice is remarkably wide in this life. Each day begins with the choice of tying one’s left or right shoelace first, and ends with the choice of observing or ignoring the providence of God. Pressure narrows choice forcibly. Under light pressure men sacrifice small choices lightly. But it is only under the greatest pressure that they sacrifice the greatest choices, because choice, and choice alone, informs them that they are men and not machines.
What is the concept of Pressure that the author Milton Mayer is referring to? Is it direct peer pressure that we are all most likely familiar with? Is it larger than that, say pressure from the society we live in? Is it the pressure of responsibility from our morals? What about political pressure which isn’t quite peer or societal? In context Milton Mayer was mainly referring to political and the societal that comes from politics, but expanded Pressure can include all these things: moral, societal and political and can be both detrimental and beneficial to individuals and societies.
So why does pressure limit our choices…
Lets start with some foundations. Praxeology shows that Men act to change an unsatifsactory state to a satisfactory one. That is the only reason we act. Everything from buying food, to building a house, to giving to charity falls under this category. We see an unsatisfactory state and seek to change it to be more satisfactory. If there were never any unsatisfactory states, we would never act; but be in eternal, motionless, satisfied bliss (how this implies to heaven should be discussed in another post). Choice comes just before action in the chain of events. If there were ever only a single unsatisfactory state and a single satisfactory state we would have no need for actual choice. Because we would, by our very nature consistently act towards the single satisfactory state.
However, life isn’t like that. We have a near infinite number of unsatisfactory states in our life, and a near infinite number of methods to better those states. Thus Choice. Our choice dictates what unsatisfactory state we want to deal with at the present time and how we choose to deal with it.
Pressure is used in the quoted context as a form of indirect force. Pressure causes a narrowing of choice, meaning a reduction in the possible ways to change our unsatisfactory states to more satisfactory ones. Maybe the reduction only eliminated choices that you wouldn’t have chosen anyways. Like a good man in a good society has the choice to steal to acquire a TV, but the pressure of friends (peer), life (society), responsibility (individual morals) and threat of punishment (political) narrows his possible choices to exclude theft for acquiring the TV.
… and what effect does that have on Society?
Pressure, as inclusive of societal pressure and moral pressure is amoral. Individual pressures may be good or evil, but pressure as a term doesn’t have a fixed morality. However, let us not get into what is morally good and morally evil in this post but instead let us discuss some positive effects on society from pressure. As discussed before man is a social being and lives in relationships (maybe excluding the figurative hermit) with others. Society is built of these individuals and their unique preferences. As individuals of society want to be in a positive relationship with society they must allow societal pressure to narrow their choices to socially acceptable ones. Often this can be a positive thing. As individuals grow and learn they develop their tastes and move society with it, take Barnum and Baily circus for example, they were one of the first circuses to operate a moral level above the average circus; people decided they liked that and societal pressure (as well as profit incentive) moved all the other circuses to this new ethical level. Even in the modern world, society is moving towards “green”. Ethics and economics aside, individuals are making more and more choices towards greener products and greener lives and now to operate within our modern society we literally have to narrow our choices to include the “green” option. Assuming these individual preferences are made on a freedom based level (and not a coerced level discussed below) then this societal pressure is positive.
When pressure is applied politically, it has to be through coercion and force. Coercion and force is a form of pressure that causes negative effects on society. Rather than fear of societal ostracism or violating ones morals, political pressure is fear of force: jail, fines and even death. These options are rarely in anyones “satisfactory states” category. They are typically so unsatisfactory that given the choice between societal ostracism and moral violation on one side or jail, fines and death on the other; an individual will always choose societal ostracism and moral violation unless society or ones morals are incredibly resolute. No one likes going against their morals or against society, nor is it happening with every choice that includes politics but as bureaucrats like to be involved in every aspect of the citizen’s life, as a government gains power more and more choices are made with a political narrowing of choices. A repeated narrowing of choices in this manner slowly molds the individual and thus society to make such narrowed choices more acceptable. I think it’s safe to say that the average German’s morals weren’t so resolute as to go against the fear of jail, fines and death; and that some were molded amazingly fast.
Men who learn to live this way get used to it and even like it. It is workable, too; good discipline produces, at least in limited areas, the same performance as good self-discipline.
“And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before.
Through the general acceptance of their authority by the people, the politicians can exert societal pressure by defining what is good and acceptable behavior, and what isn’t. So as the Nazis became more and more of a political powerhouse, as more and more people started to believe that the Nazis were a force for their good, society as a whole started to exert more pressure on certain behaviors and certain people groups. Such that people’s choices were narrowed – maybe they would have acted out A – like hiring Person A or taking Job A – but instead because of society looking down certain activities or for legal reasons they acted out B – like hiring Person B (a non-Jew), or taking Job B (in the SS Party).
Under pressure, what would have been our preferred methods of bettering our states become less preferred, and over time maybe even pushed to a point where we choose a different method if the pressure was relieved. To continue the above A/B example, perhaps the Jew (B) was more productive than the German (A). Under non-pressured conditions the Jew would be hired, but if you include the political pressure exerted on the businessmen for not hiring Jews, the German (A) becomes the employee of choice.
“Under light pressure men sacrifice small choices lightly.” If you are choosing between an apple and an orange, you probably don’t care too much between the two so a little pressure to make you more inclined to one against the other isn’t a huge sacrifice. They both taste good. Given time and enough “light pressure” one might even come to always choose the an apple over an orange, and may even come to dislike the other.
“But it is only under the greatest pressure that they sacrifice the greatest choices” When pressure is applied again and again however, more and more sacrifices are made. Previous sacrifices become ingrained in habit and you no longer realize that you were pressured to choose B instead of A. Instead you would now always choose B instead of A. So now, greater and greater sacrifices are made as the pressure builds until you are making great sacrifices to your morals because of fear of punishment or social ostracism or both.
Substances move, under pressure, to extreme positions and, when they shift positions, shift from one extreme to the other. Men under pressure are drained of their shadings of spirit, of their sympathy (which they can no more give than get), of their serenity, their sweetness, their simplicity, and their subtlety.
Michel hates Communism – under that name. But Hitler communized him, under National Socialism, and he never knew it.
Who is this Einstein, who was “only a scientist” when he conceived the atomic bomb and now, in his old age, sees what he has done and weeps? He is the German specialist, who had always “minded is” – high – “business” and was no more proof against romanticism than his tailor, who had always minded his low business. He is the finished product of pressure, the uneducated expert, like the postal clerk in Kronenberg whose method of moistening stamps on the back of his hand is infallible. The German mind, encircled and, under pressure of encirclement, stratified, devours itself in the production of lifeless theories of man and society, deathless methods of licking postage stamps, and murderous machinery. For the rest – which is living – the German has to depend upon his ideals.
So what is the solution?
For such a complex issue I think the solution is easy and is illustrated in the book.
Pg 180 – A German Chemical Engineer
“The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost.
Pg 181 – A German Chemical Engineer
“My faith. I did not believe that I could ‘remove mountains.’ The day I said ‘No,’ I had faith. In the process of ‘thinking it over,’ in the next twenty-four hours, my faith failed me. So, in the next ten years, I was able to remove only anthills, not mountains.”
Have faith. Understand the consequences of our choices, the long and short of them. The Seen and Unseen. Do not become numb to the pressures exerted on us, neither the good ones nor the bad ones. Pressure when understood can be an ally and a force for good. Understand that as humans we are each complete individuals fabricated by God himself. Each human being, being a complete individual, is utterly unique and more complicated than you or I can understand. So we should stop trying to work on others for their behalf because we can’t truly understand their behalf but continue working on ourselves. Jesus’ words continue to ring true: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” I have often been that hypocrite, but as long as I strive forward, progress is made. Through Christ the good work that was begun in me can be completed, I can have the faith that the German Chemical Engineer didn’t have. I can say “No” when necessary, I can chip away at the logs in my eyes.
The Count of Oropesa, more than four centuries ago, had a passion to reform the world. A Spanish saint, San Pedro of Alcantara, gave him the kind of counsel I am urging on everyone who would advance liberty.
May your Lordship not torment yourself: there is a remedy for this deluge of crimes. Let us be, you and me, that which we should be. There will be two less souls to convert. Let each person behave thus: it is the most efficacious of reforms. The trouble is, that no one wants to correct himself and everyone meddles at correcting others: thus everything stays as is.
So the solution? Let us be, you and me, that which we should be.
This post is a continuation of a long series of commentary on quotes pulled from They Thought They Were Free, the Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer. The book itself is home to a lot of revelations to the nature of people and I do recommend reading it. To see the short review of the book itself please click this link, to see other commentary like this post click this link.