Persecution and the Art of Writing

"Persecution and the Art of Writing," Social Research, Vol. 8, No. 4 (November 1941).  Reprinted in Persecution and the Art of Writing.


In a considerable number of countries which, for about a hundred years, have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of public discussion, that freedom is now suppressed and replaced by a compulsion to coordinate speech with such views as the government believes to be expedient, or holds in all seriousness.  It may be worth our while to consider briefly the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions.

A large section of the people, probably the great majority of the younger generation, accepts the government-sponsored views as true, if not at once at least after a time.  How have they been convinced?  And where does the time factor enter?  They have not been convinced by compulsion, for compulsion does not produce conviction.  It merely paves the way for conviction by silencing contradiction.  What is called freedom of thought in a large number of cases amounts to–and even for all practical purposes consists of–the ability to choose between two or more different views presented by the small minority of people who are public speakers or writers.  If this choice is prevented, the only kind of intellectual independence of which many people are capable is destroyed, and that is the only freedom of thought which is of political importance.  Persecution is therefore the indispensable condition for the highest efficiency of what may be called logica equina. According to the horse-drawn Parmenides, or to Gulliver’s Houyhnhnms, one cannot say, or one cannot reasonably say “the thing which is not”: that is, lies are inconceivable. This logic is not peculiar to horses or horse-drawn philosophers, but determines, if in a somewhat modified manner, the thought of many ordinary human beings as well. They would admit, as a matter of course, that man can lie and does lie. But they would add that lies are short-lived and cannot stand the test of repetition–let alone of constant repetition–and that therefore a statement which is constantly repeated and never contradicted must be true.  Another line of argument maintains that a statement made by an ordinary person may be a lie, but the truth of a statement made by a responsible and respected man, and therefore particularly by a man in a highly responsible or exalted position, is morally certain.  These two enthymemes lead to the conclusion that a statement which is constantly repeated by the head of the government and never contradicted is a truth of at least the second power.

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