Imagine you are living in Nazi Germany. Who are we? How do you and your friends answer this question?
One answer an inconveniently large number of people – perhaps even a majority of citizens – give is “We are Germans, the master race destined to rule the world.”
Even worse, a popular answer is “True Germans are Aryans. Jews are not Aryans or genuine Germans. Jews are a threat to the Reich and must be eliminated.”
The Third Reich is instructive because so many ordinary people – who showed no sign of being exceptional or evil when living under the Weimar Republic, a mainly pleasant social-democratic state – came to believe one or both of these answers. It might have been you, and it might have been me. Nazi Germany was riddled with evil, and it was hard to escape it.
So we can be devils, but we can also be angels. Witness the senior army officers, intellectuals, and ordinary folk who plotted to kill Hitler, or who saved a few or thousands of Jews from the camps. These heroes and heroines risked a grisly death out of human decency, at a time when most everyone else passed by on the other side. Would that have been you? If you were German at the time, I rather doubt it. I don’t think it would have been me. The numbers speak for themselves. There was no popular resistance to Hitler, in one of the (hitherto) most civilized countries on the planet.
If there is one plain sociological and psychological fact it is that when authority is totally in place, most of us obey it. Another evident fact is the remarkable range of behaviour we can exhibit, both in the same society, and even within the life of a single person. We can be good or bad or middling depending on whom we mix with, and on the standards of the organizations in which we live and breathe and have our being.
Another thing to consider is the unique nature of humanity itself. Other creatures cannot transcend their environment. They play their allotted roles but never change the world. On the other hand, we can act upon the world, and transform our existence, both individually and collectively. Up to around 1800, the lot of nearly everyone on Earth was to suffer malnutrition, chronic pain from one disease or another, and untimely death. Now we have largely conquered starvation and large tracts of diseases. We have a standard of living that is qualitatively different, almost infinitely higher.
“Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts,” said the great anthropologist Jacob Bronowski. Man “makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting different talents together …”
It is unfashionable to talk so well of humankind today, or to hold that our story is one of The Ascent of Man, the title of Bronowski’s marvellous 1972 book and BBC television series. Yet it is a fact. Yes, we may end up destroying the planet, but we alone give meaning to it. We alone have advanced science, the arts, and civilization. We alone have free will and ethical qualities, and the possibility of improving ourselves, separately and together. As the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote:
“If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth, this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene. The universe will cease to speak; silence and night will seize it … It is the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful.”
None of us are consistently angels, devils, or plain animals. The truth is different. We all have magical qualities which are mysterious, miraculous, and sometimes terrifying.
This is true socially and politically. It is true physically. It is true intellectually. And it is true in business.
Where Does Human Magic Come From?
Our magical quality is true, above all, in our minds. We have a physical dimension commensurate with that of other mammals, but in addition we alone of mammals have a magical dimension. It could be said that we have a spiritual dimension, but that is not quite right. Hitler had a magical dimension, but few would call it spiritual. He created a totally new and all-powerful one-party state, he conquered unemployment – not so hard perhaps when using slave labour – and he vastly expanded German power and territory. He also of course created destruction and evil on a remarkable, Continental scale – a negative achievement to be sure, but one of stunning proportions. He did it all through his self-belief and through some amazing powers enabling him to reach his goals for more than a decade.
Very few of us use more than a smidgeon of our magical powers, but if a poorly educated clown such as Hitler could do it – as perhaps another clown is in the process of doing it today – then I think we all could do it, if we truly believed in ourselves and our ideas, however flawed and quarter-baked.
This is a longer story than I can enter into in this post, but I am convinced that the way to exert magical power is through the interplay of our subconscious and conscious minds. The magic lies in imagination and using every piece of our experience and insight to achieve our goals, about which we must care passionately. These are qualities of the subconscious, but defining the goals is the preserve of the conscious mind, which must feed the subconscious with the goals and the certainty of attaining them.
Deploying this interplay of conscious and subconscious mind is something which I think the most notable people in history had – without realizing it. Think of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato, Julius Caesar, Paul of Tarsus, the second century evangelist Marcion, Muhammad, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Copernicus, Luther, Shakespeare, Newton, Descartes, Napoleon, Lincoln, Marx, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Henry Ford, Lenin, Stalin, Keynes, Churchill, Hayek, Mao Zedong, Mandela, Jobs, and perhaps above all, Jesus of Nazareth. They all had a form of magic which enabled them to achieve totally incredible impact.
I will write about the interaction of the conscious and subconscious minds in a future blog. For now, though, so what?
Image credit – Pixabay