Matt Franz : Zealous For Knowledge

If This Is A Man

I recently finished reading If This Is A Man by Primo Levi after David Blaine recommended it on Tim Ferriss’s podcast.

Primo Levi wrote If This Is A Man about the time he spent as a prisoner in a World War Two concentration camp. He published the book shortly after his release, making it one of the first inside accounts of the holocaust.

When I learned calculus I was taught that you can learn a lot about a function by testing it at extreme values. For example, you might evaluate a function at negative infinity, zero, and infinity to find its limits. Similarly, the holocaust tested human psychology to extremes rarely seen since or before.

This book is remarkable for its objectivity, clarity, and surprising lack of judgement. It is a valuable case study in human psychology. Below are three lessons  I learned from If This Is A Man.

  1. The human mind prefers extreme positions, which are rarely realistic.

“But men are rarely logical when their own fate is at stake; on every occasion, they prefer the extreme positions. According to our character, some of us are immediately convinced that all is lost, that one cannot live here, that the end is near and sure; others are convinced that however hard the present life may be, salvation is probable and not far off, and if we have faith and strength, we will see our houses and our dear ones again. The two classes of pessimists and optimists are not so clearly defined, however, not because there are many agnostics, but because the majority, without memory or coherence, drift between the two extremes, according to the moment and the mood of the person they happen to meet.”

“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite.”

“It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.”

  1. No one can take away your humanity. The only way to lose it is to willingly give it up.

“That precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.”

“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last—the power to refuse our consent.”

  1. Animals live out a life of strict Darwinism. Humanity alone rises above this to care for each other.

“However little sense there may be in trying to specify why I, rather than thousands of others, managed to survive the test, I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”

“But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

“Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of twenty-three, typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed. Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: “eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,” and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge to men again.”


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