Tuesday, April 07, 2020


Gelegenheit Macht Diebe

Leopold Kohr (1909-1994), The Breakdown of Nations (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978), pp. 39-40:
The Germans have described this cause-effect relationship in a meaningful saying: Gelegenheit macht Diebe—Opportunity creates Thieves—indicating that it is opportunity that causes us to misbehave, not any particular sort of depravity. And opportunity is, of course, nothing but another word for the seemingly critical volume of power. Even a confirmed thief will not steal if he has no chance of getting away with it. On the other hand, even an honest man will misbehave if he has the opportunity, the power to do so.

This explains why all of us, the good even more so than the bad, pray to the Lord not to led us into temptation. For we know better than many a political theorist that our only safeguard from falling is not moral stature or threat of punishment, but the absence of opportunity. It also explains why mothers all over the world have long decided that the only way of protecting their jam from the hands of their children is to put it beyond the reach of their power. No story of the mythical boy who resisted the temptation of stealing an apple in an unobserved moment, and then was given it as a reward for his victory over himself, will ever produce similar results. True, some may develop an extraordinary will power and stay good because of sheer intellectual fortitude; but the mere fact that they, too, have to fight hard battles with the forces of opportunity shows the elementary character of these forces. The very first sin of man, the original sin, consisted in the use of the power to get hold of the one fruit of all that was forbidden. No warning, no appeal to reason, not the threat of the loss of paradise, prevented Eve from falling. And nothing has changed in this respect since the dawn of history. For virtue and vice are not internal qualities of the human soul that could be influenced by the mind except to an insignificant degree in the marginal area, but the automatic response to, and reflex of, a purely external condition—a given volume of power.

If we are still doubtful about this, we need only remember the little or large sins we have ourselves committed in the past. Who of us did not steal a sweetmeat as a child? As we grow older, we get wiser and conscious of moral behaviour, but the thing that makes us better is neither the process of ageing nor of training. It is the gradual disappearance of tempting opportunities. The moment an accidental opportunity falls into our lap even in later years, our primeval instincts are immediately at work again. That is when the worthiest of us begin to steal books, not from bookshops, where opportunities are few and consequences embarrassing, but from our best friends.
Id., pp. 41-42:
When I was a boy, I was considered a paragon of virtue by my parents who must have been completely unaware of the secret joy I derived from smashing windows. I did not smash too many because the chances were not too abundant. But once a hailstorm broke some of our bedroom windows which consisted of countless small panes held together in a lovely mosaic pattern by a lattice-work of leaden frames such as one finds in churches. Being alone in the house, and with no one in the streets, I became suddenly aware that my power had reached critical mass. It was a magnificent opportunity. I collected a number of pebbles in the garden, went into the street, and then indulged in the most pleasant orgy of window smashing of my lifetime. When my parents returned, I naturally looked as innocent as one is supposed to be at that tender age, and agreed sorrowfully when my father complained that the storm seemed to have played havoc with our house. Everything would have been perfect had I not overlooked a minor item. Hailstones melt, but pebbles do not. These were what my father found strewn over our bedroom floor. So I did not get away with my misdeed after all, but the point is that I thought I would. If I refrain from committing similar misdeeds now, it is not because my sense of morality and other people's property has improved. It is because it would look ridiculous for a professor of economics to be caught smashing the windows of his university. In other words, I have not really the power to do it. If I had ...

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