Unlocking the Secrets of the Captive Mind – Poland’s Poet Laureate Czeslaw Milosz
The popular notion of a having an open mind is considered a good thing, its owner having an unbiased approach to new ideas. Accordingly, a closed mind is considered a bad thing, it is unwilling to consider contravening facts and logic. However, both of these propositions are ambiguous. Does having a really open mind regard all ideas as moral equivalents? Yes, it holds no firm convictions, it is anti-conceptual. Do the owners of really closed minds question their assumptions or judge their propositions? No, that would threaten their emotions, and their self-worth.
An Objective approach is to think in terms of passive and active minds. Passive minds have never learned, or have chosen not to think critically. Whether it’s closed-minded stubbornness or open-minded egalitarianism, they disown responsibility for independent judgment, and lean heavily on the dogma of their religious, ethnic or political tribes.
In contrast, active minds confidently pursue lives of purpose rooted in logic, productiveness, and independence. From this analysis, it seems that passive minds are the fuel of totalitarian political machines, but what happens to the individuals who possess active minds; those whose intellectual lives and livelihoods are subjugated by these despots? This is what Poland’s poet laureate, philosopher, and Poetic Justice Warrior Czeslaw Milosz answers for us in his 1953 book The Captive Mind.
Enslavement Through Consciousness
It’s also a popular notion that tyrannical oppression dashes critical thinking, but Milosz contends the opposite is what actually happens. In this collection of essays, he surveys the mental gymnastics employed by those who strive to preserve their personal dignity in the face of annihilation.
The book portrays the experiences of four intellectual contemporaries of Milosz. The ones who submitted to, and rationalized, their proselytizing for the New Faith of the Stalinists. Their mandate was to unify the public for submission to Soviet central authority, and their philosophical message was rooted in dialectical materialism – the idea that people will merely, and instinctively, respond to socioeconomic carrots and sticks.
Their tool was The Method, the creation of artistic propaganda in the style of Soviet Realism. The Captive Mind illustrates the Soviet strategy of winning over the passive minds of the mass public, and the tactics of the victims who adapt by activating their own minds.
In a room where
people unanimously maintain
a conspiracy of silence,
one word of truth
sounds like a pistol shot.
The conspiracy of silence is one concocted with oneself, or what Milosz discovered as Ketman in Islamic theology. Also known as taqiyya, it is the practice of concealment and deception in order to preserve one’s faith. As the Prophet said, “He who keeps secrets shall soon attain his objectives.” For today’s Islamic terrorists, its a matter of life and death (yours). For the intellectuals and bourgeoisie in Milosz’ Soviet occupied Poland after World War II, it was a matter of life and death (theirs). On the sanctity of human life, Milosz’ poem Encounter reads –
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive. Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
Oh my love, where are they, where are they going? The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebble
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
The Communist iron curtain of hopelessness fell quickly in post war Poland, and Ketman became necessary. While persecution forced the Poles to conceal their antipathy for their Soviet masters, Milosz describes another soul-destroying effect. For the intellectuals participating in Soviet Realism’s propaganda fraud, their conspiracy was no longer imposed from the outside, it was internalized. Using the metaphor of actors, Milosz observes, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates.”
Cognitive dissonance is the tool of totalitarians. This works perfectly well for the Soviet masters of the artists who succumbed to pragmatism. As Milosz tells us about both, “Their defense against total degradation is to swindle the devil who thinks he is swindling them. But the devil knows what they think and is satisfied.” The compromises become endless, active minds become passive and degraded, and lives of reason, purpose and pride become impossible.
The New Faith
Born in Lithuania, Milosz grew up in part of Czarist Russia, and was living in Warsaw with his family when the German National Socialists (Nazis) invaded to start World War II. During the war, he worked in the underground Resistance, published several books under a pseudonym, and joined communist Poland’s diplomatic corps after the war. Disgusted with the reality the New Faith, and refusing to embrace the big lie of Soviet Realism, Milosz defected to the West in 1951, and moved to California in 1960. According to New York Time book reviewer Leon Edel, “
Underlying all his meditations, is his constant amazement that America should exist in this world, and his gratitude that it does exist.
According to book reviewer Akshay Ahusa, “Another book that deserves to survive, and I fear will not, is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. The book is a study of the capitulation of artists to the demands of Communism, the fact that so many people are willing to accept what they must know are lies for the sake of their political affiliation.”
For the first 40 years of Milosz’s life, the dominant political philosophy was the soul-numbing collectivism of monarchy, fascism, and communism. Personal liberty and economic freedom were the unknown ideals, yet the ethical underpinnings of Communism survived the war, and were growing in the American media and education establishments. In the chapter titled Looking to the West, Milosz writes,
“Are Americans really stupid?” I was asked, in Warsaw. If only the people in the West really understood the mechanism of the “great Stalinist epoch,” and if only they would act accordingly! Everything would seem to indicate that they do not understand.
That mechanism was very fragile, yet American education elites harbor no gratitude that America exists. They prefer the example of their Eastern counterparts and their allegiance to the New Faith, “to inoculate others with the basic principles of enthusiasm for a revision of Marx according to Russian patterns.”
Since the 1960s, the American revision is cultural Marxism. Compulsory education inoculates students from critical thinking skills, the heights of human potential, and the depths of depravity. There are no heroes to emulate outside politics and entertainment, the Soviet Great Terror is ignored, and history is being erased. Instead of Soviet Realism propaganda, we have modern art and CNN for avoiding objective reality. The academic enthusiasm for anti-concepts like multiculturalism, subjective rights, inequality, climate change, diversity, and speech codes round out the cultivation of passive minds.
As poetic justice would have it, Poetic Justice Warrior Czeslaw Milosz was able to spend the last half of his life in pursuit of happiness while teaching the efficacy of free and active minds at university in America,
Above all in the United States, something has occurred that is without analogy in the preceding centuries. A new civilization has arisen which assures its masses a share in the output of its machine production.