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Anne Frank: are people good at heart?

Anne Frank: are people good at heart?

Anne Frank’s diary is widely read—or at least parts of it, in some form or other. And even those who have never read it are probably familiar with a few quotes from it, the most highly publicized of which may be Anne’s observation: “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

It’s often used as an illustration of the naive yet uplifting beliefs of young people, and/or as an optimistic and inspirational statement about the nature of the human race. Considering the Holocaust in general and Anne’s fate in particular, the statement’s poignant irony is obvious.

But it’s instructive to look at the quote once again, embedded in its original context. When we do, we find it to be far more complex and considerably darker than it appears as a single famous sentence standing alone, just as Anne Frank’s achievements as a writer and thinker were far more complex than the simplifications popular culture has worked on her diary.

Remember as you read the following that Frank was only fifteen years old when she wrote it [emphasis mine]:

Anyone who claims that the older ones have a more difficult time here certainly doesn’t realize to what extent our problems weigh down on us, problems for which we are probably much too young, but which thrust themselves upon us continually, until, after a long time, we think we’ve found a solution, but the solution doesn’t seem able to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again. That’s the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

Anne Frank seems to take the long view. Hers is a consciously willed optimism that takes into account some of the greatest horrors the world has ever known, and includes her own untimely death, which she correctly foresees. Whether the peace and tranquility she ultimately envisions are temporary or permanent, and whether they are of this earth or beyond it, her message has nothing of the innocence or simplicity of a trusting child, although it has often been portrayed that way.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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If the “good at heart” don’t speak up against evil, then their virtue is insubstantial and accomplishes nothing.

It’s especially important to address the most petty evils, because they are common, they can grow and spread into larger threats, and because they can be addressed without resorting to committing evil yourself by simply disapproving instead of remaining silent.

I can’t believe that “people” collectively are good at heart, because “people” collectively have done some truly horrible things, whereas good is mostly individualistic, or at least small groups that voluntarily join together.

As Obama is want to say, “Government is another name for what we do together” and government’s focus is traditionally oppressing, if not outright killing, large segments of its subjects.

    Paul in reply to 18-1. | July 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    I absolutely agree that collectivism and thoughts relating to it are plain evil. This is not to say that groups cannot be working for good, Christianity and it’s history of charity comes to mind. But even then, the Church has done evil as well as good, and it also began with an individual: Jesus of Nazareth.

    It seems evil tends to corrupt the good in an organization as it grows beyond a certain point. Not sure where that point is exactly, but I suspect it’s when the organization begins accumulating power to make effective changes in society.

      Archer in reply to Paul. | July 31, 2013 at 6:35 pm

      I believe an organization loses its way when two things happen: a) a “critical mass” of members lose sight of the principles the organization was founded under, and b) those same members view themselves as unaccountable.

      A couple notes on that observation:
      – On the “critical mass,” the higher up in the hierarchy a “lost” member is, the more “mass” he/she contributes to the wayward group. Leaders should be more principled and righteous – but not overzealous – than their followers.
      – “Unaccountability” essentially boils down to the belief that their actions will produce no negative consequences. It assumes many forms, up to and including the members’ honestly believing they’re doing what’s right and acting within the founding principles*. Other versions of unaccountability include the “might makes right” and “can’t touch me” attitudes, and the belief that the leaders have “popular support” or the “will of the people” (i.e.: mob mentality) behind them.

      Because each helps to uphold the other, both the loss of principles and the lack of accountability have to happen for an organization to go wrong.

      Just my $.0259 (adjusted for inflation).

      * – The crucifixion of Christ comes to mind again. The priests truly believed they were simply punishing an unrepentant heretic, which from their point of view was the right action. It’s no excuse, but it is an explanation.

Pettifogger | July 31, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I’m not sure I have the maturity at 65 that she had at 15.

I would certainly hope that people as whole are good-hearted. This belief, in my opinion, is the basis for the argument for democracy over authoritarianism. The argument here being that a individual or a group of individuals may be corrupt, but the majority of society is just.

My simplistic view is “No, we are not”. Most of us want to be thought of as if we were, but when the chips are down our true nature is to do whatever it takes to whomever we have to in order to have our way. That is our aptly named “base” nature. Only through our voluntary commitment to another nature can our base instincts be overcome. It is a choice we make, if so inclined. Many do so, many don’t.

” would certainly hope that people as whole are good-hearted. This belief, in my opinion, is the basis for the argument for democracy over authoritarianism.”

I would argue it is the opposite case. In an authoritarian system you are depending on the leaders to be virtuous, because there are no external checks on them. In a system with a weak representative government it is ok if people are primarily self interested because said interests will generally balance each other out.

We are of course slowly transitioning to a more authoritarian system…and we see the problems we face because of the immorality of our elites…

Carol Herman | July 31, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Anne Frank’s family were turned in by people who knew them. Evil, by the way, isn’t global. But it’s very ugly. And, it can make “normally nice” people into shills. Why is that?

I do not know.

Anne Frank died a terrible death. Typhoid. Or Typhus. A few short weeks before the Allies arrived.

A very long time ago I read a story about a man who was living, who was 1000 years old. All that was left of him was his voice. And, he was carried around in a bird cage.

You know, separate from her book, the hiding place is a tourist attraction (in Amsterdam?) … While hatred for Israel looms so large. It’s as if “ordinary people” still hate Jews. No matter what’s arleady past in history.

Ordinary people can contribute to evil. Otherwise? Evil would have died on the vine.

    Archer in reply to Carol Herman. | July 31, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    “Ordinary people can contribute to evil. Otherwise? Evil would have died on the vine.”

    I respectfully disagree with the last part of this statement. Evil is more like a weed – it doesn’t “die on the vine.” All it takes for it to flourish is for ordinary “good” people to not confront and eradicate it when/where it’s found. Ordinary people contribute to evil simply by looking the other way and/or ignoring it when/where it happens.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”Unknown, but frequently attributed to Edmund Burke

Bruno Bettelheim wrote about this 40 years ago in his foreword to Dr Miklos Nyiszli’s book –

The reason people bleat on about the goodness of all humans is because they do not want to accept that evil exists. Because to accept that evil exists means they should get up and do something about it.
It is the same reason incest and child rape is tolerated for years by people who should have known.

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