Manhattan Institute

The Beauty of Honesty

Paul Hollander, Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, died last week at 86. He was a remarkable man. By age of 24, he had experienced more history than most of us would see in several lifetimes.

He was born in 1932 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Budapest. At 12, he had to hide from the Nazis, who murdered, or deported and then murdered, more than half the Jewish population of that city. When the Communists came to power, Hollander’s family (being bourgeois) was deported to the countryside to perform manual labor.

During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Hollander escaped to Austria and then to England, where he studied at the London School of Economics. He moved to Princeton, where he earned his Ph.D., and then to Harvard, where he befriended Stanley Milgram, one of the most influential social psychologists of his time, and perhaps of any time.

Hollander spent the rest of his career as a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts. In 1981, he published the book that brought him renown and has since gone through several editions: Political Pilgrims, a description and analysis of the famous Western intellectuals who were willingly duped into believing and writing glowing reports that Communism was constructing a better world, even as millions of citizens under its rule were being imprisoned, executed, starved, or worked to death.

Though he wrote on other subjects (for example, a hilarious analysis of the personals ads that appear in the New York Review of Books and other outlets), it is not surprising, given his personal experience of the mid-twentieth century, that his major preoccupation should have been with political sociology, including the pathology of power and the human capacity for good and evil.

As a sociologist, he was of course concerned to find patterns among people, but not at the expense of dehumanizing them or turning them into automata who merely registered the social forces of their time. He never lost sight of the fact that human beings were agents, and so his sociology, though it made use of statistics as a check and corrective, was fundamentally a humanistic one. Not coincidentally, he wrote without resort to jargon, in clear and limpid prose even more admirable for not having been his native, or even his second, language. In this, he was at one with many remarkable Hungarian intellectuals.

The clarity of his prose was obviously a reflection of the clarity of his mind, but clarity did not exhaust his intellectual virtues. He was always intellectually honest, but he also seemed to possess an almost effortless originality of mind, such that, as anyone who was in his company would soon have noticed, he could say something on any subject that had the quality of being both obvious and revelatory—one felt foolish for not having thought of it oneself. Yet, in discussion, he was respectful of others and seemed, pace Schopenhauer, more interested in truth than in victory.

He was unusually able to hold seemingly opposed thoughts in mind, for example, that America had enormous strengths and virtues but also its faults, which, however, he was able to put into perspective. His early experiences, which to my regret he refused to write about, gave him an unequalled sense of proportion. When you have seen the worst of which mankind is capable, you are unlikely to cavil unduly at relatively minor inconveniences or failings.

He loved the outdoors and had a keen appreciation of beauty, both natural and manmade, which he strongly desired to preserve. It is customary in a posthumous appreciation to say that we shall not see the subject’s like again: alas, Paul Hollander’s combination of depth of experience and knowledge, intellectual probity, and appreciation of beauty is not a very common one in modern academia. 

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