If you wish to make a man do something that he does not wish to do, you must proceed in one of three ways. You may threaten to do him harm, you may promise to do him good, or you may persuade him that he is under some sort of “moral obligation” to do what you wish him to do. These might be called the three roads to power, power being “the possibility of imposing one’s will on the behavior of other people” (1). For simplicity’s sake, I will call these the Minatory Road, the Remuneration Road, and the Mortification Road.
The Minatory Road has many attractions for those possessed of the quality that permits a man to take it. Among these attractions, the greatest is that it is seldom necessary to carry through with a threat and fatigue one’s self with the work of actually battering the man, or destroying his career, or publishing his guilty secrets. If you are really and truly menacing, you can make a man do something he does not wish to do at the nominal cost, as P. G. Wodehouse puts it, of “cracking your knuckles and sizzling through your teeth.” This opens some space for “empty threats,” which are not always recognized as empty, so there are always imposters on the Minatory Road. But to timid, weak and inconsequential men who cannot threaten a ruinous exposé, the Minatory Road is closed
The Remuneration Road is by far and away the least desirable of the three. First there is the unpleasant matter of the munus, or gift, that one must give in exchange for the desired service. On this road, you must surrender in order to obtain, and if you are a man of only ordinary shrewdness, there is an excellent chance you will give away more than you receive. Another objection is that an “empty promise” is much more easily detected than an “empty threat,” so there is less space for impostors on the Remuneration Road. In fact, on the Remuneration Road, the phrase “false promise” is generally looked upon as redundant, and there is everywhere a cynical, show-me-the-money, cash-on-the-barrelhead attitude to human transactions. This is why, in his eternal quest for a hamburger, J. Wellington Wimpy has had so little success on the Remuneration Road.
Both of these roads to power share the defect that, to take them, one must already possess power or a plausible pretense of power. If I lack the means or appearance of the means to do you harm, I cannot stipulate conditions under which I will refrain from exercising these means, so the Minatory Road is closed to me. If I lack the means to afford you some boon, I cannot stipulate conditions under which I will exercise these means, so the Remunerative Road is closed to me. In short, to take one of these roads to power, a man must be a Man of Means, or a very close likeness thereunto.
This leaves the Mortification Road, the path to power by which one man mortifies, which is to say kills, the power of resistance and denial in another man. He does this by way of charms, spells and incantations that call up demons of “moral obligation,” and with the aid of these spirits places the second man under his power. In common parlance, this is called “guilting him into doing it.” If he had taken the Mortification Road, J. Wellington Wimpy would have said, “Because of what happened last Tuesday, you owe me a hamburger today.” If J. Wellington Wimpy had taken the Mortification Road, he would have died a fat man.
Before proceeding any farther, let me assure you that I do believe there is such a thing as moral obligation, that such obligations have binding authority, and that failure to honor a moral obligation merits detestation, censure and shame. No honorable man can refuse to redeem the coin of moral obligation and place himself in the power of the man who bears it. This is why this coin has such awesome power, and this awesome power is why the coin of moral obligation is so often counterfeited.
There are a few honest and injured men on the Mortification Road, but for the most part it teems with con men, pickpockets, highwaymen and whores. The roadsides are lined with the shabby booths of mountebanks and shills, and over this thoroughfare hovers a stink of rancid breath and lies.
Moral obligations are of two types, chosen and unchosen. When one man makes an explicit promise or pledge, whether it be to another man or some corporate body, he has chosen to place himself under a moral obligation to fulfill that promise or pledge. Should he fail to do so, this is a fit object of censure, detestation and shame. A man entering into marriage does this by his vow; men entering upon certain vocations do it by an oath or swearing. Every man does this every time he utters the binding phrase, “I will.” This sort of moral obligation is difficult to counterfeit and therefore seldom among the shams that are trafficked on the Mortification Road.
A man assumes unchosen moral obligations as member of a class. If he is a male who resides in a society where being male means something, his maleness is attended with certain rights and responsibilities. His reputation can survive some breach of chastity, for instance, but he has a moral obligation to toil and march to war. If she is a female in the same sort of society, her femaleness is likewise attended with certain rights—principally to protection—and responsibilities—principally to nurture. Fathers assume unchosen moral responsibility for their children, citizens for their country, communicants for their church. A healthy society is equipped with ugly curses to revile men and women who renege on the unchosen moral obligations of their class. It calls them coward, slut, deadbeat, traitor, heretic.
When some low grifter comes to your door by way of the Mortification Road, he (or she) will try to place you under his (or her) power by calling up the demon of an unchosen moral obligation. With the aid of this demon, he (or she) will mortify your power of resistance by saying that you are a member of a class that owes a great debt of service to a class of which he (or she) is himself (or herself) a member. Now if he (or she) were a shifty vagrant shuffling on the doorstep and demanding, without proof, performance of some promise made by your grandfather, you would slam the door in his (or her) face. Likewise if he (or she) demanded restitution for a cow allegedly shot by your uncle while deer hunting in 1942. But let him (or her) begin to speak of what is owed by “people like you” to “people like me,” and we find our door-slamming arm deadened with mortification. We have fallen under demonic power.
In our own age, this grift is most often built around some Sin of the Fathers, which, as Deuteronomy tells us, will be visited on their children, and children’s children, until the Last Trump blows and these sinning Fathers and guilty descendants can be tumbled into Hell for their real punishment. It is a mortifying thought, isn’t it? That is just what it is intended to be.
I need only add that the Sin of the Fathers need not be real, or, if real, represented with any fastidious regard for truth. Nor need the children being placed under a mortifying spell of moral obligation be, in any strict genealogical or legal sense, their children. Once upon a time it was said that all men were born into this world as Sons of Adam, and so were heirs to his Original Sin. Nowadays it is said that some men are born into this world as Sons of Sinning Fathers, and to their father’s sins these sons are likewise heirs. Other men (male and female) are, however, born into this world as Sons of Fathers Whom the Sinning Fathers Sinned Against. In other words, they are born into this world as Victims.
It is the Victim who today seeks power by way of the Mortification Road. These are men and women who wish to lay others under obligation by claiming damages for past crimes, a few of which may have actually occurred. They are the modern equivalent of the crippled and blind who once begged on city streets, and who were sometimes really crippled and blind. But fake Victims are far more common than fake cripples and blind men, and this for the simple reason that it is possible to feel a withered limb and test a faded eye. The Victim, meanwhile, displays his (or her) injury at “our” hands by way of a New Necromancy, in which every witness called is a spirit he (or she) has conjured from the dead.
We are all, to one degree or another, under the spell of this New Necromancy, our resistance mortified by the fearsome spectacle of accusatory specters, phantoms and shades.
(1) Max Weber, Max Weber on Law, Economy and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), p. 323.