The “Average Man” and Survival Issue
Survival has always necessitated the existence of communities for human beings. Over countless generations, people have evolved to be good at conforming into the societies they live in, since those who couldn’t were often the first to die. There’s safety in numbers, but to belong to a group and be protected there is always a need to sacrifice some of one’s preferences and desires. H.L. Mencken, a social critic during the 20th century, argues human beings take the need to conform to the extreme as “The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.” The “average man” is one who accepts the laws and expectations of their people, even if said laws are detrimental, for the sake of being “safe”, which in modern society means not standing out or being seen as problematic. The average person is willing to not be “free”, to allow others full authority of what is acceptable in their life, in order to achieve this safety.
Many dystopian and philosophical pieces explore the relationship between freedom and safety. One example is Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, about a dystopian society in which a fireman whose job it is to burn books, Guy Montag, learns to question and stand up against the laws and social norms of his country. Another is by Kurt Vonnegut, named “Harrison Bergeron” after the titular character who grows to resent and challenge the forced handicaps everyone endures for the sake of equality. Lastly there’s “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, which explores how average people are ignorant of the truth and ostracize those who know better and attempt to challenge their false beliefs. All of these pieces explore how freedom and choice is limited for the sake of safety, and when people try to seize their freedom they often suffer. Thus while certain individuals value and seek freedom (Q), to a large extent the common man of contemporary Society (T) prefers safety (P) because it offers the path of least resistance through social acceptance (R).
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There are still individuals in the present day who refuse to be safe in order to reach complete freedom. These individuals are seen throughout the texts, and make it a goal to get to this true freedom for themselves and their society. A great example of an individual with such goals in mind is Montag from Fahrenheit 451. Although he originally starts off seeking safety and conformity in society, his mindset develops and grows as he begins to meet new people. His journey begins with the introduction of Clarisse, his neighbor, who offers to him new ideas which he had never even considered. Her influence is what allows Montag to begin to ponder about the purpose that books play in a society, and the role he plays to enforce the government’s regime to subdue the knowledge that these books provide. However, it is not until Montag goes to speak with Faber, a retired English professor, that he realizes the true importance of these books and what they have to offer.
Faber tells him how these books contain great knowledge, a weapon against the totalitarian government they live under. It is at this point that Montag recognizes the importance of seeking freedom over safety. He begins to recognize how others in his society desire safety and therefore live under the rule of the government willingly. However, he is aware of a war that is occurring that the general public is oblivious to which could easily disrupt this “safety” that they’ve been promised. Montag recognizes a need for change, change that can only stem from being free from his dystopian society. Another example where freedom is craved over safety is in “Allegory of the Cave”. The prisoner who is let out of the cave begins to see what his world is really like, and what truly exists among him. Those stuck in the cave are unaware of this, only capable of seeing the images portrayed to them in the form of shadows. By being let out of the cave, the prisoner gets to experience what it’s like to be free, and thus perceives the world as it truly is, whilst the other prisoners accept what they see in the cave as the truth; by being passive observers, they accept what they see at face value, desiring safety over freedom through sticking with their own ignorance.
The moment the prisoner sees the truth and chooses freedom over the cave he ceases to be a common man. The way the cave dwellers treat him when he tries to speak to them demonstrates as much since they assume “…he left and returned without his eyes and that it [is] better not even to think of leaving [the cave]” (Plato 85), as he can no longer comprehend the shadows and thus they mock him and cast him out. Those who remain in the cave represent the common man who seeks safety over freedom, and while the freed prisoner once belonged in this group, he has transcended the cave and become an enlightened man. Montag is really another example of the transcendent man, as once he seeks knowledge through books he is no longer the common man. Therefore, while there will always be singular individuals who seek out freedom, even at the cost of safety, they are not common men and do not represent the vast majority of people in society; this is why they are cast out and ignored. The common man instead chooses to pursue the path of safety in order to prevent oneself from being subjected to the consequences and the struggle of advocating for freedom.
The common man will usually pick safety over freedom because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of deviating from the norm. It’s easiest to go along with what is socially acceptable, rather than challenge established expectations and rules, even if these rules limit one’s freedom. By standing out and disagreeing, one attracts negative attention, marking themselves as an outsider and potential threat. The way those who fight for freedom suffer is clear in the novel Fahrenheit 451, as those who disagree with the dystopian society and government are those who face the most the danger. For example, Clarisse, the next door neighbor who opened the eyes of the protagonist Montag, admits to being ostracized by everyone besides her family, she’s threatened by firemen and average people don’t speak to her. Eventually her fate is a tragic and mysterious death, and her equally “strange” family ends up moving away. Another victim is a woman caught harboring books illegally who sets fire to them and herself, a form of defiance, showing she rather die than lose her freedom.
Finally there is Faber, a retired English professor, who hides away in his home. To some extent, Faber is free because he possesses knowledge of books, and is shunned by society as a result. But he isn’t truly free, because he has the potential to revolt, and clearly wants to, and yet is too afraid to draw attention to himself. He tells Montag “‘If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you…’” because he prefers safety over true freedom and thus acts through Montag, too scared to face the consequences himself. Even Montag, who survives the bombing and escapes, suffers to some extent due to his knowledge. He is chased after by the authorities, abandoned by his wife, and demonized by society. Those who died in the explosion in the city lived ignorant but happy lives, and never had to struggle like he did. Thus, the path of least resistance in Montag’s world is clearly to choose safety, even if it is the illusion of safety, over freedom. The protagonist in “Harrison Bergeron” is in some ways similar to Montag and in some ways different. Unlike Montag, he doesn’t start in a position of privilege and power. In fact, he is held back by society and suffers as a result, giving him an incentive to fight for freedom instead of safety.
But he’s an exception, most people prefer the safety and lack of competition their community endorses. Even Bergeron’s father George says “‘If I tried to get away with it… then other people’d get away with it- and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again…” (Vonnegut 3) when Bergeron suggests he remove some of his weights. George views a world in which people are free of all handicaps as the “dark ages” and finds comfort in choosing equality over freedom. When Bergeron lashes out and impulsively tries to gain control to convince people how oppressed everyone is on television he is quickly murdered and forgotten. As a deviant he ends up having little effect on society and while he disagreed with the handicap system, the easier path would have been to simply accept it as his parents do. His death only reinforces that it is safer and more painless to obey authority and maintain the status quo. Both of these stories have a heavy emphasis on how the government and established authority figures pressure people into giving up all control and living lives without any true freedom. In “Allegory of a Cave”, however, the main focus is on the difficulty enlightened individuals face because of their peers.
The prisoners in the cave represent the common man who remains ignorant and inactive while the man who is freed represents an enlightened person who is more prone to activism and controversy. Through the mistreatment and shunning of the freed man when he tries to convince his peers, Plato demonstrates how being ignorant is socially safer. Disagreeing with the norm leads to ostracization and abuse from one’s peers, and overall makes being judged negatively more likely. It also reveals that human nature is prone to accepting ignorance, and this ignorance tends to lead to complacency. The chained up prisoners simply don’t care about trying to gain their freedom by escaping the cave. When they see the result of escaping in the enlightened man, they actually find the idea of leaving even more appealing, as they assume because he left he lost his ability to see. All three of these stories promote the idea that “ignorance is bliss” because knowledge causes suffering both through knowing painful truths and being disliked by society for disagreeing and challenging falsely held beliefs once one knows the truth. Authorities take advantage of the fact that people tend to uphold the status quo and only further pressure people to pick safety over freedom by making freedom even more dangerous to pursue. Overall, people are led by their own nature, as well as by systematic structures, to favor safety over freedom.
There are always exceptions to a rule, and thus there will always be specific individuals who are inspired to break away from the crowd and strive for freedom no matter the cost. However, the vast majority of people prefer to live in stability and thus are inclined to pick safety over freedom. In America people often vouch for the importance of freedom because it is a value central to American culture and history, but they often don’t realize the reality is that nobody lives a life of true freedom. Freedom is often idealized, but just as true safety doesn’t exist, neither does true objectively good freedom. Our ancestors chose safety over freedom and it led to the survival and evolution of mankind, becoming the foundation for the creation of villages, kingdoms, and eventually countries. Currently, in America we have a lot of freedom protected as a right for us, but we also have laws that restrict that freedom for the sake of safety. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, having the freedom to rob or hurt people is not more important than being safe from these acts of violence. If humans ever face the dystopian extreme societies of Montag or Bergeron, they should overcome their desire for safety to fight for more freedom. It will be a negative that humans tend to conform rather than confront injustices, as can be seen in the way people have historically been ok with mistreating certain groups of people since it is the norm, such as through racism and sexism. H.L. Mencken was mostly correct when he said the average man wants safety not freedom, in that the average man will always prefer safety to freedom, but freedom will still be an important component of human nature and desire.
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The “Average Man” and Survival Issue. (2021, Apr 15). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/the-average-man-and-survival-issue/