As everyone knows, the novel and film Schindler’s List tells the true story of how Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, though he came to Poland to exploit Germany’s conquest of her, saved over 1000 Jews from certain extermination by using what would uncharitably be called the skills of a con man. A line from author Thomas Keneally’s introduction stays with me: “this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Usually, according to Keneally, novelists write about the triumph of evil, and they choose to be “wise, ironic, piercing, to avoid bathos” when writing about the good. However, Keneally tells his story with a minimum of irony.
In Oskar Schindler, a man of dubious ethics, we do see the triumph of good over evil, not only in that he saved many lives from the evil Nazis but also in that Schindler’s own life was redeemed. And this triumph is pragmatic, not only because we can measure it in lives, but also because it involves a man sliding into good, when so many men pragmatically slide into evil or at least moral compromise. The difference makes us reflect on the relationship of virtues and defects of character.
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
We can put a magnifying glass to this relationship by focusing on character development in literature. (Keep in mind that most people only know Schindler as a character in a story.) A character can have the virtues of his defects, like Schindler, or, as is more commonly the case, the defects of his virtues. Let us first examine the more common case, as it is more straightforward.
The easy example of the defects of one’s virtues from real life is someone who is so “nice” that he, or perhaps more often she, gets taken advantage of. Things in literature are more complex but follow the same pattern.
An illustration of this pattern from classic literature can be found in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus is a Stoic, a man of high moral character, an “honorable” man, as Mark Antony repeatedly reminds us in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Yet, as every point in the conspiracy to kill Caesar and save the Roman Republic, Brutus, in taking the high ground, makes the wrong choice. For example, Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, wants to kill Mark Antony, who is wily and dangerous. Brutus squelches this notion, saying that Antony is only Caesar’s limb, which will be harmless when the head’s cut off and that no more blood should be shed than is necessary. This is a fatal underestimation of Antony, who of course ends up leading the army that eventually destroys Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is, yes, an honorable man, but honor, at least the kind that Brutus values, is not always what is called for in realpolitik, and in this context, Brutus’ virtues contain a deadly defect.
James Mason as Brutus
An example from more recent literature can be found the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark is the walking embodiment of the virtue of independence. He not only does not care what other people think; he does not even notice what other people think. For this reason, he can be quite naïve. He repeatedly helps his college roommate, second-hander fellow architect Peter Keating, with his design projects because he can’t let a bad building be built. This generosity, if that is the right word, gets him into a lot of trouble near the end of the novel but eventually he gains insight into philosophical truth and attains wisdom. But up until that point Roark’s virtues lead him to do bad things.
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Giving a character the defects of his virtues is a good way to build a story around a basically good person, because the defects lead him into trouble, which creates narrative tension. If the author takes a dark, Byronic view of life, the defect can lead to the character’s downfall, although perhaps the virtues redeem the situation, at least in giving the character tragic dignity. If the author takes a more benevolent view, then the defect is a set-up for growth and the triumph of virtues through adversity.
But with Schindler, things are the other way around. Here we have defects that contain hidden virtues. Schindler was an operator, a schmoozer, a sybarite and a man who took advantage of other people’s misfortune. And of course, he was a member of the Nazi party. But these qualities are exactly what he needed to outfox his fellow Nazis. Schindler spent years conning the local Nazis into believing that his Jewish workers were needed for the war effort so that they would be spared from the Final Solution. Part of how he did this was by “partying” with the loathsome Nazi officer Amon Goeth. Part of it was that he was a good liar who inspired trust by displaying geniality. Again these are qualities that would well serve a con man.
That much is plain from the story. What is not so clear is why he did it. It appears that under that bluff bonhomie he did have a conscience and that despite his predatory tendencies he did feel compassion. We see this compassion most clearly in the scene in the story where he hoses down the train carrying Jews to their destruction.
But I have to wonder whether part of his motivation was that he relished the challenge. He was an adventurer in some sense, after all, rather like a pirate. Perhaps he enjoyed the scheming and the trickery. Perhaps he enjoyed walking the tightrope. Maybe he was the Reynard the trickster, who enjoyed fooling the foolish. He may have felt most alive when dancing along the edge. We’ll never know for sure.
One difference between the novel and the film is telling on this point. In the film version, right before he makes his escape, Schindler breaks down and cries. “I could have got more,” he sobs. If only he hadn’t held on to his fancy car and his gold Nazi party pin, he could have saved more lives. He feels guilty for his high living and probably also feels a release from the burden of his actions over the years.
This breakdown is not in the novel, which seems more reflective of the real man. Here Schindler coolly stashes diamonds in hidden compartments of his car and drives off. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of guilt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Schindler probably felt pride in his accomplishment. Some of this is a matter of interpretation of course, but that is normal in literature.
Sometimes we need heroes who do great deeds, not out of a sense of nobility or altruism, but simply because they enjoy the thrill of the chase. Oskar Schindler seems to have turned his keenness for living, which had been directed at scheming, boozing and womanizing and incorporated a better goal of saving lives.
The hero who performs great deeds out of zest is a familiar figure, at least in popular culture. (Think Robin Hood.) But zest is a morally neutral category. One can murder zestfully as well as save lives zestfully. Up until the time he started saving lives, Oskar Schindler’s zest seems to have synergized with his moral defects (and he remained a philanderer even as he saved lives). But when he decided to do good, his zest largely repolarized and became a tool of virtue. I would venture a guess that Schindler found it more satisfying to be zestful in this way, but the emotional quality is largely the same. This suggests that character is as important as abstract morals, at least in many cases.
The real Oskar Schindler
The view that the high rises from the low is well-known: It is the notion that unites Nietzsche and Freud. But I am not claiming that Schindler sublimated primal urges that were naturally crude. I am saying that personality is made up of half-conceptualized, half-realized virtues and defects that thrust against each other and that when integrated by good or evil intentions can form an exquisite whole. This is the stuff of literature, and I would assert that we need literature as well as philosophy for an understanding of character, in both the sense of characters in literature and the sense of ethical character. But that is the subject of another essay.
Oskar Schindler never did anything else great for the rest of his life. In fact he was a failure in business and at his marriage. He was dependent on the gratitude of those he had saved. But for a few terrible, yet glorious years, Schindler realized himself as few of us do.
If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.