Beautiful Souls The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

Eyal Press




Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel’s most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn’t want to serve in the occupied territories.

Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.


Praise for Beautiful Souls

"Beautiful Souls examines four cases: a Swiss police officer who let Jews fleeing Nazism cross into Switzerland in violation of the country's policy; a Serbian who saved the lives of several Croatian townsmen about to be tortured or executed during the Serbo-Croation wars of the 1990s; an Israeli soldier from an elite battalion who joined with others in refusing to serve in the occupied territories; a financial adviser who realized that her company was defrauding investors and blew the whistle. All four took difficult paths of resistance against the conformity around them, and all four were punished for it in different ways. None of them regretted the decision . . . They ['broke ranks'] because they perceived the crowd to be departing from the deeper ideals traditionally voiced in the community . . . [Beautiful Souls] provides rich, provocative narratives of moral choice. Of course, there are enormous differences between saving lives in a war zone and exposing corruption in a financial services firm. But Press shows that in these various contexts, people break ranks with those around them because they share a deeper allegiance to social values that go beyond the immediate situation. Their ability to say 'no' comes from their histories of saying 'yes,' of committing themselves to social ideals worth fighting for. Cynicism and ironic distance play no role in these quiet heroes' decisions to swim against the tide. In exploring their courage, Press makes us wonder if we would have the strength to act against the crowd, and in so doing spread a bit of light in our own dark times."—Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University, The Washington Post

"Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same. Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required . . . So why did [Grüninger] disobey his orders? That is the question that Eyal Press asks in Beautiful Souls. It is not a book of moral philosophy. Press is a journalist, and he is interested in how moral problems play out in particular lives. To that end, he relates the experiences of Grüninger and three others: a Serb who saved the lives of Croats by lying about their ethnic identity; an Israeli soldier from an elite unit who refused to serve in the occupied territories; and a financial industry whistle-blower. Press is not simply storytelling, however. He splices his case studies with brief accounts of other dissenters, along with insights drawn from sociology, political theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, fiction and philosophy. Press examines his subjects carefully, alert to the different personalities and circumstances of each individual. He weighs the role of prejudice, idealism and community. He explores the 'element of reciprocity' in one case and the 'anxiety of responsibility' in another, sees the importance of 'mutual support' and discusses the frustrations of being ignored. He reads about oxytocin receptors; he studies David Hume. He makes modest conclusions. I don’t mean that as criticism. If Press made more comprehensive claims, I wouldn’t trust him. It’s no more possible to explain an act of conscience than it is to dissect a dream . . . Though Press clearly admires his characters, and wants readers to find them inspiring, he can see how their actions can create conflict and their personalities grate. 'If I knew only Thoreau,' Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friend Henry, 'I should think cooperation of good men impossible.' The conflicts can be benign. Thoreau plants his beans, refuses to pay the tax collector, spends a night in jail, writes a masterpiece. But moral convictions can lead to disengagement from civic life, or sometimes even wars. A conscience can be used to justify anything, even heinous crimes. It can lead a person to protect his purity at the cost of harming other people. As Press acknowledges, what you might call fanaticism I might call justice. One Israeli soldier refuses to serve in the occupied territories because of injustices perpetrated against Palestinians; another refuses to remove Jewish settlers because they are Jewish. Both men appeal to their consciences . . . Press shows little patience for the more strenuous claims of religious faith . . . his political allegiances are self-evident. But he does have a sensitive moral imagination, and it makes him wary of too much exalting. Those with whom he disagrees receive his sympathy, and those whom he admires can give him pause. They sometimes disappoint his expectations, and their noble efforts have high costs—often for little reward . . . [Press] knows that those who act bravely are all the more likely to feel anguished, since they know what’s at stake. In some ways this book is a thoughtful gesture of support. That might sound like a small thing, but it’s not. Compassion never is."—Louisa Thomas, The New York Times Book Review

“What makes you eager to push this book into the hands of the next person you meet are the small, still moments, epics captured in miniature. . . Mr. Press's book is a hymn to the mystery of disobedience.” —Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times

“What drives the unwilling executioners—those rare creatures brave enough to stand up for what is right in the face of real threat—is the question Mr. Press asks in this valentine to the human spirit . . . Some of these figures wonder if their individual actions have much power to reverse injustice. Mr. Press argues that "acts of conscience have a way of reverberating." Of course, they can do so only if people know about them; that is the service of this humane and absorbing book.”—Ruth Franklin, The Wall Street Journal 

“A collection of stories very well told, a biography of unlikely courage.”—Michael Bond, The New Scientist

“Proving time and again that the boldest renegades are just regular people with independent minds—rather than dyed-in-the-wool radicals—Beautiful Souls underscores dissent's populist potential. Acts of conscience, as Press puts it, 'have a way of reverberating.'”—Hannah Levintova, Mother Jones

Beautiful Souls helps us understand why a minority stands on principle when a majority fails. It’s an important book for our time, about conscience, group pressures, ethics, and psyches, and a beautifully crafted one that never falls prey to simple answers about matters of conscience.”—Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell

"We have lots of explanations for why people do bad things to one another. Prejudice, insanity, bureaucracy, and self-interest, to name but a few. However, we are less able to offer explanations for why some people do try to do good in the world, often against extraordinary odds . . . Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls is a thought-provoking and lucid attempt to answer such questions. For Press, we should look in the everyday and ordinary for the capacity to stand up for what is right, rather than in grand gestures or saintly people . . . Press, an award-winning journalist, takes us through four extended and well-chosen case studies."—Tobias Kelly, University of Edinburgh, Public Books

“Too often we think of courage only as something required to charge into gunfire or scale an icy peak. Eyal Press looks at courage of a different and far more important kind. His examples spread across decades and continents, and he is wise enough to know that it can take as much bravery to defy an unethical corporation as it does to resist a totalitarian regime. This is an important and inspiring book.”—Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars and King Leopold’s Ghost

“Press builds out his analysis via thick description. His portraits are finely sketched, and enriched by old-fashioned journalistic effort, drawing heavily on interviews with his protagonists and their families, colleagues, and acquaintances. What emerges is a portrait not of superheroes but of ordinary men and women, often ambivalent about their own roles, who see their acts of courage and resistance simply as what they ‘had to do.’”—Rosa Brooks, Bookforum

“An intelligent . . . examination of moral courage and its consequences.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Few of us will ever face a crisis of conscience of the magnitude that Press illuminates in this fascinating examination of courage, and yet who among us hasn’t pondered how we would react when confronted with a profound moral or ethical dilemma? In placing the spotlight on four specific individuals, Press allows readers to place themselves amid controversial circumstances while he challenges the assumption that it takes an extraordinary individual to perform extraordinary deeds. There’s the Swiss police captain who refuses, in 1938, to follow orders and expel Jewish refugees; the Serb who saves the lives of Croats during the Balkan War; the Israeli soldier who questions serving in occupied settlements; and finally the financial adviser who blows the whistle on a massive Ponzi scheme. Press argues that there is nothing saintly or particularly virtuous about these individuals, nor are they the rebellious sort we typically associate with social resistance. Rather than dismissing societal values, they hold these ideals—brotherhood, unity, diligence—as inviolable. The real question is why the rest of us don’t.”—Patty Wetli, Booklist

“In his latest, journalist Press explores what compels people to act according to their conscience when faced with a moral dilemma in dangerous circumstances. In 1938, a Swiss police captain allows Jewish refugees to cross into 'neutral' Switzerland, defying orders that the border be closed. During the Balkan conflict, in 1991, a Serb disobeys his superiors to save the lives of Croats from his hometown, the war-torn city of Vukovar. A financial adviser in Houston loses her job when she refuses to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects of being a Ponzi scheme. In a particularly compelling vignette, an Israeli soldier in an elite military unit refuses to serve in the occupied territories during the second intifada. Drawing on research by psychologists, sociologists, political activists and theorists (such as Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt), and neuroscientists, Press reveals that the boldest acts of defiance are often made by ordinary people who regard the ideals and values of their societies to be inviolable. This thought-provoking and moving narrative highlights the different ways people react to moral quandaries and, at its best, makes us question the role our own passivity or acquiescence plays in allowing unconscionable acts to happen on our watch.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

I. Underhanded Practices
One night in November 1938, a fourteen-year-old boy named Erich Billig slipped across the Austrian border into Switzerland. It was, he hoped, the final leg of a hastily arranged journey that had begun ten days earlier, on November 9–10, when Billig and Jews throughout Vienna hid in their apartments or ducked for cover while Nazi storm troopers led a bloody rampage through the streets. In the organized pogrom known as Kristallnacht, which turned Austria’s stately capital into a cauldron of terror and violence, hundreds
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  • Eyal Press

  • Eyal Press is an author and journalist based in New York.  His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Raritan Review and numerous other publications.  A 2011 Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, he is the author of Absolute Convictions, and a past recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
  • Eyal Press Todd France