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Morals & the servile mind
On the diminishing moral life of our democratic age.
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I am in two minds about democracy, and so is everybody else. We all agree that it is the sovereign remedy for corruption, tyranny, war, and poverty in the Third World. We would certainly tolerate no different system in our own states. Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works. One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly. They have overreached. Blunder follows blunder, and we come to regard them with the same derision as those who interview them on radio and television. We love it that our rulers are—up to a point—our agents. They must account to us for what they do. And we certainly don’t live in fear, because democracy involves the rule of law. Internationally, democracies are by and large a peaceful lot. They don’t like war, and try to behave like “global citizens.” There is much to cherish.
Yet it is hard to understand what is actually happening in our public life under the surface of public discussion. An endless flow of statistics, policies, gossip, and public relations gives us a bad case of informational overload. How does one tell what is important from what is trivial? The sheer abundance of politics—federal, state, and local—obscures as much as it illuminates. The first clarifying step must be to recognize that “democracy” in the abstract misleads us. Living in a democracy—and it is lived experience that must be our theme—becomes a different thing in each generation. Something that benefits us in one generation may no longer be a benefit in the next. Experiencing twenty-first-century democracy is radically different from what our ancestors cherished in 1901. Rising levels of prosperity, for example, change many responses. For, as Plato noted, constitutions are made out of human beings: as the generations change, so will the system.
My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.
No philosopher can contemplate this interesting situation without beginning to reflect on what it can mean. The gap between political realities and their public face is so great that the term “paradox” tends to crop up from sentence to sentence. Our rulers are theoretically “our” representatives, but they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up. The business of governments, one might think, is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves. Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches. But democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority—they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.
We might perhaps be more tolerant of rulers turning preachers if they were moral giants. But what citizen looks at the government today thinking how wise and virtuous it is? Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into demanding political solutions to social problems. To demand help from officials we rather despise argues for a notable lack of logic in the demos. The statesmen of eras past have been replaced by a set of barely competent social workers eager to take over the risks of our everyday life. The electorates of earlier times would have responded to politicians seeking to bribe us with such promises with derision. Today, the demos votes for them.
Our rulers, then, increasingly deliberate on our behalf, and decide for us what is the right thing to do. The philosopher Socrates argued that the most important activity of a human being was reflecting on how one ought to live. Most people are not philosophers, but they cannot avoid encountering moral issues. The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Nor does the state limit itself to mere principle. It instructs us on highly specific activities, ranging from health provision to sexual practices. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?
By “the moral life,” I simply mean that dimension of our inner experience in which we deliberate about our obligations to parents, children, employers, strangers, charities, sporting associations, and all the other elements of our world. We may not always devote much conscious thought to these matters, but thinking about them makes up the substance of our lives. It also constitutes the conditions of our happiness. In deliberating, and in acting on what we have decided, we discover who we are and we reveal ourselves to the world. This kind of self-management emerges from the inner life and is the stream of thoughts and decisions that make us human. To the extent that this element of our humanity has been appropriated by authority, we are all diminished, and our civilization loses the special character that has made it the dynamic animator of so much hope and happiness in modern times.
It is this element of dehumanization that has produced what I am calling “the servile mind.” The charge of servility or slavishness is a serious one. It emerges from the Classical view that slaves lacked the capacity for self-movement and had to be animated by the superior class of masters. They were creatures of impulse and passion rather than of reason. Aristotle thought that some people were “natural slaves.” In our democratic world, by contrast, we recognize at least some element of the “master” (which means, of course, self-managing autonomy) in everyone. Indeed, in our entirely justified hatred of slavery, we sometimes think that the passion for freedom is a constitutive drive of all human beings. Such a judgment can hardly survive the most elementary inspection of history. The experience of both traditional societies and totalitarian states in the twentieth century suggests that many people are, in most circumstances, happy to sink themselves in some collective enterprise that guides their lives and guarantees them security. It is the emergence of freedom rather than the extent of servility that needs explanation.
Servility is not an easy idea with which to operate, and it should be clear that the world we live in, being human, cannot be fully captured in ideal structures. But in understanding Western life, it is difficult to avoid contrasting courage and freedom on the one hand with servility and submission on the other. We think of freedom as being able to do what we merely want to do, but this is a condition cherished no less by the slave than by the master. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! Here is the illusion that freedom is merely having a lot of options available. What freedom actually means is the capacity not only to choose but also to face the consequences of one’s choice. To accept employment, to marry, to join a cause, to sustain a family, and so on, all involve responsibilities, and it is in the capacity to sustain self-chosen responsibilities, the steadiness to face up to the risks and inevitable ennui inseparable from a settled life, that we exhibit our freedom. And its essence is that each individual life is determined by this set of chosen commitments and virtues (whatever they may be) rather than by some set of external determinants or regulations. Independence of mind requires thinking one’s own thoughts: poor things many of them may be, but they are our own, and we have found some reasons for thinking them.
The problem about identifying servility in our modern Western societies results from the assumption that freedom and independence are admirable, and their opposites not. Hence the strong human tendency to trade off freedom for some other condition of things—money, security, approval—must take on the appearance of a virtue. A further problem with servility is that its opposite might seem to be a swaggering parade of one’s own independence, but this is just as likely to be a cover for a servile spirit. Since the essence of servility is dependence of mind, independence is compatible with situational caution, as in the case of the assistant to Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, who responds to whatever idiotic remark his press baron employer might make with the words “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Wariness, tact, and hypocrisy are inevitable elements in the comic conditions of modern bourgeois life, and their significance is never obvious, even to those indulging them.
The real opposite of servility is individualism, as it has long been understood in European thought. But the very word “individuality” itself is often confused with egoistic self-interest and the pursuit of mere impulse. One needs to tread with delicacy in using any of the common words in this area. In our time, the structural rigidities that have emerged from the basic ideas of social justice and of vulnerability in contemporary society constitute a new world of servility, but the essentials of the condition were recognized nearly a century ago by Hilaire Belloc. His slightly eccen- tric diagnosis of the condition remains acute even in our time. The issue is how we judge the character of society. As he writes: “Society is recognized as no longer consisting of free men bargaining freely for their labor or any other commodity in their possession, but of two contrasting statuses, owners and non-owners.” It is a world in which the servile seek security in avoiding the risks of life, even at the sacrifice of their freedom. And it cannot easily be recognized in action.
The social conditions of the servile mind are much less elusive than the personal. That they consist in welfare dependency has been widely recognized—even governments themselves find the resulting costs, crime, and apathy of such programs intolerable. But servility is also evident in the state’s concern to protect any set of people from prejudice, offense, or danger to self-esteem. Immigrants in earlier times did not need, and many would have regarded as demeaning, the current apparatus designed to protect supposedly vulnerable people. Courage and resilience did for these people what the state now does for their successors. Such legislation, in protecting people from victimhood is, paradoxically, simultaneously an education in how to be a victim.
One of the collateral corruptions of this situation is that control must often be exercised not against those who commit whatever offense is in question, but against those who might, at the convenience of lawyers and the state, be made accountable. An employer, for example, may become accountable for sexual harassment committed by an employee because he has not provided what appears to be known as a “safe environment” for women. Employers are much more satisfactory targets for legislation and litigation, a version of the idea of “deep pockets.” More generally, the duty not to offend the vulnerable classes in speech has been codified as the amorphous thing called “political correctness.” As disposing of the power not only to rebuke, but also to enforce by penalties, such codification makes the codifiers our masters. We must obey less in deference to the law than from the demand to regard “correctness” as a moral virtue. To legislate opinion is itself to create a servile relationship. Codification of this kind destroys the freedom to respond to each other (within the law) as we choose.
And if it should seem that invoking servility as characterizing some of the conduct of modern Westerners is excessively dramatic, let me observe that we do actually have a vocabulary that recognizes slavishness in the everyday life of our societies. It happens, for example, when we call someone a toady, creep, wimp, careerist, or some other such denigration. Indeed, our vocabulary reveals a variety of ways in which we recognize tendencies which are quite precisely servile. Any failure to perform a public duty unless some private benefit is given, for example, is an exercise in corruption, and such corruption is a derogation of the moral life characteristic of the slave. Again, our common moral disapproval of “greed” characterizes those who go beyond the capitalist drive for the best deal, in order to gain something to which they are not entitled. This judgment implicitly invokes the charge of allowing reason to be overpowered by impulse. But of course, servility has much more evident characteristics. Let us bring them out by a contrast.
The European societies that became democracies in the course of the last two centuries understood themselves as associations of self-moving individuals. Rich and poor alike made their own arrangements within a civil society containing a large and increasing range of associations: social, charitable, religious, mutually supportive, unionized. These associations expressed that capac- ity for spontaneous institutional creativity which so impressed visitors to Europe, and especially to Anglophone countries. The crucial mark of independence was the ability to generate the resources needed for life without dependence on governmental subsidy, and it constituted “respectability.” No doubt it was sometimes easier for the rich to sustain such independence, but moral character was the crucial point. The respectable poor in the nineteenth century recognized themselves, and were recognized by others, as having a proud sense of their independence.
The major change from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is thus one in our very conception of society itself. In Europe, and even to some extent in the United States, it has become less an association of independent self-moving individuals than an association of vulnerable people whose needs must be met and sufferings mitigated by the power of the state. The idea of “vulnerability” has become such a cannibal of meanings that it has now acquired a remarkable range. The victims of crime were evidently vulnerable; in modern usage, however, the perpetrators of crime have also become vulnerable. The reason underlying this remarkable semantic development is that “society itself” has failed in its duty to instill decency and integrity in those who have turned to violence and crime. Here we have the most direct possible challenge to the basic idea of moral agency.
It is considerations of this sort that lead me to assimilate the moral order of Western societies in some degree to that of the slaves of the ancient world. We must today as citizens accommodate ourselves to increasing regulation and dependence on authority even to the point of falling in with the correct opinions. The moral world of the classical individualist emerged from the coherence of self-chosen commitments. His basic duty was to his own conception of himself. Contemporary moral life by contrast is marked by a greater involvement of external elements. It is not only that states regulate ever wider areas of life so that even family life becomes subject to demands for compliance. It is also that we have learned to pick up signals about respectable opinion from the responses of others—a feature of modern life that the sociologist David Riesman (in The Lonely Crowd) called “other directed.”
“Democracy” is central to this change in our condition not because it “causes” the change, but because most changes in our moral and political sentiments will sooner or later be recommended and justified as some form of democracy. What causes what in social life is so complicated that we can hardly be sure of any particular connection; we only ever grasp parts of it. Technology and economic enterprise, the secularization of life, changing opinions, new moral tastes—many such things are implicated in these changes. But the drive to equalize the conditions of a population, to institute something called “social justice,” to make society a model of “inclusion”—all such things will eventually be advanced as an element of “democracy.” Household democracy is men and women equally sharing the burdens of running the household. It may also involve granting children a vote on family matters. Educational democracy consists in switching resources to the pupils currently less capable of getting good results. No remnants of hereditary constitutions are safe from this homogenizing steamroller: Democratization is the most dramatic of all the corruptions of constitutionality in which separation and balance are to be replaced by a single ideal believed to solve all problems. The moral life can no more be isolated from this drive than anything else. It too must be democratized. And the result is to destroy individual agency.
Our inherited moral idiom is thus being challenged by another, in which individuals find their identifying essence in support- ing public policies that are both morally obligatory and politically imperative. Such policies are, I suggest, “politico-moral.” Such an attitude dramatically moralizes politics, and politicizes the moral life. It feeds on our instinctive support for good causes. Yet it also suggests that the most important sign of moral integrity, of decency and goodness, is not found in facing up to one’s responsibilities, but in holding the right opinions, generally about grand abstractions such as poverty and war. This illusion might well be fingered as the ultimate servility.
Some might think that morality is of little significance, because it is merely the subjective values people adopt. No doubt sexual mores in our times are in a state of massive confusion, but no one believes that doctors can choose about putting the interests of the patient first, or accountants may legitimately make up the figures, or friends betray us. The current muddle between subjectivism about morals and dogmatism about rights, for example, merely conceals the semantic changes by which the moral is being transposed into the manipulable, leading to a gullible acquiescence in the projects of governments. These semantics cannot help but attract philosophical interest. And the philosopher had better start by observing that what we recognize as our “culture” is merely the surface of our lives, the debris left behind from our moral responses in times past. It is out of date even as it is recognized. We never step into the same culture twice.
At the end of a period of civil strife, as Tacitus tells us, Augustus Caesar established peace and security in Rome during the long period in which he ruled, ending in A.D. 14. Augustus carefully preserved the constitutional structures inherited from the republican period. Rome was still, in a sense, at the height of its power. When he died, however, the Romans discovered that a new system had quietly come into being: they had acquired a master. And what they also learned was that almost insensibly, over the long reign of Augustus, they had learned the moral practices needed for a sycophantic submission to such a figure.
The fate of the Romans under Tiberius, who followed Augustus, was alarming beyond anything even imaginable in our time, but we should not forget the broader lesson: that over long stretches of time, the moral changes that take place only become evident in the light of some unexpected crisis. It is a lesson that ought to make us wary of our easy-going and liberated ways. Our world is infinitely benign, and we are in no immediate danger of falling into the distractions and treacheries that afflicted the early days of Rome under the Principate. But we should never forget that moral change never ceases, and it takes place below, and often deeply below, the surface of a culture.
This article has been excerpted from The Servile Mind, by Kenneth Minogue (Encounter Books, August 2010).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 June 2010, on page 4
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