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When Life Feels Like Slavery (or, the power to rule)

August 23, 2014



I will begin this discussion with some quotes from Laurence Lampert’s book Nietzsche’s Task:

As Europe Sleeps on, thinking the crucial fight to be over, Nietzsche thinks the war is entering its most crucial phase. It enters that phase coiled into a magnificent tension of mind and spirit [… T]he fight in our past makes the present like a bow drawn taut that can launch an arrow into the most distant future [… T]wo attempts have already been made ‘in grand style’ to unstring the tense bow and rob the present of its promise: Jesuitism and the democratic Enlightenment. [Lampert, Laurence. Nietzsche’s Task: Yale University Press, pp. 13-14]

The central chapter [of Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Natural History of Morality”] argues that victory in the war against the democratic Enlightenment can be acheived only by “a new type of philosopher” who effects a “transvaluation of values”. [ibid. p. 16]

Physicists speak with pride of the “law-abidingness of nature[” …] The philologist counters with what looks like a philologist’s pride: that’s only your construal […] nature’s law-abidingness is not “text” but a prejudiced misreading of the text: “a naive-humanitarian costuming and twisting of meaning.” These accusations from a philologist’s arsenal are part of the political charge that misreading nature as law-abiding goes “more than halfway to meet the democratic instincts of the modern soul.”

The philologist reads the physicists’ interpretation as itself a text, one that betrays the motives lying behind it: “Everywhere equality before the law[” …] Zarathustra had taken special care to persuade his followers that the teaching of equality is a reaction to intolerable inequality, a forceful preaching intended to right a natural wrong through revenge […]. “Hooray for the law of nature!” is a cry of good cheer masking a hatred of nature for generating superior and inferior. The political alliance of modern physics with the democratic instincts of the modern soul is based on a shared opposition to nature[.] [ibid. p. 55]

Laurence Lampert is a Canadian philosopher and professor currently teaching in the US. He has been published by Yale University Press and the University of Chicago Press. He describes himself as a Nietzschean and writes that he is progressing Nietzsche’s philosophical enterprise. I have quoted from one of his works here at length so that you can make up your own mind about it, but I will proceed with my own thoughts in this post.

It troubles me that professor Lampert would choose to progress this declared anti-democratic enterprise. Nietzsche provides a lengthy critique of democracy. I personally feel that we aren’t living in a true democracy now, and that there possibly never has been a true democracy. Here is a quote from a recent paper published from Princeton University about a study of influence in the economy:

The central point that emerges from our rese arch is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. Our results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. [ ]
One of the things I find troubling about Lampert-Nietzsche (I will refer to Lampert since it is his text in particular I am addressing here) is that embedded in the criticism of democracy is a critique made through discussion of physics of “equality before the law”. Here he is criticisng “the democratic instincts of the modern soul […] based on a shared opposition to nature”. The implication I see here is that Lampert would like to see a society where those “superior” and those “inferior” would get treatment “before the law” which he feels would befit their status.
That this book is published by Yale University Press is perhaps a testament to their impartiality regarding opinions expressed in scholarly publication (which I think is right for a society that values free speech), but it is disturbing in the sense that this work is getting significant attention and recognition, not because it shouldn’t be allowed, but because as citizens of a democracy who value our rights and freedoms, we should at least be aware and concerned that there substantial forces that are actively working against those freedoms, and it is equally our right in a free society to work to protect our freedoms.
There is a significant relationship between the ideas expressed here and those of the philosopher Hegel. In the book Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojeve describes what Hegel calls the Master-Slave Dialectic. He says that what defines humans is first their desire, which puts them on the level with animal entities, and then their recognition of their own desire which they wish to fulfill, which is self-consciousness, or consciousness of the “I” who desires. To make the human fully human, writes Kojeve, in the sense of being a historical being, the human desire must desire another desire (the desire of another person) and this takes the form of the need for recognition. It is in this way that humans can get an objective knowledge of their own value, as being a human.
He then describes the process of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, where two humans meet and begin a battle to the death for recognition. Ultimately one of them is killed, but this is unsatisfying, because the victor has no one to recognize them, so in order for recognition to be possible one of the two combatants has to survive the fight. He writes, because some people are willing to risk everything (their life) for the sake of something immaterial (recognition) they are willing to gain recognition by any means (a fight to the death). But there are also certain humans who are not willing to risk everything, their desire for life overpowers their desire for prestige, so they give in to the battle and recognize the other as the master, while they subsequently become the slave.
This process becomes more complicated as Kojeve writes that the master is ultimately unfulfilled by this relationship, because while they wish to be recognized, they wished to be recognized by their equal but can only be recognized by their slave, who they hold as inferior. From this situation the master has nowhere to go, because they have reached the pinnacle, and any change would be for the worse (to lose master status), and so (according to Kojeve-Hegel) the only possibility for the achievement of true humanity lies with the slave.
Because the slave works for the master, transforming the natural objects of the world so that they are fit for consumption (by the master), for example into food or as tools for use, the slave begins to become educated by this experience of transforming nature and realizes a possibility of conquering nature (which the master is also slave to, being bound by their desires for physical objects brought to them by the slave). The slave realizes a new power, this is the dawn (according to this story through Kojeve-Hegel) of technical and scientific knowledge. The slave can now learn to transform nature so that it benefits him/her, and subsequently become the master of both nature and the prior master. Because the slave has the knowledge that he was once a slave and can see the results of his work physically, he acheives an objective self-consciousness and power above what the master was able to achieve. [Kojeve, Alexander. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Cornell University Press, chpt. 1]
Writing on the relationship of Master and Slave is part of the tradition of philosophy as far back as Aristotle. He wrote:
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.


 Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another’s and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. Wheras the lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, and the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts of both war and peace. [Aristotle. Politics, Book 1]

More recently the philosopher Leo Strauss summarized Aristotle’s position on slavery thus:

Aristotle sets forth the dictate of reason regarding slavery: it is just to enslave men who are by nature slaves; men who are slaves not by nature but only by law and compulsion are unjustly enslaved; a man is a slave by nature if he is too stupid to guide himself or can do only a kind of work little superior to the work done by beasts of burden; such a man is better off a slave than free. [Strauss, Leo. The City and Man; University of Chicago Press, pp 22-23]

The implication here is that the slaves “minister[s] to the needs of life” by their “labor”, while the masters dedicate themselves to “political life in the arts of both war and peace.” I hope the quote provided above from the recent study from Princeton University will make it clear “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”. So if the corporate interests are those dedicated to the “political life in the arts of both war and peace”, it can be surmised what role the laborers are meant to play here.

I have created this post because I feel these issues are very relevant and important to people at large. I have given some suggestions on what can be done in the post A New Form of Social Organization— For those who value Freedom

Other relevant posts from this blog include:

Institutional Slavery


Web of Deceit — Mark Curtis

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