Masters and Slaves


A famous book came out a while back, in 1992, entitled “The End of History and the Last Man” by Francis Fukuyama.  What Fukuyama meant by the title was not that time, or history, was itself ending, but rather that man’s “progressive” historical struggle was nearing an end.  Since history, according to this theory, was seen as a gradual change towards a progressive ideal, the “last man” Fukuyama referred to was the prototypical modern one who lived without restrictions to his self-expression.  The “last men” participated more and more fully in government, had more and more “freedom” than ever, and were able to increasingly rule themselves, instead of being ruled over.  In that sense, according to this liberal progressive model, history was winding down as we became less and less alienated from our desires and our needs.  Since history’s progress was purportedly ending and culminating in a type of progression into utopia where all of our desires had been met, the world was at our fingertips and what now needed to be done was to maintain it.

The problem with this thesis is that history had other plans.  Things have changed dramatically since history seemed to Fukayama and others to be coming to an end in the 90s.   History came back with a vengeance.  The Challenger space ship exploded, wars broke out in Bosnia, then 9/11 brought a series of terrorist attacks and the longest wars in US history in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Mass shootings happened all too often, riots broke out, crime picked up, and Donald Trump responded to the voices of heritage Americans crying in the wilderness.  History was back big time, as more and more people sensed something wasn’t right.  Modern life, at the end of history, seemed to have “thrown the baby out with the bath water.”

The “end of history” freedom we supposedly gained throughout history to do whatever we wanted left people sick, obese, lonely, without stable families, rootless, divorced, atomized, confused, alienated, living in squalor and in anomie, and addicted to various drugs, technologies, and consumerism, and inequality and debt became higher than ever.  Governments, in China, Russia, Europe, and the US among other countries all became more, instead of less, authoritarian and totalitarian since 1992.  People are currently being fired, harassed, and jailed for nonviolent political disagreements or for having the “wrong” opinion. Instead of race becoming something in the social background after the civil rights era, the focus is on race more than ever.

As technology and surveillance expanded, so did our sense of powerlessness to do anything about it.  Social isolation increased, complexity increased, and anxiety and depression increased as well.  Truthfully, looking back, we were all in a dream, myself included.

Our new “freedoms”, which in retrospect look more and more like chains of addiction and childish narcissistic impulses which kept us stunted morally and spiritually, didn’t make us any better off.  Also, a significant number of people started to realize that every right came with a responsibility, and looked around at everyone else who wanted the opposite- rights without any responsibility.  As a result, many like myself and countless others, began looking to recover or salvage some of what had been lost.

The Master and Slave

The world we created at the “end of history”, instead of setting us free, seems to have trapped us into a muddled existence, devoid of agency and meaning.  Consider the fable of the master and the slave which the philosopher Hegel used.  The master’s slave does everything for him, inside and outside the house.  The slave cooks, cleans, and organizes inside, and then works, shops, builds, and maintains outside the house as well.  The Master seems to be in charge, but it’s the slave who is really in charge and has satisfied his own need for self-recognition, because he has engaged, learned, connected and struggled with the outside world around him, with other people around him.

The slave has molded reality, but reality has also molded him.  The slave is a slave but he is alive.  The Master on the other hand is powerless without his slave.  The Master owns it all but knows nothing about it, he’s a stranger to the ground, the reality around him, his own home and things, and he’s disconnected and estranged from most everyone around him.  The Master is a shadow of a man.  In reality, the slave is the master.

What does this mean? It’s the fact that the slave has to submit to growth, and learn, and deal with reality in a way that the master doesn’t that distinguishes him as having risen to the heights and the consciousness of his life.  The slave is living and the master is not.  It’s not a material rising, he’s still a slave, but it’s a rising of human dignity that no one can take away. When he looks in the mirror he is pleased with who he is.  The slave is practiced at “dying” so to speak, through his own humility and subsequent growth, so he is the one who is fully human.

The point of the metaphor is not to promote slavery, but to point out the trap of an abstract existence, addicted to pleasure, outsourcing, speed, and sensation but devoid of any meaning or higher purpose.  Think of anything we do worthwhile- a project completed, a successful marriage, something fixed or built well, a skill acquired, or a successful partnership, any type of growth- it takes us humbling ourselves and both being changed by reality and by changing it to accomplish something meaningful.  These are the practices of submitting that make for a strong culture, of moral people, who are fit for self-government.  Those who submit to the real life of community, religion, culture, trades, and roles, that all make us stronger.  We are “slaves” to these things, we “die” to them but we become through them more than we ever could have been.

The converse situation is the opposite, when the Master becomes the slave of the slave.  Without his slave, he is nothing, so he is nothing.  If we are not able to function without our latest technology, if we outsource everything, if we’re addicted, if we have no culture, no history, no real citizenship, no religion, no community, no roles, then what are we?  Nothing.  If we have this type of freedom, which is not true freedom, we have only alienation, confusion, isolation, and detachment, a death of the soul.  It’s through humility, belonging, learning, faith, and through culture that we become who we were meant to be.

What we need to live is a community, both one with our ancestors and with our progeny, but also with those around us. It’s through this community, both horizontal and vertical, through time, that we have our being.  This is our identity.  A man ruled by momentary sensations, by videos, likes, and clicks, is not himself or who he was meant to be. He’s an automaton reacting to various stimuli, a slim representation of who he is.

Become the master of your own self, with God’s help.  Know the world around you, your community, your work, your town and the ground you walk on.  Rather than being a helpless master, practice submitting to the right things, in order to grow.  Maybe it’s setting a goal and sticking with it.  Maybe it’s getting married and having a family.  Maybe it’s cutting out an addiction and adding something positive in instead. Maybe it’s tending a garden.  Maybe it’s signing up for classes to learn something new.  Maybe it’s through religion, art or philosophy.  Maybe its settling in to a certain way of life, somewhere, with certain people.  Likely it’s some combination of those things.  By engaging and learning from the concrete world around us, we become.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian novelist and philosopher, famously said he was thankful for the Gulag, the infamous Soviet prison camp he spent many years toiling in and in which he barely survived.  Why was he thankful? Because this situation, which would have broken many men, made him who he became.  Someone who relied on God, on the other good people he could find around him, one who rejected the triviality and banality of modern secular life, and came to depend on any gifts or graces that God could give him to survive in that hellhole:

“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” 

The world is re-calibrating.  We can never go back, but we’re in the process of a course correction, because somehow we became supposed masters who are really slaves.  We’ve lost so much.  Don’t get me wrong, we are still in the fight for our very humanity.  The young are hurting the most, with suicides and mental breakdown sharply on the rise.  The revolutionary changes that sped up tremendously the last few decades didn’t live up to the billing, and ironically they often hurt the most vulnerable in society the most.  Recalibrations are always painful because change is always painful.  But the way forward is positive change towards new and healthier ways of life, based on dying to self but to gaining life.  The way forward is to reject the soul-crushing, humanity-denying existence that the powers that be have planned for us, and to become true Masters.


I enjoy writing and helping people, and write on all sorts of health topics.

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