Servility with Outward Liberty
In a review of Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (subscription probably required), Diana Schaub touches on a topic that is subtle, but central to current political disputes. “Freedom is mentally and morally demanding; bondage is easy (painful and miserable, but easy),” she writes. Therefore, we are beginning to see the emergence of “a new ‘dependence of mind’ compatible with the outward forms of freedom.”
The “one right thing” to do — the new orthodoxy — becomes defined not by the individual, with reference to authorities that may be addressed on their own merits, whether scriptural, traditional, or empirical, but by social activists, with government as “the agent of human improvement”:
Servility takes a double form: “On the one hand, human beings are mobilized . . . to be the instruments of the social purpose of perfecting the world. On the other hand, as the beneficiaries of free-standing rights, they have been liberated from most frustrations and inhibitions on their right to satisfy all their own impulses. They are, in other words, to be collectively dutiful and individually hedonistic.” Both attitudes entail servility. One’s ideas and pieties are acquired through social osmosis. One follows along, obeying or at least mouthing the right slogans. Meanwhile, one’s day-to-day behavior is impulsive, not under the guidance of long-range reason. To mention just one instance: “Saving for a rainy day” (the practice of delayed gratification) is not imperative, or perhaps even possible, when the state taxes you for the provision of all needs. Consumption, debt, impulse-buying, and gambling are all officially encouraged. The servile mind is enslaved to society without and the passions within.
Arguably, the skill that Western society developed, over millennia, was one of self discipline yielding a higher liberty, and when liberated from oppressive domination by others (through democracy) and given structures that facilitate the choice to rise above the base urges of the self (mainly through religion), humankind will strive and advance.
It is well known history (and, truthfully, current events) that people desiring to dominate can leverage that understanding to impose servility in the name of stamping out personal urges, with a corruption of religious structures as the primary vehicle. What we’re seeing, in our place and time, is the encouragement of poor behavior so that the dominators have reason to impose their own order to manage the consequences through government.