It is my opinion that it’s a great pity that our servants are now machines rather than people, and I think it is those who were servants who suffer the most from it. Because, of course, a man suited to be a servant does not cease to be that kind of man when there are no servant jobs available. He is obliged to become an anonymous servant to the public rather than a personal servant to a family.
This is not to craft a rosy picture of the servant’s lot; my view is only that, rosy or thorny, being a household servant was a more personal and more human situation than being, say, a waiter at a generic food chain, which I suspect is what many would-be servants have to be these days.
My real cause for bringing this up, though, is to note that what most people today would object to is my assumption that there are men fitted by nature to be servants. This is held to be degrading and exploitative, as implying that some people are simply ‘less’ than others.
We moderns like to flatter ourselves as being more just and open-minded than our ancestors, that we alone see the dignity of servants, women, peasants, and other ‘marginalized’ groups of the past. In fact it’s quite the other way around, as shown by the very fact that we consider to be a servant a ‘degrading’ position.
What we actually do is assume a very worldly standard by which to judge of men: one based on intelligence, thrift, beauty, talent, and so on. We then make the bold claim that every man is or may become equal in these fields if only given the chance. Thus, to be a servant is degrading because no man is fitted by nature to be a servant, but rather to be one of the free and equal supermen.
What this amounts to is saying “a worthy man is a man like me, and I believe that with the right training you could be made into a man like me and thus a worthy man.”
Thus we claim to elevate the servant by saying that he could be just like his master, the woman by claiming she could be just like the man, and the peasant by saying he could be just like the landowner. It is not that we admire or appreciate these sorts of people themselves, but that we claim the belief that they could be the sort of people we could admire, and that it is an unjust thing that they are not.
We call this a belief in the equality of man: not that all types and classes of men may be admirable and deserving of their particular brand of respect, but that they would be so if only we could strip away their different roles and make them after the right pattern.
The old way said that a good servant may be as happy, fulfilled, and admirable a man as his master, only of course, the servant and master will not be happy, fulfilled, and admirable in the same way. They each have their own particular sphere and scope of life in which they may be considered an excellent sort of man without comparison of one with the other. They are each triumphantly themselves.
To say that no man is fitted to be a servant, but all could be made fitted to be a lord is only to say that anyone who is a servant is being cheated and is thus either an object of pity or contempt. Saying that there is no difference between a servant and a lord does not actually degrade the lord: it degrades the servant. Because the lord – or the tycoon or the scholar or the clerk or whatever he is – is being presented as the standard.
It is the servant who now must be changed to fit the new standard. The particular virtues of the servant, his particular kind of excellence is the one that is discounted. Oh, we don’t blame him, of course; it’s an unjust society that has caused this. But now he has the chance to become a truly worthy man if he will only become a very different kind of man. And we believe he can do so. We will even adjust our standards so as to be able to say that he has become so.
This is our idea of justice and humanity: to discount the merits of nine-tenths of the human race (for the kind of people we value must be a minority) and compensate by saying that we believe they could be very worthy people if only they were more like us and we are very sorry that, through no fault of their own, they are not.
Or, to put it another way, we judge every beast by its skill in climbing trees, and then consider ourselves very just and open-minded because we try to make out it is the monkey’s fault that the fish cannot do it. We assure the fish that he really could be just as skilled at climbing trees as the monkey if only he would work hard at it and the monkey didn’t keep him down, that he doesn’t have to be stuck swimming his whole life, that there really is no difference between him and the monkey.
We thus disguise from ourselves the fact that we think the only good beasts are monkeys.
4 thoughts on “The Servant Question”
Given your known predilections, I’m a little surprised you didn’t work “My Little Pony” into this essay somewhere. Or am I the only one who reads that show as, among other things, a hieraticist critique of modern society all the more devastating for being mostly unspoken? (“Mostly”, I say, because, well, “The Cutie Map” does exist.) Each pony has a unique talent, the sign of which is emblazoned on his very flesh, and personal fulfillment is found in pursuing the vocation that that talent entails; Twilight’s cutie-mark talent is for being a warrior-mage scholar-princess, and Pinkie’s is for being a menial worker at a bakery, and there’s no reason in the world why either of them should resent or look down on the other because of that.
On another note, what do you say to a story entitled “The Glass Floor”, about the struggles faced by a young woman from a high-status family whose life’s ambition is to become a housemaid? I’ve had a fancy about this for years, but it’s just not my line, so if anybody else wants to do something with it, he has my blessing.
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Quite honestly, it simply wasn’t on my mind at the moment (I haven’t been watching much TV of any kind lately). But you certainly are not the only one to see the hierarchical / traditionalist perspective of that show – the portrayal of different social roles and positions as essential parts of one’s identity, to be embraced and celebrated rather than resented, and how each role can bring fulfillment and happiness, whether it’s ruling a kingdom or running the family farm. One of its many virtues. When I get around to revisiting it, I’ll probably go deeper into that aspect of it.
I like this a lot. Thank you!
Thank you for writing this. I am a servant, although I serve now in my own home rather than in another’s, or out in the world. I retired a few years ago from a job at a big company. I was an administrative assistant to a very large group of research scientists. It was my dream job, precisely the one I’d hoped for ever since I started working outside the home back in the 1970s. It was a very responsible position. Boss after boss goaded me to try to advance, try to get promoted to a “more responsible” position, telling me that with my education and work experience I could advance if I just put my mind to it. Over and over, I was told that to get this or that position I had to be “very professional.” The messages I heard in those sorts of exchanges were that a) I wasn’t trying hard enough to get out of my administrative field, and b) that I was unprofessional. Then, in a reorganization, the last beloved, but goading, boss resigned in disgust at not having been promoted. I was blessed with a new boss who valued my contributions and understood when I told him I wanted to be able to define success on my own terms.
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