Servants of a Greater Master – Are They Still People?

A philosophical problem that keeps me thoughtful lately is the following: Sometimes when you are philosophizing with another person, you suddenly become aware of the fact that the person you are talking to is not really a person!
This astonishing effect usually occurs when the other person does not speak for herself but for another entity that is larger and much more venerable than a single human being.

This may be the case for a professor of philosophy. For a professor of philosophy does not speak for himself but is an intermediary representing philosophy the subject. He (or she) is, so to say, the servant of a greater master – in this case of philosophy the subject. The same, of course, is true for students of philosophy who study philosophy not in order to become philosophers but in order to become professors of philosophy.

Now, what is wrong with being a servant of a greater master, a servant of philosophy?

The problem is whether these people are still human beings?
At this point, I have to concretize my concern because, of course, representatives of institutions do not lose their human rights in any respect.
So, in what aspect could it be the case that they lose their humanity?

Answer: They lose it in that aspect that they become unable to understand what a human being wants, thinks or is asking for.

This becomes especially visible when it comes to philosophy. Imagine a person who is philosophizing because she has some personal problem, and this person starts to talk to a representative of philosophy the subject. The most probable thing is that the representative of philosophy the subject will not even take the other person seriously, because what she is talking does not look in any way like a contribution to philosophy the subject.

Now, let’s consider the other case, namely that a representative of philosophy the subject is talking about philosophy. Will she say anything useful for other people? Most probably not, for she judges the value of insights according to their valuation in the subject of philosophy. She has lost her sense for the “Put yourself in my shoes-thing”.

When we look now at the subject of philosophy: what is philosophy? The decision that philosophy is a subject and should be developed as such is at once a decision against Socrates’ opinion that people should philosophize in order to take care for their souls.

Or let’s put the same thing in other words: “Philosophy”, the word, means “love of wisdom”. However, wisdom is an attribute that is inseparable from human beings. A philosopher can be (or could be) wise, but never can philosophy be wise. By developing philosophy as a subject, what we did in reality was, we separated philosophy from people. That means that we have decided that the task of philosophy is not anymore to solve the problems of people but in order to solve the problems of philosophy the subject.

Building institutions like philosophy the subject corresponds to our need to build up something greater and more durable than we ourselves are, something that lives longer than a human being. Anyway, when it comes to building social institutions, we always again tend to deceive ourselves: First, we intend build up an institution that serves us and helps us to live better lives. However, soon afterwards this function, to be at our service, seems to be an obstacle to the greatness of the social institution. Therefore, we put ourselves at the service of the social institution and do not ask for anything in exchange for our efforts anymore. What makes us happy then is just to see the institution grow and proliferate. The institution lives instead of us. And we live secondary lives by serving the institution and staring at her well-being.

Something in that manner has also happened to philosophy. For once, a long time ago, philosophy helped people to live better lives. Nowadays many people are already unable to understand the sense of the effort of helping a human individual by means of finding orientation in life anymore because this activity does not contribute anything to philosophy the subject. Any philosophical effort seems senseless and worthless to them if it does not contribute to philosophy the subject.

Now we come to the “philosophical” part of this text. The “philosophical” part of a thought – in my understanding – is always that one where it is not enough to understand my words but where you get the option to change your opinion. Well, and the philosophically tempting question here is: Could it really be that servants of a greater master acquire the habit of living their lives as pure intermediaries or representatives and that they, by that, lose their ability to feel, think and react as humans?

Think about it! If you decide that the answer is yes, then it is like a really big and disgusting thing that you will have to swallow.

On the other side, if you decide that the answer is no than you will most probably go on making the same irritating experiences a person makes when she is talking to another person who is not representing herself.

So, the real philosophical question here is: Are people really able to forget what it means for a person to be unhappily in love, to be afraid of illness or concerned about what the future will bring? Can a person really forget that sometimes one has a problem, which is personal, and one would like an honest and personal reaction from the other person? Is it really possible that a person forgets that language, that communication basically serves the task to tell another person what the first person thinks and wants to tell her?

I am afraid all this might really actually be the case.

We are standing here in front of a quite astonishing phenomenon: What happens when a person considers herself in the first place to be a representative, a servant of a greater master, and not a person? What happens then is that this person somehow abandons her responsibility towards herself. She takes herself not serious anymore. Or, she takes herself serious, but only in her function as a representative, not in her function as a person. In other words, she somehow gives it up or neglects it to be herself.

That means that she actively and deliberately stops being a person. And when you are talking to her you cannot be sure that you are talking to her. Because she will not stand up for herself. She will react as if she were just a kind of membrane of the body of the social institution she belongs to.

At this point, I would like to add a thought that lately seems very important to me. Currently I am working among medical doctors, at the General Hospital of Vienna, and I have learned that they are able to encounter a great deal of sense in the effort of healing a person from a disease. I suppose, this is just the way medical doctors should function psychically in order to be good medical doctors. Anyway, I find it difficult to share their passion for healing the bodies of human beings. Therefore, I asked myself: why do I have a different attitude towards the help medicine can provide to human beings?

To my surprise, I have found the answer to this question in the phenomenon I have just described: I think that there are many persons, who are spiritually dead while living in perfectly healthy bodies. I am afraid that our notion of health, which is closely related to the health of the body, distracts us from the fact that many adult human beings have abandoned being themselves by allowing their social roles to completely absorb them.

With this I want to say that although I dread pain and disease as much as any other human being does I have found a task that seems more urgent to me, the task of preventing immediate, voluntary death by manner of a person renouncing to be herself.

It does not even make much sense to me that a person who is not herself should be bodily healthy, because in this situation illness could provide her with time to think about her life while bodily health allows her to work continuously and keeps her away from looking after her soul.

Maybe this is the reason why I have never even considered becoming a medical doctor: the reason that I can conceive something more horrible than bodily disease, namely immediate, voluntary death by giving up oneself while living in an absolutely healthy body.

Every human being has just one life. If we do not live our lives for ourselves, we do not live them at all. However, many persons prefer to live their lives not for themselves but for abstract social institutions like the nation, we belong to, the company, we are working for, or philosophy the subject. They prefer to do that because the social institution is bigger and more durable than they themselves are, and it makes them feel bigger and stronger if they put themselves at the service of an institution that is big and strong instead of living for their own purposes. It is a bit of a Mafia-like thing: people feel lost and vulnerable if they have no strong protector.

And if somebody, like me, says: philosophy should be an activity in order to gain orientation in one’s own life, and not a contribution to philosophy the subject, the servants of a greater master will react by showing their hostility. That is understandable: Wisdom does not give anything to eat, but philosophy the subject is able to provide a household income.

This leads us to another intriguing aspect of my topic here in this text: maybe many people are just too social? By that, I mean that they try to realize a kind of society, which is like an organic body and its cells. If a cell does, what it wants to do, the result is called cancer. In consequence, the organic society is a society, which is based on the concept that her members should give up their own lives in order to only serve the greater whole. However, I think that the human society is not – and should not be – an organic society. Human society should provide the means for its members to live their own lives. It is a kind of society where the society should be at the service of its members, and not the other way round as in the case of the organic Society.

Returning to the activity of philosophizing and its goal: I have now talked a great deal about the interesting phenomenon that many people are tempted to dissolve themselves in society. They think that the only way of being a good member of society is by giving up being themselves. My idea of the activity of philosophy is that it has a goal that is diametrically opposed to that temptation, namely to help us to “come to ourselves” once more, that is to regain individual conscience again after losing ourselves in social alienation.

My idea of the goal of philosophy is based on Socrates’ idea of taking care of one’s own soul and on the idea of rational autonomy as condensed in Kant’s formula for the age of enlightenment: “Sapere aude!” – “Dare to think for yourself!”

These allusions underline that my understanding of philosophy is not so alien judging it from the perspective of the history of philosophy.
Nevertheless, if we take all the ideas in this text together and draw the conclusion, the result is that the principal goal of philosophy would be to cure professors of philosophy from being professors of philosophy. That is to say, that philosophy – as an ego-strengthening activity – should incite alienated intermediaries, who just try to contribute to philosophy the subject, to think for themselves again.

The last paragraph highlights, of course, in a garish manner, to what degree philosophy has failed on the social level and to what degree it has been incapable to explain the sense of its very existence and effort to the people.

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2 comments

  1. Alex Jones

    Interesting questions you ask. Philosophy means lover of wisdom, and wisdom is the daughter of experience. The professor and the students in your example pursue the path of knowledge, which is not wisdom. Those who desire wisdom must pursue the path of experience, which is about acting and living a life. Philosophy is a living thing, born out of deed and experience. Those that consider themselves representative of ideas, are really talking about knowledge, which is cold and empty until it is manifested as wisdom through experiential doing.

    • philohof

      Hi Alex,
      thank you for your comment. However, I think you are not right. Look for instance at this quote:
      “Knowledge is sometimes portrayed as a free-flowing impersonal ressource: knowledge is said to be stored in databases and libraries… […] But knowledge has a closer connection to us than resources like water or gold. Gold would continue to exist even if sentient life were wiped out in a catastrophe; the continued existence of knowledge, on the other hand, depends on the existence of someone who knows.” – Jennifer Nagel: Knowledge. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Oxford 2014, p. 2.
      This may be an introductory work, but it was nevertheless written by an academic philosopher.
      Best wishes philohof

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