‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

A piece of juvenilia here!  Below this, I have typed in a school essay I wrote in 1972, not long before my 18th birthday.  Though the product of a teenage mind (with a major historical error in the second sentence), I enjoyed re-reading it and I think that overall it has aged pretty well.  My teacher assessed it to be ‘very good.’

I think it is not just a period piece.  Nearly half a century later, I am struck by two things in particular:

  • the way it chides politicians for ‘failing to see that it is this very sustained [economic] growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems.’  It is quite sobering that a schoolboy was able to see that so many years ago; and yet, as the crises of the climate and biodiversity deepen, most politicians and mainstream commentators remain ‘enslaved’ to the same baleful idea even now;
  • the fact that in Edward Heath’s Britain, it was also possible to write, in all seriousness, ‘that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution’ (and not receive any comment on this from my teacher!).

The essay’s title was chosen by the teacher – it is a quotation from a character in the novel we were reading in class.  I offer the essay unedited, for whatever it is worth.  It is the length of a newspaper opinion column.

‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

– Joseph Conrad in Under Western Eyes

Human slavery has long been thought immoral by western society.  Feudalism in western Europe died with the Middle Ages.  Subsequently peasants relying on subsistence farming may have been slaves to the land and the weather, but they have not been at the beck and call of human masters.  One has a degree of choice whether to remain on the land or not, but to be treated as the thing of another man has been seen as the denial of God’s great gift, free will.  All one’s human dignity, so important to Renaissance and post-Renaissance man, is reckoned to have gone; one is humiliated.  Hence the feeling that one ‘would scorn to be a slave’ – it would be such a shame, a degradation, that one could not bear it.

But how can you be a slave to an idea?  Slavery to a man comes when he has absolute control over your body, your property and your actions; sometimes – at least in principle – he may even direct your thoughts.  Slavery to an idea comes when it not only controls, or motivates, your actions, but also governs all your other thoughts.  You no longer see the idea as your servant, helping you to achieve certain ultimate ends; it itself is now the guiding principle of your life.  For ideas, like machines, ought to be the servants of humanity.  They should be the product of reasonable thought about what our objectives must be and how we should reach them.  We ought to use them as means to our goals and be free to discard them when circumstances change.  They must not appear to be the goals themselves.  A good example of ideas getting such supremacy over men as to enslave them is seen in modern official economic thought.  Aims such as high growth and high productivity are no longer seen as means to material prosperity and therefore happiness but as ends in themselves.  After decades of worrying how to achieve the means, politicians have become enslaved to them and see them as ultimate goals of policy.  They now concern themselves over Britain’s place in the ‘growth league’ and the degree of change in labour productivity, while failing to see that it is this very sustained growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems, and that with a million unemployed, the average working man ought to be producing less – then there would be more jobs needed for the same production.  These politicians fail to register that circumstances have changed and that these are no long even valid routes to universal happiness; and they are certainly not happiness itself.

It is significant that they have ‘become enslaved’ to these ideas after ‘decades.’  You do not suddenly become the slave of an idea in the way that you can of a man.  First of all you yourself have to conceive it, and you are unquestionably its master then.  It can only gradually take over your mind.  It is this which is the most insidious aspect of slavery to ideas.  Since the change is so gradual, you are not likely to notice it – as yet politicians have not grasped just how they are trapped by the idolization of their policy of growth.  You will be likely to accredit the troubles brought on by this enslavement to other causes.  Imagine a revolutionary Marxist.  Somebody points out to him that the proletariat are no longer oppressed as they were in Marx’s day and that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution.  His reaction is very likely to be not a reappraisal of his political thought and a realization that Marxism is no longer valid, but possibly even a hardening of his views resulting from a determination to resist this ‘bourgeois propaganda.’  He is a slave to Marxism without knowing it.

But however unaware you may be of your enslavement to an idea, this enslavement is still your fault.  It is the result of a refusal to think clearly and objectively, if not at first, at any rate subsequently.  It shows a lack of self-control (the slave is too proud to renounce his ideas and so deifies them instead) and, ultimately, weakness.  It is therefore all the more pathetic.  When slave to another man you can maintain your dignity, even if your free will is removed: you can remain clear-headed about long-term objectives for mankind and preserve your ideals.  But when you are enslaved by an idea, you are mentally helpless, and you have, if unwittingly, lost at least some of your dignity.

If, then, he is helpless about it, can the slave of an idea scorn his predicament?  As I have already suggested, he does not know it exists – the modern politician cannot see the muddle-headedness of his macro-economic views, nor the Marxist the irrelevance of his doctrine today.  And since the idea governs its slave so closely, he is not likely to be detached enough to make observations on his condition.  If he could see the position he was in, no doubt he would scorn himself for it – such a circumstance is all the more shameful since it is your own fault.  But he would be likely to try to do something to change it; this a slave to another man cannot do.

2 thoughts on “‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’”

  1. Fascinating. I could ask why you considered Marxism to be irrelevant … and whether you regarded religious people as being enslaved! But I’d have been proud of myself to have produced such a coherent essay.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. What I wrote about Marxist revolutionaries was connected with the thinking about socialism without revolution. This was still the post-war era, I was brought up under the social democracy of the time, détente was under way between East and West, and the idea of a steady progress away from capitalism was evidently still credible. Mrs Thatcher’s counter-revolution was yet to come. I suppose I also had faith in British institutions (more than I have now) and I couldn’t see a need for revolutionary change. Moreover, Russian was one of my subjects and the previous year I had visited the USSR on a school trip, and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t have a very nuanced idea of Marxism, and may have associated it simply with the Leninist model of revolution. I was instead attracted by the Fabian concept of a parliamentary road to socialism.

      As for religion… Well, I was surrounded by it at that boarding school, besides having a father who had made us go to church every Sunday morning from the age of six. But I had been taught by one of the chaplains, who was an extremely good teacher and really made us think about things – which happened to turn me towards atheism! But I hadn’t wandered far enough intellectually to see religion as an enslavement.

      I now see a dichotomy between ideas which are accepted on faith (including both religion and what people call conspiracy theories, and any other received and unquestioned idea, including dominant ones such as mainstream economics) and those which are founded on evidence and reason. This links to the notion of accepted paradigms, whose proponents generally fight hard to protect them until a new generation of thought eventually wins through.

      Re-reading that essay, I was struck by its insistence that all ideas arise within the individual, when many, if not most, have at least some social form and are the result of convention or indoctrination. Other people can therefore enslave us with their own ideas – I would say that obsession with economic growth was a good example of that. And after half a century of convinced atheism, I would certainly put religious belief in that category!

      Our teachers at that school insisted on us questioning received wisdoms because later generations often found them to be wrong; instead, they said, we should work things out for ourselves. If I was to rewrite that essay now, I would probably make a distinction between ideas based on faith (which enslave us) and those based on evidence and rational thought (which should set us free). I seem to be a true child of the Enlightenment!

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