Could you be happy as a slave?

I’m still working on grad school apps so I’m holding off on publishing my “real” posts, but a question came to mind this morning that I thought would be interesting to pose to my readers.

Much of modern advice is predicated on the idea that your current life situation is shitty, or at least, unsatisfactory, and that you will be happy if you can improve your external or material circumstances.

However, it appears as if most ancient religion and philosophy assumes that there is often little you can do to improve the external circumstances of your life. As a result, they provided wisdom that taught you how to live a good life regardless of your circumstances.

So, my question to you is: Do you think you (or anyone) could ever live a happy and meaningful life as a slave?

If not, do we have to assume that everyone who ever lived in a state of slavery, or equally horrid conditions, and didn’t escape it, lived sad and meaningless lives?

If you think you could be happy as a slave, how would you do it?

Feel free to leave your responses in the comment box or e-mail me directly at dale [at] dalethoughts.com.

  • MarcHamann

    Being a slave has meant different things at different times, so it is not a given that it would be, as your question assumes, the worst possible state to live under.

    I would argue that in fact, many “free” people don’t live with a lot more control of their lives now than some slaves did in, say, classical Athens.

    On the other end of the scale, even the most self-empowered individual in our society lives under external constraints, some of which are unpleasant. (Eventual aging and death, if you can’t think of anything else…)

    Wealthy people sometimes commit suicide, in spite of their privilege, and slaves sometimes find happiness and meaning in spite of their circumstance.

    So obviously, the answer is yes, that we are free to be happy and find meaning (or not) regardless of external circumstance, even slavery.

    • What’s your background Marc? You always leave insightful comments here….:)

      You picked up my point exactly. I just used the term “slave” to convey horrible external/material conditions, not necessarily to indicate being an actual slave.

      I also agree with you that even “slaves” can be happy, but is there a point in which your circumstances are so horrible that the only way to become happier is to improve those circumstances?

      • MarcHamann

        I’m glad you think so! 😉 For the purposes of this discussion, I have a long background in philosophy and religion, in both formal and independent study, so I’ve given all the issues you discuss here a lot of thought.

        Viktor Frankl wrote a famous book that bears on this theme directly: “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

        Part of the book describes how he managed to find meaning and go on when he was in Auschwitz. It is hard to imagine a more unpleasant situation than that, and he makes a hard-to-refute case that such meaning (“happiness” may or may not be too strong a word) even in such conditions.

        • Ah that makes sense. You’ve already answered all my questions before….

          I’ve been meaning to read Frankl’s book for a long time. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon as he seems to have good insights that we can apply to our own, much less terrible, lives.

        • Viktor Roth Junek

          It would be shame not to quote Shawn it this point of discussion:

          “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

          ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

          • MarcHamann

            Having spent much time contemplating (and living) Shaw’s aphorism, it is worth pointing out that there are costs in happiness to being unreasonable.

            Total unreasonableness is not a viable strategy, so adaptation skills are always helpful even to the unreasonable man.

          • Where do you fall on the reasonable/unreasonable spectrum?

  • Lian

    This may seem out of place but i learned from one ted talk that apparently humans are able to adapt to any situation and find happiness in them. I guess we could call it ‘mental survival’? Just gonna share that talk here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4q1dgn_C0AU

    ———-
    I grew up in a predominantly Catholic country and we have a saying that goes something like, “because that was the situation God gave you, you have to make the most out of it.” It’s good to be able to find happiness and joy from within and not from external factors but I think there’s a fine line between being resilient and finding happiness anywhere and being a “martyr” (what if the situations too painful but you can do something about it). How do you know when you’re just being unsatisfied or it really is too much?

    • I’m a fan of Dan Gilbert. He has a lot of good research and insights in his book.

      I agree there is a balance to be struck between accepting your circumstances and improving your circumstances. In American culture, however, I believe we’ve gone over too far to the “improve your material circumstances” camp without balancing it with lessons on learning to appreciate the present.

      • Lian

        Oh i see! Balance is always key i suppose

  • OTL

    A lot of religion and philosophy was intended to provide a justification of hierarchy and inequality so it makes complete sense that they spend a lot of time telling people that
    things can’t change so the only one needs to preform ones God-given function
    well (for example the Caste system) and be content with the status quo. In fact, I think that slavery is justified in the Old Testament and the Quran (not sure about the New Testament).

    However this is wrong. Nobody can truly be happy as a slave (even if they pretend they are) because a slave is treated as property and humans are not property. To be a happy slave is like saying an athlete would be happy if they were never allowed to play any sports. Slavery is the opposite of human nature. Therefore no person can be happy as a slave. A slave is a human who has been reduced to the status of an animal. Everything that separates humans from animals (freedom, choices, rational
    discussion) has been taken away.

    There is nothing wrong with saying that many people have lived sad and meaningless lives. In fact, Marx says that until humanity is freed from having to labour then no one is free.

    “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and
    achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”

    • I hear that “religion justifies existing power structures, social injustices, etc.” argument alot. I’d have to do more research in that area, but it doesn’t seem as clear cut. I suspect religion often developed teachings to deal with existing power structures. For example, in an inherently unequal society using the caste system, how do you live and conduct yourselves? Hinduism has answers for this.

      So do you agree with Marx in that freedom essentially means financial independence?

      • OTL

        “religion justifies existing power structures, social injustices, etc.”

        Your right, this is a simplification to an extent. Every religion is in tension between the view I set out and, on the other hand, people using religion to challenge the status quo (or to project the way they’d like the world to be). So for instance, if we take the issue of slavery in your USA and Christianity. We therefore see two strands. People using Christianity to criticise slavery, and the status of black people more generally, (John Brown is the first person who comes to mind but the majority of the abolitionist movement is an example) and, alternatively, people using Christianity to justify slavery. For example the “he who raises his hand against his master will receive many lashes” scene in 12 years a Slave. This is why MLK and the KKK both claimed to be championing Christian values.

        From what I can tell, with Hinduism the movements within Hinduism that emphasised equality gradually split off to form Jainism and Buddhism. Likewise when Christianity and (even more so) Islam arrived in India many lower caste people jumped at the opportunity to convert. I don’t think something like the Caste system could ever be reconciled with treating people equally. I’d look into Gandhi’s debates with the leader of the “untouchables” (in the early 20c) Ambedkar. These are some quotes from Gahdhi himself:

        “The caste system is not based on inequality, there is no question of inferiority,” [for] “if Hindus believe, as they must believe, in reincarnation, transmigration, they must know that nature will, without any possibility of mistake, adjust the balance by degrading a Brahmin, if he misbehaves himself, by reincarnating him in a lower division, and translating one who lives the life of a Brahmin in his present incarnation to Brahminhood in his next.”

        (What does then mean for the self-esteem of a lower caste person?)

        “Interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying, I hold, are not essential for the promotion of the spirit of democracy.”

        (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n13/perry-anderson/gandhi-centre-stage)

        Regarding freedom: yes sort off. Bill Gates (or whoever is now the richest) is the most free person on Earth. He won’t ever have to worry about anything materially. Even more so, he will never even have to factor money into his decisions. He can basically do what he wants without ever having to consider the consequences. I, on the other hand, am free to not go to work tomorrow (unlike a slave) and draft some contracts (yay!) but I am not free to ignore the consequences of that decesion. Like Marx says once we are free from “necessity” we can then use our freedom however we want: mainly charity work for Gates, from what I can tell…

        Problem is when one person is free but most aren’t then that person is alienated from their fellow humanity. They don’t have similar experiences or lives. They can’t relate to ordinary people. This means that they can only see their fellow people as objects of charity, that they fell guilty about, or threats who want to take away their money – through higher taxes. Not as people who are equally worth of respect. This stops someone like Bill Gates from being truly free because his existence is so different from us. This explains MarcHamann’s comment about even the wealthy not being completely free.

        I agree that people can get used to the most terrible situations but this is mainly down to people comparing themselves to their peers and being limited to what they can imagine. Personally, I can’t think of anything more sad then people relying on religion as a completely personal mental coping mechanism (like drugs or alcohol) to get them though their crappy lives.

        • “Personally, I can’t think of anything more sad then people relying on religion as a completely personal mental coping mechanism (like drugs or alcohol) to get them though their crappy lives.”

          Religion doesn’t seem to have the overwhelming negative effects that drugs or alcohol do.

          Regardless, why is it so bad to use religion as a coping mechanism?

          Granted, if it gets in the way of real material improvements you can attain for yourself, then that is a downside, but otherwise, it seems okay to me.

          “Couldn’t you agree that a happy slave is a seriously damaged person? What kind of meaning could a person have when their entire life is being forced to serve another?”

          There is the sense of being forced physically or materially, and being forced mentally or spiritually.

          If you look at the Myth of Sisyphus for example, or rather, Camus’ take on it, he ends the story “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

          Obviously, Sisyphus is forced to do something meaningless for eternity, but in this absurd situation, he is able to find his own happiness by acknowledging the situation and “choosing” it in his mind.

          It is arrogant for me to say that people who live in horrid conditions can just be happy if they wish themselves to be, as I am not in horrid conditions, but the broader point is that happiness and meaning can be separated from the material.

          But perhaps we need to reconsider the definition of “freedom” and what role it should play in our question for meaning and happiness. Maybe we have placed too much emphasis on it, and not enough on other values like serving others.