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Nietzsche on the Pride of the Philosopher in Contrast to the Slave

Slavery gets a bad rap, but it had one silver lining.

In the past, brutal cruelty made its opposite shine brighter.

The existence of slavery increased the intensity of noble feeling among those who enjoyed thoughtful leisure.

As Nietzsche explains in The Gay Science:

The specific hue which nobility had in the ancient world is absent in ours because the ancient slave is absent from our sensibility. A Greek of noble descent found such immense intermediate stages and such a distance between his own height and that ultimate baseness that he could barely see the slave clearly any more: not even Plato could really see him. It is different with us, accustomed as we are to the doctrine of human equality, if not also to equality itself. A creature who is not at its own disposal and who lacks leisure is by no means something despicable to us on that account; perhaps each of us possesses too much of such slavishness in accordance with the conditions of our social order and activity, which are utterly different from those of the ancients.

The Gay Science, Book 1, #18

In the abolition-cum-generalization of slavery, we rendered nobility more alien, more difficult to fathom. To even speak of nobility today! It rings hollow, affected. Many people doubt that it means anything at all.

And yet it does. It always did. It always will.

There are higher ways to live, and there are lower ways to live.

Perhaps most alien today is the idea—obvious to great thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche—that the highest form of life is simply the free study of the highest questions.

As I discussed in Return to the Future of Classical Education, Plato was emphatic: Anyone concerned with usefulness is essentially a slave. It is only through liberal education—it is only through becoming a philosopher—that one becomes a free man.

Philosophy, as the highest way to live, recognizes itself originally in contrast to slavery. Nietzsche continues:

The Greek philosopher went through life feeling secretly that there were far more slaves than one might think—namely, that everyone who was not a philosopher was a slave; his pride overflowed when he considered that even the mightiest men on earth might be his slaves. This pride, too, is foreign and impossible for us; not even metaphorically does the word ‘slave’ possess for us its full force.

The Gay Science, Book 1, #18

It is only in the modern world that we imagine a harried businessman lives a higher form of life than, say, a poor tradesman who studies Plato in the evening. If slaves worked the fields, we would not make this mistake, because the poor tradesman studying Plato would more strongly feel the truth that he is higher and the harried businessman would more strongly feel the truth that he is lower.

I do not propose we revive slavery, but I do propose we become more sensitive toward the slavishness in our midst.

Not for clout on social media, not through ridiculous charades of public outrage, but in that area where the most courage is required: in our own lives, with ourselves, with people we know and care about.

To be always removing those traces of slavishness within ourselves, so that we once again feel that “a creature who is not at its own disposal and who lacks leisure is,” indeed, “something despicable to us.”

If we are unable to remember the distance between philosophy and slavery, it is no help or charity to ancient or modern slaves—it is not kind, or compassionate, to flatter and submit to slavery past or present.

We should learn once again to recoil in horror at modern slaves with that almost other-worldly pride which is proper to philosophy, in order to preserve what might still be noble among us.