I was a mostly clueless 17-year-old, a senior in high school, when I had one of my first genuine philosophical insights.
Dr. Chris, my humanities teacher, had finished a unit on the thought of Fredrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche despised “cows”—those who mindlessly follow the herd rather than charting their own course. The heroic supermen of Nietzsche’s universe (Übermenschen) were those who brazenly defy moral expectations, who possess the courage to do their own thing, consequences be damned.
It hit me like a lightning bolt. If I were to commit myself to Nietzsche’s call to radical self-expression, wouldn’t I be abiding by this dead German’s dogmas, following his demands on my existence like a good little cow? I had no idea at the time that this catch-22 in Nietzsche’s thought would explain our culture’s most pressing contradictions today.
Gonna Have to Serve Someone
I shared the gospel in that same class with a friend we’ll call Mike. He replied with a line borrowed from the lips of Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven!” Mike, who had apparently taken Nietzsche to heart, would serve no one but Mike.
We think we’re our own masters when we’re really unwitting servants of a dark kingdom.
Years later, when I heard Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning single “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the problem with Mike’s self-rule credo became obvious. Dylan sings about big-shot politicians, heavyweight champions, rock stars, warlords, business moguls, network executives, and more. These are poster boys for the modern idea of freedom, with the power and fortune to fulfill their every personal desire. But in classic fashion, Dylan subverts the status quo and makes doubters of us all. He rips off the shiny veneer, exposing the contradictions of modern Western thought: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” In other words, the sultans may be the real slaves. We can think we’re our own masters when really we’re unwitting servants of a dark kingdom.
Think of Dylan’s insight this way. The whole world is like a superstore. There are 27 varieties of Crest toothpaste to choose from, 74 iterations of Campbell’s condensed soup, nine styles of Tropicana orange juice (each available in eight size options). We are inundated with options to express our personal preferences. And the same holds true for how we “shop” for meaning. We face what C. S. Lewis described in the early 1940s as “the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes.”
No worldview on the market is offering absolute, unfettered freedom by which you can invent your own identity out of thin air and be obedient to none but yourself.
Products often have hidden ingredients—aspartame, nitrates, monosodium glutamate, to name a few. It’s the same with worldviews and lifestyles. They contain ingredients few realize are baked into systems of meaning. To Dylan’s point, every code of living you could possibly choose has one ingredient rarely advertised on the front of the box: service. No worldview on the market is offering absolute, unfettered freedom by which you can invent an identity out of thin air and be obedient to none but yourself. The promise of autonomy is illusory.
Meet Your Masters
So let’s meet the masters of those convinced they have none.
- If I believe my heart is basically good—a reliable guide to the good life—then I’m unwittingly paying service to the likes of Pelagius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Condorcet, and Joel Osteen.
- Spurning all religious authority hardly makes me a rebel—I’m simply offering burning incense to the likes of Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud, and Voltaire.
- If I believe I have a duty to shatter taboos and authentically express my sexual appetites, then I’m just a sheep herded by Marquis de Sade, Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, and Michel Foucault.
- In attempting to define my gender by my feelings and willpower, I’m allowing the doctrines of Judith Butler and other ideological gender theorists to define me.
We’re hardly the captains of our souls. We’re more like crewmates scrubbing the decks on the SS Nietzsche, SS Sartre, or SS RuPaul.
You could call it the “punk rocker’s paradox.” Punk spit in the face of the establishment, a rebel yell for nonconformity. Attend a punk rock show (I’ve been to dozens both in the pit and onstage) and you’ll see a crowd so “nonconformist” that their black outfits, dyed hair, and metal accessories make them virtually interchangeable. A square with the courage to brandish a pressed collared shirt, khakis, and a crew cut would be the only true nonconformist in a sea of posers. “I’m so unique, just like everyone else!”
Nietzsche was wrong. The attempt to be self-defining supermen makes cows of us all. Dylan was right. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but serve you will.