Monday, May 7, 2007

In the Service of Others

These days the idea of service to a Master or being in the employ of someone seems to carry a greater sense of the menial (that you are doing lowly or menial work) and servility; that there is no honour in such work - that there is only honour in being the Master instead of a Servant. That somehow to be working beneath or under someone means that you are necessarily lessser in every respect to person above you. This highly materialistic, heirarchical and capitalistic understanding of the relationship between Master and Servant has intensified in recent decades with societies cultural norms being heavily influenced if not altered by a wantonness in materialism, consumerism, intensification of the demands of labour, insufficient attention to the personal self despite a heightened sense of narcissism and a culture of constant 'success' or 'progress'.

Complaints of this nature are not new either. John Ruskin in one of his letters that from the collection of Fors Clavigera (Letter XXVIII, 20 February 1873) had occasion to comment on this fading comprehension and understanding of both the responsibilities between Master and Servant when contemplating the corruption of the word 'menial':

'But I used another terrible word just now - 'menial'. The modern English vulgar mind has a wonderful dread of doing anything of that sort!

'I suppose there is scarcely another word in the language which people more dislike having applied to them, or of which they less understand the application. It comes from a beautiful old Chaucerian word, 'menie,' or many, signifying attendant company of any one worth attending to; the disciples of a master, scholars of a teacher, soldiers of a leader, lords of a King. Chaucer says the God of Love came, in the garden of the Rose, with 'his many'; - in the court of the King of Persia spoke a Lord, one 'of his many.' Therefore there is nothing in itself dishonourable in being menial: the only question is - whose many you belong to, and whether he is also a person worth belonging to, or even safe to be belonged to; also, there is somewhat in the cause of your following: if you follow for love, it is good to be menial - if for honour, good also; - if for ten per cent - as a railroad company follows its Director, it is not good to be menial. Also there is somewhat in the manner of following: if you obey your Taskmaster's eye, it is well; - if only his whip, still, well; but not so well: - but, above all, or below all, if you have to obey the whip as a bad hound, because you have no nose, like the members of the present House of Commons, it is a very humble form of menial service indeed.' [Emphasis is mine]

So the Servant who obeys a Master who is of good character and noble actions also gains honour and integrity in his service to him. But a Master must also be mindful and care for his Servants as well. Just as he may command his Servant to do anything he so pleases, he must also take care not command his Servant in vain so or as a mere expression of his power. Just as it is the responsibilities of a Servant to obey and care for his Master, the Master too has a similar and simultaneous obligation towards the Servant. Thus there is a symbiotic and synergistic relationship between a Master and a Servant who are sensitive to each other's needs and are loyal to both their respective roles. One cannot exist without the other.

Glorious of such examples of loyalty and perfect understanding are replete in Japanese literature especially during the Shogunate period where samurai's followed the Bushido. Some of my favourite serialized graphic novels such as Lone Wolf and Cub, The Samurai's Executioner and especially, Path of the Assassin, all by the Kazuo Koike (Writer) and Goseki Kojima (Artist), tell of the life of the various samurai - those in service, those in honour, those without who are known as ronin. What I found particularly striking was the intensity with which these men lived their loyalty and allegiance to their Masters. They would think nothing of slitting open their belly before them if they were found wanting in their task or position, or sometimes because they disagreed with their Master. Whilst such display of loyalty is commendable, I think it rather extreme.

Ruskin's meditations seem to suggest one of the more obvious reasons for the lack of honour felt in serving someone - that these days there are very men or women of such worth that one is willing to serve in their service or in their cause. Our society itself is replete with examples of this. I for one would not even give up a cut toe nail in the service of virtually every self-proclaimed or otherwise leader in this country. You cannot gain honour or integrity in serving a man of ill-repute and a lack of morality (unless you are in a society that does not allow you to choose your own Master) because a rot that starts at the top, will undoubtedly, in time, affect the bottom.

Another also obvious one would be the 'Me-first' mentality which is pervasive in most civilized cultures lately where the primacy of the individual is championed over and above that of the community which is really a product of Western Philosophy, with its hard and clear definitions, where things are or they are not with nothing in between acceptable. Western Philosophy's obssession with trying to define and classify, whilst of great use, is sometimes difficult to apply in the messiness of human relations and thought, and more so in the interaction between the individual and society. There cannot be a triumph of one over the other because it would result in the extermination of both. The interaction between the individual and society is complex, dynamic, engaging and inextricable like that of our physicaly body and our thoughts. While both can be readily ascertainable and defined to a certain extend, they cannot be considered in a mutually exclusive fashion.

Perhaps that is one of the causes of much work dissatisfaction these days amongst employees and the employers' mounting inability to properly manage its human resources - because both have forgotten their moral and ethical obligations to each other. Legal obligations merely set the minimum conditions for a relationship to be recognized, adjudicated and validated, it does not govern the daily and intimate relations between each other.

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