In a particular scene from the 2012 Avengers movie, Loki lets out a profound speech about human nature, freedom and politics. “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state?” said the god of mischief. “It is the unspoken truth of humanity: that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
Of course, not a lot of people would respond, “The Avengers” if asked what their favorite political film is. Loki’s political philosophy is hardly the film’s selling point. To be honest, I wasn’t actually very moved by this speech during the movie, I was kind of looking forward to the usual stuff people expect from summer blockbusters.
However, I wanted to write something about Plato’s The Republic, arguably the first great treatise of Western political theory and I thought Loki would be a good starting point. Particularly, I want to talk about the modern liberal worship of individual freedom, or liberty, in our society.
Needless to say, Loki is not the protagonist of the story. And I doubt whether he even means the philosophy contained in his speech (although it’s not entirely his fault, the movie had little to no intention of expounding upon Loki’s motivations). Ever since his first on-screen appearance, Loki’s desire for power has been portrayed to stem out of “childish need.” But I think this is why I found the speech so intellectually appetizing: it shows how the smartest people among us are so capable of justifying their motives and actions through profound, philosophical speeches and rhetoric, no matter how questionable those actions are morally.
Regardless of whether this was just an inconsequential expository scene to show the audience how evil Loki is, or as I would like to believe, an attempt of some Marvel writer to contribute to political discourse on modern Western ideas, it cannot be denied that Loki’s speech comes from a particular perspective on the nature of man and society.
Our Natural State
A number of thinkers about society have talked about the life of man before society. Most of them described this as “the state of nature”. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that before the creation of society, members of the humankind were trapped in a perpetual state of war where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” While people enjoyed absolute freedom from laws and rules, there was chaos all around as there is nothing keeping humans from stealing, killing or enslaving each other. Because there was then no greater power ruling over the population, humans were under the mercy of other humans, especially those endowed with superior natural gifts like physical strength.
So in a sense, Loki was right: freedom indeed diminishes our life’s joy “in a mad scramble for power.” In a war of one against all, peace somehow seems impossible. That is why being beings of reason, according to Hobbes and other theorists, it occurred to humans that they would be better off cooperating with each other rather than competing. And so they set up a society based on a social contract: wherein some rights are to be given up in order for most of the population to be secure. For example, the freedom to hurt another person is relegated to a small group of people (police officers or soldiers) in exchange for the notion that they will only use it to protect the rest of the community, the freedom to steal is given up in exchange for the guarantee that the government will protect one’s property and the right to property is diminished in the form of taxes for the government to exercise these duties.
Although different social contract theorists, as they are called, differ in the extent of the powers given to the body ensuring security for the greater community, they all agree that the society stems from the rational nature of human beings. That it somehow is reasonable to give up some freedom for some security. This notion exists until today. In fact, there have been a number of movies and stories which have the particular issue of just how much liberty should be given up for security.
Next time: Captain America and the Freedom-Security Dillemma
Social contract theorists, however, also differ in the kind of government they propose is best out of this origin of society. Closest to Loki’s speech is the philosophy of Hobbes which says that it is the rule of an all-powerful Sovereign which suits society best:
“The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants.”
This Sovereign, while possessing all political power cannot be held accountable by its citizens (aptly called subjects instead). The Sovereign rules by brute force, has the sole power of declaring war or peace, is not bound by law, has the freedom to extend rewards and honor to whomever he seems fit and other tyrannical features modern minds find hard to grasp.
Interestingly, while these attributes seem so evil to us, there was a time when absolute authority of a single person was the norm. And even today, we still espouse the desire for a leader who has the “political will” to effectively execute decisions regardless of opposition. In some ways, the value we place to strong, terrifying leaders are preserved, even as we simultaneously desire freedom and liberty in our society.
It is a curious notion, therefore, what Loki proposes: not because it is new or unthinkable, but because it seems as if he has a point. Is it natural for us to look up to a higher power who will subject us to the threat of punishment and promise of reward depending on our actions? It seems totally legitimate whenever we look at how gods are portrayed in our mythologies, even in present religions. Perhaps we were made to be ruled. Perhaps it is indeed our natural state.
The Scramble for Power and Identity
Plato, in The Republic, seems to agree with the idea that we are made to be ruled. Some of us, at least. In his treatise, he proposes by using Socrates as a mouthpiece the truth hidden in the Phoenician myth of metals: that some are born with golden souls, silver souls and bronze ones. Our identities, naturally endowed to us by the earth, determine where we should be in society. The myth is in support of the proposition that it is specialization which is the foundation of human society, and therefore, we do ourselves and society justice whenever we “mind our own business,” that is, whe we unquestioningly do the tasks society has assigned us based on our natural attributes.
Therefore, in the ideal society, Plato claims, there is a class which rules and the class which is ruled. The class which is ruled is the producing class: the artisans, farmers, fisherfolk, among others, and the class which rules is the class of the Guardians. They rule through a third class: the class of soldiers which are called “auxillaries”, the appendages of the Guardian’s power.
While it seems as if this power structure is inherently oppressive, it seems to solve one of life’s greatest existential problems: it dismisses man’s endless search for identity, one’s place in the world. The modern liberal mind is not a stranger to this problem. In our society, there’s always this pressure to “find one’s self.” And we are made to believe that it has nothing to do with the society around us. I frankly disagree. Philosophers have asked about the meaning of life since time immemorial, but it is only in the rise of industrialization and democratization that whether life has meaning at all. It seems as if democracy and technological advancement has led us to a point where we can do almost anything we like. In fact, the range of things we can do is so wide that we don’t know what we need to do to actually fulfill ourselves. College students know what I’m talking about.
This is what makes Loki’s version of society seem beneficial: the will of a higher power imposed upon us largely simplifies our lives. It acquits us of the unbearable weight of responsibility freedom puts upon our shoulders. Most of the decisions which would shape our lives, if not all, are decided for us. We are free from thinking about a lot of things and are thus also free from the guilt wrong choices would bring us (though not the possible suffering which comes with it).
It also frees us from the burden of always wanting to be in control, as there are specific people whose job it is to keep things in their proper order. As to what degree the influence of such people have in our lives, though is another thing. However, in a society of strict hierarchy in political power, it is clear that we are secure in the most complete sense of the word. We are secure because most of the power which enables others to hurt us, and us to hurt them, is removed.
This is also the defense of most tyrants featured in dystopian novels and movies.
Made to Be Ruled
So were we made to be ruled? Is freedom a lie? It seems as if I’ve spent a lot of words saying that we are and it is. But rather than talking about my side of the argument, I would just present things we could think about in answering these questions.
First, I think The Republic does not only talk about the ideal society when it presented the idea of three classes: the ruling class, the appendage of the ruling class, and the ruled class. There are perspectives which contend that modern society also comprises of these components. Some Marxists, for example, would liken this threefold distinction to how capitalist society works: there is the class which has the ruling interest (the bourgeoisie), the class which is oppressed for the sake of this interests, which is also incidentally the producing class (the proletariat), and the set of institutions put in place to oppress them (the State, or the government). This is not a dystopian society from some novel, but our own present society. In saying, therefore, that we are free because we do not live in an autocratic or authoritarian society may not really be the case. We may be less free than we think. We may not need tyrants like Loki for us to be enslaved.
Next, while we may be iffy about talking about less freedom when it is in the context of national politics and social justice, some of us express the desire to be ruled in other realms. Christians and Muslims, among other religions, profess their desire to be dominated by a Deity’s supreme will in their faith. Our statements about love also seem to highlight a certain willingness and want to be subjected by another’s will. For example, Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, presents the desire to be dominated sexually as inherent in our humanity. While we may be reluctant to accept the notion that we were naturally ordained to be ruled, and furthermore, that deep down we really want to be overpowered, there are still cases where we express the converse.
Finally, we must reflect on how we think about hierarchy: rarely do most of us talk about abolishing the system which makes up our daily lives. Perhaps this too is an oppressive illusion implanted upon us by ideological institutions. Even so, whenever we speak about making society better, we talk about changing the rules in place rather than demolishing them altogether; we speak about changing the people or the interests which govern us rather than abandoning the concept of government altogether.
Hierarchy, it seems, cannot be done away with. Our reason does not permit it. And as this is so, this may point out to the fact that deep inside each of us lie the indestructible belief that there must be something above us all in order for us to live harmoniously: though it may not be necessarily a person, but a set of standards which sustain themselves without relying on brute force or strength, like morality or standards of justice. This is perhaps why we associate arrogance and entitledness to characters like Loki, because in their assumption that they deserve to rule above all else, they equate themselves to the standard of justice and righteousness which all assume should prevail above all things and above all people.