Throughout much of the course of human history, it has been considered a good thing to be a master. Skilled craftsmen who had created a masterpiece called themselves masters, and rose to take their spot as honored members of guilds. Unmarried gentlemen were called master as a way of showing respect, even if though they did not have a wife and family of their own. Others sought to be masters in more literal senses, like a the master and commander of a ship, who ruled over the sailors and officers, or the masters of plantations and manors full of unfree labor. In recent decades, the whole idea of mastery and domination has fallen under critique on ideological grounds, but rather than decreasing the domination that comes with mastery, it has involved the development of elaborate means of self-deception by which those who desire to master others nevertheless refuse to accept the labels that they and their own comrades have sullied as pejorative terms. Let us therefore, at least as much as possible in a brief overview as this, discuss the relationship between mastery and domination, both so that we may properly distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate means of mastery and domination, and that we may properly recognize those who seek to dominate us illegitimately, regardless of what terms are used to describe their goals and ambitions.
Perhaps the most disreputable forms of mastery in our age, and justly so, are those forms of mastery that result from domination of other people. In the ancient, pre-industrial world, rising in social position required the corresponding loss in position of others. If one wanted to move from slave to free, it reduced the amount of power and domination that the former master had, and societies like the Romans developed elaborate patron-client networks as a way of preserving honor and social status even as others sought to advance. In such a way the advancement of one’s clients would further increase one’s own power, and reduce the potential influence of other masters or would-be masters, because the number of positions of honor were limited. It is this sort of mastery that leads to such modern phenomena as race and gender-based quotas as a way of ensuring that women and certain minority populations receive access to positions of honor and respect. Similarly, even among those who were masters of various trades rose in their position to limited positions of honor, positions limited to increase the economic power of those professions as a whole, which involved education of apprentices as well as supervision and management over journeymen, out of whom future masters came, a matter of considerable importance in preserving both the quality of goods and services produced by a profession, the general public reputation of that profession, and its benefit to professionals.
Is such mastery, where politics serves to divide up limited numbers of offices among people, automatically illegitimate, or are there other grounds by which such behavior may be seen as legitimate? Do we determine that which is legitimate by that which supports our own interests, and then seek some sort of fig leaf to cover our biases, or do we seek more fair means of addressing scarce access to offices, perhaps through some sort of combination of meritocratic standards that make a first cut, combined by some sort of random choice to counteract the innate tendencies towards bias present within human behavior? That is the choice we have when it comes to dealing with the sort of mastery that involves a mastery over other people, because regardless of political affiliation or rhetoric, there are always plenty of people who are very interested in having offices of power and authority, of respect and dignity, regardless of how much ink is spilled protesting systems of domination and oppression. If we know our own ambitions, we may be more fair and just to the ambitions of others, knowing that we are all human beings in search of limited positional goods and offices to help serve our limitless longings and goals in life.
There are, though, plenty of forms of mastery which have no element of oppression of other people, at least not directly. That said, even these involve some sort of control and power, which leads them to become entangled in questions about politics simply by association and linguistics. For example, when we learn a given subject we acquire mastery in it as we begin to grasp its principles and rules and are able to apply them to novel situations. We develop mastery of the written and spoken tongue of a language, mastery of a given subject field like Civil War historiography, mastery of physical task like rock-climbing or various skills in volleyball, or mastery of the principles that govern mathematics or law or theology. Even early in life, mastery is an important element in the milestones of early childhood, like reading, potty training, or walking. In all such cases, the mastery comes about through the acquisition of knowledge, the use of self-discipline and focused practice, the development of mental or muscle memory, and the growing understanding that allows one to take the explicit knowledge of laws and principles and rules and techniques and to use it implicitly in situations that one has not experienced before. This sort of mastery is the mastery of our own capabilities and of the world in which we live, and of tangible knowledge provided by texts or by verbal instruction or by the visual observation of the example of others and our own efforts to replicate the behavior ourselves.
This sort of mastery should not be problematic, but for many people even self-control and the discipline of focused practice appear to be an endorsement of the control of others. Yet even here we are deeply divided—we praise the development of technology but fail to appreciate that this requires a mastery of subject matter that requires a great deal of discipline, and that may even require the exploitation of natural resources for industrial development. This is a matter of considerable historical importance. The various industrial and communications and information revolutions that leave us disoriented by changing our world come about as a result of some people better understanding the some aspect of our physical creation, whether it is in material properties or the propagation of waves or electromagnetism and on and on. This understanding is then exploited and made more systematic so that it can be sold and used widely. The mastery of principles leads to a desire to master resources and master the people necessary to turn those materials into technological artifacts, and then master markets and master the larger culture that uses that technology. Even that type of mastery which involves a mastery of laws and principles and techniques is not morally neutral, for it often has powerful implications on the rest of our world, implications that enter into the moral realm of human conduct.
These are matters filled with large amounts of irony. Freedom from the limits of the speed of one’s own feet required either dominating the wind or dominating horses, or dominating machines that use coal and oil and other materials for propulsion. In the ancient world, the freedom of leisure to think and philosophize at will required the enslavement of people to perform the mundane tasks of life, and the same freeing of people from positions of service required the creation of technologies that served those needs and interests. The armies that brought freedom to slaves were themselves dependent on an industrial complex of sometimes horrifying brutality, if still less degrading inhumanity than the system of chattel slavery it overthrew. Devices that are used in our contemporary world to further our freedom are made by people working in difficult conditions in factories in downtrodden nations, or made by robots created to do our bidding. For us to be free, someone or something else must be enslaved on our behalf. And yet no one protests the inequity of who rules and who is ruled by proposing to give up their own freedoms for others. As Abraham Lincoln spoke about so eloquently on the eve of the Civil War, there are many who devise ingenious arguments defending the slavery of some, but no one follows the train of their logic by becoming a slave . If we all desire to be masters of ourselves and of our worlds, we must understand that mastery requires domination of some kind, and therefore what and how we choose to dominate is of the utmost importance. Let us therefore choose wisely.
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