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Kant & Co.

Masters, Slaves & Meanings

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) had a grand, overarching theory of how history unfolds. Roger Duncan looks at the nature of master-slave relationships in Hegel’s thought.

Paul Tillich’s popular sixties classic The Courage To Be describes the spiritual quest of the West unfolding historically in three stages of ‘existential anxiety’. The first anxiety, he says, was about death – represented by the detached Stoic and in the more dramatic Christian ways of coming to terms with the Grim Reaper. Christianity then deepened the human sense of self and individual responsibility, and by the Middle Ages the focus had shifted to an emphasis on sin and guilt and the avoidance of eternal punishment. Later disputes during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation really got into this theme, under the category of an individual’s ‘justification’. Finally, Tillich says, the modern period shifts to an emphasis on the question of meaning: ‘What’s it all about?’ Endless life is of little interest if we don’t know what to do with it. As for guilt, contemporary people tend to side with Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot (another sixties favorite). Vladimir says “Suppose we repented.” Estragon’s reply is, “Repented what? Our being born?” The problematic nature of death is also remote for both characters, who on the contrary consider hanging themselves to escape life.

What is particularly interesting about that perennially interesting play is that it does not simply present meaninglessness – it is not absurdist drama. Beckett puts his two characters in counterpoint with two others – the master and slave pair Pozzo and Lucky, who dramatize a ridiculous relationship which draws alternating sympathies from the lovable antiheroes Estragon and Vladimir (but always at a distance).

Lucky and Pozzo represent what Hegel called the ‘Master-Slave dialectic’ – an episode central to Hegel’s historical story, yet which is now, according to Hegel, essential­ly finished. I would argue that modern meaninglessness occurs in the vacuum left by the passing of that epoch. But how could the contemporary crisis of meaning highlighted by Tillich be linked to Hegel’s famous claim that the Master-Slave dialectic is over?

According to Hegel’s writings on the Master-Slave dialectic, self-consciousness emerges from nature insecure, threatened by nature. An animal is merely conscious, going after things and running away from things. Consciousness is desire, or is sustained essentially by desire. But there is an important difference between the merely animal and the human responses to desire. The animal satisfies desire, and goes to sleep. The human being satisfies desire, and asks what’s next. This is because the human being is not only conscious but self-conscious, illuminated by awareness of an ‘I’ – a self-awareness that knows itself as desire; as an emptiness to be filled.

Self-consciousness is initiated by and corresponds to an awareness of others and their desires – indeed of other self-conscious desires. But even in their awareness of other people as distinct from mere things, a human being will desire them also. Now what it means to desire a thing is clear enough to Hegel – it means to assimilate the object and make it one’s own, that is, annex it and work changes upon it – in Hegel’s terminology, ‘negating’ it in itself. All animals first desire food and then eat it, or desire the sexual object and then act upon that desire. That is what it means to desire a thing. But what does it mean to desire another self-conscious person?

Hegel’s answer is profound: to desire another person is to desire to be recognized by them: that is to say, to have value in the eyes of the other, or to be esteemed by them. Take human sexual desire. When someone says that he or she ‘wants me for my body’ this is never literally true, except in the most perverted cases. Rather, the one who desires wants to be wanted by the other. Why? Because each self-consciousness wants to establish itself as more than a nothing – more than a mere absence or lack, as desire taken alone would seem to be – and recognition by others as valuable, desirable or esteemed provides assurance that this is so. Recognition by another is the essential motivator of human action for Hegel. Objects of ordinary desire become intensely interesting, as chips in the game of recognition. Men will fight fiercely over a piece of turf no one really wants in itself. The ball on the nursery floor, largely ignored, becomes the object of fierce struggle as soon as one of the little innocents picks it up. If I have the ball it means you can’t have it, and are henceforth dependent on me. If I give it to you it is because I choose to, and you must recognize that.

But it gets more complicated. Each self-consciousness needs to see itself as at least not a mere animal, whose ultimate horizon of motivation is simply survival. It can secure that self-appraisal only through action in which the theory is put to the test, that prove that something is really worth more to it than mere survival. So life itself must be put on the line in the struggle to attain substantial recognition. Remember, though, that according to Hegel, desire acts negatively, assimilating its object – which means destruction of the object as a separate or autonomous thing. Thus the need for recognition leads, first, to the ancient wars of history, as in order to gain self-esteem, each self-consciousness will seek to risk life in a campaign to negate the one by whom it wishes to gain esteem. Therefore (in this undeveloped state of history), when two self-consciousnesses meet we should expect a struggle to the death, this being, so to speak, the simplest or most immediate resolution of the tensions between two self-consciousnesses each seeking recognition from the other. Stories about the beginnings of society illustrate Hegel’s insight here. Myths about the early days, before things lost their primal lustre, depict heroes hacking at one another for sheer glory – glory being a recognition by others of your status. The Iliad, the Knights of the Round Table, and tales of the Old West are about this: the good old days of the battle on the bridge, or of High Noon.

All this killing has to stop, or at least slow down; there wouldn’t be much history if some people didn’t choose defeat over death. Of course, on the other side, there has to be a victor ready to substitute the taking of slaves for killing, but that step comes naturally, since you don’t get recognition from corpses. The Master is the one who wins the struggle; and the Slave the one who accepts a lower level of existence. Thus the victor spares the vanquished’s life so that the Slave can live to recognize the Master as master. So it comes to pass that the ‘contradiction’ of the primal struggle to the death is, as Hegel would put it, aufgehoben(‘sublated’) in the Master-Slave framework.

The Master is the one who, in the fight, wins; the Slave accepts a lower level of existence. The Slave exists to recognize the Master as his superior, and the form of the expression of this recognition is the Slave’s work – his acting directly upon nature, and transforming it into products which support the Master. He serves the Master’s enjoyment, and supports his own existence only secondarily. The Slave grows the food, the Master eats it; the Slave builds the house, the Master dwells in it.

The Master does more than enjoy – after all, he knows that he transcends mere animal existence, and he is on a quest for recognition, so he continues to fight. In fact he continues to fight plagued by a new contradiction: recognition from a mere slave, who has chosen an animal existence by choosing survival over honor, cannot satisfy him. It appears that he seeks to be recognized as superior by someone he looks upon as an equal. Hmm

It comes to pass that in the enjoyment of his status the Master fights less and enjoys more – which is to say, his life becomes decadent. Of course, he must keep up the noble idea of his mastery through fighting, and so he preserves traditions like dueling. But comparatively little blood is shed here, and gradually, the mystery of nobility – courage in the face of death as expressing higher-than-animal aspirations – leaks away.

You might think that at a certain point, given the Master’s decadence, the Slave would be able to take over, firing hardly a shot, and that this victory would inaugurate a new round of the same cycle – the Slave would then become the Master and make slaves of others: and then another cycle would ensue, ad infinitum. To a certain extent this does happen, but according to Hegel and his followers, the cycles spiral toward a conclusion. To see why, we must look a little more closely at the Slave.

The Slave is not an animal: not only does he possess an ineradicable self-consciousness, though under the circumstances a dejected and uncertain one, but, as we have seen, he works. To Hegel, work – the meaningful, deliberate creation of useful goods – is a distinctly human phenomenon. Animals do not work. They may be very busy, but without the capacity to decide, without free will, they do not meaningfully ‘work’. A Slave’s work is carried out under conditions of terror; yet while he is working, the Slave’s character is being formed – a higher self-esteem is being cultivated in him, through his being close to nature and remodeling it in forms amenable to humanity. To Hegel this education includes an interior self-construction, as the Slave masters his animal nature and learns to delay gratification. In short, the Slave finds himself defined not by merely animal desires, but by a meaningful life sustained by meaningful human activity. So in the last revolution there is no need for the Slave to become a Master, and thus gain esteem and status from his slaves, since he’s gained self-recognition from his work: he sees himself reflected back to himself in the works with which he is surrounded, so no longer needs to make other men slaves in order to be content in his self-consciousness.

Furthermore, the collective work of slaves proves to be key to the overcoming of the original alienation of humanity from the world. Through the slaves’ collective efforts, the fundamental problem of human alienation – the emptiness of desire known by our self-consciousness – is solved, slowly but surely, through the development of technology, as we learn to use it to fulfil our desires; or at least, to distract our minds.

No-one in the West believes in slavery any more, in principle. Technology and a revised view of human value has rendered slavery obsolete. So history as the Master-Slave drama is over, due to the accrual of technology and the new egalitarian consciousness this technological development has facilitated. In any case, technology seems in principle to have leveled the playing-field between people. At the same time, technology has provided the means to continually distract us from our residual anxieties, such as the fear of death. People these days keep the noise going all the time: in the car, in the supermarket, at the beach. They watch TV to keep their minds off life.

However bad it was, human beings found meaning in the dialectical struggle. Masters could continue to fight for glory, and Slaves could bear their servitude in hope of a better day. But now, through the development of technology and human self-awareness, we have reached a point where that drama is finished and all that is left of the struggle for mastery is an assortment of distracting competitive games – business, consumerism, sports. Thus the end of the Master-Slave dialectic is itself enough to cause a cultural crisis of meaning, even as that struggle for freedom has reached its conclusion.

© Dr Roger Duncan 2011

Roger Duncan has a PhD from Yale and taught philosophy at the University of Connecticut for 27 years. He is co-editor with Richard I. Sugarman of The Promise of Phenomenology: the Posthumous Papers of John Wild (Rowman & Littlefield).

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