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Master and Slave

The Freedom Fight

Hegel's treatment of the master and slave dialectic is highly complex and abstract, but we will attempt to communicate the gist of his argument in a way that non-specialists can follow. The starting point is the concept of self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness is, by definition, a consciousness that is able to reflect upon itself. While all non-human animals on earth display various levels of consciousness, none of them are self-conscious. Hegel asserts that self-consciousness cannot exist on its own. It needs something else with which to contrast itself. To know what it is, self-consciousness must be aware of what it is not. (In a later article, we will show how Hegel's idea has astonishing implications for the nature of God, and is the key to why evil exists.) 

A self-consciousness needs otherness, but as soon it encounters otherness it also experiences, for the first time, fear. Otherness is foreign, a potential threat, something that stands in opposition. The self-consciousness wishes to exert its will to power over the other thing. It wants to possess it, discover its secrets, absorb it, subordinate it, but, crucially, not to destroy it. If the self-consciousness takes ownership of the other thing, it will no longer find it foreign, hostile and threatening. But if it destroys the other thing, the self-consciousness will no longer have anything with which to contrast itself and will start to unravel. It cannot exist without the presence of otherness, yet as soon as it takes possession of otherness, otherness is no longer truly other. How can self-consciousness overcome this dilemma? Hegel came up with a profound and dramatic answer - by otherness arriving in the shape of a second self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness, in order to become true self-consciousness, needs not just any external object - any otherness - but another self-consciousness. By observing this other self-consciousness, by learning what it does and how it behaves, the first self-consciousness starts to understand itself. It learns what it means to be a self-consciousness.

Imagine a human child growing up on a desert island without the presence of another human or even an animal. Would the child develop language, would it become self-conscious, would it even become human in any true sense? The harsh but unavoidable truth is that it wouldn't. We become human by growing up amongst other humans, by being taught and guided by adult humans, by socialising with humans, by developing relationships, good and bad, with other humans. We immerse ourselves in the pool of humanity and thereby become human. If we are unable to do that because we have extreme autism, or severe Down's Syndrome, or any other debilitating condition that makes proper social interaction impossible, then we will never be truly human but more like an animal.

Think of the God of Christianity, Islam and Judaism existing in complete isolation before he allegedly created the world. How would this God develop as a self-consciousness without anything or anyone else with which to contrast himself? To a Christian, Muslim or Jew that question is not only absurd but also blasphemous and heretical. But their conception of God is ridiculous and incredible beyond words. Their God is one that could never exist. They believe in a fantasy. No intelligent person could subscribe to their religious beliefs. We said in an earlier section that our religion is one that even an atheist could contemplate accepting. That is because it is consistent with science and philosophy, and does not rely on the absurdity of faith. If you are prepared to believe in a 15-yr-old virgin giving birth to the omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, timeless Son of God in a stable in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, you are prepared to believe in anything. You are far beyond the reach of rational debate. Atheists will, rightly, instantly reject everything you have to say.   

Hegel was fascinated by what would happen when a self-consciousness first encountered a second self-consciousness. The first self-consciousness would certainly now have another object with which to contrast itself, but this would be no simple object that could be straightforwardly owned and negated as all the previous objects had been. In fact, this other self-consciousness might be a serious threat. Also, the first self-consciousness is plunged into an identity crisis. It is no longer unique. Not only that, perhaps, the first self-consciousness worries, the other self-consciousness might want to try to own and negate it as if it were just another object.

Imagine two humans who have been raised in perfect isolation suddenly coming into contact with one another. What will they do? How will they behave? Hegel says that each requires recognition from the other: recognition that they are independent self-consciousnesses that are not mere objects to be owned and negated. What if the other refuses to provide that recognition?

If another self-consciousness does not acknowledge that I am also a self-consciousness, my whole identity is at stake. I am thrust into an existential crisis. Who am I? What am I? What will become of me? Does my existence have meaning?

When prisoners of war are being broken, one of the main tactics used is to dehumanise them, depersonalise them, refuse to acknowledge their humanity, their existence as anything other than objects. Many people have gone insane when subjected to this treatment. If you travelled the globe and were never once acknowledged as a human being by anyone you met, if you were ignored at every turn, if you were treated as invisible, you would soon no longer be human in any functioning sense. Quite simply, we cannot be human without acknowledgement of our humanity by other humans. Most people take their identity for granted, but it is astonishingly fragile, as many prisoners of war discover to their cost. The Jews in Nazi death camps were stripped of all of their humanity. They were turned, metaphorically, and even literally in some cases, into objects. One survivor, the great writer Primo Levi once dared to ask a guard, "Why?" regarding some incident. The response he got was infinitely chilling: "Here, there is no 'why'."

Recognition is not just important, it is a matter of life and death. Our whole existence hinges on it. Without it, we are objects. We are not human. We might as well be dead.

Hegel says that in the first encounter between two self-consciousnesses, the outcome is so critical, so much is riding on it, that in effect it becomes a fight to the death. Yet death must not happen. If either is killed, the other is denied the possibility of recognition and loses the chance to be a proper self-consciousness. (Remember that Hegel says that a self-consciousness cannot exist in the absence of another self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is social and plural, never singular.) 

So, while each person fights as if to the death, the struggle does not actually end in death because that would be the end for both self-consciousnesses, both the victor and vanquished. The only way for the situation to be resolved is for one self-consciousness to, finally, submit to the other i.e. for one to prove to be more cowardly and weak than the other, less able to put everything on the line in order to win, less willing to risk death itself.

So, both have survived and both can now acknowledge the other, but a terrible and infinitely fateful asymmetry has entered the equation. The struggle has ended with the complete victory of one over the other. The victor is the master and the vanquished his slave. The victor was prepared to fight to the death; the vanquished wasn't. He gave up. The victor is courageous and the vanquished a coward. The victor is strong and the vanquished weak. The master controls and the slave is controlled. The master is the ruler and the slave is the ruled.

This struggle has, symbolically, been going on since the dawn of humanity. We have all participated in the struggle and we are now all either masters or slaves. It's easy to know which. If you work for another person, you are a slave. If you can be fired, you are a slave. If others control your life, you are a slave. If you are fearful of what others might do, you are a slave. If you have to await the decisions of others, you are a slave. The freer and the more independent you are, the more you resemble a master.

Although it seems that everything is perfectly set up for the master, Hegel says that this is not the case. Certainly, the master can put the slave to work and live excellently off the slave's hard toil. He can indulge in play all day long if he wishes. While the slave labours from dusk until dawn, the master lives a life of leisure and ease. Yet he is dissatisfied. He was hoping for acknowledgement from another self-consciousness, another person, but now he finds it hard to see the slave as anything other than an object. The asymmetry in their relationship means that there is no equality in the recognition for which they fought. The slave hates being viewed as a thing, and the master can barely tolerate being looked at by the slave.

But a new and amazing dialectic takes over. The master, living off the labour of the slaves, does no work himself. But the slave's work, bit by bit, begins to change the environment. Fields are cultivated, buildings constructed, goods manufactured. In all of this work, something of the slave is turning into physical form. His consciousness is becoming externally objectified. He realises he has a mind of his own, that he's capable of creation, and of ordering his environment. He becomes proud of his achievements. His self-assurance steadily builds. He no longer feels so wretched and worthless in comparison with the master.

When the slave and master survey the world, the slave sees the fruit of his own work, while the master sees the outcome of another's work. The slave finds that his consciousness is appearing all around him in the shape of the work he has performed. He is finding a way to attain recognition and deeper understanding of his own consciousness other than solely through the approval of another self-consciousness. He grows as a person. He pours himself into his work. He learns things and becomes increasingly skilled. The master, on the other hand, is becoming lazy and inept, with none of his own work to show for his time.

As the dialectic unfolds, the slave, theoretically, should become more and more powerful until he is the equal of the master. At that point the master will no longer be able to treat him as anything other than a free man. Each side has achieved what it wants. The slave is no longer deemed less than human, and the master at last gets the recognition he craves from an equal. The master-slave dialectic has culminated in an outcome that preserves the two most valuable features of the dialectic: the master's freedom, and the slave's skilful work. Now the slave can enjoy the master's freedom, and the master can acquire the skills of the slave.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen. But what if a group exists - the Old World Order - that wishes to ensure that the masters always remain on the top, and the slaves remain permanently less than human? Whether we are brave enough to acknowledge it or not, that's the world we live in today. Police and soldiers are there to enforce the masters' will.

Our way of life is inherently based on masters and slaves. We bow to assorted Gods, like slaves bowing to masters. We bow to monarchs and presidents, to the rich, to celebrities. We never tire of bowing to others and getting on our knees. We are controlled at every turn. Isn't it time to unshackle us, to stand up straight for once?