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Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic

Hegel thought of an individual as a self-consciousness, a self-distinguished ‘shape’ who is part of a ‘unity’ that consists of all other living beings which collectively compromise the totality of nature. Within this unified ‘unity’ of nature, arise other individualities — or what Hegel calls ‘shapes’. Each one of these conscious individual shapes has its own biological needs, as well as objects of Desire, which the shape is determined to fulfill. Typically, a self-consciousness is determined to fulfill its Desire through the consumption of an Object, but a more fulfilled Desire is achieved when an individuality consummates1 another individuality as an object of its own possession.

In Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel bases his dialectic on this simple and abstract tension among multiple ‘shapes’ of living self-conscious individualities which together compromise a ‘unity’ — the totality of life as a whole. This tension is inherent among all living beings in nature, including humans.2 Throughout human history we can notice how this act consisting of consummating another individuality; progressed from a mere barbaric act of consuming another individuality (through the act of killing, torture, rape, et cetera), into a more elaborate process in which the labour belonging to other individualities is exploited (through slavery, wage-labour, debt, bondage, dependance, et cetera). This process would theoretically arrive to a ‘progressive’ end, where laws and morality that defend the right to freedom — are established in a state where the individual is finally liberated.

This progressing struggle, is what is known as Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, or in his own words: lord (landlord, master, capitalist, etc.) and bondsman (serf, slave, wage-worker, etc.) relation. The positions of ‘lord’ and ‘bondsman’ is a matter of historical development of material and social human conditions — they change in name, but rarely in concept. The ultimate historical development of human consciousness, consists of this complete freedom and liberation from this master-slave bondage, which include: slavery, debt, bondage, dependance, et cetera.

Two centuries later, as humans develop new forms of technology and find new intricate ways in sustaining a system that exploits the lower and mid class society, the master-slave dialectic still stays relevant, albeit, in more subtle forms; and a triumphal victory of freedom stands far away from us — as it always has been, contrary to the fairytales that the masses are compelled to believe.

  1. The words ‘consume’ and ‘consummate’ both work well to describe when an individuality seeks to fulfill its desire in another individuality. To consummate, means to “realize and achieve” ones Desires and ends, but it also describes the “first act of sexual intercourse that people have after their ceremony”. Both of these contexts work quite well when it comes to possessing another individuality — the foundation of patriarchy and misogyny, as well as class societies. 

  2. It is worth noting that Hegel published Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) half-a-century before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). Although Darwin formulated a scientific theory, it is almost as if Hegel’s theory was found practical in biology, just like it was found practical Marx’s formulation of capitalism in his Capital (1862).