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The Phenomenology of Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic: The Servile Prerequisite for Freedom

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the confrontation between the ‘Lord’ and ‘Bondsman’ initially takes the form of a life-and-death struggle, where one of the subjects1 either ends up getting killed, subjugated, or abandoning the battle altogether. But the moment when the ‘Bondsman’—the subject who eventually becomes subdued by the ‘Lord’—begins to become aware of the fact that he does not necessarily have to engage in the life-and-death struggle, he/she becomes compelled to question his/her natural predisposition to engage in the fight altogether. Even if the Bondsman eventually becomes subjugated by the Lord, it is precisely the Bondsman’s “slavish consciousness” that births a strife for freedom. Regardless of how the fight resolves, Hegel argues that the only manner in which freedom of conscious can arise, is through the confrontation of two subjects, where the outcome must necessarily be the subjugation of one by the other as a necessary prerequisite for the development of a free consciousness. This essay will attempt to demonstrate Hegel’s argument which demonstrates how positive freedom—the “freedom to” something—can only arise as an idea out of the condition of subjugation.

Before describing the nuances of the master-slave relationship, along with the manner in which it develops, it is important to look at the forces and predispositions that compel two subjects to engage in a fight with one another. For Hegel, ‘Life’ is a “universal fluid medium” consisting of a unity in which subjects continuously recognise their own being as something independent from the being of others2. Life is a multiplicity of these living subjects, who individually possess a drive for a ‘Notion’ of freedom, a determination to seek independence and exclusion from everything else3. This determination is a force of a self-moving subject, it is an antithetical force that compels the subject to separate itself from the whole, by confronting the whole. This is what constitutes the subject’s force of Desire—the drive to assert oneself as an ‘I’4; it compels the subject to actualise its notion of ‘I’ as a strife towards a conception of its freedom and independence5. This status however, is only attained temporary, and is followed by a ceaseless movement of other subjects who continuously confront and supersede one another. These other subjects are no less determined to resolve their own notion of ‘I’, and the multiplicity of these subjects, forms a precondition in which there eventually comes a moment in which a misalignment in the Desire of at least two subjects occurs. It is under this condition that two determining Desires inevitably engage in a life-and-death struggle. These clashes and misalignments, when combined in their totality and multiplicity, is what constitutes the ceaseless fluidity of Life in which subjects seek to resolve their notion of ‘I’6.

Hegel’s development of individual subjects as living ‘self-certainties’, whom Life replenishes with its unceasing whims of natality—are introduced into the world as subjects who constantly strive to achieve the ‘truth’ of themselves. It is a dialectical force that compels each subject to determine and affirm this idea, among other ‘I’s’7, who also have a predisposition to do the same. But a mere consumption and satisfaction of one’s basic needs and desires (eating, sleeping, drinking, etc.), is not sufficient to affirm the ‘truth’ of who the subject is. For an object of Desire to have a status of a negating opposite, it must in one way or another, confront the subject as something it can recognise as an ‘other’ of itself. This is necessary for the re-affirmation of the ‘I’; but a subject-_object_ opposition is not sufficient for providing a substantial negating force that would resolve and re-define the ‘truth’ of who the ‘I’ of the subject is, since the subject cannot recognise an object as an ‘other’. Without a recognition of an ‘other’, the subject would merely consume the object, and the object would merely dissolve in the subject, without providing any form of negating opposition—only a subject-_subject_ opposition can provide such an amenity8. The affirmation by the ‘other’, is a necessary prerequisite for figuring and bringing out the notion of a subject’s freedom. This is why only a subject-subject confrontation can provide recognition of an ‘other’.

When two subjects don’t make a conscious distinction between their own subjectivity and the subjectivity of the ‘other’, both end up in a ferocious life-and-death struggle; the consequence of which, is either the death of one of the subjects, or the death of both. At this stage, both subjects do not want to be bound to a determined existence necessitated by the conditions of life. The ‘truth’ is the capacity of a consciousness to distinguish two opposing points of view, and feel an urge to resolve the contradictions between them9. This is what compels a subject to confront another subject, as apposed to merely prolonging the enjoyment of consuming objects. Basic objects of Desire do not redefine the subject once they are subsumed, nor can they be recognised as something beyond mere predispositions of Desire, that leave the subjectivity of the subject unaltered. On the other hand, when a subject confronts another subject, he acknowledges the other subject qua another being, and therefore acquires the Desire to supersede it:

In doing so it (the master) has superseded the other (the slave), for it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self…it must proceed to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being; secondly, in so doing it proceeds to supersede its own self, for this other is itself10.

The motivation of the subject to supersede the other is twofold: first, is that both subjects put each other’s life at stake; second, is that both subjects, most often unconsciously, aim for recognition of the other. Both subjects aim for the life-and-death battle as both seek to impose their Desire on the Desire of the other subject. Here, a necessary substitution of Desire must occur, where the subject seeks to diverge the ‘attention’ of the other subject’s Desire, towards desiring them as a subject11. In other words, each of the subjects cease their enjoyments for objects, and instead, seek to get the ‘attention’ of the other subject’s Desire; meaning, each subject wants recognition from the other subject. The notion of recognition only evolves after both of the subjects stake their life in the life-and-death struggle. At this stage, it is no longer a question of who lives and who dies, but a question of who will be the one recognising (the slave position) and who will be the one being recognised (the master position)12. The subjects here still do not rise at a point of mutual recognition of one another, but they do nonetheless start to realise that the death of the other would annihilate their raison d’etre:

For just as life is the natural setting of consciousness, independence without absolute negativity, so death is the natural negation of consciousness, negation without independence, which thus remains without the required significance of recognition… [W]ith this there vanishes from their interplay the essential moment of splitting into extremes with opposite characteristics; and the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is split into lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extremes; and the two do not reciprocally give and receive one another back from each other consciously, but leave each other free only indifferently, like things13.

Here its is demonstrated how the death of one of the subjects, removes the reciprocal relationship that allows for the notion of ‘independence’, ’recognition’ and freedom to come about within the relation of two subjects; after the death of one of the subjects, there can no longer be any circumstance for opposition, negation, and resolution. The subject remaining alive, either has to find another opponent, or return back to the primordiality of nature—forcing them to digress back into a “lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extreme”14. The subject starts to realise that the killing of another subject, provides no more value nor benefit to their subjectivity than a routine satisfaction of his other basic needs and Desires; and so, the ‘Lord’ makes a decision not to kill, but to impose fear on ‘Bondsman’ in order to effectively subjugate him. Both subjects therefore come to a resolution where one gains an independence (the Lord), and the other realises himself as a dependent consciousness (the Bondsman), who at this stage, has not developed the subjectivity necessary for developing a notion of freedom. The bondsman has to either live an unopposed life, or to be for another. Once the Lord successfully subjugated the Bondsman, the Bondsman becomes a tool for providing the Lord with enjoyments. The ‘truth’ of the independent subject (the Lord) becomes the status of having a servile subject under his disposition15. By having a master, the servant’s ‘truth’ is not to live for himself, but for the master. Here it can be seen how the Lord gains a status where his wants and desires are not fulfilled by him, but by the Bondsman; and since the Bondsman’s relation to his existence is alienating as he no longer exists for himself, but for the master—the bondsman as a subject, is reduced to a mere object for satisfying the Lord with wants and desires. This status of the Bondsman is what Hegel refers to as the ‘slavish consciousness’16.

By having Bondsman under ones own disposal, all the material objects that satisfy the needs of the Lord, become enjoyments that are provided through the work of the Bondsman. In this circumstance, the Lord encounters the same problem that he once already encountered back in the situation of the life-and-death struggle: by treating the Bondsman as an object that brings him wants and desires, he risks to retreat back to the same “lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extreme”—where his existence is merely to satisfy his primordial predispositions, without any form of dialectical opposition nor development. Even after the master affirmed his state of freedom, he risks digressing back to a state of unfreedom and contingency. Whereas, the Bondsman eventually becomes sentient of his alienated existence, starts to acquire a mind of his own, and becomes sentient of his alienating relation to his master as he begins to grasp and recognize his the negative relation to his situation:

Now, however, he (the Bondsman) destroys this alien negative moment, posits himself as a negative in the permanent order of things, and thereby becomes for himself, someone existing on his own account…[H]e becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right…Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realises that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own17.

Because the lord was brought to a state where his subjectivity is no longer challenged, he must either preserve himself as a lord, or be killed—as he can no longer be transformed, nor educated since he already staked his life for the status he gained. The status of a master does not evolve since he no longer engages in the product of his own work and has the bondsman do this work instead. Since the bondsman is the one who engages in the work of his own human reality, he evolves the capacity to remain in communion with his own predispositions and becomes an essential being with conceptual thinking of his own18. Although the bondsman is still confronted with a fear and oppression of the master, the bondsman comes to a stage that Hegel refers to as the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’19, where the bondsman starts to question his ‘slavish consciousness’ and his inessential and contradictory relation to his master; a state of mind that cannot arise in the lord’s thinking. The state of the bondsman’s ‘Unhappy Consciousness’ therefore arises out of this master-slave struggle, which occurs in two stages: first arises a state of ‘Stoicism’, then a state of ‘Scepticism’. The state of ‘Stoicism’, commences when the subject becomes concerned with his freedom of thought while still being entrenched in his bondage condition. However, even thought this stage must necessarily come out of “fear and bondage”, it is also contingent on “a time of universal culture” that can allow it to rise “to the level of thought”20. The wisdom and elevation to thought amidst the conditions of fear and bondage, occur only under these specific world-historical conditions, and only when a subject works in these worldly conditions. Even if the condition for the rise of the bondman’s thought is contingent on history and other externalities, the point that remains at stake here, is the possibility of the bondman (and the inability of the lord) to come to an idea of freedom. Since it is the Bondsman’s human reality that is directly engaging in these world conditions, and not the Lord’s, who’s human reality consists of enjoyments that the Bondsman brings; it is the Bondsman’s worldly reality that is more contagious to the state of ‘Stoicism’, and the idea of freedom that it entails.

While the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’ in the stage of ‘Stoicism’, is still solely concerned with thought and ideas, it has not entirely tied its freedom of thought to its actual experience. The conscious state of ‘Scepticism’, that which the state of ‘Stoicism’ had only in concept, but now is being sought to become actualised in the material reality of the subject21. With this stage, arises an unsettlement that the bondsman has with his material reality, and his relation to his master. This unsettlement is what does not allow for the lord-bondsman relationship to cease its dialectical unrest. Here, the bondsman becomes re-aquatinted with the drive to assert oneself as an ‘I’, but not one that is primarily concerned with a recognition of the other, but with that idea of an ‘I’ that the bondsman thought out internally. This form of Stoic thought corresponds with the ‘Notion’ of an independent consciousness; it is a negatiion to the lord and bondman relationship, and therefore seeks to realise its negative attitude towards this condition22. The actualisation of this thought in the bondsman’s material reality, is what propels the notion of freedom.

Although in Phenomenology of Spirit there is virtually no discussion about political philosophy, although there are a few political motifs, whether they are made explicit or not; particularly, as Solomon points out, is that Hegel is concerned with a different context of freedom that can be categorised both as negative freedom—“freedom from” something; and positive freedom—“freedom to” something23. Hegel’s notion of freedom in his Phenomenology implies on self-realisation and self-expression of the subject, as much as it encompasses a paradox: the slave is the subject who realises the category of freedom, while being under the state of subjugation by the master. It is a necessary stage of Hegel’s dialectic for the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’ to resolve the conception of its own freedom. The lord and bondman relation could have arrived at a stage of final resolution, where both, the lord and bondman, find a space for mutual recognition and no longer strive for constantly re-affirming their drive to assert themselves as an ‘I’. This stage however, does not occur since the bondman will always find an opposition in his thought, and eventually in his material reality, which would only prolong the ‘dialectical movement24. This capacity of the bondman’s consciousness consists of distinguishing two opposing points of view, and feel an urge to resolve the contradictions between them. And since the Lord can no longer be transformed, nor educated; it is the bondsman who gains the elastic capacity to continue the movement, and actualise the ‘I’ that is free from its servile condition. This strife towards an ‘I’ is what constitutes the Bondman’s freedom, and his predisposition towards it—his “freedom to” something.

As was attempted to be expounded in this essay, the subjugation of the Lord over the Bondsman is a necessary prerequisite for the development of a free consciousness as it can only arise out of the master-slave dialectic. The resolution that is tempted to take place in this relation consists of a continuing dialectical moment that brings about suppression, contradiction, and resolution. To halt this process, would mean to halt the ceaseless fluidity of Life that forms the conditions necessary for the formation of the idea of freedom. Without an oppressed consciousness, there can be no free consciousness; and as long as both exist, there will be an unceasing process of contradiction and resolution. When lord and bondsman first confront each other in the life-and-death struggle, then resolve their roles as master and slave—only under these chronological developments can an idea of freedom arise. The idea of freedom however, as was attempted to argued in this essay, can only derive from the suppressed consciousness of the bondsman, and not in the conscious of the lord that does the suppressing.

  1. For the sake of maintaining brevity and conciseness in this essay, and to avoid excessive pedantry with the nuances of Hegelian terminology; the term ‘self-consciousness’ is simplified to more general term ’subject’. 

  2. G. W. F. Hegel, trans. A.V. Miller; Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), ¶170. 

  3. Hegel, ¶186, p.113. 

  4. Hegel, ¶120, p.73. 

  5. Hegel, ¶177, p.110. 

  6. Hegel, ¶171, 169; p.107, 106. 

  7. Hegel, ¶175, p.109. 

  8. Hegel, ¶166, p.104. 

  9. Solomon, Robert C. In the Spirit of Hegel (Oxford University Press, 1983), p.20. 

  10. Hegel, ¶¶179-180, p.111. (Emphasis my own, original emphasis not accounted) 

  11. Kojève, p. 7. 

  12. Hegel, §185, p.113. 

  13. Hegel, §188. P.114. (Emphasis my own, original emphasis not accounted) 

  14. Ibid. Although as we will later see, this state can also await the ‘Lord’ since he also falls back into a “lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extreme”, particularly when the subjugated ‘Bondman’ satisfies his needs and wants. 

  15. Hegel, ¶193, p.117. 

  16. Kojève, Alexandre. Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), p. 22. 

  17. Hegel, ¶196, p.119. 

  18. Hegel, ¶197, p.120. 

  19. Hegel, ¶206, p.126. 

  20. Hegel, ¶199, p.121. 

  21. Hegel, ¶202, p.123. 

  22. Ibid

  23. Solomon, p. 20. 

  24. Hegel, ¶203, p.123.