There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and other.
– Michel de Montaigne, 1580
I’m struck by how this fusillade of “stupefying verbiage” — Hegel’s “Master and Bondsman” discourse — anticipates so many ideas that would later come into prominence. Marxism is probably the most widely-recognized intellectual successor to Hegel’s discourse, though now it seems that 20th century political philosphers Georg Lucacs and Alexandre Kojeve may have invented this supposed lineage. What interests me more are the links to philosophical psychology.
Nietzsche called himself a psychologist rather than a philosopher. He talked a lot about the will to power, about the lordly virtues of the Greeks and Romans compared with the slave morality of the Jews and Christians — not particularly Hegelian themes, these. But then, in The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes a hypothetical scenario in which enslavement turns into the conscious self. The master, his every desire fulfilled, has no need to develop intent, rationale, interest, cooperation, memory, calculation, planning, morality, conscience, or any of the other trappings of sentience. What he wants he takes. The slave, possessed of the same desires as the master but unable to fulfill them, must carve out other channels:
All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man’s interiorization; it alone provides the soil for what is later called man’s soul. Man’s interior world, originally meager and tenuous, was expanding in every dimension, in proportion as the outward discharge of his feelings was curtailed… Hostility, cruelty, the delight in persecution, raids, excitement, destruction all turned against their begetter… man began rending, persecuting, terrifying himself, like a wild beast hurling itself against the bars of its cage. This languisher, devoured by nostalgia for the desert, who had to turn himself into an adventure, a torture chamber, an insecure and dangerous wilderness — this fool, this pining and desperate prisoner, became the inventor of “bad conscience.” Also the generator of the greatest and most disastrous of maladies, of which humanity to this day has not been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by the violent severance from his animal past, his sudden leap and fall into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his joy, and his awesomeness. Let me hasten to add that the phenomenon of an animal soul turning in upon itself, taking arms against itself, was so novel, profound, mysterious, contradictory, and pregnant with possibility, that the whole complexion of the universe was changed thereby. This spectacle (and the end of it is not yet in sight) required a divine audience to do it justice. It was a spectacle too sublime and paradoxical to pass unnoticed on some trivial planet. Henceforth man was to figure among the most unexpected and breathtaking throws in the game of dice played by Heraclitus’ great “child,” be he called Zeus or Chance. Man now aroused an interest, a suspense, a hope, almost a conviction — as though in him something were heralded, as though he were not a goal but a way, an interlude, a bridge, a great promise . . . .
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 1887
Man, his instincts thwarted by the master, be his name Father or King or Society or God, turns in on himself, with consciousness emerging from the internal struggle. In the generation after Nietzsche a prominent Viennese physician of the soul would assign new names to these concepts: id, superego, ego. It’s the working-through of Hegel’s development of self-consciousness in the bondsman.
But… Nietzsche and Freud both see self-consciousness developing in a top-down hierarchy. In Nietzsche’s scenario it’s literally the bondsmen serving a master who emerge as the first self-aware humans; for Freud every child under subjection to parents, then to the society, develops an ego. It’s as if they pick up Hegel’s master-bondsman discourse halfway through, after the dominant-submissive roles have already been established. But Hegel begins with two equals who, in confronting one another, separate into dominant and submissive. Every dyadic encounter leads to this same negotiation of status: sometimes you end up on top, sometimes on the bottom. So the individual isn’t either master or bondsman; he’s both — and that’s not even taking into account the possibility that roles can reverse themselves over the course of a relationship. So everyone has to triangulate toward self-autonomy both as the one who feeds off the other’s acclaim and as the one who has to serve it to the other.
And that’s not all. For Hegel the master-bondsman negotiation recapitulates an internal conflict between consciousness and self-consciousness. The external striving for recognition and autonomy is doubled internally. Do I serve my self-awareness, following my reasons and beliefs and calculations and plans? Or does my self-awareness serve me, figuring out ways to fulfill my desires?