27 February 2007

Fear of the Absolute Master

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:01 pm

[Continuing Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondsman” discourse…] In the “death struggle” between two individuals, one self-consciousness has achieved dominance (the lord) while the other has become subservient (the bondsman). Now the lord has the bondsman working for him, generating that which the lord desires: servitude, recognition, confirmation that the lord exists only for himself. But, paradoxically, the lord’s sense of self-sufficiency comes only through the agency of another; that is, the subservience of the bondsman. In essence, then, the lord depends on the bondsman for his own sense of independence. Thus lordship falls apart as the basis for the autonomy of self-consciousness.

Conversely, the bondsman is dependent on the lord, doing the lord’s bidding, providing the lord with recognition. How does the bondsman fulfill the lord’s desire for recognition? He works on it; he comes up with ways to satisfy the lord’s desire. But that means that the bondsman is on his own, generating value out of nothing to hand over to the lord. The bondsman turns out to be the self-sufficient one, because he is the one who, without help from the lord, produces what the lord desires. The bondsman exists for the sake of the lord, but the lord is also dependent on the bondsman. The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman. Lord and bondsman both lose the struggle for self-sufficiency to the other.

But they also both win the struggle. The truth of the bondsman is that he lives for the sake of the other; servitude has the lord for its essential reality. To the bondsman, the lord exists as an object that supplies life and meaning. That meaning, though, has been with the bondsman all along.

For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, which is the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-itself, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.

The bondsman becomes servile and the lord exerts mastery both for the same reason: they fear the loss of pure being-in-itself, which is the fear of death, the absolute Lord. But that fear has been in them and with them all along; they don’t really need each other to make it real. This fear of death, says Hegel, is the pure being-for-self that both are striving for, that both are seeking from each other. But they’ve both always already had it; they just don’t realize it.

This moment of pure being-for-self is also explicit for the bondsman, for in the lord it exists for him as his object. Furthermore, his consciousness is not this dissolution of everything stable merely in principle; in his service he actually brings it about. Through his service he rids himself of his attachment to natural life in every single detail; and gets rid of it by working on it.

In other words, the bondsman doesn’t just cower in fear of the absolute Master. Through service, by working, by living for the master, the bondsman releases himself from the dread that defines him, which is the fear of death.

However, the feeling of absolute power in general, and in the particular form of service, is only implicitly this dissolution, and although the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware that it is a being-for-itself. Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.

Becoming conscious of what one truly is: that’s true self-consciousness, autonomous self-consciousness, that elusive power for which every self-consciousness strives. But what is that self-consiousness? Is it only a condition of dread, a fear of the absolute Master death? Or isn’t it also a condition of pure being-for-self through which one escapes the “natural life” of dread? The master seeks to evade this dread through desire for the other, for the sense of autonomy that only the other can give him. The master’s victory is fleeting. Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off. The bondsman doesn’t evade his dread through dominance and desire; he masters it within himself. Up until now the bondsman’s motivation to work has been an external one: fear of the master. But now the bondsman comes to realize that the dread which motivates his service and work isn’t really provided by the other, the master. The dread, which is fear of death, has always already existsed within himself.

Now, however, he 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. In the lord, the being-for-self is an ‘other’ for the bondsman, or is only for him [i.e., is not his own]; in fear, the being-for-self is in the bondsman himself; in fashioning the thing [i.e., that sense of autonomy which the master desires and which the bondsman produces through his work] he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him, that he himself exists actually in his own right… Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.

Again, dread stands at the foundation of being-for-self. The master, seeking validation through the work of the subservient other rather than through absolute fear, attains only an empty self-centered attitude. If the bondsman stays stuck in the lesser dread of fearing the master, then the real negativity of being-for-self remains external to the bondsman, and he stays enmeshed in servitude. This internal condition of dread on which being-for-self is built: it isn’t a permanent and absolute essence belonging to the self, enabling the self to transcend fear and death; rather it is a skill which is master over some things, but not over the universal power and the whole of objective being.

Thus concludes Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondsman” discourse. It’s only 9 pages long, so I haven’t really made it more concise. Tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll try to pull some of Hegel’s themes forward into contemporary relevance.



  1. Again, dread stands at the foundation of being-for-self.

    I really don’t like the sound of this.

    This internal condition of dread on which being-for-self is built: it isn’t a permanent and absolute essence belonging to the self, enabling the self to transcend fear and death; rather it is a skill which is master over some things, but not over the universal power and the whole of objective being.

    But I need help to understand why I don’t.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 1 March 2007 @ 8:13 am

  2. I seek recognition from the slave because I dread nonexistence, which is death. I seek to fulfill the desire of the master because I dread nonexistence, which is death. Dread of death, the ultimate Master, is ultimately what motivates me as either master or slave. And that dread is already in me before I encounter the other. So I have being-for-self based on dread. Heidegger picks up this theme of Hegel: everyone’s being is always already being-toward-death.

    But I need help to understand why I don’t. Why you don’t what? Why you don’t have the skill? I guess the idea is that, even though you always have the dread available to you, it isn’t part of who you are. Dread is a response, not an essence — a response to the imminence of non-existence. And non-existence is almost by definition not part of the essence of an existing being. It’s almost the opposite of essence, the thing that stands over against being. The skill comes from recognizing that you don’t need to externalize either this dread or the means of fighting it off. It’s an awareness and a kind of work you can do for yourself — being-for-self. Maybe?


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 March 2007 @ 3:08 pm

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