The Phenomenology of Mind by George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his book, The Phenomenology of Mind, addresses the issue of self-consciousness in terms of the lord-bondsman relationship. He explains that the primordial struggle that founded slavery was fundamentally a struggle for recognition between two independent beings. Both beings sought the recognition of the other to confirm, they themselves, as the superior. This struggle ends with one of the beings submitting to the other for the fear of death, and thus a master-slave (or lord-bondsman) relationship is created.
Frederick Douglass was a runaway slave who escaped to the north and became a prominent abolitionist. Douglass wrote a book about his life entitled, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In his stories, many of Hegel's suppositions about slavery are confirmed, and, it should be known, that Douglass had never read any of Hegel's essays and so was not influenced by him. This means that Hegel was correct about the master-slave relationship and can be used as an appropriate lens to analyze Douglass's experiences.
The Fear of Death
One of Hegel's theories is that the slave can only overcome his position as slave by overcoming his fear of death. Hegel wrote that “it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained”* (Hegel 233). It seems as though the slave owners and overseers in Douglass's life had realized this because they constantly warned slaves of the possibility of death, should they revolt. One example of this can be found when the overseer, Mr. Gore, told a slave, Demby, that if he did not get out of the river by the count of three he would be shot. Demby refused, and in this form of open rebellion he asserted his freedom. In response to this disobedience; Mr. Gore killed Demby, thus setting an example to the rest of the slaves that if they wanted freedom they would have to pay for it with their lives. However, Demby did not die a slave as he ceased to recognize the status of Mr. Gore as master. Without this recognition and submission, there can be no slavery and no lordship. Slavery is defined as a condition of bondage, and as such, is as much a mental state as a physical one. So although Demby lost his life, he died a free man. When Mr. Gore was asked about his horrific display of merciless cruelty, he responded by stating that “Demby had become unmanageable”* and Mr. Gore was correct in that statement (Douglass 38). The condition of slavery can only exist insofar as the slave fears death more than bondage; since Demby no longer feared death, he ceased to be a slave and thus became a man.
How a Slave is Made a Man
Frederick Douglass is only able to escape the fetters of slavery by engaging in a battle to the death with his master Mr. Covey. After running away, Douglass returns to his master's plantation and is about to be whipped when something remarkable happens. Instead of passively accepting his punishment, Douglass decides to fight. He recalls the experience, “Mr. Covey seemed now to think that he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don't know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (Douglass 79). At this point Douglass did physically rise off of the ground to a standing position, but more importantly he rose from the position of slave to the position of master. The fight between Douglass and Covey is a literal representation of Hegel's primal struggle for conscious acknowledgement. The one who quit the battle however was Covey, and not Douglass, thus reversing the initial grounds of the enslavement. Douglass, who entered the struggle as the slave, left as the master. He wrote after the battle that, “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” (Douglass 81). Since Douglass recognizes his independence from his master he becomes a determinate mode of being and ceases to be a self-existence reliant on another.
How a Master is Made a Slave
The master has set up a binary system where he is either lord or bondsman. He can not be on equal terms with the slave because he defines his existence negatively through the existence of the slave. In order for him to become a man he must disregard all other beings and consider his existence independent of otherness. The master, however, can not achieve this state of consciousness until he has been a slave, because only then will he understand his self-identity and essential nature in the world. In addition, his position as master inherently blocks his ability to define himself independently because he can only be a master in relation to his slaves. So, for a master to become a man he must go through a two step process; he must first become a slave and then he may become a man. The master's fear of becoming subservient to his slaves is evident in Frederick Douglass's narrative. One of Douglass's masters, Mr. Auld, expresses his fear about teaching slaves to read. Upon discovering that his wife has instructed Douglass in reading, Mr. Auld forbade her from further instruction and told her that “it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (Douglass 47). This fear that slave owners harbored about teaching slaves to read was not uncommon. It was thought at the time that if slaves could learn to read then they might one day be able to outwit the white man and turn him into a slave. Masters could not picture anything but the hierarchical system they had created and so it seemed the only other feasible position a master could occupy in life was to be a slave.
The Master's Master
Hyppolite's Observation
Jean Hyppolite, a French philosopher from the 1900s, wrote of Hegel's master-slave dialectic that it “consists essentially in showing that the truth of the master reveals that he is the slave, and that the slave is revealed to be the master of the master.” This observation is affirmed both philosophically and physically. It appears at first, that the master, being the independent consciousness, exists for himself; which causes the bondsman to become the dependent consciousness, who only exists through his master. This reduces the bondsman to “thinghood” and creates a form of recognition that is one sided and unequal. The bondsman becomes a function through which the master can achieve his desires. However, this causes the master to no longer be defined as an independent consciousness, but rather he is dependent upon his bondsman for his definition of himself. And thus he is “not assured of self-existence as his truth; he finds that his truth is rather the unessential consciousness, and the fortuitous unessential action of that consciousness” (Hegel 237). So, since the master is only defined through the slave, the slave is philosophically the master's master. Additionally, the master is only able to retain his position of power through the labor of the slave. Without the labor of the slave, the master would not be able to maintain control of the slave. The slave toils so that the master can buy whips and overseers to reinforce his mastery. When Frederick Douglass is severely beaten while working in a shipping yard, his master tends to him and treats him as though he were the master instead of the slave. Douglass wrote that his master's wife nursed him back to health with a mother's tenderness. The reason behind this kindness was not pity but self-interest. In order for the master to profit he relies on the slave and so he is dependent on the slave. Thus, the traditional idea of who is dependent on whom is reversed, and the slave becomes the master of his master; proving Jean Hyppolite's observation about Hegel's dialectic.

*All of the Hegel quotes come from The Phenomenology of Mind and the Douglass quotes are from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.





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