Hegel’s Master & Slave

G.W.F. HegelGeorge Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831 CE) wrote about a history of self-realization.  Of history progressing closer and closer to a freedom and a self-realization of a better humanity.  In his dialectical way of thinking Hegel tried to show how freedom could unite and divide and lead to a greater synthesis of freedom:

To explain this process, Hegel outlines a mythical encounter between two primeval self-consciousnesses.  This is the famous example of ‘the master and the slave‘.

Each self, deeply absorbed in the business of living, at first confronts the other as an obstruction to its own possession of the world and demands recognition of the other.

The result is a life-and-death struggle for the recognition by the other.  The self who submits, rather than face death, becomes the slave. (Spencer and Krauze, 60)

But because the identity of the master is an identity based on that of a slave and not being a slave:

There is no way for the master, no his own, to escape from his own form of dependency and alienation. (ibid.)

Yet, soon, the slave recognizes this and also recognizes that the entire world she or he is surrounded by is a world created by his or her own hands: the houses they built, the crops they picked, etc.  The slave realizes that the master actually had no part in the actual creation of this world: such as the creation of value from the picking of the crops, etc.

It is no wonder that Hegel’s myth continues to have such resonance to the present.  Marxists, Existentialists, the intellectual architects of Negritude and the Black Consciousness movement, have all been drawn to the sombre richness of Hegel’s tale.  And although Hegel speaks throughout of ‘he’, feminists, too have found inspiration here. (61)


Spencer, Lloyd and Andrzej Krauze.  Introducing Hegel.  Lanham, Maryland: Totem Books, 2006.

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