2 June 2010

Hegel at Georgetown

The Master-Slave Dialectic

This is an excerpt from Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool, published last month by Penguin.

When I returned to school in January, my leisured friend, Playboy, had dropped out for the second and final time and was living somewhere near the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. Most of my other friends were studying abroad, from Buenos Aires to New Zealand. I now understood the importance of getting out of one’s backyard, understood it well, but because I had received such low marks my first year, I couldn’t afford any semesters off from Georgetown. For all intents and purposes, I had already taken my leave as a freshman, and so I stayed in D.C. trying to pull up my G.P.A. as high as mathematically was still possible. 

My old friend from childhood, Charles, didn’t have these problems—he had a real talent for economics and had gotten himself into a prestigious exchange program at Cambridge. I got a passport of my own and arranged to visit him in London that spring break. Having not yet completed Georgetown’s basic foreign language requirement, I also enrolled in a study-abroad program in France for the summer. I could have taken all the coursework I needed at Rutgers, and saved myself a lot of student loan debt in the process, but I had been living with a gnawing sense of unease that semester—a feeling my trip to London would only intensify—a kind of vague, undefined longing. All I could say for sure was that I had to go abroad and that it would cost me far more if I did not go.

Back at what seemed to me a very quiet Georgetown, I bided my time playing pick-up basketball and endless hours of chess. I also met a very kind and serious philosopher from the Flemish-speaking side of Belgium, a Hegel scholar named Ver Eecke. Dr. Ver Eecke, a balding man with thick accent and jowls, looked anachronistically like a philosopher, always in a gray three-piece suit and almost always in his office, working. He took me under his wing and agreed to teach me The Phenomenology of Spirit on a one-on-one basis. He cautioned beforehand that it was “probably the most difficult book in the world.” We therefore agreed that we would focus our attention those months on one section in particular, a section I wanted badly to comprehend, a section Hegel called The Master-Slave Dialectic.  

The Master-Slave Dialectic begins as a kind of imagined narrative or myth, which Hegel devised in order to explain on a highly abstract level how mere life, conscious life, might have made the staggering leap to become self-conscious life, or life that is aware of itself, subjective, “I.” It develops into the story of what happens when two “I”s meet each other, when “the-I-that-is-I” encounters “the-I-that-is-other” and both attempt to assert themselves. It becomes the story of a life-and-death struggle, of a fight for recognition. 

To say that this is heavy stuff is the definition of understatement. I labored for months with Dr. Ver Eecke as my guide, trying to follow Hegel’s elusive thought through the darkened Teutonic woods. The pursuit exhausted and challenged me in ways my teacher, a European man, could not understand. It challenged me emotionally. As a descendant of real slaves, my interest in the topic was instinctively more than academic—whereas Dr. Ver Eecke, through no fault of his own, felt it all in his head, through no fault of my own, I felt it in my bones. I felt, perhaps, a touch of ancestral shame. Above all, as a black student of philosophy at Georgetown, I felt profoundly alone. I had no one, not one black person I could talk to about what I was reading and thinking, about Hegel’s concept of bondage in particular and about philosophy in general. I was the only black person in the department, student or faculty, and that was that. It is difficult to take a topic that hits home the way slavery does for blacks and twist it around in your mind theoretically, dispassionately, in the abstract, counter-intuitively, but that is what I ended up having to do in the absence of anyone to speak with emotionally. This, though, I think, was ultimately for the better. I pried myself from my emotion and my history and let Hegel have his say. What he said turned me upside down. 

For Hegel, it is actually the slave who comes out on top in the long run. In that initial life-and-death struggle, which sets the terms going forward, one “I” experiences what Hegel calls the “fear of death” and submits to the other. This “I” decides he “loves life” and concedes the fight. And this initially submissive consciousness, the slave consciousness, on pain of death, now serves the other’s will and works for him. But it is through this very work that, eventually, he will come to surpass his master. On a basic level, this is because it is the slave who masters objective reality, or nature. The slave takes the plants and animals and transforms them, through work, into meals; the slave transforms, with his hands, a tree into a table; the slave is most alive, becomes necessary, develops his spirit. The master, on the other hand, is parasitic, decadent, dependent. Without the slave’s recognition, he is not even a master; without the slave’s work, he cannot prosper.

I realized that Hegel was not really thinking about flesh-and-blood men and women here, nor was he probably concerned at all with the curious case of the American Negro. On the contrary, he was thinking about such abstractions as the progression of Mind through History toward the Absolute. The particular and the personal were of little consequence to him. He was contemplating societal evolution on an extremely grand scale and he was seeing the Master-Slave Dialectic on the verge of finding its resolution, not through a man like Abraham Lincoln, but through a man like Napoleon Bonaparte, through the imperial implementation of constitutional monarchy in Europe. In other words, Hegel was thinking about men becoming citizens, but he was not thinking about black folk marching in Alabama.

Of course, it was hard for me to see how my great-great-grandfather, Shadrach, a man bought (or bred, who knows?) and legally owned by a certain Jones family of Louisiana, like a head of cattle, would not have taken exception to Hegel’s reasoning here, were he given the opportunity and ability to read and rebut. I wondered whether a slave could ever reach this kind of conclusion. The idea struck me as either insane or a joke. And yet, the more I thought about it—that those who have been subjugated might actually over time be able to gain something from that subjugation—the more I struggled with this idea from my comfortable swivel chair, armed with the space and perspective I was fortunate enough to have been granted, the more I found it difficult to dismiss as simply false.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »