Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
The Master-Slave Dialectic and the End of History
It follows for Kojeve that the fight that constitutes human being is necessarily a fight to the death because each of the two individuals involved in this fight is willing to venture his life in an effort to raise himself up as the supreme value of the other. If all human beings were the same, if all pushed this confrontation to its limit, the human reality and human being could never be realized or revealed (ILH 170 ). Thus, Kojeve indicates, there must be “two essentially different human or anthropogenetic behaviors” (ILH 15 ). It is the difference in these behaviors that allows the victory of one individual over the other in the struggle for recognition to produce a Master and his Slave rather than a mere victor and a corpse of the vanquished. At first glance, there appears to be a problem on this point with Kojeve’s analysis. On one hand, he recognizes that something must be different in the character of various homo sapiens, such that some become Masters and others become Slaves. On the other hand, he also wants to say that this something is “not innate”; that “nothing predisposes” a particular homo sapiens to become one or the other; that there is no cause or reason that can explain the outcome (ILH 496 [224-225] and 171n1 [43n1]; cf. HMC 353 ). It is a matter of decision or behavior, not of essence or nature. At the same time, however, the Slave “does not raise himself above his biological instinct of preservation”; he has “an intuition of human reality,” which may be that “animal-life is just as important to it as pure self-consciousness”; and he has a “fearful ‘nature,’” and a “slavish desire for life at any price” (ILH 170 , 176 , 21 , 179-180 [52-52], and 183 ). The Master, moreover, was willing to go to the end (i.e., to die), meaning it is simply a fact that he could not have become a Slave, but only a corpse. Thus, while “there is something in man, in everyman, that makes him suited to participate—passively or actively—in the realization of universal history,” it is difficult not to conclude (contra-Kojeve) on the basis of his initial account that the character of the participation of a particular individual is dependent on an essence or nature immanent within this individual (ILH 162 ). This tension in Kojeve’s analysis is caused by his needing to explain the duality of human being that is presupposed thereby, while also preserving some basis for human moral freedom understood as the capacity for choice or decision. When we return to this problem below, we will see that the decision of a homo sapiens is related not to his essence or nature, but rather to the particular circumstances of the actual struggle into which he enters. Regardless of the reason, ultimately one of the two combatants must yield to the other, and the humanity that is immanent in every homo sapiens will be actualized in the Master, while remaining merely potential in the Slave (ILH 162 ). At its birth, then, the human consciousness is always either Master or Slave, never simply human; at least at the outset, self-consciousness is either autonomous or dependent.
It is necessary also to examine the Master-Slave dialectic itself. In bringing the other to submit, the Master obtains that which he seeks—objective recognition of his subjectively certain autonomous value. In demonstrating his willingness to fight to the death, he likewise demonstrates his freedom or autonomy from nature; he shows that he is free from the particular existence that he has; he shows his “absolute independence of all given conditions” (ILH 180 ). There is another aspect to the Master’s freedom from nature— the fact that his existence is now mediated through the work of the Slave. The Slave works on the natural given to produce things for the consumption and enjoyment of the Master. Through his selfovercoming and the work of another, “the Master is free with respect to Nature, and consequently, satisfied with himself” (ILH 24 ). But the Slave’s relation to the object has changed as well. Prior to his submission to his Master he would have partaken of the fruits of his own labor, but now he works on the given, natural world in the service of the desire of another. As a result, this work can be considered to be the activity of the Master, and the Slave understood to be a tool. Yet his understanding of his own activity changes qualitatively over time. Whereas the Slave initially submitted to the Master because he did not overcome his biological desire for life, he is required to overcome his biological desires (e.g., for food and drink), to delay or deny their gratification, when working in the service of the Master. Thus the Slave, too, overcomes nature (i.e., certain biological desires) within himself.
Yet the Master-Slave relation is inherently unstable, owing to the deficient quality of the recognition between Master and Slave. The “unequal and one-sided recognition that has been born from this relation” is not “authentic recognition” because it is not reciprocal (ILH 24 ). As Kojeve explains, the recognition of the Master by the Slave fails fully to satisfy the former because “he can be satisfied only by recognition from one whom he recognizes as worthy of recognizing him” (ILH 25 ). If the Slave is the being who allows the Master to be liberated from nature by working for the Master’s ends, the Slave is no more than a living tool for the Master, a being whom the Master must consider lower than human. If the origin of the human is the anthropogenetic desire for recognition (which presupposes the existence of another worthy human to do the recognizing), and satisfaction comes only to the one so recognized, then mastery is a dead end. It would seem, then, that the road to freedom and satisfaction must pass through slavery.
At first glance this may seem odd, but in the end it makes sense, given that the birth of freedom is really about the overcoming of slavery. To demonstrate this, Kojeve has us consider the Master-Slave relationship from the perspective of the Slave. This consideration is intended to reveal how the Slave who has overcome his slavery is “[t]he complete, absolutely free man, definitively, and completely satisfied by what he is, the man who is perfected and completed in and by this satisfaction” (ILH 26 ). Notice that this man is completely satisfied by what he is; as such he is no longer future-oriented, no longer timely, and perhaps no longer historical. It is a possibility, then, that in becoming satisfied one ceases to be a human being. In any event, the Slave as Slave has a desire to overcome himself; he has every reason to do so, seeing before him the example of the Master, who is free and appears to be satisfied because not striving to overcome himself. According to Kojeve, “The Slave has renounced the risk of the Struggle and has submitted to the Master because in his eyes the troubles of the Struggle are equivalent to those of Servitude, because the benefits of security compensate for the burdens of Servitude. Or once again, Servitude is ‘just’ because in it the benefits and burdens mutually balance one off another” (EPD 292 ). Or yet again, “It is from the point of view of this Justice of equivalence that the Slave judges and justifies his own condition. He accepts it as just because in it the benefit of security is equivalent to the burden of the servile condition” (EPD 294 ). If the two states are equivalent, if the burdens and benefits of each condition balance off the other, then why switch one’s choice from slavery to mastery? The foregoing is true only for the pure slavish self-consciousness, for “if the Slave claims to be a juridical person, i.e., a human being, it is because he is no longer truly or solely a Slave. He is also a non-Slave, i.e., a Master, to the extent that he does this” (EPD 310 ). The self-consciousness of the Slave within history, of the Slave who is an active participant in the transformation of both the natural world and himself, changes over time. In the final analysis, “the Slave must impose his liberty on the Master,” by reengaging in the struggle to the death; he must “overcome his fear of death,” for there can be no liberty without the “bloody fight” (ILH 177-178 [50-51], 179-180 [52-53], and 182 ; cf. 518n1 [248n34]).
Naturally, we must ask, what makes the Slave capable of such self-overcoming? As Kojeve explains, it is his experience of
the fear of death, the fear of the absolute Master. By this fear, the slavish Consciousness melted internally; it shuddered deeply and everything fixed-or-stable trembled in it. . . . In his mortal terror he understood (without noticing it) that a given, fixed, stable condition, even though it be the Master’s, cannot exhaust the possibilities of human existence. . . . There is nothing fixed in him. He is ready for change; in his very being, he is change, transcendence, transformation, “education”; he is historical becoming at his origin, in his essence, in his very existence. On the one hand, he does not bind himself to what he is; he wants to transcend himself by negation of his given state. On the other hand, he has a positive ideal to attain; the ideal of autonomy, of Being-for-itself, of which he finds the incarnation, at the very origin of his Slavery, in the Master. . . . The Slave knows what it is to be free. He also knows that he is not free, and that he wants to become free. (ILH 27-28 [21-22])
The means by which the Slave secures his freedom is work. As we saw earlier, it is through work that the Slave masters nature and thereby overcomes that which resulted in his servitude. The Slave was dominated by the biological desire for self-preservation; work masters nature and thereby transforms the slave nature of the Slave; it frees him from his own ‘nature,’ from animal desire, and thus from the Master.
It is not just any old work that ultimately frees the Slave; “only work carried out in the another’s service is humanizing,” as work for another requires that one overcome one’s natural relationship to the objects produced (i.e., deny oneself gratification) (ILH 171 ; cf. 176  and 190 [65-66]). Furthermore, the conditions of the primitive struggle (and its immediate sequel) do not allow the Slave to be free; rather, these conditions must be transformed to make the freedom of the Slave, or of the former Slave, possible. What Kojeve has in mind is the transformation of the world brought about by the modern scientific project:
In the raw, natural, given World, the Slave is slave of the Master. In the technical world transformed by his work, he rules, or, at least, will one day rule—as absolute Master. And this Mastery that arises from work, from the progressive transformation of the given World and of man given in this World, will be an entirely different thing from the “immediate” Mastery of the Master. (ILH 28 )
The liberation of the Slave through work transforms the world, but also transforms man. The fear of death reveals the value of the mere fact of existence (i.e., the fact that every kind of human good presupposes life) and thereby renders existence a serious matter. “But [the Slave] is not yet aware of his autonomy, of the value and the ‘seriousness’ of his liberty, of his human dignity” (ILH 29 ). This awareness results only from the transformation he undergoes as a result of work, which requires that he sublimate his desires by repressing them. To work, to delay gratification, to repress the immediate desires in service of a future plan is to form oneself as a human being.
Kojeve refers to this “formed or educated” man as “the completed man who is satisfied by his completion” (ILH 30 ). In light of the professed goal of the modern project—the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate—one must ask whether man remains human in his completed form. Or put somewhat differently, does work (not mere labor but the active negation of the natural world, made meaningful as the transformation of the world required for the Slave’s liberation) come to an end at the end of history (cf. ILH 170-171 , 189 , 434n1 [I58n6], and 501n1 [230n25])? And if so, what then of the human? Does his existence echo that of the Master who works not and whose path was a dead end? In completing himself does man remain ever complete, eternally identical to himself, and if so, does he not then return to nature, become again a given being (cf. ILH 180-181 [53-54], 432 , 434n1 [158n6], 463 , 482-483 , 492 , 492n1 [220n19], and 494-495 [222-223])?
Setting these questions aside, we must consider the conditions under which one could attain perfection or completion. As argued earlier, the transformation and development of man requires the transformation and development of the world. This is understood to take place as a result of the prior (or at the very least concurrent) transformation of the Slave, that is, it is not the Slave as Slave that will be free and for whom the world is transformed, but the Slave become free and no longer Slave and yet not Master, “the Citizen” (ILH 175 ; cf. EPD 311-312 [256-266]). As Kojeve explains, “[i]t is the Citizen, and him [sic] only, who will be fully and definitely satisfied (befriedigt); for he alone will be recognized by one whom he himself recognizes and he will recognize the one who recognizes him. Therefore, it is only he who will be truly realized in actuality as a human being” (EPD 242 ). In light of this, the important question is: How is the citizen actualized? How is he brought into being? Answering this question requires a full understanding of the citizen, including an account of his origin (i.e., of the Slave and his character), as well as of the process of his transformation, and the goal of this transformation.
Self-consciousness issues, we recall, out of the struggle for recognition in the double form of Master and Slave. The Master is the one who subordinates absolutely his biological desire (i.e., his instinct for preservation) to his anthropogenetic desire (i.e., his desire for recognition); the Slave is the one whose anthropogenetic desire is overcome by his biological desire manifest as the fear of death. In other words, he has a “fearful 'nature"; a “slavish desire for life at any price” (ILH 179-180 [52-53] and 183 ). Casting this failure to overcome in its most favorable light, one could say that the Slave has “an intuition of human reality,” that he is unconsciously aware that “animal-life is just as important to it as pure self-consciousness” (ILH 176  and 21 ). It is precisely this intuitive awareness that must be overcome: the Slave must become conscious of the fact that “man ought to risk his life in certain circumstances to be truly human, to be a man” (EPD 249 ). Such awareness of the duty to risk one’s life in certain circumstances prompts the question: under which circumstances? This in turn raises the question of the origin of the Slave’s fear. Again, Kojeve contends that slavery is “not innate,” that is, “nothing predisposes” a particular homo sapiens to become a Slave or a Master; there is no cause or reason that can explain the outcome; it is only a matter of decision or behavior, not of essence or nature (ILH 496 [224-225], and 171n1 [43n1]). But this is not precisely the case; rather, there is something that causes, there is a reason that explains, the fear of the Slave: the relative physiological, biological, or natural inequality of homines sapientes prior to the initiation of the struggle for recognition creates in the relatively weak Slave doubt about his ability to prevail, that is, the Slave “does not believe in his victory . . . in the death of the other” (EPD 294 ; cf. 254n1 [222n8]). An individual may disregard such objective inequalities in the strength or capacity of the body and seek to compensate for them through greater strength or capacity of soul; however, such an individual, who will either prevail in the struggle or die, is not a Slave. Slaves are ‘reasonable’ in their assessments of relative capacities and would diagnose such a masterly type as suffering from a Napoleon complex.
Kojeve, then, appears to be correct that it is not the result of an essence or nature innate to or inherent in the one who becomes a Slave; rather, his slavery, like his future freedom, is dependent on certain circumstances—if he had happened to struggle with someone smaller or weaker, slower or stupider, less skilled or more cowardly, he very well could have prevailed as Master. For the Slave, the belief in one’s victory is inherently related to or relative to the circumstances in which one happens to struggle. But this conclusion opens up the possibility that the Master’s freedom, too, is dependent on particular, fortuitous circumstances (and as we see, this is an underlying assumption of the revolutionary action of the Slave, which drives history toward its end). However, it is also possible that, like the individual who from the slavish perspective ‘suffers’ from a Napoleon complex, the Master fails to recognize the ‘reasonable’ limits of the particular circumstances. Thus, while Kojeve asserts that the Master and the Slave do not exist in their pure form, that they are only principles (meaning that all real individuals already are citizens in some form with some mixture of Master and Slave within), there remains the logical possibility of the pure Master who “is ready to go to his death, which is equivalent to nothing (or is equivalent to the nothing), being pure nothingness” (EPD 272 ; cf 243  and ILH 178  and 180 ). The freedom of the pure Master rests on his subjectively certain belief in his victory and, therefore, would remain utterly independent of objective circumstances.
To return to the importance of the belief in one’s victory: it is only if one believes that one could prevail that one will consent to enter into the struggle. One consents to enter the struggle, rather than asserting one’s freedom by committing suicide beforehand, because one seeks recognition of one’s willingness to risk one’s life, of one’s freedom from the fear of death. To enjoy this recognition one must be alive. The eulogy uttered by the victor over the corpse of the vanquished—‘He fought valiantly and died with honor!’—satisfies not the latter, but honors and recognizes the accomplishment of the former. When one consents to enter the struggle, then, one seeks to live with the risk of an honorable death, rather than merely to die honorably. Kojeve’s discussion of the role of mutual consent in the initiation and issue of the struggle for recognition helps to clarify precisely what is occurring.
One of the adversaries, therefore, consents to struggle only because he assumes that the other equally consents to do so.
But this is not enough. He still assumes that the other effectively risks his life in the same way that he does so himself.
If he thought that the other engages in a struggle against him without risk to himself, he would not have consented to engage in it. (EPD 252 )
What is important to work out is what exactly is understood to be equal risk. “[T]he same risk” is referred to as “under the same conditions,” which cannot mean simply equally strong, large, speedy, smart, skilled, and courageous; rather, it is a formal sameness or equality (EPD 252 ). If individuals A and B are “interchangeable,” meaning that both A and B would consent to engage in the struggle for recognition even if they were to exchange places, then it can be said that A and B exist under the same conditions, that they enter the struggle with the same risk (EPD 274 ). Thus, the fact that there is a struggle implies that both Master and Slave are human in some form: “He [the Slave] is human because he has risked his life by first accepting the Struggle (or, at the very least, if he refused the Struggle from the beginning, he called to mind the idea of risk and death for recognition)” (EPD 293 ).
The conditions of the decision to undertake the struggle are crucial to our understanding of what is necessary for the Slave to overcome his fear. What we know at this point is that the Slave realized, whether prior to or during the struggle, that he would not prevail. In submitting to the Master, he establishes in fact that there is no longer equality between them, “for the one put in the place of the other would no longer have acted like him: the Master in the place of the Slave would not have surrendered, and the Slave in the place of the Master would not have continued the struggle to the very end” (EPD 255 ). The outcome of the struggle, while unequal, is said to be “equivalent. Mastery is for the Master what Servitude is for the
Slave. Two human conditions (equal or not), [are . . . ] equivalent, if in each of them there is an equivalence of constitutive elements, of benefits and burdens, from the point of view of the one who is in the condition in question” (EPD 294 ). This equivalence can certainly be seen at the conclusion of the struggle: as the Slave works in the service of the Master, he transforms himself, overcoming the biological desires responsible for his initial submission. As Kojeve explains, “if A’s condition changes, it is possible—for him—that his droits are no longer equivalent to his duties, [and] consequently neither [are] the droits and duties of B, even if B’s condition remains the same” (EPD 304 ). The particular example used to explain this formal statement is enlightening: “Thus, the ‘contract’ between the lord and his serfs changed from the sole fact that the latter no longer needed to be protected militarily. The ‘status’ of the lord has been altered according to this change of the state of the serfs. And it is of little importance that the lord continued to be ready to defend them if the case arose” (EPD 305n1 [261n21]). The equivalence of the mutual relations of Master and Slave is undermined by the change in the character and conditions of the Slave, leading him eventually to become again open to a struggle. This “transformation of the Slave, which will allow him to surmount his dread, his fear of the Master, by surmounting the terror of death—this transformation is long and painful” (ILH 180 ). Its goal is the reestablishment of the equality of conditions; but what kind of changes are required to reach this goal?
In discussing the place of the Master in the world transformed by the work of the Slave, Kojeve chooses a revealing subject as his example.
The human Action of the Master reduces to risking his life. Now, the risk of life is the same at all times and in all places.
The risk itself is what counts, and it does not matter whether a stone ax or a machine gun is being used. Accordingly, it is not the Fight as such, the risk of life, but Work that one day produces a machine gun, and no longer an ax. (ILH 178 )
The risk qua risk may remain the same, but the one who can risk, that is, reasonably risk with a belief in the possibility of his victory,
does not. In a fight between a strong man and a weak one, the latter has a better chance of prevailing with any weapon than he does with none. This remains true even if the former is armed. A weapon is a force equalizer, and, in a sense at least, it can be considered analogous to “the practice of handicap” in sport—it levels the playing field (EPD 295 ). Looking at the consequences of the establishment of equal conditions through the transformation of the natural world, we see that it not only reopens the possibility of the struggle for the Slave, but it may also at the same time close the respective openness of the Master. As more and more individuals are made technologically capable of effectively competing in the struggle (having been formerly, or naturally, incapable of doing so), it necessarily will become more difficult to maintain one’s status as Master while also potentially decreasing the benefits received from that status. If Kojeve is correct that, from the standpoint of the Master, mastery, like servitude, represents an acceptable equilibrium, then an increase in the burden with a simultaneous decrease in the benefits would seem to be liable to upset it in favor of servitude. It seems logical to conclude that over time only the those Masters closest to the pure ideal would maintain themselves as Masters; in fact, given sufficient time and equalization (or “at the extreme,” as Kojeve might say), there may remain only one—the most masterly of the Masters, the one who will fight regardless of the given circumstances.
At this point we have arrived at the (hypothetical) single Master together with the universal slavery of all others, that is, one man universally recognized by all others whom he does not recognize in turn—since they are unworthy of recognition because unwilling to engage in the struggle (EPD 274 ). Ultimately, the Slave “must impose his liberty on the Master”; he must “dare to fight against the Master and to risk his life in a Fight for Freedom” (ILH 178  and 180 ). In short, “[h]e will not cease to be a Slave, as long as he is not ready to risk his life in a Fight against the Master, as long as he does not accept the idea of his death. A liberation without a bloody Fight, therefore, is metaphysically impossible” (ILH 182 ). In discussing this metaphysical limitation, Kojeve connects the final rise of the Slaves against the Master to “Robespierre’s Terror,” indicating thereby not only that the revolution may not have to wait until there is but one Master alone on earth, but also the terrifying and bloody character of this final fight (ILH 194 ). But this final, bloody fight to the death must occur for two reasons: (1) as long as there is an element of mastery in existence, slavery, too, must necessarily exist—meaning that only the final abolition of mastery can abolish servitude; and (2) “the master is uneducable,” meaning the Master qua Master cannot be transformed (ILH 502 ).
It is in and by the final Fight, in which the working ex-Slave acts as combatant for the sake of glory alone, that the free Citizen of the universal and homogeneous State is created; being both Master and Slave, he is no longer either the one or the other, but is the unique “synthetical” or “total” Man, in whom the thesis of Mastery and the antithesis of Slavery are dialectically “overcome”—that is, annulled in their one-sided or imperfect aspect, but preserved in their essential or truly human aspect, and therefore sublimated in their essence and in their being. (ILH 502-503 )
With the rise of this historically synthesized citizen comes the birth of the universal, homogeneous state.
The need to abolish mastery absolutely in all its forms so as to abolish servitude ends up shaping the state’s efforts at equalization. Eventually, once the inequalities among men have been addressed, one must then turn to those rooted in “biological reasons, since Society—in order to last—must imply women and children incapable of struggle” (EPD 308 ; cf. 540 ). In other words, the final conquest of nature, according to Kojeve, requires the complete overcoming of all biological or ‘natural’ inequalities including those associated with the asymmetries of sex and age; females and children must be made equal to all adult males in their capacity to fight for recognition. Yet in the final analysis, the qualitative difference between men and women simply cannot be surmounted:
[I]n the case of women, one comes up against an irreducible difference: men cannot have children. One is thus forced to keep the principle of equivalence while trying to overcome as much as possible the human (“social”) consequences of irreducible biological differences. Practically speaking, one will try to establish a perfect equivalence between maternity and military service, while putting men and women on an equal footing everywhere else. (EPD 316 )
Just how radically one may have to reshape the society to bring about an equal footing remains obscure.
But in the case of children Kojeve provides a more explicit account of what would be entailed in overcoming their inferiority to adults. The first step is to secure for them tutors (i.e., supervised education). But this merely shifts the inequality: the adult is free; the child is supervised. The next step is to introduce tutors for adults, but this will tend toward submitting
both [children and adults] to an equivalent system, for example, by introducing a supervision of all activity by the State (the command economy). Now this supervision will sooner or later end up (in the socialist Society) in an equalization of situations of children and adults, [with] the adults, in a Society without private property, ceasing to exercise the majority of droits that the children are incapable of exercising themselves. (EPD 317 , emphasis added)
Kojeve’s next paragraph is but four words long: “Et ainsi de suited “And so forth.” He thereby indicates that there is another class of individuals whose situations would also have to be equalized, a class he typically includes explicitly (as he does two paragraphs later) when discussing irreducible differences: “the insane” (EPD 41 , 43 , 317 , and 412 ). If the equalization of adults and children requires the infantilization of adults, just what would the equalization of the sane and the insane require?
What is clear is that the progressive equalization of individuals has a distinct tendency toward the expansion of state power and the constraint of individual liberty. It would thus appear to be the case that the abolition of the final human Master inaugurates the birth of the Master state, and that the citizen re-creates his own servitude, not indeed to another human being but to a faceless, cold state. At the end of history we have the state as Master and the citizen as Slave. But the formal equality of citizens that the state secures, along with the reciprocal recognition on which the Master-state is founded, is for Kojeve sufficient to look forward to a rationally selfconscious, atheistic, and hence fully satisfied humanity.
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