Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic

In a time of financial „Masters of the Universe“ that dictate the political and economic conditions, and above all downgrade individuals and nations to the slave state within the monetary system, it may not be wrong to take a look at a classic philosophical text on the topic of „Master / Slave „.

By Doug Frame, Introduction Lars Schall

„No one is more a slave than the one who thinks he is free without being it.“

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In case you need an excuse for reading something on the “Master/Slave“ issue written by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), I would like to give you one. In a recent interview that I’ve conducted with the Austrian economist and co-founder of the Institute for Value-based Economics in Vienna, Gregor Hochreiter (see: “Let’s Talk ‚Austrian‘“), I gave Mr. Hochreiter inter alia this question:

“What is wrong with our debt-based money system and why does it have bad effects on the world as a whole?“

His answer to it was:

“Well, the driving force of economic development is not the availability of credit, but of real savings, i.e. production, which has not been consumed and which is invested. Almost everybody though believes that the availability of credit is decisive for economic growth. By falling prey to this economic fallacy, more and more parts of society get indebted and finally over-indebted. Widespread defaults of private households and of businesses or even the default of the state is just a question of time.

During the process of ever increasing indebtness the banking system earns unjustified income, while the poor suffer from rising prices as a consequence of the inflationary increase of the money supply. In sharp contrast to the commercial messages of the banking sector taking up a credit does not bring more personal freedom. Maybe in the short-run, but in the long-run, the debtors are at the mercy of their creditors. Being in debt is a kind of (self-)enslavement. Moreover, the necessity to pay an accrued interest on debt promotes the short-sighted exploitation of natural ressources as well as of one self.“

So this fact, that Mr. Hochreiter pointed out, might serve here as an excuse. Further, for this publication on the “Master/Slave“ issue in connection to the money system, I contacted the international journalist and financial commentator Max Keiser (http://www.maxkeiser.com), in order to ask him about his reflections in that respect. His response was:

“There has to be a balance between top-down and bottoms-up systems of wealth accumulation. Top-down systems; i.e, fiat debt currencies flooded into the system to perpetuate the monarchs and monopolists need an offsetting degree of entrepreneurial paradigm shifting that obsolesces the monopolists models and entrenched positions. A properly calibrated free market can do the job of allowing both systems to co-exist if risk is managed properly in the system. Currently, the way markets are calibrated make it easier to acquire more wealth as wealth is aggregated. A properly designed markets-based system should do the opposite. As wealth accumulates, the risks associated with obtaining it should increase, not decrease. Conversely, the risks of gaining wealth for the bottoms-up grass roots should be low. Risk needs to respond to the forces of supply and demand as readily and easily as reward does.

Currently, as the wealthiest obtain more wealth, they use a portion of that wealth to reduce the risk of having and obtaining additional wealth. A good example of this is how the tax rate on the wealthiest decreases as they obtain more wealth. The average tax rate for the top 1% in the U.S. is now 17%. The tax rate for the poorest is closer to 50%. To achieve a well balanced, truly free market this relationship would be reversed along with all the various components that comprise the wealth matrix in different socio-economic levels of society. The implementation of such systems is relatively easy if the political will existed. For example, the Federal Reserve bank in Washington D.C. could raise margin rates on large speculative positions in various futures markets; thus raising the risk of holding onto these positions. Immediately, the overall risk/reward balance would come back into a more favorable balance.“

Now, if you believe the monetary system has now consequence related to power in favor of the financially strong ones and to the disadvantage of common people and the nations, you might want to read for example Michael Hudson’s „Europe Replacing Economic Democracy with Financial Oligarchy“ under:


The philosopher Doug Frame, who delivers below an explanation of the basic concept of Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic (in German: Herrschaft und Knechtschaft), argues: “Conditions of slavery have varied historically, but the nature of slavery has not,“ and asks: “How are we to understand the relationship between master and slave through the ages?“

Personally, I would like to point out that it is of essential importance in Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic, that both depend on each other. For example, the master needs the slave not only to exist as a master or to become a master in the first place, but he also needs the slave to satisfy his desire for „recognition.“ This is the main reason why he doesn’t kill the slave even though he could – a corpse can’t give him „recognition.“ It is also of importance that the instrument through which the master dominates the slave is „fear.“ In fact, the fear to lose his life is the reason why the slave – in Doug Frame’s words – „gives in.“ In order to stay alive, he serves the master.

Doug Frame, who resides in a small community outside the City of San Diego, California, has a Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Arts as well (his Master’s Thesis was written about “The Logical Nature of Aristotle’s Enthymeme”). Mr. Frame was a college and university professor for 8 years. He has taught Philosophy, History and Sociology, and his Philosophy classes included Logic and Critical Thinking, Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Comparative Religion. In February 2009 he completed “The Yoga Party: Philosophical Writings,” a book which investigates philosophical implications for our way of looking at the world through the lens of non-dualism. Moreover, he is a contributing writer to Suite101 (http://www.suite101.com/), where the following article was first published. Mr. Frame’s own website is:http://www.framepublishing.com/. The republication of his article here at LarsSchall.com was personally permitted by Mr. Frame.

Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic
Hegel’s Dialectic and Marx’s Historical Materialism
by Doug Frame

Conditions of slavery have varied historically, but the nature of slavery has not. How are we to understand the relationship between master and slave through the ages?

The master slave relationship is a common theme throughout history. Many ages embraced slavery, and although the characteristics of slavery may have been somewhat different during different ages, the superiority of the master and the subservience of the slave was a constant. While many great thinkers have considered this relationship, certain thinkers stand out.

The Master and the Slave

This relationship has been a common theme of philosophy, whether it be by Aesop talking about reason being the character of the master, and passion that of the slave. Slavery was common in ancient Greece and in feudal societies. Also references to the master and slave have been most apparent with Rousseau, Fichte, and most famously Hegel. Also discussing this relationship is Nietzsche, who had a different take than others, where the master is independent, creative and excellent, while the slave is servile and mediocre.

Hegel and Nietzsche are probably the most famous philosophers to talk about the relationship between master and slave, but Hegel’s formulation was wrapped in idealism. Karl Marx was most certainly influenced by Hegel, in his more concrete and materialistic writings about revolution.

Hegel and the Master and Slave

Hegel’s presentation of the master and slave in his dialectic is the most allegorical. Hegel begins in explaining that one only gains self-consciousness by being engaged with an „other“. By seeing the other, one recognizes that this other is different from themselves, and gives oneself identity through the other, and therefore themselves. One’s encounter with another for the first time sets off a dialectic where both consciousness‘ are engaged. This engagement results in both finding their place in the world.

These two are locked in a form of conflict, where their position in the world will be decided by how this conflict is resolved. While both may be focused on being superior, the way that this antipathy can be resolved is for one to „give in“. The fact of the matter is that some people value liberty over life, and others value life over liberty. The newly self-conscious being who values liberty over life becomes the master, and the newly self-conscious individual who values life over liberty becomes the slave who submits to the master to survive.

Hegel’s Dialectic

In this unfolding dynamic one begins as a conscious being (not yet self-conscious), where no conflict exists. Yet when the two individuals encounter each other there is a sense of conflict where a contradiction emerges where both cannot be the master or both be the slave. Out of this conflict comes the resolution where one emerges the master and the other emerges the slave. This sequence is part of the dialectical process. Simply put the dialectic moves through thesis (e.g., prior to the encounter), antithesis (e.g., the encounter) and synthesis (e.g. the resolution where one is the master and the other the slave).

Yet the process does not end here. Now that their positions have become apparent in the world (e.g., as each individual being either the master or the slave), the dynamic has changed. Now the master produces nothing and lives off the slave (e.g., thesis). The master has no contact with nature. The slave on the other hand works with nature and produces something of value, even though it is only used by the master, and this handiwork from nature gives the slave true knowledge about nature (e.g., antithesis) which the master cannot hope to duplicate. Marx’s revolution results in the synthesis with his secular worldview where society is run by the proletariat in a workers paradise (e.g., synthesis).

Hegel and Karl Marx

Marx extrapolates from Hegel. Marx, ultimately a student of Hegel, states that when the slave or proletariat becomes so alienated from life and made so miserable by their existence, with the accumulation of knowledge that the proletariat attains through their work, this enables the proletariat to overthrow the master, and form a new society.

While it seems Hegel thought that inequities in the world could be solved without revolution, Marx felt revolution was inevitable in the process of Historical Materialism. While Hegel’s idealism points out the origins of the master and slave, Marx’s materialism aimed to consummate this relationship and to overthrow the master.

While Hegel brought the relationship between master and slave, as a allegory for mans achievement of self-consciousness, Marx largely ignored Hegel’s idealism, and embraced materialism to bring Hegel’s abstract dialectic to history in his theory of historical materialism.


Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1977
Honderick, Ted., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1995
Inwood, M. J. Ed., Hegel Selections. Macmillan Publishing Company: United States, 1989

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