Part I: Frederick Douglass and Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic: The Un-Liberating Effect of Slave Labor

In order to deal with Douglass’s “disciplinary issues,” his master at the time, Thomas Auld, sent the young boy of sixteen to Mr. Covey, a man known in the community as a slave-breaker. Prior to his arrival and in spite of overwhelming obstacles, Douglass had already learned to read. Though his literacy opened up new worlds for him and allowed him to express himself as well as to know himself more profoundly, it also produced discontent and a deep sense of loss having realized what he could have been had he been a (white) free man as opposed to a (black) slave.  In other words, Douglass’s literacy no doubt afforded him a freedom of sorts within the oppressive, racialized society in which he lived; nonetheless, his newly found mental freedom was not sufficient.  After all under the all-pervasive white gaze of a racialized society, no matter how educated he became, he continued to be viewed and treated as less than a person, as property, as a tool for the white man’s projects and economic gains. The insufficiency of this “inner” freedom is seen in Douglass’s narration of his fight with Covey.

Describing his first six months with Covey, he writes, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me.  I was seldom free from a sore back.”[1] He then recounts how Covey worked him day and night and in all weather conditions and how at last the brutal, inhumane work schedules and regimented violence broke him.

Frederick Douglass SpeakingI was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute![2]

Although Douglass had attained a level of freedom through literacy—an accomplishment that was itself an “argument” against the white hegemonic discourse pronouncing blacks as subhuman, incapable of “higher” rational reflection, and thus in need of (white) masters—he, as an embodied, incarnate being remained bound and subject to the (irrational) whims of white society.  No matter how literate, educated, and articulate he became, the dominant discourse scripted him as subhuman while the racialized social apparatuses—including Covey’s panoptic plantation—actively sought to suppress his intellectual achievements and to crush his spirit, reducing him to a beast-like existence in order to “prove” the veracity of their narrative.

After one of Covey’s particularly cruel, near-death beatings, Douglass decides to flee. Reluctantly and out of necessity he eventually returns to Covey’s plantation.  His return leads to a physical confrontation with Covey, who, with rope in hand tackles Douglass in a stable and attempts to tie him up.  Rather than remain a docile slave, Douglass decides to defend himself and to fight even if his action results in his own death. “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.”[3] His resolve took Covey by surprise, and Douglass could see for the first time fear and uncertainty in his master’s eyes.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative as a Challenge to Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic

If we bring Douglass’s narrative into conversation with Hegel’s discussion of what is commonly called the master/slave dialectic, some rather interesting insights as well as challenges surface.  Hegel devotes several paragraphs (178-196) in the Phenomenology of Spirit to the master/slave or, as Miller translates the terms, the “lord” and the “bondsman” relationship. Recognition by the other is central to Hegel’s account of the actualization of self-consciousness.  The self requires the recognition of another “I” which corresponds to itself with respect to equality, freedom and independence, as neither recognition of one’s own existence nor consciousness of a mere independent external object provides the requisite certainty Hegel claims is needed for the full actualization of self-consciousness.  The recognition among the “I’s”, in other words, must be mutual—each self must recognize the other as an independent, equal, free “I.” As the struggle for self-consciousness unfolds, a problem arises because at first each “I” sees the other “I” only as an object, a thing external to itself and to be used for its projects and plans.  As Hegel puts it, at this stage they exist as two conflicting manifestations of consciousness; “one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another.  The former is lord, the other is bondsman.”[4] According to Hegel’s narrative, in this initial struggle between the two consciousnesses, the bondsman shows his servile nature in that he would rather preserve his life than lose it and thus submits to the lord or master becoming a tool for the latter’s “pure enjoyment.”[5] In such an arrangement, the relationship and recognition involved is clearly asymmetrical, unequal. Ironically, this one-sidedness which seems to benefit the master, according to Hegel’s dialectical logic, turns out as advantageous to the slave.  Because acquiring full selfhood requires the other, if the other is servile, dependent, enslaved, and so forth, then the self who seeks recognition becomes these things as well.  The situation is much better for the bondsman, as his essential reality has been the lord, an “I” existing for-itself not for-an-other.  Keeping with Hegel’s logic, because the slave and master are integrally connected, the truth of the master has been from the beginning implicit in the slave.  As Hegel explains,Slaves Working in Fields

It [servitude] does in fact contain within itself this truth of pure negativity and being-for-self, for it has experienced this [in] its own essential nature. For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.[6]

Hegel goes on to state that this radical uprooting and disruption of one’s stability is “absolute negativity, pure being-for-self” and as such is implicit in the bondman’s consciousness.[7] As the dialectic demands, this “moment of pure being-for-self” does not remain implicit but becomes explicit for the slave “for in the lord it exists for him [the slave] as his object.”[8]

Then Hegel begins to focus on the role of labor and how this too sets the slave free. Having achieved self-consciousness through his experience of “the fear of death, the absolute Lord” in which the master’s free, self-consciousness becomes his ideal object, the slave’s relation to labor is transformed. In short, through his labor, the slave “becomes conscious of what he truly is,” another “I” and not a mere thing. The master was moved by desire to gain recognition through an other, the slave, and thus to overpower him.  However, the master’s relationship with the slave was unequal, distorted, and reduced the slave to a mere tool for his enjoyment. Given this arrangement, the master’s relation with the material realm is mediated through the slave. The slave, in contrast, works directly with the material realm, cultivating it and infusing it so to speak with his own creative ideas and mental energy. In so doing, the slave comes to respect the material realm on its own terms, working creatively with it and leaving something of himself in it as a gift to others. Thus, through his labor, the slave, in contrast with his master, experiences nature as having its own independence and integrity, its own permanence and objectivity.  Why? Because the master’s desire compelling him to conquer and treat the slave as a labor-machine operates by way of destruction, negating the other and leaving only lack and unfulfilled desire—an instance of Hegel’s bad infinite.  “[T]hat is the reason why this satisfaction is itself only a fleeting one, for it lacks the side of objectivity and permanence.  Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing.”[9] With the permanence provided intelligent shaping or “formative activity,”[10] the object produced via the slave’s labor acquires a lasting quality, a form or design that is both intelligible and transferrable over time—using Aristotle’s language inflected through a Hegelian grammar—we might say, it has become in-formed matter and possesses its own integrity.  “It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence.”[11] In addition, because he has had to labor neither for himself nor his own projects, the slave has learned to suspend his desires.  Having habituated himself this way, he works creatively with nature, respecting and valuing it rather than seeing it as a means to satisfy his insatiable desires.  What at first seemed to produce only alienation—perpetual labor for an other and never for oneself—ultimately came to be understood as “formative activity,”[12] a distinctively human activity involving cognitive capacities to creatively shape, form and interact with the material world, valuing its integrity, and allowing it to be other. In short, with the triple complex:  fear of the master de-stabilzing the self, service for the master’s sake denying one’s own desires, and labor as “formative activity” resulting in a free relationship with the material realm—together enable the slave to discover himself as an “I” in harmony with the world.  It is not by accident that the next section of the Phenomenology transitions into Stoicism—a view emphasizing inner freedom, a rationally ordered universe, detachment from and indifference to external realities and occurrences outside of one’s control, and an acceptance of one’s place within the larger ordered, rational whole.


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, 56.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 115, paragraph 189.

[5] Ibid., 115–6, paragraph 190.

[6] Ibid., 117, paragraph 194.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Ibid., 118.

[12] Ibid., 119.

*The first image was copied from this website:

*The second image was copied from this website:

3 thoughts on “Part I: Frederick Douglass and Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic: The Un-Liberating Effect of Slave Labor”

  1. In his interview Cornel West at the AAR, James Cone complains that 25 years after he began to write, seminaries and theologians still ignore the issues he tried to raise. I think he’d agree that you are a major exception. Thanks again for bringing Douglass and other African-American thinkers into conversation with major voices of the white Western tradition.

    Few things could show the inadequacy of “inner freedom” divorced from outer freedom better than Douglass’ narrative.

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