Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic

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., synthesis). 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