In the series of extracts that I am running from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 13, which looks at the moral ideas of Hegel, Rousseau and Marx, and at the historicisation of ideas of human nature and morality. This extract is taken from the section on Hegel, Rousseau and the debate about freedom and ‘self-realization’.

Two men meet on the battlefield in a struggle to the death.  For one honour is more important than mere animal existence. He is willing to risk death. The other is not. Inevitably, on that battlefield, the warrior risking death is the victor. The vanquished, for whom survival is preferable to honour, is reduced to an animal existence, a slave, little more than a beast of burden to the victor, who is now the Master.

Yet, the Master is not quite the master and the Slave is not quite the slave. The Master wants to be freely recognized as Master. But the Slave only acknowledges him as such because he is enslaved. Recognition is not freely-given. The Master controls the Slave. But the Slave, in making himself the physical form of the Master’s will, in turn exercises control over the Master. It is his work that makes the Master’s life possible.  The Master is increasingly alienated from the world that the Slave creates for him, precisely because it is a world created by another. The Slave, on the other hand, begins to see himself reflected in the world he is creating and, unlike the Master, finds recognition through his labour. The Master, having become wholly dependent upon the world created by the Slave, finds himself enslaved by that world. The Slave is still a slave, with no freedom. The Master is the master with total freedom. And, yet, their relationship has both subtly and profoundly changed, as have the meanings of freedom and enslavement.

Hegel’s celebrated discussion in the Phenomenology of Spirit of the Master and Slave is one of his most important and influential, and yet also most ambiguous, passages, a rich, allusive study of the development of human self-consciousness. (Hegel actually talks of ‘Lord’ and ‘Bondsman’ but the two actors have become almost universally, if erroneously, known as ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’.) Philosophers before Hegel had simply assumed the existence of the human subject. Hegel insisted that the human subject had to be created. An isolated individual could not be truly self-conscious, nor act as an agent. I become conscious of my self only as I become conscious of others and of my relationships with them. Humans are not individuals who become social but social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with each other. Psychological dispositions and desires are not fixed but are shaped by those bonds, as are the answers to questions such as ‘What are my goals?’ and ‘How should I live?’.  Freedom, in other words, can never be simply that of the individual, but must also be at the same time social.

Hegel’s allegory of the Master and the Slave is a story both of individual development and, more importantly, of humanity’s development. Beginning with the Greek tradition, Hegel traces through history, in a highly caricatured form, the journey by which humans come to be truly self-conscious or, to put it in more Hegelian terms, by which Spirit achieves self-realization. The rise of monotheistic religion, and Christianity in particular, is particularly momentous for Hegel. Religion provides the recognition that it is the spiritual, not the natural, world that is the true home of human beings. Humans may live, like animals, in the natural world but, unlike animals, Hegel argues, they are spiritual beings. Without that recognition humans remain trapped in the natural world, in an animal existence. Religious consciousness is, however, a consciousness torn between two radically distinct realms, the earthly realm of the corruptible and the changeable, and God’s realm of the unchangeable and the essential. A believer is forced to live with knowledge of the gap between his imperfect self, a false self, and an ideal self, a true self but one as yet unrealized. An individual’s consciousness becomes divided, and the believer becomes ‘alienated’ from it, creating what Hegel calls the ‘unhappy consciousness’.

In the ‘unhappy consciousness’ the contradictions of the Master-Slave relationship become recreated within the individual self, internalized as the conflict between God’s realm and the realm of nature. Yet, if religion expresses in the most extreme form the alienation between self and world, it also, in Hegel’s eyes, provides the means to overcome that alienation. What is required is not simply an inward transformation, as in a more pious heart, but also an outward transformation, in which the external world becomes made anew into a stage that satisfies the needs of humans as spiritual beings.

The key moment, for Hegel, was the Reformation. He adopted the Lutheran idea that the Reformation was the achievement of the Germanic people, arising from ‘the honest truth and simplicity of its heart’. Like Luther, Hegel saw the Catholic Church as corrupt, an institution that had come to see God not as a spiritual being but as a means to fetter believers to the material world, as in the selling of indulgences. The greatness of the Reformation was its insistence that the individual conscience is the ultimate judge of truth and goodness. In this, the Reformation had unfurled ‘the banner of Free Spirit’ and proclaimed as its essential principle that ‘Man is in his very nature destined to be free.’ History, in the wake of the Reformation, Hegel argued, was defined by the attempt to transform the world in accordance with this principle, and to ensure that all social institutions made to conform to reason, and hence fit for human freedom. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were all moments in this transformation.  Yet while supportive of the Revolution, Hegel was also deeply ambivalent about it, and particularly about its descent into the Terror. The problem was that the Revolutionaries had attempted to put into practice purely abstract philosophical principles, without paying regard to the real, concrete disposition of the people.

How could the principles of freedom be reconciled with the concrete reality of human needs? Why, in the Prussian state, of course.  Over time Hegel had become increasingly conservative, and by the time he had achieved fulfillment as Prussia’s most celebrated sage, he had also discovered that the Spirit had found self-realization in Prussia, that ideal combination of freedom and stability.  There was in the Prussian state no contradiction, so no further historical change, no new synthesis, was possible. The Spirit had come to rest, and history had come to an end.

Hegel’s consecration of the Prussian state did not simply reflect the way that he had by now become a crusty reactionary. It also signified his attempt to resolve two key problems raised by the introduction of history into moral thought, and by the challenge that this raised to the idea of a fixed human nature. What is the relationship between individual freedom and the community out of which the individual emerges? And how can we think of values as historically flexible and yet sure enough to provide the foundations of moral life? If nature, and moral evaluations, are not fixed, how can we ever define what is right?  Through trying to answer these questions, Hegel drew upon arguments developed by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Today Rousseau is viewed as, at best, naively eccentric, at worst dangerously deluded. The idea of ‘noble savage’, for which Rousseau is perhaps best known, is seen as a naïve and romantic celebration of primitivism. The concept of  ‘the general will’, by which Rousseau meant the authority to which individuals within a collective must accede, is often seen as paving the way to totalitarianism. In fact Rousseau was far subtler in his argument that modern day critics allow. Though indelibly associated with the concept of the noble savage, Rousseau neither used the phrase nor believed in the idea. And while the idea of the ‘general will’ does have totalitarian implications, it is also part of the late eighteenth century attempt to think anew the relationship between the individual and the collective.

Born in Geneva in 1772, the son of a watchmaker, Rousseau was brought up a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism in his teenage years. Moving to Paris he became friends with leading Encyclopaedists including Diderot, d’Alembert and Voltaire. Rousseau found himself increasingly alienated from their easy optimism, and increasingly drawn to a darker view, not of human nature, such as that possessed by most pre-Enlightenment thinkers, but of civilization, which the philosophes had seen as the tool for human betterment. In this he anticipated the Romantics.  Rousseau did not reject the idea of civilization as a good. But, as the two early essays through which Rousseau made his name reveal, he had become skeptical of the idea of civilization as an unalloyed good. His 1750 prize-winning Discourse on the Arts and Sciences and, four years later, the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men both prefigured many themes in subsequent Romantic philosophy.

The starting point of Rousseau’s philosophy, as it was for most 17th and 18th century theorists, was human nature as it had originally existed. Unlike philosophers like Hobbes, though, Rousseau neither saw humans in the natural state as given simply to self-aggrandisement nor viewed human nature as fixed and unchanging. The solitary human, Rousseau, observed cannot be selfish. Selfishness can only express itself in a social setting because it only has meaning in a world in which it is possible also to be altruistic. One is selfish only if one has the opportunity to be altruistic and refuses to take it.  Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau insisted that selfishness does not exist prior to society, but emerges only through society. ‘Society must be studied in the individual and the individual in society’, he wrote. ‘Those who desire to separate politics from morals will understand neither.’

Like earlier thinkers, Rousseau believed that social life emerges as humans come to recognize the value of cooperation. The creation of society also leads, however, to the institutionalization of private property in which Rousseau finds the source of inequality, oppression, enslavement. Imagine, Rousseau wrote, ‘The first man who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him’. What crimes, wars, murders, miseries and horrors would humanity have been spared if ‘someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, and shouted to his fellow men: Beware of listening to this man’.

Yet, the claim of Rousseau’s many detractors that he wanted restore the original state of Nature, that in Voltaire’s mocking words he wanted to return to walking on all fours, is, the intellectual historian OJ Lovejoy observes, ‘one of the most persistent historical errors’.  In the state of nature, Rousseau argued, humans are essentially animals desiring only ‘food, a female and sleep’ and fearing nothing other than ‘pain and hunger’. Nevertheless, they possess dispositions for empathy and cooperation, dispositions that eventually enable social life. It is through the creation of society, of education and of law, that humans truly become human. Here is another reason why selfishness and altruism are not, for Rousseau, the opposites that Hobbes imagined. The self-realization of human individuals happens only through others. The distinction that Rousseau introduces between ‘selfishness’ and ‘self-realization’ is significant. ‘Selfishness’ conveys the idea that individual interests are expressed through the individual alone, that they would and do exist independently of society, and that social interests comprise an aggregate of individual interests. ‘Self-realization’ is the recognition that individual interests can be expressed only through society, that one only comes to realize what one’s interests are in relation to others and that while individual interests may well conflict with those of society, they cannot exist independently of them. It is a distinction that, two centuries after Rousseau, is still all little understood and all too often ignored.

Like Hobbes, Rousseau accepted that moral norms had no place in the state of nature. Before private property had created inequality, there was no need for the concepts of justice and injustice. These ideas only develop with society. As society develops, so more complex virtues evolve through the education of simpler moral feelings. Unlike Hobbes, however, Rousseau also argued that with the emergence of society develops not just morality but immorality, too.  Just as selfish and altruism are both the products of society, so too are good and bad, the moral and the immoral.

The ills born of moral depravity, the ills deriving from private property, create the desire for political institutions that emerge through a social contract between members of a society, a contract created when ‘each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.’ The general will is called the ‘state’ when it is passive, the ‘sovereign people’ when it is active. It imposes order upon society, rectifies the disorder arising from social inequality, and is the collective moral body through which individuals find freedom and self-expression. Every individual is both a citizen, insofar as he shares in the sovereign authority, and a subject who owes obedience to the laws of the state.

For Rousseau, humans find self-fulfillment, not simply through the assertion of self-interest, but in the performance of social roles. At the same time, the collective ‘general will’ is not simply a restraint on freedom but a means or forging new ones, freedom not of the isolated individual, but of the individual as part of a collective. That is the positive, progressive reading of Rousseau’s argument. There is, however, a negative, reactionary side to it, too. The will demands ‘the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community.’  What the general will is not is an expression of the democratic spirit, of what Rousseau called the aggregate ‘will of all’. Rousseau was skeptical about the merits of democracy. ‘If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves democratically’, he wrote. ‘But a government of such perfection is not suitable for human beings.’  The general will, Rousseau argued, ‘is always right and tends to be to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what the good is’. Here emerges the deeply undemocratic aspect of Rousseau’s thought, ideas that may be rightly condemned for their authoritarian, even totalitarian, spirit.  Yet, even here, the issue is not simply that of Rousseau.  The conflict between the defence of human freedom, and of self-realization, on the one hand, and the insistence that the interests of the individual must necessarily be alienated to that of the community, is a conflict that lies at the heart not just of Rousseau’s thought but also of the very conception of freedom in the modern world. Because the community is not a given, and there is no set relationship between the between individual and society, so that relationship appears continually conflictual. It was to Rousseau’s credit that, unlike previous thinkers who had simply assumed a reconciliation between the individual and the community, he attempted to think through how such a reconciliation might be achieved.

Hegel took from Rousseau’s understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective both its progressive and its reactionary aspects. The story of the Master and Slave was a way metaphorically of revealing the importance of others for the realization of an individual’s freedom and identity.  Hegel recognized that only through social institutions could others become the means by which I realize myself. But in elevating the State to the high point of history, and in regarding its creation as moral end for which the Spirit uses individuals as its instrument, Hegel took the anti-democratic threads of Rousseau’s vision and wound them into a despotic knot. Even more than Rousseau, Hegel conflated ‘society’ and the ‘state’, and in so doing legitimized the coercive powers of the state as the paradoxical means through which the individual achieved freedom.

After his death, Hegel’s followers divided themselves into Old, or Right, and Young, or Left, Hegelians. The Right Hegelians followed their master in believing that the dialectic of history had come to an end and that reason and freedom had found their greatest concrete expression in the Prussian state.  The idea that the present is the inevitable culmination of the unfolding of history has since found many proponents, the most celebrated being Francis Fukuyama and his ‘End of History’ thesis which claimed that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had triumphantly brought history to its culmination in liberal capitalism.

For those on the right, self-realization came to be seen primarily in terms of ‘my station and its duties’, as the influential English nineteenth century Hegelian FH Bradley put it in the title of a book chapter; in other words in terms of one’s social role and the duties and obligations that flow from it. ‘To know what a man is’, Bradley wrote, ‘depends on what his place is, what his function is, and that all comes from his station in the organism.’ This might appear to hark back to the Ancient Greek ideal of human flourishing as developing out of the fulfillment of one’s role in the community. Every individual, in Athens and Sparta, was seen as possessing a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties. But in Ancient Greece, the community was a given. In Bradley’s world, society was a battlefield. Revolution was in the air, and the fear of revolution could be tasted like potatoes, as Sammy Mountjoy might have said.

Bradley’s starting point was not, as it was for Homer and Plato and Aristotle, the solidity of the community but its frailness, not the certainty of seeing moral rules as ineluctably flowing from social roles, but the fragility of the modern understanding of morality and of its relationship to society. Hence Bradley’s insistence that the relationships out of which an individual’s identity emerges are not so much the informal relationships of private life or of civil society, but the institutional relationships that bind together the state and lash people to it. ‘A man’s life with its moral duties’, he wrote, ‘is in the main filled up by his station in that system of wholes which the state is, and that this, partly by its laws and institutions and still more by its spirit, gives him the life that he does live and ought to live.’ For the Hegelians of the right, self-realization was the means not by which an individual achieves freedom but by which he knows his place in the social hierarchy and that hierarchy is maintained.  It was a view that drew upon the conservative tradition that had emerged in the wake of Irish philosopher Edmund Burke.  Society, for Burke, was akin to an organism, and as in an organism, all the parts needed to operate in harmony with each other. Burke rejected the abstract conception of ‘natural rights’. On the contrary, he argued, an individual possesses only those rights and privileges which prevail in a given community and which allow that community to progress in a harmonious fashion. Status and hierarch were essential to society. Burke feared that equality would destroy the natural and time-honoured agencies through which social stability was maintained. A nation, he wrote, ‘is not an idea of only local extent and individual momentary aggregation’:

It is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is the choice, not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is the deliberate election of the ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.

History, for Burke, was not about effecting social transformation but a means of maintaining social stability, a mechanism for distilling the essence of a people. And in the place of reasoned choice, Burke offered tradition and instinct. ‘The bulk of mankind’, he argued, ‘have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt and wholesome prejudices guide them, much better than half reasoning?’

For Burke, then, morality was not about conscience and choice but about obligation and obedience. He was no Hegelian. But the Right Hegelians were profoundly Burkean in their understanding of the state and an individual’s relationship to it, and of the meaning of morality. The state, Bradley wrote, ’is not put together, but it lives’. It is not a ‘machine’ but possesses a ‘soul’. It is ‘the objective mind which is subjective and self-conscious in its citizens – it feels and knows itself in the heart of each’. ‘In the activity of obedience’, Bradley ominously insisted, the state ‘bestows individual life and satisfaction and happiness’. It is striking how many modern conservative critics of Rousseau’s ‘totalitarianism’ are drawn nonetheless to Burkean notions of tradition, hierarchy and moral obedience.

Whereas the Right Hegelians took from Hegel the importance ‘my station and its duties’, the Left, or Young, Hegelians took from him the image of history as an avenging angel, of history as having, in the words of modern conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, ‘replaced eternity as the key to our salvation’. They drew upon Hegel’s idea that the purpose and promise of history was the negation of all that restricted freedom and reason, not to defend God and nation, but to mount radical critiques first of religion, then of the Prussian political system and, finally, of capitalism itself.


  1. Gabriel Andrade

    I loathe Hegel. He may be, along with Heidegger, the most confusing and obscure writer I’ve ever read. The idea that my well-being depends on others, and that recognition is psychologically important, is fine. Plenty of experimental psychologists have confirmed this. But, Hegel’s metaphysical language is simply unnecessary. ‘Spirit’, ‘end of history’ and the like are profoundly obscurantist notions that should be confined to History of Philosophy courses, but not Philosophy courses per se: Bertrand Russell and the Vienna Circle rightly saw much nonsense in his works.
    As for Rousseau, I agree with you that he has been misread regarding his primitivism.
    Although I am no conservative in the manner of Burke, there is indeed one aspect of his work that I find appealing: the notion that grand ideological concerns should be of secondary importance, compared to immediate commonsense concerns such as prosperity and security. And, I think this is an advice we should follow in the Third World. For instance, the island of Puerto Rico this year will celebrate a plebiscite asking whether it should continue to be a colony, become the 51st American State, or be an independent country. Economically and politically, to become the 51st American State will be very advantageous to Puerto Ricans, and the independence option offers little economic advantages. But, nationalists insist that Puerto Rico was acquired as an act of colonial aggression by the USA, and ‘dignity’ requires independence. So, in other words, these nationalists prefer to have their own dignified flag at the expense of poverty. A little bit of Burkean common sense would be most welcome here.

    • It sounds like your recommended position is a consequentialist one decided by objective facts… maybe dignity is justified by their different values. It does not necessarily have to do with common sense.

      • Gabriel Andrade

        Ok, but this is precisely where the question comes up: is nationalism rational after all? Do you eat dignity, or do you eat food? I think Scottish nationalists should also think about this, in their upcoming plebiscite…

  2. Thanks. Interesting throughout. I have only read snippets of Burke and had not come across this before:

    ‘The bulk of mankind have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt and wholesome prejudices guide them, much better than half reasoning?’

    Definitely something on which he and I would disagree.

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