Bondsmen and slaves: servile histories in Hegel and Nietzsche

Recent readings of what is commonly known as the dialectic of master and slave have tended to focus either philosophically on concepts such as desire, reflection, and recognition or historically on the specific nature of the economic relation it evokes. In this paper I challenge that division of proper objects, arguing that Hegel's dialectic and its reception raises the question how the nature of servitude (whether that of a bondsman or that of a slave) structures not only the emergence of historical agency but also the relationship between history and philosophy. The importance of reflection in Hegel's treatment of the dialectic of lord and bondsman is both clearly stated and structural. Alexandre Kojève's reading of this dialectic makes explicit that human history originates in it, but, unlike Hegel, Kojève does not emphasize the product of the slave's labor. Judith Butler's reading of the dialectic in Hegel and Kojève locates the difference between Hegel's bondsman and Kojève's slave within the structure of servitude itself as a Foucauldian opposition between “body” and “life.” In On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche differentiates between two varieties of servile work on the basis not of what is produced but instead to whom service is rendered, announcing what turns out to be a problematic familiar from both the Old and New Testaments: the impossibility of service to two masters. In a typically perspectival turn, Nietzsche shows that servitude is a condition of possibility not only of human history but also of its academic study. Self-conscious historians must thus take into account not only the dependence of their object of study upon relations of servitude but also their own place within such relations.