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The Beginning & the End of History

hoplites-fighting1,493 words

The duel to the death over honor is a remarkable phenomenon. Animals duel over dominance, which insures their access to mates. But these duels result in death only by accident, because the whole process is governed by their survival instincts, and their “egos” do not prevent them from surrendering when the fight is hopeless. The duel to the death over honor is a distinctly human thing.

Indeed, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel claims that the duel to the death over honor is the beginning of history—and the beginning of a distinctly human form of existence and self-consciousness.

Prehistoric man is dominated by nature: the natural world around him and the natural world within him, namely his desires. History, for Hegel, is something different. It is the process of (1) our discovery of those parts of our nature that transcend mere animal desire, and (2) our creation of a society in accord with our true nature.

When we fully know ourselves as more than merely natural beings and finally live accordingly, then history will be over. (History can end, because as a process of discovery and construction, it is the kind of thing that can end.) Hegel claimed that history ended with the discovery that all men are free and the creation of a society that reflects that truth.

When two men duel to the death over honor, the external struggle between them conceals an internal struggle within each of them as they confront the possibility of being ruled by two different parts of their souls: desire, which includes the desire for self-preservation, and honor, which demands recognition of our worth by others.

When our sense of honor is offended, we become angry and seek to compel the offending party to respect us. If the other party is equally offended and intransigent, the struggle can escalate to the point where life is at stake.

At this point, two kinds of human beings distinguish themselves. Those who are ruled by their honor will sacrifice their lives to preserve it. Their motto is: “Death before dishonor.” Those who are ruled by their desires are more concerned to preserve their lives than their honor. They will sacrifice their honor to preserve their lives. Their motto is: “Dishonor before death.”

Suppose two honorable men fight to the death. One will live, one will die, but both will preserve their honor. But what if the vanquished party begs to be spared at the last moment at the price of his honor? What if his desire to survive is stronger than his sense of honor? In that case, he will become the slave of the victor.

The man who prefers death to dishonor is a natural master. The man who prefers dishonor to death—life at any price—is a natural slave. The natural master defines himself in terms of a distinctly human self-consciousness, an awareness of his transcendence over animal desire, the survival “instinct,” the whole realm of biological necessity. The natural slave, by contrast, is ruled by his animal nature and experiences his sense of honor as a danger to survival. The master uses the slave’s fear of death to compel him to work.

History thus begins with the emergence of a warrior aristocracy, a two-tiered society structured in terms of the oppositions between work and leisure, necessity and luxury, nature and culture. Slaves work so that the masters can enjoy leisure. Slaves secure the necessities of life so the masters can enjoy luxuries. Slaves conquer nature so masters can create culture. In a sense the whole realm of culture is a “luxury,” since none of it is necessitated by our animal desires. But in a higher sense, it is a necessity: a necessity of our distinctly human nature to understand itself and put its stamp upon the world.

The End of History

Hegel had the fanciful notion that there is a necessary “dialectic” between master and slave that will lead eventually lead to universal freedom, that at the end of history, the distinction between master and slave can be abolished, that all men are potential masters.

Now, to his credit, Hegel was a race realist. He was also quite realistic about the tendency of bourgeois capitalism to turn all men into spiritual slaves. Thus his view of the ideal state, which regulates economic life and reinforces the institutions that elevate human character against the corrupting influences of modernity, differs little from fascism. So in the end, Hegel’s high-flown talk about universal freedom seems unworthy of him, rather like Jefferson’s rhetorical gaffe that “all men are created equal.”

The true heirs to Hegel’s universalism are Marx and his followers, who really believed that the dialectic would lead to universal freedom. Alexandre Kojève, Hegel’s greatest 20th-century Marxist interpreter, came to believe that both Communism and bourgeois capitalism/liberal democracy were paths to Hegel’s vision of universal freedom. After the collapse of communism, Kojève’s pupil Francis Fukuyama declared that bourgeois capitalism and liberal democracy would create what Kojève called the “universal homogeneous state,” the global political and economic order in which all men would be free.

But both capitalism and communism are essentially materialistic systems. Yes, they made appeals to idealism, but primarily to motivate their subjects to fight for them. But if one system triumphed over the other, that necessity would no longer exist, and desire would be fully sovereign. Materialism would triumph. (And so it would have, were it not for the rise of another global enemy that is spiritual and warlike rather than materialistic: Islam.)

Thus Kojève came to believe that the universal homogeneous state would not be a society in which all men are masters, i.e., a society in which honor rules over desire. Rather, it would be a world in which all men are slaves, a society in which desire rules over honor.

This is the world of Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” the world of C. S. Lewis’s “Men without Chests” (honor is traditionally associated with the chest, just as reason is associated with the head and desire with the belly and points below). This is the postmodern world, where emancipated desire and corrosive individualism and irony have reduced all normative cultures to commodities that can be bought and sold, used and discarded.

This is the end of the path blazed by the first wave of modern philosophers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, etc., all of whom envisioned a liberal order founded on the sovereignty of desire, in which reason is reduced to a technical-instrumental faculty and honor is checked or sublimated into economic competitiveness and the quest for material status symbols.

From this point of view, there is no significant difference between classical liberalism and left-liberalism. Both are based on the sovereignty of desire. Although left liberalism is more idealistic because it is dedicated to the impossible dream of overcoming natural inequality, whereas classical liberalism, always more vulgar, unimaginative, and morally complacent, is content with mere “bourgeois” legal equality.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a black gangster named Marsellus Wallace bribes a boxer named Butch Coolidge to throw a fight. Butch is a small-timer near the end of his career. If he was going to make it, he would have made it already. So he is looking to scrape up some retirement money by throwing a fight. Marsellus Wallace offers him a large sum of cash to lose in the fifth round. Wallace plans to bet on Butch’s opponent and clean up.

Butch accepts the deal, then Wallace dispenses a bit of advice: “Now, the night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride fuckin’ wit ya. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit. ’Cause a year from now, when you’re kickin’ it in the Caribbean, you’re gonna say, ‘Marsellus Wallace was right.’” Butch replies, “I’ve got no problem with that, Mr. Wallace.”

The great theorists of liberalism offered mankind the same deal that Marsellus Wallace offered Butch: “Fuck pride. Think of the money.” And our ancestors took the deal. As Marsellus hands Butch the cash, he pauses to ask, “Are you my nigger?” “It certainly appears so,” Butch answers, then takes the money.

In modernity, every man is the nigger, the spiritual slave, of any man with more money than him—to the precise extent that any contrary motives, such as pride or religious/intellectual enthusiasm, have been suppressed. (Marsellus, a black man, calls all of his hirelings niggers, but surely it gives him special pleasure to deem the white ones so.)

But history can never really end as long as it is possible for men to choose to place honor above money or even life itself. And that is always possible, given that we really do seem to have the ability to choose which part of our soul is sovereign.

Note

This is one of several pieces which I am transposing and adapting from various film reviews into stand-alone articles in order to encourage broader dissemination and discussion.

 

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16 Comments

  1. Achaean
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the term “race realist” is too current to use in reference to H’s time. But there is no question that H’s liberalism has been wrongly used by Fukuyama to support his view of the United States as a propositional nation. He says that for Hegel a liberal state affords its citizens universal recognition when each person (irrespective of race) is seen as free and equal. This is a form of “rational recognition” to be contrasted to earlier forms of recognition which were not universal but “irrational” in delimiting citizenship “to members of a particular national, ethnic, or racial group”.

    Fukuyama celebrates America as a universal land made by immigrants from all over the world. He says that the desire to be recognized as equal regardless of ethnicity is a natural human trait, whereas recognition based on “nationality is not a natural trait” for it limits recognition to a particular group rather than thinking of citizenship in reference to “the individual’s identity as a human being”. By “natural” he means that humans can only find ultimate satisfaction as humans when they inhabit a society which grants recognition to everyone as human beings without limitations of nationality or race. America is universal and the best expression of this longing in its willingness to grant citizenship to immigrants from any region of the world “because they are human beings”.
    (For quoted words, see The End of History and the Last Man, p. 200-202).

    Hegel was living in a very different world in which the term universal citizenship was used in reference to the inhabitants of particular liberal nations rather than potential immigrants from the world. He view the nation-state as “spirit in its substantial rationality and immediate actuality”– the expression of a people conscious of itself as distinctive and therefore as autonomous within a given territory. Fukuyama views recognition based on nationality and ethnicity as aggressive and militaristic, but for Hegel a people organized as a nation state need not think of itself as superior over other nation states; a nation-state is “rational” because it reflects the wishes of a people to co-exist within a political/territorial boundary. The state does not become rational by opening its borders to the world and granting citizenship to anyone who wishes to be “German”.

  2. rhondda
    Posted March 16, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    True, Dr. Johnson. However, in the I Ching, there is a hexagram that discusses the appropriateness of feigning madness in the court of inferior people. I always found that quite delicious. There is no point in dying because of a bunch of idiots. One has to die for the right cause and wait for the right opportunity.

  3. Disjointed
    Posted March 16, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    “Slaves work so that the masters can enjoy leisure. Slaves secure the necessities of life so the masters can enjoy luxuries.”

    This is, and must always be, inner-party knowledge. In any society the majority of people will have to work and they can NOT feel like slaves.

    That’s why populist movements tend to worship work, even when the movement’s leaders and thinkers have never worked in their lives.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 16, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      As New Rightists, we too seek to go beyond the master-slave model of society, just not in the manner of the Marxists.

      1. We recognize that this form of society is at the root of Western high culture, which we seek to honor and preserve.

      2. We also recognize that its roots are, ultimately, the conquest of one people by another, which strikes at the root of our nationalist premises.

      3. However, we also recognize that new peoples emerged from the genetic melding of conquered and conqueror, both sets of which were just cousin branches of the wider European race anyway.

      4. A new sense of peoplehood also emerged through Christianity, for the church was a larger mystical body, which subsumed the different classes, taught that they were bound together by MUTUAL moral obligations, and sought to harmonize them within a larger organic whole. The idea of an organic people, in which all hierachy serves the common good, is essential to Volkish thought, and although it has roots in Plato and Aristotle, it reached its full flower in Medieval Christian Europe. Even Nietzsche’s idea of Volkish society was explicitly modeled on Medieval Christian social thinking.

      5. Aristocatic and bourgeois prejudices against physical labor are one of the great weaknesses of aristocratic and bourgeois society, and not merely because they gave an opening for Marxism. A Traditionalist, organicist model of society sees social differentiation and hierachy, if they serve the common good, to be a natural, moral order which should be regarded with piety. Every station has its rites and dignity, its rights and duties. The NS Arbeitsdienst was a good thing, because it did much to overcome the contempt of physical labor.

      6. Eventually, though, I think that one of the aims of social policy should be the abolition of mere “work” through the promotion of mechanization. This is part of the Social Credit economic vision. There will be plenty of opportunities to sweat and bleed for the body politic even when berries are picked by robots.

      • Vick
        Posted March 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        So you’re not advocating a return to slave-based societies? If not, then how is the full sense of honor as something which differentiates humans from “human animals” brought about? Or are you advocating a return to sort of an “honor lite?”

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted March 16, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          Hegel’s duel to the death over honor is just one thought experiment that illustrates the distinction between different parts of the human soul (honor vs. desire) and the conflicts that can exist between them (choosing life over honor or honor over life). The real site of conflict is within the souls of the parties, though, and this conflict need not take such a dramatic form. We reassert our humanity every time we choose to do the honorable thing over the thing that is most convenient.

  4. Achaean
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Micronaut makes a reasonable point questioning Hegel’s view of the Romans as members of a culture of masters. He write: “The Romans were the quintessential masters in antiquity, but at times Roman groups or individuals would become captured and enslaved. All the Romans started out as slaves under the Etruscans. They didn’t necessarily fight to the death to avoid capture or conquest.”

    First, Hegel’s master/slave dialectic has to be seen as a thought experiment at the highest level of philosophical and historical condensation. He is not arguing that all Roman aristocrats, as empirically existing individuals, were masters. He is thinking through the essential reality that Rome was from its beginnings a society ruled by a class of aristocrats, but that does not preclude the fact that many Roman warriors were defeated and enslaved. However, the Romans as a people were never enslaved, and the Romans did not start out as slaves of the Etruscans, but rose up within an Italian setting in which the Etruscans were the dominant ethnic group. From the beginning, as Evola vividly writes, “Rome had personified heroes, but it also knew the imperturbability of mortal men who had no fear and no hopes concerning the afterlife, and who could not be dissuaded from a conduct inspired by duty, fides, heroism, order, and dominion” (Revolt Against Modern World, p. 270). The Etruscan did not have the clear and sober ethos of the Romans; they were not part of what Evola calls “the Heroic-Uranian Western cycle”. There were, of course, elements of Uranian masculine deities among the Etruscans, but “Etruscan Uraniasnism betrayed the spirit of the South in the same fatalistic and naturalistic way as in the case of the Pelagistic view…” (268).

    The Romans were Indo-Europeans, and from the beginning the “ideal of conquering virility was embodied in Rome…manifested in the notions of auctoritas and imperium” (269). And, I would add, manifested in the aristocratic institutions of Rome, and their determination never to be ruled by an autocratic King. “All the phases of Rome’s development represented conquests of the victorious Indo-European spirit…” (271).

    It is no argument against Hegel to find instances of Romans who gave in to the fear of death; the point that matters is the Roman spirit itself. I just read Evola’s Revolt yesterday for class preparation, and it seems to me that much will be cleared up about his thinking on traditionalism if we interpreted his admiration for traditional societies as admiration for Indo-European derived cultures, and more than anything for European *aristocratic* ones with their “three principles of personality, freedom, and faithfulness” (294).

  5. MrDislaw
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Greg, you are the most erudite writer working today and I always pay close attention to your words. This is a high toned essay (perhaps with the exception of the Tarantino digression) but you never really define “honor” either in history or its meaning in our present culture. You seem to imply some Downton Abbey-like civilized superiority to men of honor as if honor was a timeless virtue. But what about this? “Man, you dissed me…I’m gonna put put a cap in yo ass.” Does this depict a society in accord with true virtue?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      A man’s honor is his idea of his worth. When that idea is affirmed, he feels pride. When it is denied, he feels anger. Sometimes, that anger leads him to fight, putting his life at risk to protect or prove his honor.

      Even though we are tempted to think of black gang-bangers as mere animals, their concern with respect and disrespect and their willigness to kill and die over honor is actually distinctly human. What these people lack is not humanity, but taste and intelligence. They act impulsively, and they seem to put little value in their lives or the lives of others. (One reason that blacks and whites cannot live in the same society is that black lives are less valuable to blacks themselves. They literally have less to lose, in their own minds. That gives them certain advantages.) They are also cowardly and petty, which leads to cruelty.

      It would be interesting to do a racial taxonomy of different styles of honor.

  6. Achaean
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    This essay brings out clearly a topic which can easily result in much confusion. I see Hegel’s dialectic on the master/slave dialectic as incomplete in the way it portrays the aristocrat *after* he wins the fight to the death over the combatant who gives in to the fear of death. The aristocrat is portrayed as someone who can find no true recognition from the defeated and inferior slave. The focus of Hegel’s dialectic then moves to the slave who is seen as the one who finds meaning in his work, developing into a confident bourgeois who eventually overcomes his fear of death and carries out a revolution against the aristocratic order. But in true aristocratic societies — and only IndoEuropean-derived civilizations have been aristocratic — the warriors can find recognition in competition with other warrior cultures and in competition with men of the same status.

    So, while Greg Johnson gets it right that, for Hegel, “history thus begins with the emergence of a warrior aristocracy, a two-tiered society structured in terms of the oppositions between work and leisure, necessity and luxury, nature and culture,” I would argue, in a Nietzschean re-interpretation of this dialectic, that history begins not after the aristocracy subsumes the other and the other engages in work, but already within the aristocratic order itself, that is, already in the decision to fight to the death for the sake of prestige we are witnessing a culture in which the men at the top are free and able to compete with each other for honor and glory.

    The idea that history begins only after the other has been enslaved, in a relation in which the aristocrat finds himself unsatisfied in the face of a slave who cannot really validate his existence, is a Marxist idea which took over the academic world, leading countless scholars to view aristocrats as parasitic beings incapable of making history. But it stands to reason — and it can be historically demonstrated through the study of Indo-European societies, that in a society in which aristocrats are free to seek honor, they have the opportunity to struggle for recognition from their own peers, without needing to seek this recognition from slaves-to-be-bourgeois men.

    Aristocrats in Mycenaean times, as depicted in the Homeric epics, fought for glorious deeds, and their feats found expression in works that we now view as the earliest literary voices of Western civilization. By organizing themselves within cities and overcoming their divisive tribal impulses, as expressed in Aeschylus’ plays, with Athena representing the reconciliation of opposing factions and the framing of blood feuds within the laws of the Polis, barbarian aristocrats were able to create the cultural “miracle” of classical Greece.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      I agree completely with this. Hegel’s idea that aristocratic society is doomed to failure because of a dependence on the slave for recognition is false. The masters can satisy their need for recognition mutually, and indeed the testimony to this is all of Western history and high culture, in which slaves qua slaves contributed no more than dogs and horses and other beasts of burden.

      I think that Plato’s account in the Republic of the decline of aristocracy into oligarchy is far more plausible: aristocracy declines into oligarchy because aristocratic ethics emphasizes generosity and expenditure, whereas oligarchical ethics emphasize stinginess and investment. If the oligarchical type arises within an aristocratic culture, it rapidly gains power through moneylending. Oligarchs also marry their daughters and sons into aristocratic families that are willing to trade prestige for money. (Trading prestige for money is the precise inversion of the aristocratic principle of expenditure of wealth and even life itself in pursuit of honor.) When this dynamic is afoot, given enough time, power eventually will come to rest in the hands of the oligarchs.

  7. Micronaut
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps I’m not understanding correctly, but it seems that Hegel’ s premise is flawed. Master and slave are relative distinctions of opportunity. The Romans were the quintessential masters in antiquity, but at times Roman groups or individuals would become captured and enslaved. All the Romans started out as slaves under the Etruscans. They didn’t necessarily fight to the death to avoid capture or conquest. Maybe Hegel has been right about certain fanatical splinter cultures, such as Sparta “come back with thy shield or upon it.” or feudal Japan, but not for the vast mainstream of humanity.

    I’m loving your commentary on Pulp Fiction, btw.

    • Micronaut
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Even Valerian, the Roman emperor captured by the Persians, submitted to slavery. The Persian king used him as a stool when mounting his war horse in heavy armor! So much for the master mentality. I don’t know what kind of dialectic they shared about the matter.

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted March 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        In terms of honor suicides, Romans were the Japanese of the ancient world. They had no compunction about enslaving others because, they reasoned, they could always commit suicide. “Easy for them to say,” one might reply. But the Romans masters actually practiced what they preached when they were dishonored and saw no way to salvage their honor. As for Valerian, it turned out that when he faced the test, he proved to be a natural slave. The Persian emperor, however, showed a great deal of pettiness or pusilanimity and “Oriental” cruelty in his treatment of Valerian. The Persians were once an Aryan people, but even under their first Empire, they shocked the Greeks with their “oriental” cruelty. Of course, the Greeks and the Romans themselves ended up adopting these vices, so it is easy to see how the Aryan Persians did as well.

  8. me
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Speaking of duels in film, I’m reminded of movies such as Rob Roy, Gladiator, The Duellists, Troy, etc. They all involve swords.

  9. Spectator
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I find it remarkably exhilarating that competent discussion of Hegel can be found here at Counter-Currents. Thanks Greg for providing these pieces.

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