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"The principles and dynamics of the master-slave relation . . .

can be used to study the marriage relation, the relation between teacher and pupil parent and child, employer and employees, pastor and parishioners, counselor and client, and also the relation between Jesus and his disciples, between Jesus and his Father, and between God and us. "



HE RELATION of dominance and subservience among humans raises a perplexing question. How can anyone be free when someone else is in authority? Is it possible to be one's own person when another person stands above and over us? Can a child mature if parents constantly make demands of obedience? Will students learn personal identity if teachers assign prescribed requirements? Can a checker at the supermarket be somebody if the manager is supervising everything and everyone? At the core of the Christian life is the fact that Christians have a Lord, someone to whom they belong and to whom they are obedient. How can we be free if we have a master? How can a person be free if there is someone to obey? Sartre claimed that the two notions contradict each other. To be a human being is to be free, to be responsible, to be autonomous. So the very idea of God reduces us to slaves and is essentially antihuman. We do not need to endorse Sartre's claim to recognize the resentment we would feel at having a boss, a ruler, or anyone else telling us what to do all the time. How would that be human fulfillment? How could that be self-fulfillment? How could that be happiness? The Christian gospel claims that the spiritual life is to be one of fullness of life and blessedness. How can that develop from a relationship to one who has unquestionable authority over us, especially if we think that blessedness includes a significant degree of self-direction? So the spiritual life has at its center the question, "How can we be free, when we are ruled by a master?"

Diogenes Allen is Professor of Philosophy at Princeion Theological Seminary. He is the author of Leibniz' Theodicy (1966), The Reasonableness of Faith (1968), Finding Our Father (1975), and between two worlds (1977). A graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities, he has also taught at York University, Toronto.


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I will deal with this question by starting with Hegel's analysis of the relationship between master and slave in his Phenomenology, in which he exhibits the principles that govern that relationship. After we have described these principles, we will see if they are present in Christianity. We will do this by looking at the Gospel accounts of Jesus to see if he is portrayed as the kind of master we find in the Phenomenology. Does he destroy the disciples' freedom or not? We will then apply our findings to the question of our subordination to God.

Let us start with the bare structure of the relation between a master and a slave in Hegel. Here a person regards another as a subordinate. Not only are they not on the same plane, but they are not the same type of entity. One is a subject; the other is literally an object. The slave is to fulfill the master's will; so the slave is like an extension of the master's body, which moves and acts at his whim and command. Hegel is concerned to characterize the self-consciousness that is operating in the master-slave relationship. To appreciate this we need to look at the plan of his book. He operates with the idea that consciousness exists and develops in stages, containing various layers and contradictions. His Phenomenology is a sort of biography of the growth of a mind or consciousness, similar to a Bildungsroman, a genre of novel concerned with the educative development of the main character. The master-slave is but one small section describing the development of consciousness. Hegel begins at the level of sense-experience, where there is a subject aware of objects. There is a dualism of knower and known. They are alien or opposed to one another. This opposition is overcome when consciousness comes to the insight that the object is not completely separate from the subject, but has an affinity to the perceiver; for when the object is perceived, it is now the perceiver's object. It is not just "object," but "his object." So dualism is overcome by duality, a duality of (a) a subject and (b) the object of a subject's perception. The object is known or incorporated into oneself as one's object. Hegel then notes a dualism within the self. Not only are we a subject aware of external objects, but we as a self are both subject and object; for we make ourselves the object of our own consciousness. So we have self as subject; self as object; and this dualism is overcome by a kind of identity of subject and object whereby what I am is a self, aware of an object that is myself. The object is me as my object. We have a kind of identity in which there is a duality. We have a single subject-object that awareness or consciousness exists. Now we come to the master-slave relation. This is a stage where we have more than one person. We have a self that is both a subject-object who is in relation to another self that is a subject-object. Hegel claims that for one to become aware and conscious of oneself to a new degree,

The Paradox of Freedom and Authority

to have recognition of one's reality as a subject at a higher level than (a) the perceiver of objects and (b) the perceiver of oneself as a subjectobject, one must have something else respond to one's reality. And one's reality must be recognized in a specific way. It is to have something else respond to one's will, to do what one commands. In this way a person comes to a higher level of self-recognition or self-realization. Now a person can do that vis--vis nature; a person can seek to command nature. But a person can do this also in relation to other people, because other people are indeed objects. Unlike nature, however, they have a duality of being swo/ec-objects. So a person can get a different kind of response from people. When a person subordinates another as an object of their will, they get a recognition from another of their subjectivity because the other is an entity capable of recognizing a person. This allows a person to come to consciousness of being a self in a new way. This introduces a situation of conflict because each can have their unique self recognized and hence realized only if their will is obeyed. Each can come to self-realization only at the expense of the other.

One resolution of the conflict is the master-slave relationship. One person dominates and dominates the other completely. From the point of view of one of the persons, this is the optimum resolution; for that person's will is obeyed and hence their self is recognized and realized. The more a person can subordinate others to their will, the more the uniqueness of their self is asserted. One enhances one's self-consciousness as a subject the more one can render the other as object of one's will. But the master-slave resolution is an unstable one. The very existence of another subject merely as a subject threatens one's own subjectivity, one's uniqueness. So one must seek to efface the other as a subject. One way to do this is by making the product of their work or effort one's own possession. That denies their subjectivity, denies their essential likeness to oneself. It overcomes their otherness. The other is made mine because the other's labor is at my command and the product ofthat labor is my possession. So the master presses dominance for all it is worth, asking to be glorified and paid homage in order to cancel out the otherness of anything else, and thereby to preserve absolute independence. The master maintains independence or freedom by placing others in subordination. But there is an irony in the situation. Masters cannot be truly independent or free. To assert independence, mastery, they must have something that is not themselves. They must have something to pay them deference, something to subordinate. They have status as masters only as long as they have slaves. Thus they do not have perfect independence. The very idea of independence implies its opposite, dependence, and includes it. In addition, the very need of the masters to

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be recognized and in that recognition to come to realization as a specific kind of subject implies the existence of other subjects. The existence of other subjects, however, gives lie to their uniqueness as the only one of their kind. The very uniqueness of consciousness realized in masterhood is dependent on a condition which contradicts its truth and thus makes the master-slave relation an unstable one. Masters try to keep this truth hidden, to suppress it, by making their control more and more arbitrary, so there is no recourse beyond their will as to how they treat slaves. The more arbitrary their control, the stronger the slave's dependence, and hence the greater the master's sense of independence. But clearly it is self-defeating; for this consciousness of independence requires the existence of something to subordinate and something that can recognize the master's dominance.

The slave's dependence is not one-sided either; it also contains its opposite, independence. Slaves by their work become more aware of their own reality. They produce the goods they are ordered to, but they thereby develop skills. They become aware that the masters depend on their work. Masters lack their skill and hence rely on theirs for the products of life. Each now must think of self in a contradictory way. Each has some power over the other and each is dependent on the other. But there is this difference. Slaves are in constant fear and danger of masters who have power of life and death over them. But they have a growing confidence because masters depend on their work, and a growing sense of their worth because of their skill. Masters grow in anxiety. They need slaves and grow to need their labor more and more. When slaves become conscious of the difference between their dependent self and their independent self, between what is subordinate and what is free, the master-slave relationship is psychologically broken. This happens when slaves find an area masters cannot controlthoughts. They have become aware that their thoughts are their own. Slaves become Stoics. Although their thoughts are theirs, so that they experience independence or freedom, yet the external world denies their independence, since they are legally slaves. So they become Stoics, that is, they deny the external world's significance. Stoics cut the self off from the external world by an indifference toward it. The Stoic is in a kind of master role. Independence or freedom from the external is asserted, but in practice the Stoic is bounded or limited. This stance is thus also an unstable one; for it contains the untruth that the Stoic is independent and in no way dependent. So the Stoic progresses to the Skeptic. The Skeptic doubts all or at any rate can doubt all, thereby exhibiting a kind of mastery over all things. Such then are the principles and dynamics of the master-slave relation. They have significance, however, far beyond that one relationship. They can be used to study the marriage relation, the relation

The Paradox of Freedom and Authority

between teacher and pupil, parent and child, employer and employees, pastor and parishioners, counselor and client, and also the relation between Jesus and his disciples, between Jesus and his Father, and between God and us. That is to say, wherever you have a relation of dominance and subordination, you have a place to explore in order to see if Hegel's principles are operating or not. I mention this only to show that the topic I will exploreour subordination to Godis not an isolated one, but is only one of many in which there is subordination and dominance. Before we do this we must give some attention to the attitudes present in the master-slave relation. We have already mentioned the growing confidence of slaves despite their fears, and the growing anxiety of masters. But there are some other attitudes as well, and they differ greatly from those found in the relation between Jesus and his disciples. For example, masters have contempt for slaves because by becoming subservient to them, slaves are debased and so are odious. Slaves are debased and odious because they really are persons, subjects, like masters. Were slaves not persons, there would be no contempt. Why be contemptuous of a river that yields to a dam? We do not hold dogs in contempt because they obey us. To call a person a "dog" suggests that we have contempt for such obedience when it is exhibited by a person. But the master's very contempt is an implicit recognition that the slave is a person, and that the relation is an improper one. The relationship is also marked by resentment. Masters resent slaves because they need them to have the status of master and they cannot fully and completely absorb their reality as subjects other than themselves. Slaves resent masters because they must obey them. Finally there is envy or secret admiration. Slaves wish they had power like masters. They envy what masters can do and want to do it too.


It is clear in the accounts of the Gospels that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples, though one of dominance and subordination, is very different from the one Hegel describes. Jesus does not gain or hold subordinates by force. He calls disciples, so that there is an element of choice on their part in becoming subordinate to him. He seeks to confer benefits on them by teaching them. He even performs an act of a servant when he washes their feet. We perceive no resentment, contempt, or vain desire for personal glory in his treatment of his disciples. Why is this so? What enables him to be a different kind of Lord? Let us approach this by looking at a relationship many of us live with all the time: that of teacher to students. In this relationship some of us are in the role of a superior. Within certain limits, we tell our students what to do. What keeps this relationship from being that of a master to slaves? How can we be "the boss" and the students not feel or be


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degraded, or feel resentful? How can we operate on the basis of being boss and not feel contempt for students as underlings? The relation of superior-subordinate is justified if there are genuine grounds for one to be dominant and the other to be subordinate. If there is some basis besides force for the teacher to command, to lead, and for the student to follow, then there is no violation of personality. In teaching, one ground of justification is that a teacher knows something the student does not know. The teacher has some skills, some means of getting answers, and some experience, which the student lacks. The relation is thus based on a difference. But this is not enough to justify the relation of superior and subordinate. The goal of the teacher must be to enable the student to become independent of the teacher. The student must eventually be able to learn without the teacher. Many of us teach in such a way that the student is dependent on lecture notes, and never learns the principles and skills of a field. Some teachers not only fail to do these things, but perhaps some even take a secret delight in their students' remaining dependent, remaining essentially inferior to themselves, forever. Each type of relationship differs. Doctor-patient, lawyer-client, pastor-congregation, parent-child. Each needs to be looked at in terms of its own particularity. One cannot simply transfer what is true of the teacher-student relation to the others, or vice versa. There may be similarities; there may be great differences. I only want to make one point with the teacher-student example: for a relationship of superior and subordinate to be different from Hegel's master-slave, there must be some genuine basis for the two roles. The roles cannot rest on the refusal to recognize the reality of the other as a subject or person, or on the denial and an essential likeness between both parties, as in the case of a master to a slave. The basis will vary from case to case, but without some genuine basis, we have exploitation.

Now what is the basis of Jesus' Lordship? On what does it rest, so that he can indeed be the Lord of Christians, can command us, lead us, have us depend on him, without this being destructive of our personality? What makes him a different kind of Lord than Hegel's master? The foundation of his relationship to his disciples and to us is that he does not need us. This may sound harsh and false at first, but it is really the basis of his ability to serve us and elevate us. He does not need us in the following sense: Jesus is a lord because of who he is, not because he has followers. He is Lord by his own inherent reality. He is Lord in the Gospel accounts because he is the Son of God. It is not relative to us that he is Lord. Hegel's masters are masters only if they have slaves. Their status depends on having subordinates. They cannot afford to serve them, for then they cease to be masters. They cannot afford to have them come to any sense of fullness, for any degree of independence threatens the master's status.

The Paradox of Freedom and Authority

But Jesus is the Son of the Father whether we like it or not. Jesus is the Lord from on high in flesh among us. His position, his status, his authority does not spring from anything human. It does not depend on our acknowledgment. He is Lordessentially Lordeven without a single disciple. Precisely because he does not need us, precisely because his status does not rest on us, he can serve us. He can wash his disciples' feet, and not thereby cease to be Lord. He can free people of demons and from other ailments, and this improvement in their condition does not threaten his status. He can be free to let people choose voluntarily to respond to his call to follow him; for whether they reject or accept him, he is still Lord. He can even be slain for us, bearing the awful catastrophe of human evil, without ceasing to be Lord. Precisely because he differs from us in kind, his lordship does not need to subordinate our reality, to absorb it in order to exist; but he is free to enhance us. Precisely because Hegel's masters do not really differ in kind from their slaves, since both are subject-objects, their lordship is destructive. Hegel's masters must deny the personality of their slaves. They must seek to absorb their reality by making them an extension of the master's will: "Do this, do that. Give me the product of your labor. Praise me, honor me." Masters do this for their own sakein order to be & lord, in order to have the status of a master. How different orders and commands are when they are from a Lord that does not seek to deny our personality, but to enhance it. By his commands and authority Jesus does not seek to absorb or deny our personality, but to free it. He seeks to free us of the need to have our personality established by domination over others. He seeks to free us of the need to have recognition at the expense of others. The basis of our freedom is that he gives us our status as people destined for a heavenly kingdom. That is who we are; that is what we are: creatures designed for an eternal happiness. That status is conferred on us. It is not a gift of this world; for it cannot be grasped by an employment of all our talent, ingenuity, strength, or wit. It cannot be attained by gaining prestige, power, or status over others. We therefore do not have to compete with each other in order to become ourselves; for what we are to become is not to be gained in the realm of earthly dominance, founded on the standards of earthly success. We can be free precisely because he is free. His lordship is not based on anything earthly. So he can serve us. It is by our following him that we can enter the kingdom in which we find our eternal happiness.


The kingdom of God is a life of communion. But a life that denies the independence of others is a solipsistic one. It seeks to absorb all reality into itself by making others an extension of its will. It does not recognize another's independence, and hence cannot seek communion. Commu-


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nion is a situation which requires each member to recognize the other as having a degree of independence. Such a necessary condition for community is contradicted by a personality whose status is possible only by the denial of the independence of others. Jesus can seek to enter into communion with us since he is not seeking to absorb us, not to stand over us for his own enhancement. He can attend to us for our own sakes, and not for the attainment of status. So our independent reality can be recognized. Likewise his Father can give us as our identity the destiny to live in communion with him forever because his status does not depend on us either; he too can recognize our independence and elevate us without injury to himself. Such recognition or attention to our reality Simone Weil calls love; indeed, it is perfect love. We seldom experience it because we are so heavily engaged in seeking to establish ourselves. This results in a type of solipsistic consciousness in which all realities are seen as though they were in orbit around oneself and lack the same kind of independence. But the Christian gospel seeks to free us of this by proclaiming that our identity or status is a gift from God and not attainable by any form of solipsistic dominance. Such a gospel has its foundation in one who is superior to us, and precisely because his superiority does not require him to absorb our reality, he can enhance us and indeed enhance us by entering into communion with us. Communion is fulfilling because it allows us to enjoy the goodness that is present in other realitiesdivine, human, and non-human. It also is fulfilling because it means that our own independent reality is recognized and respected by others. Thus we see that superiority or dominance which has a genuine basis is not destructive to our personality. It is a necessary condition to the possibility of liberating us from the need to dominate at others' expense with the intention of enhancing ourselves.

So far I have described only one kind of obedience to God. But there is another. My claim is that all creation obeys God, either as children who are heirs of the kingdom in which communion is present, or as slaves. I can here only suggest that all things fall into one or the other category; for the theme is too large to complete. But the intent is to suggest that the options are not: obedience to God/or self-determination, as Sartre and some other secularists think. God and people are not equal. God is creator and we are creatures. How can we be related so that God remains God, sovereign Lord, who sets the conditions of life, and yet so that we find a fullness of life, a fullness which requires that we have a significant degree of freedom? If God effects authority over us as over nature, then our freedom is nonexistent. Whatever benefits we might receive, we would do so at the price of the suppression of ourselves as subjects. As we have seen, in Jesus Christ our freedom is respected because we are elevated into

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community. Community entails a mutual recognition of each other's reality. Such a recognition involves a voluntary consent on our own part to the limitation of our own personality for the sake of the independent existence of others. One type of obedience to God is to allow one's solipsism to be broken, and to consent to one's limitation, and thereby to enjoy other realities, human and divine. But to fail to limit oneself (and thereby to find fullness as a person in communion) is not to have escaped God's authority. For we are exposed to the very dynamics Hegel describes, the dynamics that lead to domination or subordination between rival creatures. Whether we be dominant or subordinate, we are slaves to the need to establish ourselves, and we live in defiance of the fact that we are actually but one reality among many. We become slaves to the dynamics that operate in such a situation. There are other forms of obedience as slaves. Kierkegaard describes one of them in his analysis of the aesthetic personality. The aesthete's life is dominated by the desire for thrills, excitement, and the extraordinary. Such a life has boredom built into it, which can be kept at bay only by a constant search for novelty and variety. Luther describes still another slavery that goes with some forms of legalistic ethical living. The position I am suggesting needs far more discussion to be established beyond these brief allusions. But I hope that the position is at any rate clear. It is that God seeks to do us good by calling us into communion. We either obey willingly as people whose subjectivity is respected and enhanced by voluntary self-limitation, or we obey as does nature, by necessity. For to fail to obey willingly is not actually to be self-determining in any sense that leads to fullness of life. It is merely to determine whether we will be engaged in the vain pursuit for dominance; or suffer the boredom that goes with a thoughtless life or suffer the various ills that infect the self-righteous ethical life; or the like. Each of these is to obey God; for God establishes the order in which we all livethe order partially disclosed in the New Testament and in the above examples of slavery. We either obey as people or as one of the many kinds of slaves there are. God has the authority to establish order. As people, we have the ability either to consent that good be done to us, or mechanically to seek our welfare by ourselves. It is a painful order precisely because our elevation into community with each other and God requires our consent. Solipsism, thoughtless aestheticism, ethical self-sufficiency are all perversions of the divine goal, which is our elevation. But they are part of the divine order, so that nothing fails to obey God.

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