Misadventures in the dialectic

Or, a nasty thing happened on the way to the forum

Originally published at:https://theelectricagora.com/2016/11/04/misadventures-in-the-dialectic-or-a-nasty-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum/

Thus precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some outsider’s mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware, through this re-discovery of himself by himself, of having and being a ‘mind of his own. [1]

When Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, makes an abrupt transition from epistemology per se (how we know about anything at all) into an historicized social epistemology (how knowledge is socially and historically conditioned), he begins at an odd point in history, with an analysis of the relationship between lords and bondsmen; or, as it is better known, the Master-Slave dialectic.  What the Master learns in this dialectic is that he not only commands things, but does so through the mediation of commanding his slaves.  It is the Slave, however, who turns out to be the real protagonist in this narrative – what he learns is the necessity of living for others, and through that, his own independence from “things”; that is, from the material.

In a series of important lectures in the 1930’s, the Master-Slave Dialectic received an interpretation by the Russian emigre to France, Alexandre Kojeve, which had enormous impact on French intellectual history, especially on Existentialist thinkers like Sartre, as well as on the development of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  [2]  Although written more than ten years after Kojeve’s lectures, Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951), a text widely popular among those who have never even heard of Kojeve, is in fact a response to Kojeve.

Within Existentialism itself (and in French philosophy generally), an ongoing debate over the Marxist implications of Kojeve’s lectures emerged.  Indeed, the Marxian narrative of the historical development of a Materialist Dialectic arriving at Modern capitalism (in preparation of a future communism),  depends on the Master-Slave Dialectic, because it assumes that the economy of the Roman Empire was principally a “slave economy” [3]; that is, slaves provided the primary means of production, as well as the central market (in the exchange of slaves) and the essential social structure, of the empire – there were slave owners, there were slaves, and there were cast-off slaves who, scrounging for work where they could find it, formed a nascent proletariat.

A reasonable interpretation of the Phenomenology (given Hegel’s own historical interests and biases) suggests that Hegel’s writing here arose as a meditation on the introduction of Christianity into the culture of Rome [4].  When Hegel wrote this, scholars believed – as they did until quite recently – that Christianity spread through the Empire by appealing to the poor; i.e., to slaves and former slaves [5].  Recent scholarship, however, has proven this untrue, and it appears that Christianity’s greatest appeal in Rome was to the middle classes – businessmen, lawyers, tradesmen [6].  (Only a middle class could afford the charitable social work that Christians engaged in.)  This does not really threaten Hegel (who, after all, is talking about ideas, and in a most general way), but it doomed Marxist historiography.

Evidence has been piling up that the economy of the Roman Empire was not primarily a slave economy, but a sophisticated capitalist one, based on international trade [7].  Even without the accumulating evidence, one realizes that it couldn’t have been otherwise.  The Roman Empire not only conducted trade with client states in the Mediterranean, but with co-existing empires over which they had no direct control, including those in India and China, as well as with cultures in Africa, which they had no desire to control.  Such trade could not be centered around a market for slaves – beyond precious metals or mere commodity exchange, there had to be negotiable systems of exchange of wealth with symbolic representation of equivalent value, namely money.  And where there is money, there is capitalism [8].

However, it is with some degree of irony that we can see that long before the archaeological evidence was unearthed and pieced together showing that Rome was in fact a capitalist society, there actually existed documentary evidence of this (since Nero), which has been available to literati since the 17th century.   I don’t mean accounting records, some Roman economist’s commentary or remarks made by some court historian.  I’m referring to a work of prose fiction; indeed, one of the funniest, most incisive, and, surprisingly, most realistic texts ever written:  The Satyricon, attributed to Petronius Arbiter [9].

We don’t really know who wrote Satyricon.  We don’t even know the original shape of it.  All we have are fragments, preserved in monastic libraries, until the 17th century, when secular book collectors got their hands on it thanks to Protestant looting of those libraries [10].   Some evidence suggests that the fragments are mere slivers from a much longer work, but internal evidence from the text itself shows a remarkable thematic consistency, suggesting that the fragments we do have at least form a narrative sequence within any larger whole. [11]

Satyricon is a wild ride through the underbelly of Roman society of its time.  The narrative is what later would be called a picaresque, a disjointed series of adventures of social outcasts, whose main interests in life are sex (primarily homoerotic) and food and finding some way to acquire the capital with which to procure them.   The narrator and protagonist of the story, Encolpius, has just dropped out of the Roman equivalent of an undergraduate course in literature, in order to compete with a former lover (Ascyltus) for the affections of a young boy, Giton. [12]  Being an educated lowlife, Encolpius isn’t interested in finding suitable employment, but instead tries attaching himself to well-to-do patrons.  This leads to bizarre sexual experiences, meetings with failed poets, tasteless feasts put on by Roman tradesmen, fake religious rites (always good for initiating orgies), and capture by pirates at sea.  As the fragments close, the story doesn’t appear to be going well, as Eumolpus, an aging poet and tutor to whom Encolpius has attached himself, fails to realize an inheritance, which effectively condemns him to death among those who had been supporting him.

The most famous sequence of the narrative is Encolpius’ attendance at a banquet thrown by a successful tradesman, Trimalchio.  The sequence is a fairly complete, unified set-piece.  We first find Trimalchio at a recreation center, playing ball.  When he has to urinate, a slave rushes up with a bucket so that Trimalchio can relieve himself while still playing.  Meanwhile, another slave counts the balls that Trimalchio recurrently loses in play (to recover later), so that his master can toss out a new ball with every flub, as if he hadn’t lost any.   The tone is thus set for one of the most outrageous displays of conspicuous consumption – and conspicuous waste – in the history of Western literature.

At length some slaves came in who spread upon the couches some coverlets upon which were embroidered nets and hunters stalking their game with boar-spears, and all the paraphernalia of the chase.  We knew not what to look for next, until a hideous uproar commenced, just outside the dining-room door, and some Spartan hounds commenced to run around the table all of a sudden.  A tray followed them, upon which was served a wild boar of immense size, wearing a liberty cap upon its head, and from its tusks hung two little baskets of woven palm fibre, one of which contained Syrian dates, the other, Theban.  Around it hung little suckling pigs made from pastry, signifying that this was a brood-sow with her pigs at suck.  It turned out that these were souvenirs intended to be taken home.  When it came to carving the boar, our old friend Carver, who had carved the capons, did not appear, but in his place a great bearded giant, with bands around his legs, and wearing a short hunting cape in which a design was woven.  Drawing his hunting-knife, he plunged it fiercely into the boar’s side, and some thrushes flew out of the gash.  Fowlers, ready with their rods, caught them in a moment, as they fluttered around the room and Trimalchio ordered one to each guest, remarking, “Notice what fine acorns this forest-bred boar fed on,” and as he spoke, some slaves removed the little baskets from the tusks and divided the Syrian and Theban dates equally among the diners. [13]

This would seem to support Marxian analysis of the culture of a slave-based economy; but there’s a problem with this.  Trimalchio’s biography has to be pieced together from his own remarks, those of his guests, as well as portraiture found on the walls of the hall leading to the banquet room.   But it amounts to this:  Trimalchio had been born a slave to a wealthy merchant.  He had proven so good at his chores that he rose to the position of steward of the estate of the merchant, who provided him with an allowance.  This he saved and invested until he could buy his freedom and position himself as inheritor of the merchant’s business [14].  Trimalchio has since spent his life acquiring greater wealth and rubbing it in the noses of failed businessmen whom he turns into his personal court of sycophants.

The banquet seems to be winding down, probably intended to end at dawn [15] (like Plato’s Symposium, which it somewhat parodies), when Trimalchio (always one to sing his own praises) reveals the intended epitaph on his tomb:

Here Rests G Pompeius Trimalchio

Freedman Of Maecenas

Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence

He Could Have Been A Member Of

 Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not

Conscientious Brave Loyal

He Grew Rich From Little And Left

Thirty Million Sesterces Behind

He Never Heard A Philosopher

 Farewell Trimalchio

 Farewell Passerby [16]

Well, that’s his story, and he’s sticking with it, even after death: a dash of truth in a swill of self-admiration.

After a violent argument with his wife (formerly a prostitute) over his bisexual promiscuity, Trimalchio then returns to this theme, by effectively staging his own funeral; whereat he eulogizes himself in the crudest manner possible, boasting of his use of sex, investments, and shady business practices to build a financial empire.  “So your humble servant, who was a frog, is now a king.”  [17]

So much for the slave coming to self-consciousness by realizing the importance of working for others!

The Satyricon is the rotten apple in the bushel, not only of literary history, but of the literature of history.  Besides being unabashedly pornographic, unrepentantly cynical in the nastiest way, and thoroughly disrespectful of social manners while dismissive of any aspiration toward decency and good fellowship, the Satyricon paints an unnervingly realistic portrait of the people of ancient Rome and of their social environment.   It’s not a pretty picture, and it fails to conform to any of the expectations into which we have been long indoctrinated, by traditional historical narratives or the works of art that disseminated these.  Rome was not just monumental architecture and statues in the forum.  It was an ugly, over-populated metropolis, with tenement slums, a criminal underworld, thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices.  Alcoholism and drug abuse were rampant, and the working classes found their greatest distraction in public displays of cruelty, in the arena.   But more importantly, the people, as we find them in the Satyricon, are completely like ourselves.  We’ve met these people, we see them all around us.  Donald Trump is just a variant Trimalchio.  And who hasn’t encountered a pedantic professor pummeling students with bloated jargon that even he doesn’t understand?   I myself knew someone rather like a straight Encolpius in college; a bright mathematics student, he went through seven different sexual relationships in one semester (his general attitude toward women was best expressed in his parody of a classic song: “nothing could be finah than to wake in some vagina in the mo-o-orning…”).  There was never a day I met him when he wasn’t drunk or hung-over.

Moral improvement, political progress, aspirations toward a greater enlightenment and a brighter future; fables we tell ourselves to bring order to our lives and provide our children with hope.  To all such pretense the Satyricon raises a middle finger (as occasionally do its characters in the text).

What has really changed in human nature since Petronius?  We claim to know more about the world, but apparently we still do not know ourselves.  For two thousand years, Europe was able to mask this lack of self-recognition with a powerful ideological machine, supported by a monumental institutional structure with intimidating influence among political leaders.  As this began to fall apart, scientists, philosophers, poets and political revolutionaries sought to develop a similarly powerful ideology with an equal ability to suppress self-recognition.  But these are only stories, after all – told in mathematics sometimes, more often in heated rhetoric, but all just fables that we hope are true.  The only real change Modernity brought us has been new technology.   And all the new technology has accomplished is providing new commodities for thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices and war-mongers.

Marx is dead, but Hegel survives, as one of the grand fables of Modernity’s explanations for why we have any ideology at all and why we feel satisfied with our supposed progress [18].  Reading Hegel helps us to understand how we wish to think of ourselves, and of the history that we believe created us.  But the Satyricon shows us people as they are, at least in any complex, mercantile culture that we care to call a civilization.  Not all people, but enough that we should be more aware of – see with greater clarity – our own social environment, which hasn’t really improved so much in three thousand years.


[1] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind; B. Self-consciousness, IV. The true nature of Self-Certainty, A. Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.  J. B. Bailllie translation, 1910.

[2] Kojeve, who served in the French government after WWII, always claimed to be a Marxist, even a Stalinist, but slathered insults on the Soviet Union, and remained friends to the end with conservative political philosopher (and former student of Heidegger’s) Leo Strauss, whose best known student is Allan Bloom.  Bloom was the editor of the English translation of Kojeve’s lectures, 1969:

https://u.osu.edu/dialecticseastandwest/files/2016/02/KOJEVE-introduction-to-the-reading-of-hegel-zg6tm7.pdf.   (Camus’ response to Kojeve, The Rebel, is also online: https://libcom.org/files/The-Rebel-Albert-Camus.pdf.)   Bloom’s best known student is Francis Fukuyama, who acted as de-facto philosophic counsel to the George W. Bush administration; his best known text: The End of History and the Last Man, 1989; essay prospectus: http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm

[3] See: http://www.marxist.com/historical-materialism-study-guide.htm.

[4] The Master-Slave Dialectic actually precedes a discussion of the Roman philosophies of Stoicism and Skepticism.  For Hegel, Christianity found its natural intellectual home in Rome, because Rome had produced the individualization of consciousness that Christianity requires, while exhausting all the reasonable expression of it possible within Roman culture itself.  (Per Hegel, Jewish culture, wherein Christianity originated, had found itself in a cul-de-sac of rigid, written “divine” law and inherited custom.)  By now, it should be obvious that we see in Hegel, not a theological explanation of history, but an historical explanation of theology, at least given the assumptions and accepted scholarly knowledge available to Hegel.

[5] Thus, for instance, Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity represented a “slave morality.”

[6] See: the review of scholarly opinion at: http://christianthinktank.com/urbxctt.html, especially section 13, Christianity was mostly made up of ‘middling-plus’ class folks: merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen.

[7] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_economy

[8] Even Marx understood this, which is one reason he hated the very idea of money. See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm. He just hoped that money had been a recent invention.  Nope; it’s been here throughout most of recorded history.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_money.  I warn the reader that in this instance, the Wiki article is flawed, since it concentrates entirely on the history of money in the West.  In fact, there is evidence that the Chinese developed money at roughly the same time as the West, but paper currency much earlier.  See: http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2007/09/chinese-invention.htm.

[9] Our translation is that of W. C. Firebaugh (1922), which includes fascinating, if dated, scholarly notes:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5225.

[10] See:  http://bookmendc.blogspot.com/2010/10/transmission-of-text-of-petronius.html.  My suspicion – but this is only a guess – is that clergy believed the text worthy of preservation, despite its scandalous material, because it included necessary keys to colloquial Latin.  Some Roman slang is only preserved in the Satyricon.  Besides, as Augustine argued in Civitas Dei, not only was the Roman Empire a dung heap, but secular history, as opposed to Sacred History – i.e., the relationship between Man and God – was entirely a waste of time.  See: http://sacs-stvi.org/augustine-on-the-concept-of-history.

[11] For instance:  Early in the text we get a discussion of the cannibalism performed on their children by mothers in besieged cities; and the existing text ends with Eumolpius demanding that his executioners eat his body.

[12] A requirement in the study of rhetoric, which tells us that Encolpius – like Augustine, two centuries later – was intended by his family for a career in law.

[13] Satyricon, Chapter Fortieth.

[14] And it certainly helped that he was the merchant’s lover, or “mistress,” as he remarks with drunken pride.

[15] It should end at dawn, but when Trimalchio hears the cock crow, he immediately orders it caught and cooked.

[16] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-First.  “Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence/ He Could Have Been A Member Of/ Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not” – Trimalchio claims that he was appointed to the Priests of Augustus, and would have been welcome in any of the officially recognized cults of Rome; but (he implies) his modesty prohibited acceptance of such honors.

[17] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-Seventh.

[18] In order to have an ideology, we must confront external disagreements with and internal contradictions to our beliefs, which are then resolved and appropriated, negated and cancelled, or marginalized and ignored.  We thus arrive at generalities that we comfortably assume are necessary and superior to those that came before.  Hegel’s is not the only description of this process, but it is in many ways the most powerful.  My argument here has been that the evidence of the Satyricon is that the margins keep coming back, the contradictions are rarely resolved, and it is an inevitable human trait to be thoroughly disagreeable.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s