Welcome to a special Saturday installment of Philosopher Fridays, where I explore an aspect of a philosopher’s work that I find interesting (even if I don’t always agree wholeheartedly). This week, I’m continuing to explore Hegel’s understanding of self-consciousness. Check out parts one and two to see where I left off.
On Hegel and Heroes
According to Hegel, in searching for the certainty of self-consciousness, the consciousness restlessly desires a unity of spirit it doesn’t understand. Embedded within the process, the consciousness seeks comfort in anything that seems whole. Since the only things that the impatient consciousness can understand at this juncture are images based in sense-perception, this leads to the positing of a fictional structure based in picture thinking, or Vorstellung.
For the impatient consciousness seeking self-certainty, a popular and prominent example of the ‘givenness’ to which it cleaves can very well be said to be the classic Romantic hero-story of myth, fiction, and fantasy. The structure of the hero-journey is that of the Monomyth, a term coined in 1949 by Joseph Campbell in his treatment of the classic hero-journey, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. [i] Both the dialectic of spirit and the hero-story are driven by restlessness, a desire that suggests an uncertainty or instability that the consciousness wants rectified. In today’s installment of Philosopher Fridays, I intend to explore these two journeys in concert, noting similarities and differences in the hopes of coming to a better understanding of each.
Campbell’s structure begins with a “departure” and a “call to adventure” that is not unlike Hegel’s notion of desire. Campbell says that “the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth” . It is an opening unto a new world wherein the hero must be tested and verified by the world outside.
There are some similarities worth noting: namely, that both the dialectic and the hero-story need a contest in order to find the validation they seek. In the same way that the consciousness needs recognition from an “other”, a hero exists for the circumstances that require a hero. What makes someone a hero is how they act in relation to a set of events as recognized from a certain perception – a subjective perception of the call to adventure, the feeling of desire.
The main problem with this from a Hegelian perspective is obvious; the goal is given at the start. From the very moment we meet the hero, we know he is the hero, and we know he will succeed, even if we don’t know how. Where the Hegelian model is incomplete, unforeseen, and indeterminate at best, the hero-journey is optimistic, self-assured in its teleology, and predictable. For Hegel, the hero-journey would be a false idol, one which is merely diverting and not a proper journey to true self-consciousness at all. The monomythic structure of the hero is just an image – an empty mirage that does not truly offer the solace it promises, but rather guides the consciousness through a continuous cycle of endless hero-stories. This does nothing to advance the position of the consciousness toward its goal of self-consciousness, and it merely a by-product of the frustrations endured along the way, merely an impatient yearning realized by Vorstellung.
It stands to reason to wonder, if this is the case, if it is prudent to put the two journeys next to each other for analysis. But as Hegel’s consciousness acts under the presupposition of a unified spirit, it posits for itself just such a fiction: that it is the hero, the self which will be validated by dominating another. In both the progression of the restless consciousness and the journey of the hero, we want to know, and we want to win. We think that the absolute can be known, and that the hero will triumph, and so the consciousness posits itself as a unity against others, and the hero answers the call to adventure. This is the fiction of independent subjectivity; as Hegel puts it, “Each seeks the death of the other.” As JK Rowling puts it, “Neither can live while the other survives.” But just as the consciousness cannot succeed in its true aims if it achieves what it thinks it wants, the hero, no matter what he does, can only be defeated, or be self-defeating.
And here we come now in both cases to the beginning of the dialectic of the Master and the Slave. In the case of the hero-journey, there is sadly no synthesis, no true resolution to the restlessness. Just as no consciousness can become a self-consciousness without validation by another, no hero can exist without a villain to fight or an impossible obstacle to overcome. The mistake made by the hero is the mistake of the Master who fails to see his dependence on his slave. As the hero and the villain each wish to establish dominance over the other, they simultaneously derive their value in an interdependent way without realizing it. The hero only becomes a hero by his combat with the villain, and yet when the villain is vanquished, the story ends and the hero is no more. The hero must succeed to become a hero, but yet in his success he undermines his original goal.
The terms “hero” and “villain” in this way describe the temporary state of opposing consciousnesses during the struggle for self-certainty and the master-slave dialectic. In this way, both consciousnesses are both the hero and villain, and the hero knows that it needs the villain to remain a hero. The story isn’t in the victory – its in the struggle. The hero and villain in this case realize their existence in relation to each other, but they misplace their efforts, continuing to find happiness in the struggle, rather than the knowledge of their dependence.
For the consciousness, defeating the opposing “other” destroys the possibility of not just being recognized, but of actively recognizing. The hero, as a fiction, fails because there is no room within the Monomyth for the hero to be both sovereign and subject, both recognized as a hero and actively recognizing as a subjective unified entity.
What do we learn from this parallel analysis?
I don’t typically pick up a heroic tale in search of self-consciousness, and I don’t think it is at all the role of a story to represent reality (far from it) and so in some respects the self-defeating nature of archetypal stories is of little consequence. In some ways, the hero-story offers us a bit of wish-fulfillment in offering the promise of an uncomplicated happy-ever-after, which can be comforting as we struggle to find harmony and stability in a complex, changing, and unknowable world. There is also the obvious possibility that Hegel is wrong to suggest that identity is dialectically conceived, but I think the prevalence of the hero-story in the history of literature suggests that we at least understand the complications of intersubjectivity and feel some kind of desire for an uncomplicated resolution that renders the Hegelian dialectic a worthwhile model, at the very least.
But more than that, I think that a more satisfying story is one that deals with this difficulty, either finding new ways to cast the hero outside of his or her identity as hero, or else leaning into the disillusionment of winning – the tragedy of victory. Think of Frodo at the end of the Return of the King. Think of Cuchulain propping himself up to face his foes when he could no longer stand. Think of Buffy at the end of Season Five when they thought the series was going to be cancelled, and then try really hard not to think about Season Six, because it’s gets almost too wrapped up in the tragic disillusionment of a villain-less hero.
The gravitas in each of these examples is palpable. In some ways, I think this could be the moment where the Master and the Slave switch. As the hero recognizes his dependence on the villain, the villain is, in a way, mourned. I suppose there are stories that resolve into a more happier Hegelian dialectic, with the hero and the villain learning to get along in some way (the movie Mean Girls comes to mind), but I think there’s value in leaning into that moment when the self-consciousness realizes that it has yet to reach its goal, that it cannot control its journey, and that for now, at least, it remains quite restless.
[i] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd edition. Princeton : Princeton University Press. 1973.
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