In a previous post (here) we considered Thomas Hobbes’ account of how, once hedonism and egoism are embraced, love can quickly become entangled in self-defeating power relations. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) offers us another way to think about love as power based on our need for recognition.
Hegel argues we only become conscious of who we are as individuals by, on the one hand, seeking recognition from others and, on the other hand, by overcoming our need for some of this recognition. This intersubjective approach to identity formation is certainly as plausible as it is influential. But Hegel goes on to observe something more controversial in his teaching of the master/slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit. He claims what we really want is total independence—we want to be a “for-itself” or a master—but we are always partially dependent on recognition from others—we become an “in-itself” or a slave. Insofar as we seek recognition we may be enslaved to another for that recognition; insofar as we obtain recognition we may become a master who is sought for recognition. But if the recognition we receive is only from slaves then we really don’t get the validation we seek. But if we seek out recognition from others who are equal or superior then we run the risk of becoming enslaved to them for their recognition. We can’t escape these struggles if we expect to grow.
Now, when love is involved these power dynamics can have serious self-defeating and even tragic consequences. Robert Wagoner nicely put it, “When I love someone I confer upon him or her the power of my self-recognition. I become hostage to that person’s view of me, but at the same time I do everything I can to control that view” (The Meanings of Love, p. 96).