Bama comes to town soon. The team is a good one—talented, deep, consistent, physical. But the team’s fans are coming, too. So once again the Iron Bowl around the Iron Bowl is to be played.
What do I mean? I mean that the Iron Bowl is what it is, good and bad (and there’s lots of both), not so much because of what happens on the field as because of what happens in the stands around it, and of course in the TV sets around it.
The rivalry runs so deep because it has somehow become existential. To cheer for one team as opposed to the other is to have faced an existential Either-Or, the kind of Choice that, Soren Kierkegaard might say, does not permit of refusal or mediation. You must Choose, you may not refuse to Choose, and you must Choose one or the other, not both. Your Choice is your Fate. Your Choice entangles itself around the very vitals of who and what you are, forever shaping who and what you are. Not to Choose is not to live. And trying to Choose both is to reveal that you do not understand (the) Choice.
But, again, all this has rather little to do with either team. It is all happening amongst fans. What matters is not any reality having to do with either team; what matters is what each fan base feels about its team and the other team—but more importantly, infinitely more importantly, what each feels about itself and the other fan base.
Bama fans have a conviction of mastery. Little in the way of statistics suggests that there is any such mastery to be convinced of, but, there it is, languorously bubbling up from damp dirt like badly buried toxic pollution. The conviction is not really supported by statistics, of course; otherwise it would be vulnerable to statistics. It is instead a dark birthright, a mess of spoiled pottage, given to Bama fans as part of the Choice. To choose Bama is to Choose a conviction of mastery. It is not something that one discovers to be a pleasant add-on to the Choice; it is part of the structure of the Choice. To Choose Bama is to Choose lording it over others, particularly Auburn fans, who are treated as servile.
But Auburn fans should remember something important about convictions of mastery. G. W. Hegel long ago revealed the Master-Slave dialectic. Abstracting from its complications, what Hegel revealed was the unavoidable dependence of the Master on the Slave, dependence far more deep-going and debilitating than the Slave’s dependence on the Master.
The Master needs the Slave in a way that the Slave does not need the Master. After all, being the Master is part of the self-identity of the Master, something he insists on treating as part of what he is essentially, not merely of what he is accidentally. The Slave, of course, does not insist on treating Slavery as part of what he is. His slavery is accidental. Strangely enough (and here I will push the Hegelian envelope a bit), the Master really cannot see the Slave as essentially a Slave. If the Master does, then the Slave’s regarding the Master as the Master means less than the Master wants, since the regard of an essential Slave is not a regard worth having. The Master has to see the Slave as accidentally a Slave, and so see the Slave as capable of shedding servility; only in that way is the Slave’s regard worth having.
We see this dialectic played out concretely in the Iron Bowl around the Iron Bowl. Bama fans are convinced of their mastery, particularly of Auburn. But for that mastery really to mean something, Auburn must not be seen as mastered essentially. But if Auburn is not mastered essentially, then Auburn could become master itself. But Auburn cannot become master itself, else Bama’s mastery would be revealed as accidental. And so on. And so on. (The not-so-little existential knot in Bama bowels.)
Auburn fans should really not resent the Bama conviction of mastery. Instead Auburn fans should revel in the spiritual cost of that conviction, a spiritual cost never paid in full by any number of wins over Auburn, or by any margin of a single victory over Auburn—not even 36-0.
To Choose Auburn is to Choose against lording it over others, even Bama fans. That doesn’t mean Auburn fans cannot gloat a bit, tastefully, here and there. The cost of the Choice is being seen as a Slave. But Auburn fans can continue to believe that favor ultimately belongs not with the Pharisee, but with the Publican.
Dr. Jolley is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th-century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He also likes football and was recently profiled by The New York Times. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007. “Leisure with Dignity,” his column for TWER, runs bi-monthly to monthly. Write to him at email@example.com.