Pure Reason, incapable of any limitation, is the Deity itself. –Hegel
Mark Twain is supposed to have said that a classic is a book everyone praises, and no one reads—an observation that we might apply to the works of Georg William Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Or perhaps we should say that many people want to read him, but few can understand him. Indeed, the obscurity of Hegel’s thought is legendary, even among philosophers, as is his passion for run-on sentences and obscure technical jargon. We shall try to reduce some of his theoretificationizing to plain English.
When an English-speaking philosopher looks out at the world, he or she usually sees a straightforward collection of objects and forces that are apprehended more or less as they are by their senses. This view stands in contrast to the typical view of German philosophers, who, following Kant, see the world as an undifferentiated and meaningless collection of who-knows-what—an impenetrable cosmic mystery—which the senses and reason conspire to impart with meaning, form, and intelligibility in general. This conspiracy is in no way arbitrary, for it resides, not in our opinions, but in the structure of the mind itself, which we cannot alter. On the first view, the object of contemplation is reality, the tool is the senses, and metaphysics, since it cannot be apprehended by the senses, is nonsense about nothing. On the second, the object of contemplation is the mind, the tool is reason, and metaphysics, defined as the necessary structure of the mind itself, is everything. The first philosophy suggests a discussion of objects and events that exist in time and space; the second a discussion of concepts that reside only within ourselves. This is the reason Hegel in particular, and German philosophy in general, makes such painfully opaque reading for English speakers. By and large, we just don’t think that way.
Applying this view to history, which English-speaking philosophers and historians often tacitly assume, or openly declare, has no meaning in and of itself, but is just “one damn thing after another.” Hegel argued that it, like everything else, contains an essential, rational, necessary nature, which compels it to develop exactly as it does, and which man, because he is rational, can understand. (This conception of history is often signified by writing the word with a capital “H.”) That necessary nature, according to Hegel, is struggle—and not just struggle for the privilege of existing and reproducing, as Darwin tells us, but more importantly, for that of self-realization, or in other words, to make our rational nature manifest, not simply in potential but in fact. Everything, Hegel argued, is constantly striving to become what it should be, from the acorn struggling to become an oak tree, to the philosopher struggling to become wise, to the state struggling to order the world.
This struggle can be understood in terms of “the dialectic process.” First, there is the thesis, a new thing that, by emerging into an already-existing system, always disrupts it in some way. It has to struggle for self-realization in opposition to the antithesis, which can be either the system and its components as they were before, or elements within itself that are not in harmony with its essential nature. Out of this conflict comes synthesis—a new equilibrium that then becomes the thesis of a new dialectic process. According to Hegel, this accounts not only for all change in History, but all change in Existence—for Existence is nothing other than the outer form of Reason, Reason the essential nature of Existence, and dialectic the essential nature of Reason. There is literally nothing that exists that is not a product of Reason.
This doctrine has definite implications for philosophy of history. First, it affirms that the highest purpose of the individual is self-realization, which, for Hegel (following Kant) means rational autonomy. In other words, it means the power of the individual to make decisions in accordance with their essential, rational nature, free from the encumbrances of prejudice, ignorance, instinct, and so on. It most emphatically does not mean, as it typically does for Americans, freedom from the state, for in Hegel’s view (following Hobbes), the security that makes rational autonomy possible exists only because the state enforces it. It must therefore compel people, often against their will, to become rational. Children must be sent to school, young men must serve in time of war, adult men must go to work, women must have children, criminals must be punished, you may not_ park on the side of the road, and all must pay their taxes. Often, people will feel that they are being treated unfairly. Never mind, there must be order (Ordnung muss sein—contrast with the familiar English expression, “that state governs best which governs least.”).
The rational person understands that all this is necessary, and that the state, because it is composed of many individuals and not just himself, has higher purposes than his own. He therefore identifies his own will and his own interest with those of the state and obeys its commands enthusiastically. The state, too, is continually striving to realize its own rational self-autonomy. But it cannot do this as long as its will is impeded by that of other states—it is therefore compelled to struggle against them. Thus, war and politics are the essential process of, and proper object of study in, History. This study shows that occasionally a remarkable individual—a Caesar, a Martin Luther, a Napoleon—rises above the anonymous masses, seizes History by the throat, and reorders the world. Actually, Hegel argued, this is an optical illusion—it is not the great man who makes History, but History that makes the great man, for he does not create, but expresses, the Spirit of the Times, or Zeitgeist. (This view is sometimes called, euphemistically, “the great man theory of history.” We will encounter it again.)
Hegel’s doctrine further affirms that whatever History produces, it produces by necessity of Reason. Moreover, it holds that there is no extra-historical standard by which the actions of individuals, the state, or indeed truths of any kind, can be judged—a view sometimes called historicism (again, more on this later.) People create History, but in a more profound sense, History creates people—therefore, “whatever is, is right.”
This doctrine took shape in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and in a sense does not become fully understandable except against that background. Though Hegel, like many young men, had initially sympathized with the Revolution, he began to have his doubts when the French executed their king, and he definitely turned against it when French soldiers showed up on his doorstep. However, not everyone shared this view, and, as we have said, the struggle over the ideals of Revolution and Enlightenment defined European politics and intellectual life until the time of the First World War. It is thus no accident that Hegel produced such a useful doctrine for government ministers and police spies, who, as representatives of the state, had to “realize their essential nature” by “struggling against” (torturing) revolutionaries and subversives. This is indeed how Hegel was read by his contemporaries. Friedrich William IV, King of Prussia, was so pleased to learn that he ruled by the infallible decree of Reason that he invited Hegel to teach philosophy at the University of Berlin—the very pinnacle of the admittedly backward (though not for long) Prussian Academy. Hegel was forever-after “the official philosopher”—heartily despised by jealous rivals such as Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, who toiled in obscurity while Hegel enjoyed riches and honors.
However, Hegel’s ideas were also in a sense quite subversive, for if might makes right, then one is only right so long as one is winning. Because Hegel affirmed no timeless truths—only the necessities of History—opponents of the regime could also find comfort in his doctrines. After all, if they won, then they would be right too, and in some sense they already were, simply because they existed, and the ultimate outcome of their dialectical struggle against the state was as yet uncertain. For this reason the followers of Hegel are often divided into “Right Hegelians” (Fichte, Weisse, Henning) and “Left Hegelians” (Feuerbach, Marx, Bauer).
In his own mind, however, Hegel was clear: The choice that all educated Europeans faced was between Monarchy and Reason on the one hand, and bloody chaos on the other.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.