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2 November 2023

On the slaughter-bench of history

Hegel’s analysis of humanity as stumbling from one horror to the next remains all too relevant.

By Richard Bourke

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has a claim to being the greatest philosopher of the 19th century. Most importantly from the point of view of the contemporary world, he championed a vision of complexity in politics. He opposed this to an attitude of one-dimensional righteousness, an all too stark belief in right and wrong, which emerged towards the end of the 18th century and has persisted into our own era. Against this posture of conscientious revolt, Hegel urged an appreciation of historical depth in politics along with a sensitivity to context. His message remains a salutary one in today’s heightened political climate. Nonetheless his standing continues to be controversial.

Hegel may be the most misunderstood thinker since the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and the most disregarded. There is a connection between these two facts. He is dismissed on account of his apparently outlandish metaphysics as well as his alleged authoritarianism. Yet both these verdicts have nothing to do with what Hegel wrote. To consider the relevance of Hegel in our own time requires upending these crude misrepresentations.

The idea that Hegel was somehow an apologist for power has its roots in the 19th century. For a generation of intellectuals who came to maturity during the European revolutions of 1848, he was regarded as an opportunistic turncoat. For them, he had abandoned his youthful zeal for liberal reform to champion an oppressive Prussian regime. But this account is seriously mistaken. There are no reliable records for Hegel’s earliest attitudes, and accounts of his later apostasy are erroneous.

Hegel’s reputation for early radicalism has two sources. On the one hand it derives from his support for the ideals of the French Revolution. On the other it stems from his influence on the writings of Karl Marx, perhaps the most illustrious revolutionary of modern times.

While Marx was committed to the destruction of the church and private property, Hegel took a more nuanced approach to both these institutions. Viewed in the round, Marx’s debt to Hegel is a complicated affair. He sought to “invert” his predecessor without having understood him. Even so, both men were critical of conventional Christianity. Equally, they were sceptical about the ability of capitalist economies to deliver justice. But they diverged in their approach to these mighty edifices. Hegel developed a philosophical interpretation of Christianity which ultimately overhauled its original meaning. He took its truths to be basically emblematic in nature, symbolising the sanctity of humanity. Hegel also strove to limit the rights of market freedom by defending the principle of the common good. Unlike Marx, he favoured transformation over abolition.

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Hegel’s response to the French Revolution has no less been shrouded in myth. While endorsing some of its goals, he was appalled by its methods. His doubts were not just focused on the Terror between 1793 and 1794, but also on mistakes that were made in the summer of 1789, not least the failure to develop a cohesive constitution. So there was no juvenile idealism from which Hegel later turned. In fact, he thought that idealism without realism was a kind of aberration. In addition, Hegel’s realism never led him to capitulate to established power: he remained a critic of the structures of all European governments.

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In his main political work, The Philosophy of Right (1821), Hegel defended the principle of Jewish emancipation against prejudices that were popular among students and university “progressives”. He also sustained a commitment to academic freedom in the aftermath of the censorship measures introduced by the Carlsbad decrees of 1819, which ushered in a police state throughout the German Confederation. More generally, he defended political rule based on competence rather than birth along with representative government and the separation of powers.

One might think of these commitments as amounting to a form of liberalism, except that “liberalism” for Hegel stood for the social atomisation that he associated with the Napoleonic system of administration. Again, he is often falsely identified as a devotee of Napoleon Bonaparte even though he excoriated his regime. He certainly admired the dynamism of the emperor, but he was withering about his actual achievements. His political reforms from above failed to generate popular allegiance. Never, Hegel once claimed, had military victories proved so practically impotent.

Hegel accepted power as a dimension of politics, but only as a means and never as an end. The actual goal of government was the enhancement of human freedom. The achievement of this counted for him as an absolute value, which had been realised, he further argued, over the course of a world-historical process stretching from ancient China to modern Europe.

These judgments deeply troubled postwar commentators. Following Karl Popper’s influential indictment of Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), they confused Hegel’s defence of absolute value with a commitment to absolutist politics. They likewise mistook his endorsement of modern freedom for a celebration of its inevitable triumph. Consequently, these assessments hardly amount to a cogent rendition of his position. They are, in truth, fundamentally misguided.

Born in Stuttgart in the southern German duchy of Württemberg in 1770, at the age of 18 Hegel entered a theological seminary in Tübingen. But he soon came under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, and before long he was extending the implications of their thought. After graduating, Hegel settled successively in Bern, Frankfurt, Jena and Bamberg, before becoming rector at a school in Nuremberg. By then he had rejected the idea of a transcendent deity along with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

In fact, with the publication of his first great work, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel revealed that he saw Christianity as a symptom of a malaise which only philosophy could properly diagnose. The yearning for a “beyond” was the product of alienation. But despite his conspicuously heterodox views, at Jena, Nuremberg and then at Heidelberg, Hegel occupied publicly accountable positions. He was not simply at liberty to disseminate his ideas. Similarly, when in 1818 he was appointed to a chair in philosophy at the University of Berlin, he was obliged to teach in accordance with the tenets of the Lutheran faith. This posed a challenge for a man for whom God was to be understood in terms of humanity’s terrestrial search for meaning.

The trade-off between his iconoclastic insights and the pressures of doctrinal conformity help to explain Hegel’s tortuous style of writing. They also explain the character of some of his pronouncements, like his notorious statement that “the state consists in the march of God in the world”. This claim seems to propose that the state was some sort of vehicle for the divinity. It suggests that, for Hegel, secular affairs were imbued with a spiritual purpose and that the state enjoyed a kind of deified legitimacy. It implies that authoritarianism and teleology were lumped together in his thought.

But the truth of Hegel’s beliefs is altogether different and more interesting. To begin with, he never quite made the statement given in the standard translation above. The formulation in the original German is more nuanced, amounting to something like “it is the course of God in the world that is the state”. Moreover, the proposition is taken from student notes about Hegel’s lectures rather than deriving directly from his own hand.

Nonetheless, it should be conceded that this is the kind of utterance that Hegel was apt to make. And yet, despite the aura of dogma surrounding the claim, it represents a departure from the orthodox point of view. After all, for Hegel it is the state, and not the church, which embodies the highest locus of value. For some, this conclusion might seem autocratic. But the comment is more persuasive considering the alternative: namely, the idea that society might be maintained without a state.

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The pre-eminence of the state is further qualified in Hegel. He was certainly a critic of absolutist government. Ideally, the state for Hegel constituted a national unity, but this unity was to serve the enhancement of individual freedom. Since liberty was its goal, it was clearly irrational to permit individuals to compromise the means by which the state empowered their freedom. Liberty, in other words, had to be coherent. But, still, the aim of the community was to augment personal self-realisation. This did not entail some kind of mystical self-development. It included the enjoyment of rights, the security of possessions, and the choice of a career. Hegel also indicted the excesses of the luxury economy and supported measures against social immiseration. He was never a defender of the kind of bourgeois consumerism ascribed to him by the American political commentator Francis Fukuyama.

The state for Hegel also denoted the constitutional state. This was to take the form of a representative regime with separated branches of government which still cooperated. Legislative and executive powers had to be distinct yet also collaborative. From Hegel’s perspective, the French Revolution had foundered on the failure to achieve this kind of coherence.

That failure, Hegel believed, might have been avoided. In general, he commended constitutional government, the security of rights, the universality of freedom, and a productive economy. The question, of course, was how to coordinate these values. In the French case, as Hegel saw it, abstract ideals were furiously pursued without the practical means of realising them. Revolutionary zeal was a kind of leap into the void. From Hegel’s vantage point, it replicated the original Christian determination to establish justice somewhere other than in the world to hand.

Nonetheless, Hegel also maintained that the Revolution was a relative rather than an absolute failure. After all, a crucial lesson that could not be unlearned survived the Revolution. This was the intuition that humanity was intrinsically free. This meant that freedom was not an attribute of an exclusive caste or rank of people but belonged to human beings by virtue of their humanity. We think of this assertion as self-evidently true, so we need to recall that belief in it is the exception in world history.

For all the moral achievements of previous civilisations, neither ancient India nor Egypt had embraced this principle. Nor was it recognised by either the Greeks or the Romans. Hegel’s message was straightforward: through a process of unplanned and arduous struggle, humanity had been liberated from servile status.

This conclusion has been scoffed at by a century of pessimism. Opposing the Hegelian vision, Friedrich Nietzsche believed that history had been a process of enslavement. He steadily amassed followers who rejected civilisation as an instrument of incarceration. In the last century, Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno reinforced this nihilism. For instance, Adorno concluded that history had culminated in “total menace”. Michel Foucault became the most prominent recent patron of this cynicism. His views left human beings with nothing left to value since it was claimed that everything was equally implicated in power.

Can Hegel’s view be accurately described as “optimism”? The notion of optimism, which Voltaire famously satirised, flourished among Christian philosophers at end of the 17th century. It was based on the theological assumption that the universe amounted to “the best of all possible worlds”. Hegel was a critic of such metaphysical presumptuousness. Yet he also believed that since there was no world other than our own, existing conditions could not be casually wished away. It followed that every moral and political project had to begin with the position in which history had placed us.

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For Hegel, there was nothing inevitable or irreversible about the condition of modern freedom. Its full meaning remained to be worked out, and its future was still precarious. Nonetheless, its justification lay in the fact that previous systems of value had failed – including despotism, theocracy, slavery and feudalism – and no other set of principles could pose a remotely credible challenge. Hegel had no doubt that human history had been a “slaughter-bench”, humanity stumbling contingently from one horror to the next. Yet it had also delivered a form of life, defined by the principle of universal freedom, which we would never knowingly choose to relinquish.

This did not mean that prevailing values were sure to prosper. Human achievements were as uncertain as they were sometimes beneficial. Like many of his predecessors in the age of enlightenment, Hegel was absorbed by the prospect of this danger. Indeed, his originality lay in his pioneering analysis of peril. For him, the greatest hazard in the modern world was morality itself.

As Hegel saw it, modern moral sensibility was based on the capacity for autonomy. We need to appreciate just how radical this awareness was. It meant that values were not dictated by the church, or God, or our rulers. They were ultimately determined by our sovereign selves. This vested awesome responsibility in ordinary people. It also brought a new set of challenges and risks. Most alarmingly, devolving moral judgement to the individual was liable to promote self-satisfaction. This in turn would generate forms of ethical narcissism giving rise to attitudes of conscientious outrage isolated from political judgements. This style of moralism remains all too apparent in the present.

Hegel rejected the idea that the world lay in sin. It had been made over in the image of human striving, which included the most astonishing accomplishments. There existed countless monuments of human barbarism, but also a record of cultural enhancement. This showed that humankind had lifted itself above its animality. The capacity for moral judgement was an index of that attainment. But it was also a depressingly wayward aptitude. Morality did not only deliver standards for behaviour but also an inclination toward fanaticism. Human beings were not solely creatures of sin, but neither were they exemplars of moral purity.

This lesson is an insight for our own age. Time has not stood still since Hegel’s death in 1831. Numerous developments necessarily affect our assessment of his work. But we do still live in the era of autonomous morality, and Hegel’s analysis of its setbacks remains germane.

Hegel urged that we should acknowledge our capability for self-sacrifice, but also the conceitedness that accompanies it. He therefore thought that hypocrisy was endemic to our morals. Much has been written about Hegel on the theme of recognition. Less noticed has been his call for the need to recognise our own evil.

From Hegel’s perspective, over the course of the history of human culture, we reluctantly discovered that in principle all are free. But we also grew inclined to abuse our newfound freedom. This means that we have no guarantee against terminal decline. The race is plainly capable of cataclysmic irrationality. Even so, descent into an age of darkness will not be a refutation of Hegel because he never said that this outcome was not a possibility. It would of course be the end of Hegelianism since clearly there would be nothing left to affirm. But hopefully we have not arrived at the fatal juncture yet.

[See also: What Daniel Dennett gets wrong]

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