Hegel: Philosophy and history as theology.

A history of pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Reason [God] is substance, and infinite power;
its own infinite material
underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates;
and the inifinite form - that which sets this material in motion.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770, the son of a revenue officer.

His career at school and university was undistinguished - his certificate mentioned his "inadequate grasp of philosophy". At T©bingen university he studied not philosophy but theology - and in a sense all his philosophy was essentially a theology, an exploration of the workings of the world-spirit which he identified with God.

On graduation he became a family tutor in Berne and Frankfurt, with plenty of time for private study. In 1801 he won his first university post at the University of Jena. After the Battle of Jena in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussians, Hegel saw the emperor riding past.

The encounter had a profound impact. "I saw the Emperor - this world-spirit - go out from the city to survey his realm," he wrote on October 13, 1806. "It is a truly wonderful experience to see such an individual, on horseback, concentrating on one point, stretching over the world and dominating it" For Hegel, Napoleon embodied the world-historical hero of the age, driving forward the self-realization of God in history.

After the battle the university fell on bad times, and Hegel left his post. Facing destitution, he took a job editing a newspaper in Bamberg, and then was headmaster of a secondary school in N©rnberg. In 1816 he became professor of philosophy at Heidelberg. Two years later be accepted the chair of philosophy at Berlin, where he remained till his death in 1831.

Hegel's philosophical system was perhaps the most ambitious since Aristotle, comprising logic, psychology, religion, aesthetics, history, law. As well as his published works, many volumes were compiled from the notes of his long-suffering students. Though they laboriously took down almost every word, one wonders how much they understood. Hegel's language is abstruse and sometimes tortuous, and makes great demands on the reader.

Pantheism is the motivating force and the core of Hegel's system. It is a grandiose idealistic pantheism, in which all existence and all history are part of God's cosmic self-development.

God is absolute spirit. But he also desires to manifest himself and to know himself. So it is part of his essence to become real, in particular material things, in individual persons and in the process of change and history. God is present and active in the real world. He acts through humans, and is conscious of himself through humans.

God embodies and develops himself first in nature, then in the rising stages of human consciousness and civilization. Human history and culture are God's working out of his self-realization in the world. Individual humans - especially the great heroes of world history - are the principal means of change, while peoples and states are the embodiment of each phase.

Hegel seems to have had an ethnocentric and egocentric view of the culmination of this great process. The German nation were the highest carriers of the wave of God's development. The bureaucratic monarchy of the Prussian type was the highest form of state. The pinnacle of philosophy - through which God at last becomes fully conscious of himself - was, implicitly, Hegel's own system.

Hegel had an immense influence on German thought - not always positive. Some of his ideas had a clear aftermath stretching down to Hitler: his insistence on the identification of the individual, the nation and the state; his stress on Great Men as the only real agents of history; his belief that individual welfare or suffering simply did not matter in the sweep of world history, advancing like a juggernaut over the corpses of individuals.

Hegel also had influence through the young philosophers who rebelled against his system, or developed it in ways that he would have disowned. The best known of these were David Strauss, Max Stirner, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels rejected Hegel's idealism, but took on his view that history proceeded through the dialectical process of thesis, contradiction and synthesis.

Hegel also had a powerful impact on the development of pantheism and panentheism. The central idea of the Process Theology of A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne - the idea of a God evolving in the universe through history - derives from Hegel. So do more modern ideas that the universe is an God evolving towards ever greater complexity and consciousness, and that we humans are somehow a central part of this drama.

Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trs J. Sibree, Dover, New York, 1956; others are from Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion Peter Hodgson, ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.

Selected passages.

God is the root and end of all.

What God creates he himself is … God is manifestation of his own self.

God is … the absolutely true, that from which everything proceeds and into which everything returns, that upon which everything is dependent and apart from which nothing else has absolute, true independence. (Philosophy of Religion, p 368)

Whatever subsists has its root and subsistence only in this One … God is the absolute substance, the only true actuality … All through his development God does not step outside his unity with himself. (Philosophy of Religion, 369)

God is the substance, energy, material and final goal of the universe.

Reason is the substance of the Universe, viz, that by which and in which all reality has its being and subsistence.
On the other hand, it is the infinite energy of the Universe; since Reason is not so powerless as to be incapable of producing anything but a mere ideal, a mere intention - having its place outside reality, nobody knows where; something separate and abstract, in the heads of certain human beings.
It is the infinite complex of things, their entire essence and truth.
It is its own material, which it commits to its own active energy to work up; not needing, as finite action does, the conditions of an external material of given means from which it may obtain its support, and the objects of its activity. It supplies its own nourishment and is the object of its own operations.
While it is exclusively its own basis of existence and absolute final aim, it is also the energizing power realizing this aim; developing it not only in the phenomena of the natural, but also of the spiritual universe - the history of the world. (9-10)

God is Spirit and Freedom.

Spirit is self-contained existence. Now this is Freedom, exactly. For if I am dependent, my being is referred to something which I am not; I cannot exist independently of something external. I am free, on the contrary, when my existence depends on myself.(17)

Spirit may be defined [in contrast to matter] as that which has its centre in
itself … This self-contained existence of Spirit is none other than self-consciousness - consciousness of one's own being … It involves an appreciation of its own nature, and also an energy enabling it to realize itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially. (17-18)

The essential nature of freedom … is to be displayed as coming to a consciousness of itself and thereby realizing its existence. Itself is its own object of attainment, and the sole aim of Spirit (19)

The world spirit is active and dynamic development.

The very essence of Spirit is activity; it realizes its potentiality - makes itself its own deed, its own work - and thus it becomes an object to itself; contemplates itself as an objective existence.

Spirit is essentially the result of its own activity; its activity is the transcending of immediate, simple, unreflected existence - the negation of that existence; and the returning into itself. (78)

[Although Nature changes, it does so only is self-repeating cycles]. Only in those changes which take place in the region of Spirit does anything new arise. (54)

This development implies a gradation - a series of increasingly adequate expressions or manifestations of freedom … it assumes successive forms which it successively transcends. (63)

Change, while it means dissolution, involves at the same time the rise of a new life - while death is the issue of life, life is also the issue of death … Spirit, consuming the envelope of its existence - does not merely pass into another envelope … it comes forth exalted, glorified, a purer spirit. (73)

Development takes place in dialectical mode.

Thus Spirit is at war with itself; it has to overcome itself as its most formidable obstacle … What Spirit really strives for is the realization if its ideal being; but in doing so, it hides that goal from its own vision, and is proud and well satisfied in this alienation from it. Its expansion therefore does not present the harmless tranquility of mere growth, as does that of organic life, but a stern reluctant working against itself. (55)

[Spirit] certainly makes war upon itself - consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up that existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade.

The World Spirit realizes itself through History.

History in general is … the development of the Spirit in time, as nature is the development of the Idea in space. (72)

Universal History is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. (17)

The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom … The destiny of the spiritual world, and … the final cause of the World at large, we claim to be Spirit's consciousness of its own freedom, and ipso facto, the reality of that freedom … This is the only aim that sees itself realized; the only pole of repose amid the ceaseless change of events and conditions, and the sole efficient principle that pervades them. This final aim is God's purpose with the world; but God is the absolutely perfect Being, and can, therefore, will nothing but himself.(19-20)

This aim is none other than [Spirit's] finding itself - coming to itself - and contemplating itself in concrete actuality. (25)

The will, self-interest and action of humans are the means by which Spirit realizes its goals.

The nature and idea of Spirit is something merely general and abstract … a hidden, undeveloped essence, which as such … is not completely real … That which exists for itself only, is a possibility, a potentiality; but has not yet emerged into Existence.
A second element must be introduced in order to produce actuality - viz, actuation, realization; and whose motive power of the Will - the activity of man in the widest sense. It is only by this activity that Idea as well as abstract characteristics generally, are realized, actualized; for in themselves they are powerless. The motive power that puts them in operation, and gives them determinate existence, is the need, instinct, inclination and passion of man. (22)

Nothing has been accomplished without interest on the part of the actors … nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion. (23)

This vast congeries of volitions, interests and activities constitute the instruments and means of the World-Spirit for attaining its object; bringing it to consciousness and realizing it. (25)

World-historical heroes and peoples are the decisive forces of history.

Such are all great historical men - whose own particular aims involve those larger issues which are the will of the world-spirit. They may be called Heroes, inasmuch as they have derived their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm, regular course of things … but from a concealed fount … from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface. (30)

Such individuals had no consciousness of the general idea they were unfolding while pursuing those aims of theirs … But at the same time they were thinking men, who had an insight into the needs of the time - what was ripe for development. (30)

In the history of the world, the idea of Spirit appears in its actual embodiment in a series of existing forms, each of which declares itself as an actually existing people. (79)

The State is the end of history - the embodiment of Reason.

All the worth which the human being possesses, all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State. For his spiritual reality consists in this, that his own essence - Reason - is objectively present to him, that it possesses objective immediate existence for him… . For Truth is the unity of the universal and subjective will; and the Universal is to be found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth. We have in it, therefore, the object of history in a more definite shape than before; that in which Freedom obtains objectivity. For Law is the objectivity of the Spirit … Only that will which obeys law, is free; for it obeys itself - it is independent and so free. (39)


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