Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)
GWF Hegel (1770-1831) takes account of the advances of the Enlightenment with respect, but stands in fundamental opposition to its basic conceptions. What is often played down is that, while the philosophes either attempted to rationalise religion, or to disregard it entirely, Hegel places theology – but only his own special brand – at the centre of all his work. After grappling with Christianity in his student years in the Tübingen Theological Seminary, his turn to philosophy or ‘Science’ [= Wissenschaft] is inseparable from his peculiar views on God. It is not only ‘Marxists’ for whom this poses a problem. Even when some of them bring themselves to peep into Hegel’s system, they just can’t handle Hegel’s religion. It is particularly comical to see Lenin’s superstitious panic, in his Notebooks on Hegel’s Science of Logic, every time Hegel mentions God. Georgi Lukacs, who knew a rather more about the matter, treats Hegel’s religious views as a shameful secret.
The fragmentation of eighteenth-century social and intellectual life in a world increasingly dominated by money and capital is the key to the ideas I have called ‘the Enlightenment’. Although in Germany such changes spread much more slowly than in Britain and France, by the end of the century many German intellectuals were reading with alarm about the effect that commercialisation and industrialisation were having in England, Scotland and France. Comparing their not very brave new world with the idealised picture they had of ancient Greece, people like Goethe, Schiller and Herder looked urgently for ways in which Germany might bypass such developments.
The young Hegel, together with his fellow students Hölderlin and Schelling, welcomed the French Revolution with enthusiasm. At first it seemed to offer an alternative to the fragmentation of modernity. Together, the three adopted as their slogan the motto ‘hen kai pan’, ‘One and All’, which they saw as summing up their opposition to the Enlightenment. Then the dream faded. Hölderlin’s poetry and his novel Hyperion had combined his yearning for the harmony of the Greek ideal with a romantic pantheism. Eventually, disappointment at the failure of these dreams played a part in his madness of half a lifetime.
Of these three young men, the leader is undoubtedly the youngest. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) is just fifteen when he is admitted to the Tübingen Seminary and eighteen when he begins to produce his massive output of books and articles. At twenty-three, Schelling is a professor in Jena. Throughout his life, his work expresses a series of outlooks which continually strive to discover the fundamental unity of reality. Where Enlightenment thinkers separated Nature and humanity from Reason, Schelling strives to deduce them from Reason. Nature is Mind or Self in the process of becoming. Art unites the poles of consciousness and unconsciousness, and the universe itself is a work of art. He has a deep relationship with his contemporaries the romantics, for example, with the pantheism of Wordsworth.
In his 1804 dialogue Bruno, Schelling makes Giordano the protagonist for his own views. By now he has studied enough of Böhme to decide that the world originates from God by a non-rational leap. Nature is sin and unreason, while history is Nature striving to return to reason. All of these ideas are clearly relate to the tradition of Böhme and Cabbala. Schelling’s God is ‘not a System, but a Life’. In his Philosophy and Religion (1809), he is able to write that:
History is an epic composed in the mind of God. Its two main parts are, first, that which depicts the departure of mankind from its centre, up to its farther point of alienation, and second, that which depicts the return. The first is the Odyssey of History, the second, its Iliad. In the first, the movement is centrifugal, in the second it is centripetal.
Schelling’s Absolute, the unconditioned, is the One from which the world begins. At the creation, it falls into the Many, and, from then on, strives to get back to the One..
By the time when, in 1841, the 65-year old Schelling is called to occupy Hegel’s Berlin chair until ten years before, he has drawn the most reactionary conclusions. Now a defender of religious orthodoxy, he has become the Prussian establishment’s answer to the pernicious influence of that dangerous ‘atheist’ Hegel.
Hegel never ceased to celebrate the achievements of the Revolution, but devoted his work to grasping the meaning of its limitations and those of the Enlightenment which it had revealed. Until his thirties, Hegel follows his brilliant younger friend. But then the gap between them widens, as Hegel’s vast system matures inside his head. Only in 1807 does his first book appear, the Phenomenology of Spirit. His conception of Spirit or Mind, Geist, central to all his work, is his attempt to counter the atomisation which bedevils Enlightenment thinking at every level. Thus the Phenomenology expounds the autobiography of Spirit, and the 1830 edition of the Philosophy of Spirit (Mind), the third and final part of his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, is among his last publications.
Geist has a wide range of meanings for Hegel. He wants it to unite individual psychology – ‘subjective Spirit’ – with Nature, history and the State. But above all Geist has religious connotations as the Holy Ghost (der heiliger Geist), the third Person of the Christian Trinity, which reconciles the opposition of Father and Son, Creator and Created. The Phenomenology aims to recount the many shapes through which the experience of cultural, social, intellectual, artistic and religious life have passed, summarised in the last chapter, ‘Absolute Knowing’. Each of these shapes both shows humanity as a whole and reveals its inadequacy to express the whole story. Each is a result of past human actions, and yet confronts individuals as something given, a task to be carried out, an obstacle to be overcome, a problem to be solved.
The sequence continues until philosophical science has transcended itself as absolute – unconditioned – knowing. Then, Geist is the whole process, the approach to freedom, the community, ‘the “I” that is “we”, the “we” that is “I"’. You could think of it like this: we observe the self-development of Spirit, through all its shapes, until we discover that our observation is itself part of the movement. Spirit is us. Hegel is then ready to describe his entire system, Logic, Nature and Mind, which ends with ‘Philosophy’, the last Section of the Philosophy of Spirit. Thus Hegel’s Absolute, in opposition to that of Schelling, is both a result, the outcome of the entire experience of history and the development of culture, as well as the implicit starting-point for the whole movement.
Kant – both as Enlightener and as a critic of the Enlightenment – had attempted to overcome the fragments of society in a unity of social and intellectual life which transcends experience. But Hegel tries to show how Spirit, which is immanent in the world, moves itself, from the standpoint of simple sensation all the way to religion and ‘Absolute Knowing’. We, the readers, ‘look on’ at this self-development. Each whole differentiates itself into many forms, which then exhibit their essential reconciliation, returning to the whole. Thus Geist, under its own steam, develops itself into higher and more comprehensive forms. Spirit makes itself from within itself. We are not forbidden to know the whole of truth, but nor can we know it immediately. It reveals itself only through the entire contradictory historical process. The Enlightenment thought that each rational individual had only to clear priestly mists of superstition and mysticism out of the way to be able to get a clear view of the truth. Hegel shows that knowing [Wissenschaft] unfolds itself in what is simultaneously the education of the individual, the contradictory movement of history, and the logical development of nature. The truth reveals itself through mystery.
That is why Hegel must be taken as a whole. ‘The True is the Whole’, he says in the Preface to the Phenomenology.
The true is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is; and that precisely in this consists its nature, viz. to be actual, subject, the spontaneous becoming of itself.
Another important idea follows from this. ‘Knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system.’ Any tendency to pick out odd bits which look interesting, episodes from his rich texture, misses the point of what he is trying to do. (Don’t forget: this is Hegel, not Marx. It is humanity as Geist which is self-creating here, not the same as what Marx will call humanity.)
Hegel’s last years in Berlin, 1819-31, are crucial for what we need from him. This includes his work (a) on the State (1821); (b) on the history of philosophy; (c) on Aesthetics; (d) on the philosophy of religion; (e) on the philosophy of history. In each of these fields, as with each of his earlier works, Hegel stresses the centrality of God. So, when Hegel frequently professes his Lutheran convictions, this is not, as some Young Hegelians supposed, just an attempt to stay within the bounds of respectability and keep his job.
Hegel does not conceive of the Christian Trinity as belonging to particular events in history. God the Father, the Creator, does his work all the time, putting Himself into His Creation. He is also identified with Logic, ‘logos’, ‘the Word’ of the Fourth Gospel.
‘The world is something produced by God, and so the divine idea always forms the foundation of what the world as a whole is’. (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion).
God creates the world and humanity within it, not out of free choice, but because he has to. He needs his creation, for without it ‘God is not God’. Without our conscious activity, God is not self-conscious. This is how Hegel regards Christ, who is also Nature. Only through the world of the Son does God become conscious of Himself. The Holy Spirit is this process of ascent to self-knowledge, taken as a whole. Hegel agrees that the Trinity is a mystery, and identifies his own ‘speculative philosophy’ as ‘mysticism’. But this does not imply that its truth must remain hidden: on the contrary, it is through mystery that God reveals himself. So, following Aristotle here, Hegel sees his own system as the self-thinking Idea which is at the same time the self-consciousness of God.
Hegel faces the problem of evil in a manner which entirely separates him from orthodoxy, while resembling closely the heretical ideas of the alchemists and mystics. For Hegel, Evil is a part of God’s creation. Indeed, the contradiction between Good and Evil is the driving force of all movement and development, and without it, there is no humanity. Thus Hegel’s account of the Fall, which resembles some Gnostic versions of the Mosaic Story, tears apart the Book of Genesis. As he explains:
The myth does not conclude with the expulsion from paradise. It says further, ‘God said: Behold, Adam is become as one of us, to know good and evil.’ [Genesis, 3:22.] Cognition is now something divine, and not, as earlier, what ought not to be. So in this story there lies also the refutation of the idle chatter about how philosophy belongs only to the finitude of spirit; philosophy is cognition, and the original calling of man, to be an image of God, can be realised only through cognition. (Encyclopaedia, para. 24, Addition 2.)
Hegel’s entire system is penetrated by this view of religion, which places him close to the Hermetic tradition and in opposition to the Enlightenment. It might be compared with the ideas of Hegel’s fellow-Böhmian and contemporary, William Blake (1757-1827). The Song of Liberty which ends his Marriage of Heaven and Hell declares, for example, that ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, that ‘the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’, that ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’ and that ‘Everything that lives is Holy’.
Look again at the triadic divisions which abound throughout Hegel’s system:
Subjective Mind, Objective Mind, Absolute Mind;
Logic, Nature, Mind;
Universal, Particular, Individual;
Being, Essence, Concept;
Abstract Right, Morality, Ethical Life;
Family, Civil Society, State.
Each element of each triad is itself a triad. But each of these is an expression of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The relationships among the members of each triad cannot be properly appreciated unless this is grasped. At every level, Hegel is showing how these three ‘Persons’ actively create and determine each other. Finally, Hegel sees God creating and being created by humanity, in the religious community. (The picture by MC Escher called ‘Drawing Hands’, in which each of two hands draws and is drawn by the other, might be a helpful illustration here.) In each triad, the third term both reconciles the opposition between the first two, and contains and preserves it. (The word ‘synthesis’, often murmured in relation to Hegel, doesn’t really fill the bill here. See, for instance, the last few paragraphs of the Encyclopaedia Philosophy of Mind, including the final quotation from Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Compare Hegel’s concluding three syllogisms, relating Universal, Particular and Individual, with the syllogisms of the holy Trinity, a few paragraphs earlier.)
The third member of each triad both arises from the contradiction between other two and reconciles them, as, for example, Spirit reconciles Father and Son. Hegel’s last book, the Philosophy of Right, reaches its climax in the State, which brings together in this way family and civil society, despite, or, rather, through, the contradictions he finds in them. Thus he highlights the conflicting relations between people in a world of private property and money. (In the Phenomenology, he savages this world as ‘the Animal Kingdom of Spirit’.) But in the development of the concept of State, he finds the way these battles can be philosophically overcome. So Marx will put his finger on Hegel’s inability to criticise political economy, and this involves him in a critique of Hegel’s notion of the State and his dialectic as a whole.
Thus Hegel turns both the Enlightenment conception of Reason and its religious opposite inside out. Hegel’s Reason, is identified with divine wisdom. It does not merely exist passively in human history, but that history expresses itself as ‘purposive activity’.
In our knowledge, we aim for the insight that whatever was intended by the Eternal Wisdom has come to fulfilment – as in the realm of nature, so in the realm of spirit that is active and actual in the world. (Reason in History, p 19.)
But in Hegel the ‘Eternal Wisdom’ is not a divine script which humanity is forced to perform, for the Spirit ‘that is active and actual in the world’ is the individual and social activity of humanity. History is the coming to be of freedom But the consciousness of an individual human ('finite spirit') is no more than a fragment of the whole story, which is only found in the Self-consciousness of Spirit. This is an alias for the Self-consciousness of God, worked out only through human history as a whole. (By the way, Hegel has no use for the immortality of an individual soul, ‘finite spirit’. Only the Infinite, the World Spirit, is eternal.)
Spirit is self-developing, simultaneously consciousness and self-consciousness: it is its own history.
(T)his development of the spirit, considered historically, is the history of philosophy. It is a history of all the self-developments of the spirit, an exhibition of these decisive moments and stages as they have followed one another in the course of time. ... Consequently, the history of philosophy is identical with the system of philosophy. (Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy.)
If Hegel’s account of the development of history did not include itself, it would be in contradiction with itself. In making itself ‘what it truly is’, Spirit is at the same time writing its autobiography. That is one reason to support the contention of Magee, in his remarkable book Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, that Hegel is best understood, not as a philosopher, explaining a world external to him, but as part of the Hermetic tradition.