The Young Hegel Georg Lukács 1938

3.3 Against abstract idealism in ethics

IF we now turn to Hegel’s criticisms of the ‘practical philosophy’ of subjective idealism we find a much larger body of material available from his earlier period to provide a comparison. We have already discussed in detail Hegel’s arguments against Kant’s ethics in Frankfurt (p. 146ff.). We shall see that the basic direction of his criticism remains the same but that it has now become much more concrete, detailed and above all more systematic. He no longer concerns himself just with the specific problems of Kantian ethics as they arise in the course of his own analyses. Instead, he now subjects the whole ‘practical philosophy’ of subjective idealism to a searching scrutiny. Moreover, his discussions relate these issues to the general philosophical positions of Kant, Fichte and Jacobi. Hegel considers the inadequacies of their moral philosophy to be the direct consequence of the fallacies and the one-sidedness of their world-view. He regards their treatment of moral problems as a test of the way in which subjective idealism must fail to deal with the salient problems of real life in society.

In the Difference Hegel only touches on isolated aspects of their ethical thought. In Faith and Knowledge he carries out a thorough analysis of subjective idealism in all its aspects, culminating in a criticism of ethical ideas. The last great polemical essay from the Kritisches Journal, the essay on Natural Law, is almost exclusively devoted to this question. In Faith and Knowledge Hegel locates the defect of a merely reflective philosophy in its inability to bridge the gulf between the universal and the empirical.

‘The one and the many confront each other as abstractions so that the polar opposites are opposed to each other, both positively and negatively, so that to the universal concept empirical reality is both an absolute something and an absolute nothing. By virtue of the former they are old-fashioned empiricism, by virtue of the latter they are both idealism and scepticism.’

And Hegel adds with particular reference to Fichte:

‘The immediate product of this formal idealism ... manifests itself in the following form: an amorphous empirical realm composed of a purely arbitrary variety of things stands opposed to an empty world of thought.’

This view of reality has particularly disastrous implications in the field of ethics. The ethical philosophy of subjective idealism is not able to attain to a true understanding of the general nature of moral imperatives and of the social content of ethics.

‘Because the emptiness of pure will and of the universal is the true a priori requirement, the particular is simply an empirical datum. It would be inconsistent to give a definition of what right and duty are in and for themselves; for the content at once annuls the pure will, duty for duty’s sake, and turns duty into something material. The vacuity of the pure feeling of duty constantly runs athwart the content.’

Following this general criticism Hegel raises the same objections to Kant and Fichte that we saw in the Frankfurt fragments: that their morality brings tyranny not freedom, that to live according to such a morality must lead to hypocrisy etc. In his general discussion of Kant and Fichte Hegel had already shown that their method leads only to an empty and abstract ‘ought’, to the vacuous notion of ‘infinite progress’. In the realm of ethics these concepts are given a more concrete form which reveals the nullity of subjective idealism even better than in the realm of pure theory. By postulating the ‘ought’ of morality Kant and Fichte had hoped to raise themselves above the ordinary empirical consciousness of the individual and to achieve a true ethical universality. Hegel lays bare the fallacy involved in this and shows that the ‘ought’ leads straight back to the vulgar empirical individualist posture vis-à-vis society and the world.

‘... for from the very outset the “ought” admits of no totality; but instead the manifold variety of the world appears as an incomprehensible, basic determinacy and empirical necessity. Particularity and difference as such are absolute. The standpoint for this reality is the empirical standpoint of each individual; and for each individual, the actual is the incomprehensible sphere of a vulgar reality by which he happens to be enclosed.’

Thus in this system of morality the general sterility of subjective idealism, its failure to comprehend concrete reality, is clearly exposed.

We may recollect Hegel’s argument that the concept of infinite progress is not able to solve any significant problem and that it merely repeats and reproduces in philosophical language the unsolved problems of subjective idealism. In ‘practical philosophy’ the connection between the ‘ought’ and the infinite progress is even clearer. Hegel shows that the concept of infinite progress itself points to the unrealizability of the programme of subjective idealism, that it is an admission that even if the programme of subjective idealism were to be realized this would only invalidate its own premises, and that therefore these premises are in contradiction with reality. In the course of an argument where Hegel shows that Jacobi really shares the assumptions of Kant and Fichte even though he is vigorously attacking them Hegel goes on to say:

‘The moral world-order that resides in faith [‘faith’ is the central concept in Jacobi’s philosophical system – G.L.] is utterly external to the Ego; the Ego can enter it, or it can enter the Ego, acquire reality for the Ego – solely in an infinite progress. For the Ego things simply cannot become what they ought to be, for then the Non-Ego would cease to exist and would become Ego, because Ego=Ego would stand as an absolute identity without any other axiom, and because the Ego would be annulled by something it had itself posited, thereby ceasing to be Ego. Thus this method of escaping from dualism is as futile as Jacobi could hope for.’

(Jacobi consistently opposed every type of monism, not merely the authentic monism of Spinoza but the ostensible monism of Kant and Fichte. Hegel’s remarks here have a double edge. On the one hand, he shows that what is apparently monism in Kant and Fichte is really dualistic, while on the other hand he shows that Jacobi, who thought that his unmediated concept of faith placed him above Kant and Fichte, really shares the same subjective-idealist assumptions.)

Hegel pulls no punches in the language he employs to describe the philosophy of Kant and Fichte. At one point he speaks of their ‘sublime hollowness and uniquely consistent vacuity’, and elsewhere he refers to the ‘distasteful pure heights’ of abstraction. The appeal of subjective idealism to the most noble and sublime sentiments of man, to the function of pure ethics in binding man to a supernatural world, makes absolutely no impression on Hegel. On the contrary, he just observes that ‘the supernatural world represents merely a flight from the natural one’. The longing for freedom expressed in both Kant and Fichte is in Hegel’s eyes only a failure to grasp the real movement of society in its concrete totality. He regards this longing for freedom as ‘overweening pride’. Fichte’s philosophy consists in

‘Sorrow that he is at one with the universe, that eternal nature acts through him; he feels loathing and horror at the idea of subjecting himself to the eternal laws of nature with their sacred and immutable necessity, and he feels sorrow and even despair if he is unable to free himself from the eternal laws of nature with their stern necessity.... Just as if these laws were not rational, as if they were laws which would put the Ego to shame if it were to accept their authority, as if it would make him indescribably wretched to have to obey them, as if it would make him despair if he were to be subjected to them.’

There can be no doubt that Hegel’s position here is both more true and more progressive than Fichte’s and that the construction of an effective ethical system, one that will be able to encompass all the problems of man in society, can be accomplished only with his methods rather than those of Kant and Fichte. Nevertheless, this disagreement between them reflects the great general contradictions of the age which none of them were able fully to resolve. Engels’ pronouncement about the dialectics of organic development ‘that every step forward is ... at the same time a step backward, since it hardens out a one-sided development’ is particularly relevant to this debate.

Hegel’s criticism makes the defects of Fichte’s position stand out very clearly. But when we pass judgment on Fichte’s concept of freedom we must not forget that it came into being in the context of the French Revolution of which it is an ideological reflection. Fichte may indeed overestimate the gulf dividing freedom from reality in a manner characteristic of abstract idealism, but this exaggeration should not blind us to his realistic assessment of the political situation. And this is not just true of Germany where the French Revolution had as yet done nothing to remove the vestiges of feudalism – not until Napoleon was the French occupation effective in liquidating certain feudal remains in some parts of Germany and in provoking a reform movement in Prussia. The demands for freedom put forward in the Revolution do indeed clash head-on with the realities of Germany, much as Fichte claims that the need for freedom will clash with reality in any society at any time. But the failure of the French Revolution to satisfy demands for freedom, both in general and those of Fichte in particular, was not just confined to Germany. We have already indicated that Fichte was a radical democratic supporter of the Revolution and shared the view that the concepts of freedom and equality should be extended to the realm of private property. The fact that the proposals he advanced were more than a little naive (and even more naive than the ideas of Babeuf in France) is an inevitable consequence of the entire historical situation. Thus the disagreement between Hegel and Fichte is a reflection of a great world-historical conflict of the age. On the one hand, bourgeois society actually came into being in consequence of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England. Hegel’s philosophy was an attempt to provide this bourgeois actuality with a philosophy. On the other hand, neither the English nor the French Revolution was able to achieve such a perfect state of democracy or to have such complete success in eliminating the remnants of feudalism as the real democratic revolutionaries had longed and fought for. In this sense even in Western Europe the bourgeois democratic revolution could not be said to have been completed. It is this aspect of the historical situation that Fichte reflected in his philosophy, albeit in a subjectivist, exaggerated manner. The entire dispute was exacerbated still further because it took place in Germany where, as we know, a bourgeois democratic revolution could not be considered except as a possibility in the distant future.

Hence both Fichte and Hegel may be said to stand rather one-sidedly for one aspect of this world-historical conflict. And if we contemplate the later course of democratic revolutions in Western Europe we can see that neither of them had the whole truth about the Revolution itself and the bourgeois society to which it gave birth. By the middle of the nineteenth century the role of the proletariat had become extraordinarily important – notwithstanding the bourgeois-democratic content of the revolutions themselves and with the passage of time even bourgeois-democratic revolutions could only be understood properly from the standpoint of the proletariat. In this context too we can see the relevance of Marx’s comment that

‘rudiments of more advanced forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the more advanced forms are already known. Bourgeois economy thus provides a key to the economy of antiquity, etc.’

A truly dialectical theory of bourgeois revolution and bourgeois society is to be found only in dialectical materialism.

It is this situation that gave rise to Fichte’s abstract utopianism. He was a revolutionary thinker in a country that lacked a revolutionary movement. And when later, at the time of the war of liberation against Napoleon, he did come into contact with a popular movement, its reactionary features had a disastrous impact on his philosophy. The objectivism of Hegel’s philosophy was rendered possible by the fact that right from the start he unreservedly accepted the bourgeois society that emerged from the French Revolution as an incontrovertible reality. In his thought he was concerned above all to understand it as it was, to recognize its underlying principles and explain them philosophically. The fact that a former supporter of the French Revolution could advance logically to such a position is explained by the circumstance that Hegel, as we know, was never in sympathy with the radical democratic wing of the Jacobins. There was accordingly no contradiction in his development from supporter of the French Revolution to supporter of Napoleon.

This leads us to the paradoxical conclusion that Hegel’s superiority over Fichte as a philosopher, his superiority as a social philosopher, is connected with the more undemocratic basis of his social and political thought. Such paradoxes are not infrequent in history. In this case we may explain it by the unreality of political commitments for or against democracy or revolution in Germany in practice: such commitments were purely ideological in nature. No sooner did they come into contact with concrete political movements in Germany than the reactionary features of German society began to exercise an undue influence on their thought. In Fichte’s case this happened, as we have seen, at the time of the Wars of Liberations in 1813; in the case of Hegel, not until his Berlin period (from 1818 to his death). Wherever the democratic aspirations of ideologists have some foundation in a real popular movement, however feeble, contradictions of this sort are not possible. We need think only of the ideological superiority of the revolutionary democrats in Russia over all their ideological opponents.

The contrast between Hegel and Fichte is nowhere more clearly expressed than where Hegel takes issue with Fichte’s ideas about insurrection and ‘right to rebel’. In his Foundation of Natural Law (1796) Fichte puts forward radical revolutionary views. He says:

‘However – and this is something we must not lose sight of – the people is never rebellious and to use the expression rebellion with reference to it is the greatest nonsense imaginable. For the people is in fact and in law the highest power beyond which there is no other: it is, the source of all power and is responsible to God alone. When it assembles – the executive power loses its authority both in fact and according to law. Rebellion must be directed against a higher authority. But what is there on earth that is higher than the people! It could rebel only against itself, which is nonsense. Only God stands above the people. So if it is said that a people has rebelled against its ruler then we must assume that the ruler is a god, an assumption that might be difficult to prove.’

Fichte conceives of the sovereignty of the people as taking the following form in actual practice: in normal times the executive power will have all the power in its hands. Alongside the executive, however, there is another body, the so-called ephors or governors. They have no real power unless the executive oversteps the limits of the constitution, whereupon they are entitled to proclaim an interdict, suspend the power of the executive, and summon the people together as the final arbiters in the particular dispute. Similarly the debate about the right of the people to rebel is not confined to academic circles. It played a very important role in the struggles surrounding the French constitution during the Revolution. Robespierre and the Jacobins consistently defended the people’s right to revolution; Condorcet as the ideologist of the Girondins was opposed to it and wished to devise institutions which would resolve constitutional conflicts in a legal manner. The argument between Robespierre and Condorcet was taken up with great energy by German theorists, including Hegel who refers to the problem in his pamphlet on the German constitution.

In his essay on Natural Law Hegel savagely attacks this Fichtean theory. His arguments are as close to Condorcet as Fichte’s are to those of Robespierre. That is to say: in both men we find that a French reality has evaporated into a German philosophical abstraction. The decisive point in Hegel’s argument is his total rejection of the right to rebel:

‘since this pure power consists merely of a host of private wills which for that reason cannot constitute themselves as the common will.’

Thus Hegel defends the undemocratic position that the immediate expression of the will of the people cannot create a real, ordered state of law. The weakness of his position is thus clearly exposed.

But Hegel’s strength and his sober assessment of actual conditions is very apparent in his refutation of Fichte’s proposed constitution. His analysis of the relations between the executive and the ephorate does not just content itself with the formal legal problem (as does Fichte) but instead he examines their actual power-relations. And this leads him to the irrefutable conclusion that if both executive and ephorate had the same powers then the state would become a kind of ‘perpetuum mobile’ which ‘instead of moving would find itself in perfect balance and so in a perpetuum quietum’. Hegel realizes that in a normally functioning state – and every constitution is designed to function normally over a long period of time – a dual authority is untenable in the long run. And if either the executive or the ephorate gains the upper hand, i.e. if there is in effect a unified authority, then the entire Fichtean edifice falls to the ground.

Thus we can see the historical limitations of both parties to the dispute who for all their differences nevertheless share common ground. It is evident that the core of the dispute is the question of a dual authority. This issue was a practical one in the French Revolution – in the Paris commune, the Jacobin Club etc., vis-à-vis the Convention. But even those who were involved in events or who, like Robespierre, helped to organize and lead and even exploit this dual authority did not and could not understand its social nature. This is why Robespierre wished to build the right to rebel into the constitution of 1793. Fichte’s philosophy is a simple if idealistically magnified reflection of this misunderstanding of these legalistic prejudices about the nature of revolution. (The tenacity of such prejudices can be seen from the role they play in Lassalle’s System of Acquired Rights.) Hegel reached the point where he could see through the formalistic and impotent definitions of constitutional law and grasp the underlying issues of political power. But this vision was blurred by his inability to perceive the creative force inherent in a revolutionary movement of the people.

Very interesting, and very typical of Hegel, is the fact that he ends his polemic against Fichte with a reference to Bonaparte’s coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire. His aim is not simply to point up the impotence of Fichte’s ephorate (since all French governments at this period had similar if less far-fetched supervisory bodies) but also to show how in his view changes in a constitution are in fact brought about. He does not mention Napoleon by name. But since the coup d’état took place in 1799 and the essay was written in the winter of 1802-3 there can be no doubt that he is referring to it:

‘It is well known that on a recent occasion when a government succeeded in dissolving a legislative body in competition with it and paralysing it, it was suggested that a supervisory body along the lines of Fichte’s ephorate would have prevented such a coup de main. A man who was closely involved in the affair gave it as his view that had such a council attempted to offer any resistance it would have been treated in like fashion.’

We shall see that Hegel later thought of Napoleon as the ‘great teacher of constitutional law in Paris’. It is very characteristic that he used him as an argument against Fichte even at this early stage.

This disagreement between Hegel and Fichte goes back ultimately to Fichte’s belief that all social and juridical institutions are merely restrictions on human freedom, whereas Hegel maintains that

‘the highest community is the greatest freedom both in terms of power and of the exercise of one’s rights.’

It is obvious that this dispute was based on the disagreement discussed above about the nature of the bourgeois society that succeeded the French Revolution. Its effect on Hegel was that he could detect nothing in Fichte’s ethics and political theory but servitude and the suppression of man and nature.

We have already had occasion to discuss the purely moral problems that arise here in our analysis of Hegel’s Frankfurt critique of Kant and we showed then that Hegel’s remarks held good for Fichte too. The explicit polemic against Fichte fully bears this out so that we need not concern ourselves further with it here. On the issue of the theory of law and the state Hegel consistently satirized Fichte’s efforts to regiment everything and to deduce all his regulations a priori from the nature of philosophy. Thus Fichte attempted to prove that regulations can be drawn up which will prevent the forgery of money and bills of exchange, or determine which passport a person should have and how it is to be issued etc. Elsewhere he refers to a statute-book drawn up according to Fichtean precepts as a ‘price-list’.

There is much more at issue here than satire at the expense of the more eccentric forms of Fichte’s idealism. Behind his ironical remarks lie two fundamental theoretical positions. First, there is his view that the real motor force powering society is society’s own uninterrupted organic self-reproduction, that therefore society in the course of its development will produce the institutions it requires, and that these cannot be imposed on it by any external authority, not even that of a deductive philosophy. (We shall see later on at what point and for what reason Hegel fails to carry out his own perfectly correct prescriptions.) Second, he holds to the principle that the general content of law is systematically and historically necessary, but that, just because of this, the particular determinations of the law and above all their application to isolated instances must always contain a chance element. According to Hegel it will always be a contingent matter to decide whether a given crime should be punished by three or four years in prison; problems of this sort cannot be resolved by an appeal to philosophy. We see here the great fundamental frontier between the concrete objective idealism of Hegel and the abstract subjective idealism of Fichte.

This abstractness stems in Hegel’s view from the formalist nature of subjective idealism. It avoids all problems of content on principle. The content of moral or legal imperatives is always established by a sort of swindle, never by a true deduction from its own premises. Hegel had already come to this conclusion in Frankfurt. Now he reiterates the same idea, but in a more resolute and theoretically better-grounded way. As he puts it:

‘But the will is pure identity without any content, and it is pure only insofar as it is entirely formal and without content. It is not possible for its object to generate a content of its own. ...’

The concrete implications of this disagreement can be seen from a passage where Hegel criticizes a crucial argument from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Kant is in the process of concretizing the supreme law of morality, the categorical imperative, by arguing that a criterion for moral rightness or wrongness is to be found in the absence or presence of contradiction in the actions of men. He believes that if a man can convert a particular moral maxim into a universal law without involving himself in contradiction, he will thereby establish the rightness of the maxim in question. As an example Kant argues that it can never be right to embezzle a deposit. He says:

‘I at once became aware that such a principle, viewed as a law, would annihilate itself, because the result would be that there would be no more deposits.’

Kant believes then that the principle of contradiction will suffice to enable the social content of the categorical imperative to be deduced in any given case.

Hegel’s reply to this argument is clear and incisive:

‘What if there were no deposits, where is the contradiction in that? For there to be no deposit would contradict other necessarily determined facts: just as the possibility of deposits is connected with yet other necessary facts and so itself becomes necessary. But it is not permissible to invoke other purposes and other material grounds; only the immediate form of the concept may decide which of the two assumptions is correct, but each of the opposed facts is as immaterial to the form as the other.’

In the first place, Hegel refuses to accept that any social content can be derived from a formal moral maxim. The various institutions of society are a coherent and constantly changing concrete totality. Their necessity is something that can be deduced only from their position within that totality. Since Kant does not even consider this question (because he is concerned only to derive them from a formal moral law) his proof is ipso facto illicit. In the second place, Hegel is concerned here to combat the antithesis between internal and external in ethics, the antithesis between morality and legality. According to Hegel morality is an important part, but no more than a part of the social activity of man. Hence it cannot be separated from the concrete totality of society with its external laws and institutions. Hegel argues that in Kant and Fichte there is a division between the rigid and lifeless set of institutions on the one hand, and the empty abstract inwardness of moral man on the other. Hegel defends an opposing view in which there is a continuous interaction between all the moments of the dialectical movement according to which men make their society with all its institutions, a society in which they then work and live as independent beings.

This abstract and undialectical division of internal and external is in Hegel’s view the real reason why Jacobi shares the same ground as Kant and Fichte and is implicated in all their errors, even though he relentlessly attacks them in all his writings, frequently with extremely pertinent arguments.

Superficially Jacobi’s philosophy does indeed represent the exact opposite of Kant and Fichte. The latter proclaim the majesty of the abstract and universal moral law and allow the aspirations of individual men, actual living men, only as much scope as is compatible with the moral law. Jacobi, on the other hand, appeals to actual man as a unique being. From history, literature and legend he draws on a vast number of anecdotes and exempla which prove that actions which appear criminal according to the commandments of formal ethical codes or customary moral beliefs, are in reality the expression of a lofty human morality. He actually demands the right to such ‘crimes’ because ‘the law was made for the sake of man, not man for the sake of the law.’

Now Hegel does not dispute that the objections to Kant and Fichte raised here have a certain force. He himself had opposed the Kantian ethic in Frankfurt on the grounds that it fragmented, violated and tyrannized over actual, living men. But he shows that from a quite different angle Jacobi too, no less than Kant and Fichte, opposes the isolated individual to a wholly alien society. According to Hegel living human beings are human beings living in a concrete society, and their human totality and vitality can only be expressed in the context of that society. Isolated from this man becomes just as abstract and schematic as the human beings posited by the abstract moral law of Kant and Fichte.

In support of his own view Jacobi mentions the story of the two Spartans who, when asked by the King of the Persians whether they would not remain and live in his country, replied:

‘How could we live here and abandon our land, our laws and our people, for whom we have freely undertaken this great journey so that we might lay down our lives for them?’

Jacobi interprets this incident in the following manner:

‘They did not attempt to convince him of their truth.... They did not appeal to their understanding, their fine judgement; they appealed only to things and their preference for these things. They did not lay claim to any virtue, nor to any philosophy. They simply declared what lay in their hearts, their feelings, their experience ...’

It is at this point that Hegel detects a subjectivism similar to that in Kant and Fichte. He says of Jacobi’s interpretation:

‘But Jacobi refers to the most vital matters: country, people and laws, as things to which they are accustomed as one is accustomed to things. He thinks of them not as sacred things but as common ones.... He regards as chance and contingency things which contain the highest necessity and the highest energy of ethical freedom, viz. to live in accordance with the laws of a people, of the Spartan nation moreover. He thinks of that which is most rational as if it were something ordinary and empirical.’

Hence Hegel thinks of Kant/Fichte and Jacobi as possessing mutually complementary, one-sided philosophies which have at least one common feature: they all neglect the actual concrete realm of human activity. They are blind to it and treat it as contingent, external and secondary. The critique of Jacobi supplements the criticism of the Kantian categorical imperative, so that Hegel can say by way of summing up:

‘Ethical beauty may not dispense with either aspect: either with living individuality, without which it becomes subservient to lifeless concepts, or with the form of the concept and the law, universality and objectivity.

This attack on Jacobi was highly topical at the time it was written. It was the heyday of Romanticism and although Jacobi himself was not personally a member or supporter of the Romantic school in the narrower sense, he was the representative of an ideological current that helped to prepare the way for certain reactionary elements of Romanticism. In brief, the issue turns on the situation that arose when the Enlightened democratic rebellion of the most progressive elements of the German intelligentsia against feudal absolutism in Germany began to disintegrate rapidly. The most striking achievements of this phase had been Goethe’s Werther and Schiller’s Robbers and Love and Intrigue. The degeneration set in partly because of the disaffection of important sectors of the bourgeoisie from the actuality of the French Revolution.

The passionate individualism of Goethe and Schiller in their youth had an explicitly anti-feudal bias and their demand for freedom was no less explicitly critical of the existing social order. Their successors simply took over their call for individual fulfilment without any attempt to fight against the concrete social obstacles impeding the development of the individual in Germany. Some of them simply lost all interest in social criticism, others criticized society in general as an obstacle to individual fulfilment. In the process they intellectually and artistically detached the individual from all social bonds and set him abstractly and exclusively over against society.

This development corresponds to the general ideological situation. The literary and intellectual activity of Goethe and Schiller in their youth was a final climactic moment of the pre-revolutionary Enlightenment. In the Prometheus fragment and other poems of his youth we find Goethe proclaiming a Spinozistic philosophy. The degeneration of the socially critical revolt of the individual into an abstract cult of individuality leads also to a defection from the general principles of the Enlightenment, which as we have seen was never really materialist in Germany and which culminated in the Spinozism of the later Lessing, Goethe and Herder. With Jacobi the attack on Spinoza’s atheism began in Germany.

The Romantic School, in its later increasingly reactionary view of individuality, could take their cue from Jacobi and his like. From this vantage-point they could resume the attack on the Enlightenment. Of course, the later Romantics had the additional refinement of claiming that the Middle Ages had permitted a freer development of the individual than the ‘atomism’ of the present. The Romantic School in Jena had not yet fully explored these possibilities. Nevertheless, the idea of a limitless, empty individualism already played a crucial role in Jena. In his early republican phase Friedrich Schlegel the chief ideologist of the group had mocked Jacobi claiming that he had no concept of humanity, but only of ‘Friedrich Heinrich Jacobity.’ But only a few years later, in 1799, he published his notorious novel Lucinde in which abstract individualistic and irrationalist tendencies were already taken to extremes. Schleiermacher, the other leading ideologist of the Romantic School, followed this up with an anonymous defence of the novel in which he provided this individualism and irrationalism with a theoretical basis. Independently of the Romantic School and indeed partly in opposition to it the novels of Jean Paul were widely read and highly esteemed at around this time, and Jean Paul always claimed to be a disciple and follower of Jacobi.

This sketchy outline may perhaps convey some idea of the topicality of Hegel’s sharp criticism of Jacobi’s views on morality. This must be emphasized because the neo-Hegelians are constantly at pains to turn Hegel into a ‘philosopher of life’ and an irrationalist. In this context it is of great importance to bear in mind that Hegel puts the abstract and empty individualism of Kant and Fichte on the same plane as Jacobi’s irrationalist ‘philosophy of life’. For we have seen how the neo-Kantianism of the Imperialist period (Simmel) contrived to create a synthesis of Kantianism and the ‘philosophy of life’, thus converting Hegel’s critical view of this affinity into one of positive affirmation. As we have seen, neo-Hegelianism also attempted to obscure the distinction between Kant and Hegel and to assimilate Hegel to the Romantic ‘philosophy of life’. Ignoring overtly Fascist interpretations (Hugo Fischer) we can still find the following description of Hegel in the ‘standard work’ of the neo-Hegelian Richard Kroner:

‘Hegel is undoubtedly the greatest irrationalist known to the history of philosophy.’

The blatant falsifications committed during the Fascist and pre-Fascist era must be countered by a presentation of the true facts of the intellectual situation at the time and a concrete analysis of Hegel’s attitude towards them.

The true fact of the matter is that Hegel together with Goethe (whom the modern irrationalistic revisors of German history also claim for their cause) always stood out against Romantic individualism and the irrationalist ‘philosophy of life’. Hegel’s final judgment of Jacobi’s philosophy is that his narrow emphasis on the individual,

‘his eternal meditation on the subject, which replaces ethical freedom with excessive scrupulosity, nostalgic egoism and ethical debility’

can lead only to an ‘inward idolatry’. Revealingly, Hegel refers to the life of a man trapped in his own individuality as a ‘Hell ‘ and no less revealingly he appeals to the authority of Goethe who in his Iphigenie dramatizes this hell as the fate of Orestes but is evidently fully aware both of its disintegrating, problematic nature and of the fact that the task of progressive humanism is to discover a way out of this impasse of individualism in the modern world. Goethe’s awareness of his humanist mission is what makes him the great poet of his age. Hegel goes on to measure Jacobi’s poetic works against the artistic, moral and intellectual standard set by Goethe.

‘Thus in his heroes Allwil and Woldemar we witness the torment that springs from an eternal contemplation of the self not even in the course of acting, but in the still greater boredom and lassitude of an empty existence; this self-prostitution is portrayed as the explanation for the catastrophe that befalls them in their non-novelistic adventures but it is not annulled at the moment of disaster and the uncatastrophic virtue of their whole environment is also more or less tainted by the same hell.’

It is very revealing that the section of Faith and Knowledge which treats of Jacobi concludes with a discussion of Schleiermacher’s Discourses on Religion, one of the programmatic works of the Jena Romantic School. Hegel reproaches Schleiermacher with cultivating the same empty subjectivity as Jacobi:

‘Thus even the contemplation of the universe is turned into subjectivity since ... it is a piece of virtuosity and not even nostalgia, but a search for nostalgia ... the expression of something utterly inward, the unmediated explosion or succession of isolated and particular enthusiasms and not the truthful statement that a work of art should be.’

Thus Hegel castigates in Schleiermacher what he criticized in Jacobi. Scheiermacher wishes ‘to cultivate art without works of art’, and the ‘philosophy of life’ is to achieve its ‘practical’ fulfilment as ‘Lebenskunst’, the art of living. Hence Schleiermacher remains at the same level of individualistic immediacy as Jacobi.

To bring out the profound affinity of such views with the philosophy of Kant we would just like to cite one comment in Hegel’s Jena Notebook:

‘Of Kant it is admiringly claimed that he teaches philosophizing, not philosophy, just as if a man were to teach carpentry without ever making a single table or chair, door or cupboard.’

Thus Hegel views Kant, Jacobi and Fichte as part of the same philosophical trend in which with historical necessity the hollowness and problematic nature of modern individualism is reproduced in its various stages. The morality of objective idealism with which he now confronts the advocates of subjective idealism culminates in the proposition that ‘absolute ethical totality is nothing other than a people’. And he goes on to summarize his own position by citing the answer given by a Pythagorean in Diogenes Laertius to a question about the nature of the best education: ‘Make him the citizen of a well-ordered nation’.

Engels clearly perceived this fundamental tenet of Hegelian morality and he counterpoised it to Feuerbach’s abstract ethical views.

‘Hegel’s ethics or doctrine of moral conduct is the philosophy of right and embraces: (1) abstract right: (2) morality: (3) social ethics, under which again are comprised: the family, civil society and the state. Here the content is as realistic as the form is idealistic. Besides morality the whole sphere of law, economy, politics is here included.’

Both in content and structure Hegel’s ethics in his Jena period differs from its later formulation. But as a general account of the tendencies operative in his views on ethics Engels’ description may be taken to apply to this period also. Now that we have to some extent extracted Hegel’s positive ideas from his polemic with subjective idealism we must confront the problem of presenting the issues discussed by Hegel in their proper context. The first prerequisite for this is an understanding of how, according to Hegel, modern civil society came into being, for it is the substantive nature and the institutions of that society that form the context for his ideas on morality.