The Young Hegel. Georg Lukács 1938
Part IV. The Breach with Schelling and The Phenomenology of Mind (Jena 1803-1807)

4.2 Hegel’s political opinions and his approach to history in the period of The Phenomenology of Mind

WE have seen how the central problem of Hegel’s later philosophy was already announced programmatically in The Phenomenology of Mind. The Phenomenology marks the close of the preparatory phase of the Hegelian system; with its publication the fully-developed personality of Hegel stands before us in its world-historical significance. Nevertheless, it would be going too far simply to identify the Hegel of the Phenomenology with the progenitor of the later system. Between the two, great events in the external world intervene, events to which Hegel responds passionately and from the centre of his being, and which consequently cannot pass away without leaving their traces in his work. It is not possible for us to examine these changes since they affect the entire structure of his philosophy and involve the revision of important categories. In what follows we shall be able to touch on a few of the issues, but only in so far as they enable us to clarify certain aspects of the Phenomenology.

On the other hand, we must also insist that it would be false to open up a great chasm between the Phenomenology and the later work. The fact that in the Encyclopaedia the chapter on phenomenology is much reduced in importance when set alongside The Phenomenology of Mind in the context of the Jena system, does not justify such a conclusion. Especially since we know that, in his last years, Hegel was engaged on preparing a new edition of the Phenomenology. Naturally, we would only be able to draw conclusions about his later attitude towards it if it had in fact been published. Unfortunately that was not the case. Our knowledge of his development, however, does allow us to assert that he continued to adhere to the idea of dialectical unity as the ‘identity of identity and non-identity’. The particular nature of this development, the relations between its various stages and the great events of the contemporary world, are tasks that remain for Marxist scholars once the vast available material has been assimilated.

For bourgeois students of Hegel the Phenomenology is an unpalatable, even uncanny work. Various ‘ingenious’ hypotheses have been devised to obliterate its specific character. We do not intend to importune the reader with these various arbitrary theories, but will content ourselves with mentioning just one example as a warning: the latest theory of the noted Hegel scholar Th. Haering concerning the origins of the Phenomenology. According to him the Phenomenology is nothing but an improvisation.

‘This strongly suggests that it did not really occur to him to write a full-scale introduction until after the publisher’s contract was signed and even after the first part of the MS had been delivered.’

And since Haering really can show from Hegel’s letters that there were delays in delivering the manuscript to the printers he ventures the ‘ingenious’ hypothesis that Hegel had quickly improvised the second half of the work, hastily assembling it from earlier manuscripts and old lecture notes. From this account of its origin Haering draws the conclusion that the Phenomenology represented ‘a merely provisional’ stage. In essence it is no more than

‘a character study (Wesensschau) of the spirit in an almost Husserlian sense.’

It is not too hard to discover why a Fascist like Haering should have striven to depreciate the Phenomenology in this way. Haym, the old, national-liberal biographer of Hegel, let the cat out of the bag years ago, though of course without knowledge of the particular problems under discussion here. His discussion of the Phenomenology ends in an indignant stream of abuse at Hegel for his unpatriotic attitude at the time of the Prussian catastrophe, at the great defeat at Jena in 1806. After Jena Hegel had celebrated Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians as the victory of civilization over feudal barbarism. Of course, Haym’s conclusions are not at all limited to the Phenomenology, in fact they are extended to apply to his entire philosophy. He discerns an ‘aesthetic’ element in Hegel which causes him to turn away from life, to do violence to it, and this is compared very unfavourably with Fichte’s upright patriotism:

‘He cast dusty metaphysics aside and his manly voice uttered a clarion call arousing the torpid consciousness of the nation from its slumbers.’

Of course, the fact that this awakening meant the end of Fichte’s career as a philosopher of European significance, the fact that as a philosopher he fell a tragic victim to the insoluble contradictions of contemporary Germany worried Haym not at all. After all his biography of Hegel was written at that turning-point of history when the German bourgeoisie had become fully determined to liquidate its old liberal traditions and utterly to subordinate the idea of ‘freedom’ to that of ‘unity’, and in a word to capitulate entirely to what Engels called the ‘Bonapartist monarchy’ of the Hohenzollerns under the leadership of Bismarck.

The outstanding German Marxist, Franz Mehring has provided the best description of the complex situation in Germany at the time of the battle of Jena. He makes an illuminating comparison between the battle of Jena and the storming of the Bastille in Paris and argues very convincingly that the collapse of the feudal monarchies in France and Germany had very different consequences in the two countries because of the different manner of their downfall. In particular this was the moment when the trends of which we have been speaking came into existence, it was the time when the movement to liquidate the vestiges of feudalism in Germany parted company from the movement to achieve national unity and to free Germany from the domination of France. In this historical parting of the ways the Romantics placed themselves on the side of national liberation under the leadership of Austria and Prussia and since the latter became increasingly reactionary, especially after the fall of Napoleon, the Romantics lapsed for the most part into the worst sort of obscurantism. (It was the insoluble contradictions arising from this situation that were the ruin of Fichte as a philosopher.) The most outstanding Germans of the day, Goethe and Hegel, became supporters of Napoleon; they hoped he would bring destruction to the remnants of feudalism in Germany and they thereby cut themselves off from the sympathies of the great mass of the people, especially in North Germany.

The reverence felt by Goethe and Hegel for Napoleon is too well known and too well authenticated to be entirely denied even by German nationalist historians. But even here they try to confuse the issue by representing it as part of an abstract cult of genius in general. (This was especially true of the literature on Goethe produced during the Age of Imperialism from Nietzsche to Gundolf.) What concerns us is the concrete political meaning of Hegel’s attitude towards Napoleon. For reasons that require no explanation when considering the general state of affairs in Germany we find it expressed less in his published works than in his private letters. Indeed, he spoke really openly only to his proven friend, the philosopher Niethammer.

In his letters to Niethammer his political views emerge quite unambiguously. We need only cite a few major statements, for these will suffice to make it perfectly clear to the reader that Hegel’s admiration for Napoleon had none of the marks of an abstract worship of genius in general – and, as we know from his ideas about the role of great men in history, such a posture was quite alien to him. On the contrary, it was concerned entirely with Napoleon as the man destined to make the heritage of the French Revolution a practical reality in Germany. In a word, we may say that throughout the entire period up to the fall of Napoleon, and even beyond that, Hegel consistently supported the policy of the Confederation of the Rhine.

The letter to Niethammer in which he described his immediate feelings after learning of the battle of Jena is well known. We quote it only because the other letters belong to the period after the completion of the Phenomenology and our aim is to show that there was a consistent pattern in Hegel’s views from his approval of Napoleon’s coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire to the essay on Natural Law and on to the fall of Napoleon. Our point, then, is that the political mood and the appraisal of the present age contained in the Phenomenology was an organic component of this development. On 13 October 1806 he wrote:

‘The Emperor – this world soul – I saw riding through the city to a review of his troops; it is indeed a wonderful feeling to see such an individual, who concentrated here in a single point, riding on a horse, reaches out over the world and dominates it.... Of course, a more favourable prognosis for the Prussians was not really possible, but even so, to make such progress between Thursday and Monday was something that only this extraordinary man could have achieved, and it is not possible not to admire him.’

In subsequent letters the concrete political content is much more explicit. On 29 August 1807 he wrote to Niethammer:

‘The German teachers of constitutional law are still busy turning out a plethora of writings on the concept of sovereignty and the meaning of the Federal Constitution. Meanwhile the great teacher of constitutional law is sitting in Paris.’

He goes on to speak of disputes between the rulers and the Estates in a number of Federal states and then says:

‘When the Estates in Württemberg were dissolved Napoleon said to Grimm, the Württemberg Minister; “I made your master a sovereign, not a despot.” The German rulers have not yet understood the concept of a free monarchy, nor have they tried it in practice – Napoleon will have to organize all that. – The changes he will make will come as a surprise in certain quarters.’

And on 13 October 1807, he writes in the same vein:

‘The final decision does not yet seem to have been reached in Paris. When it does come, there are a number of pointers which suggest that it will go beyond the external division of territory and affect internal organization too, to the advantage of the peoples.’

And he writes similarly on 11 February 1808, in connection with the introduction of the Code Napoleon into Germany:

‘The importance of the Code, however, is nothing as compared with the hope it gives rise to that even the other parts of the French or Westphalian constitution might be introduced. – It will hardly take place voluntarily, nor from the realization of its merits – for where can that be found? It will only come to pass if it is the will of Heaven, i.e. of the French Emperor, and if the contemporary characteristic modalities of centralization and organisation disappear which embody neither justice nor the will of the people but only the arbitrary caprice and the casuistry of an individual.’

It is thus perfectly clear that during this period Hegel was not only in agreement with the policy of the Confederation of the Rhine, but also that on every single question he expected a progressive solution from Napoleon and from the vigorous pressure he would bring to bear on the German rulers. The only point on which he diverges from Napoleon is on the issue of complete administrative centralization. And even here his letters indicate that he thought improvement would come from an internal evolution of the Napoleonic system itself. Thus this single caveat does not allow us to infer any larger hostility towards the Napoleonic regime.

It is consistent with this that Hegel regarded the German War of Liberation against Napoleon with scepticism, and that he hoped for and expected a victory for the Emperor right to the very end. The fall of Napoleon appeared to him to be a tragedy of universal dimensions and his letters are full of the bitterest criticism of the mediocrity which had triumphed. It was a long time before Hegel could bring himself to accept the new order and he continued to live in hope that the world-spirit would take a great leap and drive the triumphant fleas and vermin to the devil. It is only gradually that his ‘reconciliation’ with the existing state of affairs in Germany began to become reality but it is not possible for us to describe the various phases of that development in the present study. It would be a mistake to interpret Hegel’s anger and contempt for the mediocrity of the ruling strata of the Restoration in terms of the Romantic antithesis between the lonely genius and a universal human mediocrity. This sort of criticism of the age may also be found in the works of the French realists , in Balzac and especially in Stendhal. But even apart from that the political significance of Hegel’s contempt is made quite explicit in the letters. For example, in the letter we have just quoted he makes fun of the people who are looking forward to a revival of the good old days and refers in particular to the mood in Nuremberg where he was living at the time and where people hoped that the Restoration would bring back the old ‘independence’ (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) of Nuremberg in which it owed allegiance to none but the Empire itself.

We have described Hegel’s reactions in such detail because they are closely bound up with a number of important problems in the Phenomenology: above all, that of the historical view of the present, and following from that, of the nature of philosophy in the present so understood. In brief, Hegel’s position was that after the great crisis of the French Revolution in the Napoleonic regime a new epoch was about to dawn. His philosophy was to be its intellectual expression. The specific value that Hegel puts on his own philosophy is that it is the philosophical synthesis of the birth of this new historical epoch.

Rosenkranz has published the words with which Hegel concluded his lectures on phenomenology in the autumn of 1806:

This, Gentlemen, is speculative philosophy as far as I have been able to construct it. Look upon it as the beginnings of the philosophy which you will carry forward. We find ourselves in an important epoch in world history, in a ferment, when spirit has taken a leap forward, where it has sloughed off its old form and is acquiring a new one. The whole mass of existing ideas and concepts, the very bonds of the world have fallen apart and dissolved like a dream. A new product of the spirit is being prepared. The chief task of philosophy is to welcome it and grant it recognition, while others, impotently resisting, cling to the past and the majority unconsciously constitute the masses in which it manifests itself. Recognizing it as the eternal, it falls to philosophy to pay it reverence.’

In the programmatic sections of the Preface to the Phenomenology this view is expressed even more strongly. He supplements it by explaining that of necessity the philosophy which expresses this new configuration of the spirit will have an abstract form in the first instance. For it has not yet developed in reality, in history; it has not yet divided up into a rich manifold of different elements. This connection between time and philosophy is the lasting foundation of Hegel’s conception of the history of human thought. For that very reason it is vital to realize that when he wrote the Phenomenology he conceived it as the intellectual form of a newly-born configuration of world history, whereas, as we shall see, his view of the relation of his philosophy to world history undergoes a radical change later on, even though he does not deviate from the same general principles. The great importance of this question for his philosophical development makes it necessary to quote his arguments in detail:

‘For the rest it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a time of birth, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. It is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn – there is a break in the process, a qualitative change – and the child is born. In like manner the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown – all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling into pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.

‘But this new world is perfectly realized just as little as the newborn child; and it is essential to bear this in mind. It comes onto the stage to begin with in its immediacy, in its bare generality. A building is not finished when its foundation is laid; and just as little is the attainment of a general notion of a whole the whole itself. When we want to see an oak with all its vigour of trunk its spreading branches, and mass of foliage, we are not satisfied to be shown an acorn instead. In the same way science, the crowning glory of the spiritual world, is not found complete in its initial stages. The beginning of the new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in manifold forms of spiritual culture; it is the reward which comes after a chequered and devious course of development, and after much struggle and effort. It is a whole which, after running its course and laying bare all its content, returns again to itself, it is the resultant abstract concept of the whole. But the actual realization of this abstract whole is only found when those previous shapes and forms, which are now reduced to ideal moments of the whole, are developed anew again, but developed and shaped within this new medium, and with the meaning they have thereby acquired.

‘While the new world makes its first appearance merely in general outline, merely as a whole lying concealed and hidden within a bare abstraction, the wealth of the bygone life, on the other hand, is still consciously present in recollection. Consciousness misses in the new form the detailed expanse of content; but still more the developed expression of form by which distinctions are definitely determined and arranged in their precise relations. Without this last feature science has no general intelligibility, and has the appearance of being an esoteric possession of a few individuals. ... Only what is perfectly determinate in form is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible. and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody.’

We repeat: it is not possible to give an account, even in outline, of Hegel’s later development. However, it is sufficient for our purposes if we quote the very explicit statements Contained in the Preface of 1820 to the Philosophy of Right about the relation of philosophy of the age, by way of contrast with the Preface to the Phenomenology. Whereas Hegel had thought of the Phenomenology as a guide to a completely new world, he later gives an entirely opposed picture of the relation between his philosophy and the present, even though he is operating from the same general methodological base.

‘One word more about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal apprehends this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.’

The extraordinary vividness with which Hegel expresses his ideas in each passage points up the contrast in his views even more sharply. In the first case he speaks of the dawn, in the second, of the dusk; the birth of a new epoch in the first case, the end of an era of human history in the second. Since there are no moods in Hegel’s philosophy it will be evident that we are confronted by two totally different views of modern history. Hegel’s new periodization of the modern world can be easily defined and documented. His general historical perspective did not change after Jena. His conception of Greece and Rome remained much as it had been then, except for his much more extensive knowledge of the Orient, a development which did not introduce any methodological change. In fact this is something that had already begun in Frankfurt and we shall see him devoting a significant chapter of the Phenomenology to the oriental religions. Another permanent feature is the short shrift given to medieval history. Only in the Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Religion is it given a greater importance and in the former case, there is a marked tendency to regard the really world-historical values of art as the products of the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages proper. Hence the heavy emphasis on the ‘romantic’ age of art does not imply any concession to the Romantics’ glorification of the Middle Ages.

The really incisive change in his later philosophy of history affects his view of the modern world: in Jena the French Revolution and its supersession (in all three senses) by Napoleon was the decisive turning-point. It had provided the historical foundation for the picture he gives of the philosophical situation of the present and the indispensable tasks of a modern scientific system. However, in his later lectures on the philosophy of history we find that the place formerly assigned to the French Revolution and Napoleon has now been given to the Reformation.

Let us briefly review his most important statements about this new periodization. He describes the Renaissance of the arts and sciences, the discovery of America and of the route to the Indies as a ‘dawn ... which follows after lengthy storms and for the first time again proclaims a fine day.’ The utterly revolutionary event of the age, however, is the Reformation:

‘This reconciliation of church and state took place without mediation. We have, as yet, no reconstruction of the state, of the legal system, etc., for the essential principles of law had yet to be discovered. The laws of freedom had first to be developed into a system of what is right in and for itself. Spirit does not appear in such perfection at once; after the Reformation it confined itself at first to immediate changes, such as the secularization of the monasteries, bishoprics, etc. The reconciliation between God and the world took place in abstract form at first and had not yet expanded into the system of an ethical world.’

In our view, the similarity between Hegel’s approach here and in the Phenomenology is very striking: both insist on the abstract undeveloped nature of a new idea, and its one-sided concentration on one essential point where a break-through is possible. But for such a consistent and historically concrete thinker as Hegel there must be qualitative distinction between a situation in which an idea has only reached the level of bare abstraction in Hegel’s own day, and one in which his philosophy comes into being three hundred years after the world-historical turning-point whose effects have since penetrated every aspect of man’s life and thought. The conception of philosophy as the ‘owl of Minerva’ is just the necessary consequence of his later view of the modern world as having begun with the Reformation and which in his own words has as its sole task to shape the whole world in accordance with the principle embodied in it.

Of course, even in the later philosophy of history the French Revolution is evaluated very positively. Even though Hegel’s account of it is very well known and much quoted, we must refer to it yet again if only because an analysis of it and Hegel’s further elucidations make it quite clear that the esteem in which he holds the Revolution does not modify the ideas we have just been examining: that the modern world began with the Reformation and that all subsequent events are but the development and concretization of that major turning-point and cannot produce anything radically new.

‘Never since the sun stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had man been seen to stand himself on his head, i.e. on thought, and construct reality in accordance with that. Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous rules the world, but only now did man come to recognize that thought should rule spiritual reality. This was a glorious dawn. All thinking beings joined in celebrating the age. A sublime emotion ruled, an enthusiasm of the spirit overwhelmed the world as if only then had the deity been truly reconciled with it.’

We have italicized these words to draw the reader’s attention to a certain stylistic reservation implicit in them. Hegel seems to hint that men lived in the enthusiastic, subjective faith that they were about to bring about a new turning-point in history – but that objectively, this turning had already been taken in the Reformation. For if we scrutinize the content of the new age it can be identified with what Hegel had said about the Reformation. Of course, when analysing particular passages from Hegel’s lectures we are continually hampered by the fact that we do not know precisely when Hegel said what he did. His pupils have assembled these books partly from Hegel’s own summaries and partly from lecture notes taken by his audience. In the case of the latter, the dates are known exactly, but they did not establish the dates of his own summaries. So what they have done is to create unified texts from materials very widely separated in time, without concerning themselves overmuch if ten or twenty years lay between one statement and the next. As long as we remain ignorant of the various strata incorporated in these lectures we must proceed with extreme caution deducing anything from them about Hegel’s development.

However, our task is not to establish an exact chronological progress of his subsequent views. We shall indeed attempt to show later on that he developed in a particular direction, basing ourselves on texts whose dates are indisputable, and we shall find our view completely vindicated. But for the time being it is enough if we just show the general contrast obtaining between his periodization of history in Jena and after the fall of Napoleon. And for that there are enough passages in the lectures on the Philosophy of History even if they cannot be dated with any precision.

The principal thesis of the Lectures on the Philosophy of History is that a socio-political upheaval of the sort that resulted in the French Revolution was only possible and necessary in countries where the Reformation had failed to carry the day. Hegel states this proposition quite unequivocally. His starting-point is the fact that the French Revolution triggered off a movement in the Latin countries where Catholicism was the prevailing religion. This movement was not brought to a halt and waves of reaction and further revolution followed in relatively quick succession. The source of all this unrest lay, according to Hegel, in the fact that these nations had remained Catholic.

‘Thus liberalism traversed the Latin world as an abstraction emanating from France; but religious subjection held that world in the fetters of political servitude. For it is a false principle that the shackles which bind right and freedom can be broken without the emancipation of the conscience, that there can be a Revolution without a Reformation.’

And it is quite in harmony with this view that when Hegel lists the factors that contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution he adduces as the last and decisive cause,

‘The fact that the government was Catholic, and that therefore the concept of freedom, the rationality of the laws, was not absolutely binding, since the religious conscience and the sense of the sacred were separated from them.’

And by way of contrast Hegel explains why there was no revolution in Germany along the lines of the upheaval in France, and why indeed one was not even strictly necessary:

‘In Germany secular society as a whole had already been improved by the Reformation ... To that extent the principle of thought had already been reconciled. Moreover, the Protestant world was convinced that the reconciliation that had already been achieved itself contained the principle for a future elaboration of law.’

Thus in Hegel’s later philosophy of history revolutions on the French pattern represent vain efforts to achieve through secular means, the reconciliation of reason with reality, that had already been brought about in Germany by the Reformation.

In harmony with these ideas is the greater emphasis Hegel now places on the particular positive religions, an emphasis they never possessed in the Jena period. We shall discuss the methodological and historical significance of religion in the Phenomenology in due course; what needs to be said here is that in that work Hegel only speaks of religion in general, or at most of Christianity. In Jena Hegel is very little concerned with the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism (to say nothing of Lutheranism and Calvinism, which are given a certain prominence later on). He does not indeed neglect them entirely, but they certainly do not have the importance they will acquire in later years.

In Hegel’s later philosophy of history he is no longer concerned just with Christianity, but precisely with the concrete distinctions between Catholicism and the various forms of Protestantism. Without going into his later development in any detail, an impossible undertaking in this context, we nevertheless would like to show that the general thesis we have been discussing to the effect that the Reformation was the turning-point of the modern world and that the division of modern Europe into Catholic and Protestant determined its later political and social destiny, took hold of him in Berlin and hardened out as the years went on. In the first edition of the Encyclopaedia (Heidelberg 1817) there is as yet no trace of the idea. By the time the Philosophy of Right the first major work of the Berlin period, was published in 1820, it had already become explicit. He speaks there of the relation of the Reformation to the emergence of the modern political state.

‘Hence so far from its being or its having been a misfortune for the state that the church is disunited, it is only as a result of that disunion that the state has been able to reach its appointed end as a self-consciously rational and ethical organization.’

The idea is given even greater prominence in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia (1827). In the course of an attack on the catholicizing philosophers of the Restoration, he observes:

‘Logically enough, Catholicism has been and still is loudly praised as the religion which best assures the security of governments. And indeed this is true of those governments whose security depends on institutions founded on the unfreedom of the spirit which ought ethically and by right to be free, i.e. institutions based on injustice, moral corruption and barbarism.’

And in the third edition of 1830 he adds the following explanatory remark:

‘These governments do not realize, however, that they possess a terrible power of fanaticism which only does not turn against themselves as long as, and on the condition that, they remain in thrall to injustice and immorality. But in the spirit a different power is at hand ... the wisdom about what in the real world is right and reasonable in and for itself.’

These few quotations make it quite clear that there is a constant development at work here, one which probably had its beginning in Berlin.

An evaluation of this period lies beyond the scope of the present study, and on such a slender basis it would inevitably be cursory. A real analysis of that ‘reconciliation’ with reality which characterized the Berlin period above all must be left for a thorough Marxist investigation of Hegel’s later development. We would merely reiterate the point we have already made: that in his later years Hegel came much closer to accepting contemporary German actuality than he had during the period when he had hoped for radical change in Germany as a consequence of Napoleon’s policies in the Confederation of the Rhine. And it will be necessary to digest and weigh up all the available material in order to determine where and how this greater realism represents a step forward in his grasp of objective reality, and where and how it involved an intensification of his ‘uncritical positivism’. Both tendencies are present in his later works; the problem is to depict their conflict and to assess the price that he had to pay for his final and most mature systematic expression of his ideas.

However, without going into any details or attempting any evaluation ourselves, it is important to counter one misunderstanding: even though his view of history represented a move to the right in comparison with his position in Jena, even though it involved him in a greater acceptance of German society as it was, the ‘owl of Minerva’ never became the carrion-crow of reaction under the Restoration.

There have been times when this was precisely the reproach levelled at Hegel by liberal critics, and now, of course, Fascists and semi-Fascists praise him for it. The only hard fact is that throughout the entire period Hegel was implacably opposed to German liberalism. But in the first place, this opposition needs to be looked at very carefully, for we can only judge whether Hegel’s attitude was reactionary in every case once we have really established the reactionary or progressive nature of various tendencies in the age itself. For example, in the constitutional crisis in Württemberg in 1815-16 Hegel campaigned vigorously against the defenders of the ancient rights of the Estates and came out in favour of a revision of the constitution ‘from above’. However, if we read what he actually said it turns out that it was the conservative side of the ‘ancient rights’ which he criticized and that he scornfully held up to their defenders the great example of the French nation which had abolished the ‘ancient rights’ of feudalism. And, secondly, we must not overlook the fact that in the Philosophy of Right his most violent and bitter polemics were directed at the ideologists of the Restoration, Savigny and Haller. Therefore, it would be a mistake to take the problem of assessing Hegel’s later political views too lightly, for every superficial judgment plays into the hands of reactionary attempts to distort and falsify his ideas.

Nor should we be misled by the increased emphasis on the positive religions in his later philosophy of history into drawing over-hasty conclusions about his own religious beliefs, even though it is certainly true that religion was more important to the older than to the younger Hegel. His attitude towards religion was always highly ambiguous and even contradictory, as both his right-wing detractors and his left-wing supporters have recognized. It would be pointless to describe at length the attacks made on him by religious reactionaries. One quotation from Friedrich Schlegel after his conversion to Catholicism should be enough to convey the bitterness aroused by Hegel’s ‘philosophy of negation’:

‘Hegel’s system of negation would be one shade worse than the atheism or the idolatry of Ego and self of Fichte: it is a genuine idolatry of the spirit of negation and hence an actual philosophical Satanism.’

Nor did Hegel’s left-wing supporters put a higher estimate on his positive relationship with religion. The great poet Heinrich Heine, who, according to Engels, was for a long time the only man who understood the revolutionary character of Hegel’s dialectic, was also the first to make a sharp distinction between his exoteric proclamation of religion as absolute spirit and his esoteric atheism. For Heine, who had been a personal student of Hegel’s it was self-evident that the exoteric philosophy was merely an act of conformity with the political realities of the day. In the course of a discussion of atheism he writes as follows:

‘I stood behind the maestro as he composed it [the music of atheism -G.L] of course he did so in very obscure and abstruse signs so that not everyone could decipher them – I sometimes saw him anxiously looking over his shoulder, for fear that he had been understood.... When once I expressed disapproval of his assertion “everything which exists, is rational” he gave a strange smile and said that one might equally say -everything which is rational, must exist It was not until much later that I understood why he had argued in the Philosophy of History that Christianity was an advance if only because it taught of a God who had died, while pagan gods were immortal. What progress it would be, then, if we could say that God had never existed at all!’

The authenticity of this conversation with Hegel has often been questioned by bourgeois scholarship. For our purposes it is irrelevant whether a conversation on exactly these lines ever took place. What is important is that this is how radical intellectuals in the Thirties and Forties interpreted Hegel’s attitude towards religion. This was true not just of Heine, but of the whole radical wing of the Young Hegelians. Bruno Bauer’s Trumpet of the Last Judgment is an ingeniously assembled anthology of quotations from Hegel which point politically towards revolution and religiously towards atheism.

Typical of the Jena period, however, is that the ‘esoteric’ aspect of his attitude towards religion is more or less openly expressed. In the fragment of a lecture published by Rosenkranz we find this statement:

‘Religion is supposed to present us with the truth, but in the eyes of our culture faith has utterly passed away. Reason has gained strength and with it the requirement that we do not believe the truth, but know it; that we do not just intuit it, but comprehend it. The individual well knows the truth of his individuality, which precisely prescribes the course of his existence, but consciousness of life in general is something he expects from philosophy.’

Hegel’s ‘esoteric’ view of religion is much more explicit in the Notebook which contains a number of derisive witticisms about the fact that religion is a thing of the past. Here is one of them:

‘In Swabia when something is long since past people say of it: it is so long ago that it isn’t true. And we may say that Christ died so long ago for our sins that it isn’t true.’

Even more revealing is another passage where Hegel expresses his well-known and much-quoted mot that a party can be said to have vitality once it is divided. If we look at the way Hegel applies this aphorism both to religion and the Enlightenment his position becomes clear enough. In the Notebook he writes:

‘A party exists when it becomes internally disunited. So with Protestantism, whose differences are to dissolve in attempts at unification – a proof that it no longer exists. For in disunity the internal difference constitutes itself as reality. When Protestantism came into being all the schisms in Catholicism had ceased to exist. – Now the truth of Christianity is always being proved; it is not clear for whose benefit, since the Turks are no longer imminent.’

In the Phenomenology the same idea is applied to the Enlightenment and the different strands within it. just as it had been used to show that the Christian religions had lost their vitality in the modern world, so now it is used to prove the vitality of the Enlightenment:

‘One party proves itself to be victorious by the fact that it breaks up into two parties; for in that fact it shows it possesses within it the principle it combats, and consequently shows it has abolished the one-sidedness with which it formerly made its appearance.... So that the schism that arises in one party, and seems a misfortune, demonstrates rather its good fortune.’ [Phenomenology]

We shall attempt to give a full account of Hegel’s real conception of religion in its proper place in our discussion of the Phenomenology of Mind. At this point it was only necessary to establish that the ambiguity we have noted was not exclusively the mark of the Jena period but was something that, with various modifications, characterized his entire development. On the other hand, it was also important to show that it appeared much more openly and explicitly in Jena than later on when his preoccupation with the positive religions became greater. The duality of an esoteric and exoteric conception of religion characteristic of Jena provides still further justification for our earlier quotation of Napoleon’s openly cynical views about religion as a parallel to Hegel’s own. (p. 380). Of course, this parallel is far from exhausting the whole complex problem, but it undoubtedly throws light on one element in it.


Further reading:

Hegel: The Phenomenology of Mind