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Hegel’s System of Ethical Life

The System of Ethical Life was written in 1802/3 and is Hegel’s earliest completed, surviving manuscript and in it his complete system is discernible. Beginning:

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.” [System of Ethical Life, Introduction]

Hegel makes it clear from the outset that he is approaching a study of the human spirit existing, as it must, in the world. Further, he defines his objective in the reconciliation of immediate personal perception or ‘intuition’ and social, linguistic, cultural conception. The exposition touches very little however on ‘intuition’ and ‘concept’, concerning itself with a description of the forms of social and political life and their logical interconnection. It rises from “Absolute Ethical Life” (broadly the human condition: Feeling and Ideality) through the “Negative of Freedom” to “Ethical Life”, i.e., a ‘social system’ and Government. The section on Government is divided into three levels: Absolute, Universal and Free Government, but the third section, where obviously Hegel intends to complete his argument, is left hanging, with the identification of the three forms: Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and Hegel does not carry the argument beyond merely naming these three types with brief summaries of their pros and cons.

The exposition is neither phylogenetic (historical) nor ontogenetic (psychological) but rather logical. Like the 1803/4 manuscripts known as Realphilosophie, the subject matter is largely social and political; the scope would broaden somewhat with the Phenomenology (1807) and then with the Science of Logic (1812) and the Encyclopedia (1817), but the themes treated in this manuscript can be followed right up to his last book, the Philosophy of Right (1821). What is remarkable in the early work is the place given to the categories of Recognition and Mediation in this first exposition of his system.

The first level is practice, the subsumption of the Concept under Intuition as Feeling; practice is the supersession of need by labour, in enjoyment. The “bearing of the subject on the object, or the ideal determining of the object by desire ... is taking possession of the object, “... but “possession is not present at all at the first stage of practical feeling, and likewise taking possession is there purely as a moment”.

Practice develops through the use of plants, the use of animals to intelligence; “eating and drinking are its paradigm”; accordingly the concept develops through the raising of children, the making and use of tools to speech and language. At this level, human beings are already living with others and what is under consideration is the logical relation, which places the practice of day-to-day life at the base; it is not a “state of nature”, though Hegel calls it “natural ethical life”.

The second level of Absolute Ethical Life develops on the basis of division of labour and the creation of a surplus which is available to meet the needs of others and for exchange. So:

“The subject is not simply determined as a possessor, but is taken up into the form of universality; he is a single individual with a bearing on others and universality negative as a possessor recognised as such by others. For recognition is singular being, it is negation, in such a way that it remains as such (though ideally) in others, in short the abstraction of ideality, not ideality in the others.”

This is how Recognition arises for Hegel, as property, arising from the social division of labour and the exchange of products.

“In this respect possession is property; but the abstraction of universality in property is legal right. ... The individual is not a property owner, a rightful possessor, absolutely in and of himself. His personality or the abstraction of his unity and singularity is purely an abstraction and an ens rationis.”

On this basis, the third level of Absolute Ethical Life begins with money, trade and surplus. Individuality arises as “formal, relationless, recognition, presented in relation and difference or according to the concept":

“the individual is the indifference of all specific characteristics and as such is in form a living being and is recognised as such; just as he was recognised previously only as possessing single things, so now he is recognised as existing independently in the whole.”

It is from here, subsequent to the introduction of money, that “Lordship and Bondage” first appears in Hegel’s exposition, though without the Sturm und Drung that it later acquires in the Phenomenology.

“At this level a living individual confronts a living individual, but their power of life is unequal. Thus one is might or power over the other. One is indifference, while the other is fixed in difference. So the former is related to the latter as cause; indifferent itself, it is the latter’s life and soul or spirit. The greater strength or weakness is nothing but the fact that one of them is caught up in difference, fixed and determined in some way in which the other is not, but is free. The indifference of the one not free is his inner being, his formal aspect, not something that has become explicit and that annihilates his difference. Yet this indifference must be there for him; it is his concealed inner life and on this account he intuits it as its opposite, namely, as something external, and the identity is a relative one, not an absolute one or a reconciliation of internal and external. This relation in which the indifferent and free has power over the different is the relation of lordship and bondage.”

“This relation is immediately and absolutely established along with the inequality of the power of life. At this point there is no question of any right or any necessary equality. Equality is nothing but an abstraction — it is the formal thought of life, of the first level, and this thought is purely ideal and without reality. In reality, on the other hand, it is the inequality of life which is established, and therefore the relation of lordship and bondage.”

Thus, the inner freedom of the one is manifest in the actual freedom of the other. Far from arising from some innate drive to dominate others, Lordship and Bondage here arises as a result of the inequality which is a necessary product of the action of the market. The market first establishes the recognition of individuals through the universal exchange of labour, giving people potential freedom, but then, through inequality of wealth, introduces the division between the rich and the poor. This relation shatters the relations of absolute, “natural” ethical life, and lays the basis for the transition to the next phase of ethical life, “The Negative of Freedom, or Transgression”.

The next section is rather short and deals with the havoc which results from the action of the market: murder, robbery, deprivation, oppression, and the injury to life and honour which results. There is as yet no legal system, so injury is simply particular and cannot be felt as universal. Retribution appears in contradistinction to murder as the form whereby a consciousness of justice emerges. Threats, which, in the absence of a legal system, always contain the potentiality to become total, is generalised through the feeling of honour.

It is on the basis of overcoming this havoc that ethical life and thereby government arises. Lordship and Bondage makes a reappearance at this level in contradistinction to robbery; robbery is simply particular and singular, the “coming-to-be of subjugation.” When war is carried to the end and one side is proved stronger, then the relationship of mastery is established; peace, on the other hand, where neither side in a battle is able to overcome the other, leads back to separation and mutual indifference. Only where peoples are subjugated do governments arise.

“But at none of the previous levels does absolute nature occur in a spiritual shape; and for this reason it is also not present as ethical life; not even the family, far less still the subordinate levels, least of all the negative, is ethical. Ethical life must be the absolute identity of intelligence, with complete annihilation of the particularity and relative identity which is all that the natural relation is capable of; ... Intellectual intuition is alone realised by and in ethical life; the eyes of the spirit and the eyes of the body completely coincide. In the course of nature the husband sees flesh of his flesh in the wife, but in ethical life alone does he see the spirit of his spirit in and through the ethical order.”

Ethical life appears as a system of living. It is in ethical life that virtues arise. These virtues are courage, honesty and thus trust, whose bearers are the three social classes — the military is the class of courage, the commercial class that of honesty and the peasantry the class of trust. For Hegel, class is not conceived of in the same way as in our time; both General and infantryman are part of the military class, tradesman and capitalist are part of the commercial class, the large landowner and small peasant are part of the peasantry. Of the bourgeoisie however, Hegel says “This class is incapable of a virtue or of courage because a virtue is a free individuality. Honesty lies in the universality of its class without individuality and , in the particularity of its relations, without freedom”.

Government arises on three levels: Absolute Government, Universal Government and Free Government.

Initially, the ruling power is and must be the Absolute, i.e., the military class, however Hegel is at pains to point out that this class must govern for all classes, not just itself, and consequently the role of ruling should fall to the Elders and Priests, who are most indifferent to personal interest. That is to say, it is the relation of mediation rather than recognition that is now active in government.

Universal government, on the other hand, is characterised by the separation of powers. The first system (or power) is what we would call today the economy, or “system of needs”.

“the surplus that he possesses gives him a totality of satisfaction depends on an alien power over which he has no control. The value of that surplus, i.e., what expresses the bearing of the surplus on his need, is independent of him and alterable. ... Thus in this system what rules appears as the unconscious and blind entirety of needs and the modes of their satisfaction. But the universal must be able to master this unconscious and blind fate and become a government.”

Under this heading, Hegel discusses the issues of avoiding the amassing of excessive wealth, the problem of poverty, the extremes of the business cycle, the need for public infrastructure, taxation, etc.

“Great wealth, which is similarly bound up with the deepest poverty (for in the separation between rich and poor labour on both sides is universal and objective), produces on the one side in ideal universality, on the other side in real universality, mechanically. This purely quantitative element, the inorganic aspect of labour, which is parcelled out even in its concept, is the unmitigated extreme of barbarism. The original character of the business class, namely, its being capable of an organic absolute intuition and respect for something divine, even though posited outside it, disappears, and the bestiality of contempt for all higher things enters. The mass of wealth, the pure universal, the absence of wisdom, is the heart of the matter. The absolute bond of the people, namely ethical principle, has vanished, and the people is dissolved.

“The government has to work as hard as possible against this inequality and the destruction of private and public life wrought by it. It can do this directly in an external way by making high gain more difficult, and if it sacrifices one part of this class to mechanical and factory labour and abandons it to barbarism, it must keep the whole people without question in the life possible for it. But this happens most necessarily, or rather immediately, through the inner constitution of the class.”

While restrictions (taxation, anti-monopoly laws, etc.) would have to fall to the government as such, i.e., the “universal class”, which does not have vested interests in business, Hegel believed that regulation of the economy, wealth distribution, care of the poor, etc., were the proper responsibility of the organisations of the business class itself (we would say nowadays “civil society”). Industry associations and the like were to be the vehicle for this regulation; conflicting interests had to be mediated as close to the source of conflict as possible. However, the tendency of the market to lead to inequality and dependence would require both the efforts of the wealthy to “permit a more general participation” and the action of the bureaucarcy.

The second system of government (or power) is the system of justice, which is to be the function of a “completely indifferent universal person”, a “universal class” of administrators who have their origins in the military class of Absolute (natural) government.

The third system of government is the system of discipline, basically education, policing and military training.

Over and above this level of the separation of powers, there is to be “Free Government” — Democracy, Monarchy or Aristocracy, but Hegel is at this point unable to develop the exposition any further.

Let us sum up a few points from this brief overview.

(1) Although the presentation is “logical”, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the history of the rise and fall of antiquity, the rise of feudalism in central Europe and the emergence of constitutional government. Hegel however makes no claim in respect to how this logical exposition may correspond to any real history.

(2) The exposition clearly seeks to resolve basic philosophical and ethical problems of his time through the description of necessary and actual forms of social life. Social life and government are manifestations of the human spirit and people get to know this spirit through his participation in the life of their nation. “Intellectual intuition is alone realised by and in ethical life”. There is no trace of a fully formed individual entering into social relations; rather virtues, rationality, social identity are realised as social capacities. People’s animal nature is ever-present but human traits such as the desire for recognition, a sense of honour and justice, arise out of specific social conditions and are manifested in and through ethical life.

(3) All the abstractions of epistemology and moral philosophy make their appearance through definite social agents arising under definite and necessary historical conditions and the division of labour. Hegel does not have a “part of the soul” housing the “desire for recognition” nor a “heart” as the seat of courage, a “brain” as the seat of Reason, or such like. Recognition begins with property rights and is manifested in the rule of law; a person’s identification with the government is the recognition of their own spirit; courage, trust, honesty enter the consciousness of individuals as the activity of certain social agents. “Honour” is the awareness of the capacity of a finite threat to destroy the whole person. And so on. Intuition and concept are united in the realisation of the human spirit, i.e., ethical life.

(4) Propertylessness, dependence, selfishness and slavery are social problems of the first order; the dissolution of natural ethical life by the market threatens havoc; but the market also brings universal consciousness, and lays the basis for the development of modern, universal notions of right, justice, honesty, and so forth; the leading elements of society must find solutions to institutionalised poverty and so forth. Whether the rich and powerful will take responsibility for mitigation of poverty is another thing, but Hegel does not look to the poor to liberate themselves and nor is it a state responsibility.

(5) Modern social democrats will see here very contemporary notions associated with the critique of the welfare state. The difference is though, these voluntary associations of civil society are just not “social capital” holding together the social fabric threatened with destruction by the action of the market, but are themselves an actual arm of government. In other words, what Hegel envisages here is a form of mediation which is properly described as participatory democracy. Of course, people without property would be excluded from such a participatory democracy. This problem is not resolved in the System of Ethical Life, but it re-appears, still unresolved in the Philosophy of Right.

(6) The relation of master and servant (i.e., employer-employee) which appears within the system of needs as a by-product of the inequality of wealth is quite distinct from the relation of Lordship and Bondage which characterised the first descent into havoc with the break up of the natural order, though also due to the action of the market. The fall of the natural order necessitated the emergence of qualities needed to restore order and suppress pillage and banditry; these qualities fell to a certain class of people, and the inheritors of this class of warrior-princes is the universal class of government administrators. The wealthy capitalist who has reduced his competitors to servants must act to ensure the opportunity for those others to participate, and so far as necessary, the government, i.e., the universal class of former “masters”, must intervene to curb such inequalities of wealth.

(7) Recognition is above all property rights. The “struggle for recognition” associated with “Lordship and Bondage” is a passing, negative phase, following the break down of the natural order before the establishment of the rule of law in which property is protected by law and constitutes “abstract right”. It is sublated, and remains as a moment of modern ethical life in the functions of policing, education and military training, and the virtues of justice, honour and courage, i.e., the on-going need to stave off havoc.

In the Phenomenology, Lordship and Bondage is §IV-A.3 — paragraphs 189 to 196 of the total of 808 paragraphs. As is well-known, Alexander Kojčve developed these eight paragraphs into a whole philosophy of his own. The significance of Kojčve, and his greatness, cannot be as an interpreter of Hegel, but rather, in the aftermath of World War Two, to have given philosophical expression to the demand for recognition from those who were being denied recognition in bourgeois society. Hegel’s approach is quite different though.

In The Encyclopedia, Lordship and Bondage is Part 3 (Philosophy of Spirit); Chapter One (Subjective Spirit); Section B (Consciousness); Sub-section b. (Self-consciousness); Paragraph 2 of 3. Self-consciousness develops through three phases: immediate self-consciousness (Desire) recognitive self-consciousness (Lordship and Bondage), to universal self-consciousness: “the affirmative awareness of self in an other self: each self as a free individuality has his own ‘absolute’ independence”. The truth of universal self-consciousness is Reason, the subjective basis of the State. That is, ethical life is predicated on the reconciliation of desire and recognition, superseded as rationality. The roots of these subjective capacities however, are already made clear in the System of Ethical Life, as “realised by and in ethical life”; they do not precede society; they are not part of a “state of nature”, and they are not “rational”.

Hegel’s “Objective Spirit” (the Philosophy of Right, his social theory) on the other hand, begins with Abstract Right, or Property.

§40. Right is in the first place the immediate embodiment which freedom gives itself in an immediate way, i.e. (a) possession, which is property — ownership. Freedom is here the freedom of the abstract will in general or, eo ipso, the freedom of a single person related only to himself.

§41. A person must translate his freedom into an external sphere in order to exist as Idea. Personality is the first, still wholly abstract, determination of the absolute and infinite will, and therefore this sphere distinct from the person, the sphere capable of embodying his freedom, is likewise determined as what is immediately different and separable from him.

§41 note. Addition: The rationale of property is to be found not in the satisfaction of needs but in the supersession of the pure subjectivity of personality. In his property a person exists for the first time as reason. [Philosophy of Right]

This first part of the objective spirit proceeds through the recognition and objectification of the immediate self-recognition of property, with contract, and the rectification of wrongs, punishment of crime, etc..

The ‘historical’ excursus with the descent into barbarism found in the System of Ethical Life, is not part of “objective spirit”; the negative, or second part of the Objective Spirit is Morality. Here the social virtues are developed, “internalising” the basic practices and rights of social life.

The third part, Ethical Life or Sittlichkeit, has three parts: the Family, Civil Society and the State. The system of justice, regulation, education and so on have now been moved into Civil Society, and the ideas touched upon in the System of Ethical Life about the self-organisation of people around their industries, estates and extended family connections. mediating social conflcit, have been considerably enlarged. The State in fact rests on Civil Society; the “universal class” of altruistic administrators (formerly the “absolute” class of warriors) are responsible both to representatives of Civil Society mandated through the voluntary organisations, and on the other side, the Monarch and his Executive. Hegel has opted for Constitutional Monarchy. The Monarch is to be chosen via primogeniture from the formerly “universal” class of landowners. The “relative” or “particular” business class have to look after civil society, but in the individual monarch, they recognise their own individuality, their own will.

There are no general elections; the legislature is composed of representatives delegated by civil society, through its own network of organisations. The Monarch performs a purely ceremonial function within the life of the nation, except that he bears sole responsibility for the waging of war. The ability of every citizen to recognise themselves in the person of the monarch is central to the whole conception, and this is achieved by the complex web of mediations connecting the individual in their daily working life with the various arms of civil government and the Legislature.

While ethical life, and consequently rationality, is possible only in and through a people, international relations are still in a “state of nature”:

“The people that finds itself unrecognised must gain this recognition by war or colonies.” [System of Ethical Life]

Thus, insofar as havoc reigns, recognition is a real, material need, for without recognition of one’s basic rights, every threat is potentially absolute. The feeling of honour reflects the understanding of this potential loss of personality; one must defend one’s honour lest everything may be lost. Thus, for Hegel, the struggle for recognition and honour are phenomena characterising the denial of rights in modernity. That class of people whose historic role is the struggle for recognition become not the tyrants and entrepreneurs of the modern world, but rather (for Hegel) the political class, the altruistic administrators.

In short: people work in close connection with nature; this is labour. As a result of the development of labour, there arises the need for private property; on the basis of these property relations arises government and the state.