Hegel’s History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy

Section Three
Third Period: The Neo-Platonists.

SINCE Scepticism is the annulling of the opposites which in Stoicism and Epicureanism were accepted as the universal principles from which all other opposites took their rise, it likewise is the unity in which these opposites are found as ideal determinations, so that the Idea must now come into consciousness as concrete in itself. With this third development, which is the concrete result of all that has gone before, an entirely new epoch begins.

Philosophy is now on quite a different footing, since, with the rejection of the criterion for subjective knowledge, finite principles in general also disappear; for it is with these that the criterion has to do. This then is the form which Philosophy takes with the Neo-Platonists, and which is closely connected with the revolution which was caused in the world by Christianity. The last stage which we reached — that subjective contentment and return of self consciousness into itself which is attained by the renunciation of all that is fixed and objective, by flight into the pure, infinite abstraction in itself, by the absolute dearth of all determinate content — this stage had come to perfection in Scepticism, although the Stoic and Epicurean systems have the same, end in view. But with this complete entering into and abiding within itself of infinite subjectivity, Philosophy had reached the stand-point at which self-consciousness knew itself in its thought to be the Absolute (Vol. II. p. 372); and since Philosophy now rejected the subjective and finite attitude of self-consciousness, and its manner of distinguishing itself from an unmeaning external object, it comprehended in itself the difference, and perfected the truth into an intelligible world. The consciousness of this, expressing itself as it did in the spirit of the world, now constitutes the object of Philosophy; it was principally brought about by employing and reasoning from Platonic conceptions and expressions, but also by making use of those of the Aristotelians and Pythagoreans.

The idea which had now come home to men that absolute existence is nothing alien to self-consciousness, that nothing really exists for it in which self-consciousness is not itself immediately present — this is the principle which is now found as the universal of the world-spirit, as the universal belief and knowledge of all men; at once it changes the world’s whole aspect, destroying all that went before, and bringing about a regeneration of the world. The manifold forms which this knowledge assumes do not belong to the history of Philosophy, but to the history of consciousness and culture. This principle appears as a universal principle of justice, by which the individual man, in virtue of his existence, has absolute value as a universal being recognized by all. Thus, as far as external politics are concerned, this is the period of the development of private rights relating to the property of individual persons. But the character of Roman culture, under which this form of philosophy falls, was at the same time abstract universality (Vol. II. p. 235), in the lifelessness of which all characteristic poetry and philosophy, and all citizen life perished. Cicero, for example, shows, as few philosophers do, an utter want of appreciation of the state of affairs in his country. Thus the world has in its existence separated into two parts; on the one side we have the atoms, private individuals, and on the other side a bond connecting them, though only externally, which, as power, had been relegated to one subject, the emperor. The Roman power is thus the real Scepticism. In the domain of thought we find an exact counterpart to this species of abstract universality, which, as perfect despotism, is in the decline of national life directly connected with the isolation of the atom, showing itself as the withdrawal into the aims and interests of private life.

It is at this point that mind once more rises above the ruin, and again goes forth from its subjectivity to the objective, but at the same time to an intellectual objectivity, which does not appear in the outward form of individual objects, nor in the form of duties and individual morality, but which, as absolute objectivity, is torn of mind and of the veritable truth. Or, in other words, we see here on the one hand the return to God, on the other hand the manifestation of God, as He comes before the human mind absolutely in His truth. This forms the transition to the mind’s restoration, by the fact of thought, which had conceived itself only subjectively, now becoming objective to itself. Thus in the Roman world the necessity became more and more keenly felt of forsaking the evil present, this ungodly, unrighteous, immoral world, and withdrawing into mind, in order here to seek what there no longer can be found. For in the Greek world the joy of spiritual activity has flown away, and sorrow for the breach that has been made has taken its place. These philosophies are. thus not only moments in the development of reason, but also in that of humanity; they are forms in which the whole condition of the world expresses itself through thought.

But in other forms some measure of contempt for nature here began to show itself, inasmuch as nature is no longer anything for itself, seeing that her powers are merely the servants of man, who, like a magician, can make them yield obedience, and be subservient to his wishes. Up to this time oracles had been given through the medium of trees, animals, &c., in which divine knowledge, as knowledge of the eternal, was not distinguished from knowledge of the contingent. Now it no longer is the gods that work their wonders, but men, who, setting at defiance the necessities of nature, bring about in the same that which is inconsistent with nature as such. To this belief in miracle, which is at the same time disbelief in present nature, there is thus allied a disbelief in the past, or a disbelief that history was just what it was. All the actual history and mythology of Romans, Greeks, Jews, even single words and letters, receive a different meaning; they are inwardly broken asunder, having an inner significance which is their essence, and an empty literal meaning, which is their appearance. Mankind living in actuality have here forgotten altogether how to see and to hear, and have indeed lost all their understanding of the present. Sensuous truth is no longer accepted by them; they constantly deceive us, for they are incapable of comprehending what is real, since it has lost all meaning for their minds. Others forsake the world, because in it they can now find nothing, the real they discover in themselves alone. As all the gods meet together in one Pantheon, so all religions rush into one, all modes of representation are absorbed in one; it is this, that self-consciousness — an actual human being — is absolute existence. It is to Rome that all these mysterious cults throng, but the real liberation of the spirit appeared in Christianity, for it is therein that its true nature is reached. Now it is revealed to man what absolute reality is; it is a man, but not yet Man or self-consciousness in general.

The one form of this principle is therefore the infinitude in itself of the consciousness that knows itself, distinguishes itself in itself, but yet remains in perfectly transparent unity with itself; and only as this concretely self-determining thought has mind any meaning. An actual self-consciousness is the fact that the Absolute is now known in the form of self-consciousness, so that the determinations of the former are manifested in all the forms of the latter; this sphere does not properly belong to Philosophy, but is the sphere of Religion, which knows God in this particular human being. This knowledge, that self-consciousness is absolute reality, or that absolute reality is self-consciousness, is the World-spirit. It is this knowledge, but knows this knowledge not; it has merely an intuition of it, or knows it only immediately, not in thought. Knowing it only immediately means that to the World-spirit this reality as spirit is doubtless absolute self-consciousness, but in existent immediacy it is an individual man. It is this individual man, who has lived at a particular time and in a particular place, and not the Notion of self-consciousness, that is for the World-spirit absolute spirit: or self-consciousness is not yet known nor comprehended. As an immediacy of thought, absolute reality is immediate in self-consciousness, or only like an inward intuition, in the same way that we have pictures present in our mind.

The other form is that this concrete is grasped in a more abstract way, as the pure identity of thought, and thus there is lost to thought the point of self-hood pertaining to the concrete. This aspect, expressed as absolute reality in the form of mind in conceiving thought, but yet as in some measure existing immediately in self-consciousness as absolute reality, comes under Philosophy. But spirit, if complete in every aspect, must have also the natural aspect, which in this form of philosophy is still lacking. Now as in Christianity universal history makes this advance of mind in the consciousness of itself, so in the innermost mysteries of the same., in Philosophy, this same change must just as inevitably take place; in fact, Philosophy in her further development does nothing else than grasp this Idea of absolute reality, which in Christianity is merely shadowed forth. Absolute Spirit implies eternal self-identical existence that is transformed into another and knows this to be itself . the unchangeable, which is unchangeable in as far as it always, from being something different, returns into itself. It signifies the sceptical movement of consciousness, but in such a form that the transient objective element at the same time remains permanent, or in its permanence has the signification of self-consciousness.

In the Christian religion this spiritual reality was first of all represented as indicating that eternal reality becomes for itself something different, that it creates the world, which is posited purely as something different. To this there is added later this moment, that the other element in itself is not anything different from eternal reality, but that eternal reality manifests itself therein. In the third place there is implied the identity of the other and eternal reality, Spirit, the return of the other into the first: and the other is here to be understood as not only the other at that point where eternal reality manifested itself, but as the other in a universal sense. The world recognizes itself in this absolute reality which becomes manifest; it is the world, therefore, which has returned into reality; and spirit is universal Spirit. But since this Idea of spirit appeared to the Christians first of all in the bare form of ordinary conception, God, the simple reality of the Jews, was for them beyond consciousness; such a God doubtless thinks, but He is not Thought, for He remains beyond reality, and He is only that which is distinguished from the world that our senses perceive. There likewise stands in opposition to the same an individual man — the moment of unity of the world and reality, and spirit, the universality of this unity, as a believing community, which possesses this unity only in the form of ordinary conception, but its reality in the hope of a future.

The Idea in pure Thought — that God’s way of working is not external, as if He were a subject, and therefore that all this does not come to pass as a casual resolution and decree of God, to whom the thought of so acting happened to occur, but that God is this movement as the self-revealing moments of His essence. as His eternal necessity in Himself, which is not at all conditioned by chance this we find expressed in the writings of philosophic or expressly Platonic Jews. The place where this point of view took its origin happens to be the country where East and West have met in conflict; for the free universality of the East and the determinateness of Europe, when intermingled, constitute Thought. With the Stoics the universality of thought has a place, but it is opposed to sensation, to external existence. Oriental universality is, on the contrary, entirely free; and the principle of universality, posited as particular, is Western Thought. In Alexandria more especially this form of philosophy was cultivated, but at the same time regard was had to the earlier development of thought, in which lie the partially concealed beginnings of the building up in thought of the concrete, which is now the point mainly regarded. Even in the Pythagorean philosophy we found difference present as the Triad; then in Plato we saw the simple Idea of spirit as the unity of indivisible substance and other-being, though it was only as a compound of both. That is the concrete, but only in simple moments, not in the comprehensive manner in which other-being is in general all reality of nature and of consciousness, — and the unity which has returned as this self-consciousness is not only a thought, but living God. With Aristotle, finally, the concrete is energeia, Thought which is its own object, the concrete. Therefore although this philosophy is known as Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic, it may also be termed Neo-Aristotelian; for the Alexandrians studied Aristotle just as much as Plato, and valued both very highly, later on combining their philosophies in one unity.

But we must have a clearer grasp of the difference between this point of view and the earlier. Already in the earlier philosophies we have seen that nous is the essence of the world, and similarly Aristotle comprehended the whole series of things endued with life and mind in such a way as to recognize the Notion to be the truth of these things. In the case of the Stoics this unity, this system, was most definitely brought forward, while Aristotle rather followed up the particulars. This unity of thought we saw among the Stoics more especially on the one side as the return of self-consciousness into itself, so that spirit through the purity of thought is independent in itself; on the other hand we have seen there an objectivity in which the logos became essentially the all-penetrating basis of the whole world. With the Stoics, however, this basis remained as substance only, and thus took on the form of Pantheism, for that is the first idea that we light on when we determine the universal to be the true. Pantheism is the beginning of the elevation of spirit, in that it conceives everything in the world to be a life of the Idea. For when self-consciousness emerges from itself, from its infinitude, from its thought directed on self, and turns to particular things, duties, relationships; or when thought, which thinks this universal substance, passes over from it to the particular, and makes the heavens, the stars, or man its object, it descends from the universal immediately into the particular, or immediately into the finite, since all these are finite forms. But the concrete is the universal which makes itself particular, and in this making of itself particular and finite yet remains eternally at home with itself. In Pantheism, on the contrary, the one universal substance merely makes itself finite, and thereby lowers itself. That is the mode of emanation, according to which the universal, in making itself the particular, or God in creating the world, by becoming particular becomes debased or deteriorated and sets a limit to Himself; so that this making of Himself finite is incompatible with any return into Himself. The same relation is also found in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans; the giving definiteness and form to God, who remains no empty abstraction, is a rendering finite of God, who thus becomes a mere work of art; but the Beautiful itself remains a finite form, which is not brought to such a point as to express the free Idea. The determination, the specialization, the reality of objectivity, must now be of such a nature that it shall be adequate to the absolute universal; the forms of the gods, as also natural forms and the forms which are known as duties, fail to be thus adequate.

What is therefore now required is that the knowing mind, which thus out of objectivity returns into itself and its inwardness, should reconcile with itself the world which it has left, so that the world’s objectivity may of course be distinct from mind, yet adequate thereto. This concrete standpoint which, as it is that of the world, is also that of Philosophy, is the development of Mind, for it is requisite to Mind that it should not merely be pure thought, but that it should be thought which makes itself objective, and therein maintains itself and is at home with itself. The earlier efforts of thought towards objectivity constitute a passing into determinateness and finitude merely, and not into an objective world adequate to absolute existence. The universal standpoint of the Neo-Platonic or Alexandrian philosophy now is from the loss of the world to produce a world which in its outwardness shall still remain an inward world, and thus a world reconciled; and this is the world of spirituality, which here begins. Thus the fundamental Idea was Thought which is its own object, and which is therefore identical with its object, with what is thought; so that we have the one and the other, and the unity of both.

This concrete Idea has again come to the front, and in the development of Christianity, as thought also penetrated there, it became known as the Trinity; and this Idea is absolute reality. This Idea did not develop directly from Plato and Aristotle, but took the circuitous path of Dogmatism. With the earlier thinkers it doubtless immediately emerged as supreme; but beside and beyond it appears the other content in addition, the riches of the thoughts of Mind and of Nature; and so it is conceived. Aristotle has thus comprehended the kingdom of Nature; and with Plato development is represented only in a loose multiplicity. But in order that the Idea should appear as the truth that encompasses and includes all within itself, it was requisite that this finite, this wider content of determinations which had been collected, should be comprehended on. its finite side also, that is, in the finite form of a universal opposition. That was the function of Dogmatism, which was then dissolved by Scepticism. The dissolution of all that is particular and finite, which constitutes the essence of the latter, was not taken in hand by Plato and Aristotle, and therefore the Idea was not posited by them as all-inclusive. Now the contradiction is done away with, and Mind has attained to its negative rest. The affirmative, on the other hand, is the repose of mind in itself, and to this freedom from all that is particular Mind now proceeds. It is the knowledge of what Mind is in itself. after it has come to be reconciled in itself through the dissolution of all finality. This eternal rest of Mind in itself now constitutes its object; it is aware of the fact, and strives to determine and develop it further by thought. In this we likewise possess the principle of evolution, of free development; everything except Mind is only finite and transitory. When therefore Mind goes forth to the particular, the particular is determined as something plainly contained in this ideality, which Mind knows as something subject to itself. That is the affirmative result of sceptical philosophy. It is evident that, starting from this point of view, an utterly different opinion will be expressed. God, as absolute pure Mind in and for Himself, and His activity in Himself, are now the object. But God is no longer known as the Abstract, but as the Concrete in Himself, and this Concrete is nothing but Mind. God is living, the One and the Other and the unity of these distinct determinations; for the abstract is only the simple, but the living has difference in itself, and is yet therein at home with itself.

Further, the following points have specially claimed the attention of Mind; firstly, that this consciousness which has become subjective makes its object the absolute as truth, placing this absolute outside of itself; or that it attains to faith in God, that God is now manifested, and reveals Himself, that is, exists for consciousness. The absolute, altogether universal, posited at the same time as objective, is God. Here comes in the relation of man to this his object, to absolute truth. This new standpoint, which from this time acquires an absolute interest, is therefore not a relation to external things, duties and the like these are all determined, limited, they are not the all-embracing determination, as that is which has just beer spoken of. In this relation the mere turning of the subject on himself, this talk of the wise man in his one-sidedness, is likewise done away with. The same liberty, happiness, steadfastness, which were the aim of Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism are doubtless still to be reached by the subject, but now this can only be brought about by turning to God, by giving heed to absolute truth, not by fleeing from the objective; so that by means of the objective itself, liberty and happiness are attained for the subject. This is the standpoint of reverencing and fearing God, so that by man’s turning to this his object, which stands before him free and firm, the object of the subject’s own freedom is attained.

In the second place, there are contradictions herein contained which necessarily attract the attention of mind, and whose reconciliation is, essential. If we adopt this one-sided position, God is on the one side, and man in his freedom is on the other. A freedom such as this, standing in contrast to the objective, a freedom in which man., as thinking self-consciousness, conceives as the absolute the relation of his pure inwardness to himself, is, however, only formally, and not concretely absolute. In so far then as the human will determines itself negatively towards the objective, we have the origin of sin, evil in contrast to the absolute Affirmative.

A third essential point of interest is the form in which God must now be apprehended in general, for since it pertains essentially to the Notion of Mind to determine God as concrete, living God, it is indispensable that God should be thought of in relation to the world and to man. This relation to the world is then a relation to an ‘other,’ which thereby at first appears to be outside of God; but because this relation is His activity, the fact of having this relation in Himself is a moment of Himself. Because the connection of God with the world is a determination in Himself, so the being another from the one, the duality, the negative, the distinction, the self-determination in general, is essentially to be thought of as a moment in Him, or God reveals Himself in Himself, and therefore establishes distinct determinations in Himself. This distinction in Himself, His concrete nature, is the point where the absolute comes into connection with man., with the world, and is reconciled with the same. We say God has created man and the world, this is His determination in Himself, and at the same time the point of commencement, the root of the finite in God Himself. In this manner, therefore, that which afterwards appears finite is yet produced by Him in Himself — the particular Ideas, the world in God Himself, the Divine world, where God has begun to separate Himself, and has His connection with the temporal world. In the fact that God is represented as concrete, we have immediately a Divine world in Himself.

Since the Divine forms, as natural and political, have now separated themselves from the True, and the temporal world has appeared to men as the negative, the untrue, so, in the fourth place, man recognizes God in Mind; he has recognized that natural things and the State are not, as in mythology, the mode in which God exists, but that the mode, as an intelligible world, exists in Himself. The unhappiness of the Roman world lay in its abstraction from that in which man had hitherto found his satisfaction; this satisfaction arose out of that pantheism, in which man found his highest truth in natural things, such as air and fire and water, and further in his duties, in the political life of the State. Now, on the contrary, in the world’s grief over her present woes, despair has entered in, and disbelief in these forms of the natural finite world and in the moral world of citizen life; to this form of reality, in its external and outwardly moral character, man has proved untrue. That condition which man terms the life of man in unity with nature, and in which man meets with. God in nature because he finds his satisfaction there, has ceased to exist. The unity of man with the world is for this end broken, that it may be restored in a higher unity, that the world, as an intelligible world, may be received into God. The relation of man to God thereby reveals itself in the way provided for our salvation in worship, but more particularly it likewise shows itself in Philosophy; and that with the express consciousness of the aim that the individual should render himself capable of belonging to this intelligible world. The manner in which man represents to himself his relation to God is more particularly determined by the manner in which man represents to himself God. What is now often said, that man need not know God, and may yet have the knowledge of this relation, is false. Since God is the First, He determines the relation, and therefore in order to know what is the truth of the relation, man must know God. Since therefore thought goes so far as to deny the natural, what we are now concerned with is not to seek truth in any existing mode, but from our inner Being to go forth again to a true objective, which derives its determination from the intrinsic nature of thought.

These are the chief moments of the present standpoint, and the reflections of the Neo-Platonists belong to it. Before entering upon them we must, however, make cursory mention of Philo the Jew, and also notice sundry moments appearing in the history of the Church.


Translated by E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson, published by K. Paul Trench, Trübner in 1894.

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