System of Ethical Life

2. The Negative of Freedom or Transgression

The foregoing has singularity as its principle; it is the Absolute subsumed under the Concept; all the levels express specific characteristics, and the moments of indifference are formal; universality as opposed to particularity is undifferentiated only in relation to lower particulars, and these moments of indifference are themselves particulars once again. There is thus plainly no moment that is absolute; any one can be cancelled. The indifference which is the absolute totality of each level is not inherent, but lies beneath the form of singularity which is the subsuming moment.[25] The cancellation of specific characteristics must be absolute in itself, the assumption of all specific characteristics into absolute universality.

This assumption is absolute and positive, but it is also purely negative. Just as, in the foregoing, absolute form expressed itself as the persistence of antithesis, so it expresses itself here in its opposite, or in the nullification of antithesis.

But when this nullification is purely negative, it is dialectical, i.e., it is cognition of ideality and the real supersession of specific characteristics. Here the negative is not fixed, it is not in antithesis to the positive, and thus it is in the Absolute. Absolute ethical life rises above specific determinacy because the Absolute cancels the determinacy, though in such a way that the Absolute unites it with its opposite in a higher unity; thus the opposite is not left by the Absolute to persist in truth but is given a purely negative meaning; but owing to the perfect identity with its opposite, its form or ideality is cancelled by the Absolute, which precisely deprives it of its negative character and makes it absolutely positive or real.

The cancellation of the negative is quite different. It is itself cancellation of cancellation, opposition to opposition, but in such a way that ideality or form likewise persists in it though in a converse sense; i.e., cancellation maintains the ideal determinate being of singularity and so determines it as negative; thus it allows the singularity and oppositeness of determinate being to persist, and does not annul the antithesis but transforms the real form into the ideal one.

In the foregoing every level and every reality of a level is an identity of opposites, absolutely inherently. The identity is subsumed under the form, but the form is something external. The real persists; the form is what is on the surface, and its determinacy is enlivened, made indifferent; the real is indeed something determinate, but it is not determinate for itself; the real is not determined, and its essence is not posited, as determinate. But now the form, as negative, is the essence. The real becomes posited as something ideal; it is determined by pure freedom.

This is the same transformation that occurs when sensation is posited as thinking. The specific characteristic remains the same; red as sensed remains red as thought, but the thought is determined at the same time as something nullified, cancelled, and negative. The freedom of intelligence has raised the specific character of the sensation of red to universality; it has not deprived the sensation of its opposition to other determinate sensations, but has only made the false attempt to do that. It has reflected on the sensation, raised it to infinity, but in such a way that finitude remains definitely persistent. It has transformed the objective reality of time and space into a subjective one. Objective ideality is “being other,” i.e., having other colours around it; quite simply and in every respect ideality and infinity are posited empirically as something everywhere “other.” Subjective ideality cleanses infinity of this multiplicity, gives to it the form of unity, binds the specific character itself together with the infinity which lies objectively outside it and is manifested as “being other,” and in this way makes infinity into a unity as the absolute determinacy of the subjective or ideal as opposed to the real. And while the determinacy as real, as sensation, had the form, infinity, as it were on the surface outside it, it is now bound up with it.

Similarly in the practical sphere what in and by itself is negative is a determinacy posited by the same moment of negation according to the preceding level of necessity; it is itself something objective, ideal, and universal. The negation of this practical positing is the restoration of the first original particularity of the antithesis. Because the former objectivity is superseded, the practical sphere falls under the control of the inorganic and objective levels. Murder does away with the living thing as an individual or subject, but ethical life does this too. But ethical life does away with subjectivity or with the ideal specific character of the subject, whereas murder does away with his objective existence; it makes him something negative and particular which falls back under the control of the objective world from which he had torn himself free by being something objective himself. Absolute ethical life directly cancels the individual’s subjectivity by nullifying it only as an ideal determinacy, as an antithesis, but it lets his subjective essence persist quite unaffected. And he is allowed to persist, and is made real, as subject precisely because his essence is left undisturbed as it is. In ethical life intelligence remains a subjectivity of this kind.


This negative, or pure freedom, leads to the cancelling of the objective in such a way that the negative makes the ideal specific determinacy, which in the sphere of necessity is only external and superficial, into the essence.[26] Thus it negates reality in its specific determinacy, but it fixes this negation.

But against this negation there must be a reaction. Since the cancellation of the specific determinacy is only formal, determinacy as such persists. It is posited ideally, but remains in its real specific character. And in it life is only injured, not elevated to a higher level, and therefore must be restored. But in its actuality an injury of life cannot be restored (restoration by religion does not affect actuality); but the restoration here does affect actuality, and this reconstruction can only be a formal one, because it affects actuality as such and the fixedness of negation. It is therefore external equality; the negating subject makes himself a cause and posits himself as negative indifference, but therefore the proposition must be converted upon him who was the subject of it and he must be posited under the same characteristic of the indifference as he posited. What he negated is to be equally really negated in him, and he has to be subsumed just as he subsumes. And this conversion of the relation is absolute, for in what is determinate it is only possible for Reason to assert itself as indifference, and so in a formal mode, by positing the two opposites symmetrically.

There is an absolute link between crime or transgression and the justice of revenge. They are bound together by absolute necessity, for one is the opposite of the other, the one is the opposite subsumption of the other. As negative life, as the concept constituting itself into intuition, transgression subsumes the universal, the objective, and the ideal; conversely, as universal and objective, avenging justice subsumes again the negation which is constituting itself as intuition.

It must be noticed here that what is in question is the real reaction or reversal, and that the ideal, immediate, reversal according to the abstract necessity of the concept is included in general, but in this form of ideality it is only an abstraction and something incomplete. This ideal reversal is conscience and it is only something inner, not inner and outer simultaneously; it is something subjective but not objective at the same time. The criminal has directly injured something he regards as external and foreign to himself, but in doing so he has ideally injured and cancelled himself. Inasmuch as the external deed is at the same time an inner one, the transgression committed against a stranger has likewise been committed against himself. But the consciousness of this his own destruction is a subjective and inner one, or a bad conscience. It is to that extent incomplete and must also manifest itself externally as avenging justice. Because it is something inner and incomplete, it presses on to a totality. It betrays itself, reveals itself, and works of itself until it sees the ideal reaction or reversal confronting it and threatening its reality from without and as its enemy. Next it begins to be satisfied because it descries the beginning of its own reality in its enemy. It produces an attack on itself so as to be able to defend itself, and through its resistance to the attack it is at peace by defending against the threatened negation the most universal demand, that of indifference and totality, i.e., life, of which the conscience is one specific characteristic. But through victory in this set battle the same pang of conscience returns, and conscience is reconciled only in the danger of death and ceases only in that danger. But with the coming of every victory the fear becomes greater, the fear which is an ideal state of annihilation. It presses on the force of life and so brings with it weakness and also the reality of avenging justice. And it engenders this justice even when the enemy does not at once appear externally and when the conversion of the subsumption is not present as a reality.


The first level of this thus determined negation is the formal one in accordance with the subsumption of concept under intuition. Annihilation by itself, apart from being related to something else, presupposes a specific deficiency, but a completely indeterminate and general one, affecting nothing individual but directed rather against the abstraction of culture as such.[27] This is natural annihilation or purposeless destruction and havoc. Nature is thus turned against the culture imparted to it by intelligence, as well as against its own production of the organic. And just as the element [the forces of unconscious life], the objective, is subsumed under intuition and life, so the element in return subsumes under itself, and destroys, what is organic and individualised; and this destruction is havoc. Thus culture alternates with destruction in human history. When culture has demolished inorganic nature long enough and has given determinacy in every respect to its formlessness, then the crushed indeterminacy bursts loose, and the barbarism of destruction falls on culture, carries it away, and makes everything level, free, and equal. In its greatest magnificence, havoc occurs in the East, and a Genghis Khan and a Tamerlane, as the brooms of God, sweep whole regions of the world completely clean. The northern barbarians who continually invaded the south belong to the level of understanding; their miserable enjoyment, which they have developed into at least a narrow range of culture has therefore a specific character, and their havoc is not mere havoc for the sake of havoc. The fanaticism of havoc, being absolutely elemental and assuming the form of nature, cannot be conquered from outside, for difference and specific character succumb before indifference and indefiniteness. But, like negation in general, it has its own negation in itself. The formless drives itself on towards indeterminacy until, because it is not after all absolutely formless, it bursts, just as an expanding bubble of water bursts into innumerable tiny drops; it departs from its pure unity into its opposite, i.e., the absolute formlessness of absolute multiplicity, and therefore becomes a completely formal form or absolute particularity and therefore the maximum of weakness. This advance from havoc to absolute havoc and hence to the absolute transition into its opposite is fury [or mania]; since havoc is wholly within the concept, mania must intensify purity, the very opposite of havoc, ad infinitum, until that opposite becomes opposed to itself and so has annihilated itself. Standing at the extreme, i.e., at absolute abstraction, mania is the absolute and unmediated urge, the absolute concept in its complete indeterminacy, the restlessness of the absolute concept’s infinity. This restlessness is nothing but this extreme, and in its annihilation of the opposites by one another, it annihilates itself, and so is the real being of absolute subjectivity. The absolute concept, the immediate opposite of itself, is real because what it produces is by no means an identity of subject and object, but pure objectivity or formlessness.


This havoc, subsumed under the concept, is, as a relation involving difference and specific determinacy, directly turned against the positive relation of difference. The havoc of nature, so far as it is specifically determined, can only tear possession away from him who has it; the presupposition is that havoc is in precisely the same characteristic position as what confronts it, and thus it lets this position persist; the indifferent moment of possession, the aspect of legal right, does not concern it; it only affects the particular situation. But ethical life, owing to its nature as intelligence, is at the same time objective and universal, and so in an identical relation with an “other”; the nullifying of a particular character of the other — and no other nullifying act is relevant here except one directed at an ethical being — is at the same time the nullification of indifference and the positing of it as something negative; the positive aspect of this positing lies in the fact that the specific thing remains as such and is only posited with a negative specification. Such letting the specific characteristic persist, though along with the nullifying of the indifference of recognition, is an infringement of the law. As a phenomenon, i.e., as a real nullifying of recognition, this infringement is also the cutting of the tie between the specific thing and the individual subject. For recognition recognises precisely this tie (in itself purely an ideal one) as a real one; owing to recognition, it is a matter of indifference whether the subject has absolutely and inseparably united this specific thing with himself or whether its connection with him is only relative and this unification is put only formally as a possibility. By recognition the relative connection itself becomes indifferent and its subjectivity also objective. The real cancellation of recognition cancels that tie too and is deprivation, or, when it purely affects the tied object, theft. In this tie between the object and the subject, which is what property means, the nullification of the moment of indifference or legal right makes no difference to the specific thing, which remains unaffected; the object stolen remains what it is, but the subject does not, for here, in the particular case, he is the indifference of the connection. Now in so far as it is not the abstraction of his tie with the object which is cancelled [as in voluntary alienation], but he himself who is injured in respect of that tie, something is cancelled in him — and what is cancelled in him is not the diminution of his possessions, for that does not affect him as a subject; on the contrary it is the destruction of his being as indifference by and in this single act. Now since the indifference of specific characteristics is the person and this personality is injured here, the diminution of his property is a personal injury, and this is necessarily so throughout this whole level of particularity. For the injury is directly non-personal if it is only the abstraction of the subject’s tie with the object that is infringed; but at this level this abstraction is not made as such; it does not yet have its reality and support in something itself universal [i.e., a legal system], but solely in the particularity of the person. And therefore every deprivation is personal. The tie here is personal, as it is elsewhere only when it is a real or empirical one; the possessor has the object he possesses directly before his eyes, or he holds it, or has made it secure in some other way in his premises, which is how he regards the space he occupies along with his possessions. This empirical connection, as a specific type, is here the type prevailing at this level generally, for at this level there is still no suggestion of any way whereby the empirical connection itself could be indifferenced and property protected without it, i.e., a way in which the ideal connection could be real without being empirical, so that personal integrity would not be infringed by the infringement of the ideal tie of possession qua property.

Consequently theft is both personal and a deprivation; and the subsumption of a possession, which is a property, under the desire of someone else (or the negation of indifference, and the assertion of a quantitatively greater particularity against a quantitatively lesser one, of the subsumption of the more different under the lesser) is might, not in general, but against property, or robbery must have its reaction or the converse subsumption. Just as there is subjugation here, i.e., the lesser might is subsumed under the greater, so conversely what is momentarily the greater might must be posited as the lesser. And in accordance with absolute Reason this reversal is just as absolutely necessary as the former subsumption is actually robbery. But robbery exists only where the relation of lordship and bondage does not. But where this relation exists, where an individual is more indifferent, where thus the higher level is there as the other one, then there is naturally no robbery except in so far as robbery is pure and simple havoc and destruction, not in so far as if it were robbery proper. Therefore, because robbery becomes personal, person tries conclusions with person and the one subjugated becomes the bondslave of the other; and this entry to bondage is strictly the appearance of that relation which, in this relation of subsumption, accrues to each of the individuals; they cannot be beside one another without being connected. Robbery is the singular subsumption, not affecting the totality of the personality, and consequently the individual who makes this personal injury a matter of his entire personality must get the upper hand, and make the conversion real, because he posits himself as a totality while the other [the robber] posits himself as particularity only, and the reality of this relation is subjection, but the phenomenon of its coming-to-be is subjugation.

In the foregoing relation [havoc] the reversal is absolutely annihilating, because annihilation itself is absolute, and so the reaction, like the treatment of an animal on the rampage, is absolute subjugation or death. But in this relation the reaction cannot be simply the recovery of what was stolen, on account of the personal character of the injury, but instead is only the moment of an establishment of lordship and bondage — the fact that being subsumed is real in the robber only for a moment and only in the determinate respect that corresponds with the determinate character of the personal injury that arose from his act ["an eye for an eye,” etc.]. But precisely because the assailant has not put his whole personality into his attack, the relation too cannot end with the totality of the personality in a subjecting relation, but can only exist for a moment. It is only through warfare that there is occasion for bondage, a war between men, a case of mutually self-recognising personality, or of necessity in respect of life as a whole — but otherwise men are slaves by nature. But except in war, the reaction to injury is formally the entirety of this relation, like adoption into the family, but materially it is equally single and particular. For the robber is too bad to be a slave, for he has not justified any trust in his own entire personality, since he has remained on the level of particularity.[28]


The indifference or totality of both these rogations affects the indifference of specific determinations, or life, and the whole personality; and the reversal (which is established equivocally and is not one-sided as it would be if the relation were quite definitely and certainly on one side) is likewise the loss of personality through slavery or death. Because the negation can only be one specific determinacy, this determinacy (the whole being out of the question) must be intensified into a whole. But because it is personal, it is immediately the whole, for the specific determinacy belongs to the person who is the indifference of the whole. And a particularity of a person, once denied, is only an abstraction, for in the person it is absolutely taken up into indifference. Denial here is an injury to life. But because this indifference has over against it the abstraction of the injured particularity, through the latter the former is posited ideally too, and what is injured is honour. Through honour the singular detail becomes something personal and a whole, and what is seemingly only the denial of a detail is an injury of the whole, and thus there arises the battle of one whole person against another whole person. There can be no question of the justice of the occasion for such a battle; when the battle as such starts, justice lies on both sides, for what is established is the equality of peril, the peril of perfect freedom indeed, because the whole personality of both is at issue. The occasion, i.e., the specific point which is posited as taken up into indifference and as personal, is strictly nothing in itself, precisely because it is only a personal matter. Anything can be posited as such in innumerable ways; nothing can be excluded and no limit can be set. Might, or rather might individualised as strength, decides who dominates; and here, where the entire real personality is the subject, the relation of lordship and bondage must enter immediately. Alternatively, if absolute equality, the impossibility of such a relation between differents, is presupposed, and so the impossibility of one being the indifferent and the other the different, then in battle, as absolute difference and reciprocal negation, indifference is to be maintained, and the strife is to be assuaged solely by death, in which subjugation is absolute, and precisely through the absoluteness of the negation the downright opposite of this absoluteness, freedom, is upheld.

But it is a different thing when there is inequality in the negation and one-sidedness in the battle, which in that event is no battle. This inequality, where domination is purely on one side — not swaying from one to the other — and where the centre is set as possibility and therefore the indifferent possibility of either, is oppression and, when it proceeds to absolute negation, murder. Oppression and murder are not to be confused with battle and the relation of mastery. Genuine and unrighteous oppression is a personal attack and injury in a manner whereby all battle is simply cancelled. It is impossible for a person attacked to foresee the attack and thereby start a battle. But in itself this impossibility cannot be proved and demonstrated — the Italians advance as a reason for the lawfulness of assassination the immediacy of a declaration of war resulting from the offence — only in that event the impossibility is to be regarded as actually present when no offence is present and the murder is committed not at all on personal grounds but for the sake of robbery. But even if an offence has preceded, so that personality and the whole individual is in question, the offence is wholly unlike total negation on the side of reality; honour indeed has been injured, but honour is distinguishable from life. And since life is brought into play in order to restore to honour its reality, which as injured honour is only ideal, the linking of the ideality of honour with its reality is achieved only by raising to full reality the specific aspect injured; and honour consists in this, that when once one specific aspect is negated, then life, or the totality of specific aspects, is to be affected too. Thus the man’s own life must be brought in question as the means whereby alone that negation of a single detail is made into a whole as it should be. (margin: 3 levels: (a) murder, (b) revenge, (c) duel. The centre is battle, swinging to and fro. Duel, personal injury on some singular point).

This totality of negation must be conceived under its three forms:

(aa) Crude totality, the absolute indifference of negation without relation and ideality, is the transformation of specific determinacy into personality, and the immediate establishing of the reality of the negation or [in other words] murder simply. Murder precludes the recognition of this relation, the other’s knowing about this relation, and prevents equality of peril from preceding; moreover the injury is materially wholly unequal.[29]

(bb) The second level must be the formal indifference in accordance with which domination and its reversal occur according to the law of equality, but in such a way that the equality as form, as consciousness, hovers over the opposition of the individuals, is not a consciousness and recognition of the opposition. Thus the form of equality is missing along with the equality of peril, for peril is nothing but the approach of negation; yet the knowledge of the negation, the indifference, is here not in the peril but is purely material; the relation is subsumed under the concept. The true and real reversal of the subsumption lies in this equality and is revenge. What has been killed must itself make the reversal, but as killed it is purely something ideal. Out of its life, which is its blood, only its spirit can rise in revenge. Either this spirit can so long pursue the murderer until, in whatever way, he sets a reality over against himself and himself creates a body for the spirit of the man he has slain, a body which, being no longer the same external appearance of the man slain, appears as something more generally universal, and the spirit wreaks its revenge in the form of fate, Or, however, the real life properly belonging to the spirit has remained; the spirit has preserved its body and the murder has destroyed only one single member or organ of the whole, and so this still living body, i.e., the family, takes on itself the work of revenge. Revenge is the absolute relation against murder and the individual murderer; it is simply the reverse of what the murderer has done; what he has done can in no other way be superseded and made rational. Nothing can be abstracted from it, for it has been established as an actuality which as such must have its right, i.e., Reason demands that the opposite of the situation created shall be created. The specific character of the relation remains, but within that character the relation is now transformed into the opposite one; what dominates is dominated. The only thing altered is the form.

(gg) The totality of this relation is what is rational and it makes the middle term emerge. The indifference of the justice which lies in revenge, but as something material and external, enters the individuals as a like consciousness of the emerging negation, and therefore the reality of this emergence is alike too on both sides. Consequently an injustice seems to prevail, since the man who made the attack, the first unequal and one-sided domination (and both the opposed dominations must appear and display themselves as following on one another), should be in the wrong, but, owing to consciousness, would simply come into an equality of peril. When revenge is in question, undoubtedly only the man who was the murderer must be dominated in turn in some sure way, and the avengers thus escape from the equality of strength and they wreak revenge either by a superiority of might or by cunning, i.e., by the evasion of strength as such. But here in the totality of the relation, things are different, i.e., it directly excludes singleness in such a way that for revenge the avenger is not a stranger or even only a single individual, nor is the assailant, but the member of a family and so not an abstraction. But since this is the case, murder is not an absolute negation; the spirit has lost only one member of its body, and neither can revenge be an absolute negation. In the totality of revenge the form must be put as absolute consciousness, and so the injured party himself, and no stranger, must be the avenger — and this is only the family. Similarly the injurer is not a single individual; it is not as single individual but as the member of a whole that he has done injury; in the totality of revenge he is not posited as an abstraction. In this way the middle term is directly posited at the same time, i.e., negatively as the cancelling of the superiority and lack of consciousness in the one, and equality of peril for both, i.e., battle. Given perfect outward equality, the difference for the relation is in the inner life (and therefore the battle is a divine judgment): one side is only defending itself, the other side also attacking. Right is on the side that has been injured, or this side is the indifferent and dominant one. This it is absolutely because absolute equality must be displayed by the reversal and the side dominated was before now the one dominating. But with the magnitude of the still living body the loss of the lost member is diminished, and therefore also the right, and the right or indifference becomes honour and therefore equal on both sides, because the particularity of the injured party’s action is made into the indifference of the whole, into an affair of the whole. Through honour the bad conscience, the urge to self-destruction, is cancelled, for honour is the urge to dominate. And the injured party who utterly repudiates the singularity of the deed (which as this singular event is not his own) is given by honour exactly the same right as, in an isolated case of personal injury, the injured party has, because he is protecting his life. This equality of rights, in the face of which the aspect of legal right and necessary subsuming [or subjection] vanishes, is war.[30] In war the difference of the relation of subsuming has vanished, and equality is what rules. Both parties are identical; their difference is what is external and formal in the battle [i.e., they are on different sides], not what is internal, but something absolutely restless continually swaying to and fro (Mars flits from side to side), and which side will be subsumed [or conquered] is entirely doubtful and has to be decided. Either a decision is reached by the complete defeat of one party[31] — and since as a totality it is itself immortal, this means not that it is extirpated but that it is subjugated and enslaved. In this case it is a higher principle, not the trivial question of the original injury that is decisive, but the greater or lesser strength of the totality which submits in battle to that equality, and the test of it — an equality which was previously something merely ideal, and existed only in thought, while the parties lived side by side without connection. The question as to which of the totalities is truly more indifferent or stronger is submitted to the decision of battle, which may thus end with the establishment of a relationship of mastery. — Or there may be no absolute decision which would affect the entirety of the total individuals [i.e., families or clans]; on the contrary they find that they are more or less equal and, at least for the experienced moment, incapable, even in the case of an obvious superiority of one party, of carrying out to a finish the real constitution of the relationship. The abstract preponderance of one party would indeed be there, but not its reality at this moment of battle, since the force of this preponderance is necessarily devoted, not to the battle, but to other natural necessities not affecting the battle directly but the inner stability of the totality. Animus (qumoς) diminishes, because it is the feeling of the unrealised relation of the indifference of the dominating party. It reverts to the feeling of equality, since the reality of the battle contradicts this fancied superiority of animus. And so a peace is made in which — whether one side acquires the position of victor and the other that of being vanquished and surrendering some specific things or whether both give up the struggle with a sense of their complete equality — both parties put themselves into the previous position of difference from one another, difference without connection or relation, and thus with the cessation of their connection all interest ceases too. Hence the rationality of this totality is, in the antitheses, the equality of indifference, while the middle term [between the opposites] is their unity in their complete confusion and uncertainty.

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