He influenced not only philosophy, but theology, and a myriad of other academic disciplines. Oh, and he was most influential when if comes to Western culture and politics.
So was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the 19th century German philosopher and one of the most fascinating persons in history, the perhaps unintentional enemy of Christendom and Western Civilization? And if so, why?
Fascinatingly, when it comes to his political views he was, in his time and since, claimed by both revolutionary and conservative political forces. In his 1986 book Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (President Nixon’s favorite book of 1987), Paul Gottfried writes, regarding the interpretation of Hegel’s dictum: “What is real is rational,” that it is a common understanding that:
Whereas the Marxists and other radical Hegelians identified rationality with revolutionary change, the Hegelian Right defended the inherent rationality of their own society (4).
And yet, even this picture is woefully incomplete, as Karl Rosenkranz, writing in 1869, made clear:
“He [Hegel] opposed feudalism, which exalts a patriarchal constitution, by insisting on legality; he opposed abstract democracy, which flatters the masses, by promoting monarchy; he opposed artistocracy by calling for popular representation; the state bureaucracy by calling for freedom of the press, for jury trials, and for the independence of corporations. He offended the hierarchy of all confessions by calling for their submission as churches to the sovereignty of the state and for the emancipation of science from church authority. He antagonized the industrial state, which seeks to ensnare the people with the promise of riches and material prosperity, by stressing ethics as the state’s absolute purpose. He opposed enlightened despotism… by demanding a constitution; and he opposed cosmopolitan socialism by subordinating it to the state’s historical and national character.” (quoted in Gottfried, 11).
So one can talk sensibly, Gottfried argues throughout his book, for a Hegelian left, center-left (in line with classical liberalism), and a Hegelian right – in spite of the “ritualistic anti-Hegelianism” found among some of these (i.e. they don’t realize the extent to which Hegel has influenced them) (104). “According to Karl Lowith, Hegel viewed his schematization of history as a defense of ‘Christian bourgeois society'” (133). Obviously, this man was a fascinating figure, appealing to many in politics like Augustine appeals to a variety of Christian traditions today.
For me Hegel in many ways cuts a sympathetic figure. The world that he knew was losing its traditions as exciting discoveries and societal gains, seemingly accomplished by Enlightenment thinking alone, were unraveling the old certainties. The Romantic counter-movement also caused a good deal of confusion and doubt when it came to the old ways. Hegel came on to the scene as a careful observer of the past and present and as one who could make some real sense of what was happening – and much that he says is no doubt insightful. He was, for the most part, the first philosopher to actually take history seriously (even if he does it the wrong way). Furthermore, I get the impression that for him, rationality when it comes to politics is something more like wisdom than it is “technocratic” solutions.
What I find most interesting though are his philosophical views, and their impact on religion (and politics). Hands down, the most helpful thing that I have found for beginning to learn more about Hegel, his beliefs, and his influence is this excellent 1987 BBC production available on You Tube (Bryan Magee appears to have been something else!):
How does Hegel describe reality? In the video, Bryan Magee, sums up what Peter Singer says about Hegel, by saying that for him, “Reality is a process of historical change.” What does this mean? Well, Hegel is a historicist, and, as the literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht has said, with historicism, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”[i]
Mark that. Of course reality, is not, fundamentally, “a process of historical change.” For the Christian, it would be more accurate to say something like this: Fundamentally, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity. The cosmos we know, because of the Triune God, is at bottom relational and stable. This is not to ignore the change that can and does occur in the world, but to acknowledge the True Creator, Preserver, and Driver of history.
In light of this viewpoint then, I am going to simultaneously quote and critique the section of Gottfried’s book where he talks about Hegel’s debt to historicism and defends the same (all from p. xi):
“….what we should be seeking is a dispassionate understanding of historicism, and certainly incorporates sources other than Marxist-Hegelians. By historicism is meant an ethical and epistemological perspective that makes the awareness, and ultimately, the validity, of values dependent upon historical experience.”
A couple comments here. First of all, in what sense are “values” then, “dependent upon historical experience”? In the sense that human beings must experience values in history in order to be able to discuss them and their meaning? Who can deny this then and who is not a historicist? Just what is meant here by “depend”? As I noted in this post on the 19th century “conservative Lutheran” Hegelian-influenced theologian Johann Von Hofmann, just because human beings have different perspectives and cannot stop interpreting world events[ii], this does not mean that all things which human beings come to know – and which make their presence known to them – are subject to change in time. For a “dispassionate understanding of historicism,” I recommend Dr. Martin Noland’s PhD thesis, summarized here.
“The historicist, by this definition, does not deny the ontological status of values that are unrelated to historical practice but simply treats them as irrelevant, like the unnoticed leaf I the forest over whose existence, or nonexistence, philosophers once disputed.”
This, along with his comment about “honoring of forms without reference to historical contexts (p. 33),” seems to be a dig at Platonism (and with him, the political conservative giant Leo Strauss, who he is very critical of in the book), which would make sense. I contend that in view of Hegelianism, any form of Platonism which might hope to exercise cultural and political influence is helpless. As I will argue in more detail in an upcoming post on my Reliable Source blog:
“Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.
But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all. They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day.”
Gottfried goes on:
A historicist outlook similar to the one presented previously influenced my subjects [in this book]. They arrived at this outlook, at least partly, through their exposure to Hegel, who expressed it emphatically in almost all of his writings. For the historicist, man is knowable and definable through his historical situation and cultural upbringing, but never as the object of purely abstract predicates. The charge raised by [neo-Thomist David] Levy, however, does not go way completely, even if we present historicism in its most favorable light. Historicists, and among them Hegel, have sometimes treated moral and intellectual truths as being relative to particular epochs and cultures and thus fated to vanish in a changing world. Yet, this exaggerated emphasis on historical change does not represent the whole of historicist thinking. Many historicists, including Hegel, have stressed historical continuity more than change. They have also presented history as a vehicle for teaching and testing values without ascribing the origin of morality to a changing historical process.[iii]
Nevertheless, change is stressed. And not just change, but radical change. We are not just wrestling with Kant’s antinomies anymore, perhaps doing something like what E.F. Schumacher does here in this statement:
Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay….
No. It is no longer responsible for us to conclude that a proposition is true, even if we do not necessarily understand the full depth (and therefore full meaning) of what is being said. We now are insisting that no statement can stand on its own. We are now talking the next step, synthesizing and more with wild confidence en route to our goal of some kind of fuzzy, perpetual progress that pulls us along. But as Schumacher goes on to say:
“ Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.
Persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195).
This is most certainly true.
As was his custom, the perspicacious 20th century Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart nailed it. The religion of Hegelianism would attempt to appropriate even the Bible for in its cause….:
“To suggest that the orthodox [Christian] concept of authoritative propositional truth, dogma, is ‘Greek,’ while the pietistically sugar-coated agnosticism of the modern, tentative sore of ‘theology’ is ‘Biblical,’ is to turn the facts topsy-turvy and to betray a total lack of perspective. Exactly the opposite is the case! It is precisely Biblical religion which insists on the absolute and universal significance of historically-anchored particularities.”
Recently, in our local paper, a person responded to a piece by the conservative columnist John Kass, and wrote:
As a lifelong Christian, I join many others in the understanding that Kass’ claim[, that “[t]he basic tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God and that, without that belief, salvation is impossible],” is false and that the basic tenet of Christianity is, instead, the basic teaching of Jesus: Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself. The exclusivist claim cited by Kass, and probably held by most fundamentalist Christians, is based on an interpretation of scripture with which many Christians disagree.
Hegel would have also likely disagreed, and many of his followers certainly do. But the historically-anchored particularity of the God-Man Jesus Christ — with His perfect life and innocent death for us — is indeed said to be, by the historically-anchored witness of His disciples, the only “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
In sum, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity revealed in human flesh.
Images: Peter Singer from the Star ; Hegel from Wikipedia ; Gadamer from http://www.deepintheburbs.com/paper-a-presentation-on-hans-georg-gadamer/ ; Noland from himself ; Von Hoffman, Plato, and David Brooks from Wikipedia, Marquart from: http://www.angelfire.com/ny4/djw/marquartlectures.html
[i] from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGMKnG2yEc8: The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”. Regarding a definition of historicism, Martin Noland writes in his PhD thesis: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”
[ii] Since Kant especially, the focus of human knowledge has been the human subject. As Jordan Cooper notes regarding the 19th century theologian Albrect Ritschl: “what Mannermaa rightly points out is that Luther has been misunderstood due to Ritschl’s adoption of Kantian ideas, especially as explained by Herman Lotze. In particular, the problem lies in the nature of what Kant refers to as the noumenal realm which is inaccessible to the human person. Instead, a thing is only known through its impact upon the human subject. When Ritschl applies this distinction to theology (albeit with several modifications), this means that God is explained only through one’s experience of him. This is not a subjective personal experience, as Ritschl is highly critical of individualistic pietism, but the experience of the Christian community” (italics mine).
[iii] Gottfried goes on to write in the next paragraph: “It must, of course, be stated that all historicists have not been Hegelians. Edmund Burke, who had a keen sense of the historical and evolutionary aspects of human society, preceded Hegel by almost two generations….” This seems to be a hotly debated topic (see here and here) and is certainly one I am eager to learn more about. the first paragraph of this article would seem to set the stage well.