Sunday, March 19, 2023

Hegel's Philosophy of World History--well, why not?


There's been a lot of water under the bridge, and many a time I've thought about writing here, but over the course of dismaying politics and the pandemic there seemed quite enough talk going around, and my wife and I have been largely content to keep doing the work we enjoy and be parents to our grown children and grandparents to a few new arrivals.

Completion of Girard's Je vois Satan tomber comme l'eclair led to a round of classical mythology through Apollodorus, Ovid, James Frazer, Robert Graves, ending with a quixotic and as-yet-unfulfilled determination to read Robert Calasso's Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia in Italian.  A detour to Aesop's animal fables, in various incarnations, led to Goethe's Renard, and then to early German romantic verse:  Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin and Heine.  And having read English translations of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Mann's Doctor Faustus in the 1980's, I thought the time might have come to re-read them in their original languages.  Given my age and seriously undisciplined reading habits I realized I would probably never finish them, but decided I didn't care, and that in turn led me to pick any number of other things I realized I would probably never finish.

Among them was Karl Barth's commentary on St. Paul's letter to the Romans, which revealed anew how it's still possible at any age to be astounded by something not exactly new, but new to me, and the concomitant urge to read Tillich's Systematic Theology, Barth's mid-twentieth century dark twin which was, not unimportantly, the kernel of the thought that formed those who formed me among post-war mainline Protestants.

But Hegel's Philosophy of History?  It is most correct that I have done little more than knock about in Hegel's work.  I did indeed read an English version of the Philosophy of History in college.  I took a Metaphysics course which emphasized Hegel and, oddly enough, in high school I had discovered, in my attic, a box of old books, of uniform size, black covers, with stiff yellow pages, printed around 1910, and one was Hegel's Philosophy of History.  We were each supposed to choose a work of Hegel's and do a report to the class on it, and since I already owned a copy I chose the Philosophy of History.

Since that time I've taken superficial cracks at the Phenomenology of Sprit and the Science of Logic, quickly abandoned.  But a little less than ten years ago I acquired a volume from a series of lectures entitled Philosophie der Weltgeschichte and thought that I might well one day tackle it.  This set of lectures was given during the 1822/23 term at the University of Berlin, and, to the extent that I have understood the Preface, differs from later texts based on the 1830 lectures, edited after Hegel's death by his son Karl.  I am fairly certain that it was that later edition that I read back in college.

My impression is that Hegel's reputation is quite mixed, even among (perhaps I should say especially among) the educated.  His work generated an enormous reaction.  In my own reading he was, to Kierkegaard, comic, to Marx, naive and utopian, and to many simply a pompous windbag who thought he know the mind of God better than God did.  But...but...I don't know if Hegle created the post-Hegelian world or simply anticipated it.  But so much seems to flow out of the Philosophy of History I am convinced that it is worth getting to know better.

Take our politics (please).  Broadly we are Progressives or Nationalists.

Now for Hegel, as a philosopher, history is not simply a series of events, not just "one damn thing after another."  It has a meaning.  That meaning is, in a nutshell, to realize Freedom in the unfolding of Spirit's expanding wisdom.  History has, so to speak, a motor and an end.  Now I don't want to get ahead of myself, but insofar as Hegel asserts that history is necessarily unending change, that nothing persists in ist present form, that all institutions and peoples and empires pass away, all in the gradual realization of a universal, self-fulfilling, and absolute Freedom, Hegel is the father of the Progressives, what we broadly call the left, which strives for constant improvement, with constant criticism, sometimes with reform, sometimes with revolution, but, from Marxists to socialists to humble liberals, insisting on the world's imperfections, and with a firm faith that, no, the clock cannot be turned back.

But, on the other hand, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel does not describe a world of random, incremental changes. Just as the theory of natural selection produces, not a world of undifferentiated life forms, but a hierarchy of distinct species, so history, under the power of the Spirit, produces distinct peoples, nations, empires, civilizations.  And these "species" of human political and cultural forms exist in a sort of hierarchy, defined by what stage of the Spirit's development they manifest.  This cannot help but produce a ranking of higher or lower peoples, nations, empires and civilizations.  

The crudest way to illustrate this is from those who don't get beyond the table of contents.  The lectures begin with the Oriental World, then Greece and Rome, and end with the German world.  Where else have we seen the idea that the German Volk is the highest form to appear in history, the superior race?

Now that crude example is in fact unfair to Hegel, but it shows one possible reading of his concrete account of the Spirit's march through history.  China demonstrates Oriental bondage; in India the Spirit is dreaming.  The West's embodiment of the genuine progress of the Spirt accounts for the superiority of the West over the East, and over the global South.

More than that, one talks about a people's Spirit, as a real, separate reality.  It's all very well that Hegel asserts that every concrete people will decline, but, in the everyday Hegelian world, the Spirit of the Jews is essentially an oriental Spirit, alien to that of the "West," and if the Spirit of the global South is different from the Spirit defining the more advanced culture of an Anglo-Saxon America, then Jews and southern immigrants become a threat, and the only response must be culture war, to protect the nation from decadence and decline.

Hegel's reification of peoplehood, of nationhood, is, for him, simply a way of talking about the necessarily transient nature of such phenomena.  But it also anticipates and to some extent justifies the claims of nationalism, the imperative to keep a given culture "pure," the need to preserve the superiority and maintain the control of a perceived superior race, the need to wall one's people off, or to bring others, by conquest, into the hegemony of the empire, into a superior "American way of life," or, more recently, into an autonomous "Russian World."  It is not Hegel, but it is a way of thinking fostered by Hegel's judgment on civilizations, and thus for all that see the people, the culture, the nation, the empire, as the greatest value needing preservation and defense, he is, to that extent, speaking broadly, also their Father, their progenitor.

Many have noted that the philosophy of history is Hegel's more popular work, because it is his most accessible, and I can't disagree with that.  The Phenomenology and the Logic are maddingly abstract; the philosophy of history tracks the development of the Spirit, so to speak, with a series of stories.  The Spirit enfolds on stage in a play we mostly know already.

In a certain way Hegel uses history to exemplify his notion of freedom as Plato used the polis in the Republic.  There recall that Socrates was asked to define justice, and he found it was easier to change his focus from the individual to the polis, where the ideal of justice, being exemplified in classes whose virtues were wisdom, courage and temperance, could then return to the individual as individual virtues.  In much the same way Hegel writes the development of the Spirit over a large canvas, and thus makes it perhaps more accessible to those of us having difficulty with its more abstract manifestations.

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