Hegel is one of the most difficult European philosophers to comprehend, so I thought it might be helpful to others if I explained his philosophy of history in terms that might be easier to understand. Hegel’s philosophy was very influential to Karl Marx, who would describe himself as a “Left Hegelian.” This meant he adopted certain portions of Hegel’s views, such as Hegel’s views on alienated labor, the ideal state, and the “hero” of history, who Marx thought was an engineer that could design society much like a master builder with a blueprint .
Hegel also influenced German thought. The “Right Hegelians” were more influential in Germany, and Hitler ascribed to this portion of Hegel’s philosophy. In particular, he was influenced by the necessity of “duty” (as found in Kant’s “categorical imperative”) and the influence of the “four persons” in history. He also adopted Hegel’s views on the popular vote and on freedom needing to be rational. Hegel also influenced John Dewey, the grandfather of the American educational system, and is still influential to progressives, since he believed that history was progressively moving toward greater and greater freedom.
Hegel was alive during the French Revolution. When he saw how it had failed he became disillusioned. Like many intellectuals, instead of becoming hopeless, he began a search for another solution which would transform society. Many philosophers began the quest for the new idea which would lead to a happy and orderly society.
But what could the world look like? Who would have the idea that would lead to a happy society? In the French Revolution there was freedom, but there was no order. There was freedom from God and the church, but there was bondage to the guillotine. What could people learn from this, and how could they order the world to make a good society?
One popular response to this challenge was to try to blend or unify great thought. Friedrich Schlegel united Goethe’s poetry with Fichte’s philosophy. Some tried to unify Kant and Spinoza. Some tried to blend ancient (classical) and modern thought. Hegel blended Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” with Johann Gottfried Herder’s “expressive theory.”
Herder rejected Enlightenment thought with its mechanical views of the universe. He also didn’t believe that man was only self-interested. Instead, he believed that man could find meaning only within community, and each community had a “Volkgeist,” or national spirit, which inspired people and sparked a particular creative impulse.
For example, the Athenian community produced the Parthenon, democracy, and great philosophers. The Egyptian community produced the pyramids, hieroglyphics, and mummification. Herder thought each community had a different personality and way of expressing themselves which was that society’s expression of God in the physical realm, and that no other community could replace the other’s contribution. This philosophy was called “expressivism.”
Hegel didn’t think Herder’s ideal state went far enough, though. He thought that “expressivism” could define the ancient world, but the modern world was different because of Christianity and the contribution of the Reformation as part of its intellectual heritage. Modern man was aware of his freedom and ability to make moral decisions. He was able to be part of a rational society based on universal laws.
KANT’S CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE
This is why Hegel chose to blend Herder’s expressivism with Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant’s Critique described morality as being something separate from the motivation of happiness or desire. It was a duty based on reason alone. And when a person could use their reason to obey the universal moral law without being influenced by outside desires, then he could achieve true freedom and not be controlled by anything.
The Kantian ethic can be summed up, say some, by the slogan: “Duty for duty’s sake.” To Hegel true freedom meant that a person could do their moral duty in the midst of a rationally organized community that was centered on moral absolutes. This is why he called his ideal state “concrete morality.”
What does the state that blends Kant’s moral freedom with Herder’s communal values look like?
The British philosopher, F.H. Bradley, tried to describe this “organic community:”
“The child . . . is born . . . into a living world . . . he does not even think of his separate self; he grows with his world, his mind fills and orders itself; and when he can separate himself from that world, and know himself apart from it, then by that time his self, the object of his self-consciousness, is penetrated, infected, characterized by the existence of others. Its content implies in every fiber relations of community. He learns or already perhaps has learnt, to speak, and here he appropriates the common heritage of his race, the tongue that he makes is his own in his country’s language, it is . . . the same that others speak, and it carries into his mind the ideas and sentiments of the race . . . and stamps them indelibly. He grows up in an example and general custom . . . The soul within him is saturated, is filled, is qualified by, it has assimilated, has got its substance, has built itself up from, it is one and the same life with the universal life, and if he turns against this, he turns against himself” (Singer 34).
THE END OF HISTORY
Members of a community attain their identity by being part of a whole, therefore they won’t even think of pursuing their own interests. If this community were organized around moral absolutes, freedom would no longer be limited. People would want to obey the law, and there would be harmony between the rational man and the rational state. Perfect freedom would be achieved, and the history of the world would have achieved its goal. The “end of history” would have occurred.
Hegel tried to prove his “end of history” theory by using actual history. He believed that the history of the world was “none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom” (Hartman, xviii). His Philosophy of History is basically an outline of history. It starts with the early civilizations of China, India, and Persia, and proceeds through ancient ancient Greece and Rome, and then follows the path of European history–from feudalism to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It wasn’t just and outline of history; it was an attempt to determine the meaning and significance of history.
THE ORIENTAL WORLD
Beginning with what Hegel called the Oriental World of China and India, he said that they seemed to reach a certain point in their development and then “somehow stuck fast” (Singer 11). As such, they were outside of his philosophy of history and not part of its process of development. In the Oriental world only one man–the emperor–was free. All others in society had to submit to an absolute ruler. In fact, they weren’t free at all in the modern sense, because even their sense of right and wrong came from external regulation. Their morality didn’t come from their conscience, but from outside sources. For example, the Chinese state was organized around “family.” The emperor was the paternalistic manager of the state and all others were children of the state. In India there was no concept of individual freedom, because the caste system wasn’t a political institution, but was something natural, and therefore unchangeable. Therefore, even though there were no human despots in India, there was a despotism of nature.
Hegel considered Persia to be the first empire of his philosophy, because Persia had a law that governed the ruler as well as the subjects. Persia was a theocratic monarchy, which meant that society’s rules were based on principles (the religion of Zoroaster) and even the ruler was subject to those principles, though he was an absolute ruler and the only free man in the empire. To Hegel, this was the first instance of Spirit (“Geist”) in world history. Hegel thought that rule based on an intellectual or spiritual principle was the beginning of the “consciousness of freedom.”
The next great step in history, according to Hegel, was the Battle at Salamis. When the Persian Empire came into contact with the Greek city-states, the emperor asked the Greeks to say that he was supreme, but they wouldn’t, so he gathered his armies and they met at Salamis. This was a battle between an absolute emperor (Xerxes) and separate city-states who recognized free individuality. (It was portrayed in the movie 300: Rise of an Empire.) When the Greeks won, that meant that world history moved from absolute Oriental rule to the realm of the city-state.
Although history had progressed from despotism to a form of free individuality, Hegel didn’t recognize the Greek world as being fully developed for two reasons. The first was that slavery existed in the Greek empire, therefore some were free, not all; and secondly, the freedom they knew was incomplete. Hegel said the Chinese weren’t free, because they had external laws and regulations, but they didn’t have all encompassing laws: they had habit. It was habit and upbringing that made them act in a certain way, not abstract principles or moral laws.
As in Herder’s vision of community, the Greeks were so connected to their communities and customs that they knew no other lifestyle. Therefore, doing what was best for the community came from the development of habits and customs, not reason. For example, if a person does something from habit, he may not be doing it because he has reasoned it all out, therefore his actions may be governed by outside, or external, forces. Consulting the Oracle for guidance is an instance of relying on habit and upbringing rather than using reason to determine what to do.
Hegel thought that true freedom involved critical thought and reflection, so instead of being the victim of an oracle or a despot, free individuals have the capacity to reason and think. Thus Socrates was one of the first individuals to question and reason. This is why he was such a threat to the Athenian city-state. The people of the community had accepted the customs and habits that had developed over time, but then Socrates began to think and reflect upon these customs. Hegel believed that the death sentence bestowed on Socrates was correct, because Socrates was a threat to the customary morality on which the community’s existence was based.
Rome was seen differently by Hegel. Instead of the customary morality that was experienced by the Greeks, he saw the Roman Empire as a collection of very different people groups held together by force. This was comparable to the despotism of the Orients, except that the gains made by the Greeks weren’t entirely lost. Rome had a political constitution and a legal system that honored individual rights. Whereas law existed in the Persian Empire, it hadn’t developed the idea of individual rights. In the Roman empire there was a constant tension between the rights of the individual and the absolute power of the state.
Hegel thought that the Roman empire was oppressive, and that the demands that it made upon individuals to conform made individual freedom impossible to obtain except by retreating into oneself. Thus, the philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism evolved out of the Roman empire. But these philosophies, according to Hegel’s belief, were inadequate solutions to the problem of freedom, and were merely a concession that people were really helpless.
According to Hegel, Christianity was a positive solution to the yearning for freedom. He believed that human beings weren’t just animals, but they were spiritual beings. The Christian religion was special, according to Hegel, because Jesus Christ was both a human being and the Son of God. This taught humans that they were made in the image of God and that they, like Jesus, had an infinite value and eternal destiny. This encouraged them to break the hold that the natural world had on them and hope for a spiritual world where their true home would be made.
Hegel also believed this inner freedom could transform the outer world. He said that the first thing Christianity did was oppose slavery in the Roman empire. The second effect was to get rid of the Oracle. And thirdly, Christianity established a morality based on love, rather than the customary morality of the Greeks.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine, and even though the western half of the empire fell to the barbarian invasions from the north, the Byzantine empire remained in power for more than 1,000 years. But according to Hegel, this Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity was decadent, because it was only a veneer over structures that were totally corrupt.
The period of history from the time of the fall of the Roman empire up to his day was referred to by Hegel as “the Germanic world.” The reason he did this was because he believed that the Reformation, which occurred in Germany, was the single most important event of history since the time of Christ. He believed that the Middle Ages were a “long, eventful, and terrible night,” and he referred to the Renaissance as “that blush of dawn which after long storms first betokens the return of a bright and glorious day” (Singer 19).
But it was the Reformation, not the Renaissance, which Hegel described as “the all-enlightening sun.” He believed that the Catholic Church was corrupt, and instead of treating the Deity as a purely spiritual thing, they attempted to embody it in the material world through ceremonies, rituals, and other outward expressions. Therefore, a person’s spirituality was tied to the material world rather than to the spiritual world. This is why, thought Hegel, the Roman church could justify the selling of indulgences.
Since the Reformation began in Germany, Hegel saw it as an achievement of the German people, “arising from ‘the honest truth and simplicity of its heart'” (Singer 19). He believed that the Reformation did away with the “pomp and circumstance of the Roman Catholic Church and to substitute the idea that each individual human being has, in his own heart, a direct spiritual relationship to Christ” (Singer 19).
But Hegel’s view of history requires that the Reformation not only impact the church, but society also. The Reformation was that point in history when individuals realized that they had the ability to relate to God without an outside authority. He thought that they had the ability to relate to God without an outside authority, the individual conscience being the “ultimate judge of truth and goodness. In asserting this, the Reformation unfurls ‘the banner of the free spirit’ and proclaims as its essential principle: ‘Man is in his very nature destined to be free'” (Singer 19).
Hegel believed that since the Reformation, the world was being transformed in accordance with this principle, and that’s why he thought an Ideal State could be accomplished. If individuals were free to use their reasoning abilities to judge truth and goodness, then rational and good governments would be welcomed as a result. Therefore, all social institutions such as law, government, and constitutions could be designed in a way that rational men could accept. This would lead to Hegel’s view of perfect freedom.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
But how does this fit in with the reality of what actually happened as the next big event in human history? How is it that mankind, using its freedom, instead created the French Revolution? Hegel actually believed the French Revolution was a “glorious mental dawn” (Singer 1) and even joined in the jubilation of freedom, but he was to see the “dawn” become terror instead. How did this fit in with Hegel’s philosophy of history, which was supposed to be the “progress of the consciousness of freedom?”
THE “SPIRAL VIEW” OF HISTORY (OR THE “DIALECTIC”)
Hegel solved this problem by developing a theory called the “spiral view of history.” In this theory, he developed the position that history is trying to attain an ever-expanding freedom and yet is always in constant conflict. In this viewpoint, he explained the constant conflict as being a “dialectical method.” This is explained in detail in his Philosophy of Logic. Basically, the dialectical (contradicting) method is a process of change whereby a “thesis” clashes with its opposite, the “anti-thesis,” and is transformed into a higher form of truth known as the “synthesis.” Historian Edward H. Carr defines it as a doctrine in which:
“The world moves forward through a continuous interplay and conflict of ideas: one idea, or thesis, is contradicted and assailed by its antithesis; and of this struggle comes, not the victory either of thesis or of antithesis, but a new synthesis; the synthesis is thus established as a thesis, and the process of contradiction begins once more. This state of flux, or historical process, is the ultimate reality: it is also rational, since it is moving forward along certain lines which can be determined by rational investigation.” (Smith 277)
In this viewpoint, the conflict of ideas on the world stage is necessary for the next great leap in freedom to occur. So, although the French Revolution led to the Terror, it also led to many changes in Germany. It helped establish freedom for persons and freedom of property. It led to a code of rights. It led to more civil service jobs for the most talented citizens. It abolished feudal obligations. And even though the Prussian state was ruled by a monarchy, Hegel thought the system of laws and organization of the government, put in place as a result of learning from the French Revolution, kept the ruler in check. So that now, said Hegel, the decisions of the monarch were “in point of substance, no great matter” (Singer 22).
Since Hegel argued that the history of the world was the progress of the consciousness of freedom and that this freedom was always expanding, his philosophy of history was “that in past Oriental civilizations one was freel in classical antiquity, Greece and Rome, some were free; and in modern Germanic and Anglo-Saxon civilization, all are free” (Hartman xvii).
“GEIST” AND THE MARCH OF FREEDOM
This march of freedom through history, according to Hegel, is actually the working of Spirit (Geist) in the material world. He thought that “Geist” couldn’t exist independently of men. According to Charles Taylor, Hegel’s “Spirit” was a “spirit who lives as spirit only through men. They are vehicles . . . of his spiritual existence” (Taylor 11). Geist was the spiritual reality underlying the universe as a whole. Hegel believed that Spirit had purposes and realized ends, but could only do this through people. Therefore, “the realm of the Spirit consists only in what is produced by man” (Hartman 20).
To Hegel, God wasn’t everlasting or unchanging, but was an essence that needed to manifest itself in the world in order to perfect Itself. This viewpoint of God makes progress very important, because the onward movement of history is the path God must take to achieve perfection.
To read my personal philosophy of history:
Hartman, Robert S. Hegel: Reason in History; A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1953).
Singer, Peter. Hegel. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
Smith, Wilbur. World Crises and the Prophetic Scriptures (Chicago: Moody Press, 1952).
Taylor, Charles. Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).