Hegel is the first thinker to treat history as a matter of philosophical and theological study. He made a distinction between individual existence and social existence, so that history refers primarily to our social life, not individual, private lives. The spirit moves the individual, but history is primarily society in its temporal process – and Hegel’s basic social unity is the nation/state.
The spirit works through history in bringing together freedom and necessity, subjectivity and objectivity. There is a rational pattern that can be discerned in history, as the spirit continues to move forward toward freedom. The progression is necessary, because development is necessary in all levels. In nature, organic matter develops, as a seed becomes a tree; in human beings, children develop, and by necessity a three year old child cannot think and behave like a thirty year old adult.
In the same manner, the spirit develops through the thoughts and actions of nations and civilizations. The spirit actualizes itself in the self-consciousness of human beings and in their progressive consciousness of freedom. For Hegel, it is a discernible pattern of history that the more ancient civilizations had a more limited concept of freedom, whereas democracy only appears in modern times. He argues that in ancient Oriental civilizations, the general pattern was that only the ruler was free, whereas in the later Greek civilization there was an oligarchy of the few who were free – and finally modern nations have the awareness that all should be free. There were exceptions to the rule, and breaks in the general chronology, but the exceptions only prove the rule.
History is not a mere succession of sheer contingencies – not just one random thing after another. For Hegel, if one looks at the world rationally, the world will look rationally back. There is a development of reason in the pattern, since for Hegel reason is substance and infinite power, the infinite material of all natural and spiritual life and the infinite form which activates this material content.[i]
The sole aim of the philosophical enquiry then is to eliminate the contingent, and so in history we must look for a general design. World history is governed by an ultimate design; it is a rational process of the divine and absolute reason, the manifestation of the one original reason, and a reflection of the archetype in a particular element in the life of the nations. Reason is self-sufficient and contains its end within itself, bringing itself into existence and carrying itself into effect.
The history of the world is thus a rational process, the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. A divine will rules supreme and is strong enough to determine the overall content, as events are moved by the moving of the spirit within them, the “true Mercury, the leader of the nations.”[ii]
Modes of Historical Thinking and Writing
As Hegel observes and explains the patterns of the development of world history, he makes distinctions concerning what kind of historical writing is appropriate for his project. He discerns three modes of historical writing: original history, reflexive history and philosophical history.
The first mode, historical writing, is one in which the author is immersed in the spirit of the events he describes, and does not rise above it to reflect upon it. The writer is an eyewitness of the events, and although perspective is time fresh it is also limited by a lack of wider perspective.
The second mode, reflexive history, depicts not only what was present and alive in this or that age, but that which is present in spirit, and so it looks at the past as a whole. This includes surveys of history (compilations), pragmatic history (focus on significance and moral instructions[iii]), critical history (history of history, higher criticism[iv]) and specialized history (which is fragmentary, particular, and abstract: e.g. the history of art).
The third mode of philosophical history (the one Hegel proposes to adopt) focuses on the concrete and “absolutely present,” the “spirit which is eternally present to itself and for which there is no past.” It is the Idea, the leader of nations and of the world, the spirit with its “rational and necessary will” which directs the events of world history.[v] This mode brings a synthesis of reason, spirit, providence, subjectivity, objectivity, movement, and teleology.
The Realization of the Spirit in History
Philosophical history then discerns the patterns of the spirit, which combines reason and will. This is expressed not only in individuals, but also in higher levels of human existence.
There are for Hegel three basic levels of the activity of the spirit:
1. First, the spirit becomes conscious and seeks freedom in the individual spirit.
2. It also moves individuals together as it sublates contradictions and seeks freedom in the level of the nation – the nation spirit.
3. Thirdly, the spirit will also move not only through individuals and nations, but also in guiding the totality of world history – the world spirit.
From a different perspective, these three levels can also be understood in a descending scale: The absolute spirit is incarnated, embodied in the world spirit; the world spirit is incarnated, embodied and particularized in the nation spirit, and the nation spirit is incarnated and embodied in the individual spirit.
The absolute spirit is the ultimate agent and ultimate goal. It is absolute in that it is not determined – but it seeks determination in its embodiment in the world, so that it can eventually sublate contradictions towards ultimate freedom.
In this way, world history belongs to the realm of the spirit. Physical nature does plays a part, but the spirit and the course of its development (actualized in human beings, and, more importantly, in nations) are the true substance of history. After the creation of nature, man appears as the antithesis of nature since the kingdom of God is the spiritual kingdom which is realized in man and which man is expected to translate into actuality – man is active withinthe spirit, and the spirit is active within man. Human nature is a combination of spirit and nature, and essence of the spirit is self-consciousness. [vi]
Deutschland über alles!
Hegel, however, is primarily concerned with the spirit of the nation, which for him is the basic unit of world history, not the individual person. Thus he takes a thoroughly socio-historical approach to his philosophy of history, opposing atomistic individualism. Hegel recognizes that it is from the state that and individual derives the substance of his life.
This approach is markedly different from the modern philosophical approaches which, since Descartes, generally concentrate on the individual and his relation to the external reality. Hegel’s philosophy does not allow for any identity outside of relationships embodied in concrete reality, and therefore it is natural that, while recognizing that the movement of the spirit is indeed realized in the individual, there is no meaningful individual who does not derive his existence and meaning from historical relations.
There is no independent individual, for (as we will see later) each element of finite reality is thoroughly dependent upon its finite counterparts, just as finite reality is thoroughly dependent on the infinite and vice-versa.
As an individual, I derive my food, my protection, my value system, and so on, from the social relationships in which I live, move, and have my being. Therefore the spirit of the nation is the womb in which individuals live, and is the basic vehicle of the spirit in its progression toward self-knowledge and freedom.
Hegel’s conception of the state is therefore spiritual, not materialistic, and the “spirit of the nation” is constituted by the ideals that bind people together. All spheres of our lives – politics, technology, religion, art, philosophy, etc. – are expressions of the spirit of the nation.
This is an organic conception of society, in which there is what Hegel calls a principle of coherence between laws, politics, religion, culture, and so on, because the spirit of the nation in its own locus of development toward freedom will affect all these areas in a reasonably uniform way. For example, a nation that has an authoritarian religion will find it hard to have a democratic constitution.
Just as an individual life has to cohere in its different aspects, embracing its negations and sublating them, so also with the state. Internal conflicts bring revolutions and the dialectical approach demands reconciliation of the many realms of life present in the state, since the spirit of the nation articulates itself in this diversity of spheres. They have to cohere, and they generally do – again, the state cannot impose a constitution on a people, since it has to come from the spirit of the people. There must be as much unification of differences in society as possible (and this does not mean sheer uniformity), and some kind of totality is essential even for the sake of difference.
Hegel took the German nation and society to be the pinnacle of the development of the spirit. However, to apply his insights to our current history, it could be said that this becomes especially relevant in our present context, since globalization clearly requires a harmonizing element between the different cultures, religions, ideologies, societies, economic systems, and so on, which have been brought face to face more than ever in the history of mankind.
Civilizations are becoming more and more amalgamated, as now the “wholly other” is my next door neighbor; the challenges of reconciliation and the questions concerning the possibility of unity that maintains diversity brings Hegel’s idea of negation-transcendence-preservation to great relevance today.
Freedom: the part Marx tweaked.
The nation spirit, then, continues to move into greater awareness of freedom. The ultimate phase of national consciousness is the recognition that man is free. This consciousness encompasses and guides all the aims and interests of the nation, and it is on this consciousness that the nation’s rights, customs, and religion depend.
This progression is achieved through a dialectical movement where contradictions are constantly being encountered and sublated; as we have seen, the world is a struggle of classes, religions, ideas, systems, cultures, etc., and thus,
The ultimate aim of the spirit is to know itself, and to comprehend itself no merely intuitively, but also in terms of thought. It must and will succeed in its task; but this very success is also its downfall, and this in turn heralds the emergence of a new phase and a new spirit.[vii]
There is progression, growth and succession, and the task of philosophical world history is to discover the continuity within this movement. It is important to emphasize that the movement of the spirit (particularly the nation spirit throughout history) is not a cycle, but a progression. Every instance in which ideas and practices within a particular society have come into tension and conflict, and then have been resolved and sublated in any way, there is fulfillment.
But as Hegel points out, when the ideals, aspirations, and goals of a nation have received some relief though some resolution of conflict, the tendency (as with individual human beings) is that stagnation and “boredom” occurs. Once (literal or metaphorical) battles have been fought, human beings and nations tend to become complacent, and often lose their sense of greater purpose. For Hegel, this eventually issues in a kind of “death” of the nation, and what is needed is a sort of resurgence from the ashes.
The universal spirit does not die; it dies only in its capacity as national spirit. But the universal spirit will continue to move, and even this death will not be final.
As a phoenix, the spirit rises out of the death of change and comes again to life. The spirit rises again not just as a mere repetition of what it was before, but rather now enhanced and transfigured in a new stage of development.
The Spirit Carries On.
[i] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 27-28
[ii] Ibid., 29
[iii] Hegel argues that history teaches that we have never learned anything from history, because each age and each nation finds itself in peculiar circumstances and situations.
[iv] For Hegel, higher criticism “has been the pretext for introducing all the un-historical monstrosities a vain imagination could suggest … a method of bringing a [present into the past, namely by substituting subjective fancies which are considered the more excellent the bolder they are … (22-23)
[v] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 24
[vi] Ibid., 44
[vii] Ibid., 56