Philosophical Theory

History from the language of the spirit of history

AmirAli Maleki Dialectic with Terry Pinkard about some popular misconceptions about G.W.F. Hegel’s political thought

+ Do you think that in his philosophy of history Hegel (1770-1831) wanted the ‘Aryan spirit’ to work, and that the formation of the German race was necessary for the emergence of absolute truth in the world?

– The question itself is badly formulated. Hegel did not speak of the ‘Aryan’ spirit at all, much less ‘wanted it to work’.

The very idea of the Aryan spirit did not come from Hegel but from Friedrich Schlegel, an opponent of Hegel, who introduced this term into the scholarship around 1819. And the idea of the Aryan race as such did not itself really begin to be used until long after Hegel’s death. Schlegel himself, like many of the early Romantics in Germany around 1800, was drawn to the idea of a idealized ‘East’ that would be something like a lost paradise. Schlegel, along with others, thought he had found it in India, and not Persia, which he thought had been corrupted away from its original culture by Islam. In Schlegel’s idealization of it, India was anti-rationalist and possessing the original religious insight that other religions, except Catholic Christianity, had lost. Schlegel also hypothesized that the original ‘Aryan’ race had sometime in pre-history migrated to Germany and become the Germanic tribes that ultimately upended the Roman Empire. Although Schlegel did not give this much of a racist interpretation, later generations were to draw racist conclusions from it.

Hegel would have none of it. He regarded Schlegel’s work and the myth of an Aryan origin of the Germans as so much claptrap. For those emerging German nationalists who liked to pretend that there was something special about the German ‘race’ which needed to be rekindled in a new ‘Germandom’. Hegel replied that this only showed that they were the ‘German-dumb’.

The idea that Hegel thought that the ‘German race’ was somehow predestined for anything has no basis. It rests on the simple confusion that lots of people who haven’t read Hegel have when all they look at are the titles in the table of contents in his philosophy of history. Hegel there speaks of the ‘Germanen’, not the ‘Germans’. The Germanen were the tribes of the north that the Romans never fully conquered but which in the fourth and fifth century CE managed to dismember the Roman Empire. A group of those tribes later came to be the Deutsch – the Germans. Other groups became part of the French, the Spanish, settled in large areas of Italy, and so on.

Hegel got his ideas about the Germanen from the Roman historian Tacitus, who in around 98 CE wrote a short book, Germania, in which he described how these supposedly lowly barbarians nonetheless loved freedom. Tacitus was making an unfavorable comparison to his fellow Romans, whom he felt had become corrupted by too much wealth and power. Hegel took Tacitus’ description of the Germanen to show that they were by luck the perfect successors to the then-failing Roman state, which had Christianized itself but had failed to grasp the true meaning of freedom, as involving a world in which all are free. The Romans only thought some were free – namely, male aristocrats of Roman citizenship – and could not dislodge themselves from that view. The barbarian Germanen, with their love of individual freedom, were thus perfectly placed to bring Roman freedom to completion. (Hegel also made it clear that he regarded these barbarian Germanen as ‘dull’, ‘confused’, and ‘vague’. They may have loved freedom, but they clearly needed more than that.) When the Roman empire was finally toppled by the various invasions by the Germanen (who had also by and large Christianized themselves), the conditions were then ripe for the full actualization of what had been only implicit in the Christian idea of the dignity and freedom of all people. The universal dignity of all people of all races of all countries was to be its logical conclusion, even though that conclusion has taken almost two thousand years to be explicitly drawn, and is still not yet fully real in political practice around the world.


+ What do you think is the relationship between Hegel’s view of the state as the shadow of God on Earth, and the belief in war as a means of increasing morality in society, involving ideological heroism?

– Hegel didn’t speak of the state as ‘God’s shadow’. I suppose you’re referring to the famous passage in the Philosophy of Right (1820) in which Hegel supposedly spoke of the state as the ‘march of God’ in the world. First, that passage was not written by Hegel himself but added by an editor, who got it from student notes. Second, in German the passage speaks of the Gang Gottes – the way of God in the world, not the ‘march’ of God. Karl Popper used the ‘march of God’ translation in his critique of Hegel, which is where most people now find it. However, Popper’s treatment of Hegel was fully destroyed by Walter Kaufmann in his famous 1951 article, ‘The Hegel Myth and its Method’, and was redestroyed again by Shlomo Avineri in the 1970s in his books and articles, and it counts for nothing among contemporary Hegel scholars. But people with no knowledge of Hegel continue to refer to it as if it is to be taken seriously. That itself says a lot about the way in which ideas that have long been refuted tend not to go away when enough people still desperately want them to be true.

Nor did Hegel think that war was a ‘means of increasing morality in society’. You will not find any text in which he says that. He did think that war had an ethical component. The fact that states have to call on some of their members to risk their lives to preserve the community is what gives war an ethical coloring. But Hegel also thought that in modern times anything but a purely defensive war was fully irrational. In fact, he said in the 1820s that given how the states of the European nineteenth century had become more rational in the wake of the French Revolution, in that they were destined to be constitutional monarchies offering full protection of the human rights of their members, war between European states was now an impossibility. He was obviously, and tragically, wrong about that, as the twentieth century demonstrated.

This obviously has nothing to do with any supposed ‘ideological heroism’. In fact, for Hegel, the age of genuine heroism is over. We now live in a rights-oriented, bureaucratic society dedicated to the rule of law. The hero of ancient poetry, by contrast, was a law unto himself. He might give the law to others, but was himself subject to nothing but his own passions. In our bureaucratic world we are hemmed in on all sides, and nobody can be such a hero nowadays. Our world is, as Hegel put it, more prosaic. It may not be as colorful as the ancient societies that preceded it, but it is more rational, and, as he also thought, ultimately more fulfilling. This line of thought formed a major part of his discussions of the role that art could play in modern times, since there was no longer any possibilities for a new epic borne by heroic figures. At best, so Hegel thought, our age is the age of the lyric poet, who sings of one person to another, and does not make great claims to speak authoritatively for the whole community.


+ Is this related to Hegel’s idea of totalitarianism?

– Given that Hegel had no ‘idea of totalitarianism’ at all, I would suppose that the answer has to be no. Hegel believed in the constitutional rule of law, and so in individual rights, and was always very clear about that. Even a very shallow reading of his 1820 Philosophy of Right shows that to be the case. In his lectures on aesthetics in the 1820s, he also made it clear that people could not find their full satisfaction as citizens even of a rational state, since any state is limited, finite, and ultimately only partially satisfactory. For that reason, people have to turn to spheres that are higher than the state in the hierarchy of human self-understanding – namely, art, religion, and philosophy. So he was far from being a totalitarian of any sort at all.

+ Was Hegel, as Popper claimed, the enemy of democratic ideals?

– Hegel was not a democrat in the modern sense. He did indeed think that democracy was a great form of life; but he also thought that it was only possible in small communities having a kind of shared ethical life that gave fundamental importance to individual citizens. Thus, democracy, as good as it is, was really only possible in the context of ancient Greek life; yet ancient Greek life was itself doomed to fall apart, given its own internal contradictions – in particular, that between the demands of the Greek city-state and the type of individuality it was in the process of creating. Hegel thought – as did one of his heroes, Rousseau – that a modern state run by well-trained bureaucrats would be incompatible with any kind of representative democracy.

Democracy for Hegel meant direct democracy – voting by people themselves on all significant political matters. That requires people to be full participants in the political decisions made by the community, and for each person to have their own say in deliberations about that to which the community was to commit itself. This would only work in relatively small states, and it required a commitment on the part of each to the wellbeing of their community. Our modern world could not function that way. Its complexity requires a more specialist and bureaucratic organization to work well. Modern democracies could therefore not be anything like ancient Greek democracy, in which the people ruled themselves, but rather would be ones in which the people got to choose who ruled them. This means that modern democracies are prone to fall apart into warring factions or leadership by demagogues. In that way – as Jean-François Kervégan has shown – Hegel was much more of a typical nineteenth century authoritarian liberal: he believed in certain basic rights that had to be protected, but he did not think that a representative democracy was suitable for doing it. If nothing else, the positions of minorities in modern democracies would always be threatened by a majority driven by its own passions and not the common good.

So Hegel was no enemy of democratic ideals, but rather a deep skeptic about the possibility of representative democracy in the modern world. In retrospect, he did put too much faith in the capacity of a well-trained bureaucracy staffed by civil servants to perform all their tasks impartially. But that is not the same as being hostile to democratic ideals.

+ Were not the beliefs of Giovanni Gentile, the ‘philosopher of Fascism’ who interpreted everything within the sphere of influence of the state, due to Hegel’s influence on him?

– Gentile took it that when Hegel spoke of the state as the highest point in modern ethical life, he meant that the state had absolute authority over all aspects of life. This was a calamitously bad interpretation of Hegel’s thought on any number of counts. Hegel held that the state was the ‘highest’ element of modern ethical life because he thought that it was only in a constitutionally organized state dedicated to the rule of law that things like modern family life and anything like the modern market could function in a way that would make any real sense for the people living in that society. He made these points very clear in his lectures on the subject in the 1820s. Gentile simply confused the universality of citizenship in a state, which is what intrigued Hegel, with the idea of the state having absolute authority over all aspects of life. For Gentile, Hegel’s ‘absolute’ obliterated all difference into one great and authoritative unity. But Hegel himself famously called such a conception of the absolute ‘the night in which all cows are black’, and he opposed his own philosophy to such an idea. Uniformity is a false view of the absolute that comes with disastrous consequences when somebody tries to put it into practice.

To the people who said that the state should not interfere with the market, since the market would self-correct in the long run – the proponents of laissez faire economics – Hegel responded by showing how the lethargic idea that ‘it will all simply work out in the long run’ has to be jettisoned if the ideal of equal citizenship is to be upheld. Just as J.M. Keynes quipped in the twentieth century to laissez faire economists that ‘in the long run we are all dead’, Hegel told his students in 1824/25 that it’s like saying of an epidemic that ‘in the long run it will all just go away’, when what that really means in practice is that “a hundred thousand will have died… before everything is set aright again.” Similarly, a non-interference, laissez faire economics simply condemns ‘hundreds, thousands to death’. It is, he said, up to the authorities to intervene in these matters. So Hegel was also far from anything like what we now call the neo-liberal view of the relation between the state and the economy.

+ How does Hitler’s belief in the power and will of an individual to maintain the state relate to Hegel’s idea of the state?

– The Nazis did not like Hegel. They thought his philosophy was too infected with ‘Jewish ideas’. There is also no relation of any kind between Hitler and Hegel. Hitler almost certainly never read much of anything by Hegel, if he read Hegel at all. The only time Hitler ever even mentioned him was to say how he, Hitler, sided with Schopenhauer who had (so Hitler said) thoroughly destroyed so called ‘Hegelian pragmatism’. Here’s a simple comparison. In his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (§۳۹۳Z, 1817), Hegel says that “descent affords no ground for granting or denying freedom and dominion to human beings. Man is in himself rational; herein lies the possibility of equal rights for all men and the nothingness of a rigid distinction between races which have rights and those which have none.” Hitler and the whole Nazi apparatus stood for exactly the opposite of that.

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