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Philosophy of History

Hegel

Section 4

Section 3

Section 5

Summary

In this section on the "means of Spirit" (covered in this section and section 5), Hegel will be addressing "the means whereby freedom develops itself into a world." This process, he says, is "the phenomenon of history itself." Freedom, on its own, is an "internal concept," but the means by which it realizes itself in the world are necessarily external. These means are human: human needs, drives, passions, and interests drive history. In comparison to these (in terms of overall history, at least), virtue and morality are "insignificant."

In this schema, individuals count for very little--it is the mass of humanity that drives history. The result is that history can seem little more than a "slaughter-bench," a series of senseless tragedies that threaten to force us into a "selfish removal" from any interest in ongoing history. Why are these sacrifices necessary? Because they are the means by which Spirit unfolds in the world; human will provides the actualizing power for Spirit.

This actualizing power proceeds specifically through what Hegel refers to as "the infinite right of the subjective will," by which individuals commit themselves to a purpose only if they "find their own sense of self satisfied in it" (although these purposes generally transcend the individual). To commit themselves to a cause, individuals must understand that cause as their own. This is especially true, Hegel says, in contemporary times, when authority is less powerful. Hegel will refer to this commitment to a cause seen as one's own as a "passion."

Hegel posits two elements as the immediate determinants of world history: the Idea and human passion (the Idea is not clarified here, but can be taken to mean, roughly, the Spirit as grasped by humans). Their meeting point in history is in the "ethical freedom of the State," which is built by human passion according to the abstract Idea of rational freedom.

Hegel further clarifies his concept of passion here, describing it as a truly driven sense that occupies a person so thoroughly that it is almost the same thing as that person's will and identity: "through [this passion], the person is what he is." Passion is the subjective aspect of energy, will and activity in general--it is the "formal" (i.e. actual, formed) aspect of these kinds of power. The goal of passion is another matter, but whatever the content of a particular passion, it is "there in one's own conviction, one's own insight and conscience." It is the highest ideal of the State to merge the passions of its citizens with the "universal goal."

At the beginning of world history, none of this is explicit. The goal of history--to fulfill the concept of Spirit--begins unconsciously, and "the entire business of world history is...the work of bringing it to consciousness." The subjective will (human passion, etc.) is apparent from the beginning, but lacks any higher purpose.

This immediate clarity of natural human will leads some to doubt whether there is any higher Spirit or purpose behind human action (and these doubters should exist, since Spirit transcends individual human purpose). To counter these skeptics, Hegel makes reference here to "metaphysical logic," which, he says, has proven that the union of the self-sufficient universal with the "individual subjective aspect" is the only form of truth. He cannot address this idea here, but must press on under the assumption that Reason rules history, and that "the universal is still implicit in particular goals and fulfills itself in them."

Hegel continues here to discuss the union of Spirit and human will in abstract terms: as the union of freedom (human will) and necessity (abstract Spirit), and also as the union of the universal and infinite (the Idea) with the particular and finite (human will). This union of opposites is a matter of the "Idea proceed[ing] to its infinite antithesis...its determinate element...the ground of its formal being." This is self-consciousness, Spirit's knowing of itself as an "Other." The result is that infinite, abstract Spirit finds a finite, "formal freedom" in the world, finding the power of human "arbitrary free will" in itself where before there was only necessity. Hegel notes that the understanding of the "absolute bonding of this antithesis" is the very task of metaphysics itself.

The particularity (or individual will) side of this opposition is the realm of individual human happiness, where we change our environment to suit our desires. But, Hegel writes, "world history is not the place for happiness...periods of happiness are empty pages in history." This is because world history progresses precisely through the antithesis discussed above. There must be "activity" for history to unfold, and activity is simply the mediating term between the universal Idea and external, finite, human particularity. Hegel tries to clarify this with the metaphor of building a house: the elements (fire, water, wood, etc.) are used according to their nature, but they are used for a higher purpose that will eventually limit those same elements (with a roof, fireproofing, etc). Similarly, individual humans serve their own interests, but also serve a larger purpose that may well turn against them.

Commentary

Hegel's discussion of the means of Spirit allows him to bring us closer to the kind of "common sense" history we know, even as he advances some extremely intricate metaphysical theory. Hegel uses both of these aspects to continue his running battle against the apparent improbability of his proposition that Reason runs world history.

It may come as a relief to begin to hear about actual human beings, with their selfish drives, interests, and "passions." This seems suddenly to be a much more down-to-earth approach, especially when Hegel admits that history presents itself as a "slaughter-bench" inspiring "grief" and "helpless sadness." Unjust wars spring to mind as soon as any discussion of Reason in history is raised, and Hegel was witnessing his share of upheaval at the time of writing. The American and French Revolutions, each with their apparent advancement of human society and their simultaneous wanton butchery, were fresh in his mind (though we should keep in mind that neither of the World Wars were even on the horizon).

Nonetheless, Hegel cites these horrors of history only in passing, and one suspects that he wishes to dispose of the most difficult challenges to his theory at one blow--hence, Hegel immediately returns to his theory, implying that it is the only viable choice besides despair or irresponsible aloofness. We must, that is, believe that these tragedies are "sacrifices" to a higher purpose.

If this emotional discussion leaves us feeling that Hegel is more aware of the problems of concrete history than we thought, the next discussion launches us directly back into nearly total abstraction. Hegel wants us to grasp the sense in which human activity is the means used by Spirit to realize itself. What is particularly challenging about this proposition is that Hegel must explain precisely how Spirit "uses" humans for its own ends; in short, he must show a connection or even a unity between abstract Spirit and real human action. Hegel bases this unity on a proof that he attributes here only to "metaphysical logic": truth is the unity of the universal with the subjective particular. This actually makes intuitive sense (we might think of the framers of the U.S. constitution, who, through a unity of their own interests with a universal Idea of freedom, wrote the document taken as the essential truth of the State (whose purpose in history went on to transcend the purpose of any of the framers). Hegel wants to show that history unfolds only in as much as there is a relationship between human passion and universal ideas--a union of extreme opposites.

The metaphysical version of this union is complex. Spirit has freedom as its central principle, but this is a different sort of freedom than arbitrary human free will. The freedom of Spirit can also be called a necessity, since Spirit finds its freedom simply in realizing itself--it's almost as if it's free to do one infinite thing. In contrast, human will is free in a very finite, fickle, and particular sense; it is subjective, serving only its subject. The union of these two, the universal and the subjective, is the means of history. What they accomplish together (the founding of States, etc.) is history itself. We should note that this unity of opposites has much to do with what Hegel refers to elsewhere as the "dialectic": universal Spirit knows itself as an object, and struggles against itself (its particular, subjective aspect). In more worldly terms, humans struggle to know themselves, and progress by negating some particular aspect of themselves in favor of a universal (the principle of the State). Thus, there is a dialogue, a progressive back-and- forth, between the subjective particular aspect and the objective universal aspect of this spiritual unity that drives history.

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