Skip over navigation

Philosophy of History

Hegel

Section 5

Section 4

Section 6

Summary

Hegel continues his discussion of the means of Spirit, which come from the union of the abstract universal with the subjective particular. Other wordings of this union include "the realization of the universal Idea in immediate actuality" and "the elevation of the singular [agency] into universal truth." Although humans are generally unaware of their participation in the universal Spirit, they nonetheless generally act in accord with accepted abstract ideals such as honor or duty.

Major historical events occur when there is a clash (on the part of an individual or a group) between these accepted abstract ideals and possible alternative ones. The emergence of such new concepts is "a moving force of the productive Idea," the immediate instrument of Spirit in history. The individuals who introduce these world-impacting concepts are "world-historical individuals" like Caesar or Napoleon. The personal will and passions of such individuals coincide to some degree with the will of the World Spirit, and they aim, whether they know it or not, at "what the time intrinsically demands." These "heroes" gain their personal passions in part "from a source whose content is hidden" rather than from tradition or the status quo.

These heroes are able to lead only because they articulate a passion that others recognize as their own (since it is an articulation of the next step in the universal Idea). Though the hero may not be conscious of it, he is bringing the "unconscious Spirit" to consciousness, and therefore to actualization. Hegel disputes any assumption that these individuals gain happiness from their actions, but he also discards the "psychological" view that would focus on their quirks and immoral passions; focusing on these only expresses "envy" of the heroes, and fails to recognize that they were being used for a higher purpose.

The sole purpose of the world-historical individual is to foster the emergence of the universal from the particular (through its negation). When historical change occurs through upheaval and struggle (as it almost always does) this is a clash on the level of the particular, with "the universal in the background." Hegel coins his famous phrase "the Cunning of Reason" here to denote the process by which worldly particulars (which can be apparently chaotic or random) are used by universal Reason for its own purposes.

Thus, all the particular tragedy that occurs in the course of world history is a sacrifice of the particular for the universal. But even given this higher reason, Hegel says, we cannot approve of a single death. There is something divine about the human, and the needs and insights of human individuals have "an infinite right to be satisfied." This is the realm of "morality, ethics, [and] religious commitment." Individuals have this divine aspect, however, only by virtue of the Reason in them. Humans are the means of the greater rational goal, but they have a part in this goal themselves. They are valuable ends in themselves insofar as they share this goal of Reason. They are to be valued as free individuals precisely because true freedom is Reason (and Reason is freedom because it is entirely "self- activating and self-determining").

But this very freedom also makes humans responsible for maintaining ethics and for any deterioration in those ethics. This responsibility often seems neglected in history, but Hegel warns against pessimistic preachers of "haughty" ideals that are ill-defined and cannot be maintained. Too often, he says, people complain that history has been immoral without choosing moral ideals that are truly universal (rather than simply subjective).

There can be universal ideals, but Hegel implies that these would correspond to the demands of Spirit (which, in his view, history does meet). Rather than complain, philosophy should show that the "real world is as it ought to be": God governs history, and philosophy seeks to know his plan (since "Reason is the perception of God's work"). When morals and ethics decline, it is because they are universals exposed to particulars, which limit them to some degree. Nonetheless, each decline has a higher purpose, and does not effect the overall progress entailed by the concept of freedom.

Hegel closes this discussion with a rough definition of the "means" of Spirit: "the activity of those in whom Reason is present as their intrinsically substantial essence--though primarily as a still obscure ground, one that is hidden from them." This is complicated, he says, by the blurring of the distinction between humans as means and humans as ends, which occurs when we consider individual morality and ethics.

Commentary

Again, here Hegel is covering more familiar ground for the most part, and the mechanism of Spirit in history should be getting more plausible. There remains in the background, however, the overall problem posed by the brutality and apparent senselessness of much of world history, and Hegel goes further toward addressing this issue here.

Spirit's means in its mission to realize itself in concrete form are essentially human. Hegel has already discussed what he means by "passion," and has stated that the mass of individual human passions and interests is the primary force in actualizing Spirit. Here he turns to "world-historical individuals" like Caesar as catalysts who mobilize the passions of the masses at crucial points in history. These individuals are often selfish, miserable, and greedy, but for some reason their passions coincide with the next step in the unfolding of Spirit.

These individuals are lightning rods for what everyone is thinking without realizing it (that is, they bring "unconscious" Spirit to mass consciousness). It is their job to usher in the major changes that the time demands, raising the universal up out of the stormy mass of the particular (we might think of Caesar building his empire, which is founded on a concept of the State).

This raising of the universal through the particular raises a near-paradox that Hegel does not address explicitly: if history arises as the universal Spirit becomes particular, how can it also arise as the particular becoming universal? The answer, roughly, is that the first mechanism describes the overall process of history, and the second describes a level of detailed events in history. When Caesar unites the empire and makes all those particular peoples part of a universal, that universal is simply the concrete, particular form that abstract Spirit has taken at that stage--the two occur simultaneously.

Again, however, this leaves us with the unsettling issue of, say, the millions of deaths necessary to create the Roman empire. Can these possibly be justified by an overall rule of Reason? Hegel has essentially answered this question with a "yes" up to this point, or sidestepped it to some degree. Here, however, he makes the surprising (and relieving) assertion that an individual death (or even the unreasonable restriction of individual freedom) cannot be justified by reference to the rule of Reason.

Hegel says that this is because individual humans share in the goal of history to some extent, even if they know nothing about that goal. This is because the goal of history is Reason itself, which, because it is entirely self-sufficient, is freedom itself. Thus, human freedom must be respected and valued as much as the overall end of history is to be valued, since all humans contain that goal within them. Nonetheless, Hegel seems less comfortable on this topic of subjective (small-scale) morality than he does discussing Reason. Subjective morality is slightly off-topic for him in this treatise, and we are left to wonder about the apparent impasse between the course of Reason-ruled history on the one hand and subjective morality on the other.

Rather than tackling this problem, Hegel only notes that his account of the means of Spirit (which would seem to be less valuable than its ultimate end) is complicated by the fact that individual, subjective humans are also part of this end. The solution may lie in the fact that history is already past, and that judging the morality of people like Caesar does no one any good--Hegel takes a number of swings at such "haughty" judges. In any case, he has already said that history generally teaches us nothing truly valuable as far as our future actions are concerned.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us