Skip over navigation

Philosophy of History

Hegel

Section 6

Section 5

Section 7

Summary

Hegel now moves to his third division in the discussion of Spirit: the immediate form it takes in the world, the "form it takes in actuality." This form is "the material in which the rational end-goal is to be realized." In a basic sense, Hegel says, this material is simply the human subject (or subjectivity in general)--human knowing and willing bring Reason into existence in the world. Unlike Spirit itself, human will is dependent on external things. Nonetheless, it "moves among essences, and has the essential itself as the goal of its existence."

With participation in both particular passions and abstract essences, humans set up the State (a product of the conjunction of these two aspects of the human, the subjective will and the rational will). The state is an "ethical totality," in which human individuals are free precisely in as much as they recognize the universal (as embodied in the principles and laws of the State).

Hegel is careful to point out that this idea of the State as true freedom (freedom in Reason) is not the same as the "social contract" model of the state, in which individual freedom is limited in order to allow others equal freedom. The freedoms limited by the State, Hegel argues, are nothing more than "caprice," simply the careless whims of the subjective will. The State allows the "only genuine ethical life," because genuine ethics only come from freedom in Reason (rational freedom).

World history, Hegel says, is only concerned with peoples who formed states. Any "value" and any "spiritual reality" is through the State alone, because the State is a direct embodiment of the "rational essence" of a given people; it is the essence of a people in a form that is "objectively there for them as knowers." In that sense, the State allows for self-consciousness, both of its people, and, through them, of Spirit. Thus, the State is also the realization of the Spirit in the world, "the divine Idea as it exists on earth," the thing in which "freedom gains its objectivity."

Ideally, the State eliminates any true conflict between the subjective needs of its people and the rational laws that govern them. In the State, "the rational is the necessary," and the subjective and objective wills exist together in it as a "serene whole."

Although Hegel leaves it to the "philosophy of right" (Hegel's own philosophy of ethics) to cover the details of the structure of the State, he discusses two "current" errors in the idea of the State. The first has already been mentioned: the idea that humans are naturally free and that the State limits that freedom. Hegel argues that "freedom does not exist as an original and natural state," and that the popular idea of an original, paradisiacal "state of nature" is incorrect. The State only limits the crudest of human drives, "caprice and [animal] passion." The initial limiting of these drives, in fact, is part of the process by which humans become aware of rational freedom (with its universal essences of law) in the first place. Hegel laments that caprice is forever mistaken for freedom, whereas the limitation of caprice is actually a requirement of true freedom.

The second misconception of the State makes it simply an expansion of basic, family-based patriarchal authority, rather than a rational development of this authority into law. On this errant model, true justice can only be exercised by the patriarch. On the contrary, Hegel argues, the patriarchal condition is "transitional"--its form as Statehood would be nothing more than a theocracy, which limits the freedom of its citizens solely by authority.

Although he does not list it as one of the above set of errors, Hegel here goes on to argue against the "majority rules" model of the State as well. On this model, every citizen must vote on every decision of the State. Hegel says this is simply an all-out rule of subjective will, with no role for objective will. For true freedom, the State must be a body of trained intelligence that has some degree of autonomy and exercises real authority, real "will and activity." Obedience to such a State would seem to go against the concept of freedom, but Hegel says this is avoided simply by having the citizens choose their own degree of obedience--whatever degree is minimal for the State to function.

Hegel discusses briefly some practical aspects of the State, noting that the purpose of the State has been seen in different ways throughout history. Fenelon emphasized the education of princes for a good state, and Plato did the same for the aristocracy (Hegel criticizes these for emphasizing the head of state over the structure of the state). Nowadays, he says, there is less of a conception of free choice of the form of the State--the Republic is thought best, but people assume that certain peoples require certain "less free" states (like theocracies). This is an error; the State should stem directly from the entire culture of a people, and should maximize their freedom.

The State is an ethical and cultural whole, from which government cannot be dealt with separately. As the "spiritual totality" of a people, it is a part of the history determined by the progress of Spirit. Even the most primitive, despotic States effect a union of individual wills with a universal idea (and this union is the Idea itself). As history progresses, individuality asserts itself further, driving monarchies to become constitutional in accordance with the progress in the spirit of the people. On this model, the most important factor in building a State is the current stage of the development of the rational condition of the people (the stage of rationally self-conscious freedom).

In sum, then, the State "is the Idea of Spirit in the externalized form of human will and freedom." In the State, the Idea and the subjective will "cohere together exactly." The State is the actualized form of Spirit, and "the elements of the Idea are reflected in the State as various political principles." These principles differ widely for different states at different times, and there is no value in taking older models for new states.

The union of subjective will and the Idea in the State means that the State is also the enabling basis for other aspects of culture. Religion is at the "pinnacle" of this union, because it is where the worldly version of Spirit becomes aware of the absolute form of Spirit (as God)--religion dismisses the particular altogether. Art is a much more sensory endeavor, which seeks not to know the mind of God but to make Him visible, to reveal the "outer form" of the absolute. Philosophy does try to know the absolute in and of itself, and is therefore the highest, freest and wisest of these three "configuration[s] of Spirit."

Thus, what is universal in the State is precisely the culture of the nation, and the "concrete actuality" of that universal culture is "the Spirit of the people itself." Religion is the most powerful aspect of culture by which the people may become aware of their own Spirit as the union between the subjective and objective wills. This self-awareness, Hegel says, is crucial to the development of Spirit. Religion provides a people with a definition of the deepest truth, with a "universal soul of all particular things." Thus, the way a people represents God constitutes their "general foundation," their absolute justification for the details of secular life. Religion gives the State a supreme justification, allowing its principles to be recognized as "determinations of the divine nature itself." Thus, the link between religion and the State must be preserved.

Closing his discussion of the State, Hegel gives the example of Athena as the "Spirit" of the people of Athens: the Spirit of a people is their sum, their rationale, their central abstract principle, "the basis and content of [their] self-consciousness." Such a Spirit is also a determinate stage of world history, a step in the progress of the larger Spirit. Hegel reminds us that self-consciousness, which Spirit must achieve through human self-consciousness, necessitates objectivity (the self known as an object). This objectivity is found in "all the differentiated spheres of the objective Spirit" as it is expressed in the various institutions of the State and culture. The concept of Spirit is defined by the realization of this state of affairs, as States progress through the determinate stages of world history.

Commentary

This section of Hegel's breakdown of the nature of Spirit is almost entirely a consideration of the general characteristics of the State, the form Spirit takes in actual human history. At this point, we should be able to see more of Hegel's overall theoretical structure emerging, a structure which is roughly parallel in its stages to the mechanism by which Spirit governs history. Thus, Hegel has discussed Spirit in general, then moved on to consider the human passions that actualize Spirit in the world, then shown how these human passions are bound up with abstract ideals and "essences," and finally (in this section) he has turned his attention to the State itself--the final product.

The State is the product of two elements that Hegel has already discussed: Spirit and subjective human will. The aspect of Spirit that Hegel uses for this stage of things (in regard to the World Spirit rather than the fully abstract Spirit) is the Idea. We might think of the Idea as the moving or actualizing aspect of Spirit, the aspect that is picked up in human consciousness and turned into the universal principles of the State. If it helps, we could also imagine Spirit having an "Idea" of itself that it shares with humanity.

Hegel's account of the State here is extremely forceful; at points his text reads more like an ode than an analysis ("the State is the divine Idea, as it exists on earth"). To some extent, Hegel is overplaying his hand, driving his point home without detailed substantiation. He used a similar approach for the introduction of the idea that Reason rules history--we are meant, in this introduction to a long set of lectures, to take these points as premises that will be proved later.

Nonetheless, Hegel does give us a good outline of the State as the earthly form of Spirit. This outline depends largely on the idea of the union of the universal (the "objective will") with the realm of individual human passions and needs (the "subjective will"), which was set out in the "means of Spirit" section. By grasping this union, we can see the sense in which Hegel says that the State is the true subject of history. Without a State, neither universal principles nor true freedom can enter the picture; without a State, humans are united only under small-scale, arbitrary authority, and pursue only their own subjective desires. The State allows people to see their own collective, rational spirit in an external form, and therefore it allows both self- consciousness and true freedom (since freedom is precisely this rational self- consciousness). Only with this development does the essential freedom and self- awareness of Spirit begin to reveal itself in human society. And only then do we truly have the material for philosophic history.

Hegel must emphasize that nothing but this total union of subjective will and universal principle (yielding true freedom) counts for him as a State. Anything less would seriously complicate his theoretical structure, which depends on an extremely cohesive relationship (almost an identity) between his abstract conceptions of Spirit, freedom, and Reason on the one hand, and the forms these take in reality on the other. Hegel's State must be a perfect instantiation of these abstract principles.

Thus, Hegel throws out the patriarchal model of statehood, since that model cannot be said to allow its citizens rational freedom. He also throws out the "negative freedom" model (better known to us as the "social contract" model), in which citizens agree to a State in order to limit their freedom enough to form a functional and stable society. In Hegel's model, the State absolutely cannot be found to limit real freedom. Thus, Hegel says that State and the law limit only "caprice," which is not true freedom at all (since it is not rational, and therefore not self-sufficient).

We might wonder if there is any real difference, however, between the social contract model and Hegel's--perhaps the difference is solely in the name we give to the human actions limited by State law. One solution might be to say that this difference in labeling is really a difference in concept (though the reality may appear to be the same): does the State limit anything that we should conceive of as "freedom"? Part of Hegel's overall point is that conceptual questions like this not only bear on reality, but determine reality.

Hegel senses a second danger in the form of the "majority rules" conception of statehood, in which the only things that count are the individual votes of the citizens. This model would mean that the universal principle is never really embodied in any autonomous sense, since the government has no real autonomy. With that, the union of universal and subjective would break down, and we'd be left only with the millions of subjective wills of the people. So this model is dismissed as well.

Finally, we should note Hegel's emphasis on the idea of the State as an ethical and cultural whole--not just the government, but the whole essential Spirit of a given people. This Spirit involves extra-governmental aspects of the people's Spirit such as religion, art, and philosophy, each of which takes its place in the whole that is the State. Religion is especially important, since it harbors the most direct emotional and spiritual recognition of the people's Spirit (the central "principle" of the State) as something divine. Thus, we should not picture the State as a cold bureaucracy, but rather as the whole of public society, from the deepest common religious beliefs to the smallest constitutional details. Keeping this in mind may also help to make Hegel's extensive claims for the State more plausible.

More Help

Previous Next
Hegel's View of State and History

by soberguy7, May 05, 2014

Hegel suggests that no state in any age or any stage of human history can be perfect no matter how high and noble goals it may pursue or achieve. By the time the state achieve those high ideals, human intellect achieves new heights which makes the high goals already achieved by that “next to perfect” state outdated and a quest for achieving the new targets and goals starts, leading human society to its next level, a higher level of development and a new stage in the journey towards perfection.

Follow Us