Written by Vladimir Moss



     The pace of change in the period 1789-1830 was so great that men began to look at history itself in a new way…

     Since the beginning of the Christian era, the attitude to time and history had been very specific. Time is real, but not, as it were, timeless. All material things will come to an end in time, when Christ comes again in glory to take the whole of redeemed humanity out of time into eternal life with God in heaven, while unredeemed humanity is condemned to eternal death, but continuing existence, with the devil in hell. Therefore all earthly hopes and fears, including all political and social institutions and their associated values, will perish. The one exception is the Church of Christ, which, being the Body of God Incarnate, cannot change; nor can the dogmatic truths and values it proclaims – including, most importantly, the rightness and naturalness of monarchical rule and the hierarchical nature of society, - change in any fundamental way. Both the Orthodox in the East and the Roman Catholics in the West stood for unchanging truth; their teaching was the philosophia perennis. (In fact, the popes took it upon themselves to “develop”, that is, change doctrine through their supposedly infallible pronouncements, such as the addition of the Filioque to the Creed. But their claim was to express unchanging truth.)

     This attitude began to change during the Renaissance, when the idea of radical change became popular and acceptable. However, the Renaissance philosophers looked back, not forward in time; their ideal was a “rebirth” of Greco-Roman antiquity, and their aim was to fuse Christian culture and art with the Classical culture and art of the ancients. Change was welcomed, not because it brought in something new, but because it returned that which was old and supposedly better than the Christian present.


     The conceptual breakthrough – or rather, breakdown, that is, conceptual collapse – came with the Enlightenment idea of Progress. The ideal now was not a return to past glories, but constant progress towards the unknown and almost unimaginable glories of a future golden age through the application of reason, science and education on an ever-increasing scale. Crucially, this progress was considered to be inevitable. So if unhappy events such as wars, pandemics or civil strife took place, these were mere “blips” in the unending progress to a happier future. Or rather, such “blips” should not be considered as “bad” in a real sense, but as creative means towards the providential end of history, that is, a glorious utopia for all those who cooperated with her march (while for those who resisted her there was reserved “the dustbin of history”).


     This way of thinking, called historicism, held a major attraction for nineteenth-century Europeans: it could plausibly (for the unwary) be considered to be compatible both with what was still the majority’s old, Christian world-view (providing Christ Himself was airbrushed out of the picture), and with the newest fad of the “enlightened” classes – Romanticism.

     For could not History on this view be considered to be God Himself, albeit in an impersonal, secular form? And could not the tragic “blips” in history be compared with the inevitable sufferings of the Christian that purify and train him, making him fit for the infinite joy at the end of the Divine Comedy? And cannot the eternal heaven and hell of Christianity be compared to the fate of the good “progressives” and bad “reactionaries” of historicism, History’s chosen and damned? As for Romantic art, did it not thrive on its dynamism, as opposed to the serene, quasi-immobility of baroque and Renaissance art? Thus while the polyphony of a Palestrina motet created the sensation of never-changing timelessness, the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Haydn, or Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, created the sensation of constant movement from one dissonance to another, finding rest only in the heart-easing consonance of the final chord?

     Whatever the philosophical implications of historicism, there is no denying that the greatly increased interest in history that we see in this period had good results. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in historiography from Michelet in France to Macaulay in England to innumerable German historians. There is no doubt that the historical approach also brought spiritual benefits. Thus Karamzin’s History of the Russian State was, according to Pushkin, “a revelation. You could say that Karamzin discovered ancient Russia as Columbus discovered America.” Even dogmatics becomes clearer when viewed in a historical context.

     However, historicism encountered a major problem in explaining the very recent history of the French revolution and the Napoleonic despotism. Most intellectuals of the post-Napoleonic generation believed passionately, following the Italian historian, Giamattista Vico, that history followed natural laws which included a law of ever-increasing liberty.But, as George L. Mosse writes, “had liberty not led to the Terror, to Jacobin tyranny and, in the end, to Napoleon’s iron grip on Europe? Would liberty, even if conceived in historical terms, not lead to new excesses? The adherents of this new liberty had to face this problem. They believed in liberty but hated what Robespierre and Napoleon had made out of this human longing. The emphasis on history helped here, for such an emphasis precluded sudden innovations. They went one step further and repudiated the revolutionary concept of democracy, a concept they felt led not to liberty but to absolutism. They blamed Rousseau’s doctrine of the general will and Robespierre’s use of it. Madame de Staël, in her Considerations upon the French Revolution (1816), spoke of the Revolution as a crisis in the history of liberty. She contrasted ancient liberty, sanctified by history, to the modernity of despotism. Jacobin popular democracy was, for her, just another form of tyranny; liberty had to be obtained in another way, a way outlined by the French constitution of 1791 and the constitution of England (for Madame de Staël admired the English constitution as did Montesquieu before her). ‘It is a beautiful sight this constitution, vacillating a little as it sets out from its port, like a vessel launched at sea, yet unfurling its sails, it gives full play to everything great and generous in the human soul.’ Through such a constitution liberty unfolds within the historical process. Liberty was all-important to this talented and famous woman; she hated the Terror but she did not lay it at the doorstep of the Revolution. The ancien régime had so corrupted the morals of the people that despotism, not liberty, had to be the outcome of their justified revolt. She held to the oft-repeated view that the champions of reaction, not the revolutionaries, were the ultimate causes of revolutions.”[1] 

     So de Staël’s argument came down to the following. First, contrary to the flow of history, despotism had come to power in France under the Bourbons. This then had two contradictory effects: on the one hand, it stimulated the glorious revolution of 1789, which was a glorious step forward for freedom; but on other hand, it also stimulated the Jacobin Terror of 1793, which was a gigantic step backwards towards an even darker despotism. 

     Clearly, the zig-zags of history were difficult to account for on the historicist theory, seemed to contradict liberal optimism, and even put the ultimate end of utopia in doubt. It was necessary to find a philosopher who would square the circle. That philosopher turned out to be Hegel, one of whose gnomic pronouncements was: “The History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom.”


      Now French liberals such as Madame de Staël or Benjamin Constant might speak about the historical process. But their understanding of that process was something quite different from what it meant to the new wave of romantic philosophers that were beginning to make their reputations across the Rhine…

     By contrast with the Age of Rationalism, which had sought to elucidate truths that were valid for all cultures and all times, for the Age of Revolution that followed it truth was ineluctably historical and particularist. And this meant not simply that the truth about a person or nation can be understood only in his or its historical context. It meant that truth itself changes with time. Thus God for the romantics was a dynamic, evolving being indistinguishable from nature and history, always overcoming contradictions and rising to ever higher unities (syntheses) overcoming logical contradictions (theses and antitheses).

     It followed that there was no perfectly revealed religion, no absolute truth. "Christians must not be 'vain and foolish', Friedrich Schleiermacher warned, for their religion is not the only 'revealed religion'. All religions are revealed from God. Christianity is the center around which all others gather. The disunity of religions is an evil and 'only in the totality of all such possible forms can there be given the true religion,' Schleiermacher added."[2] 

     This schema was developed by Friedrich Schelling, who distinguished "the three ages of history - the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Spirit which correspond to the events of creation, redemption and consummation. Schelling believed that Christianity was now passing through 'the second age' which Christ 'incarnated' almost two millennia ago.


     "In the vocabulary of the Romantics, Christ brought 'the Idea of Christianity' with Him. An 'Idea' is the invisible, unchangeable, and eternal aspect of each thing. (Plato was probably the first to teach 'Idealism'.) Phenomena are visible, changeable, and temporary. Put another way, the Idea of Christianity ('one Church') is what the historical institution will become when it finishes growing, or, as Schelling would say, when God becomes fully God. One may compare its Idea to wheat and historical Christianity (the Idea) to what Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Christianity will become. When the multiplicity of churches grows into the ecumenical Church, then, the Idea of Christianity, of 'one church', will have been actualised in space and time. It will be actualised in the coming of 'the third age', 'the age of the Spirit', 'the age of consummation'."[3]

     The desire to keep always “in step with the times” was manifestly especially by the third Friedrich, the most famous and influential of them, Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). As Sir Richard Evans writes, he “grew up in south-west Germany under the influence of the Enlightenment, was an admirer of the French Revolution, and of Napoleon. Whom he witnessed entering Jena after the winning the battle of 1806. Following a variety of teaching positions, Hegel was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy in Berlin in 1818, where he remained until his death of cholera in 1831. An atheist, he replaced the concept of God with the idea of the ‘World Spirit’ of rationality, which he believed was working out its purposes in a process he called ‘dialectical’, in which one historical condition would be replaced by its antithesis, and then the two would combine to create a final synthesis. As he became more conservative, Hegel began to regard the state of Prussia after 1815 as a ‘synthesis’ requiring no further alteration. Not surprisingly, he was soon known as ‘the Prussian state philosopher’. But his core idea of ineluctable historical progress held a considerable appeal for radicals in many parts of Europe…”[4]

     Now Prussia was a mass of contradictions – ideal material for Hegel’s very foggy mind, from whose outpourings nobody has yet managed to make a rational synthesis. Between Prussia’s extremities in conservative East Prussia and the liberal Rhineland, it embraced a mass of nationalities with no central national assembly or historical or religious communality. It was “a linguistic and cultural patchwork”[5], whose only unifying element was the state, which is perhaps why Hegel deified the Prussian state as both Prussia’s only possible synthesis - and History’s also.

     “The state, Hegel argued, was an organism possessing will, rationality and purpose. Its destiny – like that of any living thing – was to change, grow and progressively develop. The state was the power of reason actualizing itself as will; it was a transcendent domain in which the alienated, competitive ‘particular interests’ of civil society merged into coherence and identity. There was a theological core to Hegel’s reflections on the state: the state had a quasi-divine purpose; it was ‘God’s march through the world’; in Hegel’s hands it became the quasi-divine apparatus by which the multitude of subjects who constituted civil society was redeemed into universality.”[6]

     Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history is important not only for an understanding of future movements, especially Marxism and Fascism, which borrowed much from Hegel, but also in that it constitutes a kind of synthesis of the two major movements of western thought that we have just examined: rationalism, with its political child, liberal democracy, and romanticism, with its offspring, the more collectivist and authoritarian forms of political life.

     Hume had demonstrated the irrationality of rationalism, of “pure” empiricism. Kant had demonstrated that the application of reason presupposes a spirit transcending the empirical world, but could not explain how this free realm of spirit related to the causally determined world of matter. Hegel expanded the realm of spirit to engulf everything, making it into a kind of pantheistic god called the Absolute Idea or the World Spirit. To this Spirit, which is the All and can only be understood, like an organism, from the point of view of the All, he gave all the attributes that romanticism had rescued from the maw of devouring rationalism: emotion, mystery, dynamism, history, even nationalism. Thus to the bright empiricist-rationalist thesis, and its dark romantic-idealist antithesis, Hegel supplied a cloudy, metaphysical, empiricist-rationalist and romantic-idealist synthesis. And a nonsensically self-contradictory one at that.

     Hegel teaches, writes Sir Karl Popper, that “everything is in flux, even essences… History, as he sees it, is the thought process of the ‘Absolute Spirit’ or ‘World Spirit’. It is the manifestation of this Spirit. It is a kind of huge dialectical syllogism; reasoned out, as it were, by Providence. The syllogism is the plan which Providence follows; and the logical conclusion arrived at it’s the end which Providence pursues – the perfection of the world. ‘The only thought,’ Hegel writes in his Philosophy of History, ‘with which Philosophy approaches History, is the simple conception of Reason; it is the doctrine that Reason is the Sovereign of the World, and that the History of the World, therefore, presents us with a rational process. This conviction and intuition is… no hypothesis in the domain of Philosophy. It is there proven… that Reason… is Substance; as well as Infinite Power;… Infinite Matter…; Infinite Form…; Infinite Energy… That this “Idea” or “Reason” is the True, the Eternal, the absolutely Powerful Essence; that it reveals itself in the World, and that in that World nothing else is revealed but this and its honour and glory – this is a thesis which, as we have said, has been proven in Philosophy, and is here regarded as demonstrated.’” [7]

     “For Hegel as for Kant,” writes Niall Ferguson, “’human arbitrariness and even external necessity’ had to be subordinated to ‘a higher necessity’. ‘The sole aim of philosophical inquiry,’ as he put it in the second draft of his Philosophical History of the World, was ‘to eliminate the contingent… In history, we must look for a general design, the ultimate end of the world. We must bring into history the belief and conviction that the realm of the will is not at the mercy of contingency.’ However, Hegel’s ‘higher necessity’ was not material but supernatural – indeed, in many ways it closely resembled the traditional Christian God, most obviously when he spoke of ‘an eternal justice and love, the absolute and ultimate end [of] which is truth in and for itself’. Hegel just happened to call his God ‘Reason’. Thus his basic ‘presupposition’ was ‘the idea that a reason governs the world and that history therefore is a rational process’: ‘That world history is governed by an ultimate design… whose rationality is… a divine and absolute reason – this is the proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason… Whoever looks at the world rationally will find that it assumes a rational aspect… The overall content of world history is rational and indeed has to be rational; a divine will rules supreme and is strong enough to determine the overall content. Our aim must be to discern this substance, and to do so, we must bring with us a rational consciousness.’ This somewhat circular argumentation was the second possible way [the first was Kant’s theory of phenomenal and noumenal realities] of dealing with the Cartesian claim that determinism did not apply to the non-material world. Hegel had no desire to give precedence to materialism: ‘The spirit and the course of its development are the true substance of history,’ he maintained; and the role of ‘physical nature’ was emphatically subordinate to the role of ‘the spirit’. But ‘the spirit’, he argued, was just as subject to deterministic forces as physical nature.

     “What were these forces? Hegel equated what he called ‘the spirit’ with ‘the idea of human freedom’, suggesting that the historical process could be understood as the attainment of self-knowledge by this idea of freedom through a succession of ‘world spirits’. Adapting the Socratic form of philosophical dialogue, he posited the existence of a dichotomy within (to take the example which most concerned him) the national spirit, between the essential and the real, or the universal and the particular. It was the dialectical relationship between these which propelled history onwards and upwards in what has been likened to a dialectical waltz – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. But this was a waltz, Fred Astaire style, up a stairway. ‘The development, progress and ascent of the spirit towards a higher concept of itself… is accomplished by the debasement, fragmentation and destruction of the preceding mode of reality… The universal arises out of the particular and determinate and its negation… All this takes place automatically.’

     “The implications of Hegel’s model were in many ways more radical than those of any contemporary materialist theory of history. In his contradiction-driven scheme of things, the individual’s aspirations and fate counted for nothing: they were ‘a matter of indifference to world history, which uses individuals only as instruments to further its own progress’. No matter what injustice might befall individuals, ‘philosophy should help us to understand that the actual world is as it ought to be’. For ‘the actions of human beings in the history of the world produce an effect altogether different from what they themselves intend’ and ‘the worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect and represent the national spirit’. Hence ‘the great individuals of world history… are those who seize upon [the] higher universal and make it their own end’. Morality was therefore simply beside the point: ‘World history moves on a higher plane than that to which morality properly belongs.’ And, of course, ‘the concrete manifestation’ of ‘the unity of the subjective will and the universal’ – ‘the totality of ethical life and the realisation of freedom’ – was that fetish-object of Hegel’s generation: the (Prussian) state. 

     “With such arguments, Hegel had, it might be said, secularised predestination, translating Calvin’s theological dogma into the realm of history. The individual now lost control not only of his salvation in the afterlife, but also of his fate on earth… At the same time, there was at least a superficial resemblance between Hegel’s idealist philosophy of history and the materialist theories which had developed elsewhere. Hegel’s ‘cunning of Reason’ was perhaps a harsher master than Kant’s ‘Nature’ and Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’; but these other quasi-deities performed analogous roles.”[8]

     Hegel denied freedom while seemingly glorifying it. “Hegel vehemently rejected the metaphorical machine-state favoured by theorists of the high enlightenment, on the grounds that it treated ‘free human beings’ as if they were mere cogs in its mechanism. The Hegelian state was not an imposed concept, but the highest expression of the ethical substance of a people, the unfolding of a transcendent and rational order, the ‘actualisation of freedom’.”[9]

     Here we clearly see the influence on Hegel of a central pillar of German romanticism - the cult of the personality, freedom and creativity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how the most romantic of German philosophies, that of Hegel,is compatible with personal freedom and creativity. As Fr. Georges Florovsky writes: "The romantic cult of personality, unrepeatable, autonomous and self-sufficient, which itself ascribes its own laws, the Fichtean pathos of the freedom of moral creativity, Schelling's aestheticism of genius, Schleiermacher's religion of feeling and mood - all this is too well known. And this whole series is completed by Hegelianism, in which freedom, the freedom of creative self-definition becomes the main theme of cosmic development. And yet at the same time, in these individualistic systems, personality, strictly speaking... disappears, there is no place in them for the creative personality. We shall not understand the real reason for this unexpected event if we search for it in the 'pantheism' of the world-feeling of the time: after all, it was not a matter of dissolving the personality in nature, but of finding the whole of nature within oneself, as in an autonomous 'microcosm'. The resolution of the enigma must be sought, not in a world-feeling, but in a world-understanding. Logical providentialism - that is how best to express the characteristic trait of this world-understanding; and it is precisely this idea of the sheer logicalness of the world, the rationality of history, so to speak, the rational transparency of the cosmic process that is the profound source of the inner dissonances of idealistic individualism.

      “The world, both in its stasis and in its movement, is seen as the realization of a certain reasonable plan. Moreover, - this is very essential, - this plan is recognized as not exceeding the power of human attainment. Every moment of historical development is presented as the incarnation of some ‘idea’ that admits of an abstract formulation. Also in the succession of these ‘epochs’ is revealed a definite logical order, and the whole series is oriented in the direction of a certain accomplished structure in which the fullness of its reasonable content is revealed. That necessity with which the whole system of affirmations in space proceeds in its smallest details as from the axioms of geometry, is also seen in cosmic evolution, in the advancing pace of human history. The role of axioms is played here by the elementary motifs of the Reason that creates the universe, which are accepted as something accessible to human knowledge, so that, proceeding from them, we can as it were divine in advance every bend in the evolutionary flow. The course of history turns out to be unambiguously determined. And thought does not stop at the ‘beginning’ of the world, but also penetrates into the mysteries of that ‘which was when there was nothing’, and demonstrates the fated necessity of the building of the Absolute First-Cause of all itself. It demonstrates that the world could not fail to arise, and moreover could not fail to arise precisely as we know it. Thus the ‘thinking through’ of history, carried to its conclusion, leads to inevitable determinism: every ray of freedom or creativity dies in the vice of iron logic. Nothing ‘new’ in essence can arise; only the inescapable conclusions from pre-eternal postulates come into being – come into being in and of themselves.

      “But this is not all: the ‘rationalization’ of history includes one more thought. The aim of history is the realization of a definite construction, the installation into life of a definite form of existence. This ‘construction’ and ‘existence’ turn out to be the single value, and this will and must be so, since logical completion and moral worth have been equated with each other from the very beginning. The forms of natural existence or the forms of social organization are subject to moral justification, and they are the same; only abstractions have moral meaning. The individual can have an ethical content only indirectly, only insofar as it realizes an ‘idea’, and only because it serves as its shell. In other words, unconditional meaning belongs, not to people, but to ideas. ‘The good’ can be a theocracy, a democratic state or der geschlossene Handelsstaat [closed mercantile state], but not creative personalities.

      “And finally, if the gradation of values exactly reproduces the dialectical succession of ideas, then, in essence, this gradation does not exist as such; historical development goes from the imperfect to increasing perfection, from the worse to the better, so that it ends with all-perfection, the highest concentration of the Good. But this highest level, which is in a fatalistic way inevitable, is at the same time absolutely impossible without the lower levels. It possesses its own worth only because behind it lies the unworthy. Good is impossible without Evil, and not only because these concepts are co-relative, but also because ontologically the power of the Good grows only out of the not-good. Evil is not only undeveloped good, incomplete perfection, but also a necessary constituent part of the Good. Evil had to arise inside the Divinity itself in order that God could become the real God, completely Unconditional. The meaning of the world can be realized only through meaninglessness. And it is clear that in this way that unconditional disparity that characterizes the predicates ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for the ‘naïve’ moral consciousness is removed. ‘Sin’ is turned into the inevitable ‘mistake’ of immature age, and moral tragedy becomes a cunningly devised melodrama…”[10]


      Hegel’s philosophy, according to Arthur Schopenhauer’s just judgement, was “a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times; it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage.” And again: “The height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had been only previously known in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced, general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, as a monument to German stupidity.”[11]

     According to the German historian Golo Mann, Hegel’s philosophy is “a fantastic, almost mad, almost successful [!] attempt to give an answer to every question ever asked, and to assign to every answer ever given to every question a historical place within his own great, final answer – an attempt to create being dialectically from thought, to reconcile idea and reality and to overcome the cleavage between self and non-self. It was this cleavage – the existence of the self in an alien world – that Hegel made his starting-point. What he found was the identity of everything with everything, of God with the world, of logic with reality, of motion with rest, of necessity with freedom. The world spirit is everywhere, in nature, in man, in the history of man. The spirit, alienated from itself in nature, comes into its own in man. This process takes place on the one hand in the true history of peoples and states, and on the other in art, religion and philosophy. All these spheres correspond to each other; what is accomplished in each individual sector belongs to the whole and fits into it or nothing will be accomplished. ‘As far as the individual is concerned each person cannot in any even help being the child of his time. So too philosophy is the expression of its time in ideas.’ ‘He who expresses and accomplishes what his time wills is the great man of his time.’ Every present is always a single whole, just as the history of mankind is its general lines a whole. It finds expression in peoples, states and civilizations, of which the west European or, as Hegel calls it, the Germanic is the highest so far attained. [12] Will there be higher ones? On this point the philosopher is silent.One can only understand the past, and the present to the extent that it is the final product of all pasts which are preserved in it. The future cannot be explored or understood; it does not exist for the spirit. No other historical thinker was so little concerned with the future as Hegel. What he hinted at, or what followed from his doctrine, was that the future would be something entirely different from the past. For philosophy comes late, at the end of an epoch. It does not come to change or improve, but merely to understand and to express; it constructs in the realm of the spirit what has already been constructed in the realm of reality. ‘When philosophy paints its picture in grey on grey, it means that a form of life has grown old, and by painting it grey on grey it cannot be restored to its youth, but is only recognised…’ This applies to all true philosophies, and is most valid for the philosophy of all philosophies, namely the Hegelian, which brings to an end the epoch of all epochs: the age of Protestantism, enlightenment and revolution. What was still to come? Hegel shrugged his shoulders sadly at this question. His philosophy gave no answer, and given its nature could not venture to attempt one. ‘The spirit is in its full essence in the present…’ But this philosophy of fulfilment, this song of praise of Man-God contains an element of pessimism: after 1815 nothing further is to be expected.

     “Though Hegel’s philosophy as a whole contains rest, fulfilment and finality, it is full of unrest and struggle, both in the realm of the spirit and of reality. The spirit is never content with what has been achieved, it always seeks new conflicts, it must struggle to find and express itself anew. States and peoples are never at rest, they come into conflict and one of them must give way. The world spirit advances by catastrophes, and its path is marked by forms that are used up, emptied, and jettisoned. Quiet is only apparent quiet, lull before a new storm; as mere rest it is of no interest to the historian. ‘Epochs of happiness are empty pages in the history of the world.’ History does not exist for the happiness, the idyllic contentment of the individual. The goal is set high: the reconciliation of all contradictions, absolute justice, complete knowledge, the incarnation of reason on earth, the presence of God. The road to it is one of exertion and ever new confusion. But what has happened is the only thing that could have happened and how it happened was right. Terrible things occurred; the rise of the Roman Empire was terrible and terrible was its fall. But everything had a purpose and was as it should be. Julius Caesar was murdered after he had done what the age wanted from him; the Roman Empire collapsed after it had completed its historical mission. Otherwise how could it have fallen? It is useless to lament the abysses of history, the crimes of power, the sufferings of good men. The world spirit is right in the end, its will will be obeyed, its purpose fulfilled; what does it care about the happiness or unhappiness of individuals?[13] ‘The real is rational and the rational is the real.’ When something ceases to be rational, when the spirit has already moved on, it will wither away and die. The individual may not understand his fate because he is liable to over-estimate himself and believes that history revolves around his person at the centre. The philosopher who perceives the kernel in the multi-coloured rind of what occurs will provide the insight too.

     “Power, and war, which creates and enhances power, cannot be omitted from all this. Man only realizes himself in the state and the state exists only where there is power to defend and attack. Might gives right. It is unlikely, it is in fact impossible, that the state without right on its side will win. What sort of right? Not a universally valid, pale right invented by stoicist philosophers, but historical right, the superiority of the historical mission. Thus right was on the side of the Spaniards against the Peruvians, in spite of all their cruelty and deceit; right was on Napoleon’s side against the antiquated German Empire. Later, on the other hand, right was on the side of allied Europe against Napoleon only because, the professor concluded after much puzzling over this problem in his study, the arrogant Emperor, himself now outdated, gave the Allies the right to conquer him, and only because he put himself in the wrong could he be conquered. Success, the outcome, provide the justification; in power there lies truth…”[14]


     Hegel’s philosophy is manifestly false. Nevertheless, in view of its historical importance, we need to study it, and in particular his political philosophy, in a little more detail. 

     Hegel made rebelliousness and revolution respectable, as being, not optional modes of thought and action, but inherent in the deepest nature of things. Rebelliousness was an aspect of “alienation”, and revolution – of the self-realization of the World Spirit. For “Hegel’s dialectic,” writes Sir Roger Scruton, “implies that all knowledge, all activity and all emotions exist in a state of tension, and are driven by this tension to enact a primeval drama. Each concept, desire and feeling exists first in a primitive, immediate and unified form – without self-knowledge, and inherently unstable, but nevertheless at home with itself. Its final ‘realization’ is achieved only in a condition of ‘unity restored’, a homecoming to the primordial point of rest, but in a condition of achieved self-knowledge and fulfilled intention. In order to reach this final point, each aspect of spirit must pass through a long trajectory of separation, sundered from its home, and struggling to affirm itself in a world that it does not control. This state of alienation – the vale of tears – is the realm of becoming, in which consciousness is separated from its object and also from itself. There are as many varieties of alienation as there are forms of spiritual life; but in each form the fundamental drama is the same: spirit can know itself only if it ‘posits’ an object of knowledge – only if it invests its world with the idea of the other. In doing this it becomes other to itself, and lives through conflict and disharmony, until finally uniting with the other – as we unite with the object of science when fully understanding it; with the self when overcoming guilt and religious estrangement; with other people when joined in a lawful body politic.”[15]

     Lionel Trilling writes: “The historical process that Hegel undertakes to expound is the self-realization of Spirit through the changing relation of the individual to the external power of society in two of its aspects, the political power of the state and the power of wealth. In an initial stage of the process that is being described the individual consciousness renders what Hegel calls ‘obedient service’ to the external power and feels for it an ‘inner reverence’. Its service is not only obedient but also silent and unreasoned, taken for granted; Hegel calls this ‘the heroism of dumb service’. This entire and inarticulate accord of the individual consciousness with the external power of society is said to have the attribute of ‘nobility’.

     “But the harmonious relation of the individual consciousness to the state power and to wealth is not destined to endure. It is the nature of Spirit, Hegel tells us, to seek ‘existence on its own account’ – that is, to free itself from limiting conditions, to press towards autonomy. In rendering ‘obedient service’ to and in feeling ‘inner reverence’ for anything except itself it consents to the denial of its own nature. If it is to fulfill its natural destiny of self-realization, it must bring an end to its accord with the external power of society. And in terminating this ‘noble’ relation the individual consciousness moves towards a relation with external power which Hegel calls ‘base’.

     “The change is not immediate. Between the noble relation of the individual consciousness to state power and to wealth and the developing base relation there stands what Hegel speaks of as a ‘mediating term’. In this transitional stage the ‘heroism of dumb service’ modifies itself to become a heroism which is not dumb but articulate, what Hegel calls the ‘heroism of flattery’. The individual, that is to say, becomes conscious of his relation to the external power of society; he becomes conscious of having made the choice the maintain the relationship and of the prudential reasons which induced him to make it – the ‘flattery’ is, in effect, the rationale of his choice which the individual formulates in terms of the virtues of the external power, presumably a personal monarch. We might suppose that Hegel had in mind the relation of the court aristocracy to Louis XIV. Consciousness and choice, it is clear, imply a commitment to, rather than identification with, the external power of society.

     “From this modification of the ‘noble’ relation to the external power the individual proceeds to the ‘baseness’ of being actually antagonistic to the external power. What was once served and reverenced now comes to be regarded with resentment and bitterness. Hegel’s description of the new attitude is explicit: ‘ It [that is, the individual consciousness] looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain, as something suppressing its separate autonomous existence, and hence hates the ruler, obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.’ And the relation of the individual self to wealth is even baser, if only because of the ambivalence which marks it – the self loves wealth but at the same time despises it; through wealth the self ‘attains to the enjoyment of its own independent existence’, but it find wealth discordant with the nature of Spirit, for it is of the nature of Spirit to be permanent, whereas enjoyment is evanescent.

     “The process thus described makes an unhappy state of affairs but not, as Hegel judges it, by any means a deplorable one. He intends us to understand that the movement from ‘nobility’ to ‘baseness’ is not a devolution but a development. So far from deploring ‘baseness’, Hegel celebrates it. And he further confounds our understanding by saying that ‘baseness’ leads to and therefore is ‘nobility’. What is the purpose of this high-handed inversion of common meanings?

     “An answer might begin with the observation that the words ‘noble’ and ‘base’, although they have been assimilated to moral judgement, did not originally express concepts of moral law, of a prescriptive and prohibitory code which is taken to be of general, commanding, and even supernal authority and in which a chief criterion of a person’s rightdoing and wrongdoing is the effect of his conduct upon other persons. The words were applied, rather, to the ideal of personal existence of a ruling class at a certain time – its ethos, in that sense of the word which conveys the idea not of abstractly right conduct but of a characteristic manner of style of approved conduct. What is in accord with this ethos is noble; what falls short of it or derogates from it is base. The noble self is not shaped by its beneficent intentions towards others; its intention is wholly towards itself, and such moral virtue as may be attributed to it follows incidentally from its expressing the privilege and function of its social status in mien and deportment. We might observe that the traits once thought appropriate to the military life are definitive in the formation of the noble self. It stands before the world boldly defined, its purposes clearly conceived and openly avowed. In its consciousness there is no division, it is at one with itself. The base self similarly expresses a social condition, in the first instance by its characteristic mien and deportment, as these are presumed or required to be, and ultimately by the way in which it carries out those of its purposes that are self-serving beyond the limits deemed appropriate to its social status. These purposes can be realized only by covert means and are therefore shameful. Between the intentions of the base self and its avowals there is no congruence. But the base self, exactly because it is not under the control of the noble ethos, has won at least a degree of autonomy and has thereby fulfilled the nature of Spirit. In refusing its obedient service to the state power and to wealth it has lost its wholeness; its selfhood is ‘disintegrated’; the self is ‘alienated’ from itself. But because it has detached itself from imposed conditions, Hegel says that it has made a step in progress. He puts it that the existence of the self ‘on its own account’ is, strictly speaking, the loss of itself’. The statement can also be made the other way round: ‘Alienation of self is really self-preservation’.”[16] 


     Bertrand Russell, expounded Hegel thus: “In the historical development of Spirit there have been three main phases: The Orientals, the Greeks and Romans, and the Germans. ‘The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom. The East knew, and to the present day knows, only that One is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that All are free.’ One might have supposed that democracy would be the appropriate form of government where all are free, but not so. Democracy and aristocracy alike belong to the stage where some are free, despotism to that where one is free, and monarchy to that in which all are free. This is connected with the very odd sense in which Hegel uses the word ‘freedom’. For him (and so far we may agree) there is no freedom without law; but he tends to convert this, and to argue that wherever there is law there is freedom. Thus ‘freedom’, for him, means little more than the right to obey the law.

     “As might be expected, he assigns the highest role to the Germans in the terrestrial development of Spirit. ‘The German spirit is the spirit of the new world. Its aim is the realization of absolute Truth as the unlimited self-determination of freedom – that freedom which has its own absolute form itself as its purport.’[17]

     “This is a very superfine brand of freedom. It does not mean that you will be able to keep out of a concentration camp. It does not imply democracy, or a free press, or any of the usual Liberal watchwords, which Hegel rejects with contempt. When Spirit gives laws to itself, it does so freely. To our mundane vision, it may seem that the Spirit that gives laws is embodied in the monarch, and the Spirit to which laws are given is embodied in his subjects. But from the point of view of the Absolute the distinction between monarch and subjects, like all other distinctions, is illusory, and when the monarch imprisons a liberal-minded subject, that is still Spirit freely determining itself. Hegel praises Rousseau for distinguishing between the general will and the will of all. One gathers that the monarch embodies the general will, whereas a parliamentary majority only embodies the will of all…

     “So much is Germany glorified that one might expect to find it the final embodiment of the Absolute Idea, beyond which no further development would be possible. But this is not Hegel’s view. On the contrary, he says that America is the land of the future, ‘where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself – perhaps in a contest between North and South America.’ He seems to think that everything important takes the form of war. If it were suggested to him that the contribution of America to world history might be the development of a society without extreme poverty, he would not be interested. On the contrary, he says that, as yet, there is no real State in America, because a real State requires a division of classes into rich and poor.

     “Nations, in Hegel, play the part that classes play in Marx. The principle of historical development, he says, is national genius. In every age, there is some one nation which is charged with the mission of carrying the world through the stage of the dialectic that it has reached. In our age, of course, this nation is Germany. [18] But in addition to nations, we must also take account of world-historical individuals; these are men in whose aims are embodied the dialectical transitions that are due to take place in their time. These men are heroes, and may justifiably contravene ordinary moral rules…

     “Hegel’s emphasis on nations, together with his peculiar conception of ‘freedom’, explains his glorification of the State – a very important aspect of his political philosophy….

     “We are told in The Philosophy of History that ‘the State is the actually existing realized moral life’, and that all the spiritual reality possessed by a human being he possesses only through the State. ‘For his spiritual reality consists in this, that his own essence – Reason – is objectively present to him, that it possesses objective immediate existence for him… For truth is the unity of the universal and subjective Will, and the universal is to be found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.’[19]

     “… If the State existed only for the interests of individuals (as Liberals contend), an individual might or might not be a member of the State. It has, however, a quite different relation to the individual: since it is objective Spirit, the individual only has objectivity, truth, and morality in so far as he is a member of the State, whose true content and purpose is union as such. It is admitted that there may be bad States, but these merely exist, and have no true reality, whereas a rational State is infinite in itself.

     “It will be seen that Hegel claims for the State much the same position as St. Augustine and his Catholic successors claimed for the Church. There are, however, two respects in which the Catholic claim is more reasonable than Hegel’s. In the first place, the Church is not a chance geographical association, but a body united by a common creed, believed by its members to be of supreme importance; it is thus by its very essence the embodiment of what Hegel calls the ‘Idea’. In the second place, there is only one Catholic Church, whereas there are many States. When each State, in relation to its subjects, is made an absolute as Hegel makes it, there is difficulty in finding any philosophical principle by which to regulate the relations between different States. In fact, at this point Hegel abandons his philosophical talk, falling back on the state of nature and Hobbes’s war of all against all.

     “The habit of speaking of ‘the State’, as if there were only one, is misleading so long as there is no world State. Duty being, for Hegel, solely a relation of the individual to his State, no principle is left by which to moralize the relations between States. This Hegel recognizes. In external relations, he says, the State is an individual, and each State is independent as against the others. ‘Since in this independence the being-for-self of real spirit has its existence, it is the first freedom and highest honour of a people.’ He goes on to argue against any sort of League of Nations by which the independence of separate States might be limited. The duty of a citizen is entirely confined (so far as the external relations of his State are concerned) to upholding the substantial individuality and independence and sovereignty of his own State. It follows that war is not wholly an evil, or something that we should seek to abolish. The purpose of the State is not merely to uphold the life and property of the citizens, and this fact provides the moral justification of war, which is not to be regarded as an absolute evil or as accidental, or as having its cause in something that ought not to be.

     “Hegel does not mean only that, in some situations, a nation cannot rightly avoid going to war. He means much more than this. He is opposed to the creation of institutions – such as a world government – which would prevent such situations from arising, because he thinks it a good thing that there should be wars from time to time. War, he says, is the condition in which we take seriously the vanity of temporal goods and things. (This view is to be contrasted with the opposite theory, that all wars have economic causes.) War has a positive moral value: ‘War has the higher significance that through it the moral health of peoples is preserved in their indifference towards the stabilizing of finite determinations.’ Peace is ossification; the Holy Alliance, and Kant’s League for Peace, are mistaken, because a family of states needs an enemy. Conflicts of States can only be decided by war; States being towards each other in a state of nature, their relations are not legal or moral. Their rights have their reality in their particular wills, and the interest of each State is its own highest law. There is no contrast of morals and politics, because States are not subject to ordinary moral laws.

     “Such is Hegel’s doctrine of the State – a doctrine which, if accepted, justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly be imagined…”[20]

     For, as Hegel put it, “the march of world history stands outside virtue, vice and justice…”[21] 

     As Copleston points out, “it is essential to remember that Hegel is speaking throughout of the concept of the State, its ideal essence. He has no intention of suggesting that historical States are immune from criticism.”[22] Nevertheless, the similarities between Hegel and the modern totalitarians, especially the Fascists, are clear: “(a) Nationalism, in the form of the historicist idea that the state is the incarnation of the Spirit (or now, of the Blood) of the state-creating nation (or race); one chosen nation (now, the chosen race) is destined for world domination. (b) The state as the natural enemy of all other states must assert its existence in war. (c) The state is exempt from any kind of moral obligation; history, that is, historical success, is the sole judge; collective utility is the sole principle of personal conduct; propagandist lying and distortion of the truth is permissible. (d) The ‘ethical’ idea of war (total and collectivist), particularly of young nations against older ones; war, fate and fame as most desirable goods. (e) The creative rôle of the Great Man, the world-historical personality, the man of deep knowledge and great passion (now, the principle of leadership). (f) The ideal of the heroic life (‘live dangerously’) and of the ‘heroic man’ as opposed to the petty bourgeois and his life of shallow mediocrity.”[23]

     Barzun has sought to lessen Hegel’s guilt somewhat: “Hegel did express himself in favor of a strong state. What intelligent German who remembered 200 years of helplessness would want a weak one? In Hegel’s day, the state created by the Prussian awakening was less than 20 years old and must not be allowed to droop again”[24] True; and yet the desire for a strong state, which is compatible with many creeds and philosophies, need not be translated into the worship of the State as the Divine Idea on earth, which is in effect Hegel’s idea. As he put it: “the State is the basis and centre of all the concrete elements in the life of a people: of Art, Law, Morals, Religion, and Science…”[25] This is idolatry, State-worship, and the purest atheism… 

     Golo Mann writes penetratingly about Hegel: “If Hegel’s philosophy had been true, then it could not remain true: it must be treated as Hegel had treated all earlier philosophy, ‘set aside’, affirmed and denied at the same time. Hegel had started life as a Protestant and had somehow managed to bring Christianity even into his mature philosophy. His disciples or their disciples broke with Christianity and became atheists – an attitude which could be derived from Hegel’s philosophy, if it was followed to its logical conclusion. They took it upon themselves to explain Christianity, like all religious belief, historically, as a reflection of social reality, as a self-misunderstanding. Hegel had spoken much of the reconciliation of idea and reality, but he had achieved this reconciliation only in the mind, through his philosophy; it was for philosophy to recognize retrospectively that what happened in reality was reasonable. Hegel’s successors, however, claimed that reality was not reasonable but must be made reasonable, not by dreams but by political action. Politics, rightly understood, was thus in the end the true philosophy. Hegel had spoken of the ‘truth of power’, and had meant the power of the state, of kings, of victorious armies. His followers spoke of the truth of revolutions, of majorities, of mass action. There was no need to fear the masses as Hegel had feared them. The rights of the private individual were not as important as liberals believed. The state could not be too powerful, provided it was a scientifically directed state, free from all superstition. Such a state would do away with the remains of the Middle Ages and make men free…”[26]

     So from Hildebrand to Hegel we have come full circle: from the absolute dominion of the Church in all spheres, including the State, to the absolute dominion of the State in all spheres, including the Church. The theories of Hegel and the “Hegelians” found their incarnation in the State-worshipping creeds of Communism and Fascism, the most evil in history.

     Such is the fall of western civilization, its thesis and antithesis. So far it has not found – or, more exactly, has not recovered (since it used to have it in the pre-schism, Orthodox period) - its synthesis. And until it does, only violent, destructive swings between thesis and antithesis can be expected…

May 23 / June 5, 2020.

[1] Mosse, op. cit., pp. 102-103. Mosse writes: "A revival of history underlay the new concept of liberty in the post-Napoleonic generation. This revival had been foreshadowed by the Italian historian, Giambattista Vico, who in his Scienza Nuova, the New Science (1725), had confronted the rationalism of his age with a philosophy of history. Vico felt that history also worked according to natural laws, laws which determined its movement which Vico took to be cyclical. Civilizations arose and decayed, descending from the age of the gods to that of the heroic and on to the human age and its subsequent decay. Vico’s cyclical theory of history had little impact on his contemporaries. Much later, at the end of the nineteenth century, Benedetto Croce refurbished Vico’s status as a historian, and still later Oswald Spengler espoused, in part, his theories. Nevertheless, to this post-Napoleonic generation, Vico displayed a philosophy of history governed by natural laws which moved through the engine of the human spirit. Central to this spirit was a concept of liberty.     

     “What emerged, then, from Vico’s thought was a concept of liberty which worked as a natural law in history and through history. ‘Everything is history,’ the Neapolitan maintained, a remark Croce was fond of repeating later on. While accepting the primacy of the spirit in the human struggle for liberty, the adherents of the religion of liberty abandoned the cyclical rhythm of history in favor of a concept of progress based, as it was, on the optimistic belief of the Enlightenment in the triumph of reason. Now, however, this concept of progress was combined with an awareness of the importance of historical development. Human progress developed through the laws of history and not through the inevitable triumph of reason alone. A concept of liberty was central to this human progress in the sense of liberty’s progress as a part of man’s progress through history.” (The Culture of Western Europe, Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1988).

[2]Fr. Michael Azkoul, Anti-Christianity: The New Atheism, Montreal: Monastery Press, 1984, p. 34.

[3]Azkoul, op cit., pp. 77-78. Schleiermacher saw the essence of religion in the supposed fact that "it resigns at once all claims on anything that belongs either to science or morality. In essence it is neither thought nor action but intuitive contemplation and sentiment" (Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers, 1799, Second Speech).

[4] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, p. 175.

[5] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom. The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, London: Penguin, 2006, p. 428.

[6] Clark, Iron Kingdom, p. 431.

[7] Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, pp. 46, 47.

[8] Niall Ferguson, Virtual History, London: Picador, 1997, pp. 28-31.

[9] Clark, op. cit., p. 431.

[10] Florovsky, “Smysl istorii i smysl zhizni” (The Meaning of History and the Meaning of Life), Vera i Kultura (Faith and Culture), St. Petersburg, 2002, pp. 63-65.

[11] Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality; Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy.

[12] Not quite: he said that “the final embodiment of the Absolute Idea, beyond which no further development would be possible” was America. (Norman Davies, Europe, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 790) (V.M.)

[13] “’The deeds of Great Men, of the Personalities of World History,… must not be brought into collision with irrelevant moral claims. The Litany of private virtues, of modesty, humility, philanthropy, and forbearance, must not be raised against them. The History of the World can, in principle, entirely ignore the circle within which morality… lies’.” (in Popper, op. cit., pp. 67-68) (V.M.)

[14] Mann, The History of Germany since 1789, London: Pimlico, 1996, pp. 46-48.

[15] Scruton, Modern Philosophy, London: Arrow, 1997, pp. 463-464.

[16] Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 35-38.

[17] “And after a eulogy of Prussia, the government of which, Hegel assures us, ‘rests with the official world, whose apex is the personal decision of the Monarch; for a final decision is, as shown above, an absolute necessity’, Hegel reaches the crowning conclusion of his work: ‘This is the point,’ he says, ‘which consciousness has attained, and these are the principal phases of that form in which Freedom has realized itself; for the History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom… That the History of the World… is the realization of Spirit, this is the true Theodicy, the justification of God in History… What has happened and is happening… is essentially His Work…’

     “I ask whether I was not justified when I said that Hegel presents us with an apology for God and Prussia at the same time, and whether it is not clear that the state which Hegel commands us to worship as the Divine Idea on earth is not simply Frederick William’s Prussia from 1800 to 1830…

     “We see that Hegel replaces the liberal elements in nationalism, not only by a Platonic-Prussian worship of the state, but also by a worship of history, of historical success. (Frederick William had been successful against Napoleon.)” (Popper, op. cit., pp. 48-49, 58). (V.M.)

[18] “’The Nation State is Spirit in its substantive rationality and immediate actuality,’ he writes; ‘it is therefore the absolute power on earth…The State is the Spirit of the People itself. The actual State is animated by this spirit, in all its particular affairs, its Wars, and its Institutions… The self-consciousness of one particular Nation is the vehicle for the… development of the collective spirit;… in it, the Spirit of the Time invests its Will. Against this Will, the other national minds have no rights: that Nation dominates the World.’” (Popper, op. cit., p. 58).

[19] Hegel goes on: “We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is difficult to comprehend Nature, it is infinitely harder to grasp the Essence of the State… The State is the march of God through the world…. The State must be comprehended as an organism… To the complete State belongs, essentially, consciousness and thought. The State knows what it wills… The State is real; and… true reality is necessary. What is real is eternally necessary… The State… exists for its own sake… The State is the actually existing, realized moral life.” (Popper, op. cit., p. 31).

[20] Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen Unwin, 1946, pp. 763-764, 765-769.

[21] Hegel, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 7, p. 448; in Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli”, The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Pimlico, 1998, p. 317.

[22] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 7, part I: Fichte to Hegel, pp. 255-256.

[23] Popper, op. cit., pp. 62-63.

[24] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 508.

[25] Popper, op. cit., p. 63.

[26] Mann, op. cit., p. 78.

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