Notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of History
The premise of Hegel’s work can be summarized, oddly enough, in a very simple phrase: “the Eastern world knew that one is free; the Greek world knew that some are free; and the German world knows that all are free”. The movement of the Spirit through history is manifested through man’s increasing separation from Nature. Spirit, simply put, is freedom, and modernity is the realization of that freedom that has been developing through the centuries. Hegel uses the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx, the human face climbing out of the animal body, to show this emergence of the free from the primeval muck of nature.
Perhaps the other thought on Hegel’s work is that reality exists for the sake of theory, and not the other way around. Hegel’s great philosophical insight is that there is no real “noumenal” world as there is in Kant which the mind is constantly trying to grasp. The appearance, the phenomenon, is the reality; the dialectical procession through history is powered by the gap between the idea and the specific manifestation of that idea in any given time and place: that it cannot perfectly embody that Idea, and so it is moved forward. “Caesar” is a perfect example: the first manifestation is merely a name of a man, it is only in the repetition, when it becomes the name of an office or position of power, that it takes on its real essence. Hegel, at least in his advanced years, stopped trying to find the “outside” of the Idea; the Idea itself is a product of its own failure. Theory is primary because theory is all there is.
“Freedom” is thus moved forward in the same way. In Hegel’s telling, in ancient Chinese and Hindu society, only one person is free, such as the Emperor or the Enlightened One. Everyone else is merely an appendage to the unruly laws of nature or this one free person. In ancient Persia, there begins the separation from such fatalistic laws of nature, and in Greece, it is the Greeks who are considered to be free as opposed to the barbarians outside of them. But their own failure to realize this freedom, and the internal contradictions within it, led to their decline, the rise of Rome as an extension of the Greek world, and ultimately the long march of the Germanic barbarians towards civilization. Ultimately, in their adoption of the Christian message, these barbarian descendants would conclude that all men are indeed free, that in order to be free, one must consciously choose one’s course of actions, and will the common good. Freedom for Hegel, unlike the Anglo-Saxon definition, does not simply entail license to do whatever one chooses, but the power to act according to reason. And for Hegel, it is the State that is the ultimate manifestation of Freedom, and ultimately, God, in history.
That is my very (very) superficial sketch of what Hegel is trying to say. As usual, many would say that he is painting with too broad of a brush, stereotyping, outright bullshitting, and so on. But that is where the important premise of “reality for the sake of theory” comes in. For even if all of this is true, what difference would it make in the general scope of history? Are there any societies today or nations that do not abide by “Eurocentric” rules of what reason is, what the State is, the concept of nation, and so on? For all the talk of postmodernists wanting to create local, pluralistic modernities, the actual shape of all of these modernities is pretty much the same: liberal, capitalist, bureaucratic, and so on. Even the most “reactionary” responses to these tendencies, such as Islamic fundamentalism, are really products of the drive towards “Freedom”, even if only in the negative sense.
I am willing to concede, however, that such things are not as clear-cut as Hegel makes them out to be. Sometimes, ancient forms are not simply crushed by the juggernaut of progress, but are assimilated into them and used (as in the “cunning of reason”) to bring about the aims of modern development. I think here, for example, of Hindu fundamentalism. Hegel has nothing nice to say about Indian religion, but in its modern manifestation, in spite of looking ancient to us, modern Hinduism is very much a product of modern capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state. Since it tried to mimic Christian missionary societies in developing cohesive narratives and fundamental texts, it tends to overshadow more local forms of religiosity. This of course takes place in Latin America, and for that matter, Haitian voudou. The Petro lwa in voudou are the gods who have manifested themselves in the New World around the struggle against slavery. The cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela is a reaction to the emergence of neoliberalism and state building, and so on. Sometimes, even if the form seems atavistic, it is quite possibly an example of modernity just as much as an iPhone or a treatise by John Locke.
As someone of a more Marxist bent, of course I cannot endorse Hegel’s vision 100%. I will never side with the State since the State is the “gendarme of the bourgeoisie” according to Lenin, built to protect the interests of capital. What Hegel did not see, or at least did not emphasize, is that society is not an organic whole, but is rather made up of classes… basically, Marxism 101. Nevertheless, I think it is good at times to envision that history exists to give birth to a particular Idea, that there is a World-Spirit that makes all of the toils in life worthwhile. I am not sure. Maybe that is God, in the end: the general Idea compared to which all the particulars are failed trial runs.