How should we understand Hegel's view of government, and how does it compare to those of Hobbes and Locke?

Hegel's view of government can only be understood as part of his wider philosophy. Hegel regards the institutions of state, including government, as a stage in the manifestation of Absolute Spirit, or God. This particular stage of Absolute Spirit's manifestation is what Hegel calls Objective Spirit. Hegel's view of government is different from Locke's and Hobbes's because he regards it as part of Absolute Spirit's process of self-knowledge. Locke and Hobbes regard government as having purely earthly functions.

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Hegel's philosophy can be incredibly difficult to follow. It involves complicated concepts which take a good deal of effort to learn. Moreover, Hegel's written style is notoriously opaque, leading some thinkers to write him off as purposefully obscure. However, despite the difficulties involved, it is still possible to gain a basic understanding of Hegel's political philosophy, which is arguably the least obscure element in his comprehensive system of thought.

For Hegel, government, like all institutions of state, is a manifestation of something called Objective Spirit. This is a stage of development reached by Absolute Spirit, or God. Absolute Spirit is engaged in a constant process of self-understanding, and each stage of this process manifests itself in different ways.

One such way is through what Hegel calls Subjective Spirit, by which he means the psychological characteristics of human beings. The next stage in this process of Absolute Spirit's coming to self-knowledge comes in the form of human laws, social arrangements, and the institutions of state such as government—what Hegel calls, as we've seen, Objective Spirit.

So Hegel doesn't just see government as a man-made institution designed to serve particular ends; it is an important part of the latest stage in Absolute Spirit's process of self-knowledge. This is what separates him from Locke and Hobbes. Locke regards government as an institution established by men to protect private property. Hobbes holds that government, in the form of absolute monarchy, exists to enable men to escape the state of nature, where there is complete anarchy, and enter into a civilized society where life and property are protected by the absolute sovereign.

Hegel, then, has a much more exalted conception of government than either Locke or Hobbes. For him, the government is the embodiment of a collective spirit, Absolute Spirit as it has manifested itself in a given society. Each society has its own unique spirit, and government—in theory, at least—should embody that spirit in its workings.

To be sure, a tyrant can easily come along and trample on that national spirit, but for Hegel, this is just another example of the "cunning of reason" at work. In other words, Absolute Spirit, or God, is still working away rationally, even though, on the face of it, there doesn't appear to be anything rational about a tyranny.

It is Hegel's ability to see reason at work in even the most tyrannical forms of government that has led countless critics to accuse him of being an apologist for authoritarianism. In actual fact, however, Hegel was personally committed to the establishment of quite a liberal form of government for its time.

He also believed that any kind of tyranny in the modern world would eventually be swept away, as he regarded it as a form of government associated with undeveloped societies.

The onward march of reason in history, the successive stages of Absolute Spirit's self-knowledge, would ensure the eventual surmounting of all traces of tyranny in modern society.

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