(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Terry Pinkard opens this satisfying, well-written biography with a preface that dismisses the usual commonplaces about Hegel: Hegel’s philosophy was not transformed by Karl Marx into Marx’s theory of history; Hegel did not teach that reality is ultimately spiritual and a product of thesis/antithesis/synthesis; Hegel did not praise the Prussian state as the perfection of history; and he did not inspire German nationalism, authoritarianism, and militarism with pompous assertions about the Absolute. What Pinkard stresses about Hegel are his enthusiasm for the French Revolution and Napoleon, and his consequent lifelong desire to create a modern state distinguished by its freedoms; his devotion to the concept of Bildung, or the cultivation of taste, education, culture, and the appreciation of art; and his search for a middle way between, on the one hand, the particularist values that he absorbed while growing up in the Württemberg of the last years of the Holy Roman Empire, and, on the other hand, the unifying nationalism that he felt the postrevolutionary era demanded. Pinkard succeeds admirably in developing these themes in a narrative that shifts back and forth between events in Hegel’s life and analyses of Hegel’s difficult works. The political context of Hegel’s academic career stands out clearly as a background to his abstruse philosophy, and Hegel the human being emerges as a drinker, a devoted card player, a tobacco snuff addict, and a gasping, bumbling lecturer.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on August 27, 1770, to Georg Ludwig Hegel and his wife, Maria Magdalena Louisa Hegel, in the city of Stuttgart in the small south German duchy of Württemberg. The Hegels were not members of the Ehrbarkeit, the elite “non-noble notables” of Württemberg, although Hegel’s father had studied law and had a good position at the court revenue office, and his mother’s father had been a lawyer at the High Court of Justice. The Hegels had always been Lutherans and counted numerous pastors among their ancestors. Hegel grew up in the cultural setting of the so-called “hometowns,” a rigidly structured communitarian system soon to be challenged by the modernism bred by the French Revolution. Hegel’s formal education began when he was three, and it was supplemented by his mother’s teaching Latin to him, an experience that Pinkard surmises explains Hegel’s lifelong love of education. In 1784, three years after Hegel’s mother died, his father enrolled him in the Stuttgarter Gymnasium Illustre, where he absorbed a mix of ideas from Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment, as well as a conviction of the superiority of classical Greek culture. By the time Hegel entered the Protestant Seminary at Tübingen University in 1788, he had thoroughly internalized the German ideal ofBildung.

Although Hegel did not enjoy his years at Tübingen, he made two close friends—Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling—whose alienation from the seminary was to be a major factor in Hegel’s turn toward philosophy and away from a pastor’s life. Hegel was to retain the warmest feelings for the brilliant Hölderlin all his life, despite the poet’s tragic lapse into mental illness, but his friendship with Schelling was soon to founder over differences in philosophy. Hegel and Hölderlin were enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution in 1789, as was the younger Schelling. The young idealists saw the Revolution in terms of ancient Athens and anticipated a day in which beauty and freedom were to transform everyday life.

Ill health forced Hegel’s return to Stuttgart in 1793, and the church authorities allowed him to take his theological exam early. Soon after passing the exam, Hegel wrote the so-called “Tübingen Essay,” in which he responded to the enthusiasm for Immanuel Kant of his friends Hölderlin and Schelling and divided religion into “objective” (or “dead”) religion, which consists of the doctrines of theology, and subjective (or “alive”) religion, which comes from the heart and nourishes spiritual reform. Subjective religion differs from Kant’s “religion of the reason” in that pure reason cannot work on the heart. Hegel’s plea for a mixture of Enlightenment reason with human feeling revealed the influence on him of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he argued for a Volksreligion that he identified with ancient Greece and pictured as the embodiment of freedom. This “religion of the people” would cure the ills of a fragmented society.

Hegel left Stuttgart in 1793 and spent the next seven years as a Hofmeister (house tutor) in Berne and Frankfurt before moving on to Jena in 1801. His experience as essentially a servant to aristocrats reinforced Hegel’s devotion to the ideal of Bildung, and as his thinking matured he discarded the elements of Romanticism...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)