Lectures on the Philosophy of History

by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
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Philosophy of History

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178

In formulating his philosophy of history, Hegel traces the development of the consciousness of freedom as it moves from Eastern to Western civilization. History travels from East to West. Asian civilization is the childhood of history. Greek civilization marks the period of adolescence. In Roman civilization, history develops to adulthood. Germanic civilization appears as the fourth phase of world history—old age. The Asians had acknowledged only one person as free—the despot. Insofar as the freedom of the despot expressed itself in the recklessness of passion, it must be accounted as mere caprice; hence, in Asian civilization, freedom, properly understood, does not yet exist. In Greece and Rome, the consciousness of freedom manifested itself in the acknowledgment that some people are free. Slavery, with its restriction of freedom, was an accepted institution in both Greece and Rome. It is not until the Germanic nations that it is acknowledged that all people are free. Germanic civilization, under the influence of Christianity, attained the consciousness of universal freedom.

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Among the peoples of China and India, who compose Asian civilization for Hegel, only the first glimmerings of a historical consciousness exist; history as such does not begin until the rise of the Persians. In China and India, the idea remains bound to nature. The peculiar determinants of Spirit are lacking. In China, morality is equated with legislative enactments, individuals are stripped of personality, and the will and the passions of the emperor constitute the highest authority. The emperor as the supreme head of political affairs is also at the same time the chief priest of religion. Religion is thus subordinated to the despotism of a particular bureaucratic organization. Such an organization, according to Hegel, is the very negation of a historical state as a cultural unit.

The civilization of India exhibits a similar bondage to nature. This is expressed particularly in the institution of the caste system. The individual does not choose a particular position for the self but receives it from nature. Nature is the governing power. Thus, in Asian civilization, the universal idea emerges in nature, but it does not drive beyond itself to the self-consciousness of Spirit.

The Persians are the first historical peoples. Historical consciousness is expressed in their use of light as a symbol for the good (Ormuzd). Light provides the condition for the exercise of choice, and it is precisely choice, action, and deeds that constitute the stuff of history. Historical states are what their deeds are. The Persians understood history as a struggle between good and evil, in which the actors were confronted with the inescapability of choice. There is a deficiency, however, in the historical consciousness of the Persians. They failed to grasp the higher unity in which the antithesis of good and evil is synthesized. Judaism, which took its rise in the same general geographical and cultural milieu, provides a further advance in the progressive development of the consciousness of freedom. In Judaism, Spirit is liberated from nature and is purified. Both the individual and Israel as a nation come to a consciousness of themselves as distinct from nature. Jehovah, as the quintessence of Spirit, is understood as the lord of nature. Nature is subordinated to the role of creature. Spirit is acknowledged as the Creator.The idea of Light has at this stage advanced to that of “Jehovah”—the purely One. This forms the point of separation between the East and the West: Spirit descends into the depths of its own being and recognizes the abstract fundamental principle as the spiritual. Nature—which in the East is the primary and fundamental existence—is now depressed to the condition of a mere creature; Spirit now occupies the first place. God is known as the creator of all human beings, as he is of all nature, and as absolute causality generally.

Judaism thus marks the transition from East to West. Spirit is acknowledged in its separation from nature, but neither Spirit nor nature is yet fully comprehended.

In Greek civilization, another advance becomes apparent. Greece, as part of the adolescent period of the historical process, introduces the principle of subjective freedom or individuality. This principle is expressed both in the personal or subjective morality of Socrates (as contrasted with the customary morality of society) and in the rise of Athenian democracy. As despotism was the peculiar characteristic of the political life of Asia, so democracy is the peculiar characteristic of the political life of Greece. Spirit becomes introspective and posits itself as particular existence, but it posits itself precisely as the ideal and thus suggests the possible triumph over particularity through a comprehension of universality itself.

However, the universals of Greek thought are fixed and static essences; hence they are still fettered by the limitations of nature. They still remain dependent upon external conditions. Therefore, the new direction projected by the consciousness of the Greek spirit still retains natural elements. A concrete expression of this principle is the continued practice of slavery, which grants freedom to some but not to all. In Rome, in which history attains its adulthood, an advance is made from democracy to aristocracy. The institutions of the people are united in the person of the emperor. In the will of the emperor, the principle of subjectivity, enunciated in Greek thought, gains unlimited realization. The will of the emperor becomes supreme. However, insofar as subjectivity is universalized and objectivized at the expense of the claims of art, religion, and morality, the state that emerges in Roman civilization is still an inferior state, lacking in cultural content.

The state, understood as the concrete embodiment of subjective and objective freedom, comes to its full realization in the German spirit. The German spirit, like the Greek, apprehended the principle of subjectivity, but unlike the Greek, it became the bearer of the Christian ideal and thus universalized the principle to mean that all people are free. The Greek and Roman spirit still kept some people (the slaves) in chains. People’s individual interests and passions thus find their fulfillment only in the German spirit. This fulfillment is the unification of the objective idea of freedom, as the aim of history, with the particular and subjective passions of humankind, in the concrete embodiment of a cultural whole. Subjective freedom, without objective order, is mere caprice—expressed either in the will of a despot or emperor, or in the chaos of anarchy. Thus, subjective freedom cannot be realized until it finds its place within a structured whole—the state:This is the point which consciousness has attained, and these are the principal phases of that form in which the principle of Freedom has realized itself;—for the History of the World is nothing but the development of the idea of Freedom. However, Objective Freedom—the laws of real Freedom—demand the subjugation of the mere contingent Will—for this is in its nature formal. If the Objective is in itself Rational, human insight and conviction must correspond with the Reason which it embodies, and then we have the other essential element—Subjective Freedom—also realized.

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