Philosophy of History

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)