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History is understood by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as the movement of Spirit toward the attainment of self-consciousness. To comprehend world history as the progress of the consciousness of Spirit it is necessary to arrive at a conceptual grasp of the three constitutive elements that structure historical movement: the idea of Spirit, the means of actualization, and the state as the final and perfect embodiment of Spirit.


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Hegel begins his discussion with a formulation of the abstract characteristics of the idea of Spirit. The peculiar quality of Spirit is grasped when it is seen in contrast with its opposite—matter. The essence of matter is gravity, which means that it has its center outside itself and thus is dependent upon a central point toward which it tends. The essence of Spirit is freedom, which designates a self-contained existence.

Another characteristic of Spirit is self-consciousness. It is of the essence of Spirit to know itself or be conscious of itself. The self-contained existence of Spirit as freedom is thus self-consciousness. In the phenomenon of self-consciousness, two modes must be distinguished—the fact that I know and what I know. There is the self that is conscious, and there is also the self of which the self is conscious. Insofar as in self-consciousness the self is conscious of itself, these two modes are merged into a unity. The self has itself within itself. Self-consciousness is a unity, but it is a unity that expresses a reduplication. I can know myself, I can love myself, and I can hate myself. Spirit as freedom is self-reflexive or self-reduplicative. As it is the nature of Spirit to know itself, so also it is the nature of Spirit to actualize itself. Spirit forever drives beyond that which it is potentially to make itself what it can become actually. Spirit yearns for actualization. “The very essence of Spirit is activity; it realizes its potentiality—makes itself its own deed, its own work—and thus it becomes an object to itself; contemplates itself as an objective existence.”

Reason and Reality

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Hegel’s definition of Spirit must be understood in its context of a rational philosophy that proclaims an identification of reason and reality. In the Hegelian system, the laws of logic are at the same time the laws of being. This undergirding principle of Hegel’s philosophy was first formulated in Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1868; also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910), and he expressed it thus: The real is the rational and the rational is the real. This principle also governs his interpretation of history. In Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he writes:The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. . . . That this “idea” or “Reason” is the True, the Eternal, the absolutely powerful essence; that it reveals itself in the World, and that in that World nothing else is revealed but this and its honor and glory—is the thesis which, as we have said, has been proved in Philosophy, and is here regarded as demonstrated.

Idea or reason thus constitutes the primary formative principle in Hegel’s philosophical system. This idea expresses itself first in nature but also in Spirit. The triadic unity of idea, nature, and Spirit thus defines the whole of Hegel’s system. Expressed in terms of his dialectical logic, idea is the thesis, nature the antithesis, and Spirit the synthesis. Nature exhibits the emergence of the idea in space; Spirit exhibits the actualization of the idea in time and history. The primary category for nature is space. The primary category for Spirit is time. Through the workings of Spirit, the idea is wrested from its localization in space and becomes temporized and historicized. Both nature and Spirit are subject to a development under the impetus of the idea, but the development in nature is that of a quiet and subdued unfolding, whereas Spirit expresses a dynamic self-realization in which conflict and alienation are integral movements.Thus Spirit is at war with itself; it has to overcome itself as its most formidable obstacle. That development which in the sphere of Nature is a peaceful growth, is in that of Spirit, a severe, a mighty conflict with itself. What Spirit really strives for is the realization of its ideal being; but in doing so, it hides that goal from its own vision, and is proud and well satisfied in this alienation from it.

Spirit is alienated from the idea in its subjugation or bondage to nature, but in the process of self-realization through which it attains self-consciousness, Spirit becomes sovereign over nature, subordinates nature to its purposes, and thus drives to a reconciliation of itself with the idea. It is in the historical consciousness of the Hebrew people that Hegel finds the first liberation of Spirit from nature. In the Hebrew doctrine of creation, Nature is understood as a creature and a servant, and Spirit appears as the creator and the master.

The aim or goal of history is the actualization of Spirit as freedom, wresting itself from its confinement in nature, and seeking reunion with itself as idea. This aim or goal defines at the same time God’s purpose for the world. Hegel’s philosophy of history thus takes on the function of a theodicy—a justification of the ways of God. God’s providential activity in the world is the self-realization of Spirit. Hegel converts the truths of philosophical categories and seeks to establish a conceptual justification for the suffering and sacrifices that occur in the course of world history.Itself is its own object of attainment, and the sole aim of Spirit. This result it is, at which the process of the World’s History has been continually aiming; and to which the sacrifices that have ever and anon been laid on the vast altar of the earth, throughout the long lapse of ages, have been offered. This is the only aim that sees itself realized and fulfilled; the only pole of repose amid the ceaseless change of events and conditions, and the sole efficient principle that pervades them. This final aim is God’s purpose with the world; but God is the absolutely perfect Being, and can, therefore, will nothing other than himself—his own Will. The Nature of His Will—that is, His Nature itself—is what we here call the idea of Freedom; translating the language of Religion into that of Thought.

Human Passions

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The second constitutive element of the world-historical process is that of the means of actualization. The idea of Spirit, as the aim or goal of history as such, is merely general and abstract. It resides in thought as a potentiality that has not yet passed over into existence, so a second element, actualization, must be introduced. The source of power that drives Spirit from its potential being into actuality is will. Hegel defines will as “the activity of man in the widest sense.” In this definition, he seeks to keep the ranges of meaning sufficiently broad so as to include people’s needs, instincts, inclinations, and passions. “We may affirm absolutely,” Hegel says, “that nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” Two elements are thus disclosed as essential for an understanding of history. One is the idea of Spirit; the other is the complex of human passions. Hegel speaks of the former as the warp and of the latter as the woof of the cloth of universal history. The concrete union of these two provides the third and final element of world history—freedom embodied in the state. The means or material of history is thus the passions and interests of people, used by Spirit for the attainment of its end.

Individuals, activated by their inclinations and passions, constitute the power plant for the world-historical process. However, these individuals are, in the final analysis, sacrificed for the end or goal of history. History is the slaughter bench at which the happiness and welfare of each individual is sacrificed. The individual constitutes but a moment in the vast general sweep of world history and remains historically unimportant. “The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. The idea pays the penalty of determinate existence and of corruptibility, not from itself, but from the passions of individuals.” Spirit uses people’s passions to attain its final self-consciousness. It sets the passions to work for itself. This integration of human passions with the aim of Spirit is accomplished through the “cunning of Reason.” The cunning of reason weaves together all the expressions of passion and makes them contributory to the final goal.

The Four Types of Individuals

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The passions that are put to work by the cunning of reason arise from the wills of particular individuals, as they play their diverse roles and carry out their various functions. These particular individuals are classified by Hegel into four distinct, yet interrelated, historical categories: the citizen, the person, the hero, and the victim.

The citizen is subject to what Hegel calls customary morality. The determinant of action for the citizen is the will of society, the will of a nation-state, or the will of a religious institution. The citizen has not yet apprehended his or her subjective existence and consequently has no consciousness of freedom—neither personal nor universal.

The person is the individual who can transcend the morality of his or her particular society and act on the basis of a morality grounded in subjectivity. It is in the person that subjective freedom makes its appearance. The morality of the person is not subordinate. It is determined by a personal consciousness of freedom. The person exhibits an implicit awareness of the idea as Spirit, and thus drives beyond the static customary morality of the citizen. Hegel finds in Socrates the example par excellence of the person who has been liberated from the confining morality of the citizen. “Though Socrates himself continued to perform his duties as a citizen, it was not the actual State and its religion, but the world of Thought that was his true home.”

However, it is only the hero who is the “world-historical individual.” The hero is the historically decisive actor. Like all other people, he or she is motivated by private gain and interest, but the hero’s actions express at the same time an attunement with the will of the World-Spirit. The hero’s own will incorporates the larger issues of world history. The heroes of history are practical and political people. They are neither philosophers nor artists. They have no theoretical understanding of the idea that they are unfolding. However, they have insight into what is timely and needed as well as courage to act decisively on the basis of their convictions. They know what their age demands, and they commit themselves to its challenge. Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon were such men. They responded to the requirements of their times and shaped the history of the world through their decisive actions. After seeing Napoleon ride through the streets of Jena, Hegel retired to his study and wrote: “Today I saw the World-Spirit riding on horseback.” Napoleon was an instrument, used by the cunning of reason, in the actualization of the self-consciousness of freedom. To become heroes or world-historical individuals, these people had to sacrifice personal happiness.If we go on to cast a look at the fate of these World-Historical persons, whose vocation it was to be agents of the World-Spirit—we shall find it to have been no happy one. They attained no calm enjoyment; their whole life was labor and trouble; their whole nature was nought else but their master-passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel. They die early, like Alexander; are murdered, like Caesar; are transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon.

The victim, the fourth category, moves solely in the realm of private desires and inclinations. He or she has no interest in and offers no contribution to the customary morality of the citizen, nor to the subjective morality of the person, nor to the march of universal freedom exhibited by the hero. The victim is abandoned to his private situation. His or her goal is private success and happiness. Hegel has few good words for this type of individual. Obviously, the victim cannot become historically decisive. In a sense, history moves on without the victim, but in another sense, the victim remains part of the historical pattern insofar as the cunning of reason must use all the material that passion provides. In the final analysis, Spirit makes use of the hero and victim alike. There is a real sense in which both the hero and the victim are “victims.” The victim is a “victim” of the hero and the age; the hero in turn is a “victim” of the World-Spirit. From all this emerges the implicatory principle of Hegel’s philosophy of history that the individual as individual is unimportant. As philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the chief of all critics of Hegel, later demonstrated, the existential significance of the individual is sacrificed to the universal and the general. A frank admission of this disregard for individuality is expressed when Hegel writes:The History of the World might, on principle, entirely ignore the circle within which morality and the so much talked of distinction between the moral and the politic lies—not only in abstaining from judgments, for the principles involved, and the necessary reference of the deeds in question to those principles, are a sufficient judgment of them—but in leaving Individuals quite out of view and unmentioned.

The State

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The third constitutive element of world history is the state. The aim or goal of history is Spirit as freedom; the means of actualization are the passions of humankind; the embodiment or fulfillment of this freedom is found in the state. The state, as understood by Hegel, is the concrete unity of universal, objective freedom and particular, subjective passion. Thus the state synthesizes freedom and passion, the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective. In the state, universal freedom becomes concretized and is given substance. The freedom of subjective passion is mere arbitrariness and caprice. The actualized freedom of universal history, on the other hand, is organized liberty, or freedom structured by a state.

In the final analysis, the entities that are under consideration in Hegel’s philosophy of history are “peoples” or cultural totalities. The state rather than the individual embodies universal freedom. The state does not exist for its subjects—it exists for its own sake. It is its own end. The subjects of a state are means toward its end. It is important not to confuse Hegel’s definition of the state with an individual bureaucratic political organization. Such a political organization—British monarchism, French constitutionalism, American democracy—may express the will of a state, but the two are not identical. The state, for Hegel, designates a cultural complex that integrates the art, religion, politics, and technology of a people into a unified self-consciousness. The Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, for example, according to the Hegelian philosophy, must be understood as a ghastly distortion of the true meaning of a state. Nazism constituted a pseudostate—a state without cultural content. The state, for Hegel, becomes the foundation for any organization—political or otherwise. The state is responsible for all cultural activities. The implication of this is the subordination of personal morality, personal religion, and political self-determination to a corporate or group substance. This group substance or state, insofar as it provides the foundation for all of humanity’s temporal activities, is understood as an expression of God’s purpose for the world. The state is thus defined to be the divine idea as it exists on earth. There is no room for personal religion and personal morality in Hegel’s system. The individual as individual stands outside morality and outside history itself. Only as a moment in the march of universal freedom, embodied in the state, does the individual become significant. The state or the culture, rather than the individual, is, for Hegel, the bearer of history.


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Additional Reading

Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public by being accessible but not oversimplistic. Approaches Hegel from the cultural standpoint of the present. Contains an annotated bibliography and a chronology of Hegel’s life.

Christensen, Darrell E., ed. Hegel and the Philosophy of Religion: The Wofford Symposium. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970. A collection of essays presented at the first conference of the Hegel Society of America, which analyzes many aspects of Hegel’s philosophy of religion. Considers Hegel’s historical context by discussing the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx.

Gillespie, Michael Allen. Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Compares and contrasts Hegel’s philosophy of history with that of Martin Heidegger, a twentieth century German philosopher who sought an alternative to Hegel and who eventually supported Nazi ideology under Adolf Hitler. Reveals the role of Hegel in shaping modern philosophies of history.

Hondt, Jacques. Hegel in His Time. Translated by John Burbridge, with Nelson Roland and Judith Levasseur. Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1988. Translator’s introduction discusses the author’s perception of Hegel. Translator’s notes also very helpful. Covers Hegel’s life, the political setting of his time, and Hegel’s attack on that setting. Examines the use of Hegel’s philosophy of history by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Kainz, Howard P. G. W. Hegel. New York: Twayne, 1996. Excellent overview of Hegel’s philosophical system. Includes an autobiographical sketch written by Hegel at age thirty-four. Discusses philosophical influences on Hegel as a student. Has a brief chronology of Hegel’s life. Very readable and attempts to define terms as Hegel used them.

Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on Phenomenology. Edited by A. Bloom, translated by J. H. Nichols. New York: Basic Books, 1969. The author was instrumental in reviving Hegel’s philosophy, especially on phenomenology of Spirit. Clearly written; appropriate for beginning students on Hegel.

Lauer, Quentin. Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1983. Discusses the works of Hegel and his place as a philosopher. Includes the full text and a good analysis of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy (given first at Jena in 1805-1806).

Lavine, T. Z. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. A survey of six Western philosophers, including Hegel. An easily read review of Hegel’s life and work. Highlights Hegel’s influence on Karl Marx.

Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A detailed account of Hegel’s life that gives a clear sense of what kind of person he was, and a series of lucid analyses of Hegel’s academic career and his writings.

Plant, Raymond. Hegel. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Rosen, Michael. Hegel’s Dialectic and Its Criticism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Emphasizes Hegel’s dialectic method of seeking truth. Discusses the difficulty in understanding many of Hegel’s ambiguous phrases.

Singer, Peter. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A ninety-page pamphlet in the Past Masters series. A broad overview of Hegel’s ideas and major works. Very clearly written.