Hegelianism and the Modern State
A philosophy that self-consciously started with a departure from God as the objective transcendent standard, ended up creating a system of statist domination that the West hadn’t seen since the times of the late Roman Empire. As Rushdoony said in his Foundations of Social Order, all paganism inevitably leads to statism. Hegel’s neo-paganism was not an exception.
Hegellianism and the Modern State
Welcome to Episode 32 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about deep philosophy. I mean, really deep philosophy, which, in the world of modern academia, means the opinions of dead Germans – or, rather, not all dead Germans but only a few Germans who died in the 19th century. And we are going to be talking about the deadest of them all – in a spiritual and covenantal sense, I mean – who, being the deadest of them all, has affected the modern philosophical, intellectual, political, and religious discourse more than any other German who died in the 19th century. Funny how it happens, the deader a thinker is spiritually and covenantally, the more eager the secular world is to find in him their intellectual and spiritual leader; and in this case, this is very expressly true. We will be talking about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (or we can anglicize the name to George William Frederick Hegel): a verifiable giant in non-Christian philosophy, whose legacy – acknowledged and unacknowledged – is still with us today. And it is with us today not only in our modern secular philosophy, but worse, in our modern political philosophy and discourse. And, take this: Some of Hegel’s most devout followers when it comes to the political and social applications of his thought are modern Christians – although, most of them don’t realize they are following him. What I want to do in this episode is give a short and simple overview of Hegel’s philosophy: starting presuppositions, logical development, philosophical conclusions, and practical, that is, political and social, conclusions. And later, in a future episode, see how we as Christians need to think about the modern society, and also where our focus and emphasis need to be, in order to develop a Biblical worldview, and also restore the civilization of Christendom in all its aspects.
It’s rather funny, a couple of years ago a friend sent to me a scanned copy of a page from a book by R.C. Sproul in which he speaks about Christian philosophy. My friend had underlined a sentence on that page. In that sentence, R.C. Sproul declared that when it comes to philosophy, Christians are forced to choose between Kant (Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the 18th century) and Aquinas (Thomas Aquinas, the most influential Roman Catholic theologian and the brightest star of the tradition of scholasticism of the 13th century). I laughed and responded, “Well, I guess R.C. wants to make us all Hegelians.” That’s what Hegel did in his whole career as a philosopher: he oscillated between Aquinas and Kant, trying to eventually bring the two together in a system supposed to combine the best of the two. He admired Kant and explicitly said that in his dialectical method, he was trying to bring Kant’s two ends of his dualism together. Despite being himself a Lutheran, he also took the principles of Aquinas’s theology and transformed them into tenets of his philosophy of “absolute idealism.” Karl Barth, of all people, called Hegel “the Protestant Aquinas,” and that monicker has been affirmed by other philosophers and theologians as well. Anyway, my purpose here is not to pick on R.C. Sproul – his contribution to the popularization of Calvinism is above any doubt – but this small deviation from his Reformed presuppositions only shows how pervasive the influence of Hegel is today, even among those who should know better. In this case, R.C. Sproul didn’t even realize that he was following a path drawn originally by Hegel himself. If I could reply to R.C. Sproul, my answer would be, “No, in philosophy today, Reformed Christians have only one possible choice: Cornelius Van Til and his presuppositionalism; because it is the only philosophy today consistent with the theology and soteriology and the doctrine of knowledge of Calvinism. Or perhaps, in a lesser degree, Gordon Clark, although, Clark was much closer to Hegel in his view of logic and reason. So, to be safe, go with Van Til.” Of course, I know that R.C. didn’t have the intent to make us all Hegelians; but his statement was dictated by his preferred system of philosophy, and I think that in that preference, he is inconsistent with his Reformed faith. But this discussion I will leave for another episode in the future. If I ever tackle it; for there is a multitude of other issues, ethical/judicial, that have a priority.
Here, now, we are facing a serious challenge, though; the challenge is to explain the philosophy of Hegel simply and in a short time, from a Biblical perspective, then show the logical conclusions of it in the political thought, and then show how the modern political discourse and practices have been affected by it. We may need to leave something out, for this format may not allow us to cover it all. So let’s get to the task at hand.
Hegel is perhaps the brightest philosopher in the tradition of German idealism: a tradition which we may call the German Enlightenment. It lagged behind the Scottish and the French Enlightenment by a generation or two – Germany in the 18th century wasn’t very capable of producing a strong intellectual class. But despite coming somewhat late to the scene, German idealism provided the secularism of the Enlightenment with systematic theories in several fields of philosophy: theory of knowledge, the nature of conscience and reason, logic, ethics, etc. The Enlightenment philosophers, in their eagerness to escape the worldview of Christianity, had a serious problem: Every departure from the trinitarian God of the Bible as the foundation for knowledge, logic, ethics, and philosophy, led to some form of dualistic paradox and self-contradiction, making it impossible to give any justification for their knowledge and systems of thought, and also making it impossible for them to develop systematic, comprehensive, coherent thought on anything. They ridiculed Christianity, but no matter how they tried, they couldn’t develop any kind of system without it. Most of the French and Scottish philosophers preferred to retain some form of belief in God, as a sort of insurance policy against their own inconsistencies. Others, like David Hume and Denis Diderot, despaired and resorted to philosophical skepticism, deciding that systematic thought and rational knowledge are impossible in practice, and therefore can’t be achieved. It fell to a German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, to systematize the inherent dualism and self-contradictions of secular thought, and to point a possible way out of it.
Systematize he did, perfectly well. But finding a way out of the dualism proved to be a rather tough task. If anything, Kant made it worse. In order to define human thought, knowledge, and reality without God, he postulated tow different, and in a sense opposed worlds of knowledge and perception. Or, as a matter of fact, two realities. One was the realm of the phenomenal, that is, the things as they are perceived by our senses, and then interpreted by our reason. The other was the realm of the noumenal, that is, the things-in-themselves, independent of our perception of them. Kant thought that he had found the answer to skepticism, the belief that there is no possible way of validating any knowledge; he wanted to preserve the belief in secure knowledge, but without God. He acknowledged that things-in-themselves are not the same as our sensory perception and our rational interpretation of them. That dualism he took for granted and systematized it in his Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason. The only thing that remained now is to find a logical connection between the two worlds that would somehow make the things-in-themselves knowable, and human reasoning validated by reality. That proved a task beyond his abilities. He never really found a philosophical way to reconcile hard reality with human perception. Yes, yes, people take it for granted that their mind and reality are correlated. But why should it be true? Why not accept the total disconnect between reality and the mind? Kant could find no answer. He ended just as skeptical as the skepticism he detested.
That’s where Hegel came to the rescue. Or, at least, tried to. Hegel called his system of philosophy “dialectics.” Dialectics comes from the same word as “dialogue,” and when used as a philosophical term, denotes a system which tries to bring the two ends of dualism together. To make it easy, dualism is a system of two irreconcilable entities or opposites. Dialectics is a system that reconciles them. Prior to Hegel, all philosophies without God were dualistic. By describing his system as “dialectics,” Hegel’s claim was, in simple language, “I found the solution to all these dualisms.” No need of postulating a transcendent God anymore in order to keep a system of thought afloat. Hegels’ system – as he claimed – found a way to be both without transcendence and still consistent. Remember, the Enlightenment philosophers had to either reluctantly acknowledge some God (like Voltaire and Rousseau) or deny the validity of all knowledge (like Diderot and Hume). Hegel thought he found the solution: He knew why and how man could have reliable knowledge of reality without starting from the Trinitarian god of the Bible. His dialectics supposedly brought together the two ends of Kant’s dilemma.
So what did he do? How did he reconcile the thing perceived and the thing-in-itself?
He just eliminated one of them, the thing-in-itself, from the equation. Yes, seriously. He called his system “absolute idealism.” The reason he called it so is because in it, the reality of things separate from the perception of them was completely eliminated – or at least ignored. Hegel took for granted that for the mind to be able to know the object of knowledge, there must exist some connection. Why should such connection be there? He didn’t say. He just eliminated the necessity of answering that question by postulating an “identity of thought and being.” That is, whatever the mind thinks of the object, must be the object itself. There is no reality outside of the perception the mind has of the object. Everything is one unified great big idea, including both the mind and the object, and everything is perfectly rational and knowable, and thus the self-conscious side of the equation, the mind, can be trusted to know the not-so-conscious side, the object. That’s how easy it is to overcome Kant’s dualism: destroy one of the sides of that dualism, and make everything one unified whole. Ah, yes, and never really explain why you did it, and why your conclusions should be trusted and how they are validated. Just do it in as many words as possible, so that others are misled to think that you have offered anything of value.
The human mind – or consciousness – thus became the central agent of knowledge and interpretation in Hegel’s system. More than that; it became the central agent of all reality. If all is one, reality and mind, and the mind is what defines reality and gives it meaning and purpose, then reality really doesn’t exist outside the mind. The mind becomes its central standard. Hegel didn’t only center everything on the human mind, he also re-formulated knowledge and logic to cement the place of the mind as the center of reality. Since everything was supposed to be one integral ideal spiritual unity, the old laws of logic and reasoning – which presupposed some separation between the mind and reality – were scrapped, and a new logic had to be created.
But this is just the plain old subjectivism: if only the mind matters, and reality is created by the mind, then nothing really exists except for the individual mind. Hegel didn’t plan on creating a subjectivist system. So now the next question is: How can we assign any objectivity to any kind of knowledge we have? With no firm reality outside our senses, no objective knowledge is possible. It doesn’t matter if the world is only material or only spiritual, or both; there has to be some firm ground of reality for knowledge to be reliable and objective. Hegel’s system, by excluding the independent reality of things, destroyed that firm ground. Hegel’s “absolute idealism” was nothing else but “absolute void.” If one is to explain Hegel’s “absolute idealism” in simple terms, it would be man, in a boat, in an ocean without shores and without a bottom. Things appear on the horizon, but there is no way to decide whether they are real or man is just hallucinating. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if they are real or man is hallucinating; all that matters is that man sees them. In this setting, man is charged with the task to find his place in the world and somehow make his own existence an objective fact – and thus make the existence of those objects on the horizon an objective fact as well.
So the issue comes to the question: how does the individual conscience, the mind of the individual man, define itself? This question is tricky, for philosophical definitions came from Christianity. Pagan philosophy did not use rational definitions; it had no foundation for them. Concepts were not defined rationally; they were only intuitively assumed, or told as myths or stories. Plato’s dialogues are full of such pagan substitutes for definitions where a thing is not really defined but vaguely described in the form of a dialogue. It was Christianity that gave to the world the practice of rational definitions: Christianity is a creedal faith – not an occult religion – and a faith is not a real self-conscious faith unless it has definitions, that is, boundaries on the meaning of concepts. Definitions, that is, boundaries on meaning, were instrumental in its war against heresies, because the main characteristic of all heresies was taking the meaning of words and concepts beyond the limits of Scripture. But Christianity could afford to work through definitions, because a thing can be defined clearly only against the firm background of two things: either its origin or its purpose. When we define something, all we ask for is this: Where does it come from, or, what is it made of? And then, What is the purpose of it? Christianity has both: It speaks of the origin of things, and it speaks of the end of things, the telos, the purpose of all things. It has a firm ground on both ends of the journey, the beginning and the end. Man knows who he is and what he is, because he defines himself in terms of the Creation and of the Final Judgment. Paganism has no such firm ground, and therefore paganism can’t use definitions; it has to use vague shadows, myths, and intuition for meanings of things.
How would Hegel’s man define his own consciousness then, and how would he have an objective validity to it? How would his man in a boat, in an ocean with no shores and no bottom, figure out where he is? Hang on to your chairs, folks, you are about to hear the most ingenious answer by Hegel. Ready? Here it is: He meets another man in another boat, lost in the ocean. Both engage in an interaction, exchange thoughts and perceptions – or, hallucinations, who cares – and in the end, the two, having achieved a synthesis of their perceptions – or hallucinations, who cares – come out with a much better idea where they are, in the ocean with shores and without a bottom. You might be tempted to decide that it certainly can’t be that simple and stupid, but it is. Hegel, as all non-Christian philosophers, was a fool. But he was an educated fool, and like all educated fools we have today in our colleges and seminaries, he was proficient at dressing up his folly in philosophical lingo. But at the very bottom, this was the philosophical idea of his objectivity of conscience, or, as he called it, the “phenomenology of reason.”
It is from there that we get the simplest description of his dialectics: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. An individual conscience (thesis) lost in the void meets another, different conscience (antithesis). The two interact, and from this interaction comes out a united conscience, which is a step closer to the self-definition of the two consciences. Somehow the two lost minds become a little less lost – not because they have found a firm ground but because they have found each other. Or, if you want a more accurate picture, imagine two drunks in a bus, standing and hanging on to each other to avoid falling. From this, also, comes Engels’s answer to the question, “What is you motto?” He replied, “Everything is relative.” As is commonly interpreted today, he meant moral relativism, that is, there are no absolute moral values. He certainly didn’t believe in absolute moral values, but he was a deeper thinker, and his answer was much deeper. As a good Hegelian, he meant: No individual has a meaning and purpose as an independent moral agent; we are all defined only by our relations to others. And from this also comes the modern objection against Christianity that it is a “dogmatic religion,” it never changes. Hegel made it fashionable to believe that only that system is true which never remains fixed on the same moral and intellectual truths forever. Change is truth.
As stupid as this sounds, and as foolish as Hegel and his followers are to fall for such excuse for a philosophy, this is not the end of the story. It continues. The obvious objection then is this: the synthesis of two consciences can’t be enough for either of them to achieve the objectivity of knowledge, value, and self-awareness. There must be more. And Hegel agreed: Of course there is more. There are more individual consciences out there. The more they meet, the more they achieve that synthesis, that unity of spirit and mind, the more they achieve objectivity and assurance of knowledge. And, keep this in mind: since reality is defined by conscience, the more they achieve that synthesis of consciences, the more reality comes into existence. Or, at least, reality that matters. Objectivity is not in a transcendent truth which is immovable and immutable compared to the world of reality; objectivity is a process in time, achieved more and more by more and more thesis, antithesis, and synthesis between interacting consciences. Until. . . .
Until all these minds merge together in a gigantic conscience, which, in itself, combines the self-awareness, the identity, and the conscience of all of them. One conscience to rule them all, one conscience to bind them. That final great conscience would be the end of the process, and it would be the that final objective spirit, in which all individuals find both their freedom and their moral duty. That final objective spirit, or objective conscience, would be the only one capable of providing real knowledge to all these lost men in the ocean – not by taking them to firm ground, of course, for in Hegel’s absolute idealism no such firm ground exists – but by defining reality for them, and even creating and postulating reality for them. The mirages they have seen as individual antithetic consciences, will now, in their synthetic condition, be replaced with a common mirage, a collective hallucination for all, and this collective hallucination will be their knowledge of their true place in the universe.
Hegel didn’t have to look too far to far the obvious institutional expression for this “objective spirit.” He directly pointed to it: The state. He called the state an “objective spirit.” He assigned to it the role of postulating reality. In his new ethics, consistent with his philosophy, he declared that the only freedom and moral duty of individuals is to be incorporated in the state and subservient to the state. The state was so central to his philosophy that he even made God dependent on it: God, after all, is a conscience Himself, and as a conscience, He needs other consciences to develop Himself to objectivity. So Hegel has his god enter history and develop his identity through the state, through its expression of political power and legislating activity. God needs man to become really God, but not just any man: he needs man’s most powerful institution, which, by default, becomes God’s expression on earth. Or, for all practical purposes, God walking on earth.
But which of the many kinds of states? There are democratic states, there are monarchies, there are republics, there are decentralized local governments.
Hegel’s answer was: The most powerful ones. In the very beginning of his career, he saw the rise of Napoleon and his European empire; in October 1806, Hegel was a teacher at the University of Jena, and he personally saw Napoleon enter the city. So excited he was that in a letter, he called Napoleon “this world-spirit.” The next day, in the Battle of Jena, Napoleon crushed the armies of Prussia, considered invincible to that point, and subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to his empire. Hegel was ecstatic: he saw in Napoleon this divine perfection and objectivity that his system expected of a political leader. The defeat of Napoleon several years later, and the restoration of Prussia, made him change his mind, and now he believed that the perfect expression of objective spirit, the state through which God has completed His own journey to self-consciousness, was the Prussian state, in its almost perfect subjugation of the individual to the interests of the state. Hegel’s absolute idealism eventually brought him to believe that might makes right – or, rather, that raw power is the visible representation of spiritual growth and objectivity of reason. Rational was only that entity that was powerful. Maximum power on earth meant maximum rationality and objectivity to him.
This is Hegel’s philosophy in a nutshell. His followers split into two factions; one faction, the Old Hegelians, retained his system of absolute idealism and built on it to create a form of pseudo-religious conservatism. Another faction – the Young Hegelians – picked up his dialectic and the relativism of being and built on it a number of revolutionary ideologies, of which Marxism has been the most successful one. Both factions, though, retained Hegel’s worship of the state as god walking on earth. By the end of the 19th century, most philosophers, economists, and social scientists considered the state as the ultimate institution of social significance and progress. By the time of WWI, these thinkers were already in position of power, or advising the powerful of the day, in all of the West, including the United States. By the mid-20th century, Hegel’s worship of the state had taken over the West. A philosophy that self-consciously started with a departure from God as the objective transcendent standard, ended up creating a system of statist domination that the West hadn’t seen since the times of the late Roman Empire. As Rushdoony said in his Foundations of Social Order, all paganism inevitably leads to statism. Hegel’s neo-paganism was not an exception.
The book I will assign for this week is Psychology of Religion, by Cornelius Van Til. The issue of the objectivity of our faith is an important one; once we lose it, we can easily go down the road of Hegelianism. Van Til gives the Biblical case for objectivity in this little book.
And again, my appeal is, help me continue the work of Christian Reconstruction in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. Visit BulgarianReformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter. And donate. God bless you all.