We have seen that Hegel criticized the French revolutionaries for elevating reason at the expense of history. He also advanced a strikingly conservative kind of political thought, particularly unusual when viewed beside the progressive philosophy of history which he regarded as its proper foundation. But Hegel was certainly no traditional, old-fashioned conservative, least of all for his own time. In fact, he routinely rebuked the preeminent conservative Prussian thinkers of the early 19th century for trusting blindly, like German Burkeans, in the traditions of history and thus demoting creative reason. Both the revolutionary’s repudiation of history for reason’s sake and the conservative’s exclusive adoration for its treasures in neglect of rational criticism overlooked the way in which, on Hegel’s understanding, history was not in conflict with reason, but ultimately governed by rational precepts.
Hegel’s Attack on Prussian Conservatism
The historical empiricism of Prussian conservatives like F.C. Savigny was, in Hegel’s estimation, just as muddle-headed as the politicized idealism of the French philosophes. If Hegel had reservations about revolutionary movements which pretended to a transcendent moral knowledge detached from history yet somehow applicable to political life, he was equally critical of the Prussian ‘Historical School.’ Led by Savigny, this fundamentally conservative movement argued that the historical experiences and the emotional instincts interred within the spirit of a people serve as superior guides to political order than the rationalistic templates devised by progressive theorists and then imposed, whether through reform or revolution, by enlightened leaders.
Hegel’s problem with empiricism as applied to political thought, writes Kevin Thompson, is that “it simply takes the content of perception, feeling, tradition, and sentiment and tries to elevate these contextually bound, particular experiences to the status of universal, eternal principles and concepts, the content of genuine philosophical knowledge.” Kant’s famous dictum that we should think critically for ourselves, that as children of the Aufklärung we should bring reason to bear upon the givens of perception, feeling, tradition, and sentiment which the ‘dogmatic’ historical empiricist simply takes for granted, gets lost in this romanticization of the past as an authority unto itself.
Hegel writes that “free thinking” can never “stop at what is given, whether the latter is supported by the external positive authority of the state or agreement among people, or by the authority of inward feeling and the heart and by the witness of the spirit which immediately concurs with it… [but] starts out from itself and thereupon demands to know itself as united in its innermost being with the truth.” Taking refuge in historical empiricism simply meant abdicating this responsibility to exercise our self-reflective consciousness; instead, we are abandoned to the impressions delivered to that consciousness by customs, conventional wisdom, or spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling.
Indeed, Savigny had taken the opposing stance to Hegel’s friend, Anton Friedrich Justus Thibaut, over the so-called “Codification Controversy.” In his 1814 pamphlet, ‘On the Necessity of A Single Civil Code for Germany,’ Thibaut argued that the old-fashioned patchwork of traditional German laws, applying in different ways depending on the area in question, should be rationalized into a universal system of law applicable to all states in Germany.
Savigny’s profound legal knowledge, reinforced by a Romantic sensibility inherited from proto-nationalists like Herder, provoked him to respond. Savigny contended in ‘On the Vocation of Our Time for Legislation and Jurisprudence’ that law is the outgrowth of the “shared consciousness of a people” (Volksgeist). It cannot emanate, as Thibaut and other reforming intellectuals believed, from self-evident abstract principles, derived from some universal realm extrinsic to the historical development of a society’s unique, inimitable Volksgeist.
Nevertheless, Hegel’s own criticism of this purely empirical, even romantic form of conservatism could not be clearer. American philosopher Terry Pinkard, an eminent authority on the German philosophical tradition, summarizes the issue Hegel had with Savigny’s affirmation of law as a self-justifying, organic whole which, unanswerable to revision from any source outside itself, cannot be rationally critiqued but could only be scientifically explicated. In Pinkard’s own words:
For Hegel, this “dogmatic” insistence on a people’s identity simply failed to grasp the essential “negativity” of European history and Geist, the way in which European life fundamentally embodied a reflective sense of self-doubt about its basic norms and commitments and how that form of self-doubt was both destructive of ways of life and also productive of new forms of Geist.
And so Hegel sided with his friend Thibaut against Savigny. In the Philosophy of Right, he makes a thinly disguised assault on the latter’s jurisprudence: “No greater insult could be offered to a civilized people or to its lawyers,” thunders Hegel, “than to deny them the ability to codify their law.” Doing so means robbing peoples of the right to clarify the nature of their legal systems, along with other important aspects of their inheritance, at the level of free rational thought, instead keeping them in sublime darkness. Leaving the law “formless, indeterminate, and fragmentary,” as Hegel goes on to argue, in effect shields the legal framework from the critical power of self-conscious reflection and prevents it from being improved through rational reform.
Hegel’s Commitment to Reform
So Hegel remained a rationalist—except, unlike other rationalists, he thought history itself exhibited a rational kernel. A true philosophy of right would not revolt fanatically against everything within the past as a messy offence against reason, but seek to disentangle what Hegel called “the actual” (wirklich) from that which merely has “existence” (Existenz). The latter, depending on its merits, might deserve to be changed, perhaps even abolished, on rational grounds. But anything “actual,” according to Hegel, was by definition worth preserving. In fact, it not only should be kept, but cannot help being kept, since on Hegel’s analysis, for something to be “actual” means only that it actualizes an ideal of reason, and reason governs the world and its history.
Something is “actual,” therefore, if it is necessary for the actualization of freedom, free rationality being Spirit’s distinguishing characteristic. This is why, following his famous dictum that “what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational,” Hegel outlines the reforming role of statesmen: “The important thing is to recognize in the semblance of the temporal and transient the substance which is immanent and the eternal which is present.” Phrased differently, Hegel means to argue that the task of a good statesman is neither to repudiate the past nor slavishly obey its every jot and tittle. The mirage of pure reason is worthless; that was where the French revolutionaries went wrong, destroying everything which, appearing to be merely “temporal” and “transient,” failed to measure up to their fanatically abstract, “eternal” ideals, divorced from the ethical life of France as a settled community.
But the progressive, rational force of history—Hegel’s belief that social institutions and practices do not fluctuate randomly over time, but in accord with the immanent attempt of Spirit to realize itself through a process which culminates in a rationally ordered state—must also be acknowledged, despite stiff resistance from certain expected quarters, whether complacent reactionaries or more sophisticated conservatives like Savigny. Revolution on the French model is destined to destruction, for it sees all prior human history as a preposterous accident to be corrected rather than a rational process to be recognized and then further encouraged. For Hegel, therefore, reform—rather than revolution—was the means by which the “rational” (vernünftig), in its embodied “actuality” (Wirklichkeit), can be enhanced and marshalled towards its final fulfilment.
This explains Hegel’s personal commitment to the Prussian reform movement. Having accepted a post at the University of Berlin in 1818, he celebrated Prussia as a “great focal point.” Under Baron vom Stein, careers had been opened to talent, feudal ties abolished on landed estates, and edicts passed to equalize the tax burden. Prussian conservatives were emboldened by Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 and the reform agenda accordingly stalled. Still, Hegel thought that reform, far from being dead, was just taking longer than he and his enlightened contemporaries had hoped when France’s Emperor, the ‘Enlightenment on horseback,’ had been laying waste to the other great powers of Europe like some modern Trajan.
The Sores of Poverty
But what if, in various aspects of political life, reform no longer appeared capable of orchestrating the forces of history to make good on Hegel’s promise of a perfectly rational state? Economic inequality and the continued existence within modern society of a disillusioned Pöbel (“rabble of paupers”), Hegel recognized, presented a serious threat to social order. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel at times comes across as agnostic, even despairing, about the power of the rationally ordered state to address these kinds of social issues.
However, on the question of inequality, Hegel dismisses radical egalitarians with the same terms he used against French revolutionaries. He begins by stating that people are “made unequal by nature.” Moreover, civil society does not cancel this natural inequality, but capitalizes upon it in order to function: talent being both rare and useful, it must be sought wherever society can find it. Inequality is the “inevitable consequence” of differences in people’s “natural, bodily, and spiritual aptitudes” which a rational state must necessarily reward.
Therefore, inequality is not only natural, but validated by reason’s operation in the world. Revolution in the name of perfect equality, according to Hegel, means pursuing hollow abstractions while ignoring the actual conditions with which reason must work, indeed has worked, throughout history. Revolting in the name of some egalitarian utopia, just like the French revolutionaries’ petulant demand for absolute freedom, is “a folly of the empty understanding” which mistakes its own abstract, mind-forged ideals—in this case, absolute equality—for rational, achievable principles. While the persistence of inequality troubled Hegel, he could not have been less revolutionary in his approach to taming or pre-empting whatever social demons it risked unleashing.
But when taken alongside the poverty with which it goes hand in hand, inequality begins to look a lot more threatening, even destabilizing, to the achievements Hegel most valued in modern society. The downsides of wealth creation and the industrial labour it requires, he grimly conceded, meant tolerating “the dependence and distress of the class tied to work of that sort, and these again entail the inability to feel and enjoy the broader freedoms and especially the spiritual benefits of society.” Hegel praises private property for creating a domain where a measure of personal autonomy is realized for individuals. However, not everyone truly thrives under a system of legally guaranteed property rights, popular trust (Vertrauen) in which is bound to break down, Hegel fears, when poverty facilitates “the concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands.” The poor will lack possessions enough to care whether theft is punished or indulged by lawmakers. Thus, the problem of alienation remains, yet Hegel’s preference for reform appears inadequate to the task of dispelling it. No wonder Eduard Gans, one of Hegel’s more conservative students at the University of Berlin, felt moved to write the following in his famous commentary on the Philosophy of Right: “The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one that agitates and torments modern society.”
The Revolutionary Depth-Charge
This is where Hegel’s dialectical logic threatens to unravel his personal preference for conservative reform. Applied to poverty, Hegel’s dialectic readily lends itself to a more revolutionary outlook than the reforming conservative approach adopted by Hegel himself throughout the 1820s. Indeed, if the conflict between a rationally ordered state and the persistence of poverty-induced alienation within its midst cannot be resolved by political reform, it follows from Hegel’s logic that Aufhebung, translated into English either as “synthesis” or “sublation,” must be sought by other, perhaps revolutionary means. Gans especially felt the dialectical tension caused by the persistence of poverty within a social context: “Against nature a human being can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another.” Crucially, therefore, it is the very architecture of Hegel’s rational state, with its differentiated class structure and its property rights from which especially industrious classes benefit, which produces the conditions for what Gans calls “indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, etc.”
The implication is that poverty and its innate tendency to foment class conflict are not accidental features of Hegel’s state, but result from its fundamental nature. This will only worsen as the wheels of industry further accelerate and laws favourable to the ascendant bourgeoisie multiply in number. Given the operation of his dialectical method, Hegel left his own disciples, particularly those boasting more radical sensibilities, with plenty of room to theorize that while the master himself did not justify revolution, the Hegelian philosophy of history surely could. The direction of modern society, argued Marx and his fellow Young Hegelians, was such that only through another revolutionary restructuring could the newly apparent tensions tormenting modern Europe—urban poverty, class conflict, and the consequent alienation—be finally resolved.
Hegel the man was certainly no revolutionary firebrand. Though a lifelong admirer of the French Revolution, particularly during his later years he made efforts to contextualize the acknowledged virtues of that explosive event with an appraisal which focussed on its fatal flaws. He argued that revolutionary movements which seek to detach themselves from the rationality inherent to human history may indeed destroy all kinds of structures which deserve to perish, but being founded on the negative drive for absolute freedom, they cannot produce anything positively sustainable. They will succumb either to chaos or tyranny, and probably suffer their fair share of both, as the French did during the 1790s.
Still, the passionate intensity of the revolutionaries was not completely wasted. Reason so governs history that, even when man acts on raw emotion, a rational goal is not only being served, but fully justifies whatever means Spirit considers necessary for its mission. This “cunning of reason” (List der Vernunft) is Hegel’s answer to those who might argue his deification of history faces its own problem of evil: Spirit, responds Hegel, has sufficient reasons for permitting irrationality—because it is the necessary goal of history, not the contingent means, which matters in the end. After the chaos and tyranny of the French Revolution, the spirit of European society found itself “thrown back to the ethical and real world of culture,” having grown disillusioned with the utopian day-dreams of the French philosophes.
In other words, people came to recognize that freedom must be socially embodied in intermediate institutions and a system of ethical norms (Sittlichkeit) to be meaningfully actualized. If revolution meant destroying these structures as a matter of necessity, without taking into account the ideals of reason such structures may well be groping towards, then Hegel’s political thought was profoundly anti-revolutionary. Hegel’s ambition was for the modern state to build rationally through a process of reform. The problem is that his own conservative, reforming instincts were always liable to be overtaken by the revolutionary potential of the larger system he bequeathed to his disciples. On Hegel’s account, reform is only feasible if the desired rational ideals are implicit in existing social practices and can therefore be consciously directed to fulfilment. But what if existing social practices—for example, the modern world’s fundamentally differentiated class structure, which Hegel defended—are the very things which get in the way of sensible reform and only entrench alienation?
Young Hegelians like Marx regarded the persistence of poverty as glaring evidence of the impotence of reform and fresh grounds for a new class-based revolution. Only, armed with Hegel’s philosophy, political revolutionaries could now work with historical conditions, as Karl Marx always tried to do, rather than rebelling against them on behalf of a timeless abstraction. Marx projected into the future a philosophy which Hegel had intended as a retrospective account of the past. The revolutionary afterlife of Hegel’s political thought is proof of the power of a philosophical system, once seized by less cautious hands, to outpace its original creator.