Friday, 3 December 2010

Laurence Dickey's 'Hegel: Religion, Economics and the Politics of Spirit'

To give an idea of my interest in Hegel, I am reproducing below a summary of Laurence Dickey's book Hegel: Religion, economics and the Politics of Spirit 1770-1807 (Cambridge: UP, 1987) - well worth a read - from Kai Froeb's email group from November 2006.

Hegel: Religion, economics and the Politics of Spirit 1770-1807

Laurence Dickey. Cambridge: UP, 1987.

Laurence Dickey's highly informative and interesting Hegel: Religion, Politics and the Economics of Spirit 1770-1807  - out in paperback - places Hegel in terms of the Weltanschaaung of the Wurtemberg protestants of his day.

My impression is that Dickey will add to knowledge of Hegel's intellectual roots and motivations. He admits that these were overlaid by broader concerns in Hegel's mature work, but he thinks they can still be discerned in the Phenomenology. I now turn directly to Laurence Dickey's text. [Note, the review was written on the hoof in a series of emails and the style reflects this.]


Dickey commences with religious history. There is an opposition within Christian thought between the views of such as Eusebius (the 4th century church historian) and Pelagius, who were optimists about human history and, in Eusebius' case, thought the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity signalled a new reconciliation of church and state - and on the other hand the views of Augustine (4th century, just after Eusebius) who thought trust in Constantine and his henchmen misguided. Augustine's view was that temporal progress under Christianity was not guaranteed at all and the work of the church was to remember Christ through the sacraments (all seven presumably). Augustine won this argument.

For the next 900 years, NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED. However, in the 13th century, the Cistercian monk Joachim of Fiore arose and argued that: 1. Things are going from bad to worse and 2. Something ought to be done about it. Something new, a synthesis so to speak. This chap apparently was regarded by some Wurttemberg protestants as a precursor of the Reformation. This is subject to the criticism that if Hegel had thought much of him, he would have mentioned him somewhere in his numerous lectures on the history of thought.

However, in 1517 or thereabouts, Martin Luther reformed the church. Hegel was once asked to summarise his philosophy in a sentence and replied with the words of the Lutheran hymn "Die to live". This is subject to many interpretations, but amongst them is the idea that, in a vaguely similar way to the crucifixion, we must set our own interests aside for the common good (of family, church, society, etc) and thus find our "true selves". After the Reformation, the protestants in Germany became dependent on princes and various ideas of the "Godly prince" and how congregations could engage with them arose. Dickey passes over the horrors of the thirty years was in Germany.

Much later (1600s), the Pietists arose within the Lutheran church, adding little to its scholasticised theology, but insisting on a practical realisation of its ideas in a kind of "second reformation" and creating through their lives practical precedents of socio-religious reform. Hegel drank all this in in his youth. Dickey thinks his stamp-collector-like youthful scholarship might be seen in this context (i.e. aiming at objectivity), rather than as a sort of schoolboy pedantry.

As we leave chapter one then, we are only starting to read about literature that Hegel had actually read, or ideas that were intuitively familiar to him from his own experience. Much of what Dickey writes about might be vaguely familiar as a Wurttemberg equivalent of the religious sects of the English Civil War, Plymouth Brethren etc. In other words, it was an era when secular projects were taken to have a religious dimension. He takes an awful long time to get to Hegel though!

[Note: the replies of others on the Hegel list at this point added significantly to my understanding.]

Chapter One

In his opening chapter, Dickey makes much of the snippet of information that Hegel's nickname of "the old man" as a theology student was also an epithet of J J Moser, an activist in a tradition of Wurttemberg religio-political reformers. His opening assessment also takes the form of a critique of Peter Gay's characterisation of "the Enlightenment" as fundamentally a secularising, anti-Christian enterprise. (I wonder what Dickey would make of Jonathan Israel's more recent ideas on the same subject, in which Spinoza, a great source of insight to Hegel, figures largely.) In fact, Dickey argues, the 18th century in Europe contained many thinkers who sought to reform religion rather than to wipe it out in a sort of this-wordly Utopian-Voltairean frenzy (so to speak). Various local worthies in Wurttemberg were of this number, and he wishes to tell us more about their influence on Hegel. This all sounds plausible to me.

I have to say though, I don't find the origins of Dickey's book in a doctoral thesis (hence to 150 pages of footnotes) add to its readability. There is an air of dryasdust objectivity about it that implicitly claims precedence over the religious voice, which comes to be seen as object, rather than, as Hegel might say not only substance but subject too of Dickey's intellectual real enterprise. More than that, there is a kind of assumed philosophy, a sort of drab subjective empiricism, often put across through phrases in inverted commas (e.g. the repetitive "meaning creating significance" or the Quinean "web of signification" from p33) that surely Hegel himself would have taken issue with.

Nonetheless, I admire the historical scholarship of this book over and above its form, and think a few of us might be able to learn more of "the spirit of Hegel" from it.

Chapter Two: J A Bengel

Dickey now begins to home in on Hegel's Wurttemberg. He focuses in this chapter on religion, the next on politics, through two influential figures of the early - mid 18th century. The first of these is J A Bengel, who reorganised the Stuttgart Gymnasium and Tübingen Stift where Hegel was educated up to age 22. Bengel was a Pietist, which meant a Lutheran Christian of a practical and devout turn of mind.

He was faced with the accession to the Dukedom of Wurttemberg in 1733 of a Roman Catholic Duke, and this was a spur to both the religious and political life of mostly protestant Wurttemberg. In fact, it was a sort of Mary Queen of Scots moment for the lot of them, though occurring with the Catholic kingdoms of France and Austria on their doorstep and with Voltaire and the Deists of the Enlightenment on their heels.

Dickey doesn't say much about Bengel's educational reforms, though we know that Hegel was well schooled in both classics and modern science. At the Stift, Bengel and others hoped to replace Lutheran scholasticism with more devotional reading. Perhaps Hegel reading the Savoyard vicar in Emile was the sort of thing he wanted.

As a theologian, Bengel advocated the legal model in "Covenant Theology". Now in my reading, this is one aspect of Calvinism that gets people's goats theologically, but Dickey seems oddly drawn to it - perhaps as he is not from a Calvinist background and so doesn't take it all too seriously. The idea, that you may be familiar with, is of God's having entered into a covenant with his creatures, that if we live good lives, he looks after us in the afterlife. Now this gets decked out with all sorts of legal and even accounting imagery (God keeps ledgers of our good and bad deeds; the covenant as a legal contract with penalties for default, etc). Now in 19th century Scotland, people found this stressful and objected that it made God's love sound conditional. There was also the idea of a "covenanted people", of which more later. I have to say, I've never found much of this sort of thing in Hegel, but then again I've never had cause to look for it before.

Chapter three: J J Moser

J J Moser was known as "the old man" (which was Hegel's youthful nickname). He was more a political figure than Bengel, though the two men knew each other through the Wurttemberg Estates. Now as a politico, Moser was faced with this Catholic Duke from 1733-37 and sought to mobilise the protestants both religiously but moreso politically. He did this by trying to tie the Duke down in legalities through the Estates (=parliament, congress). Thus the Estates insisted on guarantees from Prussia and England. (A similar guarantee from England meant that some Germans (Hessians) fought against US independence as a payback later, incidentally.) Then an ideology of "the Good Old Law" emerged, under which the Duke was only acceptable to the people if he kept within a traditional constitution under which the Estates could jointly control the tax revenues, & thus have a veto on his actions.

Now this Duke didn't last long, and the next one was a child, so there was a regency for a while. Then it all started again, especially during the seven years war with France (1756-63). Who could raise troops, who was in charge of education, etc. The second Duke funded a "Karlschule" (named after him) to rival the Stuttgart gymnasium (attended by Hegel) and feed his own people into the civil service and army.

Moser responded to this through the ideology of a "covenanted people" (collectively sworn to loyalty to God) whose Sittlichkeit (ethical life) was at the roots of outward legality and which underlay the outer expressions of the national life. It was a sort of enveloping Geist (spirit) liable to burst out if its values and customs were offended, a bit like Antigone destroyed Kleon in Sophocles' tragedy.

So you can see that some of these ideas - especially a sort of semi-religious Sittlichkeit - ended up in Hegel's writings. It would also be interesting to reread his later essay on the Wurttemberg Estates in the light of Dickey's new information. The Estates incidentally, were not greatly representative and only rarely met in full. In the interim decades a small cabinet government, in which Bengel and Moser sat, ran Wurttemberg, but it had to appeal to the people in order to bolster its authority vis-a-vis the Duke.

Chapter 4

This chapter is the first to deal directly with Hegel and I must say it challenges some of the basic assumptions on Hegel that I have gathered from other commentaries. His central insight is that Hegel's earliest unpublished writings can and ought to be read primarily as those of an earnest, if artless, reformer of Christianity, rather than as its would-be destroyer or nemesis.

In particular, I think many of my generation first came to Hegel through Walter Kaufmann's Reinterpretation. Kaufmann represents Hegel as a fan of ancient Greece and child of the Enlightenment, particularly in his early essay on Volksreligion. Hegel's "people's religion", he thinks, is an idealised form of Greek religion drawn from Schiller's Aesthetic Education of Man, a form of the "tyranny of Greece over Germany"

Dickey asks some telling questions, that really only have to be asked to make you shift ground on this. First off, how likely is it that someone who was not sympathetic to Christianity would spend no less than five years (1788-83) studying theology? A bit unlikely surely - a year you could believe, but hardly five. Secondly, if Hegel was not fundamentally a religious thinker (which Lukacs apparently denies), why would he write so predominantly on religion (i.e.not only the Volksreligion, but the Life of Jesus, Spirit of Christianity and Positivity of the Christian Religion). I have tried this out on a few pages of the Volksreligion essay and Dickey's version seems to fit the facts. In fact, I am inspired to look further into these writings.

This chapter also has a good deal of information on Tübingen. Hegel for example knew not only G Storr the orthodox Lutheran expositor of Kant, but also a young lecturer Diez who advocated the overthrow of Christianity on the basis of Kantian ideas. Dickey makes the point that Kant's book on religion (whose first chapter was originally published as a separate book) is itself a Pietist work in many respects, despite its Enlightened aura. He also speaks, a bit less convincingly, about the theologians of Berne, whom Hegel may have known between 1793-6.

He concludes though, that Hegel regarded religion as in part a social enterprise and thus was led to a study of society as the context of a realised religious life, to which he promises next to turn.

I must say Dickey's work picks up speed as it goes, and though some of you may have knowledge of other more advanced biographical work on Hegel (e.g. H S Harris' voluminous tomes) a lot of this is new to me and absolutely fascinating, world-shattering even.

Chapter 5

Dickey now turns to the third "Economics" part of his selective survey of early influences on Hegel's philosophy. So far in this third part, however, I find the evidence he adduces less than convincing. I will say a little about the influences he alleges, then comment on the degree of "influence" demonstrated.

Dickey claims that Hegel became influenced by "the Scots", by which he means principally three people: Adam Fergusson, the unionist vindicator of martial virtues in his Essay on Civil Society, Adam Smith, the genius and author of Wealth of Nations (1776) - also a man dependent on aristocratic patronage - and James Steuart, the minor aristocrat and Jacobite who wrote on political economy from a more statist viewpoint than Smith. It is claimed that these writers theorised the development of commercial society and that Hegel mixed his religious thought with their largely (not
entirely) secular analyses in his writings prior to the Phenomenology. Quite how this happened he intends to show by analysing Hegel's essays on Natural Law and System der Sittlichkeit.

The problem I have with this is the lack of evidence. It can be shown from citations that Hegel read Steuart and Smith, but then he read libraries (as his lectures show) so why pick out these writers at the expense say of Montesquieu or Rousseau or the many others who play a more prominent part in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy? Dickey is left claiming that James Steuart stayed in Tübingen and wrote an essay on the velocity of circulation of money dedicated to Duke Karl of Wurttemberg. That doesn't really prove much though. [Later note: Karl Rosenkranz substantiates the depth of Hegel's early reading of Steuart.]

I am tempted to say a little more on the system of pre-democratic patronage within which "the Scots" existed, their consequent unrepresentative character and the odd mixture of the antique and the modern in their writings. However, this would be out of place at present and instead I will continue reading, in the hope that Dickey comes good at last as he so illuminatingly did in the case of Bengel and Moser.

Chapter 6

This chapter uses Hegel's early essay on Natural Law to argue that his central project was a rethinking of "protestant civil piety" in the light of the emerging market economy. Frankly, I find Dickey's treatment of the text a little skewed by his odd mixture of Marxist preconceptions about the primacy of the economic with non-Marxist scholarship. Furthermore, although natural law deals with economic categories (contract, ownership) it also covers non-economic relationships (e.g. the family, duelling, due care). Hence when Hegel mentions economic categories in the essay, that does not prove that he is talking primarily about economics.

In terms of citations, he finds more of Montesquieu and Rousseau in the text than of "the Scots", which you would think told a little against his thesis of the great influence of "the Scots" on Hegel. (The influence of the common sense tradition, which can be demonstrated and which achieved high expression in Scotland, he overlooks.)

I conclude then, that when Hegel begins the essay by opposing "empiricism" (which produces lists of duties in no logical order) and "formalism" (i.e. Kant & Fichte, who produce a logical form from which, Hegel thinks, real duties cannot be deduced) I see no reason to doubt that he is doing pretty much "what it says on the tin". Hegel of course, goes on to argue in less than lucid terms that there is a better, sort of middle way. Now this may well be right and Hegel may even have found what this better way is, but Dickey's text has not shed much light for me on what this is, beyond inspiring me with a desire to read Montesquieu's Esprit des lois.

Chapter 7

This chapter is devoted to Hegel's unpublished essay on Sittlichkeit [ethical life], which Dickey's says is a more concrete companion piece to the Natural Law essay. In the course of arguing that Hegel is reinterpreting the religious ideal of "protestant civil piety" for new economic circumstances, Dickey brings in the work of JCA Pocock, author of "The Machiavellian Moment", which deals with the fate of classical republican ideals in commercial, Christian Europe up to about the time of the French revolution. Pocock thinks that some classical republican thinkers were driven to "reactionary" views by the threats to their social position posed by the expansion of the market economy in Europe.

Here I find the analysis of the pre-French revolution, pre-democratic, pre-Marxism analysis of the writings of the old ruling class jars with the impact of these writings on people in quite different economic circumstances. I mean most political activists these days would probably think making ends meet was more of a problem than the dangers of being "corrupted by luxury" (and that after two centuries of economic growth). It seems that Pocock addresses only the salaried political class. Then again there is a hint at the end of Pocock's book that classical republicanism needs to be softened by some kind of religious influence to be a living faith, or possibly abandoned altogether.

Once again, disappointingly, Dickey seems to add little to Pocock's overall conclusion on pre-democratic European political literature. This is particularly regrettable as Hegel belonged to the generation that straddled the two epochs, so an analysis of his response would have been fascinating. Perhaps it will appear in the next chapter.

Chapter 8

In this final chapter, Dickey applies the idea of the division of labor to the division of social and intellectual labor characterising a commercialising society which has retained the ideal of "protestant civic piety". Dickey first outlines the views of Schiller (also from Wurttemberg) that there needed to be a class of artists who would reveal society's ideals to itself. Then the ideas of Schelling (also from Wurttemberg) who thought some such class of genius's (of which he considered himself one) whose work would be characterised by an "intuition" of "the Absolute" that would have some similar role.

It was from this sort of model that Hegel developed his ideas of the "first class" in his System der Sittlichkeit. Now by the time we come to his published work, there is a "universal class" of civil servants and (presumably) an "absolute" class concerned with art, religion and philosophy. Hegel is relatively relaxed about people crossing from one class into another, but he is keen that the public significance of art, religion, etc presupposes a voluntary act of the people (making the show a success, participating in the life of the Church, reading and responding to the philosophy book or lecture, presumably, etc). In this, Dickey sees echoes of the "Protestant civic piety" of Bengel, Moser and Calvin. There is also a suggestion that the "universal classes" would be deserving recipients of public subsidy (which Adam Smith would agree with, provided it was not so generous as to make them lazy - apart from that, we have left "the Scots" behind here.)

He says also a little of philosophical import on what characterises the "universal class". Specifically, Hegel thinks that it is not (per Schelling) an ineffable genius or intuition, or even entirely (per Schiller) artistic sensibility, but rather more specifically the making of judgments in situ that evoke or bring into play the unity of experience and the presence of "the Absolute". The thought is not greatly developed by Dickey, but insightful nonetheless.


Dickey thinks that some of the work of Hegel's "universal class" should be taken over nowadays by public instruction, that is higher education (i.e. by himself presumably). This he thinks, brings into focus some of the themes he has been dealing with earlier, in the sense that Bildung (education, formation of the mind) is a public good which Hegel emphasises.

To conclude then, I found that Dickey succeeded in locating Hegel in his early Wurttemberg milieu, that his discovery of the relatively orthodox character of Hegel's early struggles to understand religion was a major advance in scholarship. On the other hand, his discussion of Schiller, Adam Smith etc was less innovative and as far as it was new, less convincing, but nonetheless suggestive of Hegel's problems and thus a help in understanding the answers he proposes.

I hope this may have inspired someone to read Dickey's book - it's a good read.