Saturday 23 June 2012

Hegel's early views of Religion

Here is a further summary of my reading of Karl Rosenkranz's Life of Hegel (1844), the first biography of Hegel from whom later biographers draw extensively. This post covers the end of Part One and briefly describes Hegel's system of ethical life and philosophy of religion prior to publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807.

Book One Chapter 19 (continued)
Philosophy of Mind

I have already broken my summary of this chapter up into three and this last part on mind could itself be broken up. Rosenkranz is here discussing the text known to us as System of Ethical Life. According to Osmo, this dates from 1802-03 and Rosenkranz has misdated it. Hegel develops the concept of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) here, which he later did under the name of Natural Law. He neglects anthropology and psychology, ending with brief treatments of art and religion. The notion of ethical life is intended to be concrete and that from which abstract law and morality are lifted. This is implicitly a critique of the lifeless ethics of Kant and the impractical politics of Fichte. Yet, says Rosenkranz, he is still relatively Platonic.

Ethical Life

Hegel begins with the idea that the universal and particular must be posited as identical in absolute ethical life, whilst being different in themselves. He calls the universal Intuition and the particular Concept. The ideas developed are structured differently from the later Philosophy of Mind, but are still recognisable. There is:
  • Ethical Life as relationship (work, property, family)
  • The Negative (conscience, crime and retribution)
  • Absolute Ethical Life (the people, classes, constitutional government)
This is a little different from the Philosophy of Right, where family is at the start of part three rather than the end of part one. I wonder if Hegel’s first idea was not the best.

Ethical life as relationship sees categories develop through interaction with nature and other people’s wishes to the point where public institutions emerge. This involves negation, which includes confrontation and differentiation until the absolute emerges as a resolution, i.e. giving each its due in a greater whole which may be logically divided. The absolutely ethical takes the form of legislation. Hegel relates government to needs, justice and education. Here Rosenkranz reproduces the text of Hegel, but with a lot of condensation and interpretation.Under the heading of Need, he thinks inequality should be moderated. Under Justice, he discusses constitutions, civil and criminal law, legal developments and war.


In a final part of the System of Ethical Life that is now lost, Hegel discusses philosophy, religion and art as expressions of a national spirit, but in such general terms that it is hard to see if Greece, Israel or modern Europe is meant. Rosenkranz discusses the sections on religion. This takes three forms, which Hegel borrows from the philosophy of nature:
  • Natural Religion
  • Difference and reconciliation
  • Christianity
Religious consciousness contains both the speculative Idea and the empirical psychology of a people, whose living God is here present. Sacrifice moves from thought to deed. Hegel says:
“This deed, the irony with regard to the perishable and useful deeds of man, is reconciliation, the fundamental idea of religion.”
Natural religion seems to appear first, but soon Rome chased the independent life out of individual peoples. Natural religion is Pantheist – it sees nature itself as sacred and we find our life with the Gods expressed in a beautiful mythology.

Secondly though, this becomes a memory, for the unity of mind and its reality is broken. Rome destroyed the original individuality of peoples. Reconciliation is thus sought in universality and the original identity re-emerges in the Heavens.

Thirdly, the absolute confidence of Christ in reconciliation became the foundation of a universal religion, originating in the most chastened of peoples, for the depth of their pain gave his voice a truth that everyone could hear. His assurance combined with mistrust led to his death. Nature being emptied of divinity, only Christ was divine. The Cross of the universal state symbolises the mistrust of the world. Hegel wrote:
“The thought that God himself had died on earth only serves to express the feeling of this infinite pain; the same as the fact that he rose from the tomb expresses its reconciliation.”
Religion must thus evoke the pain to allow the reconciliation:
“The ancient curse that weighs on everything is broken. All of nature finds mercy and its pain is salved.”
Natural religion expressed itself through art in mythology. Christianity expresses itself in ideas, e.g. the Trinity. Reconciliation expresses itself in the idea of Love, which divinises the mother of God. In Catholicism, this religion becomes beautiful. The poetry of consecration is suppressed in Protestantism, which has imprinted on religion an overall character of subjectivity. It transposes religion into a key of nostalgia and turns its attention to everyday life. Rosenkranz notes that Hegel did not, as several did at this time, convert to Catholicism, though he saw Protestantism as simply another finite form alongside it. Rather he thought that a third form of Christianity was possible by the mediation of philosophy. Rosenkranz cites him as saying:
“One can neither revive nor maim that passed beauty, but simply recognise the necessity of its disappearance as presaging something better to take its place. Thus far, nature is reconciled, but remains in itself something profane.”
He imagines that a free people may reflectively grasp a truer form of sanctifying spirit and that this is the task of philosophy. Which sounds overly ambitious to me.

Chapter 20
Death of Father and Exit from the Shadows

Hegel heard that his father had died through a letter from his sister Christiane. He inherited 3,154 florins. A passport – for Germany was not then united – describes him as five feet two inches, but Rosenkranz says that feet were not standardised at that time in Germany. The lack of standard measures reminds me of the economic underdevelopment of Germany. The French had implemented the metric system around this time, for example. I had always imagined Hegel as quite tall in an average sort of way, perhaps because he seems to look down from the portraits of him. His hair was brown and his eyes were grey.

Hegel prepares to go to Jena and writes to Schelling on 2 November 1800. This is the famous letter where he says he is interested in Bamberg but is looking for a good beer. He adds that this is for his health and that he would also like to visit a Catholic town to see the religion up close. He intends to devote himself to studies that that he has already begun before the literary whirlwind of Jena. He is also concerned about the cost of living. He remarks finally that he is considering how to return from science to the life of men and sees Schelling as an admirable model for this. I can’t help but think there is maybe an echo of Plato’s cave in that.

Impressions and replies so far

Rosenkranz’s book has a kind of spiral structure as he addresses Hegel’s views on religion, politics, etc at different stages of his life. Hence I am moving on rather than hoping to resolve any issues that have come up in discussion at this stage, on the grounds that more of Rosenkranz will perhaps shed as much light as my going over my initial impressions. Rosenkranz is offering a ladder from “ordinary consciousness” to the Hegelian system, a kind of more accessible version of what the Phenomenology advertises itself as, but does not always live up to, owing to its abstruse structure and forms of expression.

Despite that, two final remarks that relate to recent comments [on the Hegel mailing lists] are, firstly, that I still think there was a period in the 1790s when Kant addressed religion with all the force of his Pietist background and the authority of his years (and before one could say he was senile or his powers were significantly declining) and when Hegel was still impressed with and trying to rethink fairly superficial (basically Enlightenment) versions of Christianity, where Kant’s views have a greater insight than Hegel’s. Secondly, on matters of church and state, there are considerable ambiguities in both terms (the state is conceived as operating through legal sanctions, but the content of the law can be quite various in its religious implications, for example) that justify a more historical approach to differentiating them. Hence Hegel’s later ideas, when he had read more, are likely to be more interesting. (Incidentally, I’m not familiar with the idea of the church as being itself a sacrament, though I think this relates to what Hegel shortly says on Catholicism as embodying an idea of beauty.)

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