‘Introduction to the Philosophy of History’ by Georg W. F. Hegel

Translation first published by Hackett Publishing Co. in 1988.

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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) lived in a time of startling changes. The American and French Revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the restructuring of European empires, and the rise of nationalism—all these, and more, inspired Hegel to look for a pattern, some order and meaning, in the diversity of historical events.

Born in Stuttgart in 1770, Hegel was a nineteen-year-old seminary student when the French Revolution sent its shock waves throughout Europe. Along with his two fellow students, Schelling and Hölderlin, Hegel was caught up in the heady enthusiasm of the revolutionary period. Autocracy was being swept away. But would the French people take hold of genuine freedom at last, and rule themselves as a free people? What ultimate rationality lay behind such apparently irrational events as the Terror? These were some of the problems which motivated Hegel’s reflections on history.

After graduating from the seminary, Hegel briefly took a post as a family tutor, but in 1800 he joined his friend Schelling on the faculty of the University of Jena. At the time, this university was the philosophic center of Germany, and it was here that Hegel wrote his first major book, the brilliant Phenomenology of Spirit. In the Phenomenology, he sought to show how certain cultural outlooks or characteristic world views (e.g., those of medieval Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Terror) followed one another with logical necessity, so that each one led inevitably to the next. Tradition has it that he completed the book while hearing the gunfire from the battle of Jena, in October of 1806. When Napoleon captured the city, the university closed down and Hegel was out of a job.

For two years he edited a newspaper in another city, and then accepted the post of headmaster and lecturer in philosophy at a high school in Nuremberg. He continued to be a keen observer of contemporary politics, reading avidly the English and French newspapers, and writing articles on current issues. He did not hold another university post until 1816, when he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. He left there in 1818 to become professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin. By then he had published his formidable Science of Logic (1813; 1816), his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817), and was soon to publish his Philosophy of Right (1821). At the time of the Berlin appointment Hegel was universally acknowledged to be one of the intellectual giants of his time, and his wide-ranging lectures on the philosophy of art, the philosophy of religion, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of history won him an appreciative audience.

He died unexpectedly in a cholera epidemic in 1831, in the midst of an active and fruitful life devoted to the pursuit of reason. His contemporaries were stunned at the sudden loss, for it was felt that Hegel had many valuable contributions still to make to philosophy—perhaps expressing an all-embracing vision which would combine the central insights of the works he had published in his lifetime. To forward his program, a number of his friends and colleagues convened soon after his death to produce an edition of his collected works. They went beyond the works Hegel himself had published, gathering up his hand-written lecture notes and combining them with transcriptions of his lectures made by his student listeners. This resulted in his posthumous Philosophy of Art, the Philosophy of Religion, the History of Philosophy, and the Philosophy of History.

Even though Hegel had not prepared these materials for publication, these posthumous volumes amply reveal Hegel’s characteristic keenness of insight, his penetrating awareness of life’s paradoxical nature, and his deep sensitivity to the tortuous struggle of the human spirit in its concrete history. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel likens this struggle to the way an individual comes to maturity: in becoming self-conscious, one achieves full freedom, along with a responsibility to oneself. History, for Hegel, is the story of the development of the consciousness of freedom in the world—the development of the human spirit in time through the growth of its own self-consciousness.

In the Philosophy of History Hegel speaks of three “worlds”—actually three distinct world-outlooks: what Hegel calls the Oriental, the Greco-Roman, and the Germanic. These are linked only tenuously to specific times and geographical areas. But precisely because these “worlds” are not moored in a specific time or place, we may the more easily see them as standing in a formal relation to one another. In the Oriental World [taken in the broadest sense—e.g., ancient Egypt, China, etc.], only one person is free: the supreme monarch. In the Greco-Roman World, only some persons are free: those who are not slaves, women, aliens, et al. Finally in the Germanic World [i.e., the world of Christian Europe], all are free: by virtue of the spiritual identity accorded to all human individuals, all persons have the capacity for self-determination. In the relative degrees of freedom they permit, the three worlds stand in a dynamic relation to one another. History, for Hegel, is therefore a process of emancipation and enlightenment, with the aim of enabling us to construct a system of society wherein everyone can be regarded as free and autonomous, simply by virtue of being a person—conscious and rational.

This goal is not necessarily seen by history’s participants. What Hegel calls the “Cunning of Reason” can make use even of irrational drives in history’s players in order to achieve history’s rational goal. The major actors on the stage of history, the “world-historical individuals” (e.g., Napoleon), are not in the least aware that the World-Spirit is using them for purposes of its own, not theirs. And when history has finished with them, it discards them.

Hegel’s doctrines may be difficult to accept. Can we agree that the insane ambition that has so often moved the world-historical figures always leads to the fulfillment of rational goals, to the promoting of free and self-conscious social existence? Hegel was by no means blind to history’s dark side, and indeed he spoke of history as a “slaughter-bench.” Can we presume to say that some higher human goal is now nearer our grasp as a result of the universal suffering we have seen in our time?

If we adopt a wide enough perspective—say, we contrast ourselves with the earliest Homo sapiens—then we must surely see signs of progress. But it is the narrower range of comparison that poses the haunting questions. Thus what troubles us is whether the death and misery suffered by countless millions in this century can be seen to have contributed to some positive outcome. Even to ask that question seems a piece of monstrous arrogance, as though all that pain and death could be justified by any cause.

For Hegel, the goal of history can be said to be achieved when our individual and societal lives are fully in our control, so that we are able to give a conscious and rational shape to our lives as self-determining members of human society—a goal which an ancient Egyptian could hardly have imagined, let alone have hoped to achieve. It is this ideal that Hegel expresses in the Preface to his 1821 Philosophy of Right, with the phrase: “What is rational is real, and what is real is rational.” The rational is real: Reason manifests itself in the world, and is “realized” in it in both senses of that word: reason is made real by fulfilling its own standard of rationality; and reason is grasped by reason itself—as in “I realize what I am saying”—in the self-consciousness that constitutes its freedom. The real is rational: The fulfilled reality is fully rational in the twofold sense of being fully transparent to reason, and also in being the product of rational forethought.

The highest fulfillment to human life on earth would be the harmonious synthesis of reason and society, so that the one principle shapes the other: “man is a rational animal” and “man is a social animal.” The synthesis of these principles is an ideal as old as Plato. Hegel saw history as the struggle toward that end.

Hegel himself never published his Philosophy of History, but left only his lecture notes on the subject when he died. Afterward, these were combined with transcriptions that had been taken down by his student listeners. The 1840 compilation, prepared by Eduard Gans and Hegel’s son Karl, is the version used (as reprinted in the 1928 Glockner edition of Hegel’s Sämtliche Werke). The complete volume comprises over 500 pages, the greater portion being devoted to what we might call cultural history. In the 150-page Introduction, however, Hegel presents his philosophy of history, and that is the text of this translation.

Three other English translations known are those of Sibree (1857), Hartman (1953), and Nisbet (1975). This translation has avoided many of the weaknesses and corrected many of the errors in all three, and that the present work is clearer, more readable, and truer to Hegel.

In addition, this translation includes material not present in Hartman: Chapter Five, “The Geographical Basis of History” (interesting for what it says about America); and Chapter Six, “The Division of History.” Finally, included as an Appendix are paragraphs 341–360 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This is especially important because it is Hegel’s own summary of the main themes of his philosophy of history. In his lectures, Hegel designates these paragraphs as the only substitute for a “textbook” he can offer to students of this subject. A bibliography of some Hegel texts and recent commentaries is also supplied.

The division into chapters is translators own doing. (Hartman’s divisions are similar, although our headings differ.) In the German text, the first four chapters run undivided. The separation, however arbitrary, is justified by the increased readability.

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