By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 5, 2011

21. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 453-464

Cultural History: Introduction; Idealism (G.W.F. Hegel)
As the editors' introduction points out, William James, John Dewey and Werner Heisenberg consider reality as events in time. They "deal with processes of becoming rather than states of being, and with processes in which developing human action or feeling is intimately involved." So modern thinkers become concerned with the nature or the cause or the direction of these processes, more so than pre-modern thinkers, for whom "permanence is better than change, Being superior to Becoming, eternity more real than time."

G.W.F. Hegel: History as the Self-Realization of Spirit

G.W.F. Hegel, from a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers, c. 1828
Hegel, in this excerpt from Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1832), posits that history is nothing more than the working out of Spirit, "the absolutely powerful essence" that "reveals itself in the World." He defines Spirit by looking at its opposite, Matter: "As the essence of Matter is Gravity, so, on the other hand, we may affirm that the substance, the essence of Spirit is Freedom." Matter tends to move toward a center, self-destructively. (I visualize Hegel's Matter as something like a black hole.) Spirit "has the centre in itself. It has not a unity outside itself, but has already found it; it exists in and with itself."

History, then, is the process by which Spirit expands the concept of Freedom, an idea that "first arose among the Greeks." But the Greeks, and their heirs, the Romans, who practiced slavery, "knew only that some are free, -- not man as such." Hegel naturally credits the Germans as "the first to attain the consciousness that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence."
The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.... Eastern nations knew only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free; whilst we know that all men absolutely (man as man) are free.
Hegel acknowledges that this word "freedom" is "ambiguous" and "liable to an infinity of misunderstandings, confusions and errors," but he asks the reader to bear with him. "In the process before us, the essential nature of freedom -- which involves in it absolute necessity -- is to be displayed as coming to a consciousness of itself (for it is in its very nature, self-consciousness) and thereby realising its existence." 

History and Nature are related: "History in general is ... the development of Spirit in Time, as Nature is the development of the Idea in Space." Both are processes that involve creation and destruction and re-creation, i.e., change. The process is visible in "the ruins of ... ancient sovereignty" in "Carthage, ... Palmyra, Persepolis, or Rome." Human beings and their kingdoms and cities are transitory. But "change while it imports dissolution, involves at the same time the rise of a new life -- that while death is the issue of life, life is also the issue of death." The image of the phoenix comes to mind, but "Spirit -- consuming the envelope of its existence -- does not merely pass into another envelope, nor rise rejuvenescent from the ashes of its previous form; it comes forth exalted, glorified, a purer spirit."
The abstract conception of mere change gives place to the thought of Spirit manifesting, developing, and perfecting its powers in every direction which its manifold nature can follow.... The very essence of Spirit is activity; it realises its potentiality -- makes itself its own deed, its own work -- and thus it becomes an object to itself; contemplates itself as an objective existence.
Spirit manifests itself among the various cultures in their "particular religious form of worship, customs, constitution and political laws -- in the whole complex of its institutions -- in the events and transactions that make up its history. That is its work -- that is what this particular Nation is. Nations are what their deeds are." But nations, cultures, civilizations, peoples thrive while they are in the process of becoming whatever their grand design or chief goal may be. "But this having been attained, the activity displayed by the Spirit of the people in question is no longer needed; it has its desire." Although tt may have a long period of reaping the fruits of its achievement, "The essential, supreme interest has consequently vanished from its life, for interest is present only where there is opposition." Like the individual, it passes "from maturity to old age." The nation is like a watch that has been wound up and left to run down. "Thus perish individuals, thus perish peoples by a natural death.... In order that a truly universal interest may arise, the Spirit of a People must advance to the adoption of some new purpose."

But "the all-pervading Spirit" doesn't "simply sink into the senile life of mere custom."
Spirit ... on the one hand destroys the determinate form of its being, on the other hand gains a comprehension of the universal element which it involves, and therefore gives a new form to its inherent principle.... We may compare it with the seed; for with this the plant begins, yet it is also the result of the plant's entire life.... The life of a people ripens a certain fruit; its activity aims at the complete manifestation of the principle which it embodies. But this fruit does not fall back into the bosom of the people that produced and matured it; on the contrary, it becomes a poison-draught to it. That poison-draught it cannot let alone, for it has an insatiable thirst for it: the taste of the draught is its annihilation, though at the same time the rise of a new principle.
The nation or culture or civilization is only a step "in the development of the one universal Spirit.... Spirit is immortal; with it there is no past, no future, but an essential now.... The life of the ever present Spirit is a circle of progressive embodiments, which looked at in one respect still exist beside each other, and only as looked at from another point of view appear as past."

No comments:

Post a Comment