Hegel on the Ancients

In early writings predating the Phenomenology, Hegel argued that the modern Christian world needed to learn spiritually from the ancient world to overcome its alienation. Starting with the Phenomenology, his mature public view made the Christian world a big step forward from the ancient world instead. But in the late History of Philosophy lectures, Plato and Aristotle are praised above “all others” — even above Kant, who apparently comes third.

Already in the early period, Hegel tried his hand at a retrospective reconstruction of the Christian gospel in terms of Kantian ethics. The later Philosophy of History lectures trace a line of development from primitive Christianity via Lutheranism to Kant and German idealism, retrospectively using key German idealist terms like freedom and subjectivity to explicate the whole development. The here assumed high value of German idealism is used to show the value of the earlier stages. In the Philosophy of Religion lectures, he argues at length for the superiority of what he calls revealed religion, but his notion of revelation is making things plain and open to all, not any kind of supernatural special knowledge. Religion is said to express in images what philosophy expresses in concepts.

The idea of making things open to all is consistent with Hegel’s rejection of aristocracy in favor of a modern civil state based on a constitution rather than the mere will of a monarch or ruling class. But Aristotle too regarded constitutional rule as vastly superior to any form of tyranny or despotism.

Plato and Aristotle thought we would be better off if society were governed by those best capable of normative reasoning. Hegel criticized Aristotle’s view that some people turn out to be incapable of adequately reasoning about normative matters for themselves, and that they ought to be ruled by people who can do this adequately. But Aristotle already noted that existing social distinctions did not just reflect this.

Hegel’s mature vision for the future was a synthesis of the best of the ancient and modern worlds. If we compare that synthesis to his view of the modern world, it differs by what it incorporates from the ancient world. Hegel would never have wanted to roll the clock back, but even in his mature view, I think he still believed the moderns had something to learn from the higher-order and normative approach of Plato and Aristotle. (See also The Ancients and the Moderns; Untimely.)

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