Freedom of Self-Consciousness?

“[Stoicism] is a freedom which can come on the scene as a general form of the world’s spirit only in a time of universal fear and bondage, a time, too, when mental cultivation is universal, and has elevated culture to the level of thought” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 245).

Why is it that the Phenomenology talks about Stoicism and Skepticism but not about Plato and Aristotle, whom Hegel regarded as “humanity’s greatest teachers”? The Phenomenology is a quite different undertaking from Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, where he made the latter remark. Although it partly follows a development in time, it is mainly concerned with a backward-looking perspective on stages leading to the formation of a new shape of spirit Hegel optimistically sees emerging.

Spirit for Hegel belongs to all of us, not just great philosophers. He is aiming to talk about social development, particularly of his own culture. Modern Europe grew up from the ashes of the Roman empire, already far removed from the world of the Greek city-states. The Roman empire was indeed a “time of universal fear and bondage”. In relation to the emperor, everyone else was like a serf.

Stoicism was actually the first Western philosophy to have widespread social influence. Hegel implicitly connects the Stoic emphasis on reason and reasonableness with the development of Understanding he discussed earlier. Stoicism historically propounded a theory of complete determination in the world, alternating between physicalistic accounts and appeals to the will and reason of a supreme deity.

Hegel’s treatment of Stoicism here is very brief, very abstract, and expressed in something closer to the language of Fichte than to that of the Stoics themselves. “Stoicism” is said to realize a kind of Freedom, but it is only an “abstract” freedom of Understanding in relation to its representations, not affecting life. The Stoic sage aimed to achieve a kind of indifference to pain and adversity through detachment from worldly concerns and identification with the completeness of God’s plan. Unlike Hegel’s serf, the Stoic is supposed to have no fear of death.

“The freedom of self-consciousness [here] is indifferent toward natural existence…. [T]his lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself” (ibid). Hegel is not wrong to associate this indifference with an abstract kind of freedom.

The figure of “Stoicism” stands for a perspective that is like that of the serf in its relation to life and the world, but like that of the lord in the separate interiority of its own thought. Hegel regards this split perspective as a kind of alienation.

Here he also suggests a notion of Thought as concerned with pure distinction that is basically unrelated to historical Stoicism.

Harris in his commentary writes, “For the [Stoic] Sage organic life is a servitude, towards which she should be indifferent. If that indifference is threatened, if the freedom of thought is physically denied to her, she can herself deny nature and die freely. She is the lord’s consciousness in the serf’s situation” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 385). “When she is asked for the criterion of truth and virtue she can produce nothing but analytically true statements: ‘The True is the Divine Reason’, ‘Virtue is living according to Reason’, ‘Happiness is living in accordance with Nature’. So the Stoic wisdom never makes us any wiser, but we do get bored” (p. 387).

Nonetheless “Something begins with Stoicism that comes to its climax in the Phenomenology. The Stoic logos, the spark of divine Reason recognizable in each of us, is an individuality which must both display itself as living in its action (Handeln) and grasp (fassen) the world as a system of thought…. Only the advent of the Gospel will provide the requisite account in thought itself for the ‘expansion’ (Ausbreitung) of individuality as alive in action, and comprehensive of the living world as a system in its thinking” (ibid).

To comprehend the living world as a “system” (i.e., to interpret the actual world as a coherent but unfinished whole) is vastly different from simply asserting or propounding a world-view that is “systematic” in some abstract sense.

I would emphasize that Aristotle already closely approached Hegel’s ideal of a living unity here, and greatly influenced his formulation of it. The difference is that Stoicism, Christianity, and Hegel all put more emphasis on what might be called our abstract equality before God. Aristotle too recognized that all “rational animals” have the same abstract potential for reason and ethical being, but his ethics put great emphasis on distinguishing different degrees of actualization, or what we practically succeed in doing with our potential and our values. Hegel combines an Aristotelian emphasis on concrete actualization as a criterion in value judgments with Kant’s stronger universalization of Aristotelian friendship-like respect for other rational beings, which has a historically Christian source.