The Unhappy Consciousness

After treating Skepticism, Hegel’s Phenomenology passes to a rather longer treatment of what he calls the “Unhappy Consciousness”. This seems to be the abstract figure of a kind of Christianity that lacks the optimistic, life-embracing perspective Hegel wants to promote. Harris in his commentary suggests that some of Hegel’s remarks have the great Church father Augustine particularly in mind. Augustine drew a sharp contrast between God as the Eternal, and what he saw as the fundamental infirmity and insufficiency of finite being. The “unhappy” consciousness sees before all else a stark opposition between our finitude and God’s eternity.

While vigorously rejecting the quasi-fundamentalism of his teacher at the Tübingen seminary and embracing many Enlightenment values, Hegel in later life always publicly identified as a Lutheran. He valorized Luther and the historic social role of both early Christianity and Lutheranism, though Harris suggests that some of Hegel’s perspectives actually seem more “Catholic” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 44), and Hegel has been read as anything from an orthodox Lutheran to a mystic to an atheist.

I think the bottom line on this is that Hegel is Hegel. He was neither an orthodox anything nor an atheist. The great development of medieval Latin philosophy and theology was hardly known in Hegel’s day, in part because very little of it existed in printed book form. I see his valorization of Luther in light of the more general principle of adopting a charitable and respectful attitude toward accepted values of one’s community unless they clearly conflict with a universal ethical principle.

Hegel says “the Unhappy Consciousness, the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, [is] a doubled and merely contradictory being” (Baillie trans., p. 251). “[I]t takes one, namely, the simple unalterable, as essential, the other, the manifold and changeable as the unessential. For it, both are realities foreign to each other” (pp. 251-252). “Consciousness of life, of its existence and action, is merely pain and sorrow over this existence and activity” (p. 252). It adopts an attitude of “Devotion” to the unattainable “Beyond”. “Consciousness, therefore, can only come upon the grave of its life” (p. 258). In the words of Harris’ abstract, “Life is a perpetual repentance for living” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 401) .

Harris comments, “The ‘movement’ must all be produced by the Unchangeable in my changeable consciousness” (p. 402). This gives it the character of Revelation.

“What makes the enterprise rational for the Unhappy Consciousness is what we ordinarily call its ‘faith’. It looks forward to emerging from its self-annihilation in this life, into another life in which it will enjoy ‘union’ with the Unchangeable. Hegel refuses to call this leap ‘faith’ at all, because there is nothing in the Beyond that can be experienced. What he calls ‘Faith’… uses the same rhetoric, but can be shown to make an effective reference to ‘experience'” (p. 400).

“[O]nly when the ‘movement’ is complete will the consciousness that we are observing be able to resolve the paradox of the Unchangeable’s appearing to change, by grasping the ‘movement’ as its own necessary contribution” (p. 402 ).

Hegel looks forward to “the transformation of the Unhappy Consciousness into ‘Faith’, and of the Beyond into Here” (ibid). It is in the earthly ethical actualization of community that the presence of Spirit among us is realized.