Ethical Substance to Personhood

We have now reached the beginning of Hegel’s “Spirit” chapter. Hegel writes, “Reason is spirit, when its certainty of being all reality has been raised to the level of truth, and reason is consciously aware of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself…. When reason ‘observes’, this pure unity of ego and existence, the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, of for-itself-ness and in-itself-ness — this unity is immanent, has the character of implicitness or of being; and consciousness of reason finds itself. But the true nature of ‘observation’ is rather the transcendence of this instinct of finding its object lying directly at hand” (Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 457).

H. S. Harris in his commentary notes that “Historically, the transition at the beginning of this chapter is a great leap backwards. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative we go back to a world of custom where there was no critical Reason at all” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 147). “The ‘advance’ from the world of Fichte to the world of Sophocles is a logical development” (p. 148). Harris thinks Hegel did regard the post-Kantian Hellenism of Schiller and Hölderlin as at least a partial advance over the ethics of Kant and Fichte. In any case, Hegel goes on to discuss the ethical message of one of the greatest of the Greek tragedies, Sophocles’ Antigone. Goethe had apparently also considered Antigone very important.

Antigone deals with a conflict between Antigone, whose brothers had fought over the throne and who wanted to give a proper burial to her brother who lost after attacking the city with foreign troops, and the regent Creon, who treated her brother as a traitor to the city and prohibited normal burial rites. Antigone asserts an unconditional family loyalty, claims the support of ancient custom, and openly defies the explicit edict of the duly appointed ruler, which was also supported by a majority of the citizens. In the play, there is no reconciliation, and Antigone and Creon are both “tragic” figures.

Hegel treats Antigone as taking her stand in what he calls Ethical Substance and True Spirit, which in a simple and sincere way identify with values they simply “find”. He sees a great virtue in this simplicity, and argues that it provides something that is missing from the purely critical perspective of Kant and Fichte that wants to judge everything by formal criteria. But he still thinks the critical perspective was a great advance.

The bottom line Hegel wants to bring out is that we need something of both. True Spirit, while genuinely admirable, is limited by the simplicity of its attitude. The critical perspective is limited by its formalism and by the inherent bounds of one individual’s isolated attempt to judge everything for herself.

Hegel next turns to a historical consideration of how the Roman empire tended to dissolve the Ethical Substance of traditional cultures, replacing it with considerations based on legal “personhood”. This is not the broad notion associated with Kantian respect, but a narrow one associated with property ownership that actually excluded women, children, and slaves. Hegel has a generally negative view of Roman culture, and speaks sarcastically about the abstraction of legal persons. This sets the stage for his famous discussion of “alienation”.