Hegel’s main word for culture (Bildung) has strong connotations of activity. More literally it refers to a process of education of one’s whole character and self-consciousness that necessarily involves an active engagement, a sort of training of our active capacities, linked to what people these days might call personal growth. It thus needs to be distinguished from culture in the sense of passively assimilated custom or belief.

In Harris’ summary, “Man’s true nature can only be regained by alienation from its natural state. This is how God’s will gets done and I get saved. My actuality and power depends on my self-educative effort. I put aside my natural self in order to be the self God knows. Quantitative differences in natural endowment do not matter” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 259).

“In his discussion of the Condition of Right Hegel remarked on the irrationality of the distribution of natural gifts to the rational personalities who enjoy formal freedom and equality in the Stoic view…. In the spiritual perspective of Culture, this irrationality and divine caprice is completely transcended, because the given nature of the individual counts for nothing…. It is by alienating oneself from nature, including one’s own nature, that one can establish one’s real status as a soul in God’s eternal world” (p. 260).

“The equality of the blessed (when we give it an actual interpretation in this world) becomes the objectively implicit presence of Reason” (ibid). “Faith sees the whole social order as established by God’s Will…. But, in reality, the general effort of everyone to do God’s will on earth is what produces the stable order of society” (p. 261).

“Hegel was convinced of the importance of the Reformation; and the formation of the national state, with the movement from feudal monarchy to popular sovereignty, is the main focus of interest in the present section. But we do not need to accept any of his particular historical views. Obviously he had to do the Science of Experience in terms of the history he knew. To interpret it in terms of what we know is only to test it appropriately” (p. 262).

“One thing that Hegel is not doing is the psychoanalysis of society. It does not belong to the phenomenology of spirit to talk about what is really hidden from view” (p. 275). “Most of those who charge Hegel with a priorism, or with forcing the facts into the straightjacket of his theories, are logically bound to read him the way they do, because they are themselves children of the Enlightenment, and they cannot conceive any relation between concept and fact except that of estranged ‘application'” (p. 276).

“Language is the means by which the surrender of all personal self-will to a universal actual self is achieved. For the self is its language. Speaking is an absolutely transient motion which passes away at once. But the meaning of what is said is absolutely abiding” (pp. 283-284).

It is in this context of the constitution of self through linguistic practice that Hegel discusses the prevalence of flattery in the aristocratic society of early modern absolute monarchy, and how it is inverted into the “Contemptuous Consciousness” depicted in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew. Next he will diagnose an untenable pretentiousness in a common critique of religion associated with the Enlightenment.