Varieties of Religion

Religion for Hegel is ultimately concerned with the genesis of Absolute Spirit in mutual recognition. But before that, in most of its historical existence, it involves various “presentations” of this ultimate truth by way of figures and images.

About these earlier forms Hegel writes, “So far as spirit in religion presents itself to itself, it is indeed consciousness, and the reality enclosed within it is the shape and garment in which it clothes its idea of itself. The reality, however, does not in this presentation get proper justice done to it, that is to say, it does not get to be an independent and free objective existence and not merely a garment. And conversely, because that reality lacks within itself its completion, it is a determinate shape or form, which does not attain to what it ought to reveal, viz, spirit conscious of itself” (Baillie trans., p. 688).

Hegel’s sketch of a general phenomenology of religion is as far as I know the earliest attempt at such a thing. Despite significant limitations with respect to concrete data, it has both philosophical and spiritual value. Hegel profoundly admires Greek tragedy, sympathetically interprets his native north-German Lutheranism, and remains close to the spiritual perspective of his old friend the poet Hölderlin. There are many other traditions to which he does not begin to do justice, but here I want to dwell on the positive value of what he does say. As a principle of charitable interpretation, we ought to give much more weight to a philosopher’s distinctive developed thought than to prejudices of the philosopher’s community that the philosopher happened to share.

At top level, Hegel distinguishes natural religion, what he calls art religion, and offenbare (“manifest”) religion. All three of these terms are either used in nonstandard ways or are original to him. Harris thinks that religion is the one area in which Hegel in the Phenomenology really meant to claim a kind of linear progressive historical development.

As examples of “natural” religion, Hegel gives the ancient Zoroastrian symbolism of light, and a notion of spirit as “artificer” that he associates with ancient Egyptian religion. Natural religion for Hegel is not associated with direct nature worship or the early modern “argument from design”. Its most significant characteristic seems to be a sort of abstractness that Hegel associates with the “natural” consciousness for which everything is an object or Vorstellung. As Harris says, “We have to learn to think conceptually (or without Vorstellungen)” ( Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 689).

In this context Hegel observes that “The consciously presented self is not the actual concrete self” (Baillie trans., p. 697). “[W]hat is consciously presented… only ceases to be something ‘presented‘ and alien to spirit’s knowledge, by the self having produced it, and so viewing the determination of the object as its own determination, and hence seeing itself in that object” (ibid).

Harris comments that “In the world of Natural Religion, the human community solves problems and remodels its environment; but it has no consciousness of making itself by so doing. That sort of consciousness can only arise when there is a community of communities that do things differently, and a communication system in which all parties recognize both the legitimacy of this, and the ‘freedom’ that is involved in it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 564).

This begins to be the case in what Hegel calls the ancient Greek “religion in the form of art”, in which he sees a new recognition of human creativity. Hegel sees a spiritual significance in realistic portrayals of the idealized human form in statues of the gods. In its higher forms, religion in the form of art includes the ideal of living a “beautiful” life.

In Greek culture poets were the principal spiritual authorities. The Greek drama that impressed Hegel so much seems to have begun as a kind of ritual performance, but the great tragedians showed considerable originality of thought.

Hegel says, “The work of art hence requires another element for its existence; God requires another way of going forth than this, in which, out of the depths of his creative night, he drops into the opposite, into externality, to the character of a ‘thing’ with no self-consciousness. This higher element is Language — a way of existing that is directly self-conscious existence. When individual self-consciousness exists in that way, it is at the same time directly a form of universal contagion; complete isolation of independent self-existent selves is at once fluent continuity and universally communicated unity of the many selves” (Baillie trans., p. 716).

Here again we meet Hegel’s thesis that language is the concrete being (Dasein) of spirit. The earlier part of the passage contrasts this with the mere “presentation” of objects. The ordinary use of language already implicitly takes us beyond “presentation”.

“Higher than both [oracles and utilitarian calculations] is to make careful reflection the oracle for contingent action, but yet to recognize that this very act reflected on is something contingent, because what it refers to is opportune and has a relation to what is particular.”

“The true self-conscious existence, which spirit receives in the form of speech, which is not the utterance of an alien and so accidental, i.e. not universal, self-consciousness, is the [poetic] work of art which we met with before” (p. 719).

Harris suggests that Sophocles’ Antigone, who can be read as seeking forgiveness for her brother, would be one of the saints of Hegel’s personal religion, and even that the New Testament can be read as the “last and greatest” of the Greek tragedies.

He quotes Hegel saying the simple content of “absolute” or “manifest” religion is that God is incarnate in humanity and “has essentially and immediately the character of Self-Consciousness” (p. 666).

Harris continues, “‘Self-Consciousness’ has to travel all the way from the life and death struggle to the community of forgiveness; but in its immediacy it is the kind of self-awareness that the living man Jesus had; and it appears to me to be a rigorously necessary inference from what Hegel says that ‘the divine essence’ has no other ‘self-consciousness’ than this. The humanly ’embodied shape’ can say, as the Jesus of our record did, ‘I and the Father are one’. It will be a very naive historian who says confidently that this record (in John) is ‘historic’; but only in the ‘oneness’ that is here asserted (which our science seeks to explicate) can ‘the Father’ properly be said to have ‘self-consciousness’ at all. We, the observing readers, are the absolute authority concerning what ‘self-consciousness’ is; and if ‘absolute religion’ or ‘absolute knowledge’ is even possible, then it does not use language in an analogical way, since no analogy is knowably ‘absolute’. The presence of God is a matter of Sense-Certainty because I too can say that ‘I and the Father are one’.”

“The religious encounter of two selves, which is the immediate shape of Absolute Spirit, is the complement of their encounter in the world. The self in whom God is actually recognized, refused to fight, and accepted the certainty of death willingly, rather than put the life of another self at risk. His God, in whom he knew himself and all other selves, was a Substance whose accidents were all precious and essential. In the religious metaphor, this God sees the fall of every sparrow. He is Spinoza’s ‘God or Nature’, because Nature has already been recognized as the divine ‘Substance’ that contains all finite selves as its accidental aspect.

“It is the structure of Consciousness (as the intentional awareness of an ‘object’) that requires this universal Spirit to be known as other. There is not, and cannot be, anything hidden by its otherness; properly speaking, the Other is ‘the Father’, i.e., the world of the reconciled community of all selves. It can become another ‘self’, the object of an inward encounter, only as my own higher self, the embodiment of the perfectly reconciled community in me. Only in this way can I know God as a self, who is both other, and my own self. From the first moment I have claimed to know anything, from the first moment of theoretical sense-certain consciousness, when I could say ‘It is‘, though I found it impossible to say what ‘it’ was… my own selfhood has had this universal dimension. Now… I can say that this universal dimension is God — that it is ‘I that is We and We that is I’…. My Sense-Certainty that ‘It is’ has become the certainty that God is, as the absolute Spirit…. God’s being ‘the Creator of all things visible and invisible’… will only be interpretable if we can first grasp how the Spirit creates itself ‘out of nothing'” (pp. 666-667).

“No theologian of the schools taught the identity of God and Nature; but Hegel interpreted both the Trinity and the Mass in this way” (p. 675). “The doctrine of the Trinity is the logical expression in a Vorstellung of the concept of Spirit as self-actualizing self-knowledge” (p. 677). “What ‘Selfhood’ is, we learn in experience; and even when we have learned empirically that we are ‘members of one another’, it seems to us paradoxical rather than ‘logical’. So it is a long time before we can see that the Trinity is just the logic of it” (ibid).

“The world in its finite multiplicity is certainly other than God; but the human consciousness of it is the ‘appearing’ of God as ‘essence'” (p. 680).

“Just as Creation was not a gratuitous act, or an arbitrarily free choice, so the Fall of Man did not result from a sinful act of disobedience or pride. The story of the Fall is a myth that expresses the logical necessity of the Spirit’s turning away from the natural world within which it comes to birth, and leaving it behind” (p. 682).

“Hegel’s speculative conception of the creative Incarnation of the Logos requires the reconciliation of the ‘evil’ principle of self-assertion with the ‘good’ principle of duty and sacrifice” (p. 684). “Evil is the blind moment of singular self-assertion, which finally recognizes its own spiritual character as the self that is born from, lives in and returns to, the rational community. If the cycle did not begin with a natural organism, with its exclusive needs, and its selfish urge for dominance and ‘independence’, the human community could never come to be a community of ‘individuals’; or in other words it could not come to be as a self-conscious community, since the individual is the ‘concrete universal’, the self-consciousness that is both singular and communal” (p. 685).

“We must cling firmly to the contradiction that self-consciousness is both Evil and Good.” (p. 689).

“The self has to break with Nature, and become the Unhappy Consciousness. We should interpret this now as the betrayal and loss of the Greek Garden of Eden, the Paradise of True Spirit” (p. 691).

“As we shall soon see, the difference between Religion and Absolute Knowing is marked by Religion’s dependence on Vorstellung. But there is such a thing as ‘fully self-conscious Faith’ — i.e., a religious consciousness that still uses the Vorstellungen, but knows what they mean, and does not count on any Beyond” (p. 688).

Religion

The “Spirit” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is followed by a discussion of religion that is “phenomenological” in Hegel’s sense. The ultimate sense of “religion” that he develops could perhaps be summed up as what keeps Conscience honest.

We saw that Conscience faces a danger of self-deceit or hypocrisy when it becomes too comfortable in its self-certainty. The general antidote for this is the recognition of others, and of something greater than ourselves. More particularly, Hegel had concluded his discussion of mutual forgiveness at the end of the Conscience section as follows:

“The reconciling affirmation, the ‘yes’, with which both egos desist from their existence in opposition, is the existence of the ego expanded into a duality, an ego which remains therein one and identical with itself, and possesses the certainty of itself in its complete relinquishment and its opposite: it is God appearing in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge” (Baillie trans., p. 679).

This is a form of what Hegel calls the “I that is We, and the We that is I”, by which he characterizes “Absolute” Spirit. Harris notes that Hegel had appropriately introduced this formula as far back as the discussion of the Unhappy Consciousness, but here it begins to appear in an unalienated form.

In introducing the Religion chapter, Harris says “What happens when the Hard Heart breaks, and we make the transition to Religion proper is that the God within is projected outwards. God becomes recognizable as the spirit of the actual community in which we live and move. We give up the moral standpoint altogether, because we recognize the one-sided inadequacy of moral judgment, and the universal necessity of forgiveness for our finitude. Forgiveness is recognized as the only moral duty that can be absolutely fulfilled. Whether as moral agents, or as moral critics we need forgiveness; and we can receive it only if we give it, for that is the only way to deserve it and so to be able to forgive ourselves. The soul that flies from the world to the God within, is guilty for that flight, and doubly guilty when it pretends to condemn the world in the name of the God within. This inner God must appear; he must become ‘manifest’. That was already the fundamental importance of the Moral World-View. But God can only be manifest as the spirit of universal forgiveness, the spirit that transcends the whole moral standpoint.”

“This transcending of the moral standpoint does not constitute a ‘moral holiday’…. On the contrary, it is the climax of moral judgment, [and] resolves all the problems of the Moral World-View” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 521).

“But this ‘mercy’ of forgiveness is something with which (even for the religious consciousness that sees it as coming from a transcendent source) we must collaborate. God cannot forgive us, unless we can forgive ourselves; and to be able to do that we must both forgive others, and have the conscientious consciousness of commitment to the doing of our duty as best we can. For the absolute Self that is now manifest to us as an Absolute Subject ‘proceeding between’ the finite and imperfect moral self and its universal community is that same being that first appeared to Antigone as the ineluctable ‘unwritten law’ of family piety which has no known origin…. Thus we can now see that ‘the Absolute’ has indeed been ‘with us from the start'” (pp. 521-522).

“The Spirit does not cease to be an ‘object’ just because it has now appeared as a subject. For it is Substance just as much as it is Subject. The moral authority of Conscience is not affected by the recognition that the deliverance of Conscience is always one-sided, and hence in conflict with others. But the last law of Conscience, the one through which all consciences are reconciled is: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’…. [A] philosopher… must not presume to condemn anyone; for when he does that he falls short of his scientific goal, which is to comprehend them.”

“… It is only when we abandon the stance of moral judgment, only when we do not seek to be moral valets, that we can be scientific observers at all…. For it is only in this spirit of universal forgiveness, universal ‘absolution’, that we can be scientific observers at all” (p. 522).

“[T]he contradiction between the finiteness of the actual spirit and the infinity of the Absolute Spirit… is only overcome when we recognize that the adequate embodiment of Reason is in an actually infinite community of finite spirits. The rational spirit of forgiveness is ‘actually infinite’, precisely in virtue of having surrendered its office of legislation” (p. 523). (I prefer to say “potentially infinite”.)

“Religion is more truly practical than theoretical, because the reconciliation of practical disagreements in the spirit of fraternity, and the absolution of the necessary consciousness of finitude as ‘sinful’, is its logical goal” (ibid).

“The reconciled community continues to disagree; and its disagreements must at times be as absolute as Luther’s defiance of the Council of Worms” (p. 524).

“The object of Hegel’s chapter on Religion is to make the actual infinity of the human community appear in its visible concreteness…. [T]he ideal of community that we comprehended when we recognized the universal necessity of forgiveness, must now realize itself through the recollection of how our actual, far from holy, community has come to be” (p. 525).

According to Harris, “[R]eligious experience… must be generated in life (and in every aspect of life” (p. 534).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of Absolute Spirit is the total experience of the [world spirit] all spread out in space and time. In this sense, Absolute Spirit is the ‘Word, by which all things were made’; and this is the ultimate sense in which the Dasein of Spirit is language. We have to grasp that this is not just a theological metaphor. It expresses the logical truth that all modes of consciousness are modes of human self-interpretation…. ‘Spirit’ itself means only the actual finite communal spirit that is conscious of an external world. It is human religious experience that is the ‘self-consciousness’ of the Absolute Spirit.”

“Spirit does not have its properly absolute Self, until we become its self-consciousness as philosophical historians. We have to forgive and forget the moral struggle of singular agents, and observe how the social substance expresses itself in all of the active singular consciousnesses who are themselves preoccupied by their moral struggles.”

“Of course, being well schooled in the academic ethic of forgiveness (at least), we have been observing ‘experience’ from this ‘absolute’ standpoint all the time” (ibid).

“‘Finding out where we are’ when we adopt the stance of the critical observer is a long and complex task. We have to begin by trusting the instinct of our natural consciousness, and letting it criticize itself progressively. Then, in the end, we discover that our speculative observing standpoint is properly just the ‘compassionate’ attitude that our religion ascribes to God” (p. 535).

“It is vital to recognize that no transcendent subjectivity is involved in this ‘grabbing up’ of a particular Gestalt [shape] of Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and Reason. There is only the human community building up its own way of life in the natural environment” (p. 540).

“It is a mark of the ‘natural rationality’ of the Greeks, that they realized their ‘God’ was not in charge of Fate” (p. 542).

“Hegel speaks of ‘God appearing’, only when the community understands its own function of forgiveness…. But when we arrive at the consciousness that ‘God is Love’, we are recognizing a divinity whose very being is constituted by our recognition” (ibid).

“At the end of the development, the distinction between actual life and religious consciousness is overcome” (ibid).

“God’s creative activity as Spirit has to be conceived as the progressive creation, not of the eternal order of Nature grasped by the Understanding, but of the embodied community of Reason…. [T]he ‘creation of the world’ signifies God’s creation of himself as Spirit” (p. 543).

“There is no ‘self’ involved in the process, except the one that comes to be through it; and the deepest truth about that ‘One’ is that it is necessarily the infinite unity of the many selves who are members of its community” (ibid).

“Only after the bad infinity of the certainty that Reason is God has been experienced in every possible way, can the adequate concept of Religion itself be born” (p. 546).

“The immortal spirit must speak to us not with natural noises but in our own speech; and what she tells us we must be able to recognize as what we all knew or ought to have known. Her utterance must be recognizably divine because it is the voice of Reason” (p. 566).

Conscience and Conscientiousness

For Hegel traditional cultures were full of Ethical Spirit as a sort of direct identification with the customs of a community, but they did not recognize the genuine agency of living individuals. Harris in his commentary identifies three successive shapes of a spiritual self in Hegel’s Phenomenology. The crudest is the deeply alienated notion of a person as a bearer of legal rights, which dates back to imperial Rome. Far more sophisticated is the modern moral self, exemplified in the philosophies of Kant and Fichte. We saw that the moral self for Hegel came to grief in contradictions between its ideal of moral perfection and the imperfect reality of its actual life. It became stuck in an alternation between its certainty of an ideal truth that it externalized in God or a separate intelligible world, and the recognition that it was not that ideal and could not meet it.

A third form of spiritual self for Hegel is identified with Conscience and a “conscientious self”. Whereas the moral self externalizes its values in God and/or a separate intelligible world, the conscientious self internalizes its values and thoroughly identifies with them. In this way, the conscientious self avoids all the “real versus ideal” contradictions the moral self becomes mired in.

The standpoint of Conscience carries a different danger from that of the moral self. Hegel spoke of the moral self as “displacing” its values into a Beyond not unlike that of the Unhappy Consciousness. The self of Conscience is entirely “happy” in that its values are right here and its very own, but it is in danger of being too “happy”. Because all its standards are internalized, it is especially easy for it to fall into self-deception or hypocrisy.

I have puzzled more than usual over the transitions in this section. Harris’ commentary on this particular part, while containing many insightful remarks, did not really help me better grasp the transitions, as it generally has in the other parts.

After speaking about Conscience, Hegel goes on to talk about the Beautiful Soul. The term “Beautiful Soul” was already established in German Romantic literature. Hegel makes sharper negative remarks about it than he just had about the possible self-deception or hypocrisy of Conscience. Nonetheless, it seems that “Beautiful Soul” is just an alternate term for Conscience after all.

When Conscience goes too far in the direction of self-satisfaction, it degenerates into a smug figure perfectly insulated from all questioning or criticism. Confidence is a good thing, but a bad Beautiful Soul is always too easy on itself. It never doubts that everything it does is right.

Then we move suddenly from the Beautiful Soul to the evil-doer. The best explanation I’ve so far worked out for this is that the attitude of the evil-doer in general resembles the hypocrisy of a bad Beautiful Soul. As Plato said, all beings always seek the good (or rather what seems good to them); evil is precisely a distorted, overly narrow “good” accompanied by non-recognition of others or other points of view.

Hegel goes on to suggest that the “hard-hearted” judgmental attitude of the moralist who wants to hold others to standards unconditionally is subject to a hypocrisy of its own that is structurally not that different from the hypocrisy of the evil-doer. When they confront one another, each fails to adequately recognize the other. Hegel encourages us to look forward to a world in which each of them could freely confess the inadequacy of its recognition of the other, and then forgive the other’s inadequate recognition.

(Here my reading is departing slightly from that of Harris. Harris briefly criticizes language like I just used, which sounds like a moral ideal for the future, which he thinks would be too Fichtean for Hegel. I still worry about misconceptions of Hegel as an apologist for his own particular community, so I prefer Brandom’s suggestion that Hegel does not intend to claim the transition to mutual recognition is yet completed.)

We can always find fault with someone if we try hard enough. Hegel cites the aphorism that “no man is a hero to his valet”, but wants us to do better than that. The better perspective is that fallible humans with weaknesses can still be heroes.

A Moral Self?

The next stop on our Hegelian journey takes us back into Kantian/Fichtean territory. From merely legal rights and pure Utility we advance to a higher concept of moral action.

“In the national fraternity of True Spirit the agency of the singular self receives recognition only after death. The emergence of the singular self as a recognized bearer of legal rights is the death-knell of this beautiful harmony…. The Roman armies replaced this rather chancy and disorderly harmony of life with one universal human law, and one continuum of humanly recognized ‘rights’. But the universal continuum was soon shown up as a mere cloak for the age-old ‘law of the stronger’; ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ have to pass through the long and painful dialectic of the Self-Estranged Spirit in order to become fully rational; and now finally the rational self who is the conscious bearer of moral rights has come to birth” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 413-414).

Already the Real Individual saw herself as exercising something like Kantian autonomy, but only now do we meet with Kantian duty. Absorbed in its new-found sense of duty, “The moral self cares only for its own moral integrity, its membership in the ‘moral world-order’…. This self has no private purpose distinct from the ‘general will'” (p. 414). This is consistent with Kant’s Stoic-like emphasis on a radical separation of morality from any natural personal inclination.

“Moral Insight is ‘absolutely mediated’; it is culturally self-made, through the complete sublation of the natural self. But it will soon show itself to be the knowledge of membership in a spiritual community; and this knowledge does not have the ‘estranged’ character of a promise or a hope. Nor does it have the ‘split’ aspect of an insight that is obliged to be self-contemptuous. In the moral knowledge of duty, the rational community of the moral world-order is a living presence…. The moral agent acts consciously for the whole community of moral agents. Reason no longer takes itself to be Utility” (p. 415).

“But the dominance of Utility continues in a sublated way. I must use the order of Nature for the rational purpose of actualizing the Moral World-Order. This ‘estrangement’ of the two ‘orders’ remains to be overcome” (p. 417).

“There is a lot about the empirically external world that I do not know when I act; but that is morally irrelevant. It is what I actually do know that constitutes the situation in which my duty determines itself. What I know ‘absolutely’ when I act morally is that my intention is good. In the moral perspective this is all that counts” (p. 415).

“I can know and do my duty independently. But Nature does not care. I may be dutiful but unhappy, or undutiful yet happy anyway. So I am bound to complain that it is just not right” (ibid).

“In this parlous situation, the founding of moral knowledge upon the attitude of Faith represents the only hope” (p. 419).

“Actual morality is the perpetual making of an accord, which is not, and can never be, finally made. We must forever be ‘making progress in morality'” (p. 421).

“So moral consciousness does not develop its own concept. Instead, it postulates a world…. The moral self does not know that in its postulation it is developing its own concept of its self…. Unlike simple Faith, the moral consciousness does know that it is thinking. But it does not know how to express the fact that what it thinks is ‘necessarily true’, except in terms of the ordinary standard by which we determine the truth of our thoughts” (p. 427). “We shall soon see that this necessary opacity of what is supposed to be purely ‘intelligible’ puts the sincerity of the moral consciousness — the very thing that has emerged as the truth of its self-certainty — in question” (p. 428).

“When we begin with moral self-certainty in this Fichtean perspective, we have to take the ‘primacy of the practical’ with mortal earnestness…. We are no longer caught up in the dualism of Cartesian thought…. [Hegel’s] whole ‘speculative’ standpoint rests on this Fichtean unification of the natural and the moral world-order. From this moment onwards we are truly in the ‘kingdom of the Spirit'” (p. 429).

But Hegel will not rest content with the Fichte’s practical postulation of a moral God. On the one hand, “The harmony is experienced in fact; to speak of it as postulated is a pretense” (p. 435). On the other, “No matter how much good we actually do, the world remains essentially nothing but an infinite complex of moral problems. The perfect ‘harmony’… is never completed” (ibid).

Harris also points out that Hegel was far from accepting Fichte’s claim of an intellectual intuition of the self that Kant rejected. “It is Fichte’s categorical claim that the whole critical philosophy must be placed in the context of the intuitive self-certainty of the dutiful self that comes to grief here. When we drag it through the ‘experience’ of its own postulational thinking, the moral self-intuition is shown not to be an ‘intuition’ at all” (p. 434).

“I can always give up on the phenomenal world, and insist on my own unity with God; and when I shift back to this position after a practical defeat in the outer world, it is not the same position as it was initially. It is less optimistic, but it is inwardly deepened by the experience.”

“The deepening comes from the awareness that the actual transformation of the natural order is essential to the moral order” (p. 436). “So the retreat into the inner sense of a dutiful union with God must again be displaced in favor of Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative. Here the ‘harmony of morality with nature’ is stated as a duty: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become through your will a universal law of nature‘” (ibid).

“We have now reached the point where the dogmatic hypothesis that ‘moral consciousness is actual’ must be replaced by the hypothesis that it is only a project to be realized, it is ‘what ought to be’. Having got back to the Garden of Eden we have understood that the Fall is the necessary presupposition of the salvation that we seek” (ibid).

“The ‘as if‘ in Kant’s formula (‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become…’) is crucial. It is not the perfect organization of the natural world that is the real goal of moral action…. Rather it is the perfect development of every moral self that is the goal; and for the fulfilment of that purpose, the natural world needs to remain a problem” (p. 437).

“But even the perfection of the moral self as an integrated will to put the world in order involves the same paradoxical unacceptability as a goal. Its achievement would eliminate the necessity for any moral striving” (p. 438). “So the goal of moral action has not been adequately formulated as moral self-affirmation in the sensible world; again the goal must be displaced” (p. 439).

“What we are now saying is that the condition of being between the successful ‘activity of the pure purpose’ (where we experience the harmony of will and inclination) and the struggling awareness of a natural antithesis needing to be transcended and conquered, is the true moral goal. For this ‘in-betweenness’, this cycling from perfection to imperfection and back again, is the only way in which morality can be both ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ (p. 440).

“[A] postulated ‘harmony between is and ought’ cannot count as ‘absolute knowledge’. The postulated object of knowledge is not knowable at all; it is simply an evasion” (ibid).

“‘Experience’ shows that the moral self does not need any postulated intelligible world” (p. 446).

”When we postulate the noumenal world, we find ourselves forced to say contradictory things both about our phenomenal world and about the noumenal one. Phenomenal nature is morally null; but also it is this world that must be reshaped to display the noumenal reality; and the Good Will is the absolute essence, whose noumenal reality is all that counts; but it is not a will at all if it does not act in this phenomenal world, where its existence can be recognized” (p. 449).

Perils of Utility

Hegel derives the historic Enlightenment notion of Utility from a simple alternation of perspectives (being-in-itself, being-for-another, being-for-self) that is abstracted from all particular content. It is a sort of objective correlate for the “Pure Insight” that results from free use of the Understanding in practical matters.

The correlate of the Understanding’s freedom on the objective side is its abstraction from all content, which makes it “merely formal” in the sense we have seen Hegel criticize before. An alternation without content could go on without end, which makes it an instance of what he called “bad infinity”. Utility is “the awareness of the world as useful, not the comprehension of that world as the real self” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 380). It is the “pure self-estrangement of the Concept” (p. 386).

As with Understanding in general, Utility by no means appears only in a bad light. It is taken to presuppose a community of equal persons, and to imply the absolutely free Rousseauian general will of a sovereign People, which Hegel presents sympathetically. Consciousness is even said to “find its concept” in Utility (p. 384). Harris notes though that in Hegelian terms, the reference to “finding” indicates a less mature attitude than making or development.

A concept that generates a “bad infinity” ultimately cannot serve as a criterion for value judgment, because it leads to an infinite regress. But Hegel is not so much concerned with the theoretical error of the British Utilitarians’ reduction of all values to utility as with the political danger of the harshly “utilitarian” attitude of those who promulgated the Terror in the late stages of the French Revolution. The idea there was effectively that whatever action was deemed “useful” by the new authorities required no further justification. It seems clear to me, as it did to Hegel, that the French Revolution was a good thing on a historical level, but to acknowledge a generality like that is by no means necessarily to endorse every detail of the way it was carried out.

I have to say I think debates about whether or not “the end justifies the means” in general are pretty meaningless and unhelpful. We can meaningfully discuss the appropriateness of particular means to particular ends. The answer will be yes in some cases and no in others. Harsh measures that are unfortunately necessary in some cases are completely unjustifiable in others. Sometimes the tradeoffs can be very difficult. “Utility” as a putative criterion is only helpful in the easy cases. In difficult cases it ends up being tautological or sophistical. What is unequivocally wrong is the notion of arbitrary license, or the claim that no more substantive development of justification for an extreme course of action is even relevant in the first place.

Hegel is indeed concerned with a slippery slope here. The slippery slope concerns not the ends-means cliché but the use of utility as a criterion, which at the shallow end seems innocuous enough. But vague generality shades into arbitrariness, and utility is a vague generality. (My own judgment is that the notions of sovereignty and the general will are also tainted with what Hegel would call “bad infinity”.)

Enlightenment, Faith

It is easy to denounce superstition. Such denunciations were a common trope of the 18th century Enlightenment. Hegel took a more radical approach, defining what is commonly translated as “revealed” religion in terms of an openness and availability to all, in contrast to supposedly esoteric content available only to a few. In a later section Harris says “It is a mistake to call this final phase of Religion ‘revealed’ (as the English translators both do). It is not geoffenbart but offenbar — not ‘revealed’ but ‘out in the open’ or ‘manifest'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 649).

Hegel effectively separated this openness and availability from any proto-fundamentalist claims of unconditional supernatural givenness. Nonetheless, he was deeply convinced of the importance of spiritual values and the recognition of something greater than our individual selves. He was sharply critical of those who would reduce all religion to superstition, and of D’Holbach’s talk of a conspiracy of priests and kings against the rest of us.

The Faith to which Hegel gives a positive sense really has nothing to do with belief in certain assertions as historical fact. (One might even argue that to put revelation on the plane of historical fact is to mistakenly give it a worldly rather than spiritual interpretation.) As Harris puts it in his commentary, “The ‘world’ of Faith is a world not of things, but of conscious interpretive processes” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 349). Faith has to do with how we actively respond to situations.

What Hegel would call the “truth” of Enlightenment is a vindication of the positive value of life in this actual world, as against its denial in favor of an otherworldly Beyond. Everything about what is greater than us should be interpreted in terms of how we ought to act here in this actual world.

Culture

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.

Alienation

At the stage we have currently reached in Hegel’s development, my “self” is to be identified with my concrete spiritual and cultural world. H. S. Harris in his commentary says “In its independent (or truth-knowing) aspect the rational self is not, as Descartes thought, a ‘thinking substance’; but neither is it simply the Aristotelian ‘soul’ — the form of one mortal living body” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 151). I think Aristotle himself — in contrast to very influential Latin medieval interpretations of his work — would have agreed with this.

“The essentially evanescent process of using a common language is Spirit as the universal Self” (ibid). “But the immediate truth of this consciousness is ambiguous. My community is a ‘universal’ for me, only when it particularizes itself” (ibid). “All of the previous shapes of consciousness are ‘abstractions’ from this ‘self-maintaining absolutely real essence'” (p. 153). “What is ‘uncovered’ but beyond speech in the Greek experience, is not deep but shallow. It is the aesthetic surface of truth and no more. But there is no need for anyone (except artists) to become ecstatic about the rediscovery of it” (p. 163). “Nothing could be less Hegelian than [an] aesthetically intuitive concept of ‘Truth'” (ibid).

Under the Roman empire’s dissolution of traditional culture and face-to-face community, “The formal universal unity is a spiritless community of atomic individuals, who are all equally persons…. The ethical substance was true spirit; but now it is supplanted by personal certainty” (p. 230). “We have entered the world of independent self-conscious wills. Everyone is a separate person with her own legal rights” (p. 231), “a legally rigid, abstract self not dissolved in the substance” (ibid). “The law defines what is mine, and what is yours” (p. 235). In the Roman Imperial world, “we were all in bondage, and obliged to recognize the absolute selfhood of an earthly Lord” (p. 247). We have moved from “Ethical Substance” to “the Condition of Right”.

Here Hegel takes up a positive aspect of the Unhappy Consciousness. As Harris recounts, “The Spirit must now embark on the great labor of self-making…. We are now invited to recognize ourselves in the ‘absolute otherness’… of a Spirit who is ‘not of this world’. In this present life we are estranged from our true selves in God’s kingdom” (ibid). “The ruin that seems to come upon the Empire from outside, really comes from the self-alienating activity of the spirit. The destruction is necessary, because self-alienation is the actualization of the Substance” (p. 248).

“Thus it was not the barbarians outside the Empire, but the revelation that the legal self-consciousness is itself barbaric, that made the decline and fall of the empire inevitable. This is what became clear when formal Reason sought to establish ‘mastery’ (a relation of unequal recognition) over the natural passions. The attempt was inevitably transformed into the tyranny of aggressive self-consciousness (the military) over finite life (the civil population)…. The whole system based upon the immediate recognition of ‘Personality’ is arbitrary. The Empire falls, because all selves must learn the lesson of self-estrangement, the lesson of submission to a command from above” (p. 250).

“In the world of True Spirit, the self simply forgot itself in the otherness of the objective custom. The Condition of Right was ‘spiritless’ because there was no absolute otherness, there was only an absolute but natural self. That absolute self has now been recognized as nothing but its own otherness — the unconscious and uncontrolled forces of natural life. This factual otherness must now regain selfhood from ‘Beyond'” (ibid).

“Antigone’s Zeus… has to yield to the ‘absolute otherness’ of Destiny. It is Destiny that becomes a Self for Unhappy Consciousness”…. “The whole actual world… is now inverted into the subordinate status of a mere moment in the divine plan for humanity…. In order to stabilize a social world in which authority is natural (and therefore arbitrary) we are forced to postulate that it is founded upon supernatural Reason.”

“This is an absurd postulate, because ‘absolute authority’ is contradictory” (p. 251). But “Reason can only coincide with Freedom; the absurd postulate of a rational divine Will… is just the first step in the emergence and evolution of this ‘identity’. Universal Christianity, as a social institution, justifies what is logically and ethically experienced and known to be absolutely unjustifiable: the acceptance of arbitrary authority. But without the projection of Reason into the Beyond, humanity could never become what it essentially is: a free self-making spiritual community, not a community of ‘natural Reason'” (p. 252).

“In order to follow Hegel’s argument, we have to employ certain concepts (notably those of ‘self’, ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘Universal’ in unfamiliar ways that seem paradoxical, because they violate our ordinary assumptions…. But if we make these logical adjustments, we can not only turn all the otherworldly talk of the world of culture into straight talk, but we can understand why the otherworldly talk was necessary….”

“[I]n due course, the division of the world of estranged spirit into the visible and the intelligible, the realm of actuality and the realm of faith, will collapse back into the categorical identity of the rational self; and as ‘pure insight’ this rational self will unmask the irrationality of the claim of faith that we can receive the truth of ‘pure consciousness’ by revelation” (p. 253). But “the Beyond of Faith is reborn almost at once as the necessary Beyond of Reason. Estrangement ends when Faith becomes Reason; but Reason is left to liquidate its own Beyond, the realm of ‘moral consciousness’ or ‘rational faith'” (p. 254).

“[H]istory and logic do not stay evenly in step in the story of the estranged world…. Faith in its stillness is not a mode of knowledge at all. It is the ‘devotion’ of the Unhappy Consciousness at the threshold of thought. In that strictly singular shape, it falls into contradiction whenever it seeks to realize itself in the world. Faith proper, has crossed the threshold into actual thought; and it does successfully transform the world. But as Pure Insight it will come back to the experience of contradiction” (p. 255). “Religion proper will be the overcoming of this whole conceptual pattern of estrangement…. With the dawning of ‘pure Culture’ we shall be equipped to deal with the ‘pure consciousness’ of Faith” (p. 257).

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”.

Individuality, Community

The last sections of Hegel’s “Reason” chapter begin to introduce a notion of community, still starting from the point of view of the individual. Here he wants to suggest a broad developmental arc from the simplicity of what he calls “True Spirit” — in which personal identity is experienced as coming directly from one’s place in a traditional, “natural” face-to-face community — through the emergence of individual freedom, which he sees occurring in a necessarily “alienated” way that also tends to undermine ethical values — to Hegel’s anticipated recovery of ethical values in a future community based on something like love of one’s neighbor, that also gives the individual her due. In the course of it he discusses the limits of “law-giving Reason” and “law-testing Reason”, with Kant and Fichte in mind. Sophocles’ Antigone is used to illustrate a conflict between perspectives of family loyalty and formally instituted law.

H. S. Harris in his commentary says that from the naive perspective of True Spirit, “Individual self-consciousness just knows what is right. The laws are there” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 113). “These laws are ‘laws of nature’. They need no warrant” (p. 112). He characterizes this as another return to the immediacy-based logic of Sense Certainty. It will be “the determination to fulfill Apollo’s command [know thyself] that brings to pass the downfall of the Ethical Substance…. [But the] climax of the effort to ‘know ourselves’ in one another individually is the recognition that we must forgive one another for the inevitability of our failure to act with universal unselfishness” (p. 115).

“It is a logical fact that we cannot go immediately from the universal to the singular. We can only produce formal universals (non-contradictions)…. So we are left with a logical form (non-contradiction) as the form of law” (p. 116).

The “internal dialectic of justice is much more important than the fact that different standards of justice are justifiable in terms of their abstract rationality” (p. 120).

“Hegel made clear that it is the speculative sense of identity that matters. The stability and harmony of the Substance we have lost is ‘identical’ with that which we are just now in the process of regaining. Neither Antigone nor Jesus is formally a Kantian. But the piety of both requires us to ‘respect humanity as an end'” (p. 117).

“Our own law-testing procedure is a moment in the greater cycle of logical comprehension; and it has always known itself to be that. It is not formal in the sense in which Stoicism is formal; we saw at the beginning why error and ignorance are necessary in the comprehensive cycle. Those who complain that ‘dialectic and absoluteness are ultimately at loggerheads’, or that Hegel seeks to ‘close the gates of truth’, are merely expressing the Skeptic’s absolute knowledge regarding the folly of Stoic pretensions. It is precisely the justification of their own critical reason that Hegel wants to offer” (p. 121).

“[Hegel’s] criticism of Law-Testing Reason… is meant to bring home to us the fact that a long historical experience is required for the laying down of the substantial foundation that gives law-testing the sort of range and validity it can and does have” (ibid).

A feeling of spiritual “identity” with the goddess Athena motivated the Athenian to be willing to die for his city. Harris thinks this qualifies as a supra-personal motivation, but argues against those who attribute a notion of other-than-individual “consciousness” to Hegel. Rather, “certain experiences of a deeper or higher identity that every individual has, or can have, reveal the true meaning of what it is to be rational (or human)” (p. 127).

“We ought not to permit any reduction of the rhetoric of ‘Spirit’ to the rhetoric of ‘humanism’ because humanity has… two necessary sides, and it is the ‘human animal’ side that is naturally fundamental. For the human animal to go to the death in a struggle is (functionally) irrational; but that is not necessarily the case for a ‘human spirit'” (p. 128).

On the other hand, Hegelian Spirit also has nothing in it of what Hegel called the “bad infinite” or of the Sublime, which Kant associated with seemingly infinite (and definitely more-than-human) power.

“Whether we look outside or inside ourselves, the bad infinite, or the ‘more-than-individual’, is no suitable object of religious reverence. We must maintain Hegel’s ‘spiritual’ terminology because his language clarifies the religious language of tradition in a rational way. Those who use it become functionally liberated from the bad infinite or Sublime; for even as ‘believers’ they are bound to agree with Thomas Aquinas that what they are talking about is not rationally comprehensible in its ‘sublime’ aspect; and they will be morally rational in the sense that they will not try to impose their religious faith on others by the use of force (which would contradict its spiritual essence)” (p. 129).

“All that Hegel, the observer, does is talk to us about the ways in which our poets and prophets have spoken, and to show us several necessary truths that we are not usually conscious of. First, he proves that the way they spoke was necessary for the advent of morally autonomous Reason; and then he makes us see how these modes of speech form a pattern that forces us to admit that all rational speech (not just that of the poets and prophets) is the utterance of a different ‘self’ than the one who is fighting a losing battle to stay alive encased in a human skin. We all know this perfectly well. But never, until Hegel wrote, did we know how to put our rational and our natural knowledge together without speaking in ways that are not humanly interpretable and testable. A critic who accuses Hegel of speaking not as the poets and prophets speak, but in some peculiar philosophically prophetic way of his own, is committing the ultimate rational injustice of obscuring his supreme achievement. [The influential critic Charles] Taylor’s theory of a ‘self-positing Spirit’ that is somehow ‘transcendent’ is itself ‘the sin against Hegel’s Spirit'” (p. 131).

“The chapter on Reason closes into a perfect circle. It begins and ends in ‘Observation’; and the Observing Reason that goes forward is comprehensive. It does not just observe Nature as an external or found ‘objectivity’; it observes the Ethical Substance — the total unity or identity of Nature and Spirit as a harmony that has made itself. It is the Ethical Substance, seen clearly as the source of self-conscious individual Reason, that becomes the subject of the new experience.”

“True Spirit is the self-realizing consciousness that takes its own self-making to be the direct expression of nature. What True Spirit lacks is the awareness that Spirit must make itself in the radical sense of expressing a freedom that is opposed to Nature. True Spirit does not know that it must ‘create itself from nothing’.”

“This ‘nothing’ is the speculative observing consciousness” (p. 134).

“On the side of Consciousness, all pretense of a ‘difference’ between itself and its object can now be dropped…. When ‘difference’ is reborn (as it immediately will be) it is because the Object itself (the Sache selbst as a communal self-consciousness) cannot maintain itself as a living object… without an essential differentiation…. But at the moment [consciousness] has come to self-expressive identity with the Sache selbst that it merely observes” (p. 135).