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).

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.

Hegelian Finitude

Hegel has usually been considered to be anything but a thinker of finitude. However, the two previous philosophers to whom he devoted the most pages — Aristotle and Kant — are in their own very different ways perhaps the two most emblematic philosophers of finitude. If we start with Hegel’s ethics rather than his supposed metaphysics of Geist as a sort of divine immanence and his supposed doctrine of “absolute knowledge”, a deep resonance between his thought and Aristotle and Kant’s themes of finitude becomes evident.

Hegel is in fact extremely concerned to point out that we are not masters in life, and that error is inevitable. Further, more so than Kant — and arguably even more than Aristotle — he puts an overtly positive, optimistic face on this finite condition.

In his logical works, Hegel distinguished between a “good” and a “bad” infinity. Similarly, it could be said that he implicitly makes a very sharp distinction between “good” and “bad” finitude. Bad finitude is associated with what he called the Unhappy Consciousness. With the advent of monotheism in the West, one common extreme view held that before the infinity of God, we and all finite beings are as nothing. In this view, finite being is a mainly a burden to be overcome in the hereafter, and has no intrinsic value of its own.

“Good” finitude is what emerges from Hegel’s own view. As completely as Nietzsche but in a more balanced way, Hegel rejected the idea of finitude as a burden. For Hegel, finitude is an opportunity, not a curse. Error is an invitation to learning, and non-mastery is the path to reality. (See also Brandom on Postmodernity; Back to Ethical Being; Infinity, Finitude; Respect for All Beings; Affirmation; Truth, Beauty; Secondary Causes).