‘The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.’1 ‘History is not a record of accidents and chance events but a rational process.’2 Hegel believes that history has meaning and significance. Hegel envisaged the course of history as progressive but marked by struggle. He gave a teleological account, as the end of history for Hegel was the development of the modern state, the ‘final stage’. Individuals and societies became freer and rational the closer one came to Hegel’s own time.
The progression of freedom was embodied in the progression of the mind or spirit (Geist) towards absolute knowledge. He based his vision upon his assessment of periods throughout time, where he traced the development of reason and liberty.
Hegel describes the course of history as the progress of the consciousness of the idea of freedom. Most historians of the nineteenth century viewed all history as the history of progress but as Hecker pointed out, Hegel’s theory is radical as it welcomes change and sees struggle as the necessary condition of progress.
’3 Hegel views history as moving forward in the development of ‘auto-dynamic forces inherent in nature. He conceived nature as having a dynamic purpose, moved by the interaction of forces, the inter-play of which constitutes the movement and growth of human history towards a definite end – the fulfilment of the Absolute idea.’4
Hegel envisaged human history as the development of the mind and spirit. ‘Freedom for Hegel is not freedom to do as we please; it consists in having a free mind.
Mind must be in control of everything else, and must know that it is in control.’5 Hegel said that, ‘The destiny of the spiritual world, and the final cause of the World at large, we claim to be Spirit’s consciousness of its own freedom.’6
Freedom is to be aware of the rational and have absolute knowledge. Limiting reason is a limit on the freedom of the mind and thus a limit to an individual’s freedom. Hegel’s study on history demonstrates how individual’s and society gains more freedom as the limitations of the state dissolved.
The development of the spirit, or Geist, sometimes translated as mind is the process in which ‘individuals, cultures, and God develop and extend their powers of intellect and will.’ Spirit is a term used by Hegel to designate three levels of reality.7 ‘He refers to spirit when it ‘assumes the shape of a human individual’; to the spirit of a group, especially a people or nation (Voltgeist) and the ‘world spirit’, which he closely associates with ‘absolute spirit’ and with God.’8 The spirit’s character is based upon Hegel’s account of history, showing how individual human minds, and cultures (the spirit of the age) progress towards rationality, achieving freedom and self-consciousness.
‘The will is free when its ends are ‘its own’, so that it is self-determining. The will is self-determining, in turn, when two conditions are satisfied: one ‘subjective’, the ‘other objective’. The will is self-determining and free if and only if it pursues ends that are its own, both in the subjective sense that they are grounded in its reflectively endorsed desires and evaluations, and in the objective sense they are grounded in its own true goals and purposes as a rational being.’9
Restrictions on freedom should not exist so perfect harmony can exist between the free choices of the individual and the needs of a society as a whole. Similar to Rousseau’s social contract, ‘individual’s should govern themselves according to their own conscience and convictions’ but ‘the real world with all its social and political institutions should be rationally organised. It would not be sufficient to have individuals governing themselves according to their own conscience and convictions.’10 However Hegel demonstrates how the importance of the conscience and convictions of the individual is given more recognition throughout key historical events. Nonetheless, ‘to prevent the State from degenerating into a war of all against all, mediation through rational institutions is required.’11
Hegel is recognised as an idealist philosopher. He believed that ideas influence reality. He was an ‘Absolute idealist’ because his metaphysical system posited that reality is the result of a historical process, whose ultimate end is an understanding of the existence of the absolute. This process he called the dialectic. The dialectic is absolutely integral to the entire historical and intellectual process. It is an evolution towards progress that springs out of conflict.
The dialectic is essentially the process of reasoning to obtain truth and knowledge of any topic. Different conceptions of dialectic emerge, according to the different views of this topic.12 For Hegel, thesis and Anti-thesis clash within a particular era; their resolution (synthesis) is the birth of a new era, but one on a higher, more advanced level. ‘The process is one of overcoming the contradiction between thesis and antithesis, by means of synthesis; the synthesis in turn becomes contradicted, and the process repeats itself until final perfection is made.’13 Everything in reality, including the social and political world has a dialectical structure.
Hegel’s view of world history represents the manner in which the Spirit develops gradually into its purest form, ultimately recognizing its own essential freedom. ‘To Hegel, “world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time…” The dialectical process thus virtually defines the meaning of history for Hegel.’14
Although termed an idealist, Hegel recognised that progression wasn’t always positive and resolutely linear but that the process of the dialectic moves history towards an ultimate end. ‘History is indeed progress but as the French Revolution suggests, it moves in violent spirals.’15 ‘He quite candidly admitted the role of evil in human life.’16 Hegel in fact infers that he is a pragmatist, stating ‘the links between the events must be taken into account; in other words, our procedure must be pragmatic, for we have to discover the causes and reasons behind the events.’17
Hegel says that ‘world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.’18 ‘What is rational has the potential of actualising itself, and thus history, far from being an undifferentiated aggregate of incomprehensible accidents and chance events, has a rational structure.’19
Hegel is best known as a metaphysical philosopher who came up with idea of the dialectic.20 Metaphysics is a theory of the essence of things, of the fundamental principles that organise the universe. It is supposed to answer the question, what is the nature of reality? ‘It is a theoretical philosophy of being and knowing.21 Hegel is recognised as a metaphysical philosopher as he aims to demonstrate a metaphysical system, where reality is the result of a historical process. This cannot be proved by science but instead he demonstrates his belief by his study of the past. However, this was in fact a ‘strong plea for a scientific view of history…to grasp general principles…behind the historical process and apply a definite method and technique.’22
Hegel believed history is progressive because he traced the development of reason and liberty through time. He based his vision upon historical periods, which are stages in the progress of the mind towards freedom. In the Oriental World only one person (the autocrat) was free, in the Classical World only a few were free, but in the Modern World everyone is free. ‘Thus, for Hegel, lower forms are constantly being replaced by the higher ones. History is a continual process of the renewal and development towards the perfection.’23
‘Hegel linked authoritarianism with alienation and with the type of life which was entrapped in legalistic regulations.24’ Throughout history this alienation decreased as individuals were granted more freedoms and became more conscious of their power to change the universe.
For Hegel, ‘The history of the World accordingly represents the successive stages in the development of that principle whose substantial content is the consciousness of freedom.’25 Hegel compares the Oriental World as the first stage of the spirit, likening it to ‘the spirit of childhood.’ This natural spirit is still immersed in nature and is not yet self-sufficient; it is therefore not yet free, and has not undergone the process by which freedom comes into being.26
Hegel thus sees human history as beginning in the East, in societies fundamentally marked by darkness. Societies do not progress towards freedom and liberty but remain static and backwards. The Orientals did not gain the knowledge that Geist, in the form of Mankind, is free. In China individual identities were submerged into the state and under the influence of the Patriarchal family. In India the Caste System prevented the development of freedom. Persia had potential for growth in the consciousness of freedom but this was not realised.27 The Oriental World was doomed to being static and stagnant as consciousness was expressed in only one individual, the absolute despot.
‘The tide of world history passed from the oriental world to the world of the Greek City states.’28 The second phase of the spirit is found in the Classical age. Hegel describes the Greek World as ‘the youthful age of the spirit’ and the Roman World as the ‘spirit’s manhood.’ The consciousness of freedom first arose among the Greeks. ‘The principle of independent thought marked the beginning of the end of the world.’29 However, the individual in the Greek world was submerged into prevailing customs and traditions. ‘He could not hope to realise his potentialities and find expression of his hidden talents outside of the state.’30
Athenians lacked self-confidence and the understanding of power to transform the world. Athenian democracy was a move towards the freedom of the individual as they could decide matters of the state, but Hegel argued that the existence of slavery seriously undermined the notion of freedom.
The Roman world was similar to the despotic Oriental world but individual freedom was recognised. The Roman state had a constitution and legal system but in reality this was only an ‘abstract freedom of individual.’31 Individuals sought freedom but were unable to influence the domineering power of the state. Freedom could only be found by retreating into oneself. Although there was little freedom in the natural world, awareness of humans as spiritual beings was developing.
‘To the Roman, the State is the ultimate end, not the totality of social life, as it was to the Greek. The individual is an instrument in the hands of the state and the polis is turned into a universal empire, which ceases to be the realm of unmediated freedom, and becomes the sphere of hard work and servitude.’32
The Germanic age, the Christian World (from the fall of the Roman Empire to ‘Modern’ times) is the next stage in the development of the spirit. The Germanic World encompassed Germany, and the Nordic nations, but France, Italy, Spain and England as well. ‘In the Christian age, the divine spirit has come into the world and taken up its abode in the individual, who is now completely free and endowed with substantial freedom.’33
Hegel viewed the Medieval Period as a very dark stage in history based on arbitrary rule. The strong governance of the Catholic Church limited the freedom of the individual and reason. However the Reformation seriously reduced the power of the Catholic Church and was thus a turning point in history for the progression of freedom. Hegel describes the reformation as ‘the all-enlightening Sun’ of the bright day that is our modern time.’34
The Germanic nations, under the influence of Christianity were the first to understand man should be and can be free. ‘Man in his very nature is destined to be free.’35 Christianity introduced the element of subjective consciousness. Religious self-consciousness created ability for individuals to break the hold of their natural existence and desires. Christ was after all both human and the Son of God. People believed they were made in the image of God and therefore had infinite and eternal value. The divide between the subject and political power was decreasing. Christianity showed that true freedom could be found in the spiritual world.
Hegel aims to understand the world rather than giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. ‘His philosophy of history is a recognition of the fact that each nation and civilisation are necessary links in the chain of history, moving always towards the direction of the attainment of the absolute.’36 ‘In history, spirit externalises itself and becomes objective and man’s consciousness reaches awareness of itself.’37
Civilisation is transformed for the better as it realises the powers to change the world. ‘Human history and culture are God’s working out of his self-realisation in the world. Individual humans, especially the great hero’s of world history are the principle means of change, where people and states are the embodiment of each stage.’38 Self-consciousness was developed by working on the world and changing it.
For Hegel, Napoleon embodied the world-historical hero of the age, driving forward the self-realization of God in history. After the Battle of Jena 1806, when Napoleon defeated the Prussians, Hegel saw the Emperor riding past and remarked, ‘It is a truly wonderful experience to see such an individual, on horseback, concentrating on one point, stretching over the world and dominating it.’39
However, although individuals and nations were part of the dialectical process, they were ‘mere tools, mostly unaware of the importance and significance of their own deeds.’40 Although changes were often introduced by ‘world historical figures’ like Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, they are often motivated by desires such as ambition, greed and glory. However, although ‘they may not have any idea of what they are accomplishing and yet consciously or unconsciously, they are accomplishing something great.’41
‘The French Revolution is a climax to history in the sense that it represents mind in a state of absolute freedom, aware of its ability to change the world and to mould political and social life according to its own will.’42 ‘While no concrete state ever served Hegel as a model for the full realisation of freedom, the modern constitutional model as it evolved out of the French Revolution and the restoration seemed to him to move clearly in that direction.’43
‘It is the modern-post 1815 world of Western Europe that Hegel sees as the apex of historical development.’44 It is here that ‘the empire of thought is established accurately and concretely… Freedom has found the means of Ideal – its true actuality.’45 The Modern age witnesses a flourishing of reason and freedom in the world. All could be free and all have rights.
The modern state is an improvement upon previous political forms as the individuality of the citizen is fully realised. It prevents citizens from being swallowed up by the crowd and protects individuality and rights. The individual’s right to appeal to their conscience is recognised.46 The modern period as the final stage in history is strongly emphasised.
However, Hegel seems to contradict this absolutist stance, for ‘while Hegel considered history as having attained its apex as the march towards man’s self-consciousness in his own age, he was well aware that the future was still open in terms of the emergence of new cultures.’47 Hegel recognised that Russia and America were in the process of development and had not yet become part of the development of spirit. Whether the modern stage can thus be considered the final stage for Hegel is left open for debate.
Pinkard questions the finality of Hegel’s ‘end of history.’ He does not perceive Hegel was promoting a causal account of history with the sprit pushing to come to a full self-consciousness. He portrays Hegel, not as a metaphysical philosopher but rather as a historian providing an account of history. Hegel is in fact attempting to reconstruct history as a development of ‘how social and political life may be embodied in institutions organized around the expression and development of freedom, or self-determination.’ 48
Rather than understanding Hegel as analysing the Modern world as the end of all history, Pinkard notes that Modern life merely completes the development of political history. ‘Hegel’s claim about the final stage of history is thus neither a metaphysical nor a theological, quasi-eschatological thesis. It is rather the view that in so far as the conceptualisation of freedom is concerned, European modern life has reached a point in which there seems nothing in principle left to be developed.’49 Individual freedoms have moved a long way from the Oriental and Graeco-Roman Civilisation. Hegel has thus based his vision of history upon the stages of freedom for the individual of significant periods he has demonstrated as relevant.
For Hegel, true reality is only found when individuals and societies enter into freedom, through the development of the mind. He envisaged the course of history as the development towards the consciousness of freedom as expressed in the political, cultural, and religious institutions of a nation – Volksgeist. He based his vision upon significant periods of history, emphasising the progression of freedom from the one to the few to many. He concluded that the closer one came to his own time the more free and rational individuals and societies became. Every period had given its contribution to the march of history.