Reason and Revolution. Herbert Marcuse 1941

Hegel’s Early Theological Writings

IF we wish to partake of the atmosphere in which Hegel’s philosophy originated, we must go back to the cultural and political setting of Southern Germany in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. In Württemberg, a country under the sway of a despotism that had just consented to some slight constitutional limitations on its power, the ideas of 1789 were beginning to exert a strong impact, particularly on intellectual youth. The period of that earlier cruel despotism seemed to have passed: the despotism under which the whole country was terrorized by constant military conscriptions for foreign wars, heavy arbitrary taxations, the sale of offices, the establishment of monopolies that plundered the masses and enriched the coffers of an extravagant prince, and sudden arrests that followed the slightest suspicions or stirrings of protest. The conflicts between Duke Charles Eugene and the estates were mitigated by an agreement in 1770, and the most striking obstacle to the functioning of a centralized government was thus removed; but the result was only to divide absolutism between the personal rule of the duke and the interests of the feudal oligarchy.

The German enlightenment, however, this weaker counterpart of the English and French philosophy that had shattered the ideological framework of the absolutist state, had filtered into the cultural life of Württemberg: the duke was a pupil of the ‘enlightened despot,’ Frederick II of Prussia, and in the latter period of his rule he indulged in an enlightened absolutism. The spirit of the enlightenment went forward in the schools and universities that he promoted. Religious and political problems were discussed in terms of eighteenth century rationalism, the dignity of man was extolled, as was his right to shape his own life against all obsolete forms of authority and tradition, and tolerance and justice were praised. But the young generation that was then attending the theological University of Tubingen – among them Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin – was above all impressed by the contrast between these ideals and the miserable actual condition of the German Reich. There was not the slightest chance for the rights of man to take their place in a reorganized state and society. True, the students sang revolutionary songs and translated the Marseillaise; they perhaps planted liberty trees and shouted against the tyrants and their henchmen; but they knew that all this activity was an impotent protest against the still impregnable forces that held the fatherland in their grip. All that could be hoped for was a modicum of constitutional reform, which might better balance the weight of power between the prince and the estates.

In these circumstances, the eyes of the young generation turned longingly towards the past and particularly to those periods of history in which unity had prevailed between the intellectual culture of men and their social and political life. Hölderlin drew a glowing picture of ancient Greece, and Hegel wrote a glorification of the ancient city-state, which at points even outshone the exalted description of early Christianity that the theological student set down. We find that a political interest time and again broke into the discussion of religious problems in Hegel’s early theological fragments. Hegel ardently strove to recapture the power that had produced and maintained, in the ancient republics, the living unity of all spheres of culture and that had generated the free development of all national forces. He spoke of this hidden power as the Volksgeist: ‘The spirit of a nation, its history, religion and the degree of political freedom it has reached cannot be separated one from the other, neither as regards their influence nor as regards their quality; they are interwoven in one bond ...’

Hegel’s use of the Volksgeist is closely related to Montesquieu’s use of the esprit général of a nation as the basis for its social and political laws. The ‘national spirit’ is not conceived as a mystical or metaphysical entity, but represents the whole of the natural, technical, economic, moral, and intellectual conditions that determine the nation’s historical development. Montesquieu’s emphasis on this historical basis was directed against the unjustifiable retention of outmoded political forms. Hegel’s concept of the Volksgeist kept these critical implications. Instead of following the various influences of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Herder, and Kant on Hegel’s theological studies, we shall limit ourselves to the elaboration of Hegel’s main interest.

Hegel’s theological discussion repeatedly asks what the true relation is between the individual and a state that no longer satisfies his capacities but exists rather as an ‘estranged’ institution from which the active political interest of the citizens has disappeared. Hegel defined this state with almost the same categories as those of eighteenth century liberalism: the state rests on the consent of individuals, it circumscribes their rights and duties and protects its members from those internal and external dangers that might threaten the perpetuation of the whole. The individual, as opposed to the state, possesses the inalienable rights of man, and with these the state power can under no circumstances interfere, not even if such interference may be in the individual’s own interest. ‘No man can relinquish his right to give unto himself the law and to be solely responsible for its execution. If this right is renounced, man ceases to be man. It is not the state’s business, however, to prevent him from renouncing it, for this would mean to compel man to be man, and would be force.’ Here is nothing of that moral and metaphysical exaltation of the state which we encounter in Hegel’s later works.

The tone slowly changed, however, within the very same period of Hegel’s life and even within the same body of his writings, and he came to consider it as man’s historical ‘fate,’ a cross to be borne, that he accept social and political relations that restrict his full development. Hegel’s enlightened optimism and his tragic praise of a lost paradise were replaced by an emphasis on historical necessity. Historical necessity had brought about a gulf between the individual and the state. In the early period they were in a ‘natural’ harmony, but one attained at the expense of the individual, for man did not possess conscious freedom and was not master of the social process. And the more ‘natural’ this early harmony was, the more easily could it be dissolved by the uncontrolled forces that then ruled the social world. ‘In Athens and Rome, successful wars, increasing wealth, and an acquaintance with luxury and greater convenience of life produced an aristocracy of war and wealth’ that destroyed the republic and caused the complete loss of political liberty. State power fell into the hands of certain privileged individuals and groups, with the vast mass of the citizens pursuing only their private interest without regard for the common good; ‘the right to security of property’ now became their whole world.

Hegel’s efforts to comprehend the universal laws governing this process led him inevitably to an analysis of the role of the social institutions in the progress of history. One of his historical fragments, written after 1797, opens with the sweeping declaration that ‘security of property is the pivot on which the whole of modern legislation turns,’ and in the first draft to his pamphlet on Die Verfassung Deutschlands (1798-9), he states that the historical form of ‘bourgeois property’ (bürgerliches Eigentum) is responsible for the prevailing political disintegration. Moreover, Hegel maintained that the social institutions had distorted even the most private and personal relations between men. There is a significant fragment in the Theologische Jugendschriften, called Die Liebe, in which Hegel states that ultimate harmony and union between individuals in love is prevented because of the ‘acquisition and possession of property as well as rights.’ The lover, he explains, ‘who must look upon his or her beloved as the owner of property must also come to feel his or her particularity’ militating against the community of their life – a particularity that consists in his or her being bound up with ‘dead things’ that do not belong to the other and remain of necessity outside of their unity.

The institution of property Hegel here related to the fact that man had come to live in a world that, though molded by his own knowledge and labor, was no longer his, but rather stood opposed to his inner needs – a strange world governed by inexorable laws, a ‘dead’ world in which human life is frustrated. The Theologische Jugendschriften present in these terms the earliest formulation of the concept of ‘alienation’ (Entfremdung), which was destined to play a decisive part in the future development of the Hegelian philosophy.

Hegel’s first discussion of religious and political problems strikes the pervasive note that the loss of unity and liberty – a historical fact – is the general mark of the modern era and the factor that characterizes all conditions of private and societal life. This loss of freedom and unity, Hegel says, is patent in the numerous conflicts that abound in human living, especially in the conflict between man and nature. This conflict, which turned nature into a hostile power that had to be mastered by man, has led to an antagonism between idea and reality, between thought and the real, between consciousness and existence. Man constantly finds himself set off from a world that is adverse and alien to his impulses and desires. How, then, is this world to be restored to harmony with man’s potentialities?

At first, Hegel’s answer was that of the student of theology. He interpreted Christianity as having a basic function in world history, that of giving a new ‘absolute’ center to man and a final goal to life. Hegel could also see, however, that the revealed truth of the Gospel could not fit in with the expanding social and political realities of the world, for the Gospel appealed essentially to the individual as an individual detached from his social and political nexus; its essential aim was to save the individual and not society or the state. It was therefore not religion that could solve the problem, or theology that could set forth principles to restore freedom and unity. As a result, Hegel’s interest slowly shifted from theological to philosophical questions and concepts.

Hegel always viewed philosophy not as a special science but as the ultimate form of human knowledge. The need for philosophy he derived from the need to remedy the general loss of freedom and unity. He explicitly stated this in his first philosophical article. ‘The need for philosophy arises when the unifying power [die Macht der Vereinigung] has disappeared from the life of men, when the contradictions have lost their living interrelation and interdependence and assumed an independent ‘form.’ The unifying force he speaks of refers to the vital harmony of the individual and common interest, which prevailed in the ancient republics and which assured the liberty of the whole and integrated all conflicts into the living unity of the Volksgeist. When this harmony was lost, man’s life became overwhelmed by pervasive conflicts that could no longer be controlled by the whole. We have already mentioned the terms in which Hegel characterized these conflicts: nature was set against man, reality was estranged from ‘the idea’ and consciousness opposed to existence. He next summarized all these oppositions as having the general form of a conflict between subject and object, and in this way he connected his historical problem to the philosophical one that had dominated European thought since Descartes. Man’s knowledge and will had been pushed into a ‘subjective’ world, whose self-certainty and freedom confronted an objective world of uncertainty and physical necessity. The more Hegel saw that the contradictions were the universal form of reality, the more philosophical his discussion became only the most universal concepts could now grasp the contradictions, and only the ultimate principles of knowledge could yield the principles to resolve them.

At the same time, even the most abstract of Hegel’s concepts retained the concrete denotation of his questions. Philosophy was charged with a historical mission – to give an exhaustive analysis of the contradictions prevailing in reality and to demonstrate their possible unification. The dialectic developed out of Hegel’s view that reality was a structure of contradictions. The Theologische Jugendschriften still covered the dialectic over with a theological framework, but even there the philosophical beginnings of the dialectical analysis can already be traced.

The first concept Hegel introduces as the unification of contradictions is the concept of life.

We might better understand the peculiar role Hegel attributed to the idea of life if we recognize that for him all contradictions are resolved and yet preserved in ‘reason.’ Hegel conceived life as mind, that is to say, as a being able to comprehend and master the all-embracing antagonisms of existence. In other words, Hegel’s concept of life points to the life of a rational being and to man’s unique quality among all other beings. Ever since Hegel, the idea of life has been the starting point for many efforts to reconstruct philosophy in terms of man’s concrete historical circumstance and to overcome thereby the abstract and remote character of rationalist philosophy.

Life is distinguished from all other modes of being by its unique relation to its determinations and to the world as a whole. Each inanimate object is, by virtue of its particularity and its limited and determinate form, different from and opposed to the genus; the particular contradicts the universal, so that the latter does not fulfill itself in the former. The living, however, differs from the nonliving in this respect, for life designates a being whose different parts and states (Zustande) are integrated into a complete unity, that of a ‘subject.’ In life, ‘the particular ... is at the same time a branch of the infinite tree of Life; every part outside the whole is at the same time the whole, Life. Each living individual is also a manifestation of the whole of life, in other words, possesses the full essence or potentialities of life. Furthermore, though every living being is determinate and limited, it can supersede its limitations by virtue of the power it possesses as a living subject. Life is at first a sequence of determinate ‘objective’ conditions – objective, because the living subject finds them outside of its self, limiting its free self-realization. The process of life, however, consists in continuously drawing these external conditions into the enduring unity of the subject. The living being maintains itself as a self by mastering and annexing the manifold of determinate conditions it finds, and by bringing all that is opposed to itself into harmony with itself. The unity of life, therefore, is not an immediate and ‘natural’ one, but the result of a constant active overcoming of everything that stands against it. It is a unity that prevails only as the result of a process of ‘mediation’ (Vermittlung) between the living subject as it is and its objective conditions. The mediation is the proper function of the living self as an actual subject, and at the same time it makes the living self an actual subject. Life is the first form in which the substance is conceived as subject and is thus the first embodiment of freedom. It is the first model of a real unification of opposites and hence the first embodiment of the dialectic.

Not all forms of life, however, represent such a complete unity. Only man, by virtue of his knowledge, can achieve ‘the idea of Life.’ We have already indicated that for Hegel a perfect union of subject and object is a prerequisite to freedom. The union presupposes a knowledge of the truth, meaning thereby a knowledge of the potentialities of both subject and object. Man alone is able to transform objective conditions so that they become a medium for his subjective development. And the truth he holds frees not only his own potencies, but those of nature as well. He brings the truth into the world, and with it is able to organize the world in conformity with reason. Hegel illustrates this point in the mission of John the Baptist, and for the first time advances the view that the world is in its very essence the product of man’s historical activity. The world and all ‘its relations and determinations are the work of the auqrwpou fwtos, of man’s self-development.’ The conception of the world as a product of human activity and knowledge henceforth persists as the driving force of Hegel’s system. At this very early stage, we can already discover the features of the later dialectical theory of society.

‘Life’ is not the most advanced philosophic concept that Hegel attained in his first period. The Systemfragment, in which he gives a more precise elaboration of the philosophic import of the antagonism between subject and object and between man and nature, uses the term mind (Geist) to designate the unification of these disparate domains. Mind is essentially the same unifying agency as life – ‘Infinite Life – may be called a Mind because Mind connotes the living unity amid the diversity ... Mind is the living law that unifies the diversity so that the latter becomes living.’ But although it means no more than life, the concept mind lays emphasis on the fact that the unity of life is, in the last analysis, the work of the subject’s free comprehension and activity, and not of some blind natural force.

The Theologische Jugendschriften yield yet another concept that points far into Hegel’s later logic. In a fragment entitled Glauben und Wissen, Hegel declares, ‘Unification and Being [Sein] are equivalent; the copula “is” in every proposition expresses a unification of subject and predicate, in other words, a Being.’ An adequate interpretation of this statement would require a thorough discussion of the basic developments in European philosophy since Aristotle. We can here only intimate some of the background and content of the formulation.

Hegel’s statement implies that there is a distinction between ‘to be’ (Sein) and being (Seiendes), or, between determinate being and being-as-such. The history of Western philosophy opened with the same distinction, made in answer to the question, What is Being? which animated Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle. Every being around us is a determinate one: a stone, a tool, a house an animal, an event, and so on. But we predicate of every such being that it is thus and so; that is, we attribute being to it. And this being that we attribute to it is not any particular thing in the world, but is common to all the particular beings to which it can be attributed. This points to the fact that there must be a being-as-such that is different from every determinate being and yet attributable to every being whatsoever, so that it can be called the real ‘one’ in all the diversity of determinate beings. Being-as-such is what all particular beings have in common and is, as it were, their substratum. From this point, it was comparatively easy to take this most universal being as ‘the essence of all being,’ ‘divine substance,’ ‘the most real,’ and thus to combine ontology with theology. This tradition is operative in Hegel’s Logic.

Aristotle was the first to regard this being-as-such that is attributed alike to every determinate being not as a separate metaphysical entity but as the process or movement through which every particular being molds itself into what it really is. According to Aristotle, there is a distinction that runs through the whole realm of being between the essence (ousia) and its diverse accidental states and modifications (ta sumbebhkota). Real being, in the strict sense, is the essence, by which is meant the concrete individual thing, organic as well as inorganic. The individual thing is the subject or substance enduring throughout a movement in which it unifies and holds together the various states and phases of its existence. The different modes of being represent various modes of unifying antagonistic relations; they refer to different modes of persisting through change, of originating and perishing, of having properties and limitations, and so on. And Hegel incorporates the basic Aristotelian conception into his philosophy: ‘The different modes of being are more or less complete unifications.’ Being means unifying, and unifying means movement. Movement, in turn, Aristotle defines in terms of potentiality and actuality. The various types of movement denote various ways of realizing the potentialities inherent in the essence or moving thing. Aristotle evaluates the types of movement so that the highest type is that in which each and every potentiality is fully realized. A being that moves or develops according to the highest type would be pure energeia. It would have no material of realization outside of or alien to itself, but would be entirely itself at every moment of its existence. If such a being were to exist, its whole existence would consist in thinking. A subject whose self-activity is thought has no estranged and external object; thinking ‘grasps’ and holds the object as thought, and reason apprehends reason. The veritable being is veritable movement, and the latter is the activity of perfect unification of the subject with its object. The true Being is therefore thought and reason.

Hegel concludes his presentation in the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences with the paragraph from Aristotle’s Metaphysics in which the veritable being is explained to be reason. This is significant as more than a mere illustration. For, Hegel’s philosophy is in a large sense a re-interpretation of Aristotle’s ontology, rescued from the distortion of metaphysical dogma and linked to the pervasive demand of modern rationalism that the world be transformed into a medium for the freely developing subject, that the world become, in short, the reality of reason. Hegel was the first to rediscover the extremely dynamic character of the Aristotelian metaphysic, which treats all being as process and movement – a dynamic that had got entirely lost in the formalistic tradition of Aristotelianism.

Aristotle’s conception that reason is the veritable being is carried through by sundering this being from the rest of the world. The nous-qeos is neither the cause nor creator of the world, and is its prime mover only through a complicated system of intermediaries. Human reason is but a weak copy of this nous-qeos. Nevertheless, the life of reason is the highest life and highest good on earth.

The conception is intimately connected with a reality offering no adequate fulfillment of the proper potentialities of men and things, so that the fulfillment was located in an activity that was most independent of the prevailing incongruencies of reality. The elevation of the realm of mind to the position of the sole domain of freedom and reason was conditioned by a world of anarchy and bondage. The historical conditions still prevailed in Hegel’s time; the visible potentialities were actualized in neither society nor nature, and men were not free subjects of their lives. And since ontology is the doctrine of the most general forms of being and as such reflects human insight into the most general structure of reality, there can be little wonder that the basic concepts of Aristotelian and Hegelian ontology were the same.