The Telos of History as Understood by Hegel

By Rocco A. Astore
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

Is there a goal or purpose to history? And if so, how is one to determine its starting point, the ways in which it develops, and how it achieves its aim? Luckily, one philosopher, Hegel, analyzed history philosophically and tried to answer these very same questions. The purpose of this piece is to first investigate Hegel’s understanding of history, its inceptions, its progression, and its goal. Next, by demonstrating how history’s goal is already a conceptual reality, despite the phenomena of its advancement, I will argue that Hegel believes that the telos or finality inherent to the progression of time is already present.

Hegel’s View of History

Hegel’s understanding of history is primarily a metaphysical one. That is, to him, history is the conceptual manifestation of Spirit, or God’s essence, or the force that actively and continually generates life throughout existence, on earth.1 One way in which Hegel justifies his position is by claiming that nothing conceptual can exists independently, and thus, Being, or that which is notionally complete and free from having to rely on another idea for its reality, is an illusion.2 At the same time, the phenomenon of all that exists shows that nothing is completely void of conceptuality, and thus, Non-Being is unreal too.3 Consequently, the only existential concept that can most accurately describe the reality of life is Becoming or the ceaseless development of Spirit throughout the conceptual cosmos.4 From this, Hegel claims that because all things are in a state of Becoming, evolution, advancement, or progress, it is only natural that history follows suit.5

Also, it worth noting how Hegel addresses the dissimilarities between Spirit’s unfolding on earth, or world history, as a material and conceptual reality. First, from Hegel’s standpoint, God becomes an object when his/her essence, or Spirit manifest as the natural order, including the world, and as such he/she presents himself/herself in a much more consistent fashion than he/she does as the totality of ideas.6 That is, the natural order is reasonably constant, and history justifies that it is a firm and solid foundation for life on earth. At the same time, history has also shown the way in which God progresses as the collection of all ideas, and it is rarely as ever predictable as people understand him/her when conceived as the power behind the ever-evolving universe.7

One reason why God, as a subjective substance, is inherently in opposition with himself/herself, which plays out in the world as epochal struggles, is due to the inherent friction between him/her as a determinant and determinate substance.8 That is, God is working toward realizing that he/she is autonomous, or neither compelled nor radically free, and thus, there is an inherent tension to that process of development.9 To overcome this dilemma, God, as the totality of ideas, manifests in history as a cultural climate that invites ideological struggle.10 Consequently, when people partake in ideological battle, they are advancing history, or, in a sense, helping God become more self-aware of the way in which he/she is to understand his/her freedom.11 In other words, when people challenge one another’s beliefs, it follows that God as the semi-conscious backdrop of phenomenal existence is maturing into a more conscious being, which manifests in history as the changing of the times.

Furthermore, the changing of the times, or the progression of history is a rational process that ultimately ends in a lack of needing history.12 That is, just as Hegel believes that God’s goal is to become self-aware, or at home with both his/her determinant and determinate aspects, history’s progress ends when people cease to need it due to them perfecting themselves and their nation.13 By a perfect nation, Hegel is referring to a state where life is fully rational, which can only come about when ideological oppositions terminate and all a nation’s people reflect, and embody their national spirit in its most advanced, or idealized form.14 To Hegel, this outcome is possible due to history being a series of progressions which gradually move people toward a heightened understanding of themselves, their culture, and their state.15 Therefore, one may understand God’s realization of his/her freedom, as expressed on earth, as being the different eras of the world.16

To Hegel, the defining characteristics of epochal change are present in the societal arrangements, politics, culture, religion, and philosophy of a populace.17 Though each culture features these human-esque expressions of God, one must remember that each differs in the degree of maturity in which they conceive and ultimately perceive them.18 That is, Hegel does not believe that the progression of history expresses itself everywhere in the same way.19 Rather, it is more accurate to claim that societal shifts occur when people mature into a state of awareness that demands the progression of history, or God’s realization of his/her freedom on earth, in, and as understood by their individual nation.20 In other words, Hegel believes that when a populace’s national spirit, or the totality of their culture, requires progress for its vitality, it is actually God reaching the next step in his/her progress toward freedom.

Hegel on the Beginnings of History

For Hegel, history begins when people recognize the moral principles of nature by codifying laws.21 That is, it is when people mature and recognize the moral aspects of themselves, and gain an awareness of the ethical universe, by cementing their beliefs in written maxims, that their history begins.22 From this, one may claim that though pre-historical eras were rich in cultural artifacts of peoples who did not record their histories, it is nevertheless the case that in a Hegelian view, these cultures did not meet all the criteria needed to constitute an actual history.23 One reason why Hegel believes this to be so is that recorded history is a people’s cognizance of God’s progression toward dutiful freedom, which they express in written law.24 On the other hand, Hegel believes that people of pre-recorded history did not codify law because they were unaware of the ethical universe, or God’s movement toward responsible freedom.25 Therefore, to Hegel, for people to have a history they must realize their shared morality in written law which to him is their first real, or actual moment in time.26

Moreover, Hegel claims that the inception of a nation’s history not only depends on its people’s recognition of the moral elements of nature, or God as the totality of ethical concepts but also on the reality of the state itself.27 That is, without the reality of individuals, families, and communities, it follows that no state can arise, and thus, without a state, no written laws or national histories can occur.28 Consequently, though one may claim that the realities of the state and law are posterior to a populace, and thus it is they who truly begin their history, in a Hegelian view, this is not entirely correct.29

To Hegel though the physical and material conditions of a people precede the formation of a state, it is nevertheless inaccurate to ascribe to the view that they, in concept, precede it, and rather, in the ideal, it is the state that precedes them.30 One way to understand Hegel’s claim is to imagine the planting of a seed that, in time, becomes a tree. Accordingly, just as the seed is ever-present in the tree, since the tree is the outcome of that seed, it is God’s conceptual manifestation in the world that is ever-present in peoples, who, over time, come to recognize his/her generating power, by naturally gravitating toward statehood.31 Hence, God, as a conceptual and ideological force, is he/she who people come to recognize in their shared communities and he/she becomes a reality on earth when those individuals cement their national ethos by forming a state with written laws to protect and ensure the continuity of their way of life.32

Furthermore, Hegel claims that just as there are infinitely many aspects of God, there are innumerous ways in which he/she, as Spirit, or the ceaselessly active principle of life permeated throughout existence, manifests as national cultures.33 That is, Hegel would agree that there is no standard way in which God expresses himself/herself throughout the world’s nations.34 Instead, it is the level of preparedness, as reflected in a nation’s culture, that determines which and the degree to which God becomes objectified in that state.35 Hegel continues to argue that a national spirit’s course follows the same path of that aspect of God which that state’s ethos displays.36 Finally, how the people of a nation trek the course of their national ethos, is in their control, insofar as they are people, and their journey, when recorded, constitutes their national history.37

Also, it is important to note Hegel’s view of what he calls world-historical people and how they set the stage for the advancement, and progression of history, or a nation’s recorded expressions of Spirit’s becoming in the world as understood by that state.38 That is, Hegel believes there are people, who have pushed the course of history to a new stage of the realization of freedom, and they reflect or represent the spirit of the age in their personhood.39 For example, to Hegel, Caesar would be a prime example of a world-historical person, since it was he who expanded the Roman Empire, and more notedly, instituted Roman Law in Europe which held that some were free while others were bounded, or enslaved.40 Consequently, one may claim that though imperfect, Caesar progressed the realization of freedom on earth, or objectified God’s move toward a more self-aware, or dutiful freedom.41 In other words, by progressing the spirit of the age in which he lived, Caesar moved the world from a state of total domination in which rulers had absolute authority over their people, to an era in which citizens had recognized rights, including their personal liberties.42

Furthermore, like many of Hegel’s ideas there exists an antithesis to the progress made by world-historical people such as Caesar and his dissemination of Roman culture throughout Europe, and that was the Dark Ages.43 One must remember that historical progress or the recorded movements of God as a subjective substance achieving self-awareness is a messy process and obstacles in the way of that progress are normal.44 Therefore, to Hegel, the Dark Ages was a natural response to the progress made by the world-historical person, Caesar, and it too was replaced by the epoch ushered in by another world-historical person; Napoleon.45 Finally, it is worth noting that that which the Napoleonic era brought to light was recognition of all people as naturally free by law, which was progress beyond that of either Caesar or the Dark Ages.46

Hegel on the Commencement of History

In sum, Hegel believes that the major epochs of world history have displayed a movement from despotism to democracy to aristocracy to constitutional monarchy.47 By despotism, Hegel is referring to cultural views or a national spirit which hold that all people are the expression of one immaterial substance or conceptual force.48 Furthermore, it is the despot, or absolute ruler, who has, through succession, become the representative of that formal substance or ideological outlook on earth.49 Hegel continues to claim that traditional cultures and political arrangements such as those once found in China displayed these socio-political ideals and it was the job of those emperors to ensure that China’s way of life was never interrupted.50 Therefore, in a culture where all people view themselves as products of one interdependent and indistinguishable national spirit, where an absolute leader exists as the vicar of that ethos, is one in which cultural preservation is paramount.

Cultural guarding, to Hegel, is evidence of a young national spirit, or one that is in its historical beginnings, and it is far from reaching its final destination, or last stage of maturity.51 That is, in societies that are despotic there is an infantile level of freedom and the state is ultimately a parental authority.52 Hegel denounces this mode of government since it only allows people to express their subjective freedom in limited ways.53 By subjective freedom, Hegel is referring to the inward awareness that people have of themselves as free entities who can reflect on many ideas, in many ways, and express them numerously.54 But, in a society where despotism is supreme, the state allows for limited ways in which people can become more self-aware, and thus, one may claim that despotic governments tend to monopolize subjective freedom.55 Therefore, it is not uncommon for a despot who represses the dissemination of ideas, to limit his/her people’s understanding of themselves as free beings, which not only stifles their liberties, but also stagnates the state from moving into its next historical epoch.56 Consequently, this control over concepts, though beneficial for keeping order and maintaining a dictator’s power, is damaging to a people and ultimately their history.57 Hence, to Hegel, despotic societies are antithetical to the progressiveness of history, which is evident in their customs and norms, and they are far from being perfect, or at the apex of true freedom.58

Next, the eras of Greece and Rome also ushered in a new mode of historical progress. In the case of the former, it was the introduction of democracy, while the latter presented a blend of democratic and aristocratic notions to the world.59 Hegel believes that these ways of governing were progressive for their time since they recognized those who were citizens as having a subjective freedom appropriate enough to participate in helping to manage the state.60 It is worth noting that unlike despotic governments, it is the few, as in the case of Rome, and the many, as in the case of Greece, who represent the state’s national ethos and not just the ruler. Consequently, one may claim that in Greece and Rome it was in the best interests of the state to preserve the well-being of the many, or of the few, instead of just one absolute leader.

In Hegel’s view, history progressed due to democratic Greece and aristocratic Rome, since those states expanded people’s understanding of their freedom, and, in turn, they responded to Spirit, God, or the ideological climate of their times in a positive way.61 That is, by recognizing people as uncompelled beings, who possess innate capacities for freedom, Greece and Rome expanded the horizons of God’s realization of his/her freedom on earth, or the evolution of world history.62 Hegel continues to claim that the effects of this realization ultimately caused new perspectives to arise in art, culture, religion, and thought.63 Consequently, one may claim that people in Greece and Rome grew into a new stage of understanding their freedom, or power, and expressed their collective maturity through their cultural endeavors.64 Lastly, Hegel goes on to describe the maturity of the Germanic spirit and how its constitutional monarchy reflects the nature and goal of God in history the most.65

According to Hegel, it is the Germanic spirit, or the national ethos of the German peoples that is the most mature, or progressive culture that the world has yet to encounter.66 One reason why Hegel believes this to be the case is that the political arrangements of the Germanic nations reflect Spirit or the inherent force that pushes all things forward, in a more mature way than national spirits of the past.67 That is, the constitutional monarchies found in Germanic states, inherit from Napoleon the concept that all people are free while at the same time maintaining the traditional practice of kingly succession.68 The benefit of this practice is that it reflects the nature of God, or Spirit the most, or it is the case that the free elements of Germanic culture displayed by its people operate within a rational system that their king guards as if it were himself.69 In other words, just as God is progressing toward understanding his/her freedom in a rational way, the Germanic peoples’ governments try to imitate that progress through having a free populace that is under a legal system with a king who is the guardian of their nation’s way of life.

Furthermore, one should note that the Germanic ethos is not the final stage in history, and rather it is but a moment in the progression of Spirit.70 That is, Germanic socio-political customs and norms are the best that the world has yet encountered, but not the best that there will ever be.71 Hegel believes this to be so because there is still German history, and if it were a truly perfect, or completely rational national ethos, there would be no need for its people to continue to embrace and advance its history or codify the elements of Germanic culture, law, religion, and philosophy.72 Accordingly, Hegel claims that there are further stages in the advancement of God, or Spirit throughout the world, and it is only when all people in their respective nations unite to form truly individuated national spirits, will the world be historically complete.73 Hence, one may claim, that just as God realizes himself/herself as an infinite being who is free within reason, the populaces of the various nations of the earth are coming to understand the same but only in the worldly realm.74 Finally, Hegel continues by addressing what he understands to be the end of history, or the ultimate goal that God is nearing toward, and how the nations of the world will reflect that monumental achievement.

Hegel on the End of History

The basis for Hegel’s belief that history is moving toward a goal is that, in retrospect, it has advanced since its beginnings, and thus, one may claim that it displays a progressiveness.75 One way to justify this assertion is by referring to history itself, which shows that people have changed over time and though often appearing to be chaotic, one should understand that the friction of epochal change is Spirit, or God rationally maturing.76 That is, history reflects Spirit, or God becoming self-aware, and it plays out in the world as the paradigm of the advancement of the ages, regardless of those who believe it to be random.77 From this, one should note that Hegel believes that there is an order by which history unfolds, making it determinate, and, in his view, history could not have advanced in any other way than as it has.78

One reason why Hegel believes that history is determinate is that there exist positive and negative aspects of God or Spirit.79 In other words, because God is a totality, there is no way that anything can exist outside of him/her, and thus, all that happens occurs within him/her and according to his/her nature. Accordingly, all things beside God feature limitations or negations to their being, and thus, one may claim that God causes all things to exists restrictedly.80 Therefore, because everything other than God is unfree, it follows that his/her nature alone determines how and what will unfold from him/her.81 Finally, because God sets the conditions that led to the coming to be of all that exists, and due to him/her being a conceptual totality, it follows that history, as part of that conceptual entirety, necessarily follows the flow of his/her essence.82

At the same time, there are positive, or active elements to God’s being.83 That is, the reality of progress and advancement of the world is a sign that God is a progressive entity too, or else there would be no reality of development on earth.84 Furthermore, since one can attribute progressiveness to God, it follows that the forwardness of world history is a positive expression of his/her being, or it is the case that it displays that his/her freedom.85 From this, one may claim that the reality of advancement, or freedom, is essentially in people, or it is the case that individuals are inherently progressive beings that display freedom insofar as they can as people.86 In other words, people conceive and perceive themselves as being free since they reflect God’s natural progressiveness, which also displays freedom.87 At the same time, nothing is as free as God, and everything ultimately gains freedom according to his/her advancement, and thus, it is arguable that in time people will become freer, till they reflect God, as much as they can, as people.88

Per Hegel, history ends when states have completed the task of perfecting themselves.89 That is, Hegel believes that perfected states are ones in which God, when understood to be an autonomous and entirely self-aware substance, becomes a reality that is manifest in the national spirits, or the cultural aspects of the world’s peoples.90 Moreover, the end of history or the perfection of the world is a process that involves both God and humanity.91 To Hegel, this is important to note, since God, as the semi-conscious totality of existence, is only somewhat mindful of people, and hence, they must positively harness and express his/her essence, to make him/her an earthly reality.92 That is, due to God being only partially cognizant of himself/herself and humanity, it follows that people, through their awareness, or freedom, have the power to push him/her closer to self-consciousness, or the perfection of history.93 An analogy, to better understand what Hegel believes, would be if one were to imagine that just as people are not completely aware of all aspects of their bodies, until those aspects make themselves perceptible, God is unaware of people until they arouse in him/her an awareness of them. Therefore, to Hegel, people, through activity, or progressive volitions and acts, assist in the advancement of history, since it invites a response from God, or that generative power that causes the changing of the eras.94

The type of historical perfection that a nation can achieve, to wash away the need for its history, is implicit in its geography.95 As understood by Hegel, river valleys, seas, topographical features of a land, and its geographical position all contribute to how people will develop, or abstract Spirit from their state.96 That is, nations differ in many physical ways, and the type of national ethos that a populace will develop partially derives from how they conceive and perceive those physical dissimilarities.97 Accordingly, Spirit, and how it manifests as the different terrains of earth, not only facilitates the conditions needed for national spirits to arise, and thus national histories too, it also determines a nation’s practices.98 For instance, Hegel would claim that a country that is an island needs trade, and thus it is not uncommon for its history to involve many nautical moments.99 On the other hand, it would not be too eerie to claim that landlocked nations would tend to practice expansionism, so that they may could reach waterways that allow for ampler commerce.100 Hence, geography plays a determinate role in how a national ethos will emerge and express itself on the world stage, through its people, which turn, becomes that state’s history.101 Finally, the interaction between a people and their land ultimately reflects Spirit’s power objectified as a relationship between humanity and earth, and one may claim that in a Hegelian view, respect for nature is necessary if people genuinely desire to live in a godly world.102

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