by Tony Pellum
The role of history has been questioned for ages. Historians study past cultures in search for understanding of human customs and reactions. Yet many others study history to prevent making the same mistakes twice. After the Romantic's emphasis on nature rather than man, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel bridged the gap between Romantic spiritualism and reason. He views the world as consisting of a material and a spiritual part. The spirit is in constant search of self-realization, because, only when the spirit is self-reliant can it attain freedom. Hegel sees history as the spirit's instrument for self-realization. Through time and experiment, the spirit will become aware of itself after realizing through history what it is not.
Reason is the foundation of Hegel's beliefs. Pascal viewed the world as unknowable to humans due to their limited capabilities. He questioned why humans were on the Earth and what the design of the world was. He wasn't searching for an answer because he didn't believe that it could be understood. Hegel explores these ideas, but rationalizes Pascal's mysticism. He focuses on the spiritual realm and, although he can not know it, he rationalizes that his theories must be correct. He sees reason as the only way to understand the world. In search of history, Hegel states, "The sole thought which philosophy brings to the observation of history, is the simple idea of Reason: that Reason is the sovereign of the world; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process" (340). In order to observe history, we must understand that it is based on a rational process. The world is made of reason. It is what gives reality its substance. However, reason also transcends the material world. It is an "infinite energy" that binds the universe together, as "Reason is not so powerless as to be incapable of producing anything but a mere ideal" (340). We realize this bridged gap between the rationalism and romantic aspects in Hegel's definition, that "it is proved by speculative thought that Reason is substance, as well as infinite power; its own infinite material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as well as the infinite form, -that which sets this material in motion" (340). This romantic notion focuses on nature and spirituality while using reason to understand the world.
Reason, found in both the material and spiritual worlds, is in a constant battle to discover itself. Searching for the ultimate design of the world, Hegel argues, admits that there must be a realization of design. Since reason is what governs both physical and spiritual worlds, it must be in constant search for this realization. Hegel argues that "matter possesses gravity in virtue of its tendency toward a central point. It is essentially composite, consisting of parts that exclude each other" (342). Since matter and spirit are opposites, Hegel finds that spirit's center must be in itself, and "exist in and for itself," (342) free from all external forces. Therefore, "It is a result of speculative philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit." (342). Freedom can be obtained only when the reason becomes self-conscious. Therefore, freedom is reason's ultimate goal. Reason must overcome the physical boundaries which tie its center to gravity and other worldly unit to become entirely self-sufficient.
Until this ultimate goal is reached, "Spirit is at war with itself; it has to overcome itself as its most formidable obstacle. That development which in the sphere of nature is a peaceful growth, is in that of Spirit, a severe, a mighty conflict with itself" (347). While nature's growth is a consistent repetition of cycles, the growth of the spirit can only come about through a strict process of elimination. This conflict that the spirit faces comes through this process, as the spirit strives to discover what it is. Man is set apart from the rest of the material world. Containing both material and spiritual, he must not merely grow in cycles, but attain an ultimate goal. It is this idea of an ultimate goal, which gives humans the idea of perfectibility. They are not simply natural, and therefore have the opportunity to achieve freedom. Hegel states, "I am free when my existence depends upon myself. This self-contained existence of Spirit is none other than self-consciousness"(342). This development produces the idea of spiritual destiny- "an existing potentiality striving to realize itself" (346). The spirit is striving for a concrete result of its development. Since its growth isn't repetitive like nature, Hegel argues, there must be a perfectibility to achieve. Human spirituality is what sets them apart from nature. It is due to this combination that we are able to eventually achieve a "self-contained existence."
Ever-striving for freedom and self-reliance, reason continually creates new situations in order to discover itself. These changes, through process of elimination, will eventually end in reason knowing itself. This process undoubtedly takes a considerable amount of time, given the many variables that it must consider. Through every situation, reason changes and learns more of what it is not. Hegel states, "The changes which history presents have been long characterized in general as an advance to something better, more perfect" (346). These changes must be progressing toward a more perfect state because, while eliminating what reason and freedom are not, we eliminate the undesirable things about the world. This elimination process is absolutely necessary for the spirit's growth, because, while reason exists in both material and spiritual nature, it cannot, as Pascal suggests, understand its ideal form. Hegel explains, "What Spirit really strives for is the realization of its ideal being; but in doing so, it hides that goal from its own vision, and is proud and well satisfied in this alienation from it" (347). The spirit can only strive towards its ultimate goal through a material world, only then can it understand what it is not. While it is now alienated from freedom and self-realization, it is constantly progressing toward it.
History is the record of the spirit's progression toward self-consciousness. Hegel argues, "World history in general is therefore the development of Spirit in time, as nature is the development of the Idea in space" (348). The continual progression is necessary for the spirit to become centered "in and for itself". Karl Marx would argue that the spirit doesn't exist. He views human action as Hegel views natural progress: as repetitious cycles. Marx believes "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (369). He goes into detail about how the bourgeois' relationship with the proletariat is that of the oppressor and the oppressed. Marx parallels this situation with every other class struggle throughout mankind. He sees no progression of human spirit, he only recognizes similar situations. He argues:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a
word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an
uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a
revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending
Marx's proposal of communism came as a reaction to this system that he viewed as the state of society throughout history. Hegel, however, would question Marx's logic. He would recognize that the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed has been going on for a long period of time. However, he wouldn't view the amount of time it has been in practice as significant to the amount of time history will take for the spirit to achieve self-recognition. For Hegel, society can not repeat in cycles. While some ideas may be similar throughout these situations, it's the "revolutionary reconstitutions of society" that make the historic event worthwhile. These events eliminate what the spirit is not, in order to develop and progress toward freedom. Hegel would also argue that Marx's theory of Communism is necessary for the spirit. Only when each and every situation is tried and eliminated can the spirit become self-aware.
Although this process seems monstrously impossible to fulfill, Hegel dismisses the idea of time. History doesn't answer to time, the spirit has all of the time it needs. Yes, it will take longer than any human can imagine for the spirit to realize itself, but it is becoming more perfect through each elimination. Hegel explains:
Sometimes we see the large mass of some general interest advancing with comparative slowness, and subsequently sacrificed to an infinite complication of trifling circumstances, and then to be scattered. Then, again, with vast expenditure of power a trivial result is produced; while from what appears unimportant a tremendous issue proceeds (349).
The time each elimination takes is irrelevant to the spirit. Its progression is all that matters. Every societal idea that comes about, despite the time it takes, is subject to reason and spirit. Every time one of these revolutions fails, one positive aspect surfaces: the spirit realizes something that it is not. Hegel explains, "On every hand there is the varied throng of events drawing us within the circle of its interest, and when one combination vanishes another immediately appears in its place" (349). While Marx viewed this "circle of interest" as a repetitive state of society, Hegel views these actions as the spirit's "manipulation of itself". Through the actions of the state, the spirit becomes more aware of itself.
For Hegel, history never declines. Reason is simply used so the spirit learns what it is not. History is the process of the spirit's self-realization. Regardless of the infinite amount of time that the spirit will take in these eliminations, the spirit will eventually become centered "in and for itself". We are each in the process of becoming self-aware. Our actions are used to teach the spirit what it is not and, while something may be repeated, something entirely new is learned. The self-consciousness that the spirit eventually achieves through this process is the only way for it to obtain freedom.