Hegel on worshipping the state

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Hegel on worshipping the state

While a student at Tübingen, Hegel’s favorite reading had been Rousseau. “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man.”[88] As discussed in Chapter Two, Hegel was also engaged deeply with the latest developments of Kantian and Fichtean metaphysics and epistemology and their implications for social and political thought.

The political battle lines were clearly drawn for Hegel: If Rousseau’s account of human freedom is the correct one, then the Enlightenment account of freedom must be a fraud. Disappointed by the outcome of the Revolution in France, where it seemed like the Rousseauians had had their world-historical chance, Hegel also had nothing but disdain for England, then arguably the most developed nation of the Enlightenment: “of institutions characterized by real freedom there are nowhere fewer than in England.” The so-called liberalism of the so-called Enlightenment nations actually represented an “incredible deficiency” of rights and freedom. Only by updating the Rousseauian model dialectically and applying it to the German context could we find “real freedom.”[89]

So what is real freedom to Hegel?

hegel-50x60“It must further be understood that all the worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.”[90]

In the broader context of Hegel’s philosophy, human history is governed by the necessary working out of the Absolute. The Absolute—or God, or Universal Reason, or the Divine Idea—is the actual substance of the universe, and its developmental processes are everything that is. “God governs the world; the actual working of his government—the carrying out of his plan—is the History of the World.”[91]

The State, to the extent that it participates in the Absolute, is God’s instrument for achieving his purposes. “The State,” accordingly, “is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”[92]

Given that the individual’s ultimate purpose in life should be to achieve union with ultimate reality, it follows that the “state in and by itself is the ethical whole, the actualization of freedom.”[93] The consequence of this, morally, is that the individual is of less significance than the state. The individual’s empirical, day-to-day interests are of a lower moral order than the state’s universal, world-historical interests. The state has as its final end the self-realization of the Absolute, and “this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.”[94] Duty, as we have learned from Kant and Fichte, always trumps personal interests and inclinations.

Yet mere membership as a matter of duty is not enough for Hegel, given the grandeur of the state’s divine historical purpose: “One must worship the state as a terrestrial divinity.”[95]

In such worship, Hegel believed, we finds our real freedom. For ultimately, we individuals are but aspects of the Absolute Spirit, and in so relating to it we are relating to ourselves. “For Law is the objectivity of Spirit; volition in its true form. Only that will which obeys law, is free; for it obeys itself—it is independent and so free.”[96] Freedom is thus the individual’s absolute submission to and worship of the state.

There is of course the problem of explaining all of this to the average individual. The average individual, in the course of living day-to-day life, often finds that the laws and other manifestations of the state do not seem like real freedom. In most cases, Hegel stated, that is because the average person is ignorant of what true freedom is,[97] and no amount of explaining the higher dialectic to that person will make the laws seem like less of an infringement upon freedom.

Yet it is also true, Hegel granted, that in many cases the individual’s freedoms and interests will genuinely be set aside, overridden, and even smashed. One reason for this is that the state’s general principles are universal and necessary, and so they cannot be expected to apply perfectly to the particular and contingent. As Hegel explained, “universal law is not designed for the units of the mass. These as such may, in fact, find their interests decidedly thrust into the background.”[98]

But the problem is not merely one of applying the universal to the particular. Individuals must recognize that, from the moral perspective, they are not ends in themselves; they are tools for the achievement of higher goals.

“But though we might tolerate the idea that individuals, their desires and the gratification of them, are thus sacrificed, and their happiness given up to the empire of chance, to which it belongs; and that as a general rule, individuals come under the category of means to an ulterior end.”[99]

And again, just in case we have missed Hegel’s point: “A single person, I need hardly say, is something subordinate, and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole.” And again echoing Rousseau: “Hence, if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it.”[100]

Individual life is surrendered rather a lot when very special human beings come along to really shake things up and move God’s plan for the world forward. “World-historical individuals,” as Hegel called them, are those who, usually without knowing so themselves, are agents of the Absolute’s development. Such individuals are energetic and focused, and they are able to amass power and direct social forces in such a way as to achieve something of historical significance. Their achievements, however, exact a high human cost.

“A World-historical individual is not so unwise as to indulge a variety of wishes to divide his regards. He is devoted to the One Aim, regardless of all else. It is even possible that such men may treat other great, even sacred interests, inconsiderately; conduct which is indeed obnoxious to moral reprehension. But so mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower—crush to pieces many an object in its path.”[101]

The innocent flowers should not object to their destruction. The World-historical individual is acting for the best interests of the whole. In that special individual the state is embodied, and the state is the future of the collective. Even while being destroyed, the innocent flower has worth only through—and so should glory in—his participation in that larger future.

Anticipating Nietzsche, Hegel argued that neither should the innocent flowers raise merely moral objections against the activities of the World-historical individuals. “For the History of the World occupies a higher ground than that on which morality has properly its position.” The needs of historical development are of higher standing than those of morality, and so “the conscience of individuals” should not be an obstacle to the achievement of historical destinies.[102] The trampling of morality is regrettable, but “looked at from this point, moral claims that are irrelevant, must not be brought into collision with world-historical deeds and their accomplishment.”[103]


[88] Hegel, in Rousseau 1755, xv.

[89] Hegel 1830-31, 454; see also 1821, §236.

[90] Hegel 1830-31, 39.

[91] Hegel 1830-31, 35-36.

[92] Hegel 1830-31, 39; also 1821, Add., 152, para. 258; p. 279.

[93] Hegel 1821, Add., 152, para. 258; p. 279.

[94] Hegel 1821, §258

[95] Hegel 1821, §272. Otto Braun, age 19, a volunteer who died in WW I, wrote in a letter to his parents: “My inmost yearning, my purest, though most secret flame, my deepest faith and my highest hope—they are still the same as ever, and they all bear one name: the State. One day to build the state like a temple, rising up pure and strong, resting in its own weight, severe and sublime, but also serene like the gods and with bright halls glistening in the dancing brilliance of the sun—this, at bottom, is the end and goal of my aspirations” (in H. Kuhn 1963, 313).

[96] Hegel 1830-31, 39.

[97] Hegel 1821, §301.

[98] Hegel 1830-31, 35.

[99] Hegel 1830-31, 33.

[100] Hegel 1821, Add., 45, para. 70; p. 241.

[101] Hegel 1830-31, 32.

[102] Hegel 1830-31, 66-67.

[103] Hegel 1830-31, 67.

Bibliography [pdf] [html]

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

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