Notes on Hegel

Taylor frames his book in order of several of Hegel’s main works. He does an excellent job outlining difficult terminology and highlighting key points which will serve as hermeneutical loci later.

Front Cover

Self-Positing Spirit

This introduces Hegel’s “identity of difference and identity.” Starting slowly, following Taylor, here is what I think he means. Hegel is trying to overcome the Kantian duality. Hegel wants to overcome this with his notion of “overcoming oppositions.” Therefore, identity cannot sustain itself on its own, but posits an opposition, but also a particularly intimate one (80). In short, Hegel married modern expression with Aristotle’s self-realizing form (81).

Following this was Hegel’s other point: the subject, and all his functions, however spiritual, were necessarily embodied (82-83).

The Contradiction Arises

Contrary to mindless right-wing bloggers, Hegel did not form the “dialectic” in the following way: we posit a thesis (traditional community), then we negate it (cultural marxism), which allows for the “synthesis” (our pre-planned solution all along). Here is what Hegel actually meant: there is reality, but the very structure of reality already contains a contradiction. The subject then must overcome that contradiction.

Taylor notes, “In order to be at all as a conscious being, the subject must be embodied in life; but in order to realize the perfection of consciousness it must fight and overcome the natural bent of life as a limit. The conditions of its existence are in conflict with the demands of its perfection (86).

Taylor has much more to say but that will suffice for now. Of course, I radically disagree with Hegel’s conclusions. That does not mean Hegel is value-less. On the contrary, one can see key Augustinian and Origenist points in his outlook.

Taylor seems to structure his discussion of Hegel along the following lines: Phenomenology of Geist is a sort of preparatory stage for the Logic. At the end of the last discussion, Hegel said that Spirit (Geist) comes to know himself, and that finite spirits are the vehicles of this self-knowledge. This is partly why Hegel says that Geist must be embodied.

We start off with an inadequate notion of the standard involved; but we also have some basicaly correct notions of what the standard must meet. However, we see the inadequacy of both when we try to realize it. Obviously, Hegel is simply following Plato on this point.

What if we are just arbitrarily positing some standard of knowledge? No big deal, for upon reflection we will find out that said standard is likely faulty and we will have to “re-think it.” When we re-think it we get closer to the truth. Thus, “the test of knowledge is also its standard” (136).

Hegel ends this discussion with the suggestion that consciousness inevitably posits self-conscious, which will be taken up in the next chapter.

I’m skipping the section on “self-consciousness” because I really didn’t understand it.

One thing I do appreciate about Hegel is that his worldview really is unified. His discussions on “ontology” (the study of essence) are directly connected to his politics and views on religion (and to show how “real-life” this really is: when Karl Marx read Hegel he kept a few elements but mainly despised the man and his system. He negated Hegel–pun intended. Following his negation, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao took this negation of Hegel and murdered 200 million people. Philosophy really does matter).

In the Formation of Spirit Taylor notes that Hegel idealized the ancient Greek polis: he saw a complete unity between citizen and society (171). Unfortunately (or inevitably) this had to break down. Spirit cannot become universal if it is confined to the walls of one particular city. This is an important, if somewhat abstract point. I will develop it further in my final reflections on Hegel.

Taylor remarks, somewhat side-tracking the discussion, that sin is necessary for salvation in Hegel’s view (174). Of course, as a Christian this is completely unacceptable, but it also shows my appreciation for Hegel. Hegel can be seen as the consistent high-point of a certain strand of Western thought. We saw the same type of thinking in Origen (for God to be Lord, there must be something for him to be Lord “over”).
Essentially, what Hegel is saying is that men feel a basic attitude of alienation–their substance lies outside them and they can only overcome it by overcoming their particularity (donum superadditum? 179). Unfortunately, that is what Hegel calls a “contradiction.”

This part of Hegel’s Phenomenology is dealing heavily with social life, which I will cover in greater detail in the chapters on politics.

This next section of the book, and presumably the logical outflowing of Hegel’s thought, deals with “manifest religion.” I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, partly because it is the most atrocious aspect of Hegel’s thought, and partly because I want to get to the politics. However, Hegel is nothing if not consistent, and it is important to see how one section implies the next (which is exactly how his later Logic is set up). And as always, even when wrong Hegel has some excellent insights on the human dynamic.

Building on Hegel’s premise that God/Geist/Spirit, which is the ultimate reality, must be embodied in history, it follows that one must ask in what manner is it embodied? One of the most fundamental modes, Hegel posits, is in religion (197). Briefly stated, Hegel sees each epoch in human history as manifesting religion, but always in a contradictory way. The Greeks were able to apprehend “the universal,” but they could only do so in a finite and limited way (and thus the infinite/finite contradiction). This contradiction is not a bad thing, though, for it opened up the possibility of the Christian religion (with a detour through the Hebrews). Hegel sees the ultimate religious expression in the Incarnation.

What do we make of this?

Like anything Hegel says, much of the surface-level language is quite good, but once you get beyond that you see the truly bizarre theology. Hegel has a strong emphasis on community and will say that is where the true Christian expression is found. From our perspective, this sounds a lot like saying Christ is found in the church, and that is true. Unfortunately, Hegel was not using that in the same way we are.

At this point in the narrative we are beginning the discussion of Hegel’s two-volume Logic. While this is the hardest of his works to understand (and I certainly don’t understand them beyond a fourth-grade level), it will be easy to discuss them. His main points are clear and tied together.

A Dialectic of Categories

When one is studying reality, Hegel says, one can start anywhere in the system, for each facet is ultimately tied together (226). If we start with “Being” then our method will proceed dialectically. What he means by that is the very structure of reality has a contradiction, and in overcoming that contradiction Being moves forth to something else. Throughout the whole of this discussion, Hegel is starting from Kant and reworking the system along problems he sees in Kant.

To avoid confusion, and to silence the right-wing conspiracy bloggers, Hegel’s idea of contradiction is this: he has a two-pronged argument, the first showing that a given category is indispensable, the second showing that it leads to a characterization of reality which is somehow impossible or incoherent (228).

In developing the above contradiction, Hegel assumes the Plotinian dialectic: a Something can only be defined by referent to another with which it is contrasted (236).

Hegel says a lot more on these topics, but I will not. Throughout Taylor’s analysis he reveals interstesting facets of Hegel’s thought, showing him to be a true heir of Augustine and Plotinus. We’ll discuss these topics later. The next discussion, Lord willing, will focus on the Essence.


Most right-wing bloggers think that Hegel’s view is the Illuminati finding its ultimate expression in world-government. Actually, what Hegel means is that communities become vehicles of the “Spirit.” This can (and has) been taken in numerous ways. I see it as communities organically expressing a common spirit, common values (see Augustine, City of God Book 19.4).

Hegel is trying to overcome the dilemma that social life poses: per man’s subjective life the important thing is freedom of spirit. However, man also lives in community and the norms of the community often bind his freedom of spirit (it is to Hegel’s credit that he recognized this problem generations before Nietszche and the existentialists).

Hegel suggests the form man must attain is a social form (366). It is important to note that what Hegel means by “state” is much different than what Anglo-Americans mean by it. Hegel means the “politically organized community” (387). Let’s explore these few sentences for a moment. Throughout his philosophy Hegel warns against “abstractions,” by which he means taking an entity outside its network of relations. With regard to politics, if abstraction is bad then it necessarily follows that man’s telos is in a community. Man comes into the world already in a network of relations.

Reason and History

Given Hegel’s commitment about the fulfillment of spirit, it follows that communities grow. As seen above, Hegel’s applies to history the problem of self-fulfillment. How does man realize the fulfillment of the Idea?

Jews: realization that God is pure, subjective Spirit. Ends up negating finite reality.

Greek: opposite of Jewish mentality. Harmonizes God with “natural expression.” Ends up with idolatry. Greek polis is pariochial. Each state his its own God. A universal realization of spirit is thus impossible. Men were identified with Greek state. Democracy natural expression. There is a necessary contradiction within the Greek polis: only represents a part of finite reality.

Romans: Origin of the idea as “Person,” bearer of “abstract right” (397).

Christianity: the finite subject and absolute spirit can be reconciled. The task of history is to make this reconciliation public–this is the Church.

Germans: they were to take it to the next stage.

The rest of European history is a working out these processes, a transformation of institutions. It is hear that we see feudalism, etc. At this point we need to correct a mistake about Hegel: Hegel is not saying that world history climaxes with Prussian Germany. There is no sensible way he could have believed that. Germany was weak and defeated when he wrote (it would have been interesting and perhaps more perceptive to say that Russia was the bearer of the World Spirit). Nonetheless, as Hegel notes and as his critics routinely miss, history did take an interesting turn in the 19th century and the force of ideas does not simply stop because the historian wants them to stop.

The Foundations of the Modern State

Monarchy as the Representative Individual: consistent with his earlier points, Hegel notes that there must be some way for the individual to retain his subjective right, yet at the same time freely and fully identify with the community (Staat). This happens by way of monarchy. Beneath the monarchy are Estates, who mediate the King to the people. Nowhere does Hegel mean representation according to our usage today. The King does not “represent” the will of the people, but through his kingly majesty allows the people to identify (399).

The French Revolution: Political Terror

Hegel defines it as “absolute, unlimited freedom.” Complete freedom means that outcome should be decided by me. Of course, since I am in society it is not decided by me alone. Therefore, complete freedom is decided by the strongest individual.

Charles Taylor is embarrassed by Hegel’s rejection of the principles of the French Revolution. I think the reason is that if Hegel is right and one should view the Modern Narrative as a continuation of the French Revolution, then the only moral alternative is to reject said narrative. He notes (if not likes) Hegel’s challenge to modernity: the modern ideology of equality and of total participation leads to a homogenization of society. This shakes men loose from their traditional communities but cannot replace them as a focus of identity” (414).

Translation: all natural societies organically flow from a unified belief system/ethnos (cf. Augustine, City of God, 19.4). Modernity is the negation of this. Without this unified system of belief, men cannot “connect” to one another. Thus, no real community. Thus, no real unity and society is held together by force (ala Hegel on Rome) and terror (ala Hegel on France).

Modernity is nominalism of politics.

Hegel’s conclusion, which Taylor rejects, is a rationalized monarchy. Hegel was a monarchist but he was not a traditionalist, and for that reason he was not a conservative. He agreed with the older conservatives that society must be founded on authority, estates, and a strong monarch; Hegel, however, based these spheres, not on divine right or tradition, but on reason. In this sense Hegel stands firmly in the Enlightenment.

According to Hegel France is utterly lost in terms of a political future. England is better, but she is not far behind in spiritual rot, for England (like America today) is run riot with an excess on particular rights. And in this chaos of individualism, special interest groups backed by powerful elites have taken control (like America today).

Taylor notes that for Hegel,

“The only force which could cure this would be a strong monarchy like those late medieval kings which forced through the barons the rights of the universal. But the English have crucially weakened their monarchy; it is powerless before Parliament which is the cockpit of private interests (454).

I first found this line of reasoning from Fr. Raphael Johnson’s take on Russian history. I guess Johnson got it from Hegel himself since he wrote his Master’s thesis on Hegel.

Taylor continues to the conclusion,

Hence the vehicle by which rational constitution could best be introduced and made real was a powerful modernizing monarchy…Hegel had hopes for the future based on the climate of his times. Germany had been shocked into reform by the Napoleonic conquest. It consisted of societies founded on law in which principles of rational Enlightenment had already gone some way and seemed bound to go further. It had a Protestant political culture and hence could achieve a rational constitution unlike the benighted peoples of Latin Europe, and it was not too far gone in rot like England. It held to the monarchical principle and the monarchs retained some real power unlike England, and yet the societies were law societies (454-455).

This paragraph warrants some reflection:

  • Although I am a traditionalist, and Hegel is not, I agree that a modernizing monarchy is much preferred than unreflected claims to “Throne and Altar.” Many monarchists today naively think that “restoring a king” will return the land to justice. Ironically, this tends to lead to the same problems that Republican government leads: you have the vision of a few determining the fate of the whole. Rather, a strong monarch who enforces Republican structures in the land, arising from the will of the ethnos (shades of Johann Herder), existing primarily to reign in the excesses of the free market, is one who is both authoritarian yet the people are still free.
  • while we are at it, I actually encourage one to read the thoughtful positions by N. T. Wright and Oliver O’Donovan on monarchy. However, most Protestant political forces have been confessedly thoroughly anti-monarchist, and it is no surprise there are few Protestant Monarchies left. Happily, though, there are examples of good, Protestant monarchies.


In many ways Taylor’s book is essential. One has to know how Hegel is using terminology and Taylor is a reliable guide in that regard. Taylor cannot square himself with Hegel’s politics, though, since Hegel is a rejection (negation?) of modernity.

But the king of Sweden stood his ground

There.  Then.  At that moment.

The Father of Modern Warfare Gustavus certainly was not, but he may have very well been the Father of the Modern World.  Because then at that place, at that moment when the Saxons broke and the Inquisition bade fair to triumph over all of Europe, the King of Sweden stood his ground.

And proved, once again, that the truth of history is always concrete.  Abstractions are the stuff of argument.  Whatever might have been was not.  Not because of tactics or formation or artillery…but because of a simple truth.  At that instant history pivoted on the soul of one man.  His name was Gustavus Adolphus, and there were among his followers who thought him the only monarch in Europe worthy of the name.   They were right, and the man was about to prove it.  For one of the few times in human history, royalty was not a lie.

The above is taken from Eric Flint’s 1632.   It’s a highly fictionalized account, but magnificent nonetheless.  Had Gustavus faltered that day, the entire continent would have been plunged under the Inquisition.   England was borderline papist under Charles I, and with the tremendous pressure from an entire continent, it’s doubtful she could have long resisted.

Running theses on Economics

This is tangentially related to my series on High Southern Culture.  I’ve read the Austrian economists almost ten years now.  I remain almost convinced.   Their frequent atheism and anti-Jesus-ism should be a warning.  However, logical conclusions follow from logical premises, so they aren’t easily dismissed.  The following is a work in progress:

  1. Conservative values and raw capitalism are incompatible simply because the latter demand a consumer culture which almost always erodes the values that made the former possible.   This critique is routinely made by monarchists, paleo-conservatives (the guys at Chronicles, Eugene Genovese, etc) to Marxists.
  2. Socialism fails on the other hand because it cannot mathematically account for market prices.   Even socialists like John Milbank concede this point (his essay “Socialism of the Gift, Socialism by Grace”).  Therefore, any socialist country will necessarily end up with simultaneous gluts and shortages.
  3. Further, socialism does not encourage wisdom and thrift.   The entrepreneur understands that resources are limited and so must make wise choices.   This is impossible in a socialist economy (since the US Treasury can print more Federal Reserve notes to bail out the government’s latest bad idea).
  4. Therefore, socialism is incompatible with godly dominion.
  5. Theses 2-4 create a problem with Thesis 1: if socialism fails for the reasons I’ve listed–and it does–how can one avoid raw capitalism?
  6. The tentative answer is in refocusing teleological values.
  7. (6) is created by empowering local farm communities.
  8. A protective measure must be in place to protect a currency from outside speculation.

(To be continued)

The Mirror of all Christian Kings (Henry V)

Kenneth Brannaugh’s stellar performance might mislead new readers to this play.  Those who saw his “Band of Brothers” speech might rightly view Henry as the greatest of all Christian kings (and thus the greatest of all possible rulers).   It would be hard to contest it.   (Below I am leaning heavily on Peter Leithart’s analysis)

Shakespeare gives us a subtle caution, though.  In 2.0.14 he calls Henry “the mirror of all Christian kings.”  What do you see when you look in a mirror?  You see your own reflection.  If so, then maybe Henry is a type of Christ.  He was denied his rightful claim in France and so invades enemy territory.  Even better, the story ends in a wedding and reminds readers of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

But mirrors can work in more than one way.  When you look into a mirror, you see the “opposite” of what is there (your right hand is on the left, etc). Further, mirrors can play tricks on the eyes.   Perhaps Shakespeare is inviting us to see deeper in the picture.

The drama begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ely discussing church politics.  They are worried that they will lose church lands in a coming political sweep.   Long story short, the convince Henry to go to war in France (and presumably gain lands there).  Henry never stops to ask if this is actually just.

The drama then moves (unexpectedly) to a tavern and we are introduced to three idiots from the previous plays:  Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym.  Viewers of the film version will be at a loss here:  what relevance to these men have to Henry (and even worse, the audio on the film version is particularly bad and it is hard to know what is going on)?  These were Henry’s old drinking buddies.   Of particular interest is Shakespeare’s constant juxtaposition of Pistol and Henry.  While Henry is noble and Pistol an oaf, Shakespeare is inviting readers to see a similarity.

But Henry isn’t entirely bad.   He gives orders that French churches are not to be harmed (and hence would seem to follow Just War Theory). He puts off his airs and appears among the men in camp, calling up remembrance of “Our good king ‘arry.”  His unmasking the three traitors is pure genius.  And of course, his Band of Brothers speech is one of the finest moments in the English language.

Unfortunately, though, dark clouds remain.  The presumed bad guys, the French, are fighting a defensive war against an invader whose claim to the throne is strained at best.   Worse, when Henry lays siege to Harfleur, he threatens to cry havoc and bring fire, sword, and rape to the city if it does not surrender.  Not surprisingly, the city surrenders.  But is he really the mirror of all Christian kings?   His conversation with his future (French) wife is charming, of course, but reading between the lines shows that it is little more than a continuation of Henry’s conquest by other means:  she marries him because (she knows and her father knows) France has lost the war.  Henry is negotiating from a position of power.

The drama may end with a wedding, but it is not the Wedding of the Lamb.  Shakespeare’s readers know, as the contemporaries would likely guess, France will soon be plunged into more war at England’s hands, staving off defeat by a series of desperate miracles (think Joan of Arc).

Postmodernists love to think they are original and fresh.  Early modern artists like Shakespeare had them beaten in both originality and content.  This play is an example of deconstructionism in its best sense:  looking below the surface of events, we see multiple layers of meaning, many of which conceal power plays.

LAGNIAPPE:  Shakespeare gives us an interesting example of how Protestants view the difference between the sign and the thing signified.  Henry is reflecting on ceremony (Act IV).   What is ceremony?  On one hand it points to something noble.  It makes the difference between kings and commoners.  On the other hand, it doesn’t change the man ontologically.  If a sick commoner appears before the king, the king can’t heal him.  Ceremony doesn’t give him that kind of power.  But as we have just seen, it isn’t an empty ceremony either.   The sign (ceremony) and the thing signified (royalty; glory) are held in appropriate tension.  Other traditions, by collapsing sign into thing signified, lose this tension.

GOP and the Counter-Promise of Monarchy

Saw this on a FB feed, to which I largely agree:

Poll after poll has shown that, on Obamacare, abortion, and other issues, more Americans are closer to the GOP than to the Democrats. Yet the GOP seems to lack a credible opponent to Hillary Clinton for 2016 and probably won’t win back the Senate. How can this be? Because Republicans cannot unite around a coherent and positive vision to offer voters. As a party, all they offer is a series of “no”s.

This is true to an extent.  The GOP won’t really decisively win because they ultimately represent the same thing as the Democrats.   I don’t think America will ever become a monarchy, but I’ve never viewed monarchy as such:  monarchy functions as an epistemological critique of modern liberal democratic politics.  To the degree that modern American politics continues to divide the populace without providing them acceptable alternatives, to that degree monarchy becomes a more viable and coherent option.

Ruskin’s Economics

Six years ago I came across John Ruskin via James K. A. Smith.   As an individual and a thinker, Ruskin is not someone you want to emulate.   Abandoning any coherent form of Christianity by the end of his life, and unable to connect his aesthetics with his ethics (he adored pre-Raphaelite paintings, but when he saw pubic hair on his bride’s genitalia for the first time, he freaked out;  they later annulled the marriage for obvious reasons), you don’t want to be like Ruskin.  On the other hand, correctly saw what was wrong with society.  Further, he connected the alternative to earlier Christian visions.  His failure of nerve was he couldn’t bring his project forward in a new context where the baggage of “throne and altar” was no longer attached (or maybe it was, since he wrote around Vatican I).

Christian thinkers today are beginning to carry this forward, but not necessarily in the best way.  John Milbank shows promise, but is susceptible to the standard Catholic critique of him:  he hates liberal modernity but is not quite clear what to put in its place (similar to Reformed political ethics today).  On the other hand, given Roman Catholic economics, it’s not quite clear how Catholic thinkers can 1) value individual liberty in light of Vatican I, and in which spirit later Popes labeled Americanism a heresy, 2) not reduce to pure socialism (since Aquinas said you could take your neighbor’s stuff if you really need it).

James K. A. Smith’s Reformed vision, such that it is, is not entirely better.   Many of Smith’s applications are downright wacky, and I am suspicious of any “worldview-speak” at this point.  Still, we at least have the material on which to build something.

John Ruskin gives us a vision of life that is strangely united: how do a few essays about art, architecture, and economic reform relate to one another? Indeed, much of Unto this Last seems disjointed—and not all essays are of equal worth; some are quite dated and others are just weird. Notwithstanding, rays of light break through and give us an alternative way of being and community.


Ruskin uses current (19th century) capitalism as his foil and “bad guy.” This will cause many free-marketers to bristle. Not without reason will they consider Ruskin a “socialist.” However, one must also consider that the days of the Industrial Revolution were quite grim. Whatever benefits it provided—and we cannot minimize the eventual breakthroughs in wealth—it was brutal and harsh. However, in reading Ruskin, we find this is not the worst criticism he throws at capitalism. It is not the fact that capitalism destroyed lives and introduced 16 hour workdays to the children. Rather, it was only the symptoms of a greater disease: Western world at this time had a view of reality that was violent and pragmatic, an ontology of violence if you will. Unfortunately, this is the weaker part of the book. Many of Ruskin’s proposals—uniform wage among other things—will strike the reader as bizarre, at best. Fortunately, I think Ruskin’s vision can be redeemed.

The following will be part Ruskin’s proposals and partly my own reconstruction of Ruskin’s thought. Ruskin proposes a Gothic society. Whether or not he truly understood it, Ruskin’s vision is not too different from Augustine’s in City of God book 19.4 and certainly echoes much of Plato’s thought in The Republic. Ruskin notes that a society’s architecture reflects its moral vision (233-234, 237). A Gothic society is one that arises out of a pure national faith and domestic virtue (239). This sounds like fascism, doesn’t it? That’s not what Ruskin has in mind. Following St Augustine, who reasoned that a society is one that shares its common objects and commonly loves its Object. Therefore, a pure national faith is nothing other than a society worshipping Christ and reflecting it, among other things, in its architecture.

Of importance, and what I will explore in the next few posts, is Ruskin’s definition of wealth:  possession of value by the valiant.

Other points:  expand Milbank’s essay on Ruling and Sharing, which solves the socialism/welfare debate.

On writing my Christian Viking Fiction Book

I’ve always wanted to write a historical fiction book on Christianity in Scandinavia.  Pride of place goes to Lars Walker.  I cannot imitate his ability. I do think he has captured a fundamental idea that most bourgeois Christians gloss over:  pagan gods are actually demons and demons exist.     I do think that this is one area where new ideas are actually possible.  I had wanted to write a biography on Olaf II Haraldsson, since nothing exists on him exact historians’ sneering (and undocumented) slams.  I still plan to do that, but while there is good scholarship on this aspect of Norway, it’s out of my price-range for the moment.

Viking fiction remains one of those anomalies in Western culture.  It is a beautiful setting, a heroic people, and a glorious legacy.  Yet few fictional works, whether in film or in print, are actually any good.   To make it worse, the best Viking “re-telling” is the video game Skyrim!

But I don’t have the ability to write 500 pages of narrative at the moment.  And then I realized, “I don’t have to.”   This one Christian guy wrote a 90 page narrative and it was endorsed by Gene Veith.  Start small, I suppose.