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.

What could they have done?

In reading my following arguments, someone will likely conclude, “But you are defending the Confederacy” or “You are defending slavery” or “You are wacisth.”  However, I advance the opposite conclusion: any black racial commentator, while not agreeing with some of my conclusions, will agree with the presuppositions behind those conclusions.  Further, with the black activist I agree that many of the neo-conservative counter-arguments on the race war are either lame or hypocritical.

(Further, I need to say one more time so no one draws the wrong conclusion:  I reject the Confederacy as a political unit, leaving other questions about society and culture aside.  Even more: while I think abolitionist exegesis is bad, I don’t think slavery is a long-term good for society, so I am certainly not advocating that).

Further, and in full agreeance with the black commentator, Southern appeals to “states rights” as opposed to slavery’s being the cause of the War are either misleading or frankly wrong.  True, the most notable white supremacist of the 19th century denied he was fighting to free slaves.

Further, I am not saying that the Confederacy was right en toto. I certainly do not agree with the Davis Administration on its key points. The conservatives who say, “It wasn’t about slavery, but states’ rights” miss the point:  precisely what were the states seeking to preserve? The conservative would answer, “Their rights.”  Very true, but what was the most notorious of those rights? The formal cause of the war was states’ rights–I agree.  The material cause was slavery. There is no getting around that.  (Of course, there are other causes, too, like economics).

Granting that man-stealing is wrong (and so the Yankee capitalists who engaged in it should have been put to death), we need to ask if the current unionized model of labor is really superior to biblical slavery.   Of course, I am not saying the South did it correctly all the time.

Trick question:  how many slaves came to America on ships carrying the Confederate Flag?  What about the Union Flag?

“Okay,” the American Communist might say, “we admit that the Yankee merchants who kidnapped the Africans should have been executed because of God’s law, but the South was wrong to buy stolen property.”

To which I say, “Maybe.  But what exactly would have been the best thing to do for the African?”  Few people have seriously thought about this question.   Set them free?   It sounds noble and Oprah-ish, but think about it.  Today, if you go to the ‘hood’ or to an Obama gathering and you ask them why blacks are so poor today, the response will not be “Crime” or “rap music” or “welfare system,” but it will be “Da Man is keepin’ me down.”   Both liberal and conservative whites get angry at that response, and I used to, but think about it for a moment: the interlocutor touched on something important: if you place someone in an advanced society who does not have the resources, culture, values, or skills to participate in that society, what will happen to him?  He will fall behind ad infinitum.

The southern gentleman knew this.  He knew that simply saying, “Thou art loosed” to the slave would be the worst thing for him. The slave would not have the resources to continue in society. He would immediately be thrown to the gutter without any recourse to labor or wealth.

So what should have happened instead?  I don’t know.  Just pointing it out.  Sometimes the solution is worse than the ailment.  In fact, any government solution is necessarily worse.

What should have happened?  As I’ve mentioned before on dominion, if the slave was regenerate, the master should have placed him in progressing degrees of responsibility so that he could practice being a priest-king of the new creation.  If we want to fault the Southerner, this could be a valid criticism. Further, I don’t think the South was as fully Reformed as some want to make it.  Some states like Maryland, elements of the Carolinas, Florida and Louisiana were Catholic and probably resisted any kind of biblical reformation.  So while my idea is noble and fundamentally correct, I entertain no delusions of its actually working.

But back to the original objection: the southern slave owner should have not bought the property and/or returned it because it is “stolen goods.”  Again, the nature of the case precludes a solid answer.  On one hand if I have stolen goods in today’s society, I’ll probably get in trouble, so I can understand the objection on that ground.  However, does that mean that William the Conqueror’s (my ancestor, actually.  Pretty cool, huh?) invasion of England was wrong?  Probably, but reasoning by extension that does not mean the entirety of English history is necessarily illegitimate.  As Dabney points out,

“The Norman Conquest resulted in a complete transfer of almost all the land in England to the hands of new proprietors; and nearly all the land titles of England, at the present day, are the legal progeny of that iniquitous robbery, which transferred the territory of the kingdom from the Saxon to the Norman barons. If lapse of time, and change of hands, cannot make a bad title good, then few of the present landlords of England have any right to their estates.”

Defense of Virginia, 299.

With a brutal inference Dabney concludes, “If the Virginian slaveholder derived from the New England or British slave-trader, no valid title to the African, then the trader had no valid title to the planter’s money” (301).  I am going to carry Dabney’s analysis one step further: future possessors of that money from the exchange are necessarily sinning by using the money. I disagree with the idea of reparations for former slaves, but if you grant the abolitionist’s point that buying previously stolen slaves is sinful, then you must logically carry the thought to the money from the exchange. While I think Je$$e Jack$on is a racist clown, if the above objection stands, then the conservative who votes Republican and watches Fox News really has no way to answer him.

Far from being the racist curmudgeon people make him out to be, Dabney observes,

“The title by which the original slave catchers held them may have been iniquitous. But these slave catchers were not citizens of the Southern colonies; these slaves were not brought to our shores by our ships. They were presented by the inhuman captors, dragged in chains from the filthy holds of the slave ships; and the alternative before the planter was, either to purchase them from him who possibly had no right to sell them, or re-consign them to fetters, disease, and death. (302).”

Sometimes noble ideology is the cruelest of schemes.  And this one quote by Dabney shows how utterly despicable liberalism is.  Lincoln wanted to send them back to Africa.  Aside from the sheer impossibility of it, it would have been a two-fold death sentence.  If the return voyage didn’t kill the slave, Africa would have.

Towards a Critique of Dabney

This does not mean I agree with Dabney in all aspects.  He defends the lawfulness of fugitive slave law:

“”But when we have proved that the relation of master and slave is no intrinsically unrighteous, and have shown that the fugitive slave law carries this out,” then we should obey it (Discussions III: 66).

The first half of Dabney’s argument is logically sound: any discussion of slavery as right or wrong must first answer the question of the relation between master and slave, and this has not been done.

I do not agree with his conclusion, though.  Deuteronomy 23:15 provides a method of freeing the slave, lawfulness of the purchase notwithstanding.

Further, Dabney’s attitude towards blacks after the War is hard to justify.   Sean Michael Lucas made much of Dabney’s refusal to grant black’s full status in Presbytery.  And Dabney was wrong.  However, I suggest Dabney should have handled it this way. He should have simply kept his mouth shut and nothing would have changed.  Freed slaves weren’t about to become ruling presbyters any time soon.

I’ll prove it by way of illustration.  While I do not endorse his theology, the sexually depraved theologian Paul Tillich pointed out that something like Erastianism always happens.  He is not advocating that the state rule the church, but notes that the “civic elite” usually find roles of leadership within the church.  This is official in countries like England and Germany. But in Presbyterian towns the most educated and affluent usually sit on college and seminary boards, if not rule in the church.  There is nothing wrong with that.  They are probably affluent because they are good stewards.  They deserve leadership roles.  Except at RTS Jackson.

Which brings me back to my point: the wealthy, civic elite likely had no intention of giving freed slaves anything more than a nominal role.  Thus, Dabney’s fear of an uneducated, unprepared populace leading the church would never have happened anyway.

Barth on Nazism and Communism

One of the things I appreciate about Barth is that while he did make political moves (Barmen et al), unlike modern hipster Christians, he really isn’t interested in showing how every page in the Bible teaches left-wing socialism.   In either section 19 or 20 of Church Dogmatics it appears that he makes a veiled reference to the difficulty that many European Christians had in evaluating Nazism and Communism.  That he resisted Nazism is obvious.  However, and unlike Americans today whether right-wing or left-wing, it seems that he realized the true danger to humanity was not Nazism as such, but communism.   He addresses those who perhaps want the church to ally itself with National Socialism in order to resist communism.   He says that is wrong, and I agree with him, but he does so from a position of understanding.

What we don’t realize is that communism killed hundreds of millions more than Nazism.