Hegel: The State as God's Will

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This article
is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 11 of An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
(1995).
An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach,
is available
for download
.

Typically,
determinist schema leave convenient implicit escape hatches for
their creators and advocates, who are somehow able to rise above
the iron determinism that afflicts the rest of us. Hegel was no
different, except that his escape hatches were all too explicit.
While God and the absolute refer to man as collective organism rather
than to its puny and negligible individual members, every once in
a while great individuals arise, "world-historical" men,
who are able to embody attributes of the absolute more than others,
and act as significant agents in the next big historical Aufhebung
– the next great thrust into the
man-God
or world-soul’s advance in its "self-knowledge."
Thus, during a time when most patriotic Prussians were reacting
violently against Napoleon’s imperial conquests, and mobilizing
their forces against him, Hegel reacted very differently. Hegel
wrote to a friend in ecstasy about having personally seen Napoleon
riding down the city street: "The Emperor – this world-soul
– riding on horseback through the city to the review of his
troops – it is indeed a wonderful feeling to see such a man."[1]

Hegel was enthusiastic
about Napoleon because of his world-historical function of bringing
the strong state to Germany and the rest of Europe. Just as Hegel’s
fundamental eschatology and dialectic prefigured Marxism, so did
his more directly political philosophy of history. Thus, following
the Romantic writer Friedrich Schiller, Hegel, in an essay in 1795,
claimed that the equivalent of early or primitive communism was
ancient Greece. Schiller and Hegel lauded Greece for the alleged
homogeneity, unity and "harmony" of its polis,
which both authors gravely misconceived as being free of all division
of labor. The consequent Aufhebung disrupted this wonderful
unity and fragmented man, but – the good side of the new historical
stage – it did lead to the growth of commerce, living standards,
and individualism. For Hegel, moreover, the coming stage, heralded
by Hegel’s philosophy, would bring about a reintegration of man
and the state.

Before 1796,
Hegel, like many other young intellectuals throughout Europe, was
enchanted by the French Revolution, individualism, radical democracy,
liberty and the rights of man. Soon, however, again like many European
intellectuals, Hegel, disillusioned in the French Revolution, turned
toward reactionary state absolutism. In particular, Hegel was greatly
influenced by the Scottish statist, Sir James Steuart, a Jacobite
exile in Germany for a large part of his life, whose Inquiry
into the Principles of Political Economy
(1767) had been
greatly influenced by the ultra-statist German 18th-century mercantilists,
the cameralists.
Hegel read the German translation of Steuart’s Principles
(which had been published from 1769–72), from 1797 to 1799,
and took extensive notes. Hegel was influenced in particular by
two aspects of Steuart’s outlook. One held that history proceeded
in stages, deterministically "evolving" from one stage
(nomadic, agricultural, exchange, etc.) to the next. The other influential
theme was that massive state intervention and control were necessary
to maintain an exchange economy.[2]
It comes as no surprise that Hegel’s main disillusion in the French
Revolution came from its individualism and lack of unity under the
state. Again foreshadowing Marx, it became particularly important
for man (the collective organism) to surmount unconscious blind
fate, and "consciously" to take control of "his"
fate via the state. And so Hegel was a great admirer not only of
Napoleon the mighty world-conqueror, but also Napoleon the detailed
regulator of the French economy.

Hegel made
quite evident that what the new, developing strong state really
needed was a comprehensive philosophy, contributed by a Great Philosopher
to give its mighty rule coherence and legitimacy. Otherwise, as
Professor Plant explains, "such a state, devoid of philosophical
comprehension, would appear as a merely arbitrary and oppressive
imposition of the freedom of individuals to pursue their own interest."

We need make
only one guess as to what that philosophy, or who that Great Philosopher,
was supposed to be. And then, armed with Hegelian philosophy and
Hegel himself as its fountainhead and great leader, "this alien
aspect of the progressive modern state would disappear and would
be seen not as an imposition but a development of self-consciousness.
By regulating and codifying many aspects of social practice, it
gives to the modern world a rationality and a predictability which
it would not otherwise possess."[3]

Armed with
such a philosophy and with such a philosopher, the modern state
would take its divinely appointed stand at the height of history
and civilization, as God on earth. Thus, "The modern State,
proving the reality of political community, when comprehended philosophically,
could therefore be seen as the highest articulation of Spirit, or
God in the contemporary world." The state, then, is "a
supreme manifestation of the activity of God in the world,"
and, "the State stands above all; it is Spirit which knows
itself as the universal essence and reality"; and, "The
State is the reality of the kingdom of heaven." And finally,
"The State is God’s Will."[4]

Of the various
forms of state, monarchy is best, since it permits "all"
subjects to be "free" (in the Hegelian sense) by submerging
their being into the divine substance, which is the authoritarian,
monarchical state. The people are only "free" when they
are insignificant particles of this unitary divine substance. As
Tucker writes, "Hegel’s conception of freedom is totalitarian
in a literal sense of the word. The world-self must experience itself
as the totality of being, or in Hegel’s own words must elevate itself
to “a self-comprehending totality," in order to achieve the
consciousness of freedom. Anything short of this spells alienation
and the sorrow of finitude."[5]

According to
Hegel, the final development of the man-God, the final breakthrough
into totality and infinity, was at hand. The most highly developed
state in the history of the world was now in place – the existing
Prussian monarchy under King Friedrich Wilhelm III.

It so happened
that Hegel’s apotheosis of the existing Prussian monarchy neatly
coincided with the needs of that monarch. When King Friedrich Wilhelm
III established the new University of Berlin in 1818 to assist in
supporting, and propagandizing for, his absolute power, what better
person for the chair of philosophy than Friedrich Hegel the divinizer
of state power? The king and his absolutist party needed an official
philosopher to defend the state from the hated revolutionary ideals
of the French Revolution, and to justify his purge of the reformers
and classical liberals who had helped him defeat Napoleon. As Karl
Popper puts it,

Hegel was
appointed to meet this demand, and he did so by reviving the ideas
of the first great enemies of the open society [especially Heraclitus
and Plato] … Hegel rediscovered the Platonic Ideas which lie
behind the perennial revolt against freedom and reason. Hegelianism
is the renaissance of tribalism … [Hegel] is the "missing
link," as it were, between Plato and the modern forms of
totalitarianism. Most of the modern totalitarians, … know of
their indebtedness to Hegel, and all of them have been brought
up in the close atmosphere of Hegelianism. They have been taught
to worship the state, history, and the nation.[6]

On Hegel’s
worship of the state, Popper cites chilling and revealing passages:

The State
is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth … We must therefore
worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth
… The State is the march of God through the world … The State
must be comprehended as an organism … To the complete State
belongs, essentially, consciousness and thought. The State knows
what it wills … The State … exists for its own sake … The
State is the actually existing, realized moral life.[7]

All this rant
is well characterized by Popper as "bombastic and hysterical
Platonism."

Much of this
was inspired by Hegel’s friends and immediate philosophical predecessors,
men like the later Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, Schiller, Herder,
and Schleiermacher. But it was Hegel’s particular task to turn his
murky doctrines to the job of weaving apologetics for the absolute
power of the extant Prussian state. Thus Hegel’s admiring disciple,
F.J.C. Schwegler, revealed the following in his History
of Philosophy
:

The fullness
of his [Hegel's] fame and activity, however, properly dates only
from his call to Berlin in 1818. Here there rose up around him
a numerous, widely extended, and … exceedingly active school;
here too, he acquired, from his connections with the Prussian
bureaucracy, political recognition of his system as the official
philosophy; not always to the advantage of the inner freedom of
his philosophy, or of its moral worth.[8]

With Prussia
as the central focus, Hegelianism was able to sweep German philosophy
during the 19th century, dominating in all but the Catholic areas
of southern Germany and Austria. As Popper put it, "having
thus become a tremendous success on the continent, Hegelianism could
hardly fail to obtain support in Britain from those who [felt] that
such a powerful movement must after all have something to offer
… " Indeed, the man who first introduced Hegel to English
readers, Dr J. Hutchinson Stirling, admiringly remarked, the year
after Prussia’s lightning victory over Austria, "Is it not
indeed to Hegel, and especially his philosophy of ethics and politics,
that Prussia owes that mighty life and organization she is now rapidly
developing?"[9]
Finally Hegel’s contemporary and acquaintance, Arthur Schopenhauer,
denounced the state-philosophy alliance that drove Hegelianism into
becoming a powerful force in social thought:

Philosophy
is misused, from the side of the state as a tool, from the other
side as a means of gain…. Who can really believe that truth
also will thereby come to light, just as a byproduct?… Governments
made of philosophy a means of serving their state interests, and
scholars made of it a trade. (emphasis Schopenhauer’s)[10]

In addition
to the political influence, Popper offers a complementary explanation
for the otherwise puzzling widespread influence of G.W.F. Hegel:
the attraction of philosophers to high-sounding jargon and gibberish
almost for its own sake, followed by the gullibility of a credulous
public. Thus Popper cites a statement by the English Hegelian Stirling:
"The philosophy of Hegel, then, was … a scrutiny of thought
so profound that it was for the most part unintelligible."
Profound for its very unintelligibility! Lack of clarity as virtue
and proof of profundity! Popper adds,

philosophers
have kept around themselves, even in our day, something of the
atmosphere of the magician. Philosophy is considered a strange
and abstruse kind of thing, dealing with those things with which
religion deals, but not in a way which can be "revealed unto
babes" or to common people; it is considered to be too profound
for that, and to be the religion and the theology of the intellectuals,
of the learned and wise. Hegelianism fits these views admirably;
it is exactly what this popular superstition supposes philosophy
to be.[11]

Notes

[1]
Quoted in Raymond Plant, Hegel
(Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 120.

[2]
Hegel was also influenced by Steuart’s great rival, Adam Smith,
but unfortunately in the wrong direction. From the Wealth
of Nations
Hegel concluded that the division of labor
had brought man the misery of specialization, alienation, etc.
More interestingly, from Smith’s friend the Rev. Adam Ferguson’s
famous line on events that are "the product of human action
but not of human design," Hegel got the idea of each individual
agent of the world-soul’s pursuing the world-soul’s purposes without
conscious intent. This is Hegel’s famous concept of the "cunning
of reason" at work through history.

Ferguson,
in turn, arrived at his famous phrase, not by analysis of the
free market, as Hayek implies, but from an attempt to show that
the revolt in Scotland in 1745, which almost succeeded in bringing
the dread Catholic Jacobites to power, was unconsciously pursuing
God’s benevolent purpose of shaking Scottish Presbyterians –
assumed of course to be God’s true Church – out of their
religious apathy. In short, the Scottish Catholics, though consciously
pursuing evil ends, were unwittingly carrying out God’s designs.
Out of apparent evil, good. Similarly, when Hegel later hailed
Napoleon as the "world-historical" man, he saw Napoleon
as intending to pursue evil but unconsciously furthering God’s
benevolent design. See Richard B. Sher, Church
and University in the Scottish Enlightenment
(Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 40–44.

[3]
Plant, op. cit., note 6, p. 96.

[4]
See ibid., pp. 122, 123, 181.

[5]
Robert C. Tucker, Philosophy
and Myth in Karl Marx
(Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1961), p. 39, n. 3, pp. 54–5. E.F. Carritt points
out that, for Hegel, "freedom" is "desiring above
all things to serve the success and glory of their State. In desiring
this they are desiring that the will of God should be done…."
If an individual thinks he should do something which is not
for the success and glory of the state, then, for Hegel, "he
should be “forced to be free”. "How does a person know
what action will redound to the glory of the state? To Hegel,
the answer was easy. Whatever the state rulers demand, since "the
very fact of their being rulers is the surest sign of God’s will
that they should be." Impeccable logic, indeed! See E.F.
Carritt, "Reply" (1940), reprinted in W. Kaufmann, (ed.),
Hegel’s
Political Philosophy
(New York; Atherton Press, 1970),
pp. 38–9.

[6]
Karl R. Popper, The
Open Society and its Enemies
(5th ed., Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1966), II, pp. 30–31.

[7]
Ibid., p. 31.

[8]
Ibid., p. 33.

[9]
In 1867. See ibid., p. 34.

[10]
Ibid., p. 33.

[11]
Ibid., pp. 27, 30. For an explanation of what Popper refers to
as the "scherzo-style" of his chapter on Hegel, see
ibid., pp. 393–5.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Copyright
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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