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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).]


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

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.

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

  • 1Quoted in Raymond Plant, Hegel (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 120.
  • 2Hegel 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.
  • 3Plant, op. cit., note 6, p. 96.
  • 4See ibid., pp. 122, 123, 181.
  • 5Robert 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.
  • 8Ibid., p. 33.
  • 9In 1867. See ibid., p. 34.
  • 10Ibid., p. 33.
  • 11Ibid., 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.
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