Hegel’s Philosophy of History (1/4): The Age of Heroes and the Orient

Hegel is considered the father of History in some circles, or the father of Historicism.  By History, rather than history, scholars and philosophers refer to History as Historicism – the notion that History is unfolding in its particular epoch toward an ultimate goal.  History has a telos, it is moved by dialectical advance to its end, and the purpose of History is to “be on the right side of history,” which is to say to be on the “winning side of history.”  In fact, much of our contemporary language of “being on the right side of history” or “being on the winning side of history” are rooted in a perversion of Hegel’s historicism.  This is called philosophy of history, and it is distinguished from (normal) “history,” which is merely the study and memorization about what happened in the past.  For Hegel, the study of history is inferior to the knowledge of History.  This former is called reflective history, and the latter is called philosophical history.

Originally a combination of lectures, Hegel’s most visible commentary in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and they are mandatory reading in philosophy studies or anyone working with Hegel.  Hegel is largely impenetrable, for his use of language is revolutionary which makes it difficult to understand.  He uses different words for the same concept – but Hegel is making no mistake of language or embracing sophistry in doing so, we must remember his dialectic of sublation that guides much of his systematic philosophy.  The old is gone and has been replaced by the new.  The same goes for his use of language.


History, according to Hegel, has three defined epochs: the Age of the Orient, the Age of the Greeks, and the Age of Reason (he calls this the “German world” in his work).  Hegel’s understanding of History unfolds through two primary means: organic succession and violent sublation (or revolution) which lead to greater recognition of humans as humans through consciousness.  History is a struggle of the advancement of the Absolute Idea through time, and the Geist (Spirit) that moves this advancement and calls humans to be in accord with it produces this struggle in concrete life.  Although an idealist, Hegel is a concrete idealist – the Absolute Idea must always be made concrete in the world.  While he has Neoplatonic influences riddled throughout his work, Hegel disagrees with the Platonic and Plotinian conception of the thinking mind being fully alive insofar that the thinking mind is fully alive only when it becomes actualized and active in the world – living and embodying what it knows – this is the famous Hegelian dictum “only the rational is real.”  To think is a reflection of living, but it is not the height of living, rather, only that thinking mind that has come to understand the Absolute Idea is the full living person.  In this way, the Absolute Idea that calls us is made concrete in the world through human action, either that organic succession or through violent sublation of the old idea crumbling and giving way to the new.  Thus, mere thinking is not the highest expression of living.  Understanding as actualization from thinking is.  One must understand in order to be “fully alive.”  (And we all know Hegel thought that he was one who was “fully alive.”)

The most basic way to understand Hegel’s conception of History is that it is the march of liberty through time due to the triumph of reason to spirit; Vernuft to Geist. Of course, this will require us to ultimately know what Hegel means by liberty and reason – since he does not conceptualize either in the manner that liberal theorists understand both terms.  In earlier times, only some were free.  Today, all should be free.  Thus, History is the dialectic struggle of liberty, which Hegel associates with the rise and triumph of universal consciousness – or rationality and connectedness to one’s inheritance.  (Here, Hegel disagrees with the likes of Locke and Rousseau who assert that man is free in his very beginning in the state of nature; man is not free, but man is becoming free over time.)  This is a natural and organic process that is pushed forward most excitingly during the collapse of the old order into the new order (aufehebung) which unleashes the storm of revolution.  Ultimately Hegel thinks this march of liberty and reason is both restorative, and we’ll get to that at the end of this series on his thoughts concerning the nature of history, and progressive.  It will culminate in the constitutional State but Hegel believes that the consummation of law and State in History is liberty and reason, for the State, and its laws, will embody what his precursor and spiritual father, Johann Gottfried von Herder, called the volksgeist (or “people’s spirit”).  This will consummate itself in what Ferdinand Tönnies later called the Gemeinschaft (“community”), and what fascists later called Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”).  To say Hegel was a national populist, although anachronistic, would be accurate enough in some sense.

But if we recall the dialectic of Positive-Negative-Synthetic (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis), does History follow this threefold path? Yes and no.  Everything follows this dialectic. But the most common mistake people make who have never actually read Hegel, rather having read Hegel as you are doing now, online, is to the think that it merely follows this exhaustion into synthetic and then, in the emergence of the synthetic, the new age or epoch begins.  This is the case with Marx but not the case with Hegel.  This is why this first introduction to his history is just about the Age of the Orient, although it was necessary to briefly explain some things about Hegel himself before we could begin.

The Age of the Orient is characterized not necessarily by tyranny, as much as it is characterized by the World Spirit being embodied only by one person.  Hegel begins his History of the Oriental epoch by explaining the dialectical progression to the State.  The movement from the “World Historical Men” of individual hero, to the rise of empire, kingship, and so forth (Hegel sees four archetypes of men: the hero, the person, the citizen, and the victim – we will visit these four archetypes in a later post).  As Hegel himself writes, “It is the absolute interest of Reason that this moral Whole should exist; and herein lie the justification and merit of heroes who have founded states — however rude these may have been.”  The hero is the father of the State, the founder of a society.  The hero is memorialized by his society and State, for his is actions, and ultimately the hero produces the successor to him which ends the dialectic of the hero and begins the dialectic of emperors.  The emperor, as a descendent of the hero, propagandizes the hero as being an offspring of divinity which set him apart from the rest of his community, and by the emperor claiming lineage through this child of divinity, he also sets himself apart from the community he rules over.  This is the rule of one which characterizes the Age of the Orient, only one is free (the descendent of the hero who had the world-historical spirit embodied in his ideals and actions).

In some sense, the Heroic Age is “Original History.”  In fact, we might actually better understand the primordial Age of the Hero as what Hegel sees History as moving back toward but also away from simultaneously.  This is because, “Such individuals [the heroes] had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding, while prosecuting those aims of theirs; on the contrary, they were practical, political men. But at the same time they were thinking men.”  The hero had no consciousness or understanding of the Absolute Spirit, even though they were also thinking men, which Hegel associates with necessity.  Insofar that the hero was unaware he was in accord with the Dialectic, there was no History in the sense of philosophical history – no understanding or knowledge of History.  This was the historical epoch of the pure Spirit, Spirit moving forces to do its bidding without the World-Historical forces knowing what they were doing in the fullest sense.  By contrast, the emperors and kings of the Age of the Orient are the first to have this awareness and understanding, as do their opponents.

Hegel notes that the age of the hero is characterized by tireless labor.  It is place that was “no happy place.”  They sought fulfillment of their own inner desire to be free but were unable to actually be free because they didn’t understand the nature of freedom even if they were advancing it.

The Age of the Hero is characterized by the thesis: struggle for life (freedom); which is challenged by the antithesis: death (the end of freedom), and the tug-of-war between this struggle ends two ways, the lesser succumb to death, while those who were imbued and moved by the World Spirit overcome death, and achieve, temporarily, life.  The synthesis is the embodiment of life (freedom) in the person of the hero, who in his death, passes on the embodiment of life to his successor or heir.  The struggle for life which ends in the embodiment of life is the groundwork for the origin of State and society.  Which is to say it marks the earliest embodiment of freedom, because primordial freedom is life – however laborious, tiresome, and ripe with struggle it is.  This dialectic is necessary for Hegel because all advancement and coming to know oneself, and the world, comes in dialectic.  For instance, one would not know beauty without ugly.  One would not know light without darkness.  And so on and so forth.  He who struggles to understand the dialectic is he who gains knowledge.  The hero does not struggle to understand, he is simply a vessel of the world spirit, but those who come later reflect on him and understand the hero’s actions to have been necessary and therefore praiseworthy because without him, we would all be dead (we recognize the need of the hero in order to have life).

The hero is worthy of praise and honor because were almost all failed, the individual hero succeeded.  And this becomes key for understanding Hegel’s restorative yet progressive outlook on History.  The hero fought for his own life for he had no knowledge of the World Spirit that would have directed him to fight for the life of others.  But in securing life for himself, and then embodying life at the end of the struggle between want for life and staving off death, the hero unintentionally – for he “had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding” – succeeded in really fighting for the freedom of his people, and securing the freedom of his people, which is the life of his people.  The irony, for Hegel, is that the people know this before the hero does, this is why the people’s spirit (volksgeist) is such an important topic and theme in Hegel (even if he borrowed it from Herder).  In this paradoxical sense, the Age of the Hero was the age of absolute (unconscious) freedom (the triumph of life over death – the heroic struggle that overcome the conflict and ended, unknowingly, in the security of life and liberty for the masses).  The masses sound the trump of fame and worship to this hero (but this is where they equally went wrong – for it was not the hero but the Absolute Idea that should have been the directed source of their gladness and appreciation).

All of this is the backdrop to the proper Age of the Orient, the rule of one, who claims lineage from the original hero.  In claiming lineage from the hero, the Oriental ruler is participating in reflective history.  The ruler shows signs of awareness about History and understands that the fruits he enjoys today were the result of that struggle long ago.  While the hero never had time for rest and leisure, the god-emperor does because he inherited the new synthesis established by the hero.  From time to time, the hand of Fate reaches out and lifts up “great men” (heroes) to do the bidding of the World Historical Spirit.  The hero is the pure embodiment of Spirit though he does not know he is in alignment with the World Spirit.


This returns us to what I said before about how the dialectic progress in the Age of the Orient doesn’t have a single shot to the Age of the Greeks, or the Age of Aristocracy.  Hegel understands the dialectic as going through multiple cycles in each age before exhausting into the next.  For instance, the Age of Orient which begins with the god-emperor suffers conflict.  The people argue that the hero whom the god-emperor claims lineage from “fought for them” and was “one of us.”  The hero becomes a man of the people, and in doing so, loses his status of quasi divinity which was placed onto him by his original worshippers, and advanced by the god-emperor successors.  This produces conflict.  The new synthesis has become the thesis, which is challenged by the antithesis which arises from the people.  This exhausts itself in the god-emperor no longer being divine, but an intercessor and protector of the people.  The emperor still has lineage to the hero, which makes him special, but he is no longer seen as a god, and neither is the hero who gave rise to his claim to the establishment.  This is the advancement of rationalization in society.  Which, in another way, is an advancement of “secularization” since the god-emperor is no longer a god and neither is the hero founder.  Now, the emperor still occupies the top spot in society, and the hero is still revered and worshipped, in a sense, but the god-emperor is no longer “in it for himself.”  Instead, the god-emperor’s descent into just emperor, also entails that the emperor is the protector of the people and fights the people – just as the hero unintentionally did back in Original History.

So the Age of the Orient moves from god-emperor to emperor, which reflects growing rationalization.  The people are content, for the time being, until the people once again realize their power.  They achieved gradual change through organic processes to move from divine imperium to secular imperium.  They will do so again, the re-engagement of the dialectic begins.  This time, the people seek intercessors to the emperor rather than the emperor also being intercessor to the people.  This marks the conflict toward the establishment of legal systems, courts, rule of law, and advisors.  The emperor is still supreme, and he is not so much “checked” by these new establishments, instead, law, courts, and advisors, in the Oriental Age, embody the freedom of the emperor.  The emperor, in essence, delegates his power and freedom to law, courts, and advisors.

This is the primordial beginning of something like a constitution and a constitutional monarchy.  Imperium, then, eventually sublates into a monarchy.  The empire is divided into kingdoms to make the management of the establishment, which is the management of freedom, better.  The rule of one is still present, but it has been codified and regionalized.  As Hegel writes, “Kings have a class of ministers through whom they command elemental changes, and every place possesses such magicians, who perform special ceremonies, with all sorts of gesticulations, dances, uproar, and shouting, and in the midst of this confusion commence their incantations.”  The ministers, laws, and advisors all answer to the king, but their position in the new society is also one that reflects a greater movement toward the power of the people – but we should see, the power of the people is not in their hands, it becomes embodied in externality: the hero, the god-emperor, the emperor, the king, the constitution, the courts of law, etc.

Eventually this dialectic of the Absolute Spirit of greater rationalization toward liberty continues and continues, until, at long last, the Age of the Orient characterized by the rule of one, is destroyed and becomes the rule of some (the Age of Aristocracy, which Hegel associated with the Greeks and Romans).  Now, some societies don’t make it to this transition.  They either fall to a new breed of hero to orient, which shows that such a society did not have consciousness of the World Spirit, or they collapse from within because they have misunderstood the nature of freedom as being one of leisure and pleasure, rather than struggle and fortitude.

In any case, Hegel sees the Age of the Orient as the rule of one – freedom embodied in the single ruler.  This slowly moves toward the freedom of some, or the rule of several (the Age of Aristocracy).  But the Age of Orient is not, as most would think, a simple dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (one ruler, multiple rulers, survivors become the some rulers).  Instead, it embodies multiple dialectical cycles that slowly move toward the rule of some: hero to god-emperor, god-emperor to emperor, emperor to king, king to embodied kingship, embodied kingship to the sublation into the Age of Aristocracy.  The dialectic goes through many cycles in this Age of Orient, and each cycle is a slow advance away from the rule of one toward the rule of some (which finally consummates the Age of Aristocracy).

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