Hegel’s Philosophy of History (2/4): The Role of Religion and Culture in History

Continuing with Hegel’s philosophy of history we will move into one of the most important, but often neglected, aspects of Hegel’s philosophy: the role of religion as the source of society and culture.  Throughout his works, Hegel comments on religion, the power of religion, and the role of religion in society and shaping national character and spirit.  Religion, itself, is part of the world-historical process and embodies the Absolute Idea.  But if the Absolute Idea is universal, and Hegel was a cultural particularist, how did Hegel get around this seeming contradiction?  The answer is religion.

Much like how Herder was an important influence on Hegel’s historical people’s spirit, so too was Herder an influence upon Hegel’s understanding of cultural relativism and what are the forces that cause cultural relativism.  By cultural relativism we do not mean epistemological relativism.  A better term is cultural particularism, and so that is what I will use to describe Herder to Hegel’s cultural relativism, which is really a form of particularity.  Every culture will be different from each other due to circumstances that influenced it – each culture, however, will reflect the universal idea in its particularity.

According to Herder, religion is the root of life in all culture.  Religion is the root of life because it promotes an outlook of life and heroic struggle.  Long before philosophy, science, ethics, or any other intellectual disciplines emerged in society, religion was the first systematic intellectual practice that was captured by the World Spirit and implanted itself in society.  Religion, rich in ritual and practice, nevertheless was an interpretive movement – at its heart, and this is critical, religion is an interpretive endeavor.  Religion’s primary importance is intellectual, rather than practical or practiced from Hegel and Herder’s perspective.

All religions, however, are different.  Religions are shaped by geographical realism, societal difference (settled vs. nomadic), a society’s wealth (rich vs. poor), and the historical consciousness of a people’s experience (war-like and conflictual, or leisurely and pleasurable).  Religion also provided the first sense of communal belonging.

Furthermore, as Herder saw religion as embodying the ethos of struggle, so too did Hegel see the religious hero as the archetypal hero.  The oldest heroes always tended to be great religious leaders, prophets, or founders, shamans, and so forth.  While Hegel was writing prior to the discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one sees the residue of Moses as hero in Hegel’s understanding of the hero as religious struggler and father as also being the father of a civilization and the pre-founder of the State.  In Lectures on the Philosophy of History and Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel notes that the hero is the one who founds – somewhat unknowingly though being guided by the World Spirit – the state and civilization.  Thus, we see, ever more clearly, the role of the religious hero as the father of civilization.  Religions are ripe with heroes: prophets, saints, martyrs, warriors, patriarchs, matriarchs, princes, princesses, kings and queens, etc.

Religion is also the root of all culture because, in Latin, cultus, meant care or praise or worship.  Cult simply means “to care” and “to praise.”  Religion, seeing that it not only embraces some notion of heroic struggle, against sin, against death, or to save others (e.g. filial piety as reflected in Aeneas saving his aging father in The Aeneid).  Since cult is the basis of care – like the caretaker who concerns himself with the planted seed of life in the ground – culture springs from cult (or religion).  Think about all the great works of poetry, music, artwork, sculptures, etc. and their religious inheritance, themes, or outlooks.  It gives the people something to praise.  It unites people in love and care and praise of something: beauty, struggle, victory, etc.

Hegel follows Herder in this respect then.  Now, some scholars assert the interest in religion as the source of difference can be explained by history.  Germany was first home to Arian Christianity, adopting Chalcedonian Christianity much later than the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire’s most important successor kingdom: France (which is often remembered fondly in Roman Catholicism as the first sacred daughter of the Church, and some say the root of Franco-German animosity).  Then Germany was home to the Cult of the Holy Spirit movements of Catholic mysticism of the Middle Ages (think of Meister Eckhart).  Then Germany was the center of the Protestant Reformation after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  Irrespective of this attempt to historically explain the role of religion as difference in German Romanticism, the fact remains that German Romanticism was adamant in its place of religion as the source of life and culture, identity, and ultimately the volksgeist and eventually nationalism.

For Hegel, religion as the root of culture and life is that religion was first intellectual force to begin to understand the relationship between the ideal and the concrete, and was the first force to begin the dialectical movement toward the Absolute Idea while also preaching that others embrace the absolute and manifest it in their lives as persons and, consequentially, manifested in their society.  This is why religion is a part of Hegel’s unitive composite final spirit at the End of History.  Religion took abstract ideals and made them concrete in their practicing manifestations in life.

The idea of beauty captured in art and architecture and music.  The idea of struggle (the dialectic itself) in overcoming sin (specifically looking at Christianity) and how that is manifested in daily living and practices of confession and charity.  The idea of honoring ancestors being bound in praise of the eternal father, but also the praise and honor of martyrs and saints.  Hence, religion is the nexus of all culture and culture is the life of any people.  (We often forget that many of the great classical compositions of the 1700s and 1800s were explicitly religious in nature.)  As Hegel himself wrote, “The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence. This consciousness arose first in religion, the inmost region of Spirit; but to introduce the principle into the various relations of the actual world involves a more extensive problem than its simple implantation; a problem whose solution and application require a severe and lengthened process of culture.”

Since the dialectic in Hegel is a creative function, and religion serves as a creative function, there is already a cross pollination then that cannot be eradicated unless one loses everything that has come with the unity of consciousness, culture, and religion.  The creative function of religion establishes the groundworks of all civil society in Hegel, to which he calls this the Sittlichkeit – or “ethical life.”  Ethics, for Hegel, is concerned with life because ethics is about creation and propagation.  From Sittlichkeit emerge the family, community, civil society, constitutions, and the State itself.  Eliminate religion and you will, in time, lose consciousness, freedom, law, art, poetry, culture, and ethical fortitude because all of these things ultimately spring from religion. Sittlichkeit, in another sense, is the life of attached love. It is a radical appraisal of Goethe’s “Verweile doch du bist so schön.” But rather than stay a while, the beauty of love keeps one attached in the garden of love for eternity.

This is where Hegel’s outlook on religion is often difficult to understand.  Hegel believes religion to be the foundation of culture and civilization, the very foundation of civil society and all that civil society embodies.  However, this entire process of dialectical progression is still one of sublation.  “Secularization” in Hegel, and by secularization we mean the preservation and continuation of religious thoughts, habits, and ideas after the atrophy of faith, is, in a way, the logical continuation of religion in society.  Religion becomes fully realized in the world. That is, the success of religion is that it exhausts itself as a practicing force, becoming an interpretative force, and then becoming a cultural force.  We begin with religion, but we end with the State.  Yet, the State is rooted in the religious foundations of that particular society.  People may not be “practicing religion,” but they live, in essence, as religious people as religion has completed its real goal: intellectual actualization of concrete ethical life. (Certain dunces like Sam Harris would be a good example of someone who is ethically religious in the Hegelian disposition even if he is too ignorant to realize it.)

For example, religion gives us the basis of the family structure; therefore, the family structure embodies religious ideals. As the family structure gives way to community, the religious ideals embodied in family structures is inherited into the community.  Thus, civil society embodies an inherited religious ideal.  And all of this is carried forward into a civil society’s constitution, and eventually into the ideals of the State itself.  In Hegel, as most Hegelian scholars note, the State is the consecrated “Temple of Human Freedom.”  The State has embodied all aspects of culture into itself, and in doing so invites no further changes – this is what the “end of History” means.  It is the end to Progress, but events and time continue after it.

In the midst of this too is the transition from Subjective Spirit to Objective Spirit to Absolute Spirit in History.  According to Hegel, religion fundamentally seeks to understand Absolute Spirit and manifest it in life. Thus, for whatever other faults we can throw upon the altar of religion (mostly material faults and disputations), religion was, and is, the interpretative discipline of the Absolute Spirit.  While religion did not fully understand the Absolute, in being the first movement to seek an understanding of the Absolute which gets embodied at the beginning of culture and society in the Sittlichkeit, religion is the first of what will be many legs – so to speak – in propelling society toward the Absolute.

Additionally, we must also understand – perhaps paradoxically at first – that Hegel’s entire schema isn’t predicated on the movement toward the Absolute per se (in a Platonic sense) but in the Absolute being made concrete which includes the movement to the Absolute.  This is the Objective Spirit (objektiver Geist) – the Absolute Spirit having been consummated in the world.

Here, too, religion is the first major force in society that is aware of this truth of History.  In beginning with the attempt to understand the Absolute Idea, religion attempts to then make it concrete – which is to say religion, after a long period of reflection and theological inquiry, attempts to actualize its Absolute Spirit into an Objective Spirit in the world (through practice).  The first signs of this are in the objectiveness of family life.  And this continues to progress through civil life, then embodiment in law, and eventually the State.

All of this is taken up in its most concrete form in culture.  Religion is the embodiment of culture because culture is a creative, life-giving, and constructive endeavor. Culture is the attempt to make concrete the Absolute Idea.  Thus, religion is the basis of particularity in Hegel’s philosophy and outlook on History.  While all are moved by the universal attempt to make concrete the Absolute, all will have done so in unique and different ways that eventually get embodied in national character and will, which is Hegel’s equivalency of the Herderian volksgeist.  Likewise, when a culture, or civilization, loses its religious impulse, it dies.  It grows decadent and old, and, with nothing left to live and die for, expires in total exhaustion.  There is nothing left to praise, and as such, there is no more struggle to bring the abstract ideal and make it manifest in concrete practices.

For Hegel, there is an unmistakable spiritual reality to the work of Geist in History and a spiritual reality to all that humans engage in and create. Indeed, the very movement of History, the very rise of consciousness and moral community, is the movement from hell to the climb up the mountain to find the White Rose at the end of the work of History. The divinization of man, earth, and culture – the sanctification of the world in love – is very much integral to Hegel’s work and outlook. After all, the movement of History is the realization of Geist.

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