History Philosophy

Hegel’s Philosophy of History (3/4): The Age of Aristocracy and the Struggle for Freedom

We last left off examining Hegel’s philosophy of history with the Hero, Orient, and religion.  Now we move into the heart of Hegel’s Historicism: the movement from the orient to aristocracy.  The movement to aristocratic governance is the next great moment in historical unfolding, but also posed many problems as Hegel makes clear in his commentary over the Greeks and the Romans whom he uses thoroughly in his analysis.

If we recall, the age of oriental despotism was the rule of one – the god-emperor who inherited the now codified tribal community after the actions of the hero to save the tribe and found civilization.  As the oriental age unfolded, and society became more complex, the emperor devolved power to associates to help him run the nation.  Likewise, people within society began to accrue power and responsibilities in daily life.  This shift of needing more people to help with the running of society represented the antithesis to the thesis of singular sovereign rule.  The conflict is inaugurated until the synthesis was derived wherein the emperor, or king, or head, retained his place, but power had been devolved to the “aristocratic” class.

The aristocratic class is the landed gentry – those who had accrued fortunes and wealth through various means and had become highly respected members of the community.  The aristocratic class also included those associates of the emperor or king who helped him in administering the nation and were rewarded with titles and land for their service.  In the aristocratic age these people now take on greater freedom than they had before – thus representing an expansion of freedom from the orient (one) to the age of aristocracy (few, but more than before).

The aristocratic age is characterized by the unstable dialectic of the aristocracy and the plebeian majority edging ever closer to democracy.  This is important to know because Hegel does not see democracy as the end of history or that democracy is representative of the “Age of Freedom” where all are free:

The History of the World is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a Universal principle and conferring subjective freedom. The East knew and to the present day knows only that One is Free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German World knows that All are free. The first political form therefore which we observe in History, is Despotism, the second Democracy and Aristocracy, the third Monarchy.

Oriental Despotism was overcome by the second form of the political: democracy and aristocracy which characterize the aristocratic age, which will, as we shall find out, exhaust itself into monarchy and monarchy will be – for Hegel – the perfected form of civic constitutionalism.

But as the history of the world moved from Oriental Despotism to quasi democratic aristocracy, Hegel informs us why the Greeks and Romans were the ones to achieve this while the rest of the Orient (China, India, and the Middle East remained despotic).  The smallness, or limitedness, of the Greek city states, and the original Roman state, gave people a sense of connectedness with their fellow citizens and rulers.  Thus, they were committed to its preservation which demanded a strong moral ethos to be inculcated in individuals.  At the same time, the Greeks and Romans were the first to truly particularize their religious mythos writ large.

In the second part of this exploration of Hegel’s philosophy of history we commented on the importance of religion to culture and society.  It is the Greeks and Romans who were the first bring that abstract universal and manifest it in concrete particularity for themselves and their progeny:

This is the elementary character of the Spirit of the Greeks, implying the origination of their culture from independent individualities; — a condition in which individuals take their own ground, and are not, from the very beginning, patriarchally united by a bond of Nature, but realize a union through some origin of their moral life the Greeks have preserved, with grateful recollection, in a form of recognition which we may call mythological.  In their mythology we have a definite record of the introduction of agriculture by Triptolemus, who was instructed by Ceres, and of the institution of marriage, etc. Prometheus, whose origin is referred to the distant Caucasus, is celebrated as having first taught men the production and the use of fire.

Here Hegel highlights how religion is an intellectual enterprise, one of teaching, and in being made manifest in daily life, people expand their intellectual awareness and appreciation of the heroes of old who have given them their present lives and seek to preserve it as they see themselves as part of the continuation of this great story.  Culture, in particular, is the embodiment of this creative enterprise and, therefore, culture becomes a major force in the advancement of history and the Absolute being made concrete.  Culture is also a driving force of the democratic spirit.


The transition to quasi democratic-aristocracy is embodied in Greek and Roman culture Hegel reminds us.  The great poets capture this in their epics.  Though the kings of ancient Greece and their aristocratic aids are those who hold power, they were acting in a democratic ethos insofar that they were dependent on one another and petitioned each other in order to go to war.  They needed agreement among themselves before acting.  In this manner, though they did not know it, the aristocratic and monarchical states were already showing the democratic spirit in their actions.

The newfound energies of the Greeks and Romans exploded into the realm of culture.  Praise and care.  The Greek and Roman poets wrote works, produced works of art, and attempted to pass them on to their children, which celebrated the heroic, the democratic spirit, and togetherness (connectedness) or recognition (Anerkennung) of the Greek kings and Roman peoples with one another.  Culture was the creative Spirit working in history during this age.  Culture was something that bound past with present, and the creative act of culture bound past and present with the future!

Furthermore, the expansion of this civic participation and expansion toward democracy was because of a dialectical opponent.  United by a common opponent, the Greeks fostered a cult of patriotism, participation, and democratic ingenuity.  Focusing on Homer, Hegel highlights how Troy served as the antithesis to which the Greeks had united and were being transformed and how the dialectic is essential for all progress in history:

But the poet supplied an imperishable portraiture of their youth and of their national spirit, to the imagination of the Greek people; and the picture of this beautiful human heroism hovered as a directing ideal before their whole development and culture. So likewise, in the Middle Ages, we see the whole of Christendom united to attain one object — the conquest of the Holy Sepulchre; but, in spite of all the victories achieved, with just as little permanent result. The Crusades are the Trojan War of newly awakened Christendom, waged against the simple, homogeneous clearness of Mahometanism.

This ultimately produced the “exhilarating sense of personalities,” of individual heroes, and demi-gods for whom the rest of the Greeks should strive to be.  The poets captured the essence of Aristotle before Aristotle.  Aristotle speaks of the imitation of nature to achieve perfection.  Hegel agrees that the natural world, in its goodness, beauty, and perfection, is a better model to imitate write large because all persons can imitate nature whereas not all persons can hope to become the next Achilles or Odysseus or Aeneas.  However, in presenting individual heroes for the people to look up to, to emulate, and to imitate, this caused an explosion in the democratic sensibilities of the Greek and Roman people.  Many were imitating their heroes of old and advancing society and themselves through this burst of energetic spirit.  These heroes were microcosms of the Absolute.  To imitate the heroes who were reflective embodiments of the Absolute meant you also reflected the Absolute.  (Though Hegel informs us that they did not knowingly reflect the Absolute which was the problem.)

The imitation of the person would, in time, be transformed to the imitation of nature as a greater expansion of the democratic ethos.  As Hegel notes, the Greeks mandated that one self-control themselves, become a beautiful and self-disciplined person before attempting to produce the imitation of beauty and the heroic in art form: poetry, marble statues, great buildings, etc.  “This is the subjective beginning of Greek Art — in which the human being elaborates his physical being, in free, beautiful movement and agile vigor, to a work of art. The Greeks first trained their own persons to beautiful configurations before they attempted the expression of such in marble and in paintings.”  The imitation of nature, as perhaps best seen in Aristotle and then the later Greek stoics, was a step closer to the imitation of the Absolute – the embodying of the Absolute in one’s own life.

Culture itself is the great fuel of history, and culture is representative of where are people are at in their movement through history.  In the Oriental Age, all art and culture was dedicated to one (the god-emperor).  In the aristocratic age, art has expanded outward to many and is dedicated to multiple people with the inclusion of the Absolute Idea particularized in concrete form: namely beauty.  In the Oriental Age it didn’t matter if art was beautiful so long as the communicative message of hero-worship of the one was drawn out then all was fine.  However, in the aristocratic age, there is the importance of presenting presentable and beautiful works for others to imitate so they themselves can be made beautiful and disciplined in their own lives because when we’re all doing this we achieve a beautiful and disciplined society writ large.  Likewise, the expansion of art beyond the one to the many reflects the quasi democratic spirit of aristocracy.

The result of this transformation in the aristocratic age was a shift in intellectual knowledge.  People began to know that men were free.  But only some men.  The heroes.  The kings.  The princes.  The princesses.  The aristocrats. Per Hegel:

The consciousness of Freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free; but they, and the Romans likewise, knew only that some are free — not man as such. Even Plato and Aristotle did not know this. The Greeks, therefore, had slaves; and their whole life and the maintenance of their splendid liberty, was implicated with the institution of slavery: a fact moreover, which made that liberty on the one hand only an accidental, transient and limited growth; on the other hand, constituted it a rigorous thraldom of our common nature — of the Human.

But this is not to condemn the Greeks and Romans, as Hegel does not do.  He simply highlights how their energies helped expand the consciousness of freedom from the one to some, a great leap of advancement considering how the Orient remained despotic while Greece and Rome advanced closer to constitutional liberty and the freedom of all.  This was a necessary step and advancement, in other words.  We should not condemn the Greeks and Romans but praise them.  Extract from them the good and beautiful and import them into our time and society to make our society even more self-realized and beautiful.


The reason why Hegel unites democracy with the aristocratic age is because the end of Greek aristocracy was really the rise of democracy.  Likewise, the rise of the Roman Empire which brought about the end of the Roman Republic was because of democracy and atomization.  For Hegel, the collapse of the Roman Republic was its property-owning atomism in combination of increased primitive mass democracy on the part of the urban plebeians who soaked up the attentions of the Roman political order – the two combining to eliminate the collective and communitarian nature upon which the Roman Republic was originally founded on.  This was inevitable, for Hegel, in the dialectic between aristocratic land owners (becoming self-absorbed) and the wants of the masses becoming greater and greater as they clamored for more political recognition (becoming increasingly militant as a result).  The Roman political order, shepherded by the landowning class, abandoned their responsibilities as they became increasingly atomized and self-absorbed.  The masses, in contrast, were equally self-centered in their wants, but united together and put pressure on the Roman system which became paralyzed to meet the demands of the masses and safeguard the property of the aristocrats.  The freedom of the aristocrats was under threat by the push for greater freedom (in the sense of autonomy) by the masses.

Following the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Hegel came to realize that democracy – as simple rule of the majority – exhausted itself in resentment and tyranny.  The end of constitutional government in Greece and Rome was not the tyranny that overthrew the democracies, it was the democracies themselves which burdened and collapsed the constitutional orders (which, admittedly, did primarily serve the interest of the aristocrats) which, when the people wanted a return to order, gave themselves over to the tyrants.  The realization of freedom that became evident in Greece and Rome met the dialectical antithesis through the masses but this was a messy and bloody affair.  Overwhelmed, the entire system collapsed.  The pendulum swung too far in one direction when the Greeks and Romans were not ready for it.  They were not ready for absolute freedom because the Greeks and Romans did not yet truly understand freedom in its most concrete form.

This is why the aristocratic age had its form of governance as both aristocratic and democratic.  It fostered civic participation among the many (democracy) while only maintaining freedom for the few (aristocracy).  As the energies of this democratic outburst moved beyond art and culture, and as various other changes in life were resulting, the masses – having been inculcated with a spirit of participation – sought to make manifest the freedom of their idols whom they imitated but the result was the struggle between the aristocrats and their backers who jealously guarded their freedom against the plebeian masses who sought the freedom of the aristocrats not knowing how to achieve it or protect it if they ever attained it.  The result of this dialectic struggle was a pendulum swing into chaos where old heroes had to arise again (like the heroes of old) and reset the system.  The end of this dialectic was the birth of empire.  The Greek empires and the Roman Empire.

The aristocratic age may have ended in fire, civil war, and the re-imposition of single rule, but its spirit endured.  The spirit of cultural actualization, civic participation (patriotism), and increased responsibilities for self-cultivation (on my own accord) is what the aristocratic age embodied and bequeathed to posterity.  These ideals which failed to be actualized in the aristocratic age would eventually be the project of the age of freedom – or more appropriately for Hegel, the age of civic constitutionalism.

Moreover, the importance of art and culture to Hegel’s philosophy should be becoming more evident.  The cultural works of the Greeks and Romans: religion, poetry, art, philosophy, etc., was instrumental in actualizing consciousness.  Such enterprises helped give sustenance and understanding to the absolute ideas which were attempted to be made manifest through religious stories and practices, the construction of the epics, dramas, and sculptures both small and large, and the rise of philosophy attempting to understand the phenomenon before them and render the chaotic action of individuals and society intelligible.

Nevertheless, the aristocratic age was brought to end by its own democratic energies when it was not ready for “democracy.”  The dialectic between the aristocrats and the plebeians resulted in losses for both, which is to say all except for those who strode across the Tiber and invaded Athens and Corinth and consummated empire to bring order back to chaos, thus stunting the energies and the world spirit.  Thus, the Greco-Roman would have to wait for Christianity before its own desires could be realized, “It was less the miracles of the Apostles that gave to Christianity its outward extension and inward strength, than the substance, the truth of the doctrine itself.”  The truth of Christianity, that all persons are images of God (imago Dei) possessing intrinsic rationality to know the truth, that liberty is self-control and fulfillment of desires through unity of reason and desire to achieve the consummation of the absolute in concrete life, and that all of this is only possible within the bounds of transcendent law (hence the importance of political constitutionalism as the secular embodiment of transcendent law) is what would rekindle the world spirit and bring about the final consummation of concrete reality and civic participation and fulfillment in the world.

According to Hegel, the reason why the Greek and Roman experiment with freedom failed is because they had not known, as demonstrated by Hegel’s quote concerning even Plato and Aristotle, that all men were free.  For all men were created by God and made in God’s image.  Thus, the spirit of freedom and the energies of culture which all strove for the Absolute Idea were to wait until Christianity emerged to bring about their full realization through Christian doctrine (and not so much Christian practices).  For it is the doctrines of Christianity that understood freedom in its concrete form, thus giving to the Greeks and Romans what was needed to complete the synthesis.

The reason for this is because in Christianity, God (the Absolute) became man (the god-man Christ) so that man could, in turn, self-actualize in union with God, and become god (a free and moral agent).  This follows standard traditional Christian doctrine, as perhaps best summed up by St. Athanasius, “God became man so that man might become God.”  That is, union with God makes man fully self-aware of who he is and what is nature is, and therefore, what his freedom is.  The Absolute is made concrete in the incarnate image.

However, the second age – of aristocracy – is characterized by the explosion of creative activity in arts and culture.  This Hegel concentrated on. Through the rise of the creative arts there is, within the aristocratic age, a quasi-expansion of democracy as a result.  The Absolute is attempted to be concretized through culture, rather than the human person, but the spirit of freedom moves the masses into a dialectical confrontation with those who are free and consider only themselves free (the aristocrats).  Because there was no understanding that all are, in their essence, free, the dialectic fails as the pendulum of democracy swings too far and the result is tyranny to restore order.  The final age, which is more aptly to be described as the age of constitutional love, is what will arise when this dialectic of aristocracy vs. democracy (the masses) plays itself out again.


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