Hegel’s Philosophy of History (4/4): The Age of Liberty and Moral Love

We last left off with Hegel’s philosophy of history with the failure of the Aristocratic Age to produce universal freedom.  If we recall, the Aristocratic Age, that age of great movement, creativity, and the arts, and the dialectic between the aristocrats and plebeians, failed because there was no notion that all men were equal.  This final cornerstone to the advancement of the age of stable freedom needed the insights of the Christian religion before it could be consummated.  Furthermore, the failure of the Aristocratic Age was because of the self-centered atomism of the patrician landowner and the resentful politics of the Plebeian.  Now, however, with the advent of Christianity’s declaration that all men were equal, the march to freedom from the Aristocratic Age to the Age of Liberty and moral love could begin.

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Hegel’s “Age of Freedom” is generally referred to as the “Constitutional Age” (but we shall see that it is far more than just that).  It is the achievement of a peoples to produce an enduring Constitution that not only enshrines the principles of liberty and equality under the law, it is also the consummation of a peoples history and culture—for history and culture are the ingredients that produce constitutions: A peoples law, institutions, and legal traditions and outlooks.  For Hegel freedom is not possible without Law; freedom without law leads to nothing but conflict.  This is why absolute freedom is the end result of a long dialectic of unfolding conflict between those who have freedom (the Oriental Emperor, to his advisors, to the land owning patricians and poets, and finally to the multitude of the masses—all are subject to the Law and not above the Law).

The importance of Christianity to Hegel’s unfolding historicism was that “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.”  For Hegel it was the egalitarian spiritual (innermost) aspect of man within Christian anthropology that ensured the movement to the understanding of a free and equal society.  It is not that Hegel thought that the advent of Christianity in Late Antiquity produced a free and equal society.  In fact, Hegel’s Germanic-Protestant exceptionalism is also on full display in his statement about Christianity and Germany.  It is the Protestant understanding of man within the Christian tradition, which laid its seed most prominently in Germany, that was the first to attain that consciousness of freedom.

All dialectical movement is slow unfolding conflict that produces a new result which raises consciousness and self-understanding.  In the early centuries of Christianity, it had to contend with the mystery religions of the east and the pagan religions of the West.  In this contest Christianity offers development of higher consciousness and subjectivity in offering a relational aspect within religion rather than the subjected fatalism or esotericism of pagan religions.  The fatalism of the various Greco-Roman cults consigns man as the puppet of the gods.  The esotericism of the mystery salvific religions (like the Cult of Mithras) ensures inequality between men where only the knowledgeable few are free and the rest of mankind languishes in ruination and ignorance.  Christianity, being a religion of the heart and mind, subjectivity and objectivity, is the total religion that transforms man’s consciousness and brings the subjective and objective together—the transcendent made concrete.  And this is a very long process.

This long movement leads us to modernity.  “We have now arrived at the third period of the German World, and thus enter upon the period of Spirit conscious that it is free, inasmuch as it wills the True, the Eternal — that which is in and for itself Universal,” as Hegel writes.  The importance of the Reformation, the union of Lutheran subjectivity with Germanic federalism, was that:

Truth with Lutherans is not a finished and completed thing; the subject himself must be imbued with Truth, surrendering his particular being in exchange for the substantial Truth, and making that Truth his own. Thus subjective Spirit gains emancipation in the Truth, abnegates its particularity and comes to itself in realizing the truth of its being. Thus Christian Freedom is actualized.

The importance of something being unfinished is key to Hegel’s historicism.  If freedom had been completed and Truth complete in the dogmas of the Roman Church, then the Reformation would had never happened.  Corruption, as Hegel writes, is one thing.  But the Reformation was more than about church corruption—it was the catalyst for a further development of Christian truth wherein the subjectivity of interpretation and movement offered in Lutheranism offered further development to the truth being actualized in the world.  Christianity had the seed of freedom and equality within it; it just took a long time for it to finally sprout and become actualized in the world.  Had it done so earlier we would have had the end of History with the Christianization of the Roman Empire.  Per Hegel, “This is the essence of the Reformation: Man is in his very nature destined to be free.” In this sense, for Hegel, Roman Catholicism served as the necessary antithesis to the original thesis of the spirit of Christianity which was realized in the thesis of the Reformation. Many Protestants who may not share Hegel’s otherwise heterodox theology (which borders on pantheistic monism with a Christian cover) nevertheless share, unknowingly, his quintessentially Reformation outlook which influenced the next hundred years of Protestant self-understanding especially in the age of biblical criticism and textual studies that emanated from Germany and spread to the United Kingdom and United States and other Anglosphone Protestant outposts.

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The spirit of Reformation Christianity is what leads to the formation of the Christian constitution of freedom and equality that was enshrined in the Germanic constitutions and political bodies.  It is in the body politic, the legal constitution, and the political state that the temporalization—the concretization—of Christian principles becomes actualized.  The child of Christianity, for Hegel, is “secularization”—that is, the temporalization and humanization of Christian ideas and principles without ecclesiastical order and institutionalism.  This is the real achievement of the Protestant Reformation.

Hegel’s thesis on secularization is already well known and well-document to those in sociology, political philosophy, and philosophy, so I’m not going to go over it here.  Many people today who have a familiarity with this scholarship will openly note how the ideas of the dignity of man, human rights, freedom and equality, are uniquely found in the Christian, or post-Christian West.  How people who are otherwise “irreligious” nevertheless by Christian metaphysical and ethical standards and not as the pagans of the old West did or as the Oriental civilizations live with their rigid caste systems (such as in India and China), or with the still divinized Oriental Emperor (like Japan).

Because religion is the first cornerstone of culture, and culture is the outward expression of a peoples creativity and culture informs a constitution, it is that spirit of Christianity that becomes incarnate in Constitutions and, therefore, in constitutional states according to Hegel. The movement of World History is the establishment of the State that best embodies the reality of freedom and equality through its Laws, which also means through its culture, arts, and literature.  This is the creation of the “rational constitution” that marks the final unfolding of the Spirit for Hegel.

Hegel’s historicism is the unfolding dialectic to achieve the harmonious constitution with its people; all strata of society, the secular state and the dogmatic and sacred religion of a people, brought together not in a subjected composite of hierarchal power and inegalitarianism, but the harmonious democratic service of all branches of a nation.  In a free constitutional nation the leaders of the nation serve the people whom are their equals.  In a free constitutional nation all men are ability to pursue their interests in harmony with the rest of society—no other person, guild, or corporate organization will obliterate its competitive other into oblivion.

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The end of History, in Hegel, is not a utopian kingdom of earth as it is in Marx or in progressive liberalism.  In Hegel’s outlook, events and even conflict between states still occur.  The end of History is the end of the movement of the universal to become particularized.  So Hegel’s historical development is not the establishment of a Universal State but the establishment of particular states with their particular concretizations of the universal.

Hegel, here, highlights several different examples.  There are the English with the English constitution and its parliamentarism rooted in the Magna Carta and Common Law traditions unique to the English people.  Then there are the French, who are superior to the English insofar that the French constitution and Revolution—unlike the English way—asserted that all men should be free and equal and took it upon themselves to make that a reality.  The difference between the English and French was that the English did not believe all men should be free: Only the English should be free.  The French believed that all men irrespective of their ethnicity or religion should be free.  However, the danger of the French position is that it is too universalistic.

For Hegel, the ideal intermediary between the two is Germany.  German retains its roots (like England) while embracing the universal truth (like France and unlike England).  Speaking of this dynamic, “The English nation may be said to have approved of the emancipation of France; but it was proudly reliant on its own constitution and freedom, and instead of imitating the example of the foreigner, it displayed its ancient hostility to its rival, and was soon involved in a popular war with France.”  The English celebrated France’s movement to freedom and equality but still felt themselves and their constitution superior, meaning their freedom and equality was superior than that of the French.  And the English would never follow the foreigner’s conception against their own due to English exceptionalism.  The French forgot their roots and therefore the roots of the other nations they eventually traversed over.  Germany, on the other hand, is the perfect combination of both.

The end of History, then, is not universal for all peoples and nations.  Some nations reach their “end of history” before others.  What the end of History means in the universal and abstract sense is that human consciousness over freedom and equality will no longer progress further.  People know what the meaning of life and political life in general, entails and means.  People will know embark on their own journeys to manifest this universal truth in particular terms.  There will be no forced impositions from foreigners (as the French upon the Germans during the Napoleonic Era), or no exception to the rule (as the English believing only themselves to be free and equal in comparison to others).  Hegel’s German “Exceptionalism” is only because, in his mind, Germany was the first to truly realize the spirit of freedom in its own land and not seek to impose it on others or believing themselves to be the only people who would achieve this freedom.  “[T]he Idea of Freedom, whose reality is the consciousness of Freedom and nothing short of it.”  The Age of Freedom could not become real without first coming to realize that all men are free and equal creatures under the Law and in the shared human condition.

There is no freedom without constitutions.  There is no realization of freedom without constitutional states.  The end of History, for Hegel, is the world of constitutional pluralism of states with each state (nation) embodying its uniqueness and particularity but having also realized the universal truth of the Absolute Spirit that moves men and history.  Man is not born free, as Rousseau said.  Man becomes free through heightened consciousness.  In other words, man realizes his freedom.  Hegel’s “Age of Freedom” is better understood as the Age of Constitutional Liberty in union with the Christian theology of moral love in community. Or, more properly, Hegel’s paradise is constitutional liberty and moral community bound together through the love of agape.

Here we see the movement of History from Oriental Despotism (only one is free) to all being free.  And with all free all are equal in their freedom.  Equality does not mean material equality in Hegel’s outlook. Equality means that all men have equal freedom: equal freedom under law and love (recognition of personhood subjectivity and embodied affectivity). There is not the Oriental Emperor above the masses; the aristocratic landowning minority over the majority plebeians; but all are free and therefore equal with each other. The movement of History, the very Spirit of the love of God, was directing mankind to this realization in a free and moral community. In this free and moral community the responsibility to love, to feast, and to laugh is left in our hands.

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