Hegel, as I’ve said elsewhere (and as most historians and philosophers note), is probably the most important modern philosopher and one of the most influential – if not otherwise generally misunderstood – of all time. Hegel’s philosophy has influenced everything from textual criticism, philosophy of history, notions of being, political philosophy, time, the dialectic, aesthetics, nationalism, religion, irreligion, and romanticism. Now we will turn to gain a basic understanding of Hegel’s understanding of the “individual” in relation to history.
First, as most would learn in philosophy, “individual” is not synonymous with “individualism.” (The word individual comes from the Latin individuum, which means “indivisible”.) Second, “individualism” is not necessarily synonymous with the atomistic and solitary brand of “individualism” that the liberal philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza) outline in their works. Hegel’s individual is not atomistic. Hegel’s individual is subjective as in individuals possess unique and subjective consciences – this is an inheritance from Christianity which had principally developed through Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, which was never rejected in Protestantism. Hegel’s individualism is that of the concrete and grounded I who is not a robotic and solitary blank slate like in John Locke and liberal anthropology. Stemming from this, for Hegel, there were four archetypical individuals: the Hero, the Citizen, the Person, and the Victim. These are not archetypes we strive for, however, these are archetypes we become. History, much like “God” in earlier times, had essentially predetermined – through the World Spirit – who would fall into each category.
The four archetypes of the individual are not necessarily emergent with history, though there is a close pattern of emergence as history progresses. The hero, for instance, dominates the primordial age of history (which I began to explore in this post concerning Hegel’s philosophy of history). The person becomes widespread after the primordial age, the citizen is essentially what history is moving us toward, and the victim is interspliced through all ages but becomes much more visible toward the “end of history” and is contrasted with the virtuous citizen (and hero and person) by comparison.
For Hegel the hero was the individual who was, to use a Christian soteriological concept, “elected” by the Spirit to be the founder of a state and civilization. The hero is common in primordial times – the great heroic and often near-mythic (demi-god) founder of peoples, tribes, and early kingdoms. The problem with the hero, for Hegel, is that the individual really doesn’t know what he is engaged in.
The dialectical thrust of History is what propels the hero into action and memory. He is, in a sense, a slave to History – a slave to the dialectic. While Hegel equally thinks being in accord with the dialectical advancement of History is the highest form of freedom – “doing what was necessary anyway” is often an expression used to described Hegelian dialectical liberty – the problem with the hero is precisely because he doesn’t know he is engaged in this process is what makes him a slave so to speak.
Heroes also arise during the moments of sublation, the revolutionary (and often violent) destruction of the old order (thesis) and the creation of the new order (synthesis), thereby taking central stage in the dialectical clash that occurs in between (antithesis). Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish historian of the 19th century, wrote his infamous book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. While Carlyle synthesized Hegel with the Whiggish adoration of individualism and progress, Hegel is neither a Whig or a celebrator of individualism. Hegel is merely analyzing how individuals relate to History – they are otherwise swallowed up by History, that great tidal wave of advancement via the dialectic. For Carlyle, in following Hegel, men like Muhammad, Cromwell, and Napoleon represent the Hegelian hero archetype precisely because they are the hero whom arises in the moment of sublation and create something new in the aftermath – the founding of new states and civilizations.
The hero, for Hegel, does not “destroy.” He only ever builds or establishes. As Hegel also said in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the hero disappears after a state has been founded. The hero becomes an idol of the civilization and the state – the “Father of a nation” to borrow a commonly used phrase. Heroes are elected by the Spirit to do the bidding of the Spirit – the creation of order, the establishment of life, which eventually leads to the establishment of the state.
The citizen is arguably the most important of the archetypes in Hegel’s understanding of the individual. The citizen is someone who is loyal to his or her roots, identity, community, and a result of this, the state which embodies their roots, identity, and community. As Hegel outlines in The Philosophy of Right, it is the bonds of common identity, community, and shared experience which lead to ethical action in the world. In other words, people act in concrete manners. People, through shared community, identity, and roots, tend to help those who are also members of their community with shared identity and roots. This eventually is incorporated into the constitution of the state.
The constitution of the state takes into account the shared histories, identities, roots, and community practices which inject the state and constitution with meaning and life. As such, all constitutions, and states, are necessarily relative insofar that different experiences, identities, histories, and communities, etc., will lead to the construction and ratification of different constitutions based on these aforementioned experiences, identities, histories, and communities.
The citizen, then, is the individual who best reflects and embodies, as well as lives by, this constitutional code. The citizen understands his relationship to the state and constitution, as well as his relationship to the community and people whom the state and constitution represent. The citizen is the embodiment of the public weal of the nation, willing to live and die for his people, country, and state. This is the highest archetype of the individual precisely because he understands himself as part of a greater whole serving a greater community and a greater cause as a result of this. The citizen is rooted and connected, grounded and has concrete relations of love and attachment; the citizen understands the first order of love is that which is nearest to him, not that which is foreign and afar.
The person is, in a word, the ethical individual. The person lives by a moral code of conduct – whether conventional or innate (Hegel does believe in an innate moral law but one that is utilized by persons in their respective times, conditions, and circumstances – a basic idea that he borrowed from St. Augustine’s ethical theory). The person serves morality, and by serving morality, which is found in serving others, the person also comes into a union with others.
Ethical life, manifested and embodied by the person, is the pathway to the citizen. Through serving others, by acting morally to others since one cannot be moral if alone (Hegel opposes the notion of atomistic individualism as found in Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, and also opposes the political anthropology of Rousseau), the person finds himself being fulfilled by helping others. The person places himself into a community and helps to serve the community but he does not necessarily consider himself part of the community; he only understands himself as acting morally to others. Thus the person is on the interstices between atomization (serving himself) and communitarianism (being part of a community). He is, in a way, the antithesis to atomized individual, but not yet the synthesis citizen (part of a community).
The person, thus, is beneath the citizen for Hegel because the person is the quintessential individual qua individual. He is not concerned with acting in accord with the community per se. He is not the hero who founds a state or civilization either. He is simply the individual who lives an individual life of piety and moral conduct. The person, necessarily however, is a benefit to the community because he acts morally to others. However, his moral impulses also keeps him detached from full integration into the community. Basically the person helps everyone and anyone. The person will help those outside of the community too. This leads to a conflict between community ethics and individual ethics. It is precisely this service to everyone and anyone that prevents the person from understanding himself as a fully integrated member of a citizenry. (In being a server to every community, the person is never a full member of any community.)
The victim is the basis for Nietzsche’s concept of the Last Man. In Hegel’s outlook the victim is not someone who has been harmed by others. The victim is “the victim of history.” The victim is the embodiment of ignorance, of pure individuality (atomized individualism), and is not concerned with community (he is the antithesis of the citizen), morality (he is therefore the antithesis of the person), or the state (he is therefore also the antithesis of the hero). The victim lives a life of pure hedonistic, materialistic, self-pleasure.
In Hegel’s outlook, the victim is the person who serves his bodily passion and only his bodily passions. The victim (essentially the liberal archetype) is concerned only with living peacefully alone, serving his own bodily interests and impulses, and seeks a life of comfort and security. The victim separates himself from society because he acts only for himself. The victim is not the person because in acting for himself he does not serve others as the moral life leads to. The victim is also the opposite of the hero because he is not the heroic struggler.
In the larger schema of Hegel’s outlook, when a community because a community of victims the community atomizes itself and completely disintegrates. This represents the death of the community and the death of a culture and peoples too. The victim is entirely moved over by History. The victim doesn’t understand History. The victim doesn’t understand community. The victim doesn’t understand ethical behavior. The victim doesn’t understand the meaning of life at all. In other words, the victim doesn’t understand what it means to be human at all.
It is precisely this atomized, self-serving, pleasure seeking victim lifestyle that Nietzsche later called, more famously, “the Last Man.” The difference between Nietzsche’s archetype and Hegel’s archetype is Nietzsche believed, and maintained, that Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history meant that, eventually, everyone would become the victim. The “end of history” seemed to demand this. Regardless, Hegel did not think this as the “end of history” (for Hegel) represented the archetypes of the citizen (the superior archetype) and the person (inferior in comparison to the citizen). The victim, meanwhile, if you want to read into European animosity toward one another, basically represented the British, utilitarian, liberal, and hedonistic tradition of philosophy begun by Hobbes and Locke. It is this preoccupied materialism of the victim that later led to the “right-Hegelians” to also view Marxists and communists, even though Marx was influenced by Hegel’s system of philosophy (not necessarily the content of Hegel’s philosophy), also as victims of history – and much more ironically so since they had adopted Hegel’s basic philosophical system and reached the wrong conclusions; and in reaching the wrong conclusions, showed themselves as not understanding History, not understanding community, and not understanding the meaning of life.
This post was adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, 29 December 2017.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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