Philosophy Political Philosophy

Hegel’s Social and Political Theory

Hegel’s social and political philosophy was of profound importance in mid nineteenth century Germany, especially within the Kingdom of Prussia where he spent his latter days.  It is sometimes said that Hegel believed Prussia was the end of history, that Prussia was the fulfillment of the socio-political, constitutional, and ethical progression of the Spirit in history.  After all, he speaks flatteringly about the “Germanic Realm” in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History and at the end of his great work of political and ethical philosophy the Philosophy of Right.  While Hegel certainly felt Prussia, or the Germanies, were the embodiment (concretization) of the particularized Absolute, it isn’t so much the “Germanic Realm” we should focus on but what the content of the Germanic Realm is.  In fitting Hegelian fashion, to concentrate on “Germany” or “Prussia” as the end of history is to miss the sache Selbst (real issue) that Hegel is trying to articulate.


The Philosophy of Right is broken down into three parts: Abstract Right, Morality, and Ethical Life, from which all three parts are further subdivided into subsections that represent the dialectic at work in each stage of socio-political and ethical development in history.  The thesis is Abstract Right, which is moving towards Morality (the second part), but to get there it goes through an internal triad movement through property (thesis), contract (antithesis), and wrong.  This is important to remember in Hegel that the movement of the grand dialectical triad from thesis-antithesis-synthesis includes within it smaller movements of the dialectic.  Hegel’s grand social and political philosophy of history is that the thesis is Abstract Right, met by the antithesis which is Morality, meaning that Abstract Right will eventually sublate into Morality, whereby morality will be challenged by ethical life, wherein the dialectic moves to ethical life.  The consummation of ethical life has an internal dialectic in of itself, which is what this post is going to cover because this is the most important aspect of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

For Hegel the movement of history in social and political philosophy is the particular concretization of abstract right into ethical life.  But if we recall from my post exploring Hegel’s philosophy of individuals, the ethical person is not the highest embodiment of ethical life – the citizen is.  This is because ethical person is too abstract and not particular enough.  The citizen is the particular concretization of the embodiment of ethics; hence is the “superior” individual in comparison to the too abstractly ethical “ethical person.”  The easiest example to elucidate on this matter is this: the ethical person claims to love humanity (which is an abstract moral principle which, while not wrong, per se, is not embodied in any concrete manner).  The citizen, by contrast, takes the principle to love others and acts it out in concrete day-to-day living with his neighbors and fellow countrymen.  The citizen puts ethics into direct, concrete, action in his day-to-day life within the community he finds himself where he can more directly impact the lives of others and himself.  The abstract ethical person, lost in the clouds so to speak, never really “touches” other people by remaining tied to abstract ethics.

The third part of the Philosophy of Right outlines the concretization of ethics in Hegel’s philosophy.  The thesis of Hegel’s ethics is summarized in section 142 which opens the third and final part of his great work of political philosophy:

Ethical life is the Idea of freedom in that, on the one hand, it is the living good—the good endowed in self-consciousness with knowing and willing and actualized by self-conscious action—while on the other hand, self-consciousness has in the ethical realm its foundation in and for itself and its motivating end.  Thus ethical life is the concept of freedom developed into the existing world and the nature of self-consciousness.

What does all of this mean?  For Hegel freedom is twofold.  He takes the classical and modern understanding of freedom and synthesizes them together.  The classical conception of freedom is human flourishing.  Liberty, in Latin, is the word liber.  Liber was the name of the Roman god of fertility.  The etymological implication being that the man who was free was the one who was experiencing ontological fulfillment (flourishing) by living in harmony with his nature.  The modern conception of freedom, begun by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, etc., is the power of the will in self-exertion for its own ends.  The freedom to choose in other words.  Hegel synthesizes the two together by linking to the two in union—the flourishing self is the one who lives in accord with his nature and his nature is distinctly social and communitarian, not atomistic, bond to history and culture, not apart from history and culture, and as such the conscious (knowing) individual recognizes he is part of a larger unit than himself and willingly and willfully chooses to be part of the organic whole to help his community and culture whereby he is fulfilled by living in accord with his nature and helping others while also having made the willful exertion to choose this on his own accord but chooses to live in union with his nature because man has the power to do so.

Hegel, therefore, links freedom with the bonds of duty to self and others.  As Hegel says, at first the ignorant man (non-knowing) individual thinks bonds of duty are limiting and therefore antithetical to his freedom (think the atomistic liberals as the people whom he is critiquing).  However, once a man comes to actual knowing, true self-consciousness, he recognizes that this is not the case.  The bonds of duty help to fulfill man and actualize him in this life.  Virtue is what is consummated by living a life of duty—Hegel is a communitarian deontological teleologist.  (In this sense he follows more from Cicero than he does Kant who is too abstract in his ethics.)  The bonds of duty unite men together in community and allow the individual and the community to flourish when they are in harmony with each other which is what the movement of the Spirit is about.

First Bond of Duty and Ethical Realization: Family

The first thesis of this attempt to concretize ethics in the form of the bonds of duty is to family.  This is rather straightforward because family is that which is most immediate to oneself.  You are born to a family.  You are raised by a family.  They have responsibilities to you, to nurture you and raise you, and you, in turn, have duties to them as you grow older.  You would feel bad, for instance, if you cheat your parents or steal from them—they who sacrificed so much to nurture and raise you.  Likewise, it is family where the individual often finds their first shelter of refuge when encountering the world.

Marriage is the first iteration (thesis) of dutiful ethical life.  A man and woman are united together in love for each other (marriage is an anti-atomistic bond).  Within the bond of marriage the dialectic unfolds in a trifold movement: (1) marriage itself; (2) filial property and common resources; (3) education of family and the sublation of the family.

As Hegel also outlines, a family has common resource and a common purpose.  A family is united (hopefully ideally) in the end (telos) of filial flourishing which is only consummated through everyone doing their duty to their family.  If a spouse doesn’t “pull their weight” so to speak, the family will not flourish as much as it can and discord and distrust can seep into the bond of marriage which tears people apart rather than keep them together.  (Thus, by reneging on duty this is the infiltration of atomism.)

Over time, however, the bond of spouses enlarges to family property and common resources between them.  What is yours is mine and what is mine is yours—there is no “private possessions” so to speak which would, again, be evidence of a lack of dutiful bonds and union between spouses if a husband owned something that was off limits to his wife.  Again, such a manifestation would be cause for growing separation between the two rather than growing union.  Common resources are evidence for a common purpose of the family.  We are all in this together.  This is a reflection of the organic whole.

Finally, the birth of children requires their education and resources: from material goods to the spouses’ time in educating and nurturing their children.  But overtime, after the success of educating children and as the children grow older and start families of their own, the immediate family dissolves.  Hegel is not anti-family, as some interpreters suggest.  This is a failure to see the movement of family from immediate to civil to nation.  When a child, for instance, marries, they build a bond between their spouses’ family and their own.  Two families are now united as one through the marriage of their children.  We sometimes call this phenomenon the in-law (brother in-law, mother in-law, father in-law, etc.).  This is the expansion of the family beyond immediacy.  It is the movement of the family toward a greater end which situates the family within a larger organic totality.  This process plays itself out in all families to the point that we realize, upon actual knowing, that my family is not isolated but part of a larger web of families that my family is also connected to.  The “dissolution” of the family (admittedly a poor choice of word in the English translations of Hegel) does not communicate that idea of sublation that I was keen to highlight in the beginning—the family does not so much dissolve (e.g. elimination) as much as it enlarges into something greater than itself.  This recognition of the family within a larger web of families that are all united in common purpose is called civil society.

A More Concrete Bond of Duty and Ethical Realization: Civil Society

Civil society is the antithesis to the family in ethical life.  Again, we should remember that antithesis in Hegel does not carry with it Marxian overtures.  The antithesis subsumes, or sublates, the family.  Again, Hegel’s dialectical advancement is more in line with traditional Aristotelian and Christian philosophical thought than revolutionary Marxian thought.  The immediacy of family finds greater fulfillment as part of civil society is what Hegel is saying.

It is within the realm of civil society that the ethical individual begins to transition into being a citizen.  In civil society the becoming citizen recognizes his civil township or civil society as his family.  Because families are not isolated from each other but part of civil society, where families rise and fall with the success or failure of civil society, to help your civil society is to help your family.  As Hegel says, the family is the first building block of the nation and civil society is the second building block (or as he calls it “root”) of the nation.

Within civil society Hegel talks about the importance of labor.  Civil society naturally produces a division of labor as families and associated citizens are each engaged in laboring tasks to help improve and enhance the organic whole that is civil society.  Hegel did not read Adam Smith (as far as we know) but he theorizes the same idea that Adam Smith did in his Wealth of Nations.  In Section 198 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues that the division of labor is the specialization of labor—“By this division, the work of the individual becomes less complex, and consequently his skill at his abstract work increases, as does the volume of his output.”

Through the division of labor and labor specialization, a man finds his place in society and begins to excel at his work which brings him fulfillment but also brings greater fulfillment to civil society as his work improves and is able to produce a greater quantity of goods or superior products which helps improve the rest of civil society.  This is Hegel’s “finding one place” in the society concept.  Through the division of labor individuals will figure out what they excel at and therefore live in better accord with their nature while also improving and benefiting the civil society which, in turn, also means they’re improving the lives of their families which was their first immediate bond of duty.  Hegel even envisions the day when man will become so specialized that his job will be overtaken by a machine and he will be able to enjoy the rest of life in leisure, reaping the fruits of his hard work.

The movement and advancement of civil society is bond to the heart of business.  Do not confuse Hegel for a utilitarian capitalist which is premised on self-interest.  Hegel’s corporate body is the business that embodies the ideal of civil society in the utmost.  It exists not for one’s self-preservation, as in Hobbes and Locke, but exists for the benefit of the organic whole.  Furthermore, not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur or business owner.  Few people are because that is the logic of the division of labor.  These people who are business owners are business owners precisely because they understand their place in the web of society and know that their work is essential to the health and vitality of the whole moreover than just themselves.  Hegel’s corporate business serves the people as the whole rather than just the individual owner.

At the same time within civil society Hegel expounds upon the development of courts of law, police forces, and other civil and civic organizations that become necessary for a well-ordered and functioning civil society.  This represents the expansion of an individual’s rights in society—for instance, “A member of the civil society has the right to stand in a court of law and, correspondingly, the duty to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court and accept its decision as final when his own rights are in dispute.”  Hegel’s philosophy of rights are based on duties more than “natural rights.”  The rights of citizens are enshrined in constitutional law, but citizens can do things to lose their rights—forfeit them, for terrible actions on their part: treachery, murder, thievery, and so forth.  That said, Hegel’s philosophy of rights is more expansive than the rights based philosophies of classical liberalism.  How so?

Hegel’s philosophy of rights are more expansive than that of the classical liberals he is against precisely because of the bond of duty attached to them.  The juridical order has the duty to discharge its promised guarantees to the citizen just as the citizen has a duty to acknowledge the juridical order and power of the civil court.  It is a reciprocal relationship rather than the one-way conventional rights relationship as found in Locke where the government decides what rights to grant to its subjects.  Because you are subject to the Leviathan in liberalism, and not a citizen, Hegel’s citizenry-based philosophy of rights mandates reciprocity between citizen and law wherein each acknowledge each other.  This is not to say that citizens cannot be stripped or forfeit their rights, Hegel is very clear about this, but this does mean that a citizen is guaranteed certain rights based on reciprocal duties until the court makes its formal decisions on the matter.

The Ultimate Concrete Bond of Duty and Ethical Realization: The Nation-State

Thus, the expansion of civil society represents a growth of the family beyond immediacy to something greater than itself.  The immediate family (thesis) becomes subsumed into the civil society (antithesis) but the dialectical progress of concrete ethics does not end with the civil township.  Civil society is subsumed into the nation-state as the ultimate synthesis.

Hegel is a nationalist.  There is no getting around this issue.  Hegel’s romanticism is tied to his cultural nationalism.  As Hegel says in Section 260, “The state is the actuality of concrete freedom.  But concrete freedom consists in this, that personal individuality and its particular interest not only achieve their complete development and gain recognition of their right for itself but, for one thing, they also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal.”  The state is the universal abstract that becomes the full embodiment of a particular people through the nation-state.  Service to the nation-state is the highest form of concrete ethics as it is the consummation of citizenship.

Furthermore, it is in the nation-state that Hegel asserts the individual finds the greatest fulfillment of their being (Dasein) and their particular interests.  For it is the state and its apparatus that can most effectively be the guarantor of rights and the fountain of one’s duty.  The nation-state, in particular, is the largest extension of the family as the nation-state, with all of its individual families, and all of its individual townships, united in the web of the organic whole, realize that they are not isolated but united, whereby the common purpose of families subsumed to civil townships are then found to be in integral union with one another where civil townships are bound in unity under the concept of the state which is the basis of the nation.

Additionally, nations are rooted in culture.  So there is no universal state as the logic of Hobbes and Locke implies, or, at least, some sort of universal international law that binds all together under the same juridical order.  This is because Hegel’s philosophy is pluralistic.  Each nation-state and its laws, and its cultures, will be—true, reflections and embodiments of the universal—unique and particular.  Recall Hegel’s Phenomenology where the movement of Spirit and History is the universal becoming embodied in the particular through concrete form.  The same holds for nation-states.

Lastly, it is in the nation-state that the concept of sovereignty is most fully manifested.  Sovereignty and citizenship and the bonded relationality between duties and rights can only be concretely manifested in the nation-state.  If there is no sovereign nation, and therefore no true citizenship, than ethics remain lost in the world of abstraction.  “I love humanity and serve humanity” while not ever fostering bonds and relationships with others.  The ethical person overlooks his neighbor through his profession of the abstraction universal man.  Whatever help he gives to the abstract remains forever abstract.  (Think about how one “helps” the poor in another continent, it is through an intermediary where concrete bonds and relationships are never actually formed.)  The citizen, in professing love and duties to their neighbor, actually has the opportunity to foster concrete relationships with people in their bonds of duties to one another.

Thus, Hegel’s nation-state and ethics is bound by the concept of national spirit, or the people’s spirit (volksgeist).  The manifestation of national spirit is not abstract but a matter of fact, something concrete and deeply real.  The national spirit is the consummation of freedom and love to deep attachments and rootedness which is necessary for any concrete ethics and spirit to be manifested in the world that is, by and large, lost in ignorance, complacency, and abstract mumbo-jumbo that may “sound nice” (or modern day “virtue signaling”) but has little concrete relational manifestations.

The duty of the nation-state, and the duty of citizens, is to fellow citizens first and foremost.  The work that citizens engage in, the distribution of resources and products within the nation, are to citizens first and foremost.  The health, welfare, and dedication of our lives is to directed to fellow citizens first and foremost.   The laws of a nation-state, its organic systems and structures, are to the protection and protection of citizens first and foremost.  Anything beyond the level of the citizen is too abstract and not concrete.

With this the dialectic of Hegel’s political philosophy is complete.  We see that within the total synthesis, ethical life (concrete deontological ethics), there is an internalized dialectical unfolding from family (thesis) to civil society (antithesis) to nation-state (synthesis).  Family remains the cornerstone of civil society and the nation—so in Hegel the nation-state is the ultimate expression and manifestation of the family, that first filial bond of duty and ethical realization finally situating itself within the web of the whole and understanding that we are all in this together.  The content of Hegel’s philosophy is eminently conservative: it is filial, communitarian, anti-atomistic, imbued with a strong sense of solidarity, togetherness, and common purpose.  The system of Hegel’s philosophy, the movement of the dialectic to produce this synthesis, is, however, “revolutionary.”


This has always been the conundrum of Hegel readers and interpreters.  Robert S. Hartman, one of the great 20th century Anglo-American interpreters of Hegel summed up Hegel’s philosophy in paradox.  “The philosopher [Hegel] who equated what is with what ought to be, he released the greatest dissatisfaction with what is; and thus, as the greatest conservative, unchained the greatest revolution.”  This was the future of Hegel’s legacy.

The “Right-Hegelians” accepted Hegel’s content of the national spirit and national duty-based ethics and citizenship as the highest manifestation of truth and consciousness in the world.  The “Right-Hegelians” accepted Hegel as gospel and believed that the “end of history” had arrived: national and citizenship-oriented ethics, and attachment and rootedness (or union) with organic culture was the highest manifestation and embodiment of human life possible.  The “Left-Hegelians” rejected Hegel’s content and pluralism (particularism) while accepting his system of dialectical progress to a certain goal.  The Left-Hegelians, then, argued contrary to the Right-Hegelians that History hadn’t ended and was still unfolding.  Moving Hegel in a universalist direction because of their metaphysical monism rooted in materialism, the Left-Hegelians claimed to be the true spiritual heirs of Hegel.  The march of freedom was not yet done, they argued, it was still to be consummated.  Hence Hartman’s witty paradoxical notation that the greatest conservative philosopher of the modern age of philosophy was responsible for unleashing the greatest of revolutionary movements—Hegel’s philosophy, whether this is true to Hegel or not, influenced totalitarians, nationalists, fascists, communists, socialists, liberals, Christians, atheists, nihilists, anti-nihilists, romantics, existentialists, democrats, monarchists, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and virtually everyone in between.

For Hegel, freedom is something grounded.  In the nation-state is where freedom is most grounded.  This is what Hegel thought, and what his defenders—the Right Hegelians—maintained.  But the “revolutionaries,” who were riding Hegel’s dialectical system of advancement argued that the trumpets calling out for freedom was still sounding, the movement of History was still unfolding, and as such, they were the ones who were the true followers of Hegel’s philosophical sentiments.  For these Left-Hegelians, the grounded core of freedom was the universal human community and not the nation-state.

But if we follow Hegel qua Hegel in his content, it is without question his social and political philosophy is deeply conservative.  It is premised on deontological love and relationships to community, the organic, and the real.  Family remains at the center place of his ethics but expands but the immediate family to where the nation-state is seen as the largest extension of the family.  This is because while the family is the first guardian of sovereignty, the truest guarantor of sovereignty—at least from Hegel’s perspective—is the nation-state.  The movement of World History, in ethics, is the consummation of citizenship under a particular nation-state with its unique culture, history, and laws.

This has been the split between traditionalism and conservatism too.  Traditionalism, as espoused by the likes of Cicero, has duties and obligations to family first, followed by community and patrie (fatherland).  Hegel’s is inverse: fatherland, community, and family.  Thus, Hegel is conservative while not being a traditionalist.  A traditionalist may also be a conservative, but the general marker of the division between traditionalism and conservatism is not a rejection of the importance of family (as Hegel does not do) but where family is situated in the intricate web of human relationships, duties, obligations, and community situatedness.

Lastly, we must remember that “History” for Hegel is not the “end” like the end of the world of the Final Judgement.  History, for Hegel, is the unfolding Spirit to Truth and the concretization of the Absolute in the world.  As it related to ethics and the political, History was the movement to understanding organic nations and our duties to these nations since we belong to them and this is what our ancestors were engaged with producing all along.  Who has ever died for the stranger they never met?  Who has died for their family, neighbor, and “countryman”?  Was the martyred soldier fighting for his country, community, and family, or for the dream of completing some abstract construction that will never be consummated?

According to Hegel, the movement of History and social and political relations is to bind people together as moral animals in a moral community. This consummates itself in citizenship and rootedness. To be a rooted citizen who participates in ethical life as a citizen, from which moral joy stems, is what life and History is about.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: