Hegel and Napoleon: On Heroes and the Sublime in History

There are two great stories concerning Hegel and Napoleon. The first, undeniably fantastical and romantic, is that Hegel was finishing up his draft manuscript of the Phenomenology of Spirit as the Battle of Jena roared behind him as he escaped the hellfire of the morning; the second, true, relates to Hegel’s encounter with Napoleon which he wrote to a friend, “I saw the Emperor – this soul of the world – go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.” What, however, did Hegel mean when he called Napoleon “the soul of the world” and why was it “a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual?”

The answer lies in Hegel’s anthropological historicism and philosophy. As Hegel eventually elaborated, there are four kinds of people in history: the hero; the citizen; the “person”; and the victim. In sum, though I have a longer article explanation on these individual archetypes linked above, the hero is the man of action compelled by the Spirit of History to inaugurate the new order of existence; the citizen is the highest manifestation embodiment of the ideal, rooted moral living in a community; the person is the individual detached from roots and heritage but acts ethically to others without a sense of rooted belonging; and the victim is the man who lives for himself and seeks merely a comfortable, pleasurable, life, detached from all sense of history, heritage, and belonging.

According to Hegel’s philosophy, the Hero is the unconscious embodiment and manifestation of the Spirit of Historical Progress. The Hero is, in essence, the man on whom fate has chosen to usher in the new age. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the primordial hero is the purest manifestation of this reality. Think of famous heroes throughout cinema like Luke Skywalker or Conan the Barbarian. These are individuals who become the hero and have been selected—by the “invisible hand” to borrow from Adam Smith—by the Spirit of History to bring about the necessary change to usher in a new era of living. For Hegel, Napoleon was the final manifestation of a long line of heroes who had ushered in new ages of living. What, then, was this age that Napoleon was ushering in?

Hegel divided historical epochs into specific eras: The era of the Orient (or despotism) wherein humans left their nomadic, hunter-gatherer, state of existence to form settled communities where only the descendant of the hero-founder were free; The era of the Aristocracy (Greco-Roman world in Hegel’s Lectures) where some men are free and others not; And finally the age of liberty and moral love/living where all men would be free under the law and living under the protection of a nation. This, Hegel believed, was the ultimate reality manifesting in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. But in the progress into each new era, a hero had to be selected by the Spirit of History—the Geist—to accomplish the aufhebung (the cancelling or “sublation”) of the old and movement into the new. Without knowing it, Napoleon was that hero.

This was, for Hegel, exhilarating. Because for him, he was actually caught up in the grand movement of History to its final destination: The Age of Liberty which Napoleon was supposedly ushering in. For a man who had spent much of his engaged in the intellectual pleasures of life at the University of Jena during the greatest explosive turning of philosophy in Western history since ancient Athens, to be caught up in the drama of History as Hegel thought he was in seeing Napoleon ride into Jena must have been exciting given the state of constrained intellectual repetition that Hegel was otherwise engaged in on a daily basis. Finally, the Spirit had manifested his thought in concrete reality with French soldiers and cannons about to usher in the new era right before Hegel’s eyes.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, perhaps influenced by this encounter with Napoleon, Hegel writes, “The real being of man lies rather in his deed; it is in this deed that individuality is effective.” What Hegel means is that men, individually, are represented by their actions. We know a man based on how he acts. How he acts, how he lives, reflects the inner soul of the individual. What was Napoleon’s actions? What were his deeds? They were the deeds of liberation, progress, and the establishment of new states. The old, decadent, and ancient feudal principalities of the Holy Roman Empire were being—literally—exploded away by the cannonballs and muskets of modernity. As Hegel hauntingly and vividly said in the beginning of the Phenomenology, “The aim by itself is a lifeless universal just as the guiding tendency is a mere drive that lacks in real existence, the bare result is a lifeless corpse that has left guiding tendency behind.”

Since Hegel saw the power of negation in the progressive unfolding of the movement of history, the mere guidance of life which had dominated the ancient estates of the Holy Roman Empire were now the “lifeless corpse” “left…behind” by the winds of modernity. In order to get at the real result, purpose, of life, the activity of action to that result had to be manifested. For Hegel, the purpose of philosophy isn’t to understand the guiding tendency or the results, per se, but the “real”—that is, the activity—of human action and history. Here again the hero is indispensable for the philosopher because the hero is the embodiment of the real, the activity, that makes possible the movement to the result we can look upon and see. Napoleon, as the “man of action” is the “hero” whose “activities” bring about the consummation of the new order.

Why did Napoleon loom so large over Hegel in his chance encounter with the French emperor? Hegel believed he was living in the “end of history.” To be more charitable to the genius of Hegel, Hegel understood that he was living in a world-defining and changing moment. Never in the history of the world, let alone Europe, had such fervor, ecstasy, and dramatic change occur in such a short period of time. Ancient kingdoms, principalities, and dynasties had fallen. Old laws which had been in existence for thousands of years had been swept away in the blink of an eye. The traditional way of life was rapidly dissolving and new, mobilized, organized ways of life were emerging. In the wake of all this aufhebung, this “cancelling” of the old, came the new: the nation-state, citizenship, mass liberty, all things Hegel considered to the be ideal made real in life. And who was often at the head of all this change? Napoleon.

However right or wrong Hegel was, Napoleon was—for Hegel—the quintessential manifestation of the heroic archetype in the period of transformation. Napoleon was the “man of action” bringing about a new order. For these reasons Hegel considered Napoleon the “World Soul” as he rode through the brick streets of Jena to defeat an ancient, decadent, dying corpse called the Prussian Army and Kingdom, whose defeat prompted modernization and reform into the new order heralded by Napoleon’s invasion.

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