There are two stories concerning Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s encounter with Napoleon at Jena. The first is apocryphal but romantic and sublime; Hegel was supposedly penning his final touches on The Phenomenology of Spirit when the guns of battle roared behind him and, in a chaotic moment of genius, edited a few sections based on Napoleon’s invasion. The second is verifiably true; Hegel wrote a letter to his friend and former colleague Friedrich Niethammer: “I saw the Emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” The flattering portrait Hegel wrote of Napoleon to his friend has subsequently spiraled into mythic legend. Why did Hegel have this seemingly lofty view of Napoleon?
Hegel was born on August 27, 1770 in Stuttgart—then part of the ancient Duchy of Württemberg. His father was a low-level bureaucrat to the Duke of Württemberg and his mother the daughter of a prominent lawyer and legal scholar who was in the service of the duchy. He attended the theological school at Tübingen, where he was roommates with Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling. An early enthusiast of the French Revolution, like many young middle-class Europeans, the excess of the Terror turned him sharply in opposition to the extreme form of revolutionary Jacobinism that swept that country, but he nevertheless remained an admirer of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The first story concerning Hegel and Napoleon is my favorite, if for no other reason than it provides a frantic imagination and context to an always overlooked section of The Phenomenology. Near the end of his long-winded explanation of the emergence of culture from the World Spirit, Hegel concludes his thoughts by reflecting on “Absolute Freedom and Terror.” Like Edmund Burke, Hegel considered the French Revolution and its consequences “the greatest world event of our time.” The sublime activity of the Spirit, in trying to make the rational actual, leads to terror—hellfire—rather than any heaven.
However, because of the movement of History, this hell is properly a purgatorial state before final sublation of the old into the new. The road to heaven, after all, runs through the fires of purgatory. As Hegel writes, “Absolute freedom qua pure self-identity of universal will thus carries with it negation.” And the manifestation of the negation is a prerequisite for universal freedom. From this conflict, “There has arisen the new shape of Spirit, that of the moral Spirit.” Thus Hegel transitions out of culture and into his famous section on Morality and the emergence of greater interconnected relationships through the eradication of the old and the rise of new relationships in society.
The purpose of the World Spirit is to negate, destroy, the uncultured naturalistic simplicity and individuality (Einzelheit), which accompanies that primordial state of existence and build it to a higher, newer, reality of integration. The negative terror which purges the world and individuals into a new state of living—the relational community, as Hegel later goes on to define and describe in detail in both The Phenomenology and Elements of the Philosophy of Right—is the purgatorial transitory state which requires the Hero of the Spirit to usher in the new epoch. This now requires us to know something of Hegel’s anthropology…
My essay at Merion West on the fateful encounter of Hegel and Napoleon on the eve of the battle of Jena and how it relates to Hegel’s philosophy of history and Phenomenology of Spirit. Read the full essay at Merion West: “Heroism” and the “World Soul” at Jena (13 October 2021)
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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