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Hegel’s View Of Dissent

“It is easier to discern the shortcomings in individuals, in states, in providence, than to see their true significance. For in negative fault-finding one stands above the thing, nobly and with a superior air, without being drawn into it, i.e., without having grasped the thing itself in its positive aspect.”

– G.W.F., Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History

There are certain thinkers uniquely attuned to the moral shortcomings of their age, who protest loudly when society fails to live up to certain standards and ideals, and who are apt to wonder why the good and pious come up short in life while the wicked and unscrupulous prosper. They see only too clearly the gulf between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be,’ and their raison d’etre is bound up with calling attention to this imbalance.

This bent of mind, Hegel tells us in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, is a mistake because its vantage point is that of the solitary subject rather than that of what he calls the “universal divine reason.” Consider:

When we contemplate the fate that virtue, the ethical, even religion have suffered in history, we must not fall into the litany of lamentation, about how the good and pious often (or even for the most part) fare ill in the world, while the evil and wicked prosper. By the term ‘prosperity’ one may understand a wide variety of things, including wealth, external honors, and the like. But when we speak of such things as though they were intrinsic goals, we still cannot make the so-called prosperity or misfortune of this or that single individual into an element of the rational world-order. To this world-goal there often goes the demand…that good, ethical and righteous goals should find their realization and security in that world-goal, and under its auspices. What makes people morally dissatisfied (and this is a dissatisfaction upon which they pride themselves) is that they do not see the present as measuring up to the goals they hold as right and good. This applies especially to contemporary ideal models of political institutions – thus contrasting the way things are with the way they ought to be. [1]

Subjective ideals, he says, cannot serve as law for the “universal reality”:

As was said, nothing is more common today than the complaint that the ideals raised by fantasy are not being realized, that these glorious dreams are being destroyed by cold actuality. On their life-voyage, these ideals smash up on the rock of hard reality. They can only be subjective, after all; they belong to that individuality of the solitary subject which takes itself for the highest and wisest. Ideals of that sort do not belong here – for, what the individual spins out for himself in his isolation cannot serve as law for the universal reality, just as the world’s law is not for the single individual alone (who may come off much the worse for it).

With age, Hegel says, one becomes more disinterested and is better able to place the bad in context, and also to see that the “real world is as it ought to be”:

It is easier to discern the shortcomings in individuals, in states, in providence, than to see their true significance. For in negative fault-finding one stands above the thing, nobly and with a superior air, without being drawn into it, i.e., without having grasped the thing itself in its positive aspect. Generally, the critic mellows with age; youth is always dissatisfied. That mellowness of age is a ripeness of judgment – which not only accepts the bad, through disinterestedness, but is also led to what is substantial and solid in the matter in question by having been instructed more deeply by the seriousness of life.

The insight to which philosophy ought to lead, therefore…is that the real world is as it ought to be, that the truly good, the universal divine Reason is also the power capable of actualizing itself. This good, this Reason – in its most concrete representation – is God. God governs the world; the content of His governance, the fulfillment of His plan, is world history.

There is something attractive about counsel that tells us to unchain our mind from the sorrows and injustices of the world and learn to accept things with stoic equanimity. Those who give it are possessed of a certain reasonableness. They seem unfazed by the world. They make a better impression than the moralist who reacts furiously against the tide of life and preys upon the conscience of his fellow citizens. The latter inevitably comes off as angry, disagreeable. Note the various pejorative terms held in reserve for moralist types: gadfly, rebel, rabble-rouser, demagogue, whiner, preacher (in the sense of someone who is “preachy”), &c. Those who prick the conscience of their contemporaries seldom win any esteem or love, except posthumously, of course. When Hegel admonishes us not to “fall into the litany of lamentation,” he is in part speaking at the level of appearances: that is, warning against a tonality of stridency, in favor of one of detached objectivity or even one of ardor.

His position on dissent is hardly sui generis. Spinoza, for instance, was skeptical of moral judgments because they issue from fallible and finite minds and are at best partial to our limited understanding of things. The aim of the philosopher, he taught, should be to understand rather than to judge or condemn – a view shared by many thinkers right up to the present day.

The glaring weakness in Hegel’s position is that it essentially proclaims that whatever is, is right; that “whatever has the persistent momentum of existence on its side” (Adorno) must ipso facto reflect the divine reason rather than arbitrary secular power. It is the perfect apologia for the status quo, for the divine right of kings. Might not the "divine reason" be manifested in a stance of moral opposition -- might it not enjoin people to question power rather than to embrace it, or to say, with Christ, that “the last shall be first, and the first last”?

In Egotism in German Philosophy, Santayana delivers a socdolager to the Hegelian philosophy and method:

When we are discussing egotism need we speak of Hegel? The tone of this philosopher, especially in his later writings, was full of contempt for everything subjective: the point of view of the individual, his opinions and wishes, were treated as of no account unless they had been brought into line with the providential march of events and ideas in the great world. This realism, pronounced and even acrid as it was, was still idealistic in the sense that the substance of the world was conceived not to be material but conceptual – a law or logic which animated phenomena and was the secret of their movement. The world was like a riddle or confused oracle; and the solution to the puzzle lay in the romantic instability or self-contradiction inherent in every finite form of being, which compelled it to pass into something different. The direction of this movement we might understand sympathetically in virtue of a sort of vital dialectic or dramatic necessity in our own reflection. [2]

Hegel respected legality more than justice, Santayana says, and his idea of God was meant to sanctify a law of success and succession:

For Hegel, however, the life of the state was the moral substance, and the souls of men but the accidents; and as to the judgment of God he asserted that it was none other than the course of history. This is a characteristic saying, in which he seems to proclaim the moral government of the world, when in truth he is sanctifying a brutal law of success and succession. The best government, of course, succumbs in time like the worst, and sooner; the dark ages followed upon the Roman Empire and lasted twice as long. But Hegel’s God was simply the world, or a formula supposed to describe the world. He despised every ideal not destined to be realized on earth, he respected legality more than justice, and extant institutions more than moral ideals; and he wished to flatter a government in whose policy war and even crime were recognized weapons.


1. G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 37-39.

2. George Santayana, The German Mind: A Philosophical Diagnosis (originally published under the title Egotism in German Philosophy), New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1968, pp. 84, 97.

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