The Enlightenment, that is modern reason, failed us in part, Hegel shows, both for the history it left behind and the legacy it bequeathed us. Indeed it brought us and spirit to the point of self-destruction.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series dedicated to Senior Contributor Dr. Eva Brann of St. John’s College, Annapolis, in this, the year of her 90th birthday. This essay was originally given as a lecture at St. John’s College, Santa Fe on February 3, 2016 and November 3, 2017.

Humanity Dehumanized:[1]

Hegel’s Reflections on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution

…and Their Other Legacy

(Or The Road to Hell is Paved with Unrealized Abstract Universals)

“Liberté, equalité et fraternité, ou la mort.”
An early revolutionary banner[2]

“…Subjective virtue…brings with it
the most fearful tyranny.”
Hegel, The Philosophy of History[3]

“Spirit demands particularity.”
Hegel, Philosophy of Right[4]

“There is nothing more unproductive
for the human being than an abstract idea.”
Tocqueville, Democracy in America[5]

“Not only the reason of millennia—
their madness too breaks out in us.
It is dangerous to be an heir.”
Nietzsche, Zarathustra[6]

Even victory seems unable to substitute
stability for chaos, honesty for corruption,
authority and trust in government
for decay and disintegration.”


I’d like to begin this evening with an aphorism:

Thinking and philosophy are good. Sometimes, however, we have to think about how we think,
about the kind of thinking that engages us, and the consequences of the mode of conceptualization
we think so revealing: for some light is glare, some inspiration intoxicating, some insight
precipitous. Thinking and philosophy are good, but ….


  1. Prologue in History

By way of prologue, some general historical observations are in order or, one might say, reasons not to conflate the American and French Revolutions, indeed reasons to wonder about the latter

i. History textbooks can be misleading. The American and French revolutions are often conflated. However, ours was a war of liberation from foreign occupation (“The British are coming.”); theirs was a “civil war” (even if never referred to as such) displacing the existing political and social order.

ii. Ours was not a revolution to establish democracy; we were already democratic (Tocqueville). The French, by contrast, was a grand effort to plant a democratic government in monarchical soil. Ours was successful; theirs was followed by the Napoleonic Empire and decades upon decades of political instability.[8]

iii. Moreover, the standard Marxist interpretations may not be adequate. Neither “economic” nor “class” conflict simply explains the extraordinary character of events. a) There were food shortages at the time, but in general the revolution took place during a 50 year period of economic growth (if with great public debt). More importantly, economies were worse in other countries where no revolution took place. b) Also many liberal nobility, avocats (lawyers and civil servants) and clergy were part of the early reformers. The peasants, many of whom had recently become landowners, were late in joining the movement. Marx himself called it a “bourgeois revolution.” [9]

iv. Despite their shared admiration for ancient republics, the French revolutionaries did not learn the same lessons that the American framers did from Greek and Roman history. Most prominently, the American framers learned the need to place constitutional restraints on popular democracy.[10]

v. For strategic reasons against the British, King Louis XVI was an early supporter of the American Revolution. He had already begun to undertake reforms (e.g. greater representation). The revolutionaries, however, rejected gradual reform in favor of radical change (despite initially keeping the king on as a symbol).

vi. Most revealing, much of the early popular resentment was against the extreme centralization of authority by the king and the consequent displacement of regional authorities (the king’s intendants replaced local authorities and disinvested the nobility). The French revolutionaries, however, continued this centralization of power (the primacy of Paris and the Île de France) through a successive series of elections by electors, if now in the name of the people (“democratic centralism”/Jacobin dictatorship)

vii. The fall of the Bastille was largely symbolic. It housed only seven prisoners at the time.

viii. The theorists of the French Revolution, the philosophes, wanted to be original. They rejected the English model of a constitutional monarchy (1688) and the American model of “representative government” and “balance and division of powers” (1776/1789). In short they rejected Montesquieu.[11]

ix. The guillotineamong whose victims, by the way, was Lavoisier—did not only behead aristocrats and clergy. A substantial number of those killed during the Reign of Terror weren’t nobles. Most astonishing of all, many of the revolutionary leaders themselves met the same fate (Danton, St. Just, and Robespierre).

x. But above all why the “Reign of Terror”? Why were 20-40,000+ people guillotined? Why such extremes? The original motto of the revolution was “liberté, equalité, fraternité ou la mort,” that is “liberty, equality, fraternity, or death.”

All these observations raise the question how we are to understand the French Revolution as a unique event by itself, different in kind and motivation from ours. Hegel offers an interpretation.

2. Reason and Violence

There is a little section in his Phenomenology of Spirit that I would like to call to your attention, so little—nine out of five hundred plus pages—that it is quite possible that one might not even notice it. It is a transition stage, however, and thus, as in all Hegel, is essential, not to be overlooked.[12] The section is entitled “Absolute Freedom and Terror” (Die absolute Freiheit und der Schrecken, [#582-563/355-363]) and seeks to articulate the spiritual transformation—the “inner revolution,” as Hegel called it—underlying the historical event that came to fruition in the French Revolution and hence is part of our collective inheritance.[13]

But before we start, a few caveats: Speaking about Hegel is, to say the least, very difficult. a) For one, excerpting such a small section from out of the larger whole risks being grossly misleading. It is like looking at a small branch of a very large tree without seeing the tree and without seeing the branch’s integration within the whole.[14] b) Moreover, despite his abstruse conceptualization and forbidding language, Hegel seeks to speak about “the actual.” Both cases require a large dose of generosity on our part and no small effort to see that what he is talking about is our world, our history, the life in which we find ourselves. It is thus quite possible that much of what follows will not be immediately intelligible (seniors suspect what I mean). But bear with me. The way may be somewhat grim, but the end has its rewards: You may come away with questions you’ve not asked before.

Additional preliminaries: c) Perhaps it goes without saying that Hegel thinks differently than we do. “Ideas,” for Hegel, are never just thought-entities, and surely never “mere ideas.” Ideas are real and have an objective vitality; they are, he says, “forces” in the world.[15] This is what Hegel means by “history.” Ideas, too, can be misguided, partial, atavistic, lose their connection to the real, become empty and take flight. This is what Hegel means by “unrealized abstractions.” d) Moreover when he uses terms such as “understanding,” “reason,” “consciousness,” “self-consciousness,” “will” etc., he is speaking of these not as psychic processes simply but as manifestations of the much larger development of world spirit. e) Hegel also has the exasperating practice, especially in the Phenomenology, of speaking about a stage of development in its most philosophical, i.e. spiritual, implications without reference to the text or historical event that gave expression to it (for example, the Antigone section). And it is generally recognized that the section “Absolute Freedom and Terror” addresses what Hegel called “the greatest world event of our [that is, his] time [2x],”[16] the French Revolution and its horrendous consequences. f) Unavoidably I do presume some familiarity with the historical events and with the Phenomenology. g) And lastly, as I work through this text I will not say quote-unquote. You will know when it is Hegel who is speaking. I will do my best to keep us grounded.

Hegel’s specific thesis can be stated simply: The conceptual and spiritual transformation that emerges in the mid-eighteenth century that we call the Enlightenment (Eclairissement / Aufklärung: clarification) leads both to the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror, that is a certain kind of thinking leads to violence. So our concern this evening will be to consider the connection between this new mode of thinking—this “new idealism,” if you will—and violence and also to wonder whether this mode of thinking might somehow still be with us.

3. The Enlightenment: Humanity Dehumanized:

In this section of the Phenomenology, spirit is at that early stage of Enlightenment[17] where it is still working out its (i.e. our) Cartesian inheritance (#578/352). It has not yet fully realized, Hegel says, the foundational insight implicit in Descartes’ thinking that “being and thought are the same” (#578/352)[18] but remains at the intermediate stage where the whole is rent asunder by “the vanity [i.e. self-importance] of understanding and self-will” (#572/348), that is, we still see ourselves over against and apart from an “external” world.

A step toward a fuller realization of this inheritance is to think and live in the world through the idea of utility, where objects are thought of instrumentally as useful for ourselves. In this way all things are related to us. Though consciousness does not find itself in possession of these immediately and thus falls short of full identification, it yet possesses them mediately as an end toward which it strives. In this way the total objectivity of the object is “withdrawn,” Hegel says, in that now all is thought mediately through us. This is decisive and prepares the next metamorphosis of spirit. Hegel says: “From this inner revolution there emerges the actual revolution of the actual world, the new shape of consciousness, absolute freedom” (#582/355-6) [2x].

A new shape of consciousness? “Self-consciousness… [now] grasps the fact that its certainty of itself is [in some sense] the essence of all spiritual…spheres [classes, institutions, corporations, professions, social strata], of the real as well as the supersensible world.…’” In other words, the world and its social structures are not seen as simply “other”—as externally “objective”—but are now seen as intimately related to us. “…All reality is [thus] spiritual,” Hegel says. At this moment, spirit has come to realize that “the world is for it [consciousness] simply its own will and this is [as] a general will [2x]…the will of all individuals as such [taken together]…so that each is [now] undivided from the whole …” (584/ 356-7).[19] Previously estranged, the will, now understood as more encompassing, finds its identity in a greater unification, a generalized “will.”

With this, we undergo a major transformation and self-development. Hegel describes this new way of being in the world thus: “…Each individual consciousness raises itself out of its allotted sphere [class. profession etc.], [and] no longer finds its essence and its work in [any] particular sphere [or activity], but grasps itself [anew] as the concept of [a general] will, grasps all spheres as the essence of this [new, more fully realized, transpersonal] will, and [now] can only [properly] realize itself in a work which is the work of the whole….” [2x]  As a result of this “self-generalization,” so to speak, “…all social groups or classes…are [effectively] abolished [as other]; the individual self-consciousness that [heretofore] belonged to any such [particular] sphere, and willed and fulfilled itself [therein] has [now] put aside its [previously self-defining] limitation [namely, its particularity, its identity].” The result: “[consciousness’] purpose [has now become] the general purpose, its language [now becomes] universal law, its work universal work” [2x] (#585/357). The result of this transition: we have become “generalized;” we have become “universal consciousness.”[20]

Let’s think about this transition. The traditional person with his or her particular experience is, Hegel says, “put aside.” “This [new] individual consciousness is no less directly conscious of itself as universal will,” he says, “it [now becomes] aware that its [proper] object is a [general] ‘law’ given by that [general] will and a work accomplished by it [spirit as general will]; … [with the result that] in passing over into action and in creating objectivity, [individual consciousness] is doing nothing individual [2x] but carrying out the [general] laws and functions of the state” (#587/358). We hereby acknowledge our agency as transpersonal, as an expression of a more general will.

Conscious of itself as “universal” will? “Doing nothing individual”? Identifying with, literally finding one’s identity in the political whole, the state? Individual personhood is thus supplanted by universal consciousness. Simply put: Fred or Freda Jones (or at St. John’s, Mr. or Ms. Jones) has now become Citizen [Citoyen] Jones[21] (and subsequently World Citizen Jones[22]). Whereas before we might have been concerned with saving our “soul,” now we are concerned with saving our “nation,” or “humankind” (and subsequently “saving the planet”).[23] Our proper work (“our own affairs”) is now thought principally to be universal work (modern internationalism/globalism).

To express this in the clearest way, Hegel says, “universal freedom…would thereby be free from particular individuality” (#588/358) [2x]. When we think thus abstractly, we are no longer our old selves. We are “free from” our personal identity, our human particularity. We take up the cause of the universal will. And hence we are no one in particular. We have become abstract entities (“universal consciousness”) and live on an even higher plane of universality. This assent to universal consciousness, according to Hegel, is the distinctive import of the Enlightenment and modern freedom.[24] But there are problems with this yet underdeveloped notion of universal consciousness.

4. The Paradox of Action and “The Fury of Destruction”

Consider this curiosity: While we might think in universal terms, we can only act in particular ways. And this, Hegel says, is at cross purposes with our general (spiritual) aspirations. “Before the universal [as agent] can perform [any particular] deed,” he says, “[spirit] must [first] concentrate [locate] itself into the One of individuality… [that is in] an [actual] individual self-consciousness; for the universal will is only an actual will in a self [as agent]…” [2x]. One individually takes upon oneself the universal intention thus isolating the locus of agency in oneself. In so doing, in being embodied in one actor, Hegel says, “…all other individuals are [as such] excluded from the entirety of this [its] deed…so that the deed would not be a deed of the [some] actual universal self-consciousness” per se [2x]. Spirit does not act on its own here; it acts through individuals. Yet in doing so, one is no longer “undivided from the whole” and the “general will” is again fractured.

The implications of this rupture are quite disturbing, according to Hegel: “Universal freedom [as such], therefore, can produce neither a positive work nor a deed [because they are both always specific]; there is left for it [as universal] only negative action; it [universal freedom] is [therefore] merely the fury of destruction [Furie des Verschwindens (the fury of disappearing {Brann, Rosen, Pinkard})]” [2x] (#589/359). Here the universal does not act in its own right but through a universalized individual. Any positive action that it may consider, however, is always something specific and hence not simply universal. Thus the only [pure] universality available to it is “negative” action. The only action available to it is to remove or destroy the conditions of particular action. For this reason Hegel says “universal freedom is merely the fury of destruction.” In short, while we may aspire to universality, we cannot reach beyond particularity except to destroy it: modern nihilism (anarchism).[25]

This fracture is then spelled out further: Spirit now “…divides itself into [two] [defective] extremes equally abstract” (in this case a bad word for Hegel). On the one hand, he says, (1) it divides itself into “…a simple, inflexible cold universality,”[26] on the other, (2) “…into the discrete, absolute hard reality and self-willed atomism of actual self-consciousness[es].” Having effectively “…completed the [total, revolutionary] destruction of the actual organization of the world”— and here Hegel is not being hyperbolic but has in mind as an example the destruction of the monarchy, nobility and clergy in France at the onset of the revolution[27]—such an abstract consciousness “…exists now just for itself,” he says, “that is [it is itself] its sole object, [though now] an object that no longer has any [specific] content, possession, existence or outer extension” to give it any definition.[28] [2x] This abstract[ified] individual (if that is a word), Hegel says, “is merely this knowledge of itself as an absolutely pure and free [undelimited] individual self” (#590/359). “Absolutely pure [empty] and free individual self:” “All that remains…is its abstract existence as such,” a mere, content-less, predicate-less being-there.

Thus, having obliterated the world of particulars, it finds it has nothing left but its own abstracted being-for-self in the most extreme forms of “cold universality” or simple “self-willed atomism.”[29] Modern freedom, according to Hegel, thus takes two forms: ideology (or humanly indifferent, cold universality) and sheer willfulness (or “arbitrary,” indiscriminate will).

5. “With No More Significance than Cutting Off the Head of a Cabbage”

One might think this picture extreme, but how else to explain, Hegel wonders, how a revolution inspired by the highest human ideals—by “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity[30] and by “The Rights of Man and Citizen[31]—inspired, one might have thought, by a love of one’s country and humanity—could yet have led to the most dreadful, inhuman consequences? Hegel’s conclusion: the relationship between the revolution and its so-called “aftermath” is not “contingent,” is not accidental. It is, rather, the necessary outcome of the transformation of thought at this stage of reason. He thus concludes that “the sole work and deed of [this new mode of consciousness] universal [abstract] freedom is death.”[32] Wow! The work of “universal freedom” is “death”? Let us listen to the whole passage:

The sole [defining] work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death…which has no inner significance [Umfang: scope, compass] …, for what is negated is [nothing but] the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest [baldest: quickest] of all deaths, with no more significance than [that of] cutting off a head of cabbage [Kohlhaupt] or swallowing a mouthful of water (#590/360).

“The sole work of universal freedom is death?” Again how can an ideal such as freedom—our cherished liberal ideal—find its expression or instantiation in what appears to be its opposite, in pure negation, in the elimination of the actual, in death? And not just death, but a death without inner significance? We have come to the stage where “what is negated is [nothing but] the empty point of the absolutely free self.” [2x] And as we know, a point is “that which has no part” and is in some sense no thing. What is negated, then, is no longer a person as commonly understood—with character, loved ones, family history, ethnicity, nationality, individual accomplishments, and a smile—but, on this rarefied level of consciousness, an abstraction, an empty point with no inner significance, a “free self,” in short humanity dehumanized.

The image Hegel calls to mind is unsettling: The mass elimination of such “point selves” is to be compared to the routine, banal, matter of fact “cutting off the heads of cabbages” for the soup of the day—his image for the work of the guillotine.[33] Our sense of the human is beheaded. But how have we gotten to the place where people have no more significance than cabbages? Our thinking changed. We changed.

What is perhaps even more surprising about this account is that the mass extermination that follows is not the result of passion (no rampaging barbarian hordes besetting unsuspecting villagers). This results rather from the very “progress of spirit” itself, from “the progress of reason” itself.[34] We here encounter one of those moments in the history of spirit where the significance of an individual human being is eclipsed, erased, indeed annihilated and this because of the imperfect strivings of reason. Thus the human search for meaning has led to a stage of human meaninglessness. What may have been thought to have had “absolute worth” worthy of salvation—a human soul, for example—now no longer has inherent dignity. And this because thought—not passion—has yet to mature, such that we take a life as we would take a sip of water.

With these images Hegel seeks to capture the frightful, transcendental impersonality of it all: an indifferent, willful, “cold steel blade.”[35] His paradoxical thesis: The Reign of Terror is the result of the progress of reason; the Reign of Terror is the result of the Enlightenment.

6. The Political Significance of Abstract Intelligence,
Revolutionary Consciousness (Ideology and Willfulness):

In addition, this stage of consciousness contains a harsh truth for governance. Hegel says: “In this flat, commonplace monosyllable [Tod: death] is contained the [new] wisdom of the government…” wherein “the abstract intelligence of the universal will” seeks to fulfill itself (#591/360). “The government [now becomes] nothing else but the [displaced] self-established focus, of the [newly transferred] individuality of the universal will.” Having itself lost its content, the individual self identifies with the larger whole, the government or abstract State. Having sought to free itself from the repressive universal “the monarchy,” it now finds its identity in a new “self,” the displaced universality “the [abstract] State.”

Add to this another, cruel irony: Such a notion of government as itself the embodiment of the universal could only be misleadingly inclusive, misleadingly “universal” (misleadingly democratic), Hegel observes, for it “…excludes…other individuals from its act” (despite acting in the name of the universal “the people”). In so doing the revolutionary government itself cannot but end up despotic, “opposed to the universal will.”[36] Again, one can think universally, but one can only act particularly. “Consequently it is absolutely impossible for it [the new, revolutionary government] to exhibit itself as [i.e. to look as if it were] anything else but yet a[nother particular, political]  faction.[37]

And in so doing it becomes in turn the victim of the very “logic” that brought it into being. “…In the very fact of its being [yet another] faction,” Hegel say, “lies the direct necessity [in turn] of its [own] overthrow” as it now is but another “crime” against the universal. In short, what we took to be “the actual universal is only an unreal[ized] pure will, [and hence] a mere [or abstract] intention [Absicht: purpose].” As a result, such abstract revolutions are by nature (i.e. by Hegelian logic) unstable. The road to this hell, to the French Revolution, it would appear, is paved with unrealized “abstract universals.”

Moreover, this leads in turn to a serious disharmony between “the unrealized universal” (the state) and those who had hoped to find their fulfillment therein (the people). The result, according to Hegel and history, can only be infinite suspicion.[38] “Being suspect… [now] takes the place, or has the significance and effect of being guilty.” Inasmuch as the inner intent of a person cannot be discerned, any hint of reluctance appears seditious and guilty. The logic of such revolutionary consciousness thus runs: If you are not with us, you are against us, and we don’t know if you are with us.[39] “The external reaction against this reality lies in the simple [unavailable] inwardness of intention [that one cannot penetrate]” and thus leads to the necessary “…cold, matter of fact annihilation of this existent [actual] self,” a self now a mere self “from which nothing can be taken away but its mere being,” for it has become an “empty point,” a mere being-there. Thus the impersonality and indifference of the new universal state to its own so-called “citizens” (citoyens): empty points, monads,[40] conspirators, victims.[41] In short, terror reigns.

The logic of revolutionary consciousness has reduced the human being to a “mere being”— a cabbage— the sense of otherness and insignificance predominates and leads to suspicion and a sense of expendableness. From the side of the “citizen”: terror; from the side of the state: accusation, summary conviction and the cold steel blade.[42]

“In this its characteristic work [namely, death],” Hegel says, “absolute freedom becomes explicitly object[ive] to itself, and self-consciousness learns [to its horror] what absolute freedom in effect [truly] is. In itself [absolute freedom] is just this absolute self-consciousness, which effaces [i.e. annihilates] all distinction and all continuation [perpetuation] of distinction within it[self]. [2x] It is as such [in this way] that it is objective to itself; the terror [Schrecken] of death,” Hegel says, “is the [new] vision [Anschauung: image] of this negative nature to itself” (#592/360-1). Absolute freedom effaces all distinctions; abstract freedom is but blind willfulness; existence is but a lived or felt negation; “terror of death” the new face of humanity..

Of equal significance is one further implication, not to be overlooked: “The universal will… [here] heightened [gesteigerte: risen] to the level of pure thought or abstract matter,” Hegel says, “changes round into its negative nature and shows itself [on the other side] to be equally that which puts an end [also] to the thinking of oneself, or to self-consciousness” (#592/361) [2x]. “Puts an end to the thinking of oneself?” From the side of the “point self,” the universal will obliterates not only “all distinctions” apart from itself but now also all distinctions within itself. So extreme is the “logic of reason” here, so radical, so “absolute,” so “pure,” that it in effect “puts an end [even] to [its own] self-consciousness,” Hegel says, that is leads to a self-obliterating, unarticulated empty oneness, a homogeneity of nothing in particular.

The revolution is now total, the obliteration not just “external” but “internal” as well.[43]  Thus, the other side of the spiritual revolution: humanity dehumanized.


Thinking and philosophy are good, but ….


7. But Human Beings Can’t Live Like That

Such is the logic of revolutionary thinking. But human beings—even such abstract human beings such as we had become—Hegel now acknowledges, can’t live like this. If we cannot be at home in the “revolutionary, abstract state,” nor at home with our alienated, reduced “point selves,” then where are we to find our home? “These individuals who have felt the fear of death, …their absolute master,” he says, “[once] again submit to negation and distinction, [re-] arrange themselves [once again] in the various [social and political] spheres, return to an apportioned and limited task, [and] thereby [return] to their substantial reality” (#593/361). Through the fear of death we come to realize that our conceptual aspirations had distorted our human reality. The truth is that we cannot live as “unrealized, abstract universals.” We thus retreat from the abstract and deadly universal and find “our substantial reality” once again in “an apportioned and limited task.” Through the fear of death we now revert (in part) to who we once were and recommit ourselves to a particular world.

This return to a particular world, however, might look like a major step backwards in “the progress of spirit,” might look like an inauthentic retreat to convention, tradition, culture, in short to particularity. “Out of this tumult,” Hegel says, “spirit would [seem to] be thrown back to its original starting point, to the [earlier] ethical and real world of [Greek] culture, which would [seem to] have been merely refreshed and rejuvenated by the fear of the lord and master [death], which has again entered man’s hearts. [With the result that it would seem that] spirit would have to traverse anew and continually repeat this cycle of necessity [die Kreislauf der Notwendigkeit: circuit]…” (#594/361-2).

One step forward and two steps back? Are we starting over again? And if we are continually thrown back to the beginning, is there then no real “progress of spirit”? Hegel’s response to the prospect of continual repetition and return—and thus to the possible illusion of progress—is that the [race] course of spirit—the “circuit of necessity”—is not closed, at least not at this point. And, he adds, this would be so only if “…the result were only the complete [re-]interpenetration of self-consciousness and substance” (#594/361-2). That is, at this point such a return is premature. It may temporarily resolve our alienation (the subject-object dichotomy) but it would not bring about our true destiny, spirit’s ultimate end.

8. “In Place of the Self…”

It is true, Hegel continues, that at this stage “in the world of culture itself, [consciousness] does not get as far as to behold its [own] negation or alienation in the form of pure abstraction [that is, it hasn’t yet become explicit to itself]; on the contrary, its negation [emptiness] is [now] filled with a [transitional] content. It [re-]invests itself in several prior shapes, either [a] honor or wealth, which it gains in place of the self that it has alienated from itself, or [b] the [unperfected] language of spirit… which the disrupted consciousness acquires; or [c] the heaven of faith, or [d] the [earlier] utility of enlightenment” (#594/362).

“In place of the self that it has alienated from itself,” consciousness now unselfconsciously (that is, unknowingly) finds refuge in time tested, ready to hand, though now unfulfilling, forms of being: honor, money, religion, utility, and “the language of spirit which the disrupted consciousness acquires” (more about this last later). These serve as waystations, so to speak, until it grows into its next shape.  As such, they prove to be no true refuge. The deeper reality for such an intermediate, “disrupted consciousness” remains, according to Hegel, still negative: “…All these [prior] determinations have vanished in the loss suffered by the self in absolute freedom” [2x] (#594/362), that is, despite its temporary refuge, its reality remains “the death that is without meaning” (or a sense of radical contingency or finitude), “the terror of the negative” (or Angst) and that “nothing fills it with [true] content” (or anomie, estrangement, inauthenticity). There is no going back. Old forms no longer serve.[44]

Despite this sense of loss—that the present actuality is not yet our fullest possibility—Hegel makes the remarkable yet characteristic claim that consciousness is still not at a total loss but somehow yet “…knows that [universal] will to be itself, and [thus] knows itself to be [more than its present imperfect stage, rather] knows itself to be essential being …” (if not yet fully actualized and articulated). The result then is not wholly negative. There is a “determinate negation”[45] to be realized here. Its realization is two-sided: while spirit somehow knows that it is “universal will,” it has here learned specifically that this is not to be found in “[will as] revolutionary government,nor as “anarchy striving to establish anarchy,” nor itself “as the center of faction” (#594/363). In short, it has learned that its fulfillment is not to be found in revolution, nor anarchy (nihilism), nor political absolutism. Revolutionary consciousness is not our final end.

Thus despite consciousness’ failure in the foregoing—in fact despite its falling short in each of the many prior stages—it somehow yet knows that its destiny lies elsewhere. With this Hegel says: “Absolute freedom has thus [thereby in principle] removed the antithesis between the universal and the individual will…”—that is the individual has realized that it has become and is somehow universal—“… [and] so does absolute freedom [now] leave [behind] its self-destroying [revolutionary] reality and pass over into another land of self-conscious spirit” (#595/363). As an acorn knows that it is an oak tree, so spirit knows that it is more than its present state of incomplete development.[46] “Absolute freedom leaves its self-destroying reality and passes into another land of self-conscious spirit” (#595/363).

Spirit is thus saved from tragedy, or a history of perpetual disappointment. Spirit was only momentarily in retrograde, then. Though at this stage it may be difficult for us to see how it might yet get beyond its embedded predicament—spirit always works “behind our backs”[47]—it finds its way, purified of its hyper-generalized, destructive political ambitions, to a higher transcendence and consolation in a new stage of universality, “Moral Spirit” (the movement from sheer will to pure will, from revolutionary willfulness to Kantian self-legislation). The prospect of a happy ending is thus not extinguished. Spirit’s and Hegel’s project lives on.[48]

9. “Disrupted Consciousness” and the Intermediate Language of Spirit

But before we rush off with Hegel and find a happy ending in “absolute knowing” (sublating or transcending [Aufhebung] all defective, prior stages of consciousness in an ultimate synthetic whole), let us pause for a moment and consider a curious formulation in an earlier passage. In retrograde, we saw, spirit found waystations and returned to—among others—“the language of spirit…which the disrupted consciousness (das zerrissene Bewuβtsein) acquires,” Hegel says. “Disrupted [torn] consciousness”? Along the way, it would appear, there remains available to human beings intermediate, unfinished, orphaned or remnant modes of consciousness that we’ve not simply “outgrown.”[49] In short, we carry with us the modes of thought and conceptual baggage of unresolved, prior structures of consciousness.[50]

If then some of us never quite get beyond these imperfect states of “disrupted consciousness”— most of us—then these too need to be a focus of our inquiry. A progressive logic of spirit that keeps its philosophical eye principally on the end would be one-sided then and would need to be complemented by a philosophical pathology, if you will, one that looks not only at the fulfilled end but examines as well the unfulfilled stages of consciousness in all their revealing partiality. Such a “diagnostic logic” looks to understand the residual reality and the real and persistent consequences of imperfect knowing (incomplete and hence defective stages of reason).[51]

Hegel, for example, asks us to consider here such an intermediate stage, the spiritual transformation that led to the brutal episode of the terror, one of many such unhappy chapters on spirit’s way. As we saw, by transcending the limits of the personal in its assent to greater universality, spirit placed the world of the individual human—our world—at risk of “the cold steel blade.” He thereby shows us the need to think better about such transformations, in particular that of “abstract intelligence” and our possible inheritance therefrom.[52]

Thus should we have a Socratic moment when we realize that we may not as yet have reached “absolute knowing” but are ourselves somewhere in-between (metazu) then what might be even more important for us to ask is where we are situated in the midst of all this “world historical change.” In such a circumstance, The Phenomenology of Spirit, now read also as a philosophical pathology, might allow us to diagnose the various stages of disrupted consciousness and their very real and persistent consequences.[53]

10. Wondering About Our Legacy

Finally, in the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Sprit, Hegel says that the dialectic of spirit is a “[high]way [Weg] of despair,”[54] a dialectic he describes elsewhere as one “…which unsettles all particular judgments and opinions, transmuting the evil into good and good into evil.”[55]  But even if in the end “absolute knowing” somehow can be thought to justify all the intermediary stages, let us not overlook the means thereto. What then are we to conclude about this chapter, a tale of an “inner spiritual revolution,” terrible and terrifying?

[§3] We began by being struck by Hegel’s claim that an “inner” philosophical or spiritual revolution precedes and underlies the “outer” events of the French Revolution and that it was the unperfected stage of reason that gave birth to it and its offspring, the Reign of Terror. [§4] We followed his development, from the intermediary concept of “utility” to spirit’s next expression as “absolute freedom.” Reason gets an inkling that “the world is for it simply its own will” and finds itself, by means of the enabling concept of “the general will,” once again “undivided from the whole.” Therein its truer fulfillment: it now “realizes itself in the work of the whole,” where it “puts aside” its limited individuality for the sake of living universally. Freedom here meant “freedom from particular individuality.”

[§5] But then spirit encountered this paradoxical fact about itself: Spirit here acts through individuals. As such “universal freedom” had no finite way to express itself except negatively. Freedom came to mean the nihilistic removal of all of the conditions of human particularity or as Hegel says “the fury of destruction.” In the process of eliminating all particularity, “human being” itself is reduced to a “mere being”—it “no longer has any content, possession, existence, or outer extension.” Human being had become but an empty, content-less “point” (less than a cabbage, actually); human being had been dehumanized. Abstract or absolute freedom here takes one of two defective forms: either ideology or willfulness, either humanly indifferent, cold universality or arbitrary, self-less self-assertion.

[§6] Hegel formulated this troubling outcome thus: “The sole [defining] work of universal freedom is death.” The consequence of the prior spiritual transformation of our thinking, in short, was so profound that we could no longer distinguish between the bloody and murderous activity of the guillotine and the routine, daily activity of loping off the head of a cabbage to make soup. This conceptual blindness and indiscriminateness was possible—not because of some mass passion or rage—but because of the imperfect “progress of spirit,” the Reign of Terror its dreadful expression. Freedom here came to mean the unrestraint and indiscriminateness of “abstract intelligence,” unable to distinguish between “taking a life” and “taking a sip of water.”

[§7] With this “inner revolution,” the new “wisdom of the [universal] government” came face to face with this fact: In having to act in specific ways, the revolutionary government itself appears to be yet another “faction” and hence at odds with the general will. And unable to discern the true allegiance of its “citizens,” it came to look on them with “cold, matter of fact” suspicion. All particularity is viewed as a threat and so it undertakes the general “efface[ment] of [all] distinctions” (of bourgeois individualism). The “terror of death” is here the new face of freedom (despotism).

[§8] But spirit cannot continue thus. It must seek its “substantial reality” somewhere, a waystation, if not its final home. “In place of the self that it had alienated from itself,” it finds “an apportioned and limited task” once again in the realm of the particular. It realizes that “absolute freedom was a self-destroying reality,” and thus that revolution, anarchy or political absolutism are not where its true fulfillment is to be found. “A new land of consciousness” awaits. Freedom there—in the land of Morality—will seek to grow beyond its destructive meaning.

[§9] At this point we all would like to think that such a dark period of our Western spiritual history is simply past, that we’ve somehow gotten beyond it and that we are the better for our having outlived and learned about such terrifying events. Perhaps the historical events are past, but Hegel’s account makes us wonder whether the philosophical change in the structure of our thinking given expression there, whether it too has been transcended. Or is there still a vestige of that transformation—a “disrupted consciousness”—that yet shapes our thinking today?

And so the Enlightenment, that is modern reason, failed us in part, Hegel shows, both for the history it left behind and the legacy it bequeathed us. Indeed it brought us and spirit to the point of self-destruction. Freedom showed itself to be multiform, striving for ever greater perfection at the risk, however, of “the cold, steel blade.” Reason had ascended to such a level of universality that it became “abstract intelligence,” to the point of losing any rootedness to the actual—the particulars of our lived experience—and to personhood—the self-identity to which we once subscribed. Humanity had become dehumanized.

Spirit and philosophy have, then, to think more about their presuppositions, their “modern principles”—how “being and thought are [to be considered] the same” (#578/352) and whether truth is such an abstract universal—lest the rarefied plane of their generality make our lives unintelligible and expendable, and we become citizens of a world but of no place in particular. Spirit and philosophy, then, have their work cut out for them.


So we ask you tonight to reflect on our modern inheritance from the French Revolution—how our highest ideals could possibly turn into their opposites—how “liberty, equality and fraternity” could become “license, forced homogeneity and terror”–-in short, we ask you to think better about the risks of “abstract intelligence.”[56]

And we ask you tonight to consider Hegel’s claim that certain forms of reason—indeed the very “progress of reason” and this stage of “enlightenment”—lead to nihilism and terror.

And we ask you tonight as well to think hard about Hegel’s distinction, implicit in the foregoing, that a revolution without a reformation can only end in blood and suffering (“the cold, steel blade”), and to wonder whether and how spirit can wash its hands clean with blood.[57]

And we ask you tonight to wonder how the personal became so impersonal, how “human being” could be dehumanized, reduced to “mere” being-there, and to wonder whether there’s still a chance that dignity and worth might yet be restored (the task of Moral Spirit).[58]

Lastly, we ask you to consider the hyper-generality of language and thought that we find all around us[59] and to wonder whether such conceptual over-reach might not be our (“disrupted”) legacy from the Enlightenment and how it might be offset by a more considered review of human being.


                                                                           Thinking and philosophy are good, but ….                                                

Thank you.


[1]  This lecture was originally given at St. John’s College, Santa Fe on 2.3.16 and 11.3.17. Citations to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: the first entry in the parenthesis is Miller’s paragraph numbering, the second is the page number of his translation (G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977 [hereafter Phenomenology]). I would like to thank my colleagues Raoni Padui and Eva Brann for their thoughtful suggestions.

[2]  See revolutionary posters at the top of this essay.

[3] The Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree, New York: Dover Publications, 1956, 450 [hereafter PhH]. Hannah Arendt poses the paradox of modern revolutions this way: “…We have witnessed the supreme danger that out of the abortive attempt to found the institutions of freedom may grow the most thoroughgoing abolition of freedom and of all liberties” (“What Freedom and Revolution Really Mean,”, 10/11, 6.27.2017, to appear in The New England Review [hereafter Arendt]). This essay came to my attention only after completing this lecture. For the most part, it confirms or is confirmed by Hegel’s anticipations. My thanks to my brother, Barry Levine, for bringing this to me.

[4] Philosophy of Right, #136/108 (Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, translated by Alan White, Newburyport, MA: Focus Philosophical Library, 2002).

[5]  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Mansfield and Winthrop, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 590.

[6]  Nietzsche, Zarathustra (First Part, “On the Gift-Giving Virtue,” §2).

[7]  Arendt 2/11.

[8]  John Adams thought that the prospect of a republican government in France was as “unnatural, irrational, and impracticable” as the panthers in Versailles (Arendt, 5/11).

[9]  Technically peasants do not constitute a class according to Marx. He thought they were not capable of class consciousness (Appelbaum). Also Arendt: “No revolution, no matter how wide it opened its gates to the masses and downtrodden—les malheureux, les misérable, les damnés de la terre [the unhappy, the miserable, the damned of the earth], as we know it from the grand rhetoric of the French Revolution—was never started by them” (Arendt, 4/11).

[10]  The American Framers wrestled with the pre-dialectical version of the tension between “abstract theory (ideas)” and “effective practice (actuality).” They were suspicious of both the abstract idealism of “theoretic politicians” and the excesses of popular government.

Hamilton: “…A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations…to presume a want of motives for such [frequent and violent] contests… [to have forgotten] that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious” (#6: 21) and “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?” (Madison, Jay, Hamilton, The Federalist, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2001, #10: 25).

Madison: “Theoretic politicians who have patronized this species of government [pure democracy], have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions” (#10:46)

For the Framers experience overrode abstract reason, especially as we might learn from others’ bitter experiments (cf. Arendt, 4/11: and the Framers “enthusiasm for ancient prudence”).

[11]  “When a government’s form has been established for a long time and things are arranged in a certain way, it is almost always prudent to leave them alone, because the reasons for such a state having endured are often complicated and unknown, and they will cause it to maintain itself further. But when one changes the whole system, one can only remedy those difficulties that are known by theory, and one overlooks others that can only be brought to light by practice” (Montesquieu, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, translated by David Lowenthal, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1965, 160).

[12]  Preface, Phenomenology, §29/27: “…each moment is necessary…each moment has to be lingered over.”

[13]  “…From this inner revolution there emerges the actual revolution of the actual world…” (#582/355-6). Hegel is not unique in thinking this. Burke earlier and Tocqueville afterwards too thought a “philosophical revolution” had preceded and prepared the historical events. Cf. Arendt, 4/11: “John Adams was entirely right when he said that ‘the revolution was effected before the war commenced.’”

[14]  The well-known Indian parable comes to mind about blind men who each feel a different part of the elephant and conclude very different things about its nature.

[15]  Cf. n41.

[16]  Aesthetics, 2:1110 (cited in Kalkavage, Peter, The Logic of Desire, An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2007, 500).  Also PhH, 452: “We have now to consider the French Revolution in its organic connection with the History of the World; for in its substantial import that event is World-Historical.”

When Hegel says in the Phenomenology that “ours is a birth time” (Preface §11/6), he well understands that while the times were pregnant, some births are incomplete, even deformed. The momentousness of the moment was felt by many. The 19th century, Goethe said, “…seems to be a new era. For such great events as shook the world in the opening years of the century cannot remain without great consequence, even though the latter, like grain from seed, grow and ripen slowly” (from Gespräche, cited in Löwith, Karl, From Hegel to Nietzsche, The Revolution of Nineteenth Century Thought, translated by David Green, New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1964 [1941], 26.)

[17]  “This is the vast discovery in regard to the profoundest depths of being and freedom. The consciousness of the spiritual is not the essential basis of the political fabric, [but] philosophy [thought] has thereby become dominant: French Revolution” (PhH, 446). The emergence of thought as fundamental to the progress of history is the positive, if ambiguous, significance of the Enlightenment and the revolutions that followed.

[18]  The Enlightenment “…has not arrived at the Notion found in Descartes’ metaphysics, that being and thought are, in themselves, the same; they have not [yet] arrived at the thought that being, pure being, is something concretely real but [remained for them merely] a pure abstraction…” (#578/352).

[19]  Here we recognize the program embodied in Rousseau’s Social Contract. To the extent that individuals obey laws that they have authored or authorized, they obey both themselves (autonomy) and are “the universal.” In this sense they are “undivided from the whole.”

[20]  What Hegel means by “universal” needs to become a question for us. It is to be distinguished from “generalization,” which retains its rootedness in the real, its connection to particulars that it seeks to encompass in a workable whole (cf. Aristotle’s to katholou; Posterior Analytics II 19). In Hegel’s view, once they lose their connectedness to the real, “universals” become “abstract or empty universals” and cause us to over-generalize and mis-think.

[21]  As became the new custom of the French Revolution (cp. Marx’ “species consciousness”)

[22]  Contrast Governor Morris’ remark, 8.9.1787: “As to those philosophical gentlemen, those Citizens of the World as they call themselves … he would not trust them. The men who can shake off [so easily] their attachments to their own country, can never love any other. These attachments are the wholesome prejudices which uphold all governments” (Madison, James, Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787, New York: W.W. Norton Co, 1966, 421).

[23]  This is not word magic, a là the new rhetoric. This names a fundamental conceptual transformation, not a customary word change.

[24]  Consider our modern discomfort with the particulars of daily life—what the ancients might have grouped under nomos. They’re “merely” local or particular, circumstance, place, climate, accident, custom, nation, history etc.

[25]  Hence the dialectical paradox: “the dreadful” becomes the means to “the good” (n25, 55). Add to this frustration at the slowness with which the dialectic works itself out and we get the instrumental rationalism of terrorism (provocative activism). (Cf. Levine, “The Senseless Course of Human Things, On “One of Professor Kant’s Most Cherished Ideas,” lecture, St. John’s College, 8.26.2005)

[26]  This reflects Burke’s well known thesis [1790]—of which Hegel seems to have been aware—of the role of “abstraction” in distorting and exaggerating the revolution (“Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Select Works of Edmund Burke, Vol 2, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 1999).

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel says “This philosophy is in the first instance only abstract thought, not the concrete comprehension of absolute truth—intellectual positions between which there is an immeasurable chasm” (446). By contrast, there are “…statesmen, who from their very youth have devoted themselves to political business and have worked and lived in it…. For a general sense of particularity involves…that knowledge, experience, and facility acquired by practice, which the aristocracy devote themselves to… [and] exclusively possess. This is quite opposed to the appreciation of principles and abstract views…” (455). Such statesmen have a more realistic sense of what is possible than abstract thinkers. In this vein, following Tocqueville and Furet, consider Schama’s emphasis on the role of the theoretical writings of the philosophes over against the experience and practical judgment of statesmen (Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[27]  The totalistic intent is far reaching. In addition to the systematic destruction of the past (monarchy, churches, monuments, museums etc.) of the iconoclasts and the renaming of the Cathedral of Notre Dame the “Temple of Reason,” the revolution went so far as to try to scientifically rationalize all of human life, including the way we live day to day, even hour by hour (a new division of the country into 83 equal départments, a prohibition against identifying oneself with one’s regional origins in favor of the greater unity “Frenchmen” [thereafter “citizens of the world”], a new mode of formal address (“Citoyen”), a dress code, imposition of the decimal system, redivision of the year [a new calendar], and even a renumbering of the hours in the day [a new clock]). Violations resulted in penalties. As Hegel tries to explain, they sought to legislate a total revolution and not just a change in external forms (“regime change”).

In this regard, consider Burke’s remark that the revolutionaries treated the old regime as a foreign conqueror might, hence the reason the French Revolution is not often thought of as a “civil war.” Cf. also Tocqueville’s critique of France’s colonial policy as an extension of the misguided French Revolution (“Second Letter on Algeria,” Writings on Empire and Slavery, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, 14-15, also 146).

[28]  “The will is free only when it does not will anything alien, extrinsic, foreign to itself (for as long as it does so it is dependent), but wills itself alone—wills the will. This is absolute will—the [unrestricted] volition to be free. Will making itself its own object is the [new] basis of all right and obligation…” (PhH, 442).

[29]  “The relation of these two [alternative modes of being], since each exists indivisibly and absolutely for itself [and apart]…is one of wholly unmediated pure negation [antithesis], a negation …of the [very] individual as a being existing in the universal” (#590/360).The ironic result: the alienation or not-being-in-the-universal from the very abstract existence sought.

[30]  Anatole France has reminded us that one formulation of the famous banner of the revolution, forgotten for the most part, was “Liberté, équalité, et fraternité, ou la mort,” that is “…or death.” (The Gods Will Have Blood [Les Dieux ont suif], translated by Davies, London: Penguin Books, 2004). See attached posters.

[31]  Cf. “The new notion of freedom, resting upon the liberation from poverty, changed both the course and goal of revolution. Liberty now comes to mean first of all ‘dress and food and the reproduction of the species,’ as the sansculottes conspicuously distinguished their own rights from the lofty, and to them, meaningless language of the proclamation of The Rights of Man and Citizen. Compared to the urgency of their demands, all deliberations about the best form of government suddenly appears irrelevant and futile. ‘La République? La Monarchie? Je ne connais que la question sociale, [The Republic? The Monarchy? I only recognize the social question]’ said Robespierre” (Arendt, 7/11).

There follows from this a fundamental distinction between political revolutions (the American Revolution) and those that are social and political revolutions (the French Revolution). Hegel’s reading that revolutions inspired by totalizing universals thus seems to anticipate Tocqueville’s and Marx’ “lessons of the 1848 revolutions.” “Only after February 1848, after ‘the great battle…between the two classes that split society, Marx noted that revolution [now had to mean] ‘the overthrown of bourgeois society,’ whereas before it [only] meant the overthrow of the form of government” (Arendt, 7/11). The logic of the enlightenment, Hegel seems to say, alone accounts for the radicalism of French Revolution as totalizing, if not totalitarian, only to be lived out in the nineteenth century.

[32]  Preface, Phenomenology, #32/32: “The life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it.”

[33]  Cp. Burke’s “the flies of summer,” (Reflections, 181). An historical side note: the guillotine was prized for its efficiency and its ability to lend itself to mass production.

[34]  In a letter, Hegel says that such a turn of events is necessary. “Ghastly as the Terror was, Hegel regarded it and the whole French Revolution as necessary to spirit’s development in history. In a letter to a student, he writes, ‘Thanks to the [blood] bath of her Revolution, the French Nation has freed herself of many institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child’” (Kalkavage, The Logic of Desire, 502). The letter cited is to Christian Sellman, Jena, January 23, 1807. It continues: “These institutions accordingly once oppressed [France], and will continue to oppress other nations as so many [intellectual] fetters devoid of spirit” (Hegel: The Letters, translated by Butler and Seiler, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 123). (It is reported that Hegel used to raise a glass in commemoration of the French Revolution every July 14th.)

The editors also refer to The Philosophy of History in which Hegel makes this crucial distinction: “It is a false principle that the fetters which bind right and freedom can be broken without the emancipation of conscience—that there be a revolution without a reformation” (453). Also, “the change [in the State] was necessarily violent, because the transformation was not undertaken by the government” (446). There is thus in Hegel’s view an ideological illusion characteristic of this stage, one that thinks it can legislate abstractly and eschew politics, particularity and practice, a stage that as a result has no relationship to moderation and prudence. Being “pure,” one’s “principles” are “absolute,” not amenable to qualification or compromise; their “truths” thus “necessarily violent.”

Kalkavage also quotes Hippolyte’s observation that while the intent of the Phenomenology was in some sense conservative, “the advance of the dialectic is revolutionary” (Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974, 398).

[35]  Cf. the” cold steel blade” of Balzac’s story “An Episode Under the Terror” [1831] (Honoré de Balzac, The Member of Arcis, The Seamy Side of History and Other Stories, St. Louis: J.M. Dent and Company, 1898, 371-389). My thanks to Janet Dougherty for introducing me to this revealing story. The other prominent image of the terror was “the lamp post” on which early victims were hung for all to see.

[36]  Cf. “If…the goal of government was ‘the happiness of the people’—le but de la République est le bonheur du peuple—then it indeed could be provided by a sufficiently enlightened despotic government, rather than a republic.” Arendt puts the paradox of the French Revolution this way: “The French Revolution ended in a disaster [yet despite that] became a turning point in world history; the American Revolution was a triumphant success [yet] remained a local affair…. Despotism, or the return to the age of enlightened absolutism, which announced itself clearly in the course of the French Revolution, becomes the rule for almost all subsequent revolutions…and even became dominant in revolutionary theory.” And again: “…Violence pitted against social conditions has always led to terror…. Terror let loose after the old regime has been dissolved and the new regime installed, is what either sends the revolutions to their doom or deforms them so decisively that they lapse into tyranny and despotism” (8/11).

[37]  Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution [1910], reprint by Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2014, 315 (hereafter Lectures). My thanks to Walter Sterling, Sr., for introducing me to this thoughtful account.

[38]  See St. Just’s “Law of Suspects” and Robespierre’s “Law of the 22nd of Prairial [June 10th].” (Lord Acton, Lectures, 311, 325). This extends so far as to include even the revolution’s own leading thinkers (Danton, Robespierre, St. Just) and has led to the adage “Revolutions devour their own children” (Vergniaud). Hegel is attempting to understand how this could be so.

[39]  Paradox: “The modern theory [of government]…refers everything to the individual will. But here we have no guarantee that the will in question has the right disposition which is essential to the stability of the state” (PhH, 449). “The general will” thus risks being an unrealized, abstract universal and hence humanly precarious (hence the after killings).

[40]  The reduction to arithmetical oneness—or mere number—is given an account here. To say, as people do today, that “everyone is reduced to numbers” is only to describe the result. It does not explain how such a bereft view of human being came to be (cf. The Federalist, Hamilton #31: 151, Madison # 55: 288).

[41]  “Whence did [their government] emanate? Theoretically from the people…really and truly from the National Convention and its Committees. The forces now dominant are the abstract principles—freedom… [and the new notion of] virtue. This virtue has now to conduct the government in opposition to the many, whom their corruption and attachment to old interests, or a liberty that had degenerated into license, and the violence of the passions, render unfaithful to [this new] virtue” (PhH, 450). “The people” is an abstraction, Hegel seems to say. In practice only a subset rule, those who agree with the new regime. The rest are made to agree (“the dictatorship of the righteous”).

[42]  At some point the revolutionary councils—The Committee on Public Safety in particular, the most notorious instrument of public control—did not even require evidence. As such there is only “suspicion,” no demonstrated “crime.” The resultant summary sentences of the tribunals sought to “efface” all suspected opposition or departure from the new orthodoxy, real or not, hence Hegel’s “a death without significance” (Kalkavach: “erasure”) (“revolutionary justice.” “nothing personal”).

[43]  The mark of a total revolution: It seeks to control, not only what one does, but now also what and how one is to think, feel, speak, in short be. Here some scholars see the beginnings of contemporary totalitarianism.

[44]  Or as Hegel says in the above mentioned letter (n34), “with the change of scenery.”

[45]  Preface, #59/36 and Introduction, #79/51, Phenomenology.

[46]  A sharp distinction here is in order between Socratic “knowledge of ignorance” and Hegelian “spiritual realization.” As Hegel illustrates above, unbeknownst to us or “behind our backs,” spirit finds expression through us and we become the instrument or occasion of spirit’s self-realization. Thus what becomes explicit for Socrates remains unconsciously at work for Hegel.

In general Hegel sees the significance of Socrates as explicitly discovering the “universal” in us and thus the individual becomes the locus of decision (e.g. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, [1892] 1968, 408). However, as spirit progresses, the order of universality develops too, according to Hegel. Hence it is not the same “universal” at work for Socrates and the philosophes.

Plato too addressed this problem of conceptual overreach or “abstract intelligence” in the persons of the sophists and rhetoricians (See Levine, Profound Ignorance: Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom, Lantham, Md: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015).

[47]  “It is this fact that guides the entire series of the patterns of consciousness in their necessary sequence. But it is just this necessity itself, or the origination of the new object, that presents itself to consciousness without its understanding how this happens, which proceeds, as it were, behind the back of consciousness” (Introduction, Phenomenology, #88/56).

[48]  In this regard Hegel’s statement of the fundamental problem of modernity:

“The manner of study in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation of the natural consciousness. Putting itself to the test at every point of existence, and philosophizing about everything it came across, it made itself into a universality that was active through and through.

In modern times, however, an individual finds the abstract form ready-made; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving forth of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought and that thinks, but rather in just the opposite in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality to the universal and impart to it spiritual life” (Phenomenology, §33/19). Also “Nowadays we see all value ascribed to the universal Idea is this non-actual form and the undoing of all distinct, determinate entities… allowed to pass muster as the speculative mode of treatment (§16/9). The upshot: Nowadays value is ascribed to the universal idea in its non-actual form, eclipsing distinction and determinateness, passing muster as “speculative or theoretical” thought.

[49]  Cf. Hegel’s earlier formulation: “…outgrow like the shoes of a child” (n34). Ideas that aren’t assimilated (aufgehoben) in later developments become discardable remnants and with that the people of those outworn ideas, “old shoes.” Given Hegel’s critique of “abstract universals,” this image (along with the earlier “change of scenery” image) should bring us to examine the inherent “abstractness” or generality of his metaphors—and metaphors in general—and whether the consequences of their adoption are similarly over-generalized and problematic as with other “universals.”

[50]  One is brought to wonder about the oft quoted claim by Hegel that “The wounds of the spirit heal without leaving scars” (Phenomenology, #669/407: Die Wunden des Geistes heilen, ohne daβ Narben bleiben [without scars remaining]). The above passage seems to suggest, rather, that the history of consciousness is strewn with residual, partial and incomplete forms (“intellectual fetters,” n34). Otherwise spirit would be remarkable in yet another respect, namely its path would have left no rut, no trace, no casualty along the way, as if, that is, it had no “history,” as we might say in a non-philosophical vain. As Tocqueville knew all too well, the history of the eighteenth century left scars.

Cf. Nietzsche: “Not only the reason of millennia but their madness [Wahnsinn] too breaks out in us. It is dangerous to be an heir” (Zarathustra, n65).

[51]  Cf. the diagnostic morphology of political regimes [souls writ large] in Plato, The Republic, IX; also V.

[52]  It would thus follow that we cannot just pick and choose our “philosophies.” Knowingly or not, we are burdened with the remnants of past thought all the same, our language heavy with their “disrupted” legacies. To be part of a culture or tradition thus means to be an inheritor of more than we realize. Hegel provides us with an occasion to reflect on our over-rich and amalgamated inheritance (cp. the more recent notion of “[de-]sedimentation”). If indeed our language and thinking are burdened with the conceptual indiscriminateness of orphaned or unrealized abstract universals, one has to wonder whether any effort of rethinking, can restore the concreteness and specificity of meaningful signification to our lived experience.

[53]  Cp. Preface, Phenomenology, §28/16: “In [a stage of] Spirit more advanced than another, the lower concrete existence has been reduced to an inconspicuous moment; what used to be the important thing is now but a trace… advanced Spirit runs through this past…recalls them to the inward eye but has no lasting interest in them…. The single individual must pass through the formative stages…as shapes which Spirit has left behind, as stages on the way, made level with toil.” Yet “…the wealth of previous existence is still present to consciousness in memory (§13/7).”

Given Hegel’s developmental argument, one has to wonder, whether the “progress of spirit” so single-minded, so clean? And if not, whether such prior structures reside only in “memory” but remaining imperfectly assimilated “fetters,” they continue to do their dialectical work (n34: “continue to oppress”).

In this regard also, see the quotation of Johann Plange about the persistent “bewildering” influence of “suspended components:” “[Hegel] had no premonition of the bewildering influence which were to come upon Europe from all over the world. This is the fault of his method itself, for what dialectic had once dealt with indeed remains alive within it as a suspended component, but it never has a basically new effect in its own right.” If not “basic,” if not “new,” previous shapes are still somehow “alive” (cited in Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, 133).

[54]  “The road can…be regarded as the pathway of doubt, or more precisely as the way [Weg] of despair” (Introduction, Phenomenology, #77/49; Baille: “highway of despair”).

[55]  PhH, 438.

[56]   Tocqueville too thought our legacy from the French Revolution was unsettling: “This strange play whose ending is still unknown to us” (The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume Two, Notes on the French Revolution and Napoleon, translated by Alan Kahan, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001, 186, also 197).

[57]   Macbeth II ii 57.

[58]   Human beings can be reduced to “mere beings” in other ways as well, here because our abstract thinking is underdeveloped, and hence we think and speak “disruptedly” (if that is a word).

[59]   Not all generalities are principles.

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