The Philosophy of History

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was a famous philosophy professor in Berlin whose lectures attracted many students, even though the lectures were extraordinarily abstract. The Philosophy of History was a compilation of his lectures given in 1830–31 and published after his death. They give the flavor of his philosophy of history and of his preoccupation with the French Revolution. Hegel was almost obsessed with Napoleon, whom he described as "world history on horseback." Hegel argued that the French Revolution failed because it had not been preceded by a prior Protestant Reformation, as in the German states. Freedom, he insisted, depended on a mental change; it could not be enforced politically.


The two following points must now occupy our attention: 1st. The course which the Revolution in France took; 2nd. How that Revolution became World-Historical.

1. Freedom presents two aspects: the one concerns its substance and purport—its objectivity—the thing itself—[that which is performed as a free act]; the other relates to the Form of Freedom, involving the consciousness of his activity on the part of the individual; for Freedom demands that the individual recognize himself in such acts, that they should be veritably his, it being his interest that the result in question should be attained. The three elements and powers of the State in actual working must be contemplated according to the above analysis, their examination in detail being referred to the Lectures on the Philosophy of Right.

Laws of Rationality—of intrinsic Right—Objective or real freedom: to this category belong Freedom of Property and Freedom of Person. . . . In view then of these leading considerations we have to trace the course of the French Revolution and the remodeling of the State in accordance with the Idea of Right. In the first instance purely abstract philosophical principles were set up: Disposition and Religion were not taken into account. The first Constitutional form of Government in France was one which recognized Royalty; the monarch was to stand at the head of the State, and on him in conjunction with his Ministers was to devolve the executive power; the legislative body on the other hand were to make the laws. But this constitution involved from the very first an internal contradiction; for the legislature absorbed the whole power of the administration: the budget, affairs of war and peace, and the levying of the armed force were in the hands of the Legislative Chamber. Everything was brought under the head of Law. The budget however is in its nature something diverse from law, for it is annually renewed, and the power to which it properly belongs is that of the Government. With this moreover is connected the indirect nomination of the ministry and officers of state, etc. The government was thus transferred to the Legislative Chamber, as in England to the Parliament. This constitution was also vitiated by the existence of absolute mistrust; the dynasty lay under suspicion, because it had lost the power it formerly enjoyed, and the priests refused the oath. Neither government nor constitution could be maintained on this footing, and the ruin of both was the result. A government of some kind however is always in existence. The question presents itself then, Whence did it emanate? Theoretically, it proceeded from the people; really and truly from the National Convention and its Committees. The forces now dominant are the abstract principles—Freedom, and, as it exists within the limits of the Subjective Will—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 has degenerated into license, and the violence of their passions, render unfaithful to virtue. Virtue is here a simple abstract principle and distinguishes the citizens into two classes only—those who are favorably disposed and those who are not. But disposition can only be recognized and judged of by disposition. Suspicion therefore is in the ascendant; but virtue, as soon as it becomes liable to suspicion, is already condemned. Suspicion attained a terrible power and brought to the scaffold the Monarch, whose subjective will was in fact the religious conscience of a Catholic. Robespierre set up the principle of Virtue as supreme, and it may be said that with this man Virtue was an earnest matter. Virtue and Terror are the order of the day; for Subjective Virtue, whose sway is based on disposition only, brings with it the most fearful tyranny. It exercises its power without legal formalities, and the punishment it inflicts is equally simple—Death. This tyranny could not last; for all inclinations, all interests, reason itself revolted against this terribly consistent Liberty, which in its concentrated intensity exhibited so fanatical a shape. An organized government is introduced, analogous to the one that had been displaced; only that its chief and monarch is now a mutable Directory of Five, who may form a moral, but have not an individual unity; under them also suspicion was in the ascendant, and the government was in the hands of the legislative assemblies; this constitution therefore experienced the same fate as its predecessor, for it had proved to itself the absolute necessity of a governmental power. Napoleon restored it as a military power, and followed up this step by establishing himself as an individual will at the head of the State: he knew how to rule, and soon settled the internal affairs of France. The avocats [barristers], ideologues and abstract-principle men who ventured to show themselves he sent "to the right about," and the sway of mistrust was exchanged for that of respect and fear. He then, with the vast might of his character turned his attention to foreign relations, subjected all Europe, and diffused his liberal institutions in every quarter. Greater victories were never gained, expeditions displaying greater genius were never conducted: but never was the powerlessness of Victory exhibited in a clearer light than then. The disposition of the peoples, i.e., their religious disposition and that of their nationality, ultimately precipitated this colossus; and in France constitutional monarchy, with the "Charte" as its basis, was restored. But here again the antithesis of Disposition [good feeling] and Mistrust made its appearance. The French stood in a mendacious position to each other, when they issued addresses full of devotion and love to the monarchy, and loading it with benediction. A fifteen years' farce was played. For although the Charte was the standard under which all were enrolled, and though both parties had sworn to it, yet on the one side the ruling disposition was a Catholic one, which regarded it as a matter of conscience to destroy the existing institutions. Another breach, therefore, took place, and the Government was overturned. At length, after forty years of war and confusion indescribable, a weary heart might fain congratulate itself on seeing a termination and tranquillization of all these disturbances. But although one main point is set at rest, there remains on the one hand that rupture which the Catholic principle inevitably occasions, on the other hand that which has to do with Men's subjective will. In regard to the latter, the main feature of incompatibility still presents itself, in the requirement that the ideal general will should also be the empirically generalized will, that the units of the State, in their individual capacity, should rule, or at any rate take part in the government. Not satisfied with the establishment of rational rights, with freedom of person and property, with the existence of a political organization in which are to be found various circles of civil life each having its own functions to perform, and with that influence over the people which is exercised by the intelligent members of the community, and the confidence that is felt in them, "Liberalism" sets up in opposition to all this the atomistic principle, that which insists upon the sway of individual wills; maintaining that all government should emanate from their express power, and have their express sanction. Asserting this formal side of Freedom—this abstraction—the party in question allows no political organization to be firmly established. The particular arrangements of the government are forthwith opposed by the advocates of Liberty as the mandates of a particular will, and branded as displays of arbitrary power. The will of the Many expels the Ministry from power, and those who had formed the Opposition fill the vacant places; but the latter having now become the Government, meet with hostility from the Many, and share the same fate. Thus agitation and unrest are perpetuated. This collision, this nodus, this problem is that with which history is now occupied, and whose solution it has to work out in the future.

2. 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, and that contest of Formalism which we discussed in the last paragraph must be properly distinguished from its wider bearings. As regards outward diffusion its principle gained access to almost all modern states, either through conquest or by express introduction into their political life. Particularly all the Romanic nations, and the Roman Catholic World in special—France, Italy, Spain—were subjected to the dominion of Liberalism. But it became bankrupt everywhere; first, the grand firm in France, then its branches in Spain and Italy; twice, in fact, in the states into which it had been introduced. This was the case in Spain, where it was first brought in by the Napoleonic Constitution, then by that which the Cortes adopted—in Piedmont, first when it was incorporated with the French Empire, and a second time as the result of internal insurrection; so in Rome and in Naples it was twice set up. Thus Liberalism as an abstraction, emanating from France, traversed the Roman World; but Religious slavery held that world in the fetters of political servitude. For it is a false principle that the fetters which bind Right and Freedom can be broken without the emancipation of conscience—that there can be a Revolution without a Reformation.—These countries, therefore, sank back into their old condition—in Italy with some modifications of the outward political condition. Venice and Genoa, those ancient aristocracies, which could at least boast of legitimacy, vanished as rotten despotisms. Material superiority in power can achieve no enduring results: Napoleon could not coerce Spain into freedom any more than Philip II could force Holland into slavery.

Source: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, English translation (New York: Colonial Press, 1899), 449–53.