Reason in History: An Analysis of Hegel’s Philosophical History

In Hegel’s Reason in History, the task of philosophizing history is undergone. In this paper, I will address three main points. One, that the progress of human history is rational in structure. Two, that history showcases the spread of the Idea of freedom through the action of individuals. Three, that the Idea manifests itself in the state, granting us the highest amount of freedom possible. Finally, I will conclude with my own thoughts on these three claims put forth by Hegel.


First, Hegel makes the argument that we can understand the course of human history not as something created by chance, but rather through a clear rational structure. We must begin with some clarification, namely that Hegel considers “reason” to be thought of with the question: “what is the ultimate purpose of the world?” But we also need to understand its properties (what goes into considering something as “reason”). Two important qualities emerge: first, it has substance. Its substance is that which has come about by reality, for reason creates reality. Second, it is infinite in power, content, and form. Reason is infinite in power, for not only can it be the grounding of abstract thought (the “ideal,” the “ought”), but it can also generate reality. Reason is also infinite in content for it does not require physical externalities to create truth. Lastly, its infinite form derives from its prior two abilities: “only in its image and by its fiat do phenomena arise and begin to live.” (Hegel, 11) Therefore, any such phenomena throughout history must not have arisen by chance, but instead through reason’s infinite power, content, and form, for it alone can move from “potentiality to actuality.” The Idea, or reason, is the only thing which can manifest in this world. We must conclude that “in world history, things have come about rationally.” (11)
Second, history displays the spread of the Idea of freedom through the action of individuals. This second claim is less of an exercise on how we conceive of the world and more of an analysis on how freedom has been realized throughout history and various social structures. Hegel wishes to argue here that as history has developed, the Idea of freedom has made a slow and steady transition from one person being free to all people being free. But first we must understand another term Hegel uses: the Spirit, which Hegel describes as that whose substance (essence) is freedom. For only when man is free does man possess a Spirit. He then begins to draw out the course of human history, arguing that this course has been the process by which the Spirit attempts to “attain knowledge of its own nature.” (23) His three-part timeline begins with the Orientals, who are not yet aware of the Spirit. Hegel suggests that they are not yet able to self-consciously be aware that they know; instead, they only have the concept of “what they know.” (23) Therefore, because they do not possess awareness of the Spirit, they cannot be free. The only person that is free, for the Orientals, is the despot. But even this despot is not truly free, for it is simply an accident of nature, and not a rational coming about, that this one has caprice masquerading as freedom.

The next step in Hegel’s history is where some are free. He observes this in the case of Greece and Rome. Hegel argues that consciousness of freedom originated in Greece and Rome, for they were the first civilizations to know of freedom and realize its existence within their spirit. However, despite this consciousness, it was not a full realization of the Idea, for they only knew that some possessed freedom— “not man as such.” (23) While male Greek citizens were aware of the Spirit, most everyone else was not. Both the Greeks and Romans owned slaves, thereby sacrificing others’ liberties for their own. Finally, Hegel concludes that the Germanic people are the zenith on which the history of freedom rests. It was through Christianity that the Germanic people could fully realize “that man is free and that freedom of Spirit is the very essence of man’s nature.” (24) Of course, as Hegel notes, slavery did not end immediately once Christianity became predominant. This long process of applying Christian principles to secular ideologies and civilization is the very course of human political history, culminating in the free peoples of Germany. It can then be concluded that reason (recall that this is to be thought of the purpose of the world) is found in the realization of freedom. This is God’s highest and final purpose with the world.
Third, the Idea manifests itself in the state, granting us the highest amount of freedom possible. We have already established both the notions that history has been an unfolding of reason, as well as the fact that this reason has coincided with the realization of freedom in the Spirit. The final question that Hegel poses here is in what does this Idea manifest? First, Hegel distinguishes between negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom closely resembles the state of nature, where man is mostly free from interference by some other authority or power. In this sense man is free to take their own actions, but are not necessarily free from the actions of others. Because others may exercise their own negative freedom to violate yours, Hegel argues that you cannot truly be free in this state. Instead, Hegel argues that freedom, the universal Idea, manifests itself in the state through positive freedom. What this means is that the state adopts a social contract, sacrificing some negative freedom to secure basic freedoms for all. This is achieved most effectively through democratic governance, resting upon a common will. Suppression of the individual will is required in order to create a state that functions for all.
Within the state, Hegel argues that the law is what achieves the “objectivity” of the Spirit. If the law is the common will, and the common will is what gives an essence to the state, then the people are free only when they obey the law, for they are obeying themselves. Therefore, it can be said that the law is the realization of freedom, and the state a necessary externality of the will to carry out the law. Hegel concludes that the state is dependent on a balance of the will of the majority that also considers the minority. This spirit of the people that creates this positive freedom in the state is what gives the state its vitality. Hegel consider this “vitality of the state in individuals” as “morality.” (66)
Hegel’s three major claims present a very interesting take on the history of the world. I definitely agree that we can conceive of much of human history as the unfolding of rationality. It doesn’t seem to be too bold of a claim to suggest that where we are right now—tens of developed nations, with most of their citizens free and healthy—is not due to some chance, but instead to reason’s progress. For, if the course of human history were truly up to chance, it would be rather unlikely that most of human history has seen a steady and consistent change from power structures that rested upon a few to power structures that rested upon many. This leads me to Hegel’s second main point, that freedom has come about through the actions of individuals and ultimately landed in the Germanic “all are free” state. I’m going to excuse some of the blatant nationalistic vibe to try to make this argument more defendable on behalf of him. Perhaps a modern-day defense of this that doesn’t paint the “Orientals” as barbarians that are not like us and therefore not free, is that we can instead simply think of those without freedom as those without the consciousness and knowledge of Christianity. Perhaps Hegel would be willing to accept this position, since much of his argument circulates around God’s purpose for the world anyway. This of course leads to nationalism in the form of religious power, but this can perhaps be more comfortably digested as it avoids what seems to be very ethnocentric claims by Hegel. As such, I cannot really find a good way to defend Hegel’s second point without deferring to a higher purpose of a God, which itself is a near unprovable claim.
His third claim is rather agreeable, that we must sacrifice some of our own passions, desires, and wills in order to grant real freedom to all. There is one major advantage and disadvantage to this claim. The advantage is that adhering to the law helps to curb drives I may have that, upon reflection, I rationally decide I never wanted to do (such as violently acting out in a fit of rage). Without the state, there is little to hold me back from acting upon this emotion and we necessarily descend back into a state of nature. With the state, I am potentially stopped from taking this action, which is what I rationally would have willed in the first place. Therefore, the state is the only real way to protect my will. However, a disadvantage of this thinking may be that blind deference to the state to protect and ensure the will and rights of all could stagnate social progress. Perhaps I wish to protest an injustice in my country or start a revolution, but just like the fit of rage example above, the state stops me from doing this. However, it is simply not the case that revolutions are always wrong. Take the French revolution for example, which brought about positive, lasting change. It seems that the strongest, most Hegelian state, may prevent something like that from happening, which then poses the risk of a totalitarian state.
In conclusion, Hegel makes three major claims. The course of human history has not happened by chance but through reason. The course of human history has been marked by the spread of the Idea through the actions of the individuals. And that the state is the ultimate realization of this Idea of freedom. While Hegel does promote some good ideas that help to support the necessity of the social contract, it also carries some baggage which may harm minorities and social movements.

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