G. W. F. Hegel
Original publication: marxists.org
Translation: Roderic Day

Reason Governs the World (1822)

17 minutes | Deutsch English

The following is a new, original translation of a small excerpt of Hegel’s Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History[1] It was crafted with the explicit goal of demystifying Hegel, of putting to rest the myth that he’s unreadable and impossibly difficult to understand; my translation choices owe more to my wanting to convey my particular interpretation of his philosophical ideas than to any understanding of German — I mostly worked off of machine translation! Any suggested improvements are very welcome. If citing this document, verifying excerpts against the original German or against other official translations is strongly recommended.

If we consider how freedom comes into being, this is nothing other than the phenomenon of history. Although freedom as such is primarily an abstraction, the means by which it comes into being are concrete, and present themselves before our eyes in the form of history. [2]

One single glance at history will convince us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their interests, their characters, and their talents; this is how we develop the impression that it is only our varied needs, passions, and interests which drive the actions that we witness. Although it is true that individuals aspiring to universal virtues — benevolence, or noble patriotism — can play a historical role, they stand insignificant when compared to the world at large. We may well see the actualization of reason deliberately realized by these virtuous individuals in their areas of influence, but they are small in numbers in proportion to the mass of the human race; accordingly, the extent of influence that reason has through their virtues is relatively limited.

On the other hand, the passions, the pursuit of private interests, and the satisfaction of selfish desires shape reality with violent effectiveness. Their power lies in the fact that they respect none of the barriers which law and morality want to set for them, and therefore these natural forces have more direct influence over man than the artificial and tedious discipline that tends to order and restraint, to law and morality. When we see this carnival of passions and the consequences of its violence; when we see the irrationality which is associated even with (or especially with) good intentions and righteous aims; when we see the evil, the vice, and the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the human spirit ever brought into being; we can only be filled with grief over this transience. And, since this downfall is not only the work of nature but also of human will, it also results in moral embitterment: the indignation of the good spirit — if it has a place within us — will be an inevitable result of our reflections.

One does not need to exaggerate: a fair and honest summary of the misfortunes that have ruined the noblest of nations and destroyed the most virtuous of men produces a sense of despair that no positive developments can remedy. Subject to this torture, we can only cope by telling ourselves: what has happened could not be otherwise; it was decreed by fate; nothing could have been done to avoid it. After a period of depressed reflection, however, we retreat back into our habitual and agreeable private lives, into the everyday of our immediate goals and interests — into a selfishness that stands on a calm shore, and from a safe distance may serenely experience the distant spectacle of storms and shipwrecks. But even if we resign ourselves to seeing history as a slaughter-bench upon which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have all been sacrificed, a question arises: to what principle, to which entity, to which final purpose have these monstruous sacrifices been made?

From here on we return to our original question. We began by observing how historical events drive us to gloomy emotions and thoughtful reflections. What we will now wish to show is how these accidents constitute the substantial determination of a final, absolute result: world history. From the beginning we dismissed the possibility of ascending from particular incidents to universal principles through “moral reflections”: the riddles of history do not get resolved when we indulge in sentimentality — in fact, it is characteristic of such approaches to find twisted satisfaction in declaring such questions unanswerable. [3] Thus we return to our original thesis, but observing that aspects of the tragic picture sketched above contain essential provisions for resolving the question at hand.

To begin with we posit that there is a principle or purpose or destiny to history — Spirit. This is, however — and it cannot be stressed enough — only a general abstraction. Principles, like laws, are concepts, and thus, however true in themselves as conventions, are not corporeally real. The same is true of our beliefs, our purposes, and the like — they exist in our minds, they’re how we refer to our internal drives, but they do not manifest in the sphere of reality as such. They are a potentiality — something that exists as a possibility or a capacity, but one that has not yet actualized itself into existence, come out of its shell.

There must, therefore, be a second moment which produces this actuality. This is the activity of man in the widest sense, which achieves movement and realization, and manifests as will. It is only through this activity that abstract ideas are actualized into concrete realities, for they are otherwise by themselves powerless. Thus the drivers of history’s realization are man’s needs, instincts, preferences, and passions.

It is very important to establish that whoever acts and thereby brings something into existence, they therefore form a part of it, and share in its self-realization. If I am active in the self-realization of an objective, it somehow becomes my objective. This is the case even when I am merely going about the satisfaction of my own private interests and my contribution occurs as a disinterested by-product of my activity. The infinite right of a subject is to find himself satisfied in his own activity and in his labour. If people are to be interested in something, they must see themselves in it, and find their own individuality satisfied within its attainments.

One must avoid a misunderstanding here: one is still able, whenever they encounter an individual who avowedly seeks only his selfish personal self-advancement, to charge them as “interested,” and to treat this as a flaw in their character. In condemning this behaviour, we highlight how their own private interests diverge from comprehensive general interests; how they take advantage of and even sacrifice the general to advance the private. This is why one who is promoting a certain objective isn’t described as “interested” in general, but interested in that particular objective. Conversational conventions are correct in how they capture this distinction.

In any case, nothing happens, nothing is ever accomplished, unless the individuals concerned in some way find their own satisfaction through it. Also, insofar as these individuals have their own particular needs, instincts, and interests, these comprise not only strict necessities, but also include insight and conviction, or at least opinion, if the impulse towards reflection, understanding, and reason has been awakened in them. In these cases individuals will also demand that, if they are to participate in a general cause, that the cause appeals to them — that it is justified in terms of goodness, justice, advantage, and usefulness, so that they are able to “enter into it.” This is especially true in our age, now that people are less inclined than ever before to cede to authority or to blind trust, and want instead to dedicate part of their activity to a cause on grounds of their own understanding, independent conviction, and opinion.

We assert, then, that nothing has been accomplished without interest on the part of the actors that brought about its realization. We then move to consider passion: inasmuch as the individual finds an object to which they devote every fibre of their volition, subordinates all their other possible interests and claims to it, and concentrates all of their desires and powers upon it — we may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.

Two moments, therefore, enter into our analysis: one is the idea, the other is the tangle of human passions; the idea is the warp and human passions are the weft of the great tapestry of world history spread out before us. [4] Both find their center and union in the social conventions that enable freedom as embodied by the State. We have already spoken of the idea of freedom as the nature of Spirit, as the final goal of world history. Passion, from this vantage point, comes to be seen as something that isn’t quite right, that is more or less immoral: man should not have passions. But passion is also not quite the right word for what I want to express here.

What I mean by passion here is the kind of human activity that is born solely out of private interests and of self-seeking designs, such that some individuals pour the whole energy of their will and their character into narrow attainments, sacrificing all other interests, and even all other things, to them. In such scenarios the object in question becomes so over-identified with the individual’s particular will, that it becomes entirely subsumed and is thus inseparable from it — it becomes the very essence of his volition.

It is not humanity in general which succumbs to this over-identification, since humanity in the abstract has no concrete embodiment. It is a peril for particular individuals. The term “character” expresses this idiosyncracy of will and intelligence. But the term character is used in a very general way to comprehend all the particularities of an individual — the way they conduct themselves in interpersonal relationships, etc. Thus, it does not capture the sense of purposeful efficacy in activity that I intend here. Therefore I will insist in referring to “passion,” and hope that by this we understand the particular proclivity of some characters, such that the pecularities of their will are not limited to private interest, but are the driving force that advances general welfare.

Passion is therefore the unmediated, completely subjective, most instinctive facet of enthusiasm, will, and activity. It does not even concern itself with querying its own aims. It is indistinct from one’s own conviction, one’s private insight, and one’s individual conscience. The question of essential importance to my conviction is solely whether interest is of a “true” or real nature. Conversely, if it is so, then it is understood that it is meant to be, that it will attain actual existence, that it will be realized.

This explanation of the second essential moment of the purpose of history has an interesting and readily verifiable implication: a State is well-constituted and powerful when the private interests of its citizens are aligned with those of the State; when each finds its satisfaction and realization in the other. This proposition is, in itself, very important. The State must bring together various institutions, purposeful political machinery must be invented, and long intellectual struggles must be waged in order to finally determine what is appropriate. Moreover, these struggles involve private interests and passions, which must be managed and disciplined in order to bring about the desired unification. The epoch during which a State manages to achieve this harmonious condition is the period of its bloom, its virtue, its vigour, and its prosperity.

World history, however, does not begin with any such conscious purpose, nor do gatherings of men. The social instinct to band together does have an implicit purpose: to secure life and property. The more this living together comes about, the more comprehensive this purpose becomes. Similarly, world history also begins with a general purpose: the actualization of Spirit. Initially, though, this is only a deeply hidden, unconscious instinct. The whole purpose of world history is, then, to render this unconscious impulse into a conscious one, through labour.

At the very beginning of natural existence, only natural wills present themselves spontaneously. These are what we call the subjective side: physical cravings, instincts, passions, and also later opinions and private interests. This immense mass of wills, interests, and activities are the tools and means through which the world spirit accomplishes its purpose: it realizes this purpose as it comes into consciousness. And this aim is none other than finding itself, coming into itself, and contemplating itself as a concrete reality.

One might be skeptical of this idea that manifestations of vitality on the part of individuals and people seeking to satisfy their own petty interests are at the same time the means and instruments of a higher and loftier calling, about which they know nothing but nevertheless accomplish unconsciously. This framing has been challenged, mocked, and derided as mere fantasy and philosophizing. However, as I have asserted from the very beginning, and hope to prove through inference, our belief is that reason governs the world, and thus also governs world history. In relation to this independently universal and substantial existence, everything else is subordinate and subservient, and acts as the means for its development.

Furthermore, reason is immanent in historical existence, and accomplishes itself through it. The unified relationship between the general and the particular, between the universal and the individual, between objective truth and subjective opinion, is treated in general form in the Logic[5] But in the course of world history’s development — a course still in progress — the ultimate purpose of history is not yet a distinctive object of desire and interest. While these limited sentiments are still unconscious of the purpose they are fulfilling, the universal is nevertheless implicit in the particular, and realizes itself through it.

This question also takes the form of the union of freedom and necessity: we regard the course taken by Spirit as what is necessary, while we ascribe to freedom what appears to the conscious will of men as their interest. While these limited sentiments remain unconscious of the purpose they are fulfilling, the universal principle is implicit in them, and is realizing itself through them. [6]

[1] Why the Introduction? As Lenin put it: “In general [Hegel’s] philosophy of history yields very, very little […]. Most important is the Introduction, where there is much that is magnificent in the formulation of the question.” [web] — R. D. 

[2] Compare to Marx and Engels’s “The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles.” — R. D. 

[3] A reference to Immanuel Kant’s antinomies. [web] — R. D. 

[4] Surely an important precedent for textile metaphors in Marxist literature? [web] [web] — R. D. 

[5] V. I. Lenin: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!” [web] See also V. I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics” (1915). [web] — R. D. 

[6] “Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity.” — Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877). [web] — R. D.