G. W. F. Hegel
Original publication: marxists.org
Translation: H. B. Nisbet, Roderic Day

The Magistrates Should Be Elected By The People (1798)

Only the beginning of this manuscript survives. [1] The original manuscript had “by the people” replaced with “by the citizens,” but apparently by someone else’s hand. The dedication was also removed.

The Werke/Marxists edition of this text continues with substantial quotations from Hegel that Rudolf Haym included in his account of the original manuscript, which he apparently had before him, which Karl Rosenkranz did not include in his 1844 biography of Hegel. The extra quotations are not included in the RS edition, but they are worth looking at if trying to get a better sense of what was continuous and discontinuous between the more idealist, liberal, elite-minded Hegel and the thinkers he later influenced. For example, “As long as the power of the officials remains unchecked, popular elections would serve only to bring about the complete overthrow of the constitution. The chief priority is to place the right of election in the hands of a body of enlightened and upright men who are not dependent on the Court.”


To the people of Württemberg,

The time has come for the people of Württemberg to cease to vacillate between hope and fear, to end their cycle of expectancy and frustrated expectations. This time has not come for those who, whether caught up in the upheaval or deliberately setting out to preserve the old, look out only for themselves and their class, and consult only their own vanity. They cannot put aside their petty interests and middling pursuits, nor find place in their souls for concern with the general welfare. For men of nobler will and purer zeal, however, the time has come to coalesce their diffuse aspirations, in order to challenge the parts of the constitution which are founded on injustice, and to pledge their action in pursuit of their amendment.

The calm acceptance of the present as an all-too-vast and omnipotent fate, whether in satisfaction or in despair, has given way to hope and expectation and courage to face the future. The vision of a better, more just era has taken root in the souls of men, and a longing and yearning for a purer, freer state of being has moved their hearts and alienated them from the present reality. The urge to break down the feeble obstacles to this future has them pinning their hopes on every event that offers a glimmer of change — even on criminal actions. From what quarter could the people of Württemberg expect more just help than from the Assembly of their Estates? [2] The postponement of the fulfillment of these wishes will refine this longing over time, and the distinction between the righteous and the impetuous will only become clearer; but time will only intensify the resolve to discover a remedy for what is a true need, and any deferments do nothing but make this longing eat more deeply into men’s hearts; for this is not a mere spell of vertigo. You may call it a paroxysm of fever, but it ends only with death, or when the sick matter is all sweated out. It is precisely for the sake of the still healthy elements of our constitution that we seek to expunge the illness.

The sentiment that the political edifice as it exists today cannot persist is widespread and deeply felt, and the fear that it will collapse and injure everyone in the process is also universal. With this conviction in our hearts, should this fear become so powerful that we leave up to chance what shall be overthrown and what shall be preserved? What shall stand and what shall fall? Ought we not ourselves choose to abandon what cannot be sustained, dispassionately identifying what makes it unsustainable? Justice is the only standard suitable for such a judgment; the courage to do justice is the only power which can honorably and peacefully replace this unstable edifice and procure a secure one in its stead.

How blind are those who choose to believe that institutions, constitutions, and laws which no longer accord with men’s customs, needs, and opinions — from which the spirit of the age has departed — can continue to exist! [3] That forms which no longer correspond to either intellect or sensibility can be powerful enough to constitute the bond of a people! [4]

All attempts to restore confidence in the present circumstances, in constitutional elements and arrangements in which no one any longer has faith, by grandiloquent fiddling, whitewashing the gravediggers with fine verbiage, not only bring shame to ingenious instigators, but also pave the way for a much more terrible outbreak, in which the need for reform is allied with vengeance, and the deceived and oppressed masses also suffer from dishonesty. To do nothing when the ground shakes beneath our feet but wait cheerfully and blindly for the collapse of the old building, everywhere full of cracks and with its foundations compromised, and to let oneself be crushed by the falling timbers, is as contrary to prudence as it is to honor.

If a change is to happen, then something has to change. So banal a truth needs to be stated, given the difference between fear which must and courage which will; for whereas those who are driven by fear may well feel and admit that change is necessary, they nevertheless display weakness — as soon as a start has to be made they try to hold on to everything they possess. They are like a spendthrift who is in need of limiting their expenses, but who cannot dispense with any article they have hitherto required and have now been advised to do without, and who refuse to give up anything — until they are finally deprived of dispensable and indispensable alike. [5] No peoples, including the Germans, should indulge in such displays of weakness. In the cold conviction that a change is necessary, their investigations of injustice should proceed fearlessly; for whatever they find unjust, the remedy of it must be demanded by him who suffers injustice, and he who is in unjust possession must voluntarily sacrifice it.

This strength to rise above one’s own petty interests for the sake of justice is presupposed in the following inquiry, just as much as the honesty to want it and not merely pretend to want it. All too often, behind the desires and the zeal for the common good lies the reservation: “as far as it agrees with our own interest.” Such willingness to consent to every reform grows frightened and pale as soon as demands are made of those who express it.

Far from this hypocrisy, let each individual and each class look first, before they make demands on others and look outside themselves for the cause of the evil, to themselves, to weigh up their own rights and circumstances, and if they find themselves in possession of inequitable rights, let them strive to restore the balance in favor of others. [6] (Text breaks off. The expanded edition is enhanced to specify some more concrete prescriptions, as indicated in the preface.)


  1. Bd. 13, BL. 63-66. 

  2. This is basically equivalent to a council of representatives. 

  3. This spirit [Geist] is often cast in kooky supernatural terms to ridicule Hegel, but his utilization here is clear. 

  4. Here, though Hegel is only 28, we already have Hegel’s trademark insistence that form must cohere with content

  5. Lenin uses a somewhat similar formulation in Civilized Barbarism (1913): “Civilization, freedom and wealth under capitalism call to mind the rich glutton who is rotting alive but will not let what is young live on. But the young is growing and will emerge supreme in spite of all.” [web] 

  6. Hegel expresses this sentiment even more pithily elsewhere: “Wickedness also resides in the gaze that perceives itself as innocent and surrounded by wickedness.”