Seeing God in Leviathan – The Riddle of Hegel’s State Theory

By Thomas Mueller

The present article, which appeared in the international journal Folia Humanistica, Ciencas – Artes – Letras (Barcelona, Tomo XXI, Num 245, Junio 1983) was edited by Linus Pauling, and appeared in translation of the original English into Spanish. It concerns the primary unsolved problem of modern political systems, first accurately identified by Hegel: what social class or institution is capable of acting universally within any given state to redress social and economic inequality, in a word, poverty?

Two proposed solutions to this problem have taken root in society, both of them within memory: Fascism (Rocco and Gentile) which proposes a corporative state, a body that incorporates and therefore also represents all social parties and interests in any given society, whose disequilibrium it is designed to redress. The other leading contender has been communism (Marx, Engels), whose universal class is the working class which functions to resolve all hitherto existing class conflicts. What is obvious by now is that neither works! Theoretical consideration of the why behind these two failures leads to unique and highly interesting results. First the why, and then later the results!

The central problem of injustice in society is poverty. Poverty is violence and violence calls for social redress. In the language of Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one where everyone may do whatever they please, since the rights of all are equal; the “private sword” is an instrument of power that can easily violate the rights of the weak and the poor. Doing what one pleases means the rich and greedy can kill and rob the weak at their pleasure since they have the power to do so. This brutal fact of nature requires the “public sword” to shelter and defend the victims of superior force against their oppressors. The question then, is who by right shall wield the public sword? The question becomes a matter of ones interpretation of social class. Who is able justly to decide the rights of all is also rightly able to wield the ‘public sword’ with justice and precision in the universal interest.

Seeing God in Leviathan: The Riddle of Hegel’s State Theory

The purpose of the present study is to show that Hegel’s Idea of the state may be put to a constructive test against Hobbes’ political theory. The question is what Hegel’s theory provides that Hobbes’ does not. As far as Hegel’s own assessment of the theory of natural right is concerned, it was ambiguous. He wrote: “A grand and pure vision may..truly express the ethos of a people (Sittlichkeit).. To the degree that this, its appearance, is regarded as an outcome.. it coincides exactly with the Idea.” (footnote 1) But, on the other hand, he characterized Hobbes’ theory as being ” like a building, which expresses the spirit of its maker mutely.. without presenting a coherent picture.. with use of concepts as is only clumsily styled reasoning.” Hegel concludes this monumental insult: Hobbes’ vision “is therefore never to be apprehended as Idea.” (note 2)

Imagine Hobbes’ surprise. He had thought of his own work as providing a “firm and lasting edifice.” (note 3)

The riddle of Hegel’s state theory is framed in terms of the contradiction that natural right both may and may not be apprehended as Idea. What is the Idea?

It is short for ‘ Absolute Idea’ which may be figuratively understood as God’s knowledge of himself, and more literally known as the highest form of philosophic knowledge — from which nothing is excluded. This not only constitutes the whole of human knowledge, collected in thought at will; but even more, it is the only knowledge — and hence the best knowledge, which the world has of itself. The absolute idea’s leading characteristic is that it not only tramples the compartments of human knowledge down (each is an instance of consciousness) but it includes the various objects of the sciences within it, no longer objects isolated and specialized within set fields, but objects fully included within the consciousness through which they are known. The objects within the sciences are studied as they are conceived to be ‘in themselves’. Within the comprehension of the absolute idea, the objects of the sciences and of human thought generally, are postulated by Hegel as becoming self-conscious since they are comprehended in the Idea by no one in particular as they are ‘in-and-for-themselves’ i.e., in the ‘freedom’ of their concepts.

The closest one can come to realizing what Hegel meant with this, from the perspective of mundane awareness, is to mark the difference between loving someone and knowing that ones love is recognized and answered. Love is very different from acknowledged love, as every lover knows full well.

The riddle of Hegel’s state theory, then, is the riddle of his simultaneous absorption of the whole of Hobbes’ theory of natural right, while suspending its validity as being only a result, annulled and superseded (note 4) in Hegel’s version of science (Wissenschaft), which is the science of the Idea.

Evolution of the Riddle

The development of the Philosophy of Right‘s leading ideas, by which Hegel’s state philosophy became the theory of the modern secular nation state, turns on his designation of the domain of politics as belonging to what he called ‘objective spirit’. This term made its first appearance in the Encyclopedia (1817) and replaced Hegel’s designation of political life as belonging to the domain of ‘absolute’ spirit’, which had been the case in Hegel’s two early (1802) political works. (note 5) The perception of state life as ‘objective spirit’ is a distinction of enormous importance. It enabled Hegel to sort out the crucial difference between the ancient polis and the modern nation state, a difference expressible in two words: individual freedom.

In his effort to come to terms with the ancient city state, Hegel had written:

In order to fathom the Idea of social morality, it is necessary to reconcile vision (Anschauung) completely with conception (Begriff), for the Idea is nothing but the identity of both.. Its vision is an absolute people. Its conception is the absolute union (Einssein) of its individuals. (note 6)

This formula for conceiving states as a union of concept with intuition flew in the face of Kant whose formalism dictated the impossibility of the ego’s reaching any practical conclusions whatsoever. As Joseph Maier has written: “As soon as practical reason attempts to demonstrate its validity in any given concrete individual problem.. it must borrow the content of the given action from the world of phenomena.” And, since the phenomena apprehended in intuition (Anschauung) may never be known to be what things in themselves are, “(t)he law that the practical reason is said to dictate fails the moment it has to produce its first concrete content.” (note 7)

The actual character of states is not to be derived, therefore, from Kant’s conceptions of morality; for it is the business of states, if not of morals, to distinguish particular actions as being right or wrong. Hegel’s summary of the limits of Kant’s morality for statecraft was that “(t)hrough the absoluteness of his propositions.. absoluteness of content escapes, and therefore becomes reconstituted in maxims (Grundsaetze).” (note 8) That the laws of states become dogmatic (rather than remaining moral) the moment they designate particular actions right or wrong, sits ill with Hegel’s idea that social morality (Sittlichkeit) is the foundation of the absolute union of the state’s individuals. Hobbes, too, was outspoken concerning the limitations of ethics (‘right reasons’) for producing union in the state

Theft, Murther, Adultery, and all injuries are forbid by the Laws of Nature, but what is to be called Theft, what Murther, what Adultery, what injury in a Citizen, this is not determined by the natural, but by the civil Law.. (note 9)

Though Hegel carped against Hobbes’ method (an “old, throughout inconsequential empiricism” (note 10), their results agree. Without an interpretation of the community’s ethical standards in law, there can be no state or, in Hobbes’ definition, no “union of wills in one will.” (note 11)

Footnotes: In the notes below, I have cross-referenced citations from Hobbes with The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, edited by Sir William Molesworth, 11 vols. (London: J. Bohn, 1839-45), hereafter cited as EW.

1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Ueber die wissenschaftlichen Behandlung des Naturrechts, seine Stelle in der praktischen Philosophie, und sein Verhaeltnis zu den positiven Rechtswissenschaften,” Journal der Philosphie 2 (Stueck 2/3 1802-1803, reprinted in Hegels Saemmtliche Werke, ed. Hermann Glockner (Stuttgart: Frommans Verlag, 1958), 1:454

2. Ibid.

3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Printed for Andrew Crooke, 1651, 18 & EW, 3:29.

4. See Gustav Mueller, “The Legend of ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (June 1958).

5. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, System der Sittlichkeit, ed. Georg Mollat (Osterweick/Harz: A. W. Zickfeldt, 1893), from a manuscript dated 1802. For the other work of the same date, see note one, above.

6. Hegel, System,Introduction (no pagination given).

7. Joseph Maier, On Hegel’s Critique of Kant (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 51-52.

8. Hegel, Ueber, 445

9. Thomas Hobbes, Philosophical Rudiments Concerrning Government and Society (London: Printed by F. G., 1651), 100-1 & EW, 2:85

10. Hegel, Ueber, 454

11. Hobbes, Rudiments, 79 & EW, 2:68.

In the article, a part of which you have just read, I promised a sequel that will demonstrate limitations proper to the idea of social classes, upon which so many of the discussions (and modern social problems) turn. In conversation with my daughter Lola, the same one who asked me if I wouldn’t please stop smoking (I did), the idea that had been missing dawned on me – so I am ready to deliver the sequel promised a while ago.

Plato compared social classes to three sorts of metal: brass, silver and gold, each of which has its own particular function. The adoption of this facile idea has been astonishing, particularly in British systems of thought that served the Empire upon which the sun never set like a butler in livery. Okay, this will be forthcoming but until it is I’d love to share ideas and hear from anyone whose interests coincide or vary – to whatever degree conceivable, with mine. As Plato observed, thought is a conversation in the mind…

With best wishes, Thomas Mueller

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Thomas Mueller was born in Switzerland and experienced happy barefoot summers in the wilds of Oklahoma where the author received his BA; Thomas went on to Northwestern University where he completed a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Copyright © 2009 Thomas Peter Mueller: All Rights Reserved

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