Hegel: Romancing the State

Cirsium arvense weedsWhen I was in college I only knew one person who was a philosophy major. I think I tried to read one of his books, but I found its thinking convoluted and confusing. Be that as it may, I’ve decided I need to go out into the philosophical weeds and talk about G. W. F. Hegel because of his pervasive influence on Dewey and other American educators and progressives (Woodrow Wilson for one!1).

Dr. R. C. Sproul writes that in the late 70’s he asked Francis Schaeffer, “Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?”

Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: “Statism.” Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.

In statism, we see the suffix “ism,” which indicates a philosophy or worldview. A decline from statehood to statism happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.

In the nineteenth century, Hegel argued in his extensive and complex study of Western history that progress represents the unfolding in time and space of the absolute Idea (Hegel’s vague understanding of God), which would reach its apex in the creation of the Prussian state. The assumption that Hegel made in the nineteenth century was made before the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich, Stalin’s Russia, and Chairman Mao’s communist China. These nations reached an elevation of statism never dreamed of by Hegel in his concept of the Prussian state.

Hegel lived from 1770 – 1831, and was a major philosopher in the German Idealism movement, a school of thinking closely aligned with Romanticism. In a book review Dr. Sproul further elaborated on Hegel’s thinking.

the myth of progress that emerged particularly in the 19th century as a result of the influence of Hegel’s dialectical idealism. The idea that evil will be redeemed through some natural historical process of selection or cosmic movement to some omega point is an idea that Wright finds completely unbiblical and untenable, and rightly so.

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg writes:

The godfathers of the liberal God-state were the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and the scientist Charles Darwin. Hegel had argued that history was an unfolding evolutionary process, and the engine driving that process was the state. The “State is the actually existing, realized moral life…The divine idea as it exists on earth,” Hegel declared in The Philosophy of History. “[A]ll worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he  possesses only through the State.” The movement of the state through time was the “march of God on earth.”2

Perhaps if Hegel had been born about 150 years later and seen and experienced the destruc- tion wrought by the Third Reich he might have changed his thinking, although I have my doubts because his recorded impression of Napoleon indicated a star-struck man who was infatuated with someone he saw as a grand embodiment of his thinking.

Hegel and Napoleon in Jena 1806

“I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding
out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed
a wonderful sensation to see such an
individual, who, concentrated here at a single
point, astride a horse, reaches out over the
world and masters it…this extraordinary man,
whom it is impossible not to admire.”

This idea of a “world-soul” was an inherent part of his philosophy as Dr. C. Matthew McMahon explains in Philosophical Thoughts about Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and the Aesthetic Man.

Hegel’s system of philosophy runs from what he terms the geist or spirit. Hegel’s goal was to explain the movement of the geist through history in order to reach the climactic end of what he called the dialectic. This is the height of knowledge, or, as Hegel termed, dialectical idealism….a thesis is given; after which, opposing the thesis the antithesis is “counter given.” ….

The Giest then uses this dialectical idealism in different ways. There is important information in Hegel’s theories about history in how the Giest works. The history of the world is the self-realization of God’s self-consciousness. The Giest uses history in three ways; in the persons of men, the cunning of reason and the hero. The passion of men is the collective whole of mankind which the spirit uses as these men “passionately” act according to their own desires. This creates history. The cunning of reason is a fancy way to show the plan of Giest working through history, and the hero is the special individual in which the Giest uses in order to progress history and exemplify key moments (like Alexander the Great, etc.)

…And do we find the Giest working “a plan” out through history which it is nothing more than a collective of human minds? It has no intentions, motivations, direction, etc. And most importantly, Hegel’s philosophy does not lend itself toward individuals, but rather to a collective whole; a crowd. Dialectical idealism does not work. Hegel probably did not know what he meant in much of his writing. Obscurities galore include no definitions and blurred theory. He did not “or could not” even define what “God” meant to him.


If the word dialectical is sounding familiar, you’re right. Karl Marx was another man strongly influenced by Hegel.

Luke Martin has summarized Hegel’s philosophy in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In the quote below, the emphases are his, but I’ve taken out his embedded links. If you’re interested in further reading on Hegel, Martin can give you a place to begin.

He advocated a kind of historically-minded Absolute Idealism…in which the universe would realize its spiritual potential through the development of human society, and in which mind and nature can be seen as two abstractions of one indivisible whole Spirit….

…He saw history as as a progression, always moving forward, never static, in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contra- dictions inherent in the preceding movement. He believed that every complex situation contains within itself conflicting elements, which work to destabilize the situation, leading it to breakdown into a new situation in which the conflicts are resolved….Thus, the history of any human endeavour not only builds upon, but also reacts against, what has gone before. This process, though, is an ongoing one, because the resulting synthesis has itself inherent contradictions which need to be resolved (so that the synthesis becomes the new thesis for another round of the dialectic). Crucially, however, Hegel believed that this dialectical process was not just random, but that it had a direction or a goal, and that goal was freedom (and our consciousness and awareness of freedom) and of the absolute knowledge of mind as the ultimate reality.

In political and social terms, Hegel saw the ultimate destination of this historical process as a conflict-free and totally rational society or state…Some have argued that Hegel’s vision of the state as an organic rational whole, leaves no room for individual dissent and choice, no room for the very freedom he was advocating. However, it should be noted that Hegel’s idea of freedom was quite different from what we thing of as the traditional Liberal conception of freedom (which he would have seen as merely the ability to follow your own caprice), and rather consists in the fulfillment of oneself as a rational individual. He did not expound in any detail, though, on his vision of the ideal state, and how such a state might avoid sinking into authoritarianism and Totalitarianism.

Once again an utopia is envisioned. Once again the individual is subservient to the state. Utopians of every stripe deny any flaw in man and assert the collective as the answer or ideal state. Some of Hegel’s ideas are such flights of fancy, it’s hard to see how they would have taken hold today, but within the context of the nineteenth century, untested and untried, they flourished when they were transplanted  into the United States. It’s remarkable and horrific that a man from whose thinking we can trace the oppression and killing of millions during the twentieth century is also a man from whose thinking we can trace our prevailing educational philosophy and the politics of the Left.

I don’t know that Hegel so much neglected to work out the details as to how his ideal state would avoid sinking into totalitarianism, as that he had no problem with it or else never believed it would be the final destination. I also think progressives today failed to learn the lesson from the twentieth century that utopian visions are established and kept only by an iron fist; I think they see the iron fist as a means justified by the end.

R. C. Sproul said, “A decline from statehood to statism happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.”

The kind of thinking that’s upstream from your politics really does matter.

Related posts: Children: The Pawns of Utopia and John Dewey the Progressive.

R. C. Sproul, Statism. From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343. Dr. Sproul majored in philosophy in college. Hegel is also mentioned in Denying God’s Transcendence and A Christology of Feeling.
1, 2Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Broadway Books, New York NY: 2007, 2009) 104, 218.