An Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History: The Road to Progress Runs First Through Dark Times

The ques­tion of whether or not gen­uine human progress is pos­si­ble, or desir­able, lies at the heart of many a rad­i­cal post-Enlight­en­ment philo­soph­i­cal project. More pes­simistic philoso­phers have, unsur­pris­ing­ly, doubt­ed it. Arthur Schopen­hauer, cast bale­ful sus­pi­cion on the idea. Dan­ish Exis­ten­tial­ist Soren Kierkegaard thought of col­lec­tive progress toward a more enlight­ened state an unlike­ly prospect. One mod­ern crit­ic of progress, pes­simistic Eng­lish philoso­pher John Gray, writes in his book Straw Dogs that “the pur­suit of progress” is an ide­al­ist illu­sion end­ing in “mass mur­der.” (Gray has been unim­pressed by Steven Pinker’s opti­mistic argu­ments in The Bet­ter Angels of Our Nature.)

These skep­tics of progress all in some way write in response to the tow­er­ing 19th cen­tu­ry fig­ure G.W.F. Hegel, the Ger­man logi­cian and philoso­pher of his­to­ry, pol­i­tics, and phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy whose sys­tem­at­ic think­ing pro­vid­ed Karl Marx with the basis of his dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism. Hegel saw the mass mur­der brought about by mas­sive polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic change in his rev­o­lu­tion­ary and impe­r­i­al age, but in his esti­ma­tion, such man-made dis­as­ters were nec­es­sary occur­rences, the “slaugh­ter bench of his­to­ry,” as he famous­ly wrote in the Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry.

This sug­gests a very bru­tal view, and yet Hegel believed over­all that “Rea­son is the Sov­er­eign of the World; that the his­to­ry of the world there­fore, presents us with a ratio­nal process.” For Hegel, the indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ty was not impor­tant, only col­lec­tive enti­ties: peo­ples, states, empires. These moved against each oth­er accord­ing to a meta­phys­i­cal rea­son­ing process work­ing through his­to­ry which Hegel called the dialec­tic. In his ani­mat­ed School of Life video above, Alain de Bot­ton describes the dialec­tic in the terms we usu­al­ly use—thesis, antithe­sis, synthesis—though Hegel him­self did not exact­ly for­mu­late the prin­ci­ple this way.

This is the com­mon short­hand way of under­stand­ing how Hegel’s non­lin­ear expla­na­tion of his­to­ry works: “the world makes progress,” sum­ma­rizes de Bot­ton, “by lurch­ing from one extreme to the oth­er, as it seeks to over­com­pen­sate for a pre­vi­ous mis­take, and gen­er­al­ly requires three moves before the right bal­ance on any issue can be found.” One par­tic­u­lar­ly bloody exam­ple is the ter­ror of the French Rev­o­lu­tion as an extreme cor­rec­tive for the monar­chy’s oppres­sion. This gave way to the antithe­sis, the bru­tal auto­crat­ic empire of Napoleon in anoth­er extreme swing. Only decades lat­er could these be rec­on­ciled in mod­ern French civ­il soci­ety.

In our own time, we have encoun­tered the pro­gres­sive ideas of Hegel not only through Marx, but through the work of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., who stud­ied Hegel as a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Har­vard and Boston Uni­ver­si­ty and found much inspi­ra­tion in the Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry. Though crit­i­cal of Hegel’s ide­al­ism, which, “tend­ed to swal­low up the many in the one,” King dis­cov­ered impor­tant first prin­ci­ples there as well: “His analy­sis of the dialec­ti­cal process, in spite of its short­com­ings, helped me to see that growth comes through strug­gle.”

We end­less­ly quote King’s state­ment, “the arc of his­to­ry is long, but it bends toward jus­tice,” but we for­get his cor­re­spond­ing empha­sis on the neces­si­ty of strug­gle to achieve the goal. As Hegel the­o­rized, says de Bot­ton above, “the dark moments aren’t the end, they are a chal­leng­ing but in some ways nec­es­sary part… immi­nent­ly com­pat­i­ble with events broad­ly mov­ing for­ward in the right direc­tion.” King found his own his­tor­i­cal syn­the­sis in the prin­ci­ple of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance, which “seeks to rec­on­cile the truths of two oppo­sites,” he wrote in 1954’s Stride Toward Free­dom, “acqui­es­cence and vio­lence.” Non­vi­o­lent resis­tance is not pas­sive com­pli­ance, but nei­ther is it inten­tion­al aggres­sion.

Hegel and his social­ly influ­en­tial stu­dents like Mar­tin Luther King and John Dewey have gen­er­al­ly oper­at­ed on the basis of some faith—in rea­son, divine jus­tice, or sec­u­lar human­ism. There are much harsh­er, more pes­simistic ways of view­ing his­to­ry than as a swing­ing pen­du­lum mov­ing toward some greater end. Pes­simistic thinkers may be more rig­or­ous­ly hon­est about the stag­ger­ing moral chal­lenge posed by increas­ing­ly effi­cient means of mass killing and the per­pet­u­a­tion of ide­olo­gies that com­mit it. Yet it is part­ly through the influ­ence of Hegel that mod­ern social move­ments have embraced the neces­si­ty of strug­gle and believed progress was pos­si­ble, even inevitable, when it seemed least like­ly to occur.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Half Hour Hegel: A Long, Guid­ed Tour Through Hegel’s Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, Pas­sage by Pas­sage

How Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Used Hegel, Kant & Niet­zsche to Over­turn Seg­re­ga­tion in Amer­i­ca

135 Free Phi­los­o­phy eBooks 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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