Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reading Hegel on History, Passions, & Needs

I don't have time to write a full article many days. Sometimes I wish to share something I have read that seems relevant to our times and our struggles. Such is this powerful excerpt from the otherwise thought-to-be turgid philospher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). It's from his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. I, for the most part, will let the quote speak for itself. I also have broken the quote up into paragraphs for easier readability.

The question of the means by which Freedom develops itself to a World, conducts us to the phenomenon of History itself....

The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole springs of action — the efficient agents in this scene of activity. Among these may, perhaps, be found aims of a liberal or universal kind — benevolence it may be, or noble patriotism; but such virtues and general views are but insignificant as compared with the World and its doings.

We may perhaps see the Ideal of Reason actualised in those who adopt such aims, and within the sphere of their influence; but they bear only a trifling proportion to the mass of the human race; and the extent of that influence is limited accordingly.

Passions, private aims, and the satisfaction of selfish desires, are on the other hand, most effective springs of action. Their power lies in the fact that they respect none of the limitations which justice and morality would impose on them; and that these natural impulses have a more direct influence over man than the artificial and tedious discipline that tends to order and self-restraint, law and morality.

When we look at this display of passions, and the consequences of their violence; the Unreason which is associated not, only with them, but even (rather we might say especially) with good designs and righteous aims; when we see the evil, the vice, the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the mind of man ever created, we can scarce avoid being filled with sorrow at this universal taint of corruption: and, since this decay is not the work of mere Nature, but of the Human Will — a moral embitterment — a revolt of the Good Spirit (if it have a place within us) may well be the result of our reflections.

Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities, and the finest exemplars of private virtue, — forms a picture of most fearful aspect, and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter.

And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoy in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.”

But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.

From this point the investigation usually proceeds to that which we have made the general commencement of our enquiry. Starting from this we pointed out those phenomena which made up a picture so suggestive of gloomy emotions and thoughtful reflections — as the very field which we, for our part, regard as exhibiting only the means for realising what we assert to be the essential destiny — the absolute aim, or — which comes to the same thing — the true result of the World's History. We have all along purposely eschewed “moral reflections” as a method of rising from the scene of historical specialties to the general principles which they embody.

You can almost hear Marx struggling to be born here, if only to cast off the world-pessimism and despair.

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