WHEN A PAINTER ONCE told Goethe that he wanted to paint the most famous man of the age, Goethe answered that the painter should make his way to Hegel in Berlin. Only afterwards, continued Goethe, should the painter come back to paint the poet’s own portrait in Weimar.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born under a lucky star, or as Shakespeare wrote, a dancing star. He is the most famous figure in modern philosophy, arguably its greatest master. The two pillars of his thinking are freedom and reason. He lived and philosophized for freedom: Friedrich Hölderlin’s “sacred aim of freedom,” Schelling’s “freedom as the alpha and omega of philosophy,” Schiller’s “world of reason as a world of freedom.” These men were Hegel’s Swabian soulmates, whom Heinrich Heine called “a blooming forest of great men, sprung from Swabian soil, those great oaks whose roots reach the center of the earth and whose branches touch the heaven.” Hegel modeled his own credo after theirs: To philosophize is to learn to live freely. Today, Hegel’s portrait deserves to be finally liberated from clichés and grotesque fairy tales. Hegel was slow and cautious in the development of his philosophy, yet his intellectual growth was like an odyssey of the mind, and contrary to popular belief, his life was full of twists and turns, of suspense and even danger.
Hegel grew up in the capital of ducal Württemberg, Stuttgart; his teachers and professors recognized his talent early on. He studied theology in the university town of Tübingen, where Hölderlin and Schelling were his roommates: the greatest college dormitory in philosophical history. Then he worked as a private tutor in aristocratic Bern, with the idyllic Rousseau landscapes of Lake Biel, and in the free city of Frankfurt am Main, where the Bund der Geister (alliance of souls)—Hegel, Hölderlin, Isaac von Sinclair, and Zwilling—hazarded new thought experiments. He gave countless private lessons; collaborated with Schelling in Jena, the philosophical hub of the day; and wrote the brilliant Phenomenology of Spirit, crowning glory of a thousand years of philosophy. In 1807 he went to Franconia (Franken), in the new kingdom of Bayern. He worked as a political journalist in Catholic Bamberg; then, in Protestant Nuremberg (Nürnberg), he founded Germany’s first humanistic Gymnasium, where he wrote his masterpiece, Science of Logic. His first professorship was in Romantic Heidelberg, where he published his first Encyclopedia. Finally, he established himself at the “heart” of the Prussian monarchy, at Berlin university, as the greatest philosopher of his age.
Hegel met his most famous contemporaries: Hölderlin and Schelling, Schiller and Goethe, the brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Jean Paul, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Ludwig Feuerbach and Heine, just to name a few. Hegel spoke with the Prussian king, his successor, and the wife of the later king; went on walks with the Karl August, Duke of Weimar, and Goethe at Belvedere Castle; and got an impression of Napoleon at Jena. Yet despite having a wide circle of acquaintances, he remained close with his two best friends, first Hölderlin and then Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer.
These were turbulent times. Every year on July 14, the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, Hegel had a glass of champagne to celebrate, for the French Revolution was the most formative historical event of his life. Hegel was a philosopher but also a politicus, open to political questions, and a lifelong supporter of the French Revolution’s founding ideals. He called the Revolution the “glorious sunrise” of the modern world, the “dawn” of free living; after all, freedom was the leitmotif of his life. In his youth, he admired Schiller’s The Robbers and Fiesco for their warnings against subservience. In Tübingen, he was one of the leaders of a republican student group as well as a close confidant of the firebrand, publisher, and poet Gotthold Friedrich Stäudlin. In Bern, he conspired with Parisian revolutionaries Konrad Engelbert Oelsner and Johann Georg Kerner, and translated a pamphlet by the Girondin Jean-Jacques Cart, of Vaud. In Frankfurt, he was close to Stuttgart dissidents Christian Friedrich Baz and Carl Friedrich von Penasse, as well as to heads of the Republic of Mainz, such as Franz Wilhelm Jung. When he delivered a letter to the famous revolutionary Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès in Paris, he officially committed treason. All of the Bern, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt activists were on the secret police’s list. Hegel also submitted a draft constitution to Württemberg and anonymously translated Jean-Jacques Cart’s confidential letters. In Jena, he conceptualized a modern, federal state of Germany and expressed admiration for the Weltseele (world soul) of Napoleon, whose entrance into Jena he witnessed. In Bamberg he was a political journalist and advocate of Napoleonic legislation; he was also close to a prominent figure of the Republic of Mainz, Meta Forkel-Liebeskind. In Nuremberg he regularly visited the Alsatian revolutionary Justus Christian Kießling, whose living room was decorated with a tree of freedom and the tricolor. Among Hegel’s Heidelberg friends was Philipp Christoph Heinrich Eschenmayer, a Württemberger Jacobin who was one of the principal republican democrats and who went to prison for two years. The anti-nationalist wing of the student movement (fraternity, Burschenschaft) at Heidelberg was nicknamed “Hegelianer”; it was led by Hegel’s first assistant, Friedrich Wilhelm Carové, who gave the most important speech at the 1817 Wartburg Festival (Wartburgfest). In Berlin, Hegel established himself as the premier intellectual opponent of the Restoration (Restauration). He wrote a scathing attack on Karl Ludwig von Haller, one of the Restoration’s leading ideologues, while his Elements of the Philosophy of Right was an explicit attack on the head of the German historical school, Carl Friedrich von Savigny, who viewed the Napoleonic Code (Code civil) as a revolutionary cancer and spoke against the right of reason. Hegel also worked vigorously to help some of his friends who had been incarcerated after the Carlsbad Decrees (Karlsbader Beschlüsse): Karl Ulrich, Leopold von Henning, and Gustav Asverus; for Asverus, to whom E. T. A. Hoffmann pays tribute in Mr. Flea (Meister Floh), Hegel even risked being an underwriter. Finally, after many cautious years, he filed a lawsuit, openly attacking despotic judicial systems. The secret police were watching him all along, especially the head of the reactionary movement, Karl Albert von Kamptz; it was widely known that Hegel supported traitors and revolutionary students. He also walked a tightrope in his dealings with his French colleague and fan, Victor Cousin; not to mention an influential Restoration critic in Paris. In addition, Hegel supported the Greek struggle for freedom, further evidence of his anti-Restoration politics. His last published work, The English Reform Bill, is about the necessity of turning the Revolution into a progressive reform. He was his age’s politician and seismograph to the last, never retreating into a philosophical ivory tower. Johann Georg August Wirth, a famous alumnus of Hegel’s Nürnberger Gymnasium and an attendee of the Hambach Fest, praised him in the only words we need: Hegel had “sparked the eternal flame of freedom in him.”
In this intellectual biography, I will try to reconstruct Hegel’s philosophical journey, something that can only be done as a fractured sketch, in bare fundamentals. As a schoolboy, before 1796, he got a feel for philosophy through basic lectures on Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, and Fichte, as well as writing his first essays, which reveal much about his character and hint at his future genius. His years in Frankfurt are a mosaic of fragments, flashes of inspiration, which retrospectively shed light on his future ideas. He wanted to develop Kant and Fichte’s transcendental philosophy, their “revolution in systems of thought.” From 1801 to 1806, in Jena—the Mecca of philosophy—he would finally, with much hard work, conceptualize absolute monism as the idealism of freedom. He would elaborate on this in the coming years, in Bamberg and Nuremberg, Heidelberg and Berlin.
In the course of his life, Hegel wrote four top-tier works: first, The Phenomenology of Spirit, written in Jena, his most fascinating text; second, in Bamberg and Nuremberg, the Science of Logic, his foundational work on modern logic; third, in Heidelberg and Berlin, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, his central systematic work and the basis for the whole architecture of philosophy; and fourth, the Berlin Elements of the Philosophy of Right, his most impactful and controversial text. But these are only a few gems from the Hegelian treasure chest: with Schelling in Jena, he conducted the most famous seminar in the history of philosophy and filled his and Schelling’s Critical Journal of Philosophy with brilliant essays. The ensuing, furious Phenomenology was the true start of his philosophy, inventing both modern logic and modern metaphysics. On top of all this, he made significant contributions to philosophical theories of the sign, symbol, and language. According to Ernst Gombrich, Hegel is arguably the “father of art history”; his philosophically profound lectures on the visual arts, music, and literature remain relevant today. His public lectures in Berlin were also legendary; Berlin students would write their favorite quotes on the walls of university buildings. Hegel even laid the foundations for modern social and political theory. His epoch-defining differentiation between civil society and the state revolutionized political philosophy, and he is often considered the grandfather of sociology. He conceptualized what remains the deepest philosophical theory of a social state—his second most important contribution to modern thought, after his innovative philosophical logic.
Thus, this book is more than a biography: it means to make a plea for the enduring, life-defining credo “Reason and Freedom.” To do this is to trace the “ties that bind” of this extraordinary man’s lifelong quest. To portray the life of a philosopher, one must paint his arena, his world. Like Hegel himself, I have had to rework this book seventy-seven times. Writing about this master thinker is borderline presumptuous; the task is Herculean, if not Sisyphean. His previous biographer, Karl Rosenkranz, worried that “it would forever be difficult to briefly summarize the development of Hegel’s thinking,” then exclaimed, “What a labyrinth I’ve stumbled into!”
To get a sense of the enormity of this project, one can survey the mind-boggling spectrum of commentaries on Hegel. Some sing his praises, others condemn him as a devil; there is appreciation from all around the world along with countless perfidious criticisms. Schiller and the Jena-era Schelling saw a brilliant, diligent philosophical mind at work. Goethe respected Hegel as the most important philosopher of his era. The Phenomenology of Spirit was called “the textbook of freedom.” But others saw “godless fanaticism,” pantheism, and atheism at work, stuff for police and inquisitors. A review in Jena (on his The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy) diagnosed him with a “deadly virus,” namely, “conceptualizing thought.” Schopenhauer viewed Hegel as a charlatan who spread bombastic humbug. According to Jakob Friedrich Fries, Hegel’s “metaphysical mushroom grew on slimy shitheaps,” and the “prophet was crushed under lackeys’ heels.” This bizarre reception of Hegel’s philosophy described him as the “spirit of Prussian Restoration.” The reactionary party in Prussia, with its radical protagonist, the “Jacobin heretic and rabble-rouser” von Kamptz, judged Hegel more accurately, calling him a supporter of the French Revolution and of “unholy mystics.” Even the king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, regarded the philosopher as a suspicious republican; his successor, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, later hired Schelling to destroy “Hegelian pantheism, those seeds of discord.” Emperor Wilhelm II, while speaking about the sad condition of the graves in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, declared that in his empire there was no place for rapscallions like Fichte and Hegel. The National Socialist ideologue Alfred Rosenberg held Hegel to be an unpatriotic cosmopolitan and a dreamer, responsible for the ruinous ideas of 1789; Carl Schmitt said Hegel became irrelevant on January 30, 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power. Karl Popper, on the other hand, baselessly slandered Hegel by calling him the guiding force of totalitarianism, and Ernst Cassirer disparaged him as the perfect philosophical trailblazer for fascism.
But Prussian minister of education Karl von Altenstein instantly recognized Hegel as “the greatest of stars.” As a follower of Hegel’s public lectures said, it is only thanks to Hegel that the vital nerve of modernity can be understood. Hegel’s noteworthy student Friedrich Wilhelm Carové maintained that his teacher was the “deepest thinker of the modern age.” Hegel has been called the “German Aristotle,” opening “a new era in the history of philosophy” in his efforts to make philosophy the most rigorous form of knowledge, to give philosophy the strict form of science. Karl Marx spoke of Hegel’s “grotesque melody of the rocks” and said the latter’s absolute idealism was what he must turn upside down. But in philosophy, Hegel said, everything is in the realm of thought: all philosophy is idealism. Friedrich Nietzsche experienced regrets about following Schopenhauer’s “unintelligent anger” in his exchanges with Hegel; unfortunately, many still make the same mistake today.
In the two-hundred-year history of the reception of Hegel, a sea of manifold interpretations, two incidents stand out. In 1839, a new locomotive on the Berlin–Potsdam train was dubbed “Hegel.” And in the nineteenth century, a fan and pupil of Hegel’s, the Thüringian-born August Röbling, built the Brooklyn Bridge, carrying with him to New York a copy of Hegel’s Encyclopedia.
Today, Hegel is generally labeled a logician or an ontotheologian or the last Western metaphysician or a case for the museum of philosophy. Then again, there are others who recognize him as a profound thinker on modernity, rights, and freedom, based on the concept of a socially formed state. The past few years have seen an extraordinary Hegel renaissance, a comeback of his idealism, even in analytical philosophy, where his modern logic had typically been ignored. He even made it into the New York Times under the headline “Hegel on Wall Street” (Jay M. Bernstein). Other researchers see in Hegel’s concept of freedom the groundwork for his original theory of the capacities of humankind, for his skill in taking on other people’s perspectives, and for understanding freedom as finding oneself in the other. Hegel was among “the first to really conceptualize people as social beings. He ushered in a normative, free era of thought” (Michael Tomasello). The potential of idealism is a much more fruitful subject than younger figures today often give it credit for being. Many thinkers today presume to have outgrown Hegel or declare that we are living in a postmetaphysical era. But Hegel’s idealism has achieved much more than they have.
So, we face a daunting task. Karl Rosenkranz, in his fascinating 1844 biography of Hegel, recommends that one “not lose the courage to face this weighty stuff” when sketching the life portrait of a philosopher. The biographer hopes that it preserves the “fundamental idea” and the “ties that bind” of the lifework. Inveterate opponents of Hegel’s work call him a thing of the past, but, as Rosenkranz writes, this is “an illusion with which haters flatter themselves: if Hegel’s philosophy were dead, today’s politics would be really astounding.” Even in the twenty-first century, the absolute idealist provokes philosophers in many fields; “Hegel’s opponents feed upon such polemics” and “declare victory,” for which the popular media congratulate them, even though they work shamelessly and confusedly with unverified hypotheses and theories. True philosophizing demands the serious, foundational, and grueling Arbeiten im Geiste (work of the soul) of Aristotle and Kant, and for this work ethic, Hegel certainly set the standard.
Even without all of this, it is a delicate task to write a biography that connects the trajectory of a life with the development of a philosophy. Rosenkranz knew this. Yet for all his efforts, his biography, like those before it contains “much too much philosophy” for the general public, while philosophers find too little philosophy in it: a difficult situation. The biography of a philosopher must narrate the “history of their philosophizing” without turning the subject’s thoughts into dry scholarship. A pupil of Hegel’s at Nuremberg wrote in 1844: “People should not say that the life of such a man is already apparent in his work, while his private life is unimportant; rather it is certain that the totality of men is found only in the combination of both.”1 That said, right off the bat we must correct Rosenkranz’s notion that Hegel’s life was “so simple, so comprehensible at a glance, plain and unsweetened with intrigues and secrets” that his biography cannot provide “the delight of great contrasts.” Today we can sketch a much more colorful picture of Hegel’s life, one that is not at all monotonous but full of real achievements and bitter disappointments, heartbreaks and crises. Many episodes and anecdotes have recently come to light, and they are surprising, exciting, spicy, funny, weird, gritty, and more. In advance, here are just a few of the many sides of his personality. We have the young Stuttgart schoolboy, beloved by his teachers; the theology student, by no means unpopular with women, sitting yet again in detention for drinking and vagabonding; the French Revolution conspirator, loyal since 1789 but beginning to question the Jacobins owing to the Reign of Terror; the perspicacious hiker in the Swiss Alps; the gallant but flippant pursuer of Jena and Bamberg women; father of an illegitimate child; the Gymnasium principal teaching his students to think freely; the academic who frequently escaped the clutches of the secret police and censorship; the professor who explored Berlin’s salons and bars, flirting with beautiful opera singers; the persnickety family housekeeper and tutor; the passionate cardplayer and wine enthusiast; the man who took walks through Berlin in search of unusual conversation; the visitor to Paris, which he considered the capital of the civilized world; the devotee of Dutch painting, of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jean Paul, Mozart, and Rossini; the friend of republican-oriented students, writers, artists, actresses, and opera divas.
So, although Hegel’s life story may understandably appear to be a “quiet progress of his intelligence,” a “constant work,” the progression of his life and thought was not calm. It was, as I have said, an odyssey, full of storms and cliffs and shipwrecks. In 1819, not long after the Carlsbad Decrees, which cemented Restoration politics, he wrote as a professor in Berlin: “I will soon be 50 years old, I have spent 30 of these years in this eternally turbulent time of fearing and hoping, and I hoped that the fearing and hoping would finally be over this time. [Now] I am forced to see that it is constant, yes, people say in dark times, there is always anger.” Thirty years prior, in 1789, the French Revolution had begun with the storming of the Bastille in Paris. Hegel looked like a cautious, slow, searching “calm, understanding person” (Hölderlin); yet on the inside, a volcanic rage and angst was brewing that he suppressed only with difficulty. His philosophizing was no walk in the park or in the Thüringian forest; it was more like a perilous pearl dive. We now know “to what depths his thoughts plunged; so he groaned, for his spirit was difficult to lead, and he descended into the abyss” before he “triumphantly brought up the pearls which he had stolen from the great gorge of the universe.”2 The dark side of the thinker, the destructive forces at work within him, cannot be overlooked. Sometimes, it looks as though he might have been “born under an inconstant star.” Hegel knew all too well that the “mind which seeks to comprehend has its orbit” (Boris von Uexküll) in total solitude, in ice-cold outer space. A portrait of Hegel’s life must depict not only the pale, serious thinker but also the vivacious, humorous man, often conflicted: a man of turbulent, revolutionary times. Hegel made some reflections of his own on the genre of the prose biography, as well as on the poetic Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie (Life-paths on an upward course), a favorite book of his, written by Kant’s friend Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, who called the Tübingen trio—Hölderlin, Schelling, and Hegel—the Lebensläufer (followers of a life-path).
According to Hegel, life is “work that everyone must fulfill” and a person is the “sum of their deeds. Actions are the clearest discoverers of the individual, of his convictions and goals; it is our actions that show what lies deep within us.” Now, a biographer is, especially in the case of Hegel, both a storyteller and a detective. I must depend on what my subject leaves behind (since I am dealing with a thinker, this mostly takes the form of text) but also on the patterns to be seen in his actions. As a student, Hegel saw life as work which everyone must accomplish for themself, and the human as the teacher, citizen, family member, friend. A biographer pays attention to the subject’s principles and maxims, as well as to their hobbies, travels, idiosyncrasies. Thus the biographer, like the historiographer, does not passively absorb information but critically distinguishes between the important and the irrelevant.
The most difficult thing to portray is the interaction between the course of the individual’s life and their way of thinking. A life should not be seen as “internally congruent” but rather full of “strange interwoven branching paths,” which are affected by contingencies. This is the key to connecting the philosophical events in Hegel’s life with his treatment of special problematics. In Hegel’s own words, the particularity of a person, the unique, the “individual character,” is the most important thing. To portray a person’s most significant deeds is to portray the “development of his character, wherein his human particularity becomes full-fledged.” Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, one of Hegel’s favorite books, posits that a biography should depict a person’s character such that the reader can recognize the subject’s ruling passions. Hegel describes these quintessences, these crucial inner attitudes and motivations, by the Greek word pathos, and calls them the “self-justifying power of the mind, which holds rationality and free will.” These passions are the person’s core drive; the quirks are as important as the milestones. In Hegel’s case, I must write about his path to knowledge and his public image but also his travels to Lake Lucerne, his card-playing habits, and his drinking of excellent Bamberg beer, together with the specialness of the individual, the “core of the personality,” which is “individual vitality” and “independent unity” and is visible only in retrospect. That “I” which, in Michel de Montaigne’s words, will become the “sole content of this book,” can be seen only after the fact. A life should be reconstructed in all its dimensions and perspectives, its changing circumstances, experiments, continuities, and moments of transition, for it contains all the errors and confusions of a human “I”: an “independent unity” of countless deeds and episodes, synthesizing diverse personality traits that were, when they were being lived out, incoherent and full of self-contradictions. The identity, that which stays “true to itself” throughout the changes, should and can only be determined afterwards.
A statue of a Greek divinity belongs in a temple. So, too, every life has a surrounding world it belongs in: people are “forcibly dragged into the whirlpool of life.” A biography is also about the historical setting in which the individual lived. Thus a “new and highly defined picture” emerges, marked by the powers that be: world events, family, state, religion, various conflicts among these forces—not to mention customs, traditions, nationality, locality, climate, the prosaic details of everyday life. One cannot tell a life story without thinking about the powers that control the person’s life and deeds, and how individual motivations and interests interact with the course of world history.
Furthermore, the biographer does not have the right to erase the more prosaic character traits of a person: the accidents in their lives, their unique emotions. These are precisely what the biographer has to recount, certainly through an original lens but without forcing interpretations. When it comes to one of the most important thinkers ever, there are two extremes to be avoided: writing a heroic tale, a kind of hagiography; and being bogged down by petty jealousy. Rosenkranz claims that, although the magic of writing Hegel’s biography eventually wears off, enthusiasm remains. The existence of a previous biography cannot take this away.
So this life story will be told as an “upward course”: an ascent from early theological and philosophical questions, to the encyclopedic system; a graduation from student to tutor, from editor and teacher to philosophy professor; a path from Württemberg to Switzerland and then to Frankfurt, Thuringia, the fields of Franconia, Baden, and finally Prussia. These many paths are full of twists and turns, for Hegel’s thought process was complex, full of adventures into uncharted territory. It is through this “multifarious life” that Hegel developed his foundational thoughts and made his contributions to the history of philosophy.
Hegel was not a tranquil person. Silent, dark embers smolder in Hegel’s writings; debates still rage worldwide about this volcanic soul of his. Growing up in Stuttgart, he was “autumnal” (Rosenkranz) and “thoroughly perseverant”: clearly no hare but a long-distance tortoise. As a college student in Tübingen, he was nicknamed the “old man.” By the time he rose to fame, others his age were long past their intellectual prime and longed for “the daring deeds of their youth” again. Schelling wound up giving lectures on revelation, something he had fiercely resisted in his Tübingen days; his “lightning bolts of thought” no longer struck. Schelling had forgotten “La Marseillaise”; that “King Arthur of philosophy languished in the mystical wilderness” (Heine). Hegel, meanwhile, remained “fixed and unbending, until in old age he finally released the power he had suppressed in his youth.” He patiently composed theoretical works on the level of Aristotle. His career was no comet but a fixed star in the heavens of philosophy. Hegel’s journal contains a signature from a Tübingen classmate that reads, “Be patient as the gentle waters.” Hegel seems to have taken this advice.
In addition to all this, I am not only a biographer but a philosopher, and the philosopher in me cannot help pondering how daring it is to try to reconstruct the subject’s life and thought paths. A good biography must fulfill standards of informativeness, but it should be no mere chronological account, like a dusty museum piece. In fact, the biography is but a medium for a plea for free thought. To use Lawrence Sterne’s words: it must be an attack on stupidity, on any and all superstition, on vanity, on rationalizing dogma and fanaticism, on scholars lolling on the floor with their inkpots, on pompous philosophers. The most important thing to clarify is that Hegel sought to make philosophy the most rigorous form of knowledge, and that reason and freedom remained the common thread and continual credo of his entire life.
Hegel had extraordinary foresight and playacting skill; he had to, because he faced an absolutist and authoritarian power structure. Hegel was aware of the fates of his Württemberger teacher Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart and of Schiller. Schubart’s life was barbarically destroyed by Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, and the Württemberg secret police; Schiller was forced to flee his home. When Hegel learned of these events, they made a lasting impression on him and changed his actions forever. His “careful discretion and weighing of risks” (Jacques d’Hondt) would remain with him for the rest of his life. Tübingen students in his day had a so-called stilo relativo: one could not claim one’s theses for oneself but must add phrases such as “the Holy Scripture says” and “Christ believes.” Mailed letters were full of innocent circumscriptions: it was written that the emissary of the French Revolution, Konrad Engelbert Oelsner, was “privatizing” in Bern, when in fact he was on an official mission for Paris. Hegel never published his study of the life of Jesus; and his first publication, the translation of Jean-Jacques Cart’s confidential letters, came out anonymously. Both publications would surely have brought the author fame but might also have put his academic career in danger, so he could never take credit for either manuscript. The preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), with its scandalized reaction to the Carlsbad Decrees and the Prussian censorship laws, is the most successful and impactful feint Hegel ever made. The mirror image of “the Actuality of the Rational” and “the Rationality of the Actual” is a reference to Karl Ludwig von Haller, Hegel’s antithesis and rival. Hegel was Haller’s strongest critic; the latter gave the era of Restoration (Restauration) its name with his masterpiece, Restoration of Political Science. Let us get this straight: at every stage of his work, Hegel stood for free republican ideals, against the Restoration and conservative models of thought. The section on monarchy in Elements of the Philosophy of Right demonstrates political foresight and “clever dissimulation”; it is a response to inquisitorial censorship. The apparent lack of coherence in the book’s logical groundwork is really an indication of his prudence.
Famously, Hegel was being monitored by the Prussian secret police. In the autumn of 1820, a police report stated, “Hegel of Berlin, D.u.Prof. lives in bl[ue] Stern from 27. VIII to 11.IX, came in the company of Prussian Lieut. Förster” (Br 2:482). The reactionary Herr von Kamptz was pursuing Hegel like a bloodhound. “The censors [must] not find anything to sink their teeth into”; one could not leave the “sacred office” of censors and reporters any opening. Hegel’s enemies denounced him to the Prussian king because he said that the monarch was only going through the motions of running a state. Later, Hegel was accused of pantheism and atheism. All these accusations, from certain representatives of the state and church, were very serious; Hegel was playing with fire. On a few occasions he even considered fleeing: “The clerics of Berlin want to take even my copper tombstone away from me.” Hegel spoke of the “wretchedness of a wretched priest in Berlin,” compared to whom “the Curia in Rome [would be] a noble opponent.” We must see through his skilled masquerade; we must recognize conforming, yes-man statements for what they are and consider the possibility of intentional disguise. This is especially true of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right, from which springs the misinterpretation, the perfidious legend, that Hegel was a subservient Restoration supporter. Hegel protected the reservatio mentalis, the secrets of truth, in a dangerous land. His secret idiolect and deception may have fooled many, but clever minds can see behind the mask. “Readers who knew the sender read between the lines. They smiled at the parts that Hegel had laid out for the secret police. Let us not be more naive than they!” (D’Hondt).
Last but not least, we should remember that Hegel depended on a very special source of inspiration: that “fiery, gold, translucent wine.” The Hegelian Geist needed these genie bottles, these elixirs of life. They were his most loyal companions: Chasselas from Lake Biel, Riesling and Gewurztraminer wine from Deidesheim’s Jordan vineyard, Bordeaux and Egri Bikavér from the Erfurt vintner Ramann, wine from Würzburger Stein, wine from Samos and Malaga, wine from Nußdorf in Vienna and from the Moselle and Marne Valleys, even the Lachryma Christi of Vesuvius. The Geist of Wine gave this mole eyes with which to see and claws with which to dig. To paraphrase Merleau-Ponty’s bon mot: nothing would have happened in the last two hundred years in philosophy if not for Hegel. But navigating the labyrinth of Hegel’s thought is no picnic. Hegel spoke to his Berlin audience about the courage to know. His are not light lectures; to study Hegel, one needs courage. Today, after his 250th birthday, people may feel inclined to say, in Oscar Wilde’s tongue-in-cheek way, “I’m smart. I read and understand Hegel.” Well, with that, and with some spirits from the bottle, let Minerva’s owl, philosophy’s favorite animal, spread her “lively” wings at dawn and begin her flight. To philosophize: to think and live freely.
1. Georg Lochner, “Hegel in Nuremberg 1808: A Letter to Karl Rosenkranz,” Nürnberger Kurier, August 3, 1844.
2. HBZ 377. A list of the abbreviations used in the Notes can be found following the Table of Contents and preceding the Introduction.