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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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2. Hegel's Political Philosophy. Hegel's philosophy
of politics and law is set out in detail in his Grundlinien
der Philosophie des Rechts
(Berlin, 1821), although a
briefer account of it is contained in his Encyclopädie
Der Philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1st,
2nd, and 3rd eds., Heidelberg, 1817, 1827, 1830)—
referred to here as the Encyclopedia. Like the rest of
Hegel's systematic writings the Philosophie des Rechts
is divided into three main parts in dialectical progres-
sion. The first part, “Abstract Right,” is concerned with
property, its transfer, and the means of dealing with
fraud and coercive crime. The second part, “Morality,”
deals with human conduct insofar as its propriety is
thought to depend upon intentions and conscientious
motives. The third part, “Ethical Life” (Sittlichkeit),
deals first with the family, then with “civil society,”
i.e., the economic world and the legal, administrative,
and penal arrangements it makes necessary, and cul-
minates with the state, which Hegel considers to be
the supreme and most effective embodiment of reason
in the social sphere.

We cannot here describe the dialectical transitions
through which Hegel passes in developing his system
of social philosophy. He starts with the notion of per-
sons, as creatures who transcend nature by being aware
of themselves and each other, and he concludes with
a sketch of world history in which the succession of
predominating states is taken to be the evolution of
human freedom from its first emergence from the nat-
ural world towards the highly complex, self-conscious
form it exhibited in the Christian Europe of his day.

Hegel argued that property is essential to the exer-
cise of the free will of persons. By taking possession
of natural objects, by forming, and even by marking
them, persons emerge from their isolation and enter
into social, as distinct from biological, relations with
one another. Hegel rejected slavery on the ground that
owning a person involves treating him as if he were
a natural object. For slavery to be possible, however,
the slave himself must allow it, and to that extent he
shares with his master responsibility for his condition.
The institution of slavery has some point during the
transition from the animal condition to that of self-
consciousness, but it is eradicated by the modern state.
Hegel argued that ownership is in essence free and
complete, and he therefore thought that feudal forms
of property, insofar as they placed limits on this, ought
to be eliminated. He also held that, since ownership
implies the will to use the property, it ceases when
that will decays, as with bequests for purposes that
have ceased with the passage of time. He intended this
argument to justify such policies as the Dissolution of
the Monasteries by Henry VIII.

Property is handed down within families and is
produced and exchanged in the course of business
transactions. In the family, what began as a merely
biological relationship is rendered human and self-
conscious by being deliberately entered into by persons


who respect one another. In “civil society” the wants
of individuals are supplied, not by the unpaid devotion
that is called for in families, but by each individual's
pursuit of his own particular interests. Out of this
bargaining and trafficking arises the spontaneously
ordered system which Adam Smith, Say, and Ricardo
described and explained in the new science of Political
Economy. Family or tribal organization has esprit de
but is incompatible with developed economic
activity. Civil society, through the division of labor,
money, and market activities, supplies individual
wants, but lacks esprit de corps. According to Hegel,
it is in the modern state that the loyalty characteristic
of families is united with the spontaneous progress of
market enterprise. The state, he writes, is “the self-
conscious ethical substance, the union of the principles
of the family and of civil society; the unity which is
in the family the feeling of love, is the essence of the
state, but this essence also receives the form of con-
scious universality through the second principle of
intelligent and spontaneously active will...” (Ency-

Hegel was appointed to the chair of philosophy at
Berlin in 1818, at a time when the Prussian govern-
ment, although modernized as a result of the Napole-
onic invasion and the Wars of Liberation, was still an
absolute monarchy. There were elected local assem-
blies but no parliament for the country as a whole.
In his Philosophie des Rechts, published soon after his
arrival in Berlin, Hegel makes a detailed defense of
constitutional monarchy. He advocated elected upper
and lower chambers and an administration by civil
servants, the chief of whom would be appointed by
the Crown for their expertise, and others who would
be elected by the business community in order to
ensure realistic execution of the government's policy.
In publishing this at a time when liberals throughout
Europe were calling upon reluctant monarchies to
grant constitutions to their subjects, Hegel might seem
to have aligned himself with the liberals. His argu-
ments, however, were very different from those used
by the liberals. He considered that reason played such
a large part in the modern world, that the family and
historical tradition were no longer capable of sustaining
men's highest allegiance. The French Revolution, that
“glorious sunrise,” as he called it in his Lectures on
the Philosophy of History
(given every two years from
1822-23 until his death in 1831) was an attempt to
gain freedom and to enthrone reason, but the freedom
was anarchic and destructive, and the conception of
reason was too limited. The French revolutionaries first
subordinated everything to the legislature and then,
having abolished the monarchy, they fell under the
tyranny of men who, regarding themselves as virtuous
and their opponents as sinful, concentrated all power
in the executive which they controlled. Hegel con-
cluded that mind, at the level it had reached in his
day, required a legislature to establish laws, an execu-
tive to bring particular cases under the universal pre-
scribed in the laws, and a monarch “as the will with
the power of ultimate decision” (Philosophie des

Hegel did not, however, support this view with the
current utilitarian argument that this sort of consti-
tution would lead to the general happiness. For in his
opinion, to use such arguments was to assume that the
state exists to satisfy particular wants and desires, and
hence to confuse civil society with the state. In an era
when Protestant Christianity fostered freedom of con-
science, and when paternalism and traditionalism had
given way before freely thinking intellect, any political
arrangements would be defective which failed both to
distinguish and to unite the three “moments” we have
just listed. Hegel preferred hereditary monarchy both
to elective monarchy and to republicanism, but al-
though he accepts such arguments as that elective
monarchy and republicanism are likely to be unstable,
he said that empirical arguments are not decisive in
such matters. What is decisive is that in a society in
which men can think freely and wish to do so, there
must be an ultimate authority with unquestioned
“majesty,” as well as free public discussion in a legisla-
ture where laws are rationally framed and rationally
executed by those with executive authority. Hegel even
compares this form of constitution with the necessary
existence of the Perfect Being of the Ontological
Argument for the existence of God, and compares the
monarch within it with the self-moved mover in Aris-
totle's Metaphysics (Philosophie des Rechts §281—and
see Knox's note to this on p. 370 of his translation).
Hegel thought that this majestic constitutional mon-
arch must be hereditary because his position would be
arbitrary if subjected to the chances of voting rather
than to the impersonal processes of nature.

Arguing in this a priori manner we have just called
attention to—he himself would have said that it is the
proper philosophical method—Hegel maintained that
states are by their very essence a plurality, so that a
world state is not rationally thinkable. Given the com-
plexities of things and the willfulness of men, states
are bound to conflict with one another and to engage
in wars. War brings suffering and evil but is also a
means of breaking deadlocks and of preventing a torpid
acceptance of the stiatus quo. As the various poten-
tialities of mind are developed, various levels of free-
dom are achieved in the institutions which states foster
and protect. Mind—Hegel often speaks of “the Idea”—
finds increasingly subtle means of realizing itself in the


history of mankind. One by one the civilizations de-
velop some one-sided aspect of free mind and, one by
one they reach their peak, exhaust themselves, and sink
from lack of conviction or will to continue. Hegel
thought that the European Protestant civilization of
his day was the highest achievement of independent
individual mind, as it combined freedom of thought
and conscience with rational control over events that
would become anarchic if left to themselves.

Throughout his life Hegel was deeply interested in
political events. He read English and French as well
as German newspapers, and wrote, and sometimes
published detailed comments on constitutional prob-
lems. In 1817 there appeared in the heidelbergische
a long article by Hegel entitled Verhand-
lungen der Landstände des Königreichs Württemberg
im Jahre 1815 und 1816.
This contains a detailed dis-
cussion of a dispute in which the King of Württemberg
wished the Estates to accept a new constitution, while
the Estates, which had not met since before the French
Revolution, wished to go back to the pre-Revolutionary
constitution. Hegel here expressed his opposition to the
legalistic attitude of the Estates in standing on anti-
quated rights when they had the opportunity of ex-
tending the popular influence in the government of
the country. A large part of Hegel's Der Englische
appeared in the Preussische Staatszeitung
in 1831, but the King of Prussia prohibited publication
of the last part, apparently on the ground that it was
too critical of the British constitution. In this article
Hegel criticizes the irrational traditional elements of
the British constitution, comparing them to their dis-
advantage with the reformed codes of law and systems
of administration that had arisen in Prussia and else-
where in Europe as a result of the French Revolution.
He thought that the proposed reforms did not go far
enough, even though he was apprehensive lest the
passage of the Bill would intensify conflicts between
the aristocracy and the people. Both of these essays
show that, cautious as he was, Hegel was no advocate
of traditionalism.