The principle of the modern world – thought and the universal – has given a higher form to valour, in that its expression seems to be more mechanical and not so much the deed of a particular person as that of a member of a whole. It likewise appears to be directed not against individual persons, but against a hostile whole in general, so that personal courage appears impersonal. This is why the principle of thought has invented the gun, and this invention, which did not come about by chance, has turned the purely personal form of valour into a more abstract form.
GWF Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §328 (addendum)
Allen W. Wood, editor of the Cambridge translation of Philosophy of Right, links the above passage to a precursor from around 15 years earlier, 1805-6, in Philosophy of the Real in Jena. While we can say that all of Hegel’s thought developed figuratively in the shadow of war and revolution, the city of Jena was literally, late during his residence there, the site of one of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars. We can therefore imagine the dark clouds gathering, the battle thunder approaching, and the philosopher almost in the role of reporter. It may help further to visualize how such battles were typically fought: Nations mustered in representative corps; soldiers wearing uniforms designed to be seen, marching to drum beats, executing precise evolutions from one highly purposive formation to another, and holding position while preparing, giving, and accepting lethal fire.
Wrote Hegel, in Jena:
The military estate and war are the actual sacrifice of the self – the danger of death for the individual, his looking at his abstract immediate negativity, just as he is his immediate positive self… The end is the maintenance of the totality, against the enemy who is out to destroy it. This externalization must have this same abstract form, must be without individuality – death, coldly received and given, not in a standing fight where each individual looks his opponent in the eye and kills him out of immediate hatred, but instead by giving and receiving death emptily, impersonally, out of the smoke of gunpowder.
We have previously discussed the implications of Hegel’s understanding of valor: We are unable to define the fate of the fallen soldier as less equally valid a realization of a life’s purpose than the fate of a regular civilian worked out on the longer but not necessarily more rewarding route to retirement and a quiet deathbed. We are encouraged in fact to hold the opposite view, and to accept “valor” not just as self-validating, but as definitional for a scheme of values, the highest ranking given to the sacrifice of one for the many, that latter as embodied in the nation, and this standard cannot be dismissed as merely ideological. For Hegel and for us a category of the merely ideological may not even be tenable, since ideology is tied to a purpose, and any purpose to the whole, just as, for Hegel, the life of the individual is not separable from the life of the nation. For the same reason evasion of duty does not merely symbolize but immediately equates with exclusion from communal life, even before active ostracization or criminal punishment. The “draft dodger” shows an incapacity for life in its collective dimension, whether through cowardice or commitment to some alternative community. The inverted parallel of the evader’s predicament is that of the combat veteran suffering difficulties of adjustment. He may say, in the common phrase, that something in him died on the battlefield, but from another point of view his difficulty is that he lived too much there: He lacks spare room for a civilian boarder. Those who have sacrificed for opposition to war may comprehend better than most the compulsion of the living to affirm, in what we call honor, so much having lived.
The other aspect of Hegel’s observations, this idea of inventions that arise to serve the re-configured needs of the age, the nation, and the individual, and in so doing re-define those same needs, also implicates the rest of us, who only sit and wait.
* * *
A project aiming to update or discard Hegel’s philosophy of world history could begin at many other points, but this philosophy was in his view something he observed and recorded, not something he created as if from nowhere or its near-neighbor “creative inspiration”: In that sense, Hegel’s philosophy of world history must itself be thought of as another one of these inventions called forth by inherent principle, at its proper time. 200 years later, it invites us, as citizens of this endlessly invented era, to make a new set of inquiries on the same basis, but this constant and accelerating self-invention and self-re-invention has left whole fields of debris in the way. Rather than attempt to remove it all – a titanic and highly unlikely project – we seek our own path through the discards and fragments, often the leavings of prior expeditions, that have been piled up in our way, our simple objective merely being to bring the essentials in sight, on a shared horizon if not yet within reach.
An empiricist might ask whether a “principle of thought… invented the gun” or whether a set of living and breathing individuals, working with real materials across the world and over centuries, invented the gun. We may hesitate before the numinous aura of some super- or trans-human entity conjuring what it needs as though from the ambient atmosphere, but we can also observe it very empirically sitting more comfortably in its original language, its original immediate context, and its larger philosophical context. Right there, in ink on paper or in virtual ink on virtual paper the words say, over and over, and in every conceivable way, we refrain from setting aside a view toward the whole in favor of a particular that cannot be understood apart from it. We refrain from pretending that the empirical description is in fact a comprehensive description, a whole truth.
* * *
A post-modernist might come against the comprehensive view from another direction, historicizing the historicist, arguing against any presumption that what Hegel thought of as “thought” could be “universal,” could be part of a comprehensive historical movement in a single direction, but such an argument would make sense only under a set of contradictory presumptions, the same presumptions that inform the original statement. The plural-realist or perspectivist thought (or anti-thought) can never be understood as generally valid except by reference to a standard that would govern the truth and consistency of all such assertions. This problem has always stood in the way of taking the “post-modernist insight” seriously: If it means what it is meant to mean, then it is at best provisional, and otherwise meaningless. As in the manner of classical skepticism and its diverse nihilist and subjectivist variants, if it happens to respond to our interrogations on behalf of the whole, it does so without recognizing their legitimacy, as if randomly. It has no basis on its own terms to seek our consideration or consent, and its carelessness in regard to us is sooner or later reflected back. It has already dispensed with itself.
What we today call empiricism and post-modernism – pursue here as rationalism or realism or hard science; there as multi-culturalism, deconstruction, or the wisdom of the East; there again as a return of common sense – had all been thought through long ago, long before Hegel got to work. Such novelty as there was in his work was intended to recapitulate a new moment in history: To whatever extent it emerged newly from within the man, it could only have been conditioned outside and prior to the man. He already knew that the outside was the inside, and that after is before, and that he was not the first to understand as much or say so. It makes exactly as much sense to say that he was conscious of himself as the last man to come to this realization, and that being last on the scene is alone what enabled him to put the case forward, everyone else being preoccupied, dealing with having gotten there ahead of him.
* * *
We can proceed under the sign of the modern as Hegel defines it – thought and the universal – and, rather than fear or set out to locate or manufacture “new ideas,” we can instead restrict ourselves to re-arrangements of pre-existing elements – and such a process seems to be what that vaguely numinous passage about the gun also takes in view: How history and experience, but also subject and substance, but also idea and object, determine, re-configure, fulfill, and realize each other. In the event that anything new in any essential sense happens to arise in such an investigation, it could only do so as a property of what is being examined. A novelty of any other form – especially any self-promoting “creative innovation” – will rightly awaken our suspicions of fraud.
We cannot meaningfully question the usefulness of an investigation under the sign of the universal and under the principle of thought: Such a question, even put forward as a protest and broken off, already proposes and begins to enact its own investigation of the same type, under the identical presumptions. It is in that sense already implicit within that same investigation. If this supposedly second or alternative question, of a theoretical investigation of the usefulness or meaning of such an investigation, could lead to an affirmative result, if investigations of the universal under the principle of thought were somehow to be “proven” useful, then we could have confidently proceeded with the initially proposed investigation anyway. If such investigation could be proven to be of no use, then there would be no basis for asking the question, much less for lodging a protest, since both would already presume a negative form of usefulness, the example of what is to be avoided, and thus as well of a positive project, calling forth the entirety all over again.
Leaving such idle play to “those back home,” thought marches to the field, assumes its position, and takes aim. Though for all appearances the thinker is perfectly safe, the universal thought remains the counterpart to the soldier’s universal act, but only if it also risks everything.