[Hegel’s] system of philosophy, the final philosophy, the perfect solution of all philosophic problems belongs to the moment when mankind has solved in principle its political problem by establishing the post-revolutionary state, the first state to recognize the equal dignity of every human being as such. This absolute peak of history, being the end of history, is at the same time the beginning of the final decline. In this respect Spengler has merely brought out the ultimate conclusion of Hegel’s thought. No wonder therefore that almost everyone rebelled against Hegel.
Strauss seems to be cribbing from the writings of his one-time correspondent Alexandre Kojève, compressing what would appear to be the grandest intellectual claims conceivable into a handful of dispensable, and dispensed-with, sentences. The name “Spengler” seems to be a danger signal: of the “world-historical” abyss. The seeming tribute to a body of work – substantial enough to inspire, or require, two centuries of rebellion – is left on the level of implication at best.
Strauss’s topic in this essay is Husserl’s pursuit of “philosophy as rigorous science.” Here, Strauss might have called on Hegel directly, and it is a defect in Strauss’s discussion that, by the time he reaches Husserl, he has already placed Hegel beyond convenient recall, having summarily dismissed and demoted him – Spenglerized him with loose talk, a vaguely comical summary, and intimations of doom. What Hegel might have said if he had not been detained by the rebels (sent to detention by his students) is that it makes no sense to ask whether philosophy can also be thought of as “rigorous” in the same way that the “hard” sciences are. From this perspective, the question is itself non-scientific. Within Hegelian thinking any “ultimate conclusion” of the sort Strauss and Husserl seek to validate as a possibility of philosophy could only be simultaneously false, a beginning point as well as an endpoint, and only one result among others, holding the place of particular ultimacy.
Strauss is less interested in such complications – which some writers file under the tab “Hegelian logic” – than in the rebellions, especially his own, but his flight from Hegel merely prepares the way for a recapitulation. In this sense, Strauss is indeed like “almost everyone” else, and most like almost everyone else when he quietly resorts to an Hegelianism in extremis. So, unable despite valiant effort to resolve the struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and faith, to his own satisfaction, Strauss tentatively affirms something resembling a dialectical relationship – “productive tension” – between the two. In the essay that concludes Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, Strauss approaches the same “tension,” but from its tragically, decisively non-productive converse. His elegiac treatment of the work of Hermann Cohen never acknowledges Cohen’s complex engagement with Hegel, or notes the obvious debt that Cohen’s “idealization” of Judaism in Religion of Reason (1919) owes to Hegel’s Christian theology. Nor does Strauss, this time, attempt a rescue, even by a dialectical sleight-of-hand. He knows that we should be grateful for Cohen’s life and work, but cannot say why, since words fail him before what the 20th Century made of Cohen’s Judaic universalism. The professor in detention yearns to lend a hand: He always said that “the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk”: The fullest articulation of an idea comes at the end of its epoch. In the costs of its subsequent negation, its historical vivisection, we learn its worth.
Cheap Optimism and Brain-Rotting Obscurity
When Strauss proceeds from the observation that the Hegelian “absolute peak” is “at the same time the beginning of the final decline,” he cannot mean as much as he seems to want to mean. He conjures an image of philosophical-historical progress as a linear progression in two dimensions, time and altitude. The image is at best conventional, and otherwise metaphorical. If it is any sense accurate, it would be accurate from some position other than the peak to which it refers.
As that suppressed discussion on the relationship between philosophy and science makes clear, a “peak” of philosophy or history, the philosophical peak of history or the historical peak of philosophy, could not be, would not in the most critical respects even be “like,” a simple physical magnitude, an elevation above sea level to a vanishing point. It is not an intellectual Mt. Everest, to be reached once and left behind by philosophical mountain-climbers. This “absolute peak” could as justifiably be seen as an infinite depth, or an infinite expansion, or an infant’s first step. “Decline,” as in “final decline,” is also a metaphor. The final decline could likewise be seen also as a final ascent, and, indeed, the latter was Hegel’s emphasis – captured in the notion that all of history, the catastrophes as well as the triumphs, can be seen as advancing the (obviously unfinished) higher self-knowledge of a universal subject. For this reason the most powerful political-philosophical rebellions against Hegel, from Schopenhauer to Marx and Nietzsche, and in different ways down to this day, picture him as a Polyanna or Pangloss – with the further demerit of sometimes being hard to follow: “cheap optimism” joined to “brain-rotting obscurity,” in the words of Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer may have correctly characterized the uses to which Hegel was put, may even have lent himself to being put, by conservative forces in German and especially Prussian (eventually German imperial) society, but that fact may have more to do with that society, or with society in general, than with Hegelian thought in particular. If so, it would hardly count as the first or the last time that a political class made dubious claims on the reputation of some respected figure. We can still ask how the authentic understanding of something brain-rottingly obscure could ever come cheaply. How would we even know except after expensive effort? A cheap optimism could only be a feature of an inappropriately superficial reading of the esoteric text, and the same could be said for a cheap pessimism.
“Almost everyone” should have known better, but almost everyone repeats Schopenhauer’s error. Thus, Nietzsche adopted Schopenhauer’s position early on, and, though at a later point he reversed himself on Schopenhauer, he never attempted (or was able to attempt) a serious re-consideration of Hegel. Given this prologue, it is no surprise that many of Nietzsche’s most famous utterances – “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” “the unbounded yes to all that is and was,” “God is dead” – read like melodramatic Hegel, dialectics as fireworks, phenomenology for people who, like the near-blind seer on the path to madness, may lack the constitution for it. Earlier, even Schopenhauer himself, in his old age, had been seized by the idea, and found the will, to amend and re-interpret his most important work to a less “one-sided” (we could say to a more dialectical) effect.
Marx’s rebellion, which Strauss examines in some detail, appears initially to be of a wholly different character than either Nietzsche’s or Strauss’s own: Marx never underrated Hegel, but thought him in need of fundamental correction. Yet the substitution of “proletariat” for “universal subject,” whatever its uses or justifications, came with a nearly remainderless displacement of Hegel’s vision of the state – thought too close to the existent Prussian state – in favor of utopian abstractions. Future tyrants improvised a new content in place of what had been subtracted, stitching together bits of Marx with progressively larger pieces of power politics, eventually producing Hegelian culture-states emptied of Hegelian premises, totalized structures that tended to persist long after whatever sanity and functionality “withered away.” Meanwhile, the implacable critics of Marx have tended to blame Hegel, too, insisting that the children of Marx must have been carrying a gene inherited from his philosophical father.
If we look at any of these and subsequent would-be rebellions more closely, we can almost without exception return to Hegel’s major philosophical writings and find at least the outlines and arguably the essence of whatever position already considered, synthesized, and integrated. This claim may seem a large one, but it would be so only for those, mostly likely part of that main group of almost everyone, who enter into the discussion with fixed notions about the purposes and possibilities of philosophy, and therefore of the proper goals for an ambitious thinker.
The Whole Thing
The fundamental precepts of Hegel’s mature work are not, or should not be, difficult – which is not to say that they can be cheaply absorbed or applied (or have any necessary bearing on attitudes of optimism or pessimism). Any educated person should be able to read the “Preface” to the Phenomenology of Spirit with minimal danger of cerebral deterioration, and with enough comprehension at least to estimate what Strauss and the others are rebelling against or, as often, merely pretending to rebel against.
For Hegel, we read in the Preface, the “True is the whole [, and] the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development.” And: “The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth.” And: “[E]verything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” And: “The True is… the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk…” And:
[K]nowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system… [A] so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle.
In all of these statements, as throughout the Preface, as all the more in the main text (itself also a kind of preface), and in all of Hegel’s mature works, nothing is more obvious than the writer’s relative disinterest in whatever reductive end point or “ultimate conclusion,” whatever equation or thesis we might imagine him or ourselves setting out to prove or disprove or rebel against. If he has a “main point,” it is that the main point is not a “point” (or “peak”), just as the only doctrine he cared to refute was the popular doctrine of refutability: He wants the whole as a whole, inclusive of its parts, taken separately on their own and also taken as parts, and he wants this whole inclusive of the wanting, of the grasping itself, and of the dynamic movement between grasping and letting go, between assertion and refutation, acceptance and rebellion. What in Hegel’s terms qualifies as “absolute” cannot therefore be the same as implied colloquially by a word like “perfect.” The perfect would be an end, but what Hegel calls “Absolute” (Knowledge, Science, Idea), though it will be elucidated at whatever sequential or physical endpoint of whatever explication, reveals all endings, and in a strong sense itself, to be mere moments: We do not get to such an ending, have not really gotten to it at all whether or not we have closed the book, until we are ready to understand how it has been with us all along, from the beginning and from before the beginning.
We can comprehend these statements as something other than riddles or sophistries, cheap and brain-rotting, to the precise extent that we investigate “the scientific system of such truth,” though we may find ourselves wondering if even the word “system,” given its numerous Information Age resonances, is too pictorial, too one-sidedly objective and pseudo-concrete, for what Hegel wants to think, for how he wants us to think, for how he wants us to recognize we think… The famous obscurity of much of the Phenomenology derives from a resistance to refutation as a mode of argument, but also from a refusal to be sidetracked. Hegel is determined not to take a semblance for the thing in itself. He largely refrains even from naming the philosophers or philosophical or religious schools he criticizes, as though the proper name is also too much an invitation to prejudice, or, alternatively, to the assumption that a thought can somehow be un-thought, buried forever under some gravestone and chiseled epitaph. (We are reminded throughout Hegel’s work, as we are reminded daily, that even the worst idea of all, of the death of ideas, is immortal.)
If, however, we understand that we are dealing with metaphors, then we can re-consider them in a systematic mode, for merely illustrative purposes: To extend the “peak” metaphor, for instance, we can say that we are interested in the whole “mountain”; in whatever “peak” because it unifies the mountain as much as because it stands above; in the mountain as part of a whole mountain “range”; in the “air” and “sky” that are “set off” and “touched” by the peak and its mountain and the range; in everything and every not-thing beyond the “landscape”; in the “seeing”; in what the one who “looks” brings to seeing; in the “trail” that seemed to lead “upward,” but takes the traveler “away,” or in many “directions” at once, or back to the same “place.”
Hegel’s explication can be thought of as the “final” philosophy only as all-inclusive philosophical methodology. The philosopher, equally meta-philosopher, surveys and connects possible and inevitable philosophies, and demonstrates that this unity-in-multiplicity will always arise from within, as it is implied by, any particular observation submitted to philosophy. The interdependent and relatively autonomous moving parts of the truly “scientific” (absolute-scientific, as opposed to empirical-scientific) system will and must be each in its own aspect, on its own terms, all-encompassing. The “historicist insight” which Strauss identifies with Hegel is itself one of those incomplete universals (“members” or “rebels”) complete in itself, and as such subsumed within its own larger implication (“the revel”): not merely that all philosophies and worldviews are contingent, though they must be, but that no philosophy, however seemingly novel, will be independent of any and all of the others. From this perspective – a “perspective on perspectives,” naturally – if Hegel’s thought “leads” to Spengler, it also leads to Marx and Kojève, to Heidegger and to Strauss… and, not incidentally, to this blogger and to you, the reader.
From Schopenhauer through Strauss and beyond, the rebels fail to grasp Hegel’s thought on its own terms, or, if they grasp it at all, they soon discard or conceal it. This claim may also seem like a large one, but the most ambitious and unlikely claim of all, it turns out, is not the claim of a complete or comprehensive philosophy, but the claim that the Hegelian is precluded from making: to have created a new philosophy, to have stepped philosophy beyond philosophy’s own shadow. Any authentic and successful rebellion – in political, philosophical, or political-philosophical states – must arise from within. It is the rebellion that must complete what it opposes, and that must therefore also seek its own failure, and it must originate, as Hegel affirmed but the Platonic philosopher may not, in the substance as well as the subject, in the world as well as in the idea – and that is also why the world completes Hegel, but defeats almost everyone else.