Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea

by John MacBeath Watkins

History ended on a Tuesday afternoon, October 14, 1806. We know this because Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel told us so.

It was about 1 p.m. that Napoleon made the decisive move that defeated the forces of the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena. To Hegel, that meant that the ideas of the French Revolution had triumphed in the world, by which he apparently meant the German-speaking part of northern Europe, and we would henceforth take as our standard of good government liberty and equality, rather than the custom, faith and force that had legitimized the Prussian monarchy.

Never mind that the French Revolution had devolved into the Terror and reformed itself into a despotic and aggressive empire, Napoleon never the less represented the triumph of liberte, egalite, fraternite and that meant that man's long evolution from stone-age tribe through its various eras was at an end.

Sure, history as it is usually understood, people doing stuff and people writing about it in an effort to shape how people remember them, would continue to occur, but history as envisioned by Hegel, a dialectic that worked to a definite end, had reached that end.

Hegel was a dialectical idealist. He is unfortunately largely remembered as the precursor to Karl Marx's dialectical materialism, but he is actually part of the liberal tradition rather than the Marxist one. Marx used his idea of thesis meeting antithesis, and the conflict producing a synthesis that became the new thesis, but he used it to advocate for a quite different system than Hegel admired.

However, unlike Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Hegel saw mankind not as the product of a fixed nature, but as an evolution of history. As a result, instead of the sort of thought experiment about what sort of government was natural to man, his philosophy was teleological, one in which man aspired to greater perfection and worked through the dialectic of history to the goal of the perfect form of government.

Oh, sure, there were still monarchs, Oriental despots, dictators and aristocrats in the world, but they were atavistic after the Battle of Jena. Edmund Burke fought a gallant rear-guard action with Reflections on the Revolution in France, maintaining that custom and prejudice were the organic wisdom of society, but he could not claim history was on his side, and one of his intellectual heirs, William F. Buckley, in 1955 wrote of his own publication, “….if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Conservatives have defined themselves as backward-looking, even those who follow the radical logic of Ayn Rand or libertarian thinkers.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Frances Fukuyama wrote his famous essay analyzing  the delegitimation of Communism as The End of History, published in the summer, 1989 issue of The National Interest.He later expanded this into a book.

The 2011 Arab Spring saw history ending again in another part of the world, and the efforts of the Green movement in Iran showed that the theocratic state was none too solid. In China, a Communist Party that no longer practices Communism is clinging to power and trying to justify one-party rule through solid economic growth and nationalism, which is certainly more stable than Napoleon's attempt to justify his rule through military victory and chauvinism, but may not be as enduring as a form of government that has the relief valve of letting the people peacefully choose a new leader.

Even the worst dictators often seem to feel a need to hold rigged elections, because if they cannot make even the most implausible claim to be chosen by the people, they have no other claim to legitimacy. Why is this? Why do other forms of legitimacy fail, when for most of history, mankind has been ruled by force and faith?

I maintain that this represents a change in our dominant mode of thought. Much of the wisdom of ancient civilizations was transmitted in a mytho-poetic manner, explaining the world through the actions of capricious gods and spirits, coordinating civilization through religion and custom.

The weird, wonderful word of symbolic thought that we live in with our minds and our culture while our bodies inhabit the animal world of food, sleep and sex brought awe to the human mind before it brought reductionist logic. The mythic world of beauty, grace and terror has a pull on our minds that appeals no matter how logical we attempt to be. At a time when our practical, problem solving abilities were primarily aimed at making better tools and growing crops or hunting game, our minds were exploring the virtual reality of the imagination, and the ancients were organizing their lives around symbols of power, beauty, strength and fear.

We will, I hope, never be free of this world of songs, poetry, faith and art, nor should we aspire to be. But as wealth increased, and our problem-solving selves were evidently the reason for it, reason itself became recognized as a source of power. And if reason could solve the problem of how to build better ships, could it not also solve the problem of building better ships of state?

As we discussed in the first installment of this series, the religious conflicts of Enlightenment Europe made continued reliance on mythic justifications an untenable source of legitimacy for governments. If half your people belong to one religion and half to another, neither will stand for being ruled by an apostate, and the wars will be without end, or at least for thirty years.

Reason was on the rise outside the realm of government already. The Black Plague had killed off a third of Europe, and since arable land was the main source of wealth, this meant that the survivors were wealthier. It also meant that there was plenty of used clothing to make rag paper. Earlier generations had engaged in palimpsest, erasing ancient texts because they needed the velum to make a new psalter or such, but  Johannes Gutenberg found plenty of paper on which to use his moveable type.

In addition, wealth had begun to feed on wealth, and Europe had begun its great era of exploration, which resulted in the European settlement of much of the rest of the world, including the conquest (or if you like, theft) of three continents. Reason increased our wealth, not just through business, but through the instruments of navigation and improved ships of exploration and improved weapons of conquest. Europeans gained material benefits, it seemed, wherever reason was applied, and as reason began to dominate the way we organized our societies, making myth and custom seem old-fashioned.

We called the rise of reason as an organizing social force the Enlightenment. But of course, the light shined brightest in European culture, and the light cast some strong shadows as well.

Those who were not enlightened by European culture, that culture viewed as benighted. That included the first peoples of the conquered continents, who were viewed as a lower order of human, and could only be "enlightened" by giving up their old culture and adopting the new one, even if this had to be forced upon them by removing children from their homes and punishing them any time they spoke their native tongue.

In addition, while reason can be used to solve problems, it can also be used to justify what you want to believe, which is how the Fascist movement gave a scientific sheen to its racism (although really, they were about tribalism, and the doctrine of blood and soil.) And it can be used to take a false premise and logically move from there to a wrong conclusion, which I maintain is pretty much the story of the Communist project.

David Hume, the most powerful thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, said that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." After all, my computer doesn't think about anything I don't tell it to, because it lacks passion. My car does not drive itself, because it has no destination. If it had appetites, it might be as fractious as a mule when I run the gas tank low, but it doesn't care if the engine is starved for fuel because it lacks the capacity for caring.

This capacity for caring is the main restraint on those powerful ways of organizing our world, faith and reason. Marx saw that the faith of religion sometimes produced injustice, and concluded that religion should be done away with, saw that the logic of the market sometimes produced injustice, and concluded that markets should be done away with. The results were disastrous, as the main organizing principles of society were abandoned and the only remaining organizing principle was force. Marx had the same goals as the French Revolution, liberte, egalite, fraternite, but his philosophy brought on even more spectacular Terrors. Such is the nightmare of reason.

Liberalism is a term that usually is taken to mean a belief that society should be organized around liberty, free markets, and free and fair election of government representatives. But the way the word is used in American politics has another element. Conservatives advocate traditional religious views and somewhat radical free market functioning, with the claim that these produce just outcomes.

Liberalism has come to mean that the capacity for caring, an empathy with one's fellow citizens, acts as a restraint on the excesses of markets and religious doctrines. Burke thought the ascendance of reason and the excesses displayed in the Terror could only be restrained by clinging to tradition and custom, maintaining that they were the organic wisdom of a civilization.

But there are reasons no one today offers the forthright defense of "prejudice" Burke did, because prejudice itself is in need of restraint. You don't have to know the sad history of lynching in America or the struggles of the civil rights movement to understand this. You need only have a little empathy for the kid who gets beat up for being a "queer," or the customer treated badly because of race.

It is this very empathy that modern conservatism disdains in modern liberalism, yet in the end it is the main restraint on the excesses of faith, the cruelty of prejudice and the nightmare of reason.

But is liberalism the end of history? It is hard to imagine a new force organizing society with greater legitimacy, but the old forces remain potent. New mythologies are arising, as noted in my post about the Rapture of the Geeks. At the time of this writing, the Republican candidate leading the polls in the selection of a nominee to run for president is Rick Santorum, a sort of pre-Vatican II Catholic who has trouble imagining any governing idea not based on religion.

In a campaign stop in Ohio Feb. 18 2012, Santorum said our current president bases his rule on the wrong theology. From the New York Times:
“It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology,” he said. “But no less a theology.”
This is a sort of paleo-conservative view that finds it impossible to imagine any source of legitimacy other than religion, and it appeals to conservatives who share that view. There may be enough of them to nominate a presidential candidate, and probably there are more of them now than there were when John F. Kennedy ran for president. During that campaign, he found it necessary to give the following reassurance:

"...These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

"But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
Barack Obama  had to give a speech demonstrating that he also would not shape his rule to suit his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. But Santorum represents a kind of tribalism, and for him his faith is the right one to be a part of the tribe. He portrays President Obama as the Other, because he sees faith and tribe as the sources of legitimacy for the presidency.

This means that history has not ended. It has instead entered a recursive loop, in which we must choose time and again between tribe and faith on the one hand and reason and empathy on the other. The first can fall prey to the doctrine of blood and soil, the second to the nightmare of reason, so the loop serves a purpose.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


Popular Posts