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Hegel and the French Revolution: An Epitaph for Republicanism

Steven B. Smith

Today no one can seriously doubt that the concept of revolution is a central organizing assumption of political life. There are various reasons to explain the importance of this term and others associated with it. In the first place, the phenomenon of revolution is thought to embody processes of change, development, and growth. So deeply have these notions become embedded, not just in popular discourse but in the more sophisticated languages of the natural and social sciences, that it is difficult to imagine how we could even begin to think without them. Second, most of the contemporary world powers—America, France, Russia, China, not to mention a host of lesser nationalities—have all established themselves by announcing a revolutionary break with their prerevolutionary pasts. Whether one is for or against these revolutionary movements, they appear to be a feature of the modern political landscape which is not likely to go away.

For most social and political theorists, it was the French Revolution (and only later the Russian) that became the model by which to measure revolutionary change.[1] Two perspectives were typically adopted to explain this event. The first, proposed by Edmund Burke and later taken over by the "historical school," saw the Revolution as an attempt, motivated by misguided theory, to remake the world and human nature itself in accordance with its own vision of a just and humane society. In their efforts to establish a new republican order, the revolutionaries were led to rename months, abolish historical provinces, and establish new religious cults to worship abstract reason, none of which had any ties to previous French experience. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is nothing if not an object lesson on how a dogmatic interpretation of natural rights and the social compact can leave little room for such things as prudence, compromise, and balance which are essential to the political. For Burke, all attempts to found constitutions de


novo must be doomed to failure, and to the extent that such experiments are "metaphysically true" they must be "morally and politically false."[2]

The second perspective was announced originally by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic study The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution . Although Tocqueville's analysis bears certain superficial resemblances with Burke, especially in his skepticism regarding abstract rationalism, a close reading of his text shows that he could not have been more different. Whereas Burke stressed the role of ideas or revolutionary ideology, Tocqueville was crucially concerned with the study of institutions and the emergence of the modern administrative state. Furthermore, whereas Burke emphasized the absolute novelty of the Revolution, accepting the claims of the revolutionaries at face value, Tocqueville tried to penetrate behind the rhetoric of the Revolution to the social and political crises that had occasioned it. The core idea of Tocqueville's history is the profound continuity between the Ancien Régime and the Revolution. Just as in Democracy in America Tocqueville showed that the process of democratization was not something new but had deep roots going back over 700 years to the heart of feudalism, so too in the Ancien Régime does he show how the policies of the Jacobins did no more than extend the growth of public power and the tendency toward administrative centralization which had been established as early as the reign of Louis XIV. "Even if [the Revolution] had not taken place," Tocqueville sagely remarked, "the old social structure would have been shattered everywhere sooner or later . . . the Revolution effected what in any case was bound to happen."[3] According to François Furet, a recent historian of the Revolution, the paradox of Tocqueville's analysis is that the French Revolution was already three-quarters over before it even began.[4]

In this chapter I want to suggest that Hegel provides us with another third perspective on the revolutionary experience. Hegel neither wants to emphasize the absolutely unprecedented character of the Revolution as did Burke, nor does he want to minimize its specificity by dissolving it into a kind of longue durée as did Tocqueville. Hegel wanted to celebrate the Revolution but only after it had been firmly located and hence ensnared within his own philosophy of history. Once he had done this, I suggest, it became possible to honor the memory of the Revolution precisely because and to the degree that it no longer represented a threat. Henceforth the French Revolution like the other great turning points of modern European history—the Protestant Reformation in Germany and to a lesser extent the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England—could be regarded not as isolated or discrete happenings but as part of a worldwide struggle aimed at the realization of freedom. It was Hegel's attempt ultimately to domesticate the Revolution by regarding it as a "moment," but only a moment in the collective Bildung of humanity, that constitutes in my opinion his unique contribution to the interpretation of the French Revolution.[5]


The Impulse from Philosophy

"We should not therefore contradict the assertion," Hegel once wrote, "that the [French] Revolution received its first impulse from philosophy."[6] By philosophy in this context it is clear that Hegel is referring to that movement in modern thought that goes under the name of Enlightenment. Although modern scholars have debated whether the Enlightenment is to be understood as a one or a many, a period of skepticism or of dogmatism, the birth of secular humanism or the last gasp of an age of faith, it seems to me central to understand its aspiration as revolutionary in its essence. The Enlightenment set itself the ambitious task of liberating thought from the "kingdom of darkness" in order to make men into the masters and possessors of the world.

From its inception the Enlightenment thought of itself as initiating a total break with the past. This, at first sight, appears paradoxical since the concept of Revolution originally implied a return to first principles as indicated by the syllable re- in the Latin word revolutio .[7] For the Greeks and Romans, revolution was understood as part of a cyclical pattern of history in which birth, growth, decay, and regeneration were conceived along naturalistic lines. The Greek term metabolé was used to indicate either change or corruption, the inevitable fate that awaited all things.[8] In human affairs, just as in the cosmos, a few invariant forms followed the same irresistible force as the stars follow their paths in the heavens. This pattern constituted a revolution in the original lexical sense of circulation. Thus Plato's cycle of regime transformation in books 8 and 9 of the Republic was followed closely by Aristotle's theory of constitutional change in the Politics .[9] For Aristotle, who gave the classical conception of political change its canonical expression, there can be no such thing as a new beginning, for "practically everything has been discovered on many occasions—or rather an infinity of occasions—in the course of time." [10] The same cyclical pattern was taken up in the Histories of Polybius who uses the concept anakuklosis politeion to indicate the sempiternal recurrences into which human affairs are driven as if by nature. The cycle was a physis , a natural process, through which regimes were bound to pass unless by a stroke of good fortune they were able to escape this fate.[11]

The original meaning of the term revolution , then, implied a return to some previously occupied position and not an overturning of all that has gone before. At the outset of modernity Machiavelli could still speak of revolution as a ridurre ai principii , that is, the periodic revitalization of civic life that can only come through a return to its original principles.[12] In the same vein Hobbes could write of the events in England between 1649 and 1660 that "I have seen in this Revolution a circular motion of Sovereign Power."[13] And Locke in the famous nineteenth chapter of the protorevolutionary Second Treatise of Government could describe the "dissolution of government" as a return of the legislative power to its original hands. For Locke, as for Burke later,


revolution properly signified a restoration of the original constitution, a retrieving of ancient liberties, so that he could call King William the "Great Restorer" and describe the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 as glorious precisely because it lacked what in the modern sense we call revolutionary. Revolution meant for these thinkers the very opposite of the idea of "irreversible change" or "total change" with which the term later came to be associated.[14]

The concept of revolution made its way into modern European vocabularies through the language of literary criticism to describe the changes in fortune of a character from one state to another.[15] Its later use signified a process of development or acceleration toward new and therefore unpredictable states of affairs. Revolution in this sense implied a capacity for novelty and an openness to change that were often seen as the root of the modern Enlightenment. In the decades before and after 1789 the term was expanded by thinkers to apply to areas as diverse as law, morality, religion, economics, and politics. The author of the article on "Revolution" in the Encyclopédie could define the term rather blandly as "a considerable change in the government of a state."[16] But by 1772 Louis Sebastian Mercier could observe that "Tout est révolution dans ce monde,"[17] and Robespierre at the height of the French Revolution could announce: "Tout a changé dans l'ordre physique; et tout doit changer dans l'ordre moral et politique."[18] From then onward the term acquired overtones of an almost irresistible movement that would inaugurate a new era of human happiness in which autocracy would be exploded, superstition banished, and republican government established as the only political system rational in theory and tolerable in practice.[19]

Here, as in so many matters, German philosophy accurately depicted the mood of the times even while it failed to participate in the leading events.[20] Kant has rightly been called "the philosopher of the French Revolution" not only for his uncompromising insistence on the freedom and dignity of man but for his rejection of all authority that does not stem from man's own critical rationality.[21] According to Heinrich Heine, Kant was "the arch destroyer in the realm of ideas [who] far surpassed Robespierre in terrorism." In both Robespierre and Kant one finds "the same stubborn, keen, unpoetic, sober integrity . . . the same talent for suspicion." The only difference is that "the one directs his suspicion toward ideas and calls it criticism, while the other applies it to people and entitles it republican virtue." By denying legitimacy to everything that was merely customary or traditional, Kant, the deicide, completed the work only half-heartedly carried out by Robespierre, the regicide. Accordingly, the Critique of Pure Reason was "the sword with which deism was executed in Germany."[22]

Even allowing for some degree of poetic overstatement, Kant continually identified his philosophy with the Enlightenment and especially the events unfolding in France after 1789. In the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason he


identified his age as one of Kritik to which everything must submit. Henceforth nothing—neither politics nor religion—was to remain exempt from "the test of free and open examination."[23] Although Kant's views on the French Revolution constitute a study in themselves, his clear preference was for a policy of republican government at home combined with a federation of republics to govern international affairs abroad. By a republic Kant meant a form of government that requires the maximum degree of participation in the shaping of public decisions. Thus Kant could maintain that if we think of the commonwealth as a concept of pure reason "it may be called a Platonic ideal (res publica noumenon ) which is not an empty figment of the imagination but the eternal norm for all civil constitutions"[24] or as he put it in the Rechtslehre , a republic is "the only enduring political constitution in which the law is autonomous and is not annexed by any particular person."[25]

The same attitude is evinced in Kant's last published work, "The Contest of Faculties" (1798), in which he claimed to find evidence of a moral tendency toward progress evinced in "an occurrence in our times":

The revolution which we have seen taking place in our own times in a nation of gifted people may succeed, or it may fail. It may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking man would ever decide to make the same experiment again at such a price, even if he could hope to carry it out successfully at the second attempt. But I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger. It cannot therefore have been caused by anything other than a moral disposition within the human race.[26]

This event, the French Revolution, proved to Kant that moral factors did play a part in history, however small. This moral tendency could be discovered in the enthusiasm provoked by the spectacle of revolution. That Kant could descry the execution of Louis XVI as a sin worse than murder but still congratulate the principle of revolution by which that action was carried out tells us something about its power. From Kant onward the concept of revolution acquired an almost transcendental significance that later thinkers would transmute into an idea of historical inevitability. Starting with Kant but proceeding in an unbroken line from Hegel to Marx, from Lenin and Trotsky to Mao Zedong, revolution became a kind of sacred duty undertaken by selfless men acting to fulfill the conditions of reason and freedom.

Reason and Revolution

Hegel was perhaps the first great thinker to internalize revolution as the principle of political life.[27] Two passages taken from widely different periods of his life indicate the enduring grip of the French Revolution on his thought.


The first passage is taken from a letter to his friend Schelling written in 1796. Speaking of the Revolution's vindication of the "rights of man," Hegel goes on to say:

I believe that there is no better sign of the times than the fact that humanity is being represented as worthy of dignity and esteem in itself . . . . The philosophers demonstrate this dignity, the people will learn to feel it; and they will no longer be content to demand their rights which have been reduced to dust, but will seize them, appropriate them . . . . Thanks to the propagation of ideas which demonstrate how things ought to be, the indolence of those who confer eternity on everything that exists is disappearing. The vitalizing power of ideas . . . will elevate the spirits and [men] will learn to devour these ideas.[28]

The second passage is taken from Hegel's lectures on the Philosophy of History written over twenty-five years later. From his chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, Hegel, reflecting back on the experiences of the French Revolution, could still say:

Never since the sun had stood in its firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man's existence centers in his head, i.e., in thought . . . . Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous governs the world; but not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men's minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.[29]

These two passages tell us a great deal. First, they are striking evidence of Hegel's "idealism," by which I mean his passionate conviction that it is ideas that motivate men and shape history. The French Revolution was not the outcome of demographic changes in the French population or the desire for cheaper foodstuffs, but can be traced back directly to the ideas of the Enlightenment with its demand that society realize the conditions of reason and freedom. Hegel's description of the Revolution as a "glorious mental dawn" testifies to his celebration of the Revolution not as just another event in European history but as an apocalyptic "moment" in the destiny of humanity, its liberation from bondage and servitude.

At the same time, however, there is a second, deeper meaning to these passages concealed by the rosy optimism of the first. On this second view, although Hegel continued to regard the French Revolution, along with the Protestant Reformation and Kant's "Copernican Revolution" in epistemology, as one of the great watershed moments in modern history, he also saw it as a great moral and political tragedy. Like Burke, to whom he has often been compared, Hegel came to see the revolution as the harbinger of an era of "ideological" politics.[30] Unlike the older Aristotelian conception of politics


as prudence (phronesis), which found a resonance in Burke's later appeals to tradition and history, these new advocates, ideologues, and "men of principle" (Prinzipienmänner) as Hegel derisively calls them, set themselves up as the engineers and architects of the new social order.[31] The revolutionaries, consequently, destroyed the fabric of traditional politics by appealing from the "is" to the "ought," from actually existing but imperfect regimes to the one naturally sanctioned social order. Whereas the older politics presented itself as a play of particular passions and interests, the new politics assumed a higher and therefore more doctrinaire bearing. "It is not private interest nor passion that desires gratification, but Reason, Justice, Liberty; and equipped with this title, the demand in question assumes a lofty bearing, and readily adopts a position not merely of discontent, but of open revolt against the actual conditions of the world."[32]

Hegel traces the tragic, even nihilistic, character of the French Revolution back to the philosophy of the Enlightenment that was its cause. At the core of the philosophy was a conception of human beings as possessors of certain natural or inalienable rights. According to the thinkers who first promulgated this theory, government has its origins in the rational desires of individuals to protect and defend their preexisting rights as human beings. This conception already signaled an important shift in the way we think about the legitimacy or justice of government. Prior to the seventeenth century, governments made no reference to rights as their standard of legitimacy. To the extent that rights existed at all, they were considered derivative from a person's obligation as a member of a particular family, estate, or political community.[33]

The idea of universal human rights that belonged to individuals as such was wholly an invention of modernity. This is not to say that human rights went unopposed, but by the end of the eighteenth century the doctrine of human rights had become the dominant strategy for justifying political institutions. Henceforth it would be impossible for regimes to legitimize themselves without some recognition of the rights of their subjects, which rights the regime was entrusted to protect and defend. Documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen did no more than put the stamp of approval on what philosophers like Locke and Rousseau had already declared in such works as the Second Treatise and the Social Contract .[34]

Hegel believed that the problems of the French Revolution were caused by its attempt to instantiate the principles of natural rights developed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The problems with the philosophy of rights were threefold: they rested on (1) a methodologically faulty conception of the self or the subject of rights, (2) a politically faulty conception of the common good, and (3) a morally faulty conception of civic virtue. After examining each of these problems in turn, I want to turn in conclusion to a


paradox in Hegel's own understanding of the role of revolutionary movements in history.

Hegel is well known for his attack on the theory of rights for promoting an "abstract" or unreal conception of the self as denuded of all cultural traits and characteristics. Natural-rights theorists from Hobbes to Kant (and, more recently, Rawls) typically claim to discover the most universal features of human beings by means of a kind of thought-experiment, hypothetically stripping or peeling away everything we have acquired through the influence of custom, history, and tradition in order to discover the prepolitical state of nature and the natural man lurking behind them. In an early essay on Natural Law Hegel attacked the "antisocialistic" character of these theories for denying the natural sociality of man and for "posit[ing] the being of the individual as the primary and supreme thing."[35] Such theories were static, lacking any sense of the dynamics of human history and the developmental structure of the moral personality. The self who is the subject of rights is not something "given" once and for all, but is a being in the making, that is, a creature with a history.

In rejecting the conception of the subject of natural rights, Hegel found it necessary to distinguish between two contending views. The first is the early modern school of Hobbes and Locke, which he designated as "empirical" or what today might be called naturalistic.[36] In describing these theorists as empirical he meant that they tried to derive human rights from certain purportedly natural or observable needs that all human beings have in the state of nature. These theorists envisaged a research agenda where rights could simply be read off of certain natural propensities like the desire for life or property. For Hobbes, perhaps the paradigm case of the empirical approach, the most basic need that all human beings have is the desire for self-preservation. Hobbes defines a right as "the liberty each man has to use his own power as he will himself to the preservation of his own nature."[37] And from the claim that each individual has a right to do what is necessary to preserve his own life, Hobbes adduces the duty to acknowledge the same right in others and to seek peace whenever others do so as well.

The second approach to natural rights Hegel calls "formal" and applies mainly to philosophies of the Rousseauean-Kantian type.[38] These theories are formal because the ground of right they seek is not by means of an extrapolation from material needs and wants. Rather, if rights are to be strictly universal they must be grounded in something that transcends our empirically limited desires. This something is the will, which is not the sort of thing one can discover through ordinary empirical or scientific investigation but which is more like an absolute presupposition that must hold if our talk of rights is to make sense. This approach to rights is similar to what Robert Nozick has recently called a transcendental argument in philosophy.[39] It begins with some empirical or factual premise and moves backward to de-


duce its conditions of possibility. With this transcendental turn in the argument, talk of rights takes on a significantly higher and more abstract level than it had attained in earlier thinkers. Rather than beginning with such mundane concerns as the desire for life or property, Rousseau and Kant typically speak of the right to self-determination or autonomy, the right to participate actively in making the law and not simply the right to be represented in council.

For reasons already alluded to, Hegel thought both of these methods were defective. Instead of setting out, as the empiricists do, by positing rights in some hypothetical state of nature or, as the formalists do, as part of the transcendental structure of consciousness, Hegel regarded rights as part of the dynamic structure of history. Rights claims are not static but are part of a long and arduous historical process leading men gradually, but inexorably, toward an awareness of their own freedom. By freedom is meant here not anything especially mysterious. Freedom, for Hegel, is a predicate not of individuals but of peoples or communities. Freedom is always realized within a particular institutional framework that, at a minimum, must contain such things as the rule of law, a market economy, and an impartial bureaucracy. These institutions are not just a precondition for but a dimension of freedom without which we cannot even begin to think of rights.

Rights are not, then, a gift of nature but are rooted in the prereflective customs and habits (Sitten) of a people. He confirms this point by a linguistic allusion to the Greek word for ethics, ethos , which he contrasts to "the newer systems of ethics [which] in making independence and individuality into a principle, cannot fail to expose the relation of these words."[40] The "newer systems of ethics" to which Hegel here alludes are, of course, the natural-rights theories that insist that all duties and obligations derive from the agent's will. The subject of rights is taken to be not any particular person but an agent , a term the very generality of which already stakes a claim. The claim that rights pertain to individuals as such is itself bound up with the dynamics of Western history, which in turn is closely related to the processes of modernization and development.[41] The fact that we think of ourselves not as bearers of particular social roles but as agents capable of acting autonomously is not for Hegel a natural condition but a historical accomplishment. Right means for him, approximately, the entire range of practical reason as proceeding from immanent rules embedded in historical circumstances. Just as there is no such thing as the autonomous individual outside the objective norms and rules of our situations, so is there no such thing as a right independent of all context and history.[42]

In identifying rights as part of the broader ethical life of a people, Hegel is returning to an older quasi-Aristotelian conception of a community as a structure of relations within which our moral powers can develop. The idea here is that rights are "situated" within the objective structure of communal


norms and purposes so that "what is good and bad, right and wrong, are supplied by laws and customs of each, and there is no great difficulty in recognizing them."[43] Interestingly the theorist who comes closest to Hegel's perspective is not the dogmatic Rousseau but the more flexible Montesquieu who Hegel recommends as a model of judicial discretion. Thus in L'esprit des lois did Montesquieu seek to comprehend "both the higher relationships of constitutional law and the lower specifications of civil relationships down to wills, marriage laws, etc. from the character of the whole and its individuality."[44] The important methodological point Hegel is making is that rights are not prior to the community but are part of "the absolute ethical totality," which is "nothing other than a people."[45] In contemporary parlance, the right is not prior to but presupposes the good.

The Politics of Virtue

The French Revolution looked to Hegel, and to many of his generation, as an attempt to recreate the conditions for social and political harmony which not only the Ancien Régime but all of postclassical culture had torn asunder. The revolutionaries, acting out of a desire to bring the doctrines of the philosophers down to earth, directed themselves against all traces of transcendence and other-worldliness. To bring about this reconciliation of the rational and the real, the radicals like Robespierre sought to recreate the kind of consensus and public spiritedness evinced by the ancient polis. The polis experience, at least as theorized by Rousseau, was based on a devotion to the general will at the expense of private interests and elevated the virtue of the citizen over and above those of the private man or bourgeois. "This will is not," Hegel tells us, "the empty thought of will . . . a mere symbol of willing; it is concretely embodied universal will [allgemeiner Wille], the will of all individuals as such."[46]

The reference here to the universal will is clearly an allusion to Rousseau's volonté générale that is at the basis of the social contract. The general will is the source of freedom because it is the creation of all, and hence no one is coerced to do anything he has not agreed to do. Each individual participates in the creation of the general will and, in doing so, does no more than obey rules that he has set down for himself. Since there are no a priori limitations on what the general will may in fact will, it satisfies the individual's desire for freedom. The general will is not only the source of freedom but of security because its dictates must be universally and impartially applicable to all who have contracted. It is, then, the only possible source of right since its dictates accord with both the principles of freedom and those of equity.

Rousseau conceived the social contract, then, as the substitution of one type of freedom for another. Natural (or what we would call "negative") freedom, the freedom to do as one likes, is exchanged for rational liberty, the


freedom to live by laws of one's own making. Our rights are the exclusive product of the general will, which must take the form of public civil law. But if we ask, What is it that this rational will wills?, What is the content of this will?, Rousseau can provide no satisfactory answer. There is the same kind of vacuity about the general will that Hegel thought he observed in Kant's Categorical Imperative except that it is more dangerous since Rousseau saw the general will as a public legal body. The general will is not universal in the Kantian sense, applicable to rational persons as such, but in the more limited sense of applicable to members of particular communities localized in time and place. The general will, Hegel writes in the Philosophy of History , is free when "it does not will anything alien, extrinsic, foreign to itself . . . but wills itself alone—wills the will."[47]

Hegel's reason for rejecting the Revolution's attempt to create the conditions necessary for the realization of the general will is precisely its lack of attention to the particularities of context and situation. Its abstractness and lack of content resulted in a "rage of destruction" that had "no inner significance or filling" anymore than "cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water." The claim that the general will is the only legitimate ground of society would not only abolish all existing institutions and hierarchies but would regard "all differences in talent and authority as being superseded." Nothing would be allowed to exist that is not a product of the general will. Even God, "the empty être suprème" of the radicals, is said to hover there "merely as an exhalation of stale gas." The culmination of the Revolution was, then, "the sheer horror of the negative" in which all the "determinate elements disappear with the disaster and ruin that overtakes the self in the state of absolute freedom."[48]

The argument being made here is that although the general will can abolish, it cannot create. It can destroy the Old Regime but cannot build a new one. The idea of the general will is that I am only free when I obey the laws that I have myself helped to create. But since the law is the outcome of a collective decision, it cannot be decided by me alone. If everyone is to be free, then everyone must at least participate in the decision-making process. There is no sense here as, say, with Hobbes of authorizing someone else to do the work. The idea of government by consent, what Hegel calls "a mere symbol of willing," is insufficient. Any halfway measure such as representative institutions would be a violation of my inalienable right to self-legislation. The result is to create a permanent and implacable opposition between the people and their government which will always appear to them as a corporate body, a "faction" interposing itself between them and the general will.

The problem with Rousseau's general will is that it remains too abstract to serve as an instrument for political reform. Indeed, its very abstractness, as I will show in a moment, makes it peculiarly susceptible to manipulation


by political demagogues. The general will specifies a set of procedures by which valid laws can be achieved; it says nothing about what the character of those laws should be. Rousseau apparently thought that this procedural formalism alone was sufficient to prevent abuse but, as subsequent events were to show, his agnosticism about the ends and purposes of law was to prove dangerously open-ended.

The inability of the Revolution to create a cohesive republican community is not only related to an empty conception of the common good but to an equally vacuous notion of civic virtue. Following Rousseau, the revolutionaries saw the new French Republic as based on an austere, self-sacrificing conception of virtue in which private goals were ruthlessly subordinated to the pursuit of the public good. The chief task of the Revolution became the construction of a Republic of Virtue. The question the revolutionaries had to confront, then, was this: What guarantee does the man of virtue, the republican citizen, have that he is really acting for the public good? What are the guarantees against self-delusion and hypocrisy?

The only standard that the man of virtue can provide of his own moral goodness turned out ultimately to be his own self-certainty or sincerity. Sincerity thus became the essence of virtue. But herein lies the difficulty. For if sincerity is the only criterion of moral worth, then citizens must be judged not according to the outcome of their deeds but by their subjective convictions alone or the "law of the heart." The result of this purely subjective conception of virtue was to unleash a relentless search to unmask those hypocrites who pursue their own private ends under the guise of public spiritedness. As Hegel depicts it, the Reign of Terror was nothing more than the working out on the public stage of this obsessive concern with inner purity:

Virtue is here a simple abstract principle and distinguishes the citizens into two classes only—those who are favorably disposed and those who are not. But disposition can only be recognized and judged of by disposition. Suspicion therefore is in the ascendant; but virtue, as soon as it becomes liable to suspicion, is already condemned . . . . Robespierre set up the principle of virtue as supreme, and it may be said that with this man virtue was an earnest matter. Virtue and Terror are the order of the day; for Subjective Virtue, whose sway is based on disposition only, brings with it the most fearful tyranny. It exercises its power without legal formalities, and the punishment it inflicts is equally simple—Death.[49]

One might, of course, wonder, why hypocrisy should be responsible for such a wave of violence and fanaticism. Hannah Arendt has argued that the desire to root out hypocrisy stems from the Revolution's own "favored simile" of itself as tearing the mask, the persona, off a corrupt French society to expose behind it the uncorrupted natural man. For a theorist like Arendt for whom politics is, literally, a kind of "play acting" where actors become


the roles and legal personae that they assume, this search for the natural or authentic man behind the mask is bound to be destructive.[50]

According to Arendt, the tragedy of the French (and later the Russian) Revolution stems from what could be called the fallacy of misplaced compassion. Just as Rousseau had seen compassion as the source of all morality, so did Robespierre and Saint-Just regard virtue as the ability to identify oneself immediately with the immense poverty and suffering of the majority of the French people. Compassion, which Rousseau had regarded as the capacity to enter into the suffering of another fellow creature, was turned into a more diffuse sense of pity that meant (in Arendt's terms) "to be sorry without being touched in the flesh."[51] Virtue thus becomes a purely subjective capacity to sympathize with the plight of an abstract other, whether that be the malheureux or the "wretched of the earth." Arendt traces the degeneration of the Revolution into despotism and terror back to this unusual capacity for moral sensitivity:

[E]ven if Robespierre had been motivated by the passion of compassion, his compassion would have become pity when he brought it out into the open where he could no longer direct it toward specific suffering and focus it on particular persons. What had perhaps been genuine passion turned into the boundlessness of an emotion that seemed to respond only too well to the boundless suffering of the multitude in their sheer overwhelming numbers. By the same token, he lost the capacity to establish and hold fast to rapports with persons in their singularity; the ocean of suffering around him and the turbulent sea of emotion within him . . . drowned all specific considerations, the considerations of friendship no less than considerations of statecraft and principle.[52]

The result of Robespierre's Republic of Virtue was to create a regime motivated by precisely the kind of "pious cruelty" that political realists like Machiavelli had warned against. For Arendt, as for Hegel, the greatest cruelties in history have been committed out of an excessive idealism and devotion to causes. This was certainly true during the French Revolution where a Reign of Terror was established to purge the nation of all those "enemies of the people" suspected of harboring impure thoughts. The Revolution became self-devouring when those men, like the members of the Committee of Public Safety, entrusted with the oversight of the common good, came to regard even their own motives as suspect. Under these circumstances the temptations to suspect and then denounce one's neighbors, friends, and associates became irresistible.

Hegel's critique of the French Revolution should be seen, then, as an epitaph for republicanism. The language of republicanism, as Montesquieu had demonstrated before him, belongs ineluctably to the past. The failure of the Revolution to create anything faintly resembling the Greek polis or the Ro-


man res publica stemmed from its utter lack of connectedness to the present. In its original form republicanism was animated by the goals of political comradeship, fraternity, and communal solidarity. But as the two greatest republican theorists of modernity, Machiavelli and Rousseau, acknowledged, these virtues could also be narrow, particularistic, and intolerant. Valuing public freedom above all else, republicanism was led to act with a kind of punitive zeal against all those who fail or refuse to participate in the corporate project. This zeal is in turn aggravated by a quasi-religious ethos that exalts courage, self-sacrifice, and military glory above all other endeavors. The attempt to recreate republicanism today is not just politically irresponsible; it is historically false.[53]

The Revolutionary Hero

There is, finally, a paradox in Hegel's treatment of the French Revolution. The paradox is that while the Revolution was reprehensible for the murder, violence, bloodshed, and terror it created, it was still regarded by Hegel as a "progressive" force in history, moving humanity closer to a certain desirable goal, namely, freedom.[54] Nowhere does this paradox emerge more clearly than in Hegel's treatment of the revolutionary hero.

Hegel's concept of the revolutionary hero is the person responsible for large-scale social and political change. What interested him in particular was the discrepancy between the subjective intentions of individual revolutionary actors and the objective consequences of their deeds. In a series of brilliant analyses Hegel shows how individuals—Alexander, Caesar, Luther, and Napoleon are his typical examples—were often unaware of the larger import of their actions. Thus what Caesar thought he was doing in crossing the Rubicon was one thing. The influence that this action had not only in his own time but on later history is something entirely different and was no part of his conscious intention. This is the famous Hegelian doctrine of the "cunning of reason" whereby whatever individuals may have subjectively intended, the actual import of their deeds was and could not but be unknown to them.[55]

Hegel appears to praise the revolutionary hero, often malgré lui , for helping to advance the cause of human freedom. Hence he is typically more concerned to forgive the revolutionary his sins than with sympathizing with the victims of his heroics. Although Hegel may never actually say that the ends justify the means, he recognizes that progress toward freedom is not achieved blamelessly. Thus in an early work on "The German Constitution" Hegel singles out Machiavelli's Il Principe not for holding up "a golden mirror for an ambitious oppressor" but for showing his fellow countrymen how to make a revolution. When one reads Machiavelli's work as Hegel recommends, not as "a compendium of moral and political principles applicable indifferently


to any and every situation, i.e., to none" but as a response to "the centuries before . . . and the history of his own time," one will see him less as a teacher of evil than as a teacher of popular liberty. Although many of the actions recommended by Machiavelli would be "criminal" if carried out by private citizens, Hegel maintains that if such actions are in the service of state-building rather than personal advantage one gains "a totally new complexion on the procedure of the prince." Machiavelli's work is in this respect "a great testimony to his age and to his own belief that the fate of a people . . . can be averted by genius." Unfortunately, Hegel concludes, "Machiavelli's voice has died away without effect."[56]

This last statement proved altogether unwarranted. Even as Hegel was putting the final touches on this essay, his call for a German Theseus found resonance in the deeds of Napoleon who was busy putting the Florentine's plans into effect. Although Napoleon, this "world soul" as Hegel called him, is never mentioned by name in the Phenomenology , Hegel's writings are replete with oblique references to him. In his Jena lectures on the Philosophy of Mind , for instance, he is clearly casting Napoleon into the role of a Machiavellian prince or a Rousseauist legislator who founds a state by a sheer act of will. "All states are founded," he says, "by the sublime acts of great men . . . . Theseus founded the Athenian state; also in this way during the French Revolution a terrible power held the state generally. This power is not despotism but tyranny, pure terrifying power."[57]

Even as he lauds the revolutionary founders of the state for providing the conditions for freedom, Hegel recognizes that their actions are rarely received so benignly by their own people. In this way was "Theseus repaid with ingratitude" and "Richelieu and others with hatred for their acts of violence."[58] This might be called history's revenge upon the hero. They are overthrown not because their actions are intrinsically evil but because they have become superfluous. Thus Hegel remarks of Robespierre that "power abandoned him because necessity abandoned him and so he was violently overthrown."[59] Once their ends are accomplished, their services are no longer needed. In the language of the later Philosophy of History , such men merely "fall off like empty hulls from the kernel."[60]

It is sometimes remarked that Hegel saw himself as the German Machiavelli trying to do for his time what Machiavelli had done for Italy.[61] This comparison is apt as far as it goes, but herein lies the difference. Although Machiavelli did not live to see the realization of his plans for national liberation, Hegel regarded Napoleon's goal of a fully unified Europe as already well under way. If Machiavelli was a kind of revolutionary John the Baptist, Napoleon was Hegel's messiah. Of course, the extent of Hegel's Bonapartism has been a subject of considerable controversy among Hegel's principle interpreters. For Alexandre Kojève, the Napoleonic Empire makes possible for the first time in history the universal recognition of the right to


equal freedom and dignity. Only in the "universal and homogeneous state" that Napoleon brought into being can man be fully and completely "satisfied," for only here has the revolutionary struggle for recognition been brought to an end. But when the foundation for the state has been laid, the work of the architect is made redundant. Like the original Theseus, Napoleon, the modern tyrant, is fated to disappear from the scene he helped to create. Strictly speaking, it is not Napoleon but Hegel who comes at the end, for he alone can put into conceptual form what Napoleon did.[62]

But here lies the paradox. Hegel praises Napoleon as the agent of a historical mission of which he (Napoleon) was only dimly aware. But how is such praise merited if it is achieved at the cost of thousands and even millions of innocent lives? Moral praise or approbation is generally reserved for persons whom we deem to have acted on good reasons or with good intentions. At least since Kant the role of intention or the "good will" is thought to play a crucial part in moral evaluation. But Hegel is prepared to award praise to persons who, through no intention of their own, produced consequences that merely happen to be beneficial. The preferred form of moral justification, then, is a kind of consequentialism where even great criminals can be considered praiseworthy if good consequences are seen to follow from their actions. Clearly, then, revolutionary figures are justified in riding roughshod over conventional moral constraints so long as their actions are deemed beneficial in the long run.

The chief problem with Hegel's philosophy of history is practical, not theoretical. If one believes that what one ought to do is what contributes most to the greatest amount of total freedom, then there are no clear limits on how one can treat existing persons in order to realize that goal. Until that end is reached all actions, however cruel they may seem, can be justified against the standard of a generic humanity raised to the level of an implacable judge, jury, and executioner. History becomes, then, a kind of secularized theodicy in which present evils are explained and even justified in terms of the good consequences they will ultimately cause to bring about. Indeed, the history of the twentieth century has been replete with tyrants from Stalin to Hitler to Pol Pot who have excused their crimes on the grounds of their contribution to some future well-being. This kind of moral justification appears as nothing so much as a set of IOUs issued against an indefinite future.

It must be said that Hegel's own position is ambiguous regarding the completion or end of world history. His thought fluctuates between two poles: one which emphasizes the transient and dialectical character of all being, and another that depicts the ultimate consummation or realization of freedom at the end of history. It is well known—or at least often believed—that Hegel thought he lived at the end of history, at that "absolute moment" in historical time when the philosophical demand for freedom and its political realization had at last been accomplished. No longer would it be necessary


to think of freedom as an abstract ideal that continually recedes before us; freedom instead would be something fully and adequately embodied in the institutions and practices of the modern European state. Such a state would provide the grounds for the final "reconciliation" between reason and reality. Only at the end of history, "when philosophy paints its grey in grey," will the owl of Minerva come home to roost.

Yet even on Hegel's own account another possibility suggests itself. Even leaving aside his remark that America is "the country of the future," he cannot altogether rule out future animadversions of the spirit.[63] If Hegel was right to say that philosophy is not simply about history but is something that takes place in history, "its own time apprehended in thoughts," then there is no way, strictly speaking, to know that we stand at the end of history. To know this would require the ability to get outside of history, to see it, as it were, from a God's-eye view. But this is precisely what Hegel says we cannot do. On his own account man is the historical animal par excellence. Since there is no way to escape from history, there is no way of knowing whether, or if, it has at last come to an end.

Nevertheless, the result of Hegel's philosophy of history has not been to restrain the revolutionary spirit but to liberate, unwittingly, a kind of political messianism that promises to deliver humanity not from any particular evil but from evil in general. It is not any particular order of society but the human condition itself that must be transformed. For this kind of eschatology, the end is not brought about by a superintending providence operating outside of history but through conscious human will and activity working in and through history. Consequently, it is never enough to wait patiently for the end; it is necessary to force the end, to act as if the end were already immanent in our deeds. Thus there is an implicit social activism concealed here which encourages revolutionary militants to initiate the terrors that must precede the end of history. Political messianism may be born out of frustration and even rage against existing political realities, but it is in the end forced to turn against politics as such. The dream of an end of history, like the biblical end of days, is predicated on the destruction of the world as we know it, and most of the people in it.[64]


If Hegel's views on revolution can be faulted it is for turning what was originally a messianic and eschatological vision into a theory of history and human progress. There is, of course, a vigorous literature debating Hegel's appropriation of the messianic theme. For some, notably Karl Lowith, his views on the end of history represent a "secularized" eschatology, whereas for others, like Hans Blumenberg, the very idea of a secularized eschatology is a contradiction in terms. Whereas eschatological thinking speaks of a final judgment breaking into history from the outside, the idea of progress to


which Hegel is attached seeks possibilities at work within or immanent in history. Far from being identical in function, the idea of progress originally set itself over against eschatological expectations brought about through divine intervention. Progress has little to do with millennial faith in a transcendent deity but much to do with "human self-assertion" and the desire to take control over one's own destiny. The Hegelian (and later Marxist) construction of an end of history is not a Heilsgeschichte that sees divinity breaking into history from the outside but is the outcome of purely immanent developments that can be either hastened or retarded by human activity.[65]

It should go without saying that Hegel was not a terrorist and should not be saddled with the tyrannical moralisms of both the left and the right. He even, arguably, sought to dampen the revolutionary spirit of his age by showing history to be a "slaughterbench" where heroic individuals invariably come to grief. Nevertheless, Hegel's ideas about the progressive character of revolutionary movements clearly resonate with certain of our leading beliefs about progress and modernization. Whereas the ancient Greeks spoke of revolutions as part of an endless cycle of nature doomed to eternal repetition over time, one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the belief that we are capable of breaking out of this cycle and creating something new. Certainly, the scientific, industrial, and political revolutions of the modern age have been thought of as evidence that humankind is awakening from its dogmatic slumber and rolling back the forces of ignorance and superstition. If we understand the Enlightenment to mean the ultimate triumph of reason over unreason, then it would seem that the Hegelian belief in the emergence of reason and freedom in history represents the culmination of the Enlightenment.

In the face of the experiences of the twentieth century it is difficult to retain anything of the Enlightenment's faith in history as the story of man's secular redemption. The Enlightenment's belief that advances in our scientific and technological rationality can bring about a "better world" has been all but relegated to the status of one of the self-consoling mythologies of the age. At the very least the belief that further advances in history will lead to the amelioration of human suffering has been massively contradicted by the experiences of Auschwitz and the Gulag. The chief task facing political theory today must be to keep alive some sense of the primacy of human rights and the dignity of the individual while resisting the temptations of a dynamic, teleological philosophy of history.

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