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Eleven Hegel and the French Revolution: An Epitaph for Republicanism
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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.

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Eleven Hegel and the French Revolution: An Epitaph for Republicanism
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