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

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