Georg Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770. Intellectually he was adventurous, but in externals, respectable, conventional, and proud of it. He ascended the academic tree and reached the top most branch, head of the University of Berlin, when he was sixty years old; he died the following year. Hegel wrote some very long and very famous books, among them, “The Phenomenology of Spirit”, “The Science of Logic”, and “Elements of the Philosophy of Right”; but, we’ll be frank: he wrote horribly; his work is confusing and complicated when it should be clear and direct. He tapped into a weakness of human nature: to be trustful of grave-sounding, incomprehensible prose. This has made philosophy much weaker in the world than it should be, and it’s made it much harder for us to hear the valuable things that Hegel has to say to us, amongst which a small number of lessons stand out. Firstly, important part of ourselves can be found in history. In Hegel’s day, a standard European Way of looking at the past was to consider it as primitive, and to feel proud of how much progress has been made to get us to the modern age. But in his book, “The Phenomenology of Spirit”, published in 1807, Hegel argued that every era can be looked at as a repository of a particular kind of wisdom. This means we need to go back in time to rescue things which have gone missing. So, for example, we might need to mine history of ancient Greece to fully grasp the idea of what community can be, something which has been lost in the modern age. Or, the Middle Ages can teach us, as no other era can, about the role of honor, even if this period featured appalling attitudes to children or the rights of women. “Progress is never linear”, Hegel tells us; “there is wisdom at every stage”, “which”, says Hegel “points us to the task of the historian.” “To be a historian is to be someone who should rescue, from the past, those ideas that’re most needed” “to compensate for the blind spots of the present.” Secondly, learn from ideas you dislike. Hegel was a great believer in learning from one’s intellectual enemies, from points of view we disagree with, or that feel alien. That’s because he held, “the bits of the truth are always getting scattered even in unappealing, or peculiar places,” “and we should dig them out by asking always, ‘what sliver of sense and reason might be contained in otherwise frightening or foreign phenomena?'”. Nationalism, for instance, has had many terrible manifestations even in Hegel’s day, but Hegel’s move was to ask what underlying good idea or important need might be hiding within the bloody history of nationalism. He proposed that it’s the need for people to feel proud of where they come from, to identify with something beyond merely their own achievements, and to anchor their identities beyond the ego. Hegel is a hero of the thought that really important ideas may be in the hands of people you regard, at first glance, as beneath contempt. Thirdly, Progress is Messy Hegel believed the world makes progress, but only by lurching from one extreme to another. As it seeks to overcompensate for a previous mistake. He proposed that it generally take three moves. Before the right balance on any issue can be found. A process that he named the DIALEKTIK. He was often thinking of the complex twist and turns that brought about the modern state. We can also think the slow path towards sensible attitudes to sex in our own time. The Victorians impose too much repression, yet the 1960s may have turn out to be too liberal. It might only be by 2020s that we
ll find the right balance between extremes. All this can seem the most appalling waste of time, but Hegel insists that the painful stepping from era to era is inevitable. Something we must expect and reconcile ourselves to when planning our lives or contemplating history books. And sometimes in this process of moving from era to era well find a new solution, that manages to synthesize the good qualities of the previous solutions, to make something really new, and different and better. Four, Art has a purpose. Hegel vigorously rejected the idea of art for art sake. Painting, Music, Architecture, Literature and Design: all have a major job to do. We need them so that important insights can become powerful and helpful in our lives. Art is in Hegel
s formulation: "the sensuous presentation of ideas". Just knowing ideas often leaves us cold. for example in theory we believe the conflict in Syria is an important one. In practice however we just switch off. In principle we know we should be more forgiving to our partners, but this abstract conviction gets forgotten at the least provocation. The point of art Hegel realized, is not so much to come up with startling new strange ideas but to take the good, helpful, important thoughts we already think we know, and make them stick more imaginatively in our minds. Five. We need new institutions. Hegel took a very positive view of institutions and of the power then can wield. This is a point Hegel made again and again in different ways. For ideas to be active and effective in the world, a lot more is needed then the ideas are simply correct; to make major truths powerful in society they need employees and building and budgets and legal advices; institutions allow for the scale of time and power the big projects need to become effective in the world. So, as new needs of a society get recognized, they should ideally lead not just to new books but to the formation of new institutions. Nowadays we might say we need major new institutions to focus on relationships, consumer education, career choice, mood management and how to bring up less damaged children. Hegel help us to see valuable insights what we might initially resist them, in art in institutions in the ideas of our enemies and in the strange mistakes of the past. His insight is the growth requires that clash of divergent ideas and therefore that will be painful and slow. But at least once we know this we dont have to compound our troubles by thinking them abnormal. Hegel gives us a more accurate and hence more manageable view of ourselves, our difficulties and where we are in history.