JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter XIV.
Hegelism and Literature.

PERVADING the Relativism of Comte and Herbert Spencer, there is the Absolutism of the age, which also has its advocates. Hegel is the philosopher of the Absolute. To understand his philosophical position rightly, we must glance at the history of modern philosophy in Germany.

Kant is the founder of modern Transcendentalism. He taught that we can only know phenomena, that the noumenon or essence is beyond our knowing, that time and space are mere subjective conditions of thinking. He created an abyss between the metaphysical reason and the practical reason, and then attempted to reconcile them over the chasm. Upon his principles there was no reconciliation. In throwing the shadow of skepticism upon metaphysical truth, in spite of his protests, he rendered moral truth no less uncertain, and soon found disciples who were more logical than he. Fichte destroyed all objectivity, and, as we have seen, basing knowledge upon the Ego -- das Ich -- self, -- he found himself incompetent to assert more than his own identity, accepted the situation, and settled himself into the conviction that the external world was only a projection of the Ego, that it received its shaping from the Ego, as a liquid from the vessel in which it is placed; and he thus ended in subjective pantheism. Schelling is known as the philosopher of nature. He conceived all things absorbed in one infinite substance, asserted universal identity, and thus ended in objective pantheism. In identifying liberty with necessity, he almost effaces the moral problem. Art is practically the summit of his system.

Then came Hegel. He taught that all nature, both the material and spiritual world, is a manifestation of the Idea which he calls reason -- Vernunft -- in philosophy, and the world-spirit -- Welt-Geist -- in history. "Reason . . . is substance as well as infinite power, its own infinite material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the infinite form, that which sets this material in motion."{1} That is, Hegel's Idea is his God. It is an absolute, impersonal, progressive, and ever-progressing Being, with progress for its law, and freedom for its essence and aim. This is not the God of revelation, the God of Christianity. He is a personal God, having Himself for His own law, His own end and aim. An impersonal God is no God. It is a mistaken notion to consider personality as limiting. It only distinguishes, characterizes. St. Thomas calls it that which is most perfect in all nature;{2} and Boëtius defines it as the individual substance of a rational nature.{3} In finite beings it is accompanied with the idea of limitation. In the infinite Being it is the completion of His nature. A God with an incomplete and imperfect nature is no God. That which is capable of increase or diminution is not infinite. Thus the Hegelian God is an idol of Hegel's own making.

History, according to Hegel, is the progress of humanity towards freedom. The essence of human progress he holds to be the clearer manifestation of the world-spirit. But the essence of spirit is freedom, pure freedom, potentially; actually, freedom cramped by contingencies. Therefore, to use his own language, "universal history is the manifestation of spirit in the process of working out that which it is potentially."{4} The people of the East knew only one free person; they were all his slaves. Pagan Greece and Rome realized the fact that some were free; but they held slaves, and this marred their civilization. But Christianithy taught for the first time to the Aryan race that all men were free; that not one or some, but all, stood in the image of their Creator, equal before him in their nature and essence. This is the drift of Hegel's argument. "The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness that man as man is free; that it is the freedom of spirit which constitutes its essence. The consciousness arose first in religion, the inmost region of spirit."{5} Freedom, then, is the aim of humanity. This is the focus towards which all nations converge. Freedom, and not lawlessness. Hegel makes the distinction; for he states to the effect that true freedom consists in the harmony between reason and the objective restraint of the law; that is, reason sees such restraint to be good and wholesome, and accordingly submits.

Here is a bond of union for all the elements of society. Every man, be he Pagan or Christian, loves freedom, seeks it if he has it not, and having it, rejoices in its possession. It ennobles life. It is one of the greatest blessings the individual can have. Beneath its invigorating influence, his whole nature expands into twofold energy. But before men unite, they must know why they are to make freedom the aim of their existence; for freedom is not a final cause. We are free for a purpose -- that we may the better perform the functions of life. Are these functions to be performed for life's sake, or for an hereafter? In Hegel's philosophy, we are parts of the great whole -- the all-absorbing Absolute, necessitated by our nature to seek freedom for freedom's sake, and for the benefit of those coming after us; and, after our share of the work shall have been accomplished, we will be merged into the primordial substance whence we emanated. Our reason tells us differently. Hegel has solved the easy part of the problem of existence, and therefore his philosophy is fragmentary; and the philosophy that grasps not the whole meaning of life is necessarily false. "To forget in this life the care of the future, which is inseparably united with a Divine Providence, and to be content with a certain inferior grade of natural right, which an atheist can also hold, is to mutilate science in its most beautiful parts, and destroy many good actions." It is Leibnitz who so speaks.

Though Hegel comes nearest to the solution of the great difficulty of modern times, still he stops short of the real aim of life, and for substantial realities would give us empty phantoms. He, as well as Comte and Herbert Spencer, ignores the most strongly attested principles of thought and existence, and heeds not the loudest asseverations of human nature concerning its future destiny, the immortal spark that gives it life, and the personal God from whom it came. This doctrine of indefinite progressiveness and of instinctive finality, by which all nature, under the impulse of the Idea, tends to perfection, has no foundation in reason. For how can nature proceed towards an end it knows not? -- As well might you say it can see by a light that does not exist. The philosophy of the indefinite can give only a literature of the indefinite. Its key-note is the vague. Aspirations unfulfilled, yearnings unsatisfied, life without a purpose: these are the normal themes of such a literature. If the Hegelian refuses to consider the indefinite future, and confines himself to the Idea animating society and constructing history, he can find no ideal beyond the actual world in which we live and move. A critic of Hegel has well remarked: "The philosophy of the Absolute in Hegel does not recognize the true ideal. The ideal for him is simply reality. The world is the system of ideas eternally developed by dialectics. There is to be found no practical ideal, no moral ideal."{6} The logical outcome of Hegelism from this point of view is realism in literature, and realism is the bane of literature. A philosophy in its fundamental principle purely dialectic must needs induce reaction, and Hegelism is no exception. The reactionary phase most destructive of thought and aspiration is Pessimism. Let us consider its nature and its influence.

{1} "Durch die spekulative Erkenntniss in ihr wird es erweisen, dass die Vernunft -- bei diesem Ausdrucke können wir heir sethen bleiben, ohne die Bezeihung und das Verhältniss zu Gott naher zu erörtern -- die Substans wie die unendlich Macht, sich selbst der unendliche Stoff alles natürlichen und geistigen Lebens, wie die unendliche Form, die Bethätigung dieses ihres Inhalts ist." -- Phil. der Geschichte, Einleitung, s. 12; Hegel's Werke, 9ter Band.

{2} Respondeo dicendum quod personal significat id quod perfectissimum est in tota natura; scilicet subsistens in rationali natura. Summa, i, i., quaest xxix, art. iii.

{3} Persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia. This definition St. Thomas adopts. Ibid. art. i.

{4} In diesem Sinne können wir sagen, dass die Weltgeschichte, die Darstellung is, wie der Geist zu dem Bewusstsein dessen kommt, was er an sich bedeutet. -- Phil. der Geschichte, Einleitung.

{5} "Erst die germanischen Nationen sind im Christenthume zum Bewusstsein gekommen, dass der Mensch als Mensch frei, die Freiheit des Geistes, seine eigenste Natur ausmacht; diess Bewusstsein ist zuerst in der Religion, in der innersten Region des Geistes aufgegangen." -- Ibid. Einleitung, Seit 23.

{6} Harms, Die Philosophie seit Kant, p. 434.

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