Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hegel, I Hardly Knew Ye


For most students of philosophy in English, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is a stern figure, as imposing as his name. Just to mention him calls to mind the cliché of the droning professor declaiming at his podium, indifferent to the students around.

From the little I had read of him up till now, my prejudices seemed confirmed. His lifeless academic prose, littered with uncommonly grotesque adjectives, was not the cheerful read I had been looking for. Nevertheless, something in the man's ideas kept me returning. Here was the intellectual father of Marx, and through him, much of the modern world. Here was the foe of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, the butt of their jokes and the bane of their envy. But, what was it that they envied?

For Schopenhauer it was certainly Hegel's overweening popularity. When the two were both lecturing in Berlin, Schopenhauer, the "philosopher of pessimism", set his hours at the same time as his rival, supremely self-confidant he would steal the spotlight. He repeatedly found himself in an empty lecture room and never tired of jabbing Hegel's corpse, who conveniently died soon after, his just complaint of Hegel's apotheosis to official state-philosopher notwithstanding.

Kierkegaard seems never to have read Hegel himself, but attacked him due to impressions gained from secondary reading. Though a master of irony, he failed to see any from his approach. Had he actually read Hegel, he would have found a writer every bit as comical and masterfully ironic as himself.

My guide through this metaphysical hell, the Virgil to my Dante if you will, was Walter Kaufmann in his wonderful, though now out of print book, “Hegel: A Reinterpretation”.

Kaufmann is best known today as the reviver and vindicator of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I must admit, this was not my first encounter with his work. However, Kaufmann, though a brilliant mind, left no immortal work behind him in and of its self, though a great illuminator of the immortal works of others. Did he agree with Nietzsche's comment on the “ant-like industry” of scholars? Did he see the irony in his own efforts? Or was he, like Kierkegaard, afflicted with the same myopia?

But of course that is not why one writes. Posterity is covetous of her opinion's, and we cannot put pen to paper with such a burden attending the composition of every sentence. One writes because one loves, and the speaking of that love is not enough, the world must hear of it and if not now then hereafter. The printed page is man's greatest testament to his loneliness.

A book may lay dormant for decades on a library shelf, its author of uncertain glory, its content even more uncertain, until a single soul snatches it out of purgatory and brings it into the light. Then, by that magic it takes hold of our imagination and introduces us to a larger universe. No book exists in isolation, all are in continuous conversation, a dialog of the mighty dead in endless concert like the invisible music of the spheres above. Sadly, there seems little music among the living for there is nothing that a human being might do that he will not be attacked for it. Should you suddenly shit gold there are those who will complain it lacks luster.

To write, or participate in any solitary creative endeavor, one must almost put on blinkers to keep out the invective of the critics. And if that is not bad enough, one must constantly struggle with that greatest of critics---the one inside your head.

Recently I had the unpleasant experience of posting to a forum, one that gave the appearance of a place of friendly debate. I was swiftly reminded that the bucolic ideal of Cicero's dialogs are about as far from reality as can be imagined. Since the days of the schools of classical Athens right through the middle ages and the University of Paris, arguments were rarely discussed calmly but in the pages of a book. Students often rose to such a clamor they took to the streets in gang warfare over the most trivial differences of opinion, and nothing short of the threat of military intervention could calm them down.

What a contrast with Professor Hegel one at first might think, but then I look again. “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” That was the surprising verdict of the cold dialectician I discovered in Kaufmann's book.

My heart warmed to him at once, and also at once I understood why Schopenhauer lectured to the walls alone.

Published in The Cheers, July 2008