Religion and Politics in the Philosophy of Hegel

  • Robert Gascoigne
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 105)


The fundamental theme of Hegel’s youthful writings is the attempt to discover the spiritual basis for authentic human community, conceived of as a revival of the immediate and beautiful unity of the Greek polis. Living in a Germany which still suffered from the backwardness imposed by the wars of religion, whose political institutions functioned to guarantee the atomistic rights of petty oligarchies rather than to develop any national political culture, Hegel saw the polis as a political form in which human activity in every sphere of cultural and economic life reflected a dedication to the spiritual value of the community itself, free of private interests and undisturbed by the imposition of a religious transcendence that could relate only to the personal soul. In Germany religion had acted to destroy political unity and to abolish ethical behaviour by enshrining specific dogma as the ultimate norm of each religious community’s allegiance: the only alternative to endless conflict had been to abandon national statehood by institutionalizing religious differences in a welter of small states.1 For Hegel, then, the task of reviving humane community depended fundamentally on developing a religious life that gave a spiritual basis to humane values rather than imposing transcendent, divisive norms.


Religious Community Ethical Life Christian Religion Secular World Absolute Freedom 
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  1. 1.
    S. Avineri, in his Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge, 1972) chapter 3, discusses Hegel’s analysis of the weaknesses that the Peace of Westphalia institutionalized in the life of the Holy Roman Empire. Hegel’s judgement of the Peance remained unaltered in his mature writings, cf. pp. 518–19 of the Philosophie der Geschichte, volume 12 of G.W.F. Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden, Theorie Werkausgabe (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1969), ed. E. Moldenhauer and K.M. Michel. All references to Hegel’s works, unless otherwise stated, are to this edition.Google Scholar
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    R. Plant, in his Hegel (London, 1973), p. 31, notes how Hegel’s sensitivity to Germany’s lack of a ‘mythology’ that could foster cultural community was maintained in his mature thought as a concern for the relationship between language and action. ‘It became one of his major preoccupations that conventional discourse has become abstract and one-dimensional to the extent that life has begun to outrun thought. The task of philosophy… was to develop a conceptual framework which would be capable of encapsulating the life of society, a framework which once shared would enable men to live at home in the world with one another.’Google Scholar
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    Hegel’s project of a new mythology that could unite reason and fantasy had much in common with the young Friedrich Schlegel’s ideas in his Rede über die Mythologie (1800), without, of course, there being any direct influence. For Schlegel also the task of mythology was to make possible a new richness of communication, but his emphasis was on its benefits to literature rather than to community. Beyond that, the study of ancient Oriental mythology could, for Schlegel, be the foundation of a new universal religion that could express the romantic desire for religious renewal. (Rede über die Mythologie in Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe, vol 2, edited by E. Behler.)Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 585. For K. Barth, in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (SCM, 1972), Hegel’s description of the necessary process of divine life, its self-externalization and recapture, could apply equally well to man and especially to human knowledge: ‘The self-movement of truth would have to be detached from the self-movement of man — and here it is equated with it with the utmost explicitness and rigour of logic — to be justly regarded as the self-movement of God.’ (p. 419) Hegel’s analysis makes God a prisoner of his own nature, so that revelation is no longer a free act, but a necessity which ultimately depends on man: ‘The finite consciousness, which partakes of revelation, thus shows itself as a motive power in the concept, in the process of God himself… I am necessary to God. That is the basis of Hegel’s confidence in God’, (p. 420)Google Scholar
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    Philosophie des Geistes, p. 358. For Hegel, the corruption of religion before the emergence of secular thought and freedom is not only an historical fact but also an inevitability: ‘Yet even though religion, in its own development, also develops the differentiation contained in the idea, so can — no must — its existence in its first immediate form be one-sided, and its life be corrupted to sensuous externality and further to the repression of the freedom of the spirit and the dislocation of political life’. (Ibid., p. 365.)Google Scholar
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    E. Fackenheim, in his The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought (Bloomington and London, 1967), notes that Hegel attempts to treat religion in two stages, its self-understanding as Vorstellung and the speculative interpretation of it by philosophy, yet the first stage is never extensively dealt with (p. 118). Further he discerns a contradiction in Hegel’s understanding of the relationship of religion to philosophy: ‘Either the representational form of religion is essential to its content and this is why philosophy requires religion (and the absolute philosophy the Christian religion) as necessary pre-supposition. But then how can philosophy transcend or transfigure the representational form without loss of the religious content? Or else philosophy does achieve its unprecendented feat: but then was not the representational form all along unessential to the religious content? And does not then philosophy presuppose religion, if at all, only per accidens?’ (p. 162)Google Scholar
  131. 130.
    In Gottesgedanke und menschliche Freiheit (Göttingen, 1972); p. 110.Google Scholar
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  134. 133.
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    For J.N. Shklar, in Freedom and Independence (Cambridge, 1976), ‘what matters is the contribution that the passions make to social life, and to Hegel it seemed evident that it was greater than that of reflective reason. It was thus specifically against Socrates and Kant that he argued when he claimed that a “passion, as for example, love, ambition, is the universal itself, as it is self-realizing not in perception, but in activity… For the individual the universal is his own interest”. (Geschichte der Philosophie I, 413) This is Hegel at his most radical. Not just subjectivity, rational or irrational, and not only the primacy of moral reason are at stake. The very structure of the individual psyche is here forced off the centre of the stage to be replaced by social rationality. It is the social function of passion and action that raises them above individual reason. Whatever the place of reflective reason may be in the individual soul, it does not inspire action. Moreover its divisiveness and its isolating force, as much as its passivity, render private reason socially irrational’. (p. 201)Google Scholar
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  149. 149.
    Ibid., para. 283.Google Scholar
  150. 150.
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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1985

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  • Robert Gascoigne

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