G.W.F. Hegel has summarized much of his all-encompassing system of philosophy in the introduction to a series of lectures on world history. He sees an inevitable progress taking place through history: the coming-into-its-own of consciousness, which he also calls “spirit.” That word covers both the mind of the individual person and what we might call the “mind of an age,” which is the whole of what people think and value, as passed on and developed through culture (i.e., shared language, morality, science, art, religion and philosophy). The self-understanding of such spirit is liberating;, in that our realization that we are free (or can be free) actually makes us free! Just as a single human being progresses from childhood through youth to maturity, so, Hegel thinks, human cultures have progressed from what he calls the “Oriental world” through the Greek and Roman experiences and into the “Christian world,” by which he means medieval and modern Europe.
Hegel’s vision of the whole world developing toward freedom, rationality, and understanding was typical of one strain of nineteenth-century European thought. Today we might ask ourselves whether, in spite of a current appreciation of diversity, the world isn’t inevitably moving toward homogeneity, and if so, whether that homogeneity will embody the ideals which Hegel posited or some other conditions.
What socio/economic condition among the Greeks and Romans does Hegel cite as seeming to belie his thesis about progress toward freedom? How does he explain that such a practice lingered on even into the Christian world?
Universal history is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of what it [Spirit] potentially is. Just as the seed bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, including the taste and form of its fruit, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of its own history. The Orientals did not attain the knowledge that Spirit, in the form of mankind, is free. They only knew that “one is free.” But in those terms, the freedom of that one person was only caprice, whether exhibited as ferocity, a brutal recklessness of passion, or as mildness and tameness of the desires, either of which is merely an accident of nature. That “one” was thus only a despot, not a really free man. The consciousness of freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free, though they, just as the Romans, knew only that “some are free,” not man as such. Even Plato and Aristotle did not know that. Thus the Greeks had slaves, and the whole of their life and the maintenance of their splendid liberty was implicated with the institution of slavery. That fact, on the one hand, made their liberty only an accidental, transient and limited growth and, on the other hand, constituted it a rigorous thralldom of our common nature, i.e., of the human. The Germanic 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 Spirit’s essence. This consciousness arose first in religion, the most inward region of Spirit. But the introduction of the principle [of consciousness] into the various relations of the actual world has involved a more extensive problem than did its simple implantation [into the soul], a problem whose solution and application have required a severe and lengthened process of culture. In proof of this, we may note that slavery did not cease immediately on the reception of Christianity. Still less did liberty predominate in states or did governments and constitutions adopt a rational organization or recognize freedom as their own basis. The application of the principle to political relations and its thorough molding and interpenetration of the constitution of society is a process identical with history itself. . . . The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom. . . .
Translated by J. Sibree, adapted by Michael Neville
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