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Hegel, History and Spirit

Another romantic was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He saw history as moving through a conflict of ideas. He believed in change as a result of opposing forces, and after his death in 1831 students in Germany picked up on Hegel's idea of change to the annoyance of government authorities. The authorities were worried that they were interpreting Hegel's change to include political change, a threat to their authority. Government officials began interfering in academia and spying on students. One among the students influenced by Hegel that they spied upon was Karl Marx.

Hegel was born 48 years before Marx, a different generation from Marx, and unlike Marx he was romantic in his belief in great men moving history – men like Napoleon, whom he admired. Like other romantics of his day, Hegel viewed art as an expression of freedom and nature as spirit, and he saw the world developing in spirit and freedom in stages.

Hegel saw ideas as connected to historical context. Ideas were significant insofar as they were antithetical to other ideas, and the change that Hegel believed in was the result of this clash of ideas, a clash that produced what he described as a "synthesis" and progress.

Hegel believed in specifics and scientific fact. But he went beyond this in his belief in development to an absolute, an end, an ultimate and God. The ultimate for him was a God created political arrangement created by history: his beloved country, Prussia.

There were those who believed that designating Prussia as the ultimate in political perfection was premature. But some saw Hegel as also having created a useful way of looking at the world. The 21st century sociologist Francis Fukuyama described Hegel as having contributed to an understanding of humanity by describing humanity as having progressed through a series stages. Writes Fukuyama:

Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed "natural" attributes.

Hegel quotes:

As for the individual, every one is a son of his time.
                 (Preface to the Philosophy of Right)

I saw the Emperor [Napoleon] – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.
           (Letter to Niethammer, 13 October 1806)


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