From Hegel to Hollywood

Few who sought to understand Hegel have got the gist of the Geist


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

From my window seat, where this essay is being written, my field of vision encompasses the flotsam of a shipwreck — the shipwreck of a self-destructive civilisation. Our sitting room has two lamps salvaged from a Viennese house designed by the Austrian architect Otto Wagner. The brass plate on the Bechstein piano proclaims its origin in Berlin. The library includes hundreds of books in German, including early editions of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).

That civilisational shipwreck was not only a human but also an intellectual disaster. It brought to an end the era, lasting from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries, during which the German-speaking world had achieved ascendancy in many fields of the sciences and humanities. Its twin poles of Berlin and Vienna had become places of pilgrimage for culturally curious Britons, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle to W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

One of the magnets of that curiosity was politics, especially political theory. From Immanuel Kant onwards, not only beer and sausages but books and ideas poured out of Germany, Europe’s battleground. The young Hegel glimpsed Napoleon in Jena — “the world spirit on horseback”.

The philosopher’s system would long outlive the emperor’s, but the time came when he, too, would be eclipsed. One of the foundational texts of the postwar era, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), took aim at Hegel as the ideologist of German nationalism, whose worship of the Prussian state had lent credibility to the Nazis. So vitriolic and unscholarly was the caricature that few today would defend it. It finished Hegel as a figure worthy of serious study for generations afterwards, though, at least in the by then dominant Anglophone world.

Only recently has a reappraisal of Hegel begun. It comes in the wake of a great deal of scholarship to establish more reliable texts, both in the original and in translation. Because much of the oeuvre consists of posthumously published lectures, compiled from students’ notes, this required even more detective work than usual. It emerged that the Hegelian editors — “friends of the departed” as they described themselves on the title pages — had in some cases introduced ideas of their own.

For the celebrated description in the Lectures on Aesthetics (1818–29) of Goethe’s Faust as “the absolute philosophical tragedy”, we have to thank not Hegel at all, but his disciple Heinrich Gustav Hotho. The posthumous falsification of Hegel’s ideas did not extend as far as in the notorious case of Friedrich Nietzsche and his sister, but it nevertheless turned him into a far more systematic thinker than he ever was.

Hegel’s range was indeed encyclopaedic, but his was always an evolving work in progress. Right up to his sudden death in the cholera epidemic of 1831, Hegel was acting as world history’s judge and jury on, for example, the July Revolution of 1830 and the Great Reform Bill that was gaining rapid ground. Many have sought to understand the world according to Hegel; beginning with Karl Marx, most have decided that the point is to change it. Few, if any, have got the gist of the Geist.

Hegel’s World Revolutions, Richard Bourke (Princeton University Press, £25)

Until now, that is. In Hegel’s World Revolutions, Richard Bourke offers a major re-evaluation of not only Hegel’s philosophy of history but also the history of his philosophy. It is exhilarating to find a leading scholar, whose life’s work has been rooted in the calmer waters of the English-speaking tradition, launching himself deep into the ocean of German political thought.

As the author of Empire and Revolution: A Political Life of Edmund Burke, Bourke brings a great deal of Burkean insight to this endeavour. Burke saw in history “a great volume … unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind”.

Hegel thought that man had hitherto never learned anything from history. Bourke defines the Hegelian method as “combining historical reconstruction with conceptual discrimination”, drawing comparisons both “trans-temporal and inter-continental” and ensuring that progress is always also preservation.

Hegel, he reminds us, was the first to recast history as the story of freedom, of universal self-discovery and liberation from human bondage. In order to comprehend the global significance of the French Revolution (1798–99), Hegel traversed the entire history of humanity in search of precedents — and he found them: in the “world revolutions” of Bourke’s title.

Some Like It Hot filmmaker Billy Wilder was part of Hollywood’s Viennese diaspora

These were not sudden political upheavals, but gradual transitions: from the Oriental empires to the Ancient Greeks, then to the Romans, and finally to the “Christian Revolution” that ushered in the modern era. That era was itself a dialectical process, from feudalism to absolutism, enlightenment and the epochal cascade of events since 1789. We owe to Hegel the notion that each period has its own spirit, or Zeitgeist, manifested in every aspect of culture, religion and politics. He repurposed a phrase of Friedrich Schiller: Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht (“World history is the last judgement”).

For his mid-20th century critics, it was a short step from “Hail, Hegel” to “Heil, Hitler”. Yet, as Bourke observes, Hegel himself was a liberal, even if no democrat. He toasted the Revolution on Bastille Day and (initially) even Napoleon, who finished off German feudalism. Like Burke, however, Hegel was appalled by the Terror of 1793–94. What Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Jacobin progeny had unleashed was not “absolute freedom”, but “Tyranny, despotism under the mask of freedom and equality”.

Hegel’s culmination of world history was something of an anti-climax, namely die bürgerliche Gesellschaft (“civil society”). In such a bourgeois milieu, the individual and the state are both given their due, under the benign Polizei (which in his day embraced both “police” and “policy”) of the administrative or “universal” class. We may shudder at this apotheosis of the Prussian bureaucrat, but Hegel saw the impartiality of the civil service as justification for its remuneration by taxation.

It was Hegel who developed Kant’s insight into the “unsocial sociability” of mankind. In Michael Sonenscher’s multifaceted and magisterial study, Hegel’s civil society serves as the fulcrum for a pan-European debate that embraced the Roman and German legal traditions, public finance and much of modern political thought. Sonenscher is more comfortable with texts in French than in German, but he brings a fresh perspective to them all.

After Kant: The Romans, the Germans, and the Moderns in the History of Political Thought, Michael Sonenscher (Princeton University Press, £45)

After Kant constructs an exhilarating edifice of intellectual history that resists any attempt at condensation. Sonenscher includes as an appendix a letter of 1861 by Lord Acton which reads, he claims, like an “executive summary” of his own subject matter. I am not sure what Acton’s “rhapsody” has to do with Sonenscher’s argument, but it concludes with these luminous words: “All liberty is conditional, limited and therefore unequal. The state can never do what it likes in its own sphere. It is bound by all kinds of law.” This, perhaps, is what Hegel envisaged in his civil society.

Hegel’s most famous passage comes in the Philosophy of Right (1820), where he reflects on evanescence: “When philosophy paints her grey in grey, then has a form of life become old, and with grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only understood; the owl of Minerva begins her flight only with the gathering dusk.” Casting his dialectical spell over the Germans, this Professor Dumbledore of Berlin sent forth his owls to the corners of the earth. There was, however, another intellectual tradition which reacted against the German idealism that began with Kant.

This alternative school of thought merged in Vienna. The Habsburgs had lost the German power struggle when Bismarck trounced them in 1866, but in the subsequent decades the Austrian capital’s rival matrix of culture more than held its own. The subtitle of Vienna, Richard Cockett’s magnificent new book, admirably adumbrates his thesis: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World.

If Bourke’s rehabilitation of Hegel’s paean to liberty evokes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Sonenscher’s political polyphony resembles Tallis, then Cockett’s Vienna reminds me of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand.

Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World, Richard Cockett (Yale University Press, £25)

It is no easy matter to say something original about a subject so well trodden, but Cockett has triumphantly succeeded. Rather than concentrating on the fin de siècle, he focuses on the “Red Vienna” of the 1920s and its losing battle against the Austro-fascists and Nazis. This “Black Vienna” has only recently come under scrutiny for, for example, the “Bears’ Den” of anti-Semitic professors who covertly excluded Jews and women from academic posts. The statue of Hitler’s hero Karl Lueger, the mayor who mobilised political anti-Semitism, still stands.

These ghouls scuttled the ship of civilisation in Mitteleuropa. Against them, Cockett champions Vienna’s open society of empiricists and engineers, who ranged from the robustly liberal to the pragmatically socialist. A third of the book is devoted to the Viennese diaspora, whose genius transformed everything from kitchen design and psychotherapy to advertising and publishing. His book sent me scurrying off to watch High Noon (1952) and Some Like It Hot (1959) to learn how Vienna transformed Hollywood.

To understand Hegel, you must read Bourke. For the grand sweep of European ideas, try Sonenscher. For sheer intellectual delectation, though, Cockett goes down like a Wiener Kaffee mit Schlagobers und Sachertorte — only without the indigestion.

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