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Hegel and the national heritage

In Hegel’s political theory the state is seen not only as an instrument of legal power, but also as the embodiment of a national heritage. Interestingly, theorists like Hobbes, Locke, and Bentham were able to talk of states and government as if they bore no relation to particular countries. A citizen’s loyalty is, in fact, seldom to the state as an institution. Most people pledge and give their allegiance to the country of their birth or adoption regardless of the political system that country might have.

It is only the exceptional person who will quit his native land because he finds its exercise of political power unbearable: the vast majority would find the severing of national roots even more unbearable. A theory of politics, therefore, must acknowledge that in most cases state and nation are conjoined. It is the state which ultimately acts in the nation’s name, and it draws on national sentiment as its primary source of power. All states, no matter what institutional or ideological colors they may wear, are obliged to pay deference to national traditions and national aspirations.

Even purportedly universal ideologies like fascism and communism must make concessions to the peculiar national sentiments they encounter throughout the world. On the other side of the coin, if a political movement makes a point of demonstrating its patriotic motives, it may gain freedom of action to bring about important institutional changes under the guise of enhancing the national interest. Hegel emphasizes the power of national loyalty by talking of the nation as if it were an individual.

It is, he suggests, an organism with an explicit life of its own: Each particular National genius is to be treated as only one individual in the process of Universal History. For that history is the exhibition of the divine, absolute development of spirit in its highest forms– that gradation by which it attains its truth and consciousness of itself. The forms which these grades of progress assume are the characteristic “National Spirits” of History; the peculiar tenor of their moral life of their Government, their Art, Religion, and Sciences.

The idea of a “national spirit” is a controversial one. As a figure of speech, one can say that America is generous, Germany is industrious, and France is amorous. But Hegel means a great deal more than this. First of all, he intends to say that “national spirit,” as it is found in each country, is real. It is not a metaphor, nor is it just a shorthand device for making a complicated point in a simple way. The spirit or genius of a nation is no less real than the Idea of which it is an expression.

Furthermore, the national spirit is the best place to observe the unfolding of the Idea in the actual world: the stages of development attained by a nation’s art, religion, and science are the clearest manifestation of its progress through history. To speak of a nation as if it were a person is to show that it has a capacity for self-consciousness and growth: men and nations both stand in integral relation to the Idea, and they participate in its workings through the dialectic.

In the Philosophy of Right, and in far greater detail in the Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel argues that the network of governmental institutions of the state– its constitution– is typically a product of history and expresses the culture of a particular nation– its values, religious beliefs, views about the world, traditions and customs. That culture, or “spirit”, of the nation permeates also the human relations and gives the whole unity and cohesion.

The values of the national community and the operation of its central government are linked together through mediating institutions, such as corporations, estates and the representative system, which ensure that the activities of the government broadly express the basic ideals and interests of groups within the community or its individual members. If such mediating links do not exist or cease to perform their proper function the nation or its important sections become alienated from the government and the integrity or independence of the political community is jeopardized.

The constitution is thus the mechanism which in practice ensures the identity of the national spirit with the attitudes and actions of the multitude of groups and individuals comprising a nation. In this respect Hegel believed that the modern monarchial state of his time had an advantage over earlier political communities because it linked the individual to the community in an organized institutionalized way while, for example, the ancient republics relied mainly on non-institutional factors (i. e. , sentiment, character and education).

Hegel’s concept of nationhood, unlike that of the contemporary German Romantics, is thus heavily political in nature. Pure culture or common ethnic and linguistic characteristics are not, in his view, sufficient by themselves to weld a large human group into a nation and to provide a firm focus of loyalty; only the possession of a common government and the tradition of political unity can do so. This theme is particularly strongly stressed in the first of Hegel’s political writings, on the constitution of the German Empire.

A nation, then, is an institutional complex and it is also an idea. “It is a Spirit having strictly defined characteristics, which erects itself into an objective world, that exists and persists in a particular religious form of worship, customs, constitution, and political laws– in the whole complex of its institutions– in the events and transactions that make up its history,” Hegel says. “That is its work– that is what this particular Nation is. Nations are what their deeds are. ” Nations and national sentiment are real.

At the current stage of historical development the nation-state is the political expression of the Idea. Some may argue that nationalism is outmoded: that it may once have served its purpose, but that an international spirit is now needed if the world is to survive in peace. We see this in the speeches of President Clinton, and from many foreign leaders the world over. Hegel does not anticipate such an argument, nor does he -offer a direct reply to it. What he does try to do is to show how a sense of nationhood has a rational basis in the political life.

Men are forever in search of identity. The problem concerned both Rousseau and Burke: one offered for an answer the democratic community; the other’s solution was a stratified society. In each of these every citizen would have an acknowledged place, and all could feel themselves to be integral parts of an organic whole. Rousseau called for active participation in a small and homogenous community setting. Burke asked that the classes and order of society be fixed by tradition and preserved by custom. Both of these prescriptions, however, are ill suited to the real world that Hegel sees.

Men cannot maintain the aristocratic social pattern in the face of historical progress. The trend, on the contrary, is for greater social mobility and a breakdown of the ancient institutions on which Burke relied. Identity can no longer be found in the traditional class memberships of an earlier age: men move too rapidly and develop aspirations which transcend the stations they once accepted without question. Nor is Rousseau’s image of sturdy peasants under an oak a viable solution in an age when great nation-states are the principal political units.

There is no returning to government by town meeting and direct democracy. While Hegel is prepared to use, in the Idea, a conception similar to the General Will, he finds Rousseau’s institutional arrangement inadequate. Our era is the era of the large nation-state, and it is best to make the most of this situation. Personal identity, Hegel says, can be found by accepting the nation as a fact. Once this is done, then national citizenship can impart to men the feeling of identification they continually seek:

The State, its laws, its arrangement, constitute the rights of its members; its natural features, its mountains, air, and water, are their country, their fatherland, their outward material property; the history of this state, their deeds; what their ancestors have produced, belongs to them and lives in their memory. All is their possession, just as they are possessed by it; for it constitutes their existence, their being…. It is this matured totality which constitutes One Being, the spirit of One People.

To it the individual members belong; each unit is the Son of his Nation…. The relation of the individual to that spirit is that he appropriates to himself this substantial existence; that it becomes his character and capability, enabling him to have a definite place in the world– to be something. For he finds the being of the people to which he belongs an already established, firm world– objectively present to him– with which he has to incorporate himself. the identification of a citizen with his country takes various forms.

If the German wears his love of Fatherland on his sleeve, the Dane or the Norwegian tends to display his affection in a manner which is more subdued. But all men need such a feeling of identity. And because other loyalties are inadequate to this task, participation in the national spirit comes to play an indispensable role in men’s lives. The desire to be something can be filled if a man can say, “I am an American,” or “I am a Canadian. ” to be sure, men have other allegiances: religious, regional, economic, and so forth. But these are again and again seen to be subordinate in character.

Men are born into a nation: “an already established, firm world. ” That so many men will fight and die for it, their country right or wrong, is overpowering evidence that this is their ultimate loyalty. Pleas that international attachments– to religious or political movements– be given higher priority in the final analysis fall on deaf ears. Men may be Roman Catholic or Socialists, but they are also Frenchmen or Chinese. They will subordinate and transform their religion and politics so as to be consonant with their national sentiments.

International movements which are successful understand these imperatives, and they allow such adjustments to be made. There are always exceptional individuals who can live as men without a countries. But for all who claim such independence, when a genuine test of loyalty comes, only a few are willing to act on it. Hegel’s theory applies to the vast majority: the ordinary citizens who derive a sense of kinship, self-esteem, and belonging from their national citizenship. The politics of nationalism, Hegel would agree, are irrational.

But history has placed us in the age of nationalism, and the cunning of reason turns national sentiment in progressive directions. It may even impel war and destruction, and so bring in a new era of international peace and global loyalty; but Hegel does not venture such speculation, and he contends himself with analyzing what he sees. However, the very idea of nationalism is a curious one even on Hegel’s own terms. Loyalty to a small and homogenous community, as expressed by Plato and Rousseau is understandable and plausible.

Each member knows his fellow citizens, and each can understand the workings of the political process at first hand. And if Buke’s society is larger, each individual nevertheless lives in a fixed class or order where he too understands his role in the political life. The modern nation-state is not only large, but the experience of its growth weakens the loyalties to lesser associations. A society which was once comprised of a plurality of traditional groups is gradually transformed into a mass of individuals. This was Burke’s great fear, and it underlays his critique of liberalism.

Hegel seeks to avoid the damage which a mass society inflicts on the individual personality by encouraging a sense of national loyalty in all who reside inside the territorial boundaries. This will give the feeling of identity and belonging which the nation-state itself was so instrumental in breaking down. Loyalty is not to a class or a locality, because these ties are no longer meaningful, but is now to the nation as a whole. The problem is that many millions of men do not constitute a community in the traditional sense: Plato and Rousseau knew this and they purposely imposed conditions having to do with size.

A modern nation-state is simply too large for its members to know one another on a personal basis. And, what is more important, it is impossible for citizens to participate in– or even understand– the making of laws and the administration of justice. The larger a society is, the more individuals must gain their image of political reality at second or third hand: leaders must arise to inform them about the needs of the nation and to instruct the ordinary citizens on their roles in securing national goals.

The spirit of nationalism can result in strong loyalties to the state, but these loyalties are rendered to an institution which the citizen sees at a distance and which he knows only through the reports of others. For this reason the perception of political reality can be a distorted one: the average man must rely on the information which is given to him, and these communications may be manipulated in order that particular ends will be achieved.

And if each citizen’s loyalty is primarily to the nation or state, rather than to lesser associations in society, then the population becomes all the more dependent on strong and centralized leadership. In short, the national tie is the only which remains: if it is not exploited, then the body of citizens will form a fragmented and aimless mass. Yet if the spirit of nationalism is invoked and used as a solidifying instrument there is the possibility that an easily led population will be mobilized for purposes of war and aggression.

Most political theorists have no small fears of a mass society and leadership which plays on irrational sentiments. Yet the solutions offered are impracticable: Rousseau’s small community of sturdy peasants and Burke’s stratified society of orders and classes both lie in the past rather than the future. The large nation-state to which other social institutions are subordinated is the pattern at present. Hegel realizes that the exploitation of nationalist sentiment carries risks: he is not unaware of the fact that nationalism can be a destructive as well as a constructive force in men’s lives.

In his discussion of political institutions he searches for ways and means of curbing the excesses of political irrationality. The problem is to accept the existence of the national spirit, to channel it, and to harness its energy. Whether this tremendous ferment, once unleashed, can be kept under control is one of the great political challenges of our times. Modern man must possess a sense of national identity if he is to have that minimum security which makes life bearable. Yet to rely on the spirit of nationalism is to play with fire: at one moment it gives a comfortable warmth; and at another it destroys all it touches.

The rise and fall of nations is the pattern of political history. A state is fulfilling its appointed role when it displays a sense of direction and mission. All nations are born in war or revolution: they all emerge from the struggle between thesis and antithesis. As the turmoil and shouting dies, as the emergency synthesis consolidate its gains into a new thesis, the state may begin to rest on its laurels. The contradictions between its potential, subjective being– its inner aim and life– and its actual being is removed; it has attained full reality, has itself objectively present to it.

But this having been attained, the activity displayed by the spirit of the people in question is no longer needed; it has its desire. The Nation can still accomplish much in war and peace at home and abroad; but the living substantial soul itself may be said to have ceased its activity. The essential, supreme interest has consequently vanished from its life, for interest is present only where there is opposition. Just as Hegel showed a preference for the tempestuous Hero, so he shows a partiality for the tumultuous nation.

The revolutionary epoch, when the national potential blossoms into actuality, is when the spirit of the people is at its finest hour. At that moment citizens are infused with their national character and they are at one with the spirit which embraces themselves and their fellow countrymen. Once the revolution has been consolidated, however, decay begins almost imperceptibly to set in. New habits and customs mingle those which survived the struggle, and a quietude settles over the land. Men become content with what they have, and they begin to take their national identity for granted.

They may still be militarily strong and materially prosperous, but they look backward to their heritage rather than foreword to their destiny. Generations may go by without challenge to the prevailing order: if an antithesis is growing, which it has to be, it is developing slowly and unnoticed by a somnolent population. The great enemy of national progress, Hegel says, is custom. While St. Thomas and Burke welcomed settled patterns of social intercourse, Hegel sees them as signs that a society is played out. Men and nations who live by custom are, although they do not realize it, already relics of the past.

Custom is activity without opposition, for which there remains only a formal duration; in which the fulness(sic) and zest which originally characterized the aim of life are out of the question– a merely external sensuous existence which has ceased to throw itself enthusiastically into its object. Thus perish individuals, thus perish peoples by a natural death; and though the latter may continue in being, it is an existence without intellect or vitality; having no need of its institutions, because the need for them is satisfied– a political nullity and tedium.

Tedium and death are the eventual fate of all nations. Some, by their vigor and good fortune, will have a longer life than others, but all are subject to the laws of the dialectic. Custom does not challenge itself: it is opposed by forces outside the consensus. Internal revolutionary movements or external aggressors will bring down a state which no longer has the will to survive. The people and the territory are consumed in the dialectical onrush of a new political force. There may be death, but there will never be total destruction.

The vanquished will transmit a portion of their civilization and customs to the victors and in so doing plant the seeds of a new decay. Ideas and institutions carry on from epoch to epoch: nations live and die, but the dialectic counts its losses and moves on. The death of nations can be a mortal blow to the citizens who depend on the vitality of the national spirit. If a nation ceases to act with passion and vigor, if its enthusiasm for a national mission wanes over time, then it is robbing its countrymen of the will to exist which they so stand in need of.

If a nation is dispirited, then the men will fail to rise to the common defense; or they may even emigrate to another soil. In either case, the toll will be a heavy one for the dejected and uprooted. The only solution, Hegel says, is that a new national spirit must rise from the decayed ruins of the old. In order that a truly universal interest may arise, the spirit of a People must advance to the adoption of some new purpose; but whence can this new purpose originate?

It would be a higher, more comprehensive conception of itself– a transcending of its principle– but this very act would involve a principle of a new order, a new National Spirit. This, of course, is easier said than done. It is clear that nations such as Sweden and Spain will never again rise to the heights of national grandeur they once knew. Yet a country like Germany, after ignominious defeat in 1918 and harrowing inflation in the 1920’s, was able to adopt a new sense of purpose and a new conception of order under a new regime in the 1930’s, and they managed to accomplish it again following their defeat in the 1940’s.

The rebirth of national spirit may take not a decade but many centuries. Both Egypt and China, after more than a thousand years on the sidelines of history, have become national forces to be reckoned with. In the case of China a new mission– “Marxism” has conjoined with emerging national power. Hegel, who opens his Philosophy of History with a description of the past glories of the Oriental world, would probably applaud the new spirit of the Chinese people as their nation advances to the adoption of a new sense of purpose.

Hegel’s theory is a radical one: it welcomes change and it sees struggle as the necessary condition of progress. The Hero and the nation-state, both instruments of energy and activity, are the central actors on his stage. So long as they are in motion and not at rest, they are bringing to human politics the principles inherent in the Idea. At the same time, the theory has the appearance of a conservative statement: it endows with moral authority the political conditions which exist at any given point and time.

Men and nations are not called upon to choose between two alternative paths of action, because it is assumed that they will pursue their irrational and self-interested ways despite the exhortations addressed to them. Yet if Hegel is a conservative, he is a conservative with a difference. While he applauds power and authority, they may inhere in a revolutionary movement no less than in an established state. There is no celebration of custom and habit, and the Heroes who are extolled are not noted for their wisdom or virtue.

Furthermore, the dialectic itself defies the premise that there can be such a thing as a status quo: there is only ceaseless change, although it may be at work deep beneath the surface. In the final analysis, Hegel’s theory is radical or conservative depending the uses to which it is put: on the time and place at which it is applied, and on the situation of the men who are wont to invoke it. In this case, however, it is ideology rather than political theory: a rationalization for national power which seeks to grow more powerful or for incipient power which claims to represent a new political order.

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