Hegel’s Odyssey

Geoffrey Hawthorn

Ottilie von Goethe recalled a lunch in Weimar in October 1827. Her father-in-law, as usual, had not bothered with the introductions.

Silent bows on both sides. During the meal Goethe was comparatively quiet. No doubt so as not to disturb the free speech of his very voluble and logically penetrating guest, who elaborated upon himself in oddly complicated grammatical forms. An entirely novel terminology, a mode of expression mentally overleaping itself, the peculiarly employed philosophical formulas of the ever more animated man in the course of his demonstrations – all this finally reduced Goethe to complete silence without the guest even noticing ... After the meal had ended and the guest departed, Goethe asked [Ulrike, Ottilie’s sister]: ‘Now, how did you like the man?’ ‘Strange,’ she replied, ‘I cannot tell whether he is brilliant or mad. He seems to me to be an unclear thinker.’ Goethe smiled ... ‘Well, well, we just ate with the most famous of modern philosophers – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.’

Hegel was certainly a celebrity. One of his reasons for being away then from Berlin was that in the previous August he’d been given a birthday party in the new Unter den Linden restaurant so extravagant as to cause the papers to devote more space to it than they had to the King’s. Friedrich Wilhelm, who clearly thought that he had more to do than, as Hegel had been saying, ‘dot the “i’s” ’, decreed that private parties were not henceforth to be reported. But Hegel had also been feeling unwell. He was 56; he’d been overworking; his teaching assistant had been imprisoned for ‘Bonapartist demagogy’, he had been accused of atheism, and fame had increased the correspondence he’d always disliked; moreover he was, he agreed, a hypochondriac. He was grateful for leave and a grant to travel.

Not a few of his new correspondents were writing to find out if they’d understood what they’d read. ‘I feel every year more inclined,’ he had written in 1811, ‘especially since my marriage, to make myself accessible.’ But it had been a long and unsuccessful struggle. ‘From my first effort at giving lectures in Jena,’ he later admitted, as the prospect appeared of returning to a university, ‘a prejudice against me has remained with respect to the freedom and clarity of my delivery’: when the call finally came to succeed Fichte at Berlin, he was asked to reassure the authorities there that he could be understood. Victor Cousin had declined, just a few weeks before the lunch at Goethe’s, to introduce him to an actress whose eyes he’d admired in Paris because, Cousin thought, she’d find his speech ridiculous. Ottilie von Goethe went on to recall how at tea, the day after the lunch, Hegel had persisted. Dialectic, he said, was ‘the methodically cultivated spirit of contradiction which lies within everyone as an innate gift and which is especially valuable for discerning truth from falsehood’. Goethe feared that such a skill might be used to turn falsehood into truth and truth into falsehood. Hegel said that this would be so only in the mentally deranged. Goethe retorted that he was ‘certain that many a dialectical affliction could find a cure in the study of nature.’

This was not a cure that Hegel had taken. It does so happen that the earliest in this selection of his letters, taken from the four volumes of letters to him as well as from him edited by Hoffmeister and Nicolin and published by Felix Meiner Verlag between 1952 and 1981, is one in which the 15-year-old boy explains that one can discover how insects breathe by covering their ventricles with varnish and seeing them die. But although, later, he did once think of giving demonstrations in physics, and always protested a respect for the natural sciences, he had long since committed himself to professional philosophy.

The commitment had not been immediate. Hegel despised the orthodox theology he’d had to study in Tübingen; he’d taken private tutorships in Bern and in Frankfurt to avoid going into the ministry; like Hölderlin, who was a close friend in the 1790s and had also been at the seminary, and like Fichte, who at the end of the decade produced A Clear as Day Report to the Wider Public on the Real Essence of the Latest Philosophy: an Attempt to Compel the Reader to Understand, he wanted to reach the people. From this latest philosophy, he told Schelling, who was five years younger and still at Tübingen, in 1795,

from the Kantian system and its highest completion, I expect a revolution in Germany ... I believe that there is no better sign of the times than this, that mankind is being presented as so worthy of respect in itself. It is proof that the aura of prestige surrounding the heads of oppressors and gods of this earth is disappearing. The philosophers are proving the dignity of man. The peoples will learn to feel it.

But a university was not the place from which to promote it. Fichte himself, for whom Kant had secured a chair at Jena in 1794, was a case in point. ‘Fichte grieves me,’ Hegel wrote again to Schelling:

beer glasses and the swordplay of ancient student custom have withstood the power of his spirit. Perhaps he would have accomplished more had he left them to their coarseness and aimed merely at drawing to himself a small, quiet, select group. Yet his and Schiller’s treatment at the hands of would-be philosophers is still shameful. My God, what letter-bound men, what slaves, still number among them!

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[*] See Robert Solomon’s In the Spirit of Hegel: A Study of G.W.F. Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, Oxford, New York, 646 pp., £25, 22 December 1983, 0 19 5013169 5. Michael Rosen’s more formal and admirably concise analysis of Hegel’s method, one of whose virtues is a review of the assessments that others have made of that method, one of whose arguments is that the method can’t be divorced from the content, and whose conclusion is that the method is untenable, has recently been reissued in paperback: Hegel’s Dialectic and its Criticism (Cambridge, 190 pp., £.6.95, 31 January, 0 521 31860 2).

[†] All existing editions of Hegel’s lectures have for understandable reasons conflated his own notes and those taken by his students (including in Berlin his son Karl), which were often written up and sold to others, and which Hegel himself sometimes bought to see what he’d managed to convey. But his conscientiousness in continually revising what he said is now revealed in a new edition of the lectures he gave in 1821, 1824, 1827 and 1831 on the then new subject of the philosophy of religion: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Peter Hodgson, Vol. I: Introduction and Concept of Religion, University of California Press, 494 pp., £.35.40, September 1984, 0 520 04676 5. Two more volumes are to follow.