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!
Nevertheless, Schelling himself went to a chair in the subject at Jena in 1798, and although Fichte was fired from his a year later for atheism and for his exuberant support of the Jacobin cause, Hegel decided to follow. As he wrote again to Schelling, in 1800, he’d decided that he did after all want to do philosophy: ‘in my scientific development, which started from [the] more subordinate needs of man, I was inevitably driven towards science, and the ideal of [my] youth had to take the form of reflection and thus at once of a system.’ A small inheritance from his father freed him to try.
Hegel and his friends took it for granted, as did Fichte, that Kant had superseded what they now called ‘pre-critical’ philosophy. But Kant himself had written a less purely critical third Critique. In this, as Robert Solomon describes it in an accessible and entertaining new study of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kant had returned to nature ‘not as the phenomenal world of the understanding and the causal laws of Newton’s physics, but as the “supersensible” universe as a whole, beyond the bounds of our concepts ... as infinity, the Absolute.‘It is here,’ Solomon continues, ‘that Kant argues, as he had not in the first Critique, that the world must rationally be believed to be purposive, to be ordered, to be harmonious, even if we could never’ – in the sense he’d defended in his first Critique – actually ‘know this.’ To the younger philosophers, however, it was intolerable that what was believed to be the case could not be shown to be so. Hegel himself soon decided that the absolute was the whole and the whole the true; that since it was harmonious, and without internal contradiction, and since it was absolute, and so without external contradiction too, it was rational, and accessible to reason; that rationally to comprehend it was not only to comprehend it but actually to realise the rationality in it; and that the dialectic, ‘the consciousness of the form’, as he put it later, ‘of the inner self-movement of the content of thought’, in which everything that was merely finite was ‘negated’ and transcended and yet, even to the point of full knowledge of the absolute, preserved in its finitude, was the way in which to do so. The knowing subject would thereby come to know being, Dasein, in and not merely for itself, and come to understand his own reason as a part of it; in so doing, he would overcome the last ‘contradiction’ of all, the contradiction in Kant’s own philosophy, between reason and the world, and thus between reason and its own self-understanding.
Hegel did not get any sort of salary at Jena until just before he left in 1807. His lack of publications stood in the way. But he had adequate lodgings with the Burkhardts, a tailor and his wife, sufficient ‘shoes, tea, sausages’, and a few fees as a Privatdozent. With Schelling, he was able to start a Critical Journal of Philosophy to take up ‘cudgels, whips and bats’ for what he called the Cause: ‘reason and freedom remain our password, and the invisible church our rallying point.’ He also managed to finish ‘the preface to the system of science’ that he’d contracted to write. The publisher’s deadline was 13 October 1806, the day, as it turned out, that Jena fell. To meet it and so pay the bills that he’d run up against it, not the least of which was a large one for wine, Hegel sent section after section of his only copy out through the battle lines to the printer in Bamberg as Napoleon was preparing to bombard his way in. The Phenomenology was published in the spring. The university, however, was in decline. There had been fewer students, and so fewer fees, for several years, and even the tenured professors were looking for posts elsewhere. Schelling had already left. Frau Burkhardt, moreover, was about to have Hegel’s child. He decided that it was time to go, to Baden perhaps, to Bavaria or back to his native Würtemburg, all now in formal alliance with France and its ‘world-historical soul’, which he’d just seen trotting through Jena on its horse.
In the event, he had to settle first for Bamberg, and edit the local paper. But a year later, he went to Nuremberg, to be rector of the Gymnasium there. Now secure, and for the first time properly paid, he was advised to find ‘a slow but faithful girl’. He chose Marie von Tucher. He was told not to worry about marrying above his class; it was a progressive act; Napoleon himself had just done the same. Marie was a conventionally ardent young woman. She was therefore a little disappointed, indeed rather cross, to be told that ‘love requires a still higher moment than that in which it consists merely and for itself.’ But once Hegel had apologised for his ‘hypochrondriacal pedantry’ and assured her father that the rectorship carried a widow’s pension, she ceased to recoil, reaffirmed her mortal love, and commenced the annual round of miscarriage, haemorrhage and infant death. She eventually produced two sons. What she came to feel about her husband remains obscure. He liked her vivacity – ‘it becomes you quite beautifully,’ he wrote to her later; he took pleasure in their walks in the country; he was considerate about her obstetric difficulties; and he insisted that the boys let her ‘sit down now and again to a pitcher of beer’. ‘Your Ulysses’, he wrote to her on the evening of his lunch at Goethe’s, always wants ‘to embrace you upon his return to the monochromatic plainness of domestic life’.
Nevertheless, until his last journey, at the end of which, he told Cousin, he’d decided that he’d only leave Berlin again in a balloon, he always enjoyed travelling, and he always wrote home. This is his ordinary talk. He went through Prague to Vienna, where he was captivated by Rossini and Italian sopranos; he took a barge down the Rhine, where at 52, two years after he’d announced the owl of Minerva, he was excited to hear his first live hoot; he stopped in Aachen to sit on Charlemagne’s throne, ‘was assured by the caretaker that I did so as well as the next man,’ and was so affected that he stopped to do so again five years later; he toured the Low Countries, where he admired the paving, enjoyed the shops, and was impressed by the size of the Rembrandts in the gallery in Amsterdam; and he eventually went to the seat of world history itself, but although he was intrigued by an orderly new abattoir, pleased, if on a donkey, to have visited Rousseau’s estate, and delighted by the cabinets d’aisance inodores, Mlle Mars’s eyes, and the extraordinary heights to which the dancers in the ballet raised their legs, most of the Parisians he’d wanted to meet were away on holiday and he could not bear the food.
Once married, however, Hegel spent the larger part of his life sitting at the long table he and Marie had bought for the purpose in Nuremberg, fuelling his Rumford coffee-machine, and writing his works: the Logic in Nuremberg itself, the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Heidelberg, where he went on to teach for two years, and numerous lectures, on anthropology and psychology, on art, on the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy, on religion and on politics and law, in Heidelberg and Berlin. He also wrote letters. Nearly seven hundred and fifty survive; 456 are printed here. But after the 1790s, and except to Marie, he never wrote for the pleasure of it. He had no Arnauld, and if the letters are any indication, he had few close friends. He wrote to badger his patrons for posts and his employers for rises – even, in the turmoil of the time, to be paid at all. He had to deal with other practical matters, like the lack of lavatories in the school in Nuremberg and his consequent difficulties with the nearby residents, into whose gardens the pupils were relieving themselves. He had to send instructions to printers, and once he turned to facts and to organising reviews, there were endless requests for books. And always, this took time away from what mattered: ‘the scarcity of my letters, which in other respects is quite reproachable, can be explained by the fact that for the most part I first have to create the sciences I teach.’
He worked hard at these creations. ‘During the winter,’ he wrote in July 1822, ‘I want to lecture on philosophical world history and to that end there is still much that I must look up.’ In December, he explains in yet another apology to another correspondent: ‘I am still occupied with the Indian and Chinese sphere and do not quite know yet how I am to get through up to these most recent times of ours by Easter.’ Desperately pursuing debates in the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society to support the suspicion he’d formed in Heidelberg that Oriental symbolism and the monistic vision it imparted was the original, pre-Classical basis of all true art, art with truth content; keeping up with Classical scholarship itself; trying to discover if there was anything to be had in things like Captain Tuckey’s Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire, which the geographer Ritter had put him on to, or Johann Steudel’s Collection of Noble Actions and Virtues taken from the World- and Human History of all Times and Peoples; committed to editing and to commissioning reviews for the Yearbooks for Scientific Criticism which he and others had started; preparing fresh editions of the Logic and the Encylopedia; and often having to give ten lectures a week – it’s scarcely surprising that from Berlin, as from Nuremberg and Heidelberg before, his letters are so spare.The few real reflections that there are in them have to be read against his more formal productions. For this, as well as for some of the more illuminating of the letters that were written to him, for references to others, and for six of his own that were omitted from the Meiner volumes, Clark Butler’s careful if reverent edition is invaluable.
In Berlin in the 1820s, Marie arranged tea, whist and supper for guests on Fridays, looked after Karl, Immanuel and the canary, and managed everything else, except the wine, in the house on Küpfergrabenstrasse. But Hegel had to deal with his sister and his illegitimate son, Ludwig. Christiane Hegel was three years younger than Hegel, had worked as a governess, and never married. In 1814, she began to show signs of what her brother called ‘hysteria’, and in 1820, was put into an asylum for a year. Although he did send her some money, Hegel never went to see her, and in the few letters to her that remain, all characteristically tardy, he treated her, as he explained, in the way that he treated his philosophical opponents, in the way that the French psychiatrist Pinel was suggesting that one had to treat all such disorders: with reason, so that she would be led away from ‘deranged representations’. She killed herself a few months after he died. Meanwhile, ‘that dreadful woman Burkhardt’, by then widowed, had actually turned up in Nuremberg when she heard that the father of her first illegitimate child was about to marry. But Hegel sent her away; he wanted no scandal or offence to the von Tuchers. Ludwig did come to live with him and Marie and their own two sons in Heidelberg and Berlin. But Marie was uneasy, Karl was hostile (he suppressed all mention of Ludwig in his own edition of his father’s letters in 1887), Ludwig himself said he wanted to run away, and Hegel equated being illegitimate with not being fit for a proper education; Ludwig confessed in a letter to his half-sister’s foster father (she too was illegitimate) that he’d wanted to study medicine, but had been told that he’d be cut off if he did. Hegel eventually persuaded a former student of his in Brussels to enlist the boy in the Dutch Army. Ludwig went to the East Indies and there died, at 24, without his father ever hearing. He always wondered what the connection had been between ‘Mr Hegel’ and ‘my dear mother’.
Ludwig had been befriended by Goethe, but Hegel had none of Goethe’s tolerance for the untidy. He was also distant. When Schelling wrote to him in 1803 to say that Hölderlin had had a collapse, was living in squalor, and needed him, Hegel brushed the request aside and never mentioned Hölderlin again. For by then, he had rejected his old friend’s all-embracing ‘love’ as the answer to Fichte’s self-induced agony of having to choose between domination of the self by the not-self and domination of the not-self by the self. The antinomies could be resolved: the unitary and supposedly supersensible world of Kant’s third Critique was amenable to reason. Hegel accordingly departed from aestheticism and varieties of intuitionism and from Fichte’s eventual soaring solipsism. He dismissed Platonism, the idea that the One was already there, to be recollected and discerned. And he fought the charge of ‘panlogism’, of having a system sealed against further facts: as he’d once remarked in conversation with Christian Weisse, a pupil who went to teach at Leipzig, he was ‘entirely convinced of the necessity of new progress and new forms of the universal spirit even beyond the form of science achieved [by him], without, however, being able to give any more precise account of these forms’. At the same time, he would have nothing to do with what he called ‘external’ explanations: ‘I am a Lutheran and I detest seeing [what Lutheranism reveals] explained in the same manner as the descent and dissemination of silk culture, cherries, smallpox and the like.’ To the natural question of what, then, philosophy had to say to theology, ‘I reduce everything to a distinction in the form of cognition. In view of what is not merely a communality but indeed an identity of truth content in the two cases ... I designate the form of religion chiefly by the expression representation [Vorstellung], i.e. as a mode by which religious consciousness is occupied with something external, given, and so on ... And from this vantage point, I hold that thinking reason is not at home with itself in such content in so far as the content is merely represented.’ Only ‘conceptual cognition’, as Hegel calls it in his lectures on religion, not ‘sensibility’, ‘reflection’ or ‘representation’, can grasp ‘the utterly unlimited universal or concrete that nevertheless encompasses utterly everything within itself – the natural and spiritual world in its full expanse and in the endless articulation of its actuality’.
But against the suspicion that this, if it’s not just magnificently blank, is one more sort of inwardness, Hegel sought the support of correspondents like Duboc, who made hats in Hamburg and had a passion for philosophy. ‘You are French by birth and furthermore engaged in healthy activity, [and can therefore] hardly come to rest with a hypochondriacal German view that renders everything objective vain, and then only savours itself in this vanity.’ As he had long insisted,
I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders ... It is only from heaven, i.e. from the will of the French Emperor, that matters can be set in motion ... This is what gives [that] nation the great power she displays against others. She weighs down upon the impassiveness and dullness of these other nations, which, finally forced to give up their indolence in order to step out into actuality, will perhaps – seeing that inwardness preserves itself in externality – surpass their teachers.
Hence his hostility to German nationalists, who were so concerned with ‘the conservation of Old German monuments and patriotic relics of all sorts ... the song of the Nibelungen, Imperial treasures, King Roger’s shoes, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts’, who would no doubt have one shit into indigenous ‘little holes outside’ rather than the new cabinets inodores, who revelled in all the ‘particularisms of Deutschdumm’. Hence his more principled objection to the equally particularistic philologists, ‘scholars of texts, syllables and turns of phrase’. Hence, he declared to flattered Berliners in the 1820s in what he called his ‘natural law by paragraphs’, the importance of a universalising state run by a universal class in the name of reason: the framework furnished by France could and would be completed, and in Prussia was being completed, with German Geist. There were one or two local difficulties: such as Friedrich Wilhelm – as Hegel, though nominally a monarchist, was to discover; the rabble, the Pöbel; and the corporate independence of the university itself, for which he became responsible as rector in 1829. But the first, he hoped, was open to argument, some of the second might go to America, and on the third he’d made his position plain in 1828 in defending the Government’s right to dismiss. The shape of the future was clear.
Then in July 1830, in Paris itself, there was a coup. ‘The carnival’, as Hegel called it, spread quickly to Belgium and Poland and thence to the very borders of Prussia. It dismayed him. ‘It is a crisis in which everything that was formerly valid appears to be made problematic.’ In what was almost the last sentence of what turned out to be his last lecture on world history, he resigned himself to the thought that ‘this collision, this nodus, this problem [is one] whose solution [history] has to work out in the future.’ He was clearly now too tired once more dialectically to rise to the occasion. His audiences had already begun to drift away to other, younger, more vigorous and lucid Hegelians. On 12 November 1831, he asked if he could have his lectures more widely posted to restore the numbers and so ‘counter the obvious appearance of placing me in a foolish light with colleagues and students’. But the next day, ‘the oracle’, as Cousin had once described him, ‘not always very intelligible’ when expounding ‘the terrible logic’, but enormously compelling when talking about ‘all the great things which humanity had done from its appearance on earth up to its present level of development’, caught cholera. They buried him, as he’d asked, next to Fichte.