The Philosophy of Right

By G. W. F. Hegel, 1821

Translation and notes by T. M. Knox, 1952

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is arguably the greatest work of political philosophy produced in modern times.  Most of the interesting ideas put forward by liberals, conservatives, and socialists—before and since its publication—are to be found in it.  Why then isn’t Hegel a fixture of political discussions, the way Marx and Rawls are?  That’s no mystery to anyone who struggles to actually read this book.  While the book is not absolutely unreadable, opaque pronouncements about “the self-actualization of the Concept”, “the will in and for itself”, “the unrestricted infinity of absolute abstraction”, etc come at the reader hard and fast.  If you’re like me, you’ll need to consult Professor Knox’s notes after every paragraph and read the main parts at least twice.  If you want to understand the logic embodied in the modern state, it is an effort worth making.

For Hegel, the point of public life is freedom, rationality, and self-consciousness—three words which are more or less synonymous for him.  Who or what is it that is to be made free, rational, and self-aware?  First-time readers are apt to be confused by Hegel’s abstract style, which sometimes seems to suggest that some disembodied will is actualizing itself by spinning off political bodies through history.  In fact, it is primarily the individuals in the society who are to enjoy freedom and rationality, although the organization of the society itself is both a necessary condition and an expression of the people’s freedom and rationality, and so it can be said to, in a sense, enjoy these qualities itself.

How is this supposed to work?  Let’s start with the lowest meaningful idea of freedom—being able to enforce your will on some domain.  We can imagine a society that acknowledges this idea of freedom as one where each person has some recognized private property on which he can impress his decisions.  It may be simple, but Hegel sees that this idea of freedom contains a valid insight—that private property gives me an acknowledgement of my own unique will and personality, and that I need this for my self-development.  The trouble is that if I just have rights but no responsibilities, then I’m not really free; I’m a slave to my desires, passions, or caprices.  The will may be driving the car, but it’s still getting directions from the outside.  Hegel believes that, for the mind to be really free, it must not only be able to make decisions, it must be able to supply the content of those decisions by itself, i.e. without “outside material” from non-rationally formed desires.

So what kind of content could reason itself (i.e. uncontaminated by self-interest or desire) supply to the will?  We might expect to get universal rules and maxims, like Kant’s categorical imperative:  always act so that your action could be a universal rule.  This introduces us to a new idea of freedom and self-consciousness:  I am a moral subject who has a conscience and is responsible for his actions.  The trouble with this is that it’s still too vague.  As Hegel points out, just about any act can be self-consistently universalized into a maxim, even if the maxim is something like “always act so as to destroy all life on Earth”.  All we get is the bare idea of duty, without any way of figuring out my duties in particular.  The truth is that I never get up in the morning and think to myself, “Given the current situation of the human race, what is it that somebody needs to be doing?” and then act accordingly.  No, when I get out of bed, I get to work on my particular duties.  How are these derived?

The answer, of course, is that I find myself in a number of structured communities, each of which has an explicit division of duties which assigns to me particular tasks, and each of which is oriented towards some common good with which I can associate my actions.  Hegel calls such a community an ethical substance, and he claims that they are crucial for ethical life (and are, indeed, the very embodiment of ethical life).  Unlike the abstract idea of having rights or the abstract idea of having moral duties, the ethical substance is concrete, and it determines what my rights and duties actually, concretely are.  It also ties the two together, so that my rights and responsibilities are rationally correlated.  The ethical community also reconciles—to some degree—my duties and desires.  My love or patriotism for the community allows me to subjectively identify its common good with my own, and objectively it is also true that my good is contained in the common good.  Most importantly for Hegel’s scheme, an ethical substance allows me to reconcile the universal with the particular.  For example, “enforce justice” is a nice universal command of “pure reason”, but it’s not one that I can personally execute in my day-to-day life.  It is something that the State should try to execute, though, and as a member of the state, I can do my bit to enforce justice by doing my own humble public duties.  Of course, this reconciliation of universal and particular can only work 1) if my duties really do contribute to some universal, rational goal, and 2) if my duties can be seen by me to be so related to such a goal.  That is to say, the organization must be really rational.  If it isn’t, that’s something that should be fixed.

Hegel identifies two ethical substances:  the nuclear family and the state.  The family is based on the love of the spouses, the complementarity of the sex roles, and the family’s corporately-owned property.  An aggregate of families buying and selling goods with each other forms a civil society, by which Hegel basically means a market.  Through the market, separate families become connected and interdependent.  This interdependence is, however, not based on any conscious good will between buyers and sellers; it is an invisible product of the law of supply and demand.  As pointed out above, to have a truly ethical life, one’s actions must not only serve the common good, but must consciously and visibly serve the common good.  The market is “ethicized” by two factors.  First, there are the profession-based corporate bodies (i.e. guilds) which promote fraternity within a profession.  More importantly, there is the state, which regulates the economy for the public good.  The state itself is composed of three branches:  the monarch, the legislature, and the executive (which includes the civil service and the judiciary).  The monarch is needed to represent the unity of the state’s will.  The legislature, according to Hegel, should be divided into estates.  Thus, farmers are represented by the agricultural deputies, and businessmen by the business deputies.  This way, the professional corporations are themselves incorporated into the state so that they can be visibly seen to be ordered to the common good.  When a citizen votes, he does so as a member of his profession, not as an atomic individual.  This is, I think, an insightful point.

Hegel was not a good writer, and he had some screwy ideas about metaphysics and history, but you shouldn’t let that keep you from his incomparable analysis of the modern state.

8 Responses

  1. Fantastic outline Bonald. I have been reading this very challenging and rewarding book and this post was quite helpful. While Hegel was a Lutheran, his corporatism is very similar to Catholic integralism. Also, the notion that “mind” is actually something transcendent and outside the body, actualized in the community, is reminiscent of the thought of Christian mystics like St. Bernard.

  2. Thanks, Damien. That book was a tough slog, but very worth it. Can you give me a reference on where St. Bernard discusses things like this? I have not read very much of him, but I would be very interested to check this out.

  3. […] My votes:  Avicenna and Hegel.  Avicenna because most of the Thomist adjustments to Aristotelian metaphysics actually come from or through him, and his argument for God’s existence is far stronger than anything in Thomas’ sloppy Five Ways.  Hegel because he’s the greatest political philosopher of all time. […]

  4. I wouldn’t say that St. Thomas’s Five Ways are sloppy. The ones quoted from the Summa Theologica only sum up detailed arguments from the Summa Contra Gentiles. So it’s misleading when philosophers criticize them summaries instead of the full arguments.

  5. As I recall, that’s only true of the first way.

  6. […] For why this is a necessary function, see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. […]

  7. […] attempts to save the quest for freedom from incoherence exist.  For Hegel, true freedom is rationality, and the state exists, to speak very roughly, to make things make […]

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