Hegel in the Era of “Wokeness”

German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel may not have been an early champion of modern values, but his dynamic view of history didn’t advocate a simplistic revival of the past either. He was a critic of extremes, with complex views on state violence and historical progress.

Engraving of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ca. 1800. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel knew all about the disasters of modern war. In October 1806, he was scrambling to complete a long overdue manuscript when Napoleon’s army turned up outside Jena. They shelled its most prestigious street, which caught fire. After smashing a Prussian army nearby, they pillaged its university and filled its buildings with their wounded.

After fleeing his lodgings Hegel returned to find his papers scattered like a heap of “lottery tickets” by pillaging soldiers. Such shattering experiences, which were the universal lot of civilians during the Napoleonic Wars, could not shake his trust that the history of the world was at once explicable and progressive. Although he didn’t finish The Phenomenology of Spirit for several more months, it proclaimed when finally published in 1807 his belief in a deepening harmony between the human mind and the world it surveyed.

Can Hegel’s startling optimism, expressed in his famously challenging prose, still speak to modern societies? Historian Richard Bourke suggests it can. Hegel’s World Revolutions rather startlingly presents Hegel as a kindred spirit to its author, sharing his instinct that the study of intellectual history can revive the confidence with which we face the darkling present. The political thought of past ages may be locked up with the circumstances of vanished societies, but the problems it framed, yet couldn’t fully resolve, generated concepts that shape our understanding today.

Hegel and the Rise of Modern Values

Bourke views the rehabilitation of Hegel not as a mere academic concern but as pivotal to what he sees as the defense of the liberal West against its cultured despisers. Universalism, human rights, the idea of improvement, reason itself — all are under attack. In hoping to cleanse politics of its seamy, colonial past, wokeness has junked these notions as Eurocentric impositions on the world.

Bourke is too refined to use that tabloid term. But his distaste for the overlapping series of challenges to Western values that it is intended to capture is nonetheless clear. He prefaces his examination of Hegel with pungent swipes against the modern theorists who, from Michel Foucault onward, have undermined the dignified continuity of the grand narratives that once supported faith in liberalism.

But all is not lost: “careful historical analysis” might reinstate Hegel’s grandiloquent sketches of the “rise of modern values.” The reasons for identifying the liberal cause with the resurrection of Hegel are twofold. First, he recognized that human beings “as such” are free. Second, he offers an understanding of how an ethic of individual liberty developed in history and makes the case that its pedigree is distinctively European.

Our belief in the universality of individual human rights, though battered, remains intact as the “overarching dividend” of intellectual and political revolutions that set Europe apart from the static, so-called Oriental cultures surrounding it. These revolutions encompassed the creation of Greek city-states, Roman law, the rise of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. While acknowledging the crimes and fanaticism that blotted this narrative — enormities such as the seventeenth-century wars of religion or the transatlantic slave trade — Hegel viewed them as aberrations from its main plot: the stately articulation of freedom.

It is a surprise to hear that Hegel loved liberty. His English readers have often suggested that he was an architect of German authoritarianism, who had reneged on his youthful admiration for the French Revolution. When the outbreak of World War I triggered a search for the intellectual origins of Prussian militarism, Hegel’s accusers said that he and his right-leaning devotees had confused the state with God. Bertrand Russell quipped that, for Hegel, liberty meant the freedom to salute a policeman.

The suspicion that Hegel’s totalizing account of human history was illiberal persisted. Karl Popper, writing at the end of World War II, equated totalization with totalitarianism, an enemy of an open society. The Left on the whole was just as skeptical, embracing what Karl Marx had taken from Hegel — the idea of dialectical process —  while discarding his source’s theistic metaphysics.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc discredited the notion that even such a firmly materialist, left Hegelianism could be practical politics. Theodor Adorno, who held Western civilization responsible for the Holocaust, could not stomach Hegel’s laudatory accounts of its creation. Adorno valued only the moments of negativity in Hegel’s work — a position akin to holding that the unresolved, atonal Tristan chord was the only moment of redemption in Wagner’s operas.

Bridging the Chasm Between Individual and Rational Will

Bourke’s reanimation of Hegel for our moment accordingly begins with an “exercise in elucidation,” a dogged paraphrase of his political prose that clarifies his true convictions. Bourke surveys many writings but gives due weight to two masterpieces: The Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right (1821). Dealing with such a relentlessly systematic philosopher as Hegel makes it difficult to separate political thought from broader philosophical ideas. But while Bourke is mainly interested in understanding Hegel as a historical rather than a theological or metaphysical thinker, he neatly conveys how his politics derived from deeper layers of his mind.

Navigating this labyrinth with Bourke, it becomes evident that labeling Hegel as a political turncoat is misleading. It is true that the fall of the Bastille had elated him as a young student. Later in life and in the midst of a police crackdown in German lands on student radicals and suspect political slogans, he surprised friends by toasting its anniversary with the best French champagne. Yet Hegel had quickly diverged from his contemporaries in becoming a sharp critic of French proceedings. He was not only no Jacobin — he was no Girondin either. He faulted the Legislative Assembly for its extremism even before the execution of Louis XVI.

The epicenter of Hegel’s revolution was not in Paris but in Königsberg. Bourke extensively examines Immanuel Kant’s political thought, emphasizing Hegel’s retention of Kant’s insight that moral injunctions are only recognized by human beings when willed by individual selves. Kant’s re-centering of morality on the individual was no less dramatic a shift than Copernicus’s reordering of the planets around the sun, but it had thorny implications for politics. Morality might originate in individuals, but they exist in societies and states. This raises the question: How can individuals reshape political communities to align with, rather than obstruct, the exercise of our will to the good?

The career of Jesus Christ was the most moving and important example in world history of this conundrum. For Kant and Hegel alike, he was the first to see that a religion’s moral code must be willed from within rather than imposed from without. But his disciples failed to turn that insight into a viable politics because of the “degradation” of Judaism in their time: it was an ethnic creed of “mechanical obedience” that instilled “hatred” for humanity as a whole. As they left their tight knit commune and struggled to bring his gospel into the world, the apostles lapsed into the legalism of their original faith, which demanded obedience to the laws of a distant God.

Bourke relates the ferocious anti-Judaism of Hegel’s early writings without much remark. Yet it casts disquieting light on his whole career. Hegel was not what we now call an antisemite. He supported the civil emancipation of Jews — not least because people who opposed it were “stupid” German conservatives. When he took up a professorship in Berlin, he made Jewish friends and refined his views on biblical Judaism, depicting it as a religion of yearning that had contributed to humanity’s spiritual progress.

Yet he still saw its particularism and ritualism as incompatible with the Protestant “inwardness,” which he thought essential to true progress. This critique extended beyond Judaism: it aimed to discredit the Roman Catholic Church, which had supposedly inherited the errors of the religion it claimed to have supplanted.

Although not much of a churchgoer, in 1830, Hegel delivered a fervent address on the tercentenary of the German Reformation, which laid out the hostility of Catholicism to mental freedom. These perspectives were family heirlooms: Hegel sprang from a line of Lutheran ministers. His faith that the world would conform to our moral instincts was then sectarian in its narrowness: it screened out not just three quarters of the world but half of Christendom.

Enter Napoleon

Hegel not only critiqued the Jews but took to lecturing Jesus himself with characteristic German confidence. Jesus, who initially promised freedom from law, eventually demanded acceptance of his authority. Hegel saw this as a religion of external “positivity,” lacking true freedom. Kant, centuries later, faced a comparable critique. He instilled in individuals a sense of duty, which became a kind of fetish that constrained their wills.

For Bourke, failure is central to Hegel’s understanding of progress. He didn’t see history merely as a perpetual motion machine driven by impersonal reason and churning through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In works such as The Philosophy of History, Hegel described visionary attempts at advancing freedom that foundered due to prematurity or purist neglect of societal mores. But every revolutionary shipwreck leaves behind materials for the use of new political projects. To use Hegel’s most notorious bit of jargon, they had been “sublated” (aufgehoben).

The mistakes of the past were canceled out but also lifted up by their incorporation into what came next. Although this might sound like an intellectualized vision of historical change, it is important to appreciate that it was not deterministic. The Spirit (Geist) of which Hegel spoke was not an external force acting upon human life; rather, it was a conceptual framework used to describe patterns that become evident in hindsight.

The French Revolution was a case in point. Hegel believed that the flowering of individualism in Enlightenment France had generated a sense of intellectual purity, which alienated people from existing institutions and organized religion. The revolutionaries promised to satisfy the craving for authenticity through direct involvement in government. Yet they understood a democracy as a mere grab bag of individual wills, among which no real agreement was possible. The effort to force consensus on what government should do naturally generated mutual suspicion. And so, during the Terror, revolutionaries killed their imagined rivals, as casually as if they were “chopping a cabbage head or taking a gulp of water.” It took the ascendancy of a single individual to resolve the violent chaos of these competing wills.

Hegel was thrilled when he glimpsed Napoleon at Jena, referring to him as the “world soul,” who dominated the globe from the back of a horse. However, Hegel did not see Napoleon’s power as a definitive solution to the contradictions of the Revolution. Instead, he felt that the initiative was passing to reforming monarchies, such as his future employer Prussia. These kingdoms guaranteed orderly freedom by giving recognition to communal bodies that mediated between the sovereign authority and individual citizens.

From Civil Society to the Social Question

As he tut-tuts over the follies recounted in his morning newspaper, Bourke’s Hegel begins to resemble the subject of Bourke’s previous book, Edmund Burke. The aging apostle of freedom began to view constitutions as brakes on hasty decision-making rather than vehicles for change. Yet although Hegel’s mind did stiffen in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he never became a mere counterrevolutionary.

On his arrival in Berlin, his relationship with the Prussian king Friedrich III and his hidebound court became rather tense, especially as Hegel’s renown grew. The king was once so annoyed that newspapers reported more effusively on Hegel’s birthday celebrations than his own that he banned them from reporting on such events altogether. Some of Hegel’s scholarly allies were swept up in police action against student radicals.

Nor did he confuse the administrative energy of the undemocratic Prussian state with the end of history. He was well aware of new pressures in European society that would expose its contradictions. Hegel, influenced by his readings of Adam Smith and other Scottish economists, understood that commerce was giving rise to something they called civil society. This phenomenon strengthened constitutional monarchies by generating a burgeoning middle class that exhibited discernment and sensibility. Yet he was also cognizant that commerce was the engine of immense inequality, disrupting communal cohesion. The only way to halt this process, he knew, was by intervening in property rights, a notion that liberals regarded as sacrosanct.

When in 1830 the French again rose up in revolution and swapped their Bourbon monarch for the more accommodating Louis Philippe, Hegel’s friends were delighted. The French had finally pulled off a constitutional coup, a new edition of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, which would unleash the energies of the bourgeoisie. But Hegel was gloomy, fearing that this was not the solution to an old problem, but the unveiling of a new one: the social question.

Hegel died not long after Louis Philippe’s accession, during the cholera epidemic introduced to Europe by the Russian troops who had crushed a nationalist rising in Poland. But although he did not live to see the revolutions of 1848, they would not have surprised him. His notorious statement in the preface to the Philosophy of Right that “what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational” was not intended to give a just-so explanation of an unequal and eternal present. “Actual” (wirklich) might be better translated as “effective” — what engaged him was the effort to value as right only what actually advanced freedom.

Bourke shows clearly that he was dead set against a politics of simplistic revivalism or conservative nostalgia. The freedom of citizens in the ancient Greek polis had been admirable, but their liberties had rested on the suppression of individualism and on the exploitation of slaves. Greek democracy could not and should not be revived in Hegel’s time. He emphasized the absence of timeless models and laws in history, urging instead the consoling reflection that it nonetheless had a unified meaning that became clear in retrospect.

Resolving the Discrepancy of Past and Present

Bourke has fashioned Hegel in his own likeness: a sensitive historian of political thought and a tough liberal whose knowledge of how values evolve only strengthens his commitment to them. His hope is that Hegel might help him to show how the history of political thought could be politically useful in the present. The last third of his book accordingly turns from his hero to give a potted history of how the discipline developed at Cambridge, where he is a teacher of the subject.

The “Cambridge School” asserted that the meaning of all political writings, no matter how canonical, could only be ascertained by uncovering the intentions of their authors. Its members understood political theorists not as philosophers of universal reach but as tacticians who had sought to make powerful interventions in now-vanished controversies.

These insights risked turning political thought into an antiquarian game, submerging once-resonant writings into their crabbed and remote contexts. Bourke surveys the solutions proposed by Cambridge scholars to address these problems, such as Quentin Skinner’s attempts to pick through the texts he had anatomized to find moral ideas that could be transplanted into the present. In the end, Bourke is plainly not convinced.

Reenter, triumphantly, Hegel. His thinking resolves the embarrassing “discrepancy” between past and present by positing a conceptual continuum between them. According to Hegel, the intellectual rubble of each failed revolution is the quarry from which the next is constructed, reaching up to the present moment. One thing that this Hegelian approach helps us to value is Hegelian thought itself. Much like an Escher engraving, we move toward Hegel in the act of walking away from him, as we learn to appreciate how time preserves ideas even as it appears to obliterate them.

Bourke’s Hegel leaves us with a diagnostic sensibility rather than offering “abstract normative instruction.” But if we should not ask directly what he would have made of our present, it is still tempting to do so. A resurrected Hegel might find satisfaction in discovering that there are still liberals who maintain that the history of West is a meandering story of freedom.

The interminable wars launched or supported by Western states might give him pause, but Hegel never blanched at state violence. In fact, he hailed new technologies of death as a hallmark of moral progress. The invention of firearms transformed killing from an individual’s hostile act into a mechanical gesture carried out on behalf of states, changing the “purely personal form of bravery into an abstract one.” Perhaps this also holds true for drone swarms or thermobaric bombs. In laying waste to a city, states may claim they are engaged in the unpleasant but necessary work of broadening the realm of what ought to be universal human rights.

When we stretch the Phenomenology of Spirit to fit the vicious tribalism of our own time, we expose the delirium inherent to Hegel’s project. While his work offers perceptive — if often conventional — readings of past revolutions, the insistence that morality develops through historical periods but lacks a vantage point from which to judge them is a salutary caution against ahistorical wokery. However, the horrors of the twenty-first century suggest that the twentieth century’s case against Hegel should stand: it is vain to identify world history with the unfolding of principles that the West just happened to grasp earlier than anyone else.

A leopard will always enjoy the tale of how it got its spots, but it is not clear why anyone else should do so. The West’s pursuit of its imagined interests in the world today appears both too strong and too stupid for Hegel’s thrilling pitch that “what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.”