Reading Hegel Right - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Reading Hegel Right


Leo Strauss on Hegel
Edited by Paul Franco
(University of Chicago Press, 2019)

Hegel writes in his 1795 essay “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” that “the supplanting of paganism by Christianity is one of those remarkable revolutions whose causes the thoughtful historian must labor to discover.” The reasons Christianity triumphed over the paganism of Greco-Roman antiquity and the religions of the East preoccupied Hegel to the end of his life. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, delivered at the University of Berlin in the 1820s, Hegel outlined how Christianity actualized an idea of human freedom that was inconceivable to pagan civilizations: “Eastern nations knew only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free; while we [Christians] know that all men absolutely . . . are free.”

One implication of Hegel’s theory of history is that no return to paganism is possible, however much we might admire aspects of the ancient world. Philosophers who seek a return to antiquity must address the challenge of Hegel.

Readers familiar with Leo Strauss may be surprised, therefore, by the seminar on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History that he gave at the University of Chicago in 1965. On the few occasions that Strauss mentions Hegel in works intended for publication, the reader gets the unmistakable impression that Hegel’s philosophy initiated the doctrine of historicism. In Strauss’s view, historicism undermined political philosophy by dismissing the idea of a transcendent truth that exists apart from history.

Yet in this seminar the reader is treated to a Strauss who appreciates Hegel, even though he offers incisive criticisms. Strauss sympathizes with Hegel’s distinction between ancient Greek paganism and the biblical tradition—one that parallels Strauss’s distinction between “Athens” and “Jerusalem”—despite misgivings about his philosophy of progress as revealed through the movement of history.

This seminar has lately been published by the University of Chicago Press as part of the Leo Strauss Transcript Series, a project that makes Strauss’s courses available in book form. Although Strauss also taught the Lectures on the Philosophy of History in 1958, the 1965 transcript is more readable and accessible. Does it have any philosophical value? In their editorial note, Nathan Tarcov (a former student of Strauss) and Gayle McKeen warn that there “are careless phrases, slips of the tongue, repetitions, and possible mistranscriptions. However enlightening the transcripts are, they cannot be regarded as the equivalent of works that Strauss himself wrote for publication.”

In his introduction, though, Paul Franco provides two compelling reasons for treating this seminar as superior to Strauss’s published works. First, explaining why Strauss chose to discuss the Lectures on the Philosophy of History (instead of The Philosophy of Right, which Hegel himself published), Franco notes that “Hegel is much more accessible in his spoken lectures than in the written works he published during his lifetime. (The same might be said of Strauss.)” There is good reason to approach both of these difficult writers through their teaching rather than their prepared texts.  

Second, “Strauss adds some nuances in his lectures that are not present in the broad brush strokes of his earlier published writings.” In particular, Strauss’s fundamental disagreements with Hegel do not dissuade him from appreciating Hegel’s contributions.

 Two large questions arise in the seminar. First, how does Strauss interpret Hegel? Second, does his interpretation provide any insights not only to Hegel studies but also to Hegel’s favorite subject, namely, world history as we understand it in modernity?

To longtime Strauss readers, one of the first surprises is his repudiation of Alexander Kojève’s “end of history” thesis. Kojève, who updated Hegel with reference to Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, provocatively argued that Hegel declared history’s end with the triumph of Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality. Strauss, both in his debate with Kojève about Xenophon’s Hiero in the late 1940s and in other writings, gives every indication that he agrees with this interpretation of Hegel.

Yet his 1965 seminar reveals a more subtle treatment. At one point, Strauss remarks that Hegel’s understanding of America as “the land of the future” shows that “Hegel does not claim the end of history has come.” Even if the Napoleonic Wars closed a phase of European history, that does not mean the whole story is complete. Moreover, Hegel rarely predicts the future in any certain way. In this respect, he differs from Marx, whose philosophy of history is more schematic.

Strauss even offers a Hegelian response to Kojève when he observes that the end of history is not beyond history: “it still also belongs to history.” In other words, we always live and act in awareness of the past and orientation toward the future. Strauss’s recognition of the open-ended nature of history resonates very well with Hegel’s own idea of history as the “essential now.”

Perhaps recognizing the prejudices of students who grew up during the Cold War, Strauss devotes much of his seminar to clearing up popular misconceptions of Hegel.  He makes short work of fashionable misinterpretations that Hegel was a racist precursor of the Nazis, a moral relativist, or a worshipper of the omnipotent state. In understanding Hegel as essentially a liberal (though not a democrat) who believed that “an order based on the recognition of the rights of man” is necessarily “the right order and the sensible order,” Strauss repudiates the famous charge of Karl Popper and others that Hegel was a totalitarian.

Yet Strauss is well aware that Hegel’s confidence in the triumph of Enlightenment universalism is problematic. Leaving aside the horrors of the twentieth century, Hegel’s philosophy of progress may rest on foundations that no longer fit the late modern age. Hegel portrayed the Enlightenment as a continuation of the individualistic spirit that the Reformation helped to inaugurate. He was confident that philosophy could eventually turn Protestantism into a rational or secular basis for liberalism. But Strauss finds it “very strange” to imagine that the liberal state can be “altogether indifferent to the religion of its members.”

Stranger still, at least to Strauss, is Hegel’s failure to admit the possibility that philosophy undermines the faith of many people without turning them into philosophers. The educated classes might replace aspects of religion with rational morality and high culture. “But there are also the common people. What about them?” Strauss wonders. According to Strauss, those who cannot sustain traditional faith but are incapable of Hegel’s philosophical perspective are trapped “in a difficult situation, a discord. Hegel has no comfort for us at this point.”

Hegel indeed offers no “comfort,” in the Straussian sense, since he repudiates the traditional practice of using religion to keep the masses in line. If I correctly understand Strauss’s comment on the absence of true theology in Hegel’s philosophy, his point is that Hegel does not comprehend God as a supernatural deity transcending history. Rather, God (or Spirit) is intelligible solely through the movement of secular history. It is little wonder, as Strauss also correctly observes, that Hegel has zero interest in the immortality of the soul.

Can Christianity without God, as Strauss once put it, keep the people virtuous? Hegel does not seem to worry. For this reason, Strauss proposes, Hegel does not need an Aristotelian “doctrine of the virtues,” which presupposes a distinction between the good human being and the good citizen. After all, for Hegel, “The good man is the good citizen in the good society, and the good society is the reasonable society.” 

Our own historical experience suggests that Hegel was too confident about the continuity between philosophical reason and the old Protestant heritage. In an intriguing passing comment, Strauss refers to “the people in Hollywood now, who in a certain sense can be said to set the tone of the society.” These people have tremendous power without actually ruling, in contrast to the Aristotelian idea of a regime in which “the people who actually set the tone by ruling” are the lawgivers. Perhaps the entertainment industry fills the void left by Protestantism’s near demise, with consequences far more unsettling today than anything that Strauss witnessed in 1965.

In addition to the decline of Protestantism, Strauss notes that the intellectual elites of the late twentieth century no longer believe in the West’s superiority, compelling them “to have a much greater respect for what many peoples in the past have produced, even if that does not live up to what is highest in the Western European tradition.” To say the least, Hegel did not anticipate multiculturalism.

Biblical Morality and Individual Freedom

Even though Strauss is justifiably skeptical about Hegel’s optimism amid declining faith, he appears to concede Hegel’s larger point that we moderns still need biblical morality. In discussing Hegel’s famous theory of history as the story of freedom, in which the “Orient” only understands the one as free, the Greeks understand only the few as free, and the Christians understand all as free, Strauss teases out the full implications of this metaphysical triad. Revealing his indebtedness to Kant, Hegel “sees morality as not grounded upon nature. Therefore the Greek standard of natural justice appears to him to be just a custom, and there is no fundamental distinction between that and a particular law.”

Hegel did not attribute this understanding of morality to Judaism even though, as Strauss notes, Hegel was right to recognize that “there is no Old Testament expression for nature.” The Hebrew Bible’s rejection of pagan morality should have led Hegel to treat Judaism and Christianity as equally important in the formation of the modern West. After all, as Hegel and Nietzsche knew equally well, history truly began with the revolt of the slaves against their pagan masters, as revealed in Exodus. Hegel’s Lutheran view of Judaism as a faith “closely bound to the observance of ceremonies and of the Law” impedes him from fully recognizing that Judaism’s rejection of natural—i.e., pagan—morality represents the beginning of freedom in history.

Still, if morality is a matter of history rather than of nature, what are we to do with this revelation? Hegel, as Strauss reads him, is right to argue that universal freedom and rights came into being only with the advent of modern political philosophy in the West. He never challenges Hegel’s view that Greek antiquity lacked the concepts of subjectivity or individuality that would be the foundation of modern liberalism. “Do Plato and Aristotle ever mention the conscience?” Strauss asks. “Never. The term comes up later, but not with our meaning, in some Stoic texts. But it does not exist in Plato and Aristotle.”  The only conclusion to draw from this line of thinking, which Strauss does not explicitly draw, is that the biblical idea of conscience is essential to the rise of modern morality as well as the rights of humanity. I write “biblical” because the understanding of conscience in terms of charity (or treating the stranger as you would want to be treated), is, pace Hegel, equally central to Judaism and Christianity. Out of this ethical teaching arises the understanding that the conscience commands us to respect the freedom of all human beings, strangers included.

The relevance of this conclusion can stretch as far as the field of foreign policy today. Francis Fukuyama insisted in The End of History and the Last Man that democracies no longer need a Christian foundation. Yet he later admitted that history was not so secular or simple. In Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Fukuyama notes that even a civil religion such as Confucianism that stresses moral obligation to others (mainly one’s family) can fall far short of the moral duty to the stranger that Western Christendom emphasizes. It is hard to separate Fukuyama’s observations from Hegel’s view that the East historically lacks an adequate idea of human freedom as universal. Even though Hegel may have over­estimated the ease with which Christianity can be rendered rational in a political context, the staying power of Christian universalism vindicates his philosophy of history.

If there is any meaning to the “end of history,” then, it may be this. No attempt to recover pagan hierarchy is philosophically credible after the rise of Christianity in the West, even if the desire to restore this lost age persists. Strauss perhaps concedes as much when he looks to the example of his hero Winston Churchill. This statesman protected “the reasonable state against insanity” without introducing “a new principle.” There can be no truly “new principle,” once the word gets out that tyranny is not the tragic fate of humanity. Although Hegel never persuaded Strauss that the civilization of the modern West will inevitably triumph over all its rivals, biblical morality remains the standard by which we must judge regimes. On this point, Hegel and Strauss would necessarily agree.

Grant Havers is chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University and the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique.

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