“The flattering portrait Hegel wrote of Napoleon to his friend has subsequently spiraled into mythic legend. Why did Hegel have this seemingly lofty view of Napoleon?”
The Phenomenology of Spirit here are two stories concerning Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s encounter with Napoleon at Jena. The first is apocryphal but romantic and sublime; Hegel was supposedly penning his final touches on when the guns of battle roared behind him and, in a chaotic moment of genius, edited a few sections based on Napoleon’s invasion. The second is verifiably true; Hegel wrote a letter to his friend and former colleague Friedrich Niethammer: “I saw the Emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” The flattering portrait Hegel wrote of Napoleon to his friend has subsequently spiraled into mythic legend. Why did Hegel have this seemingly lofty view of Napoleon?
Hegel was born on August 27, 1770 in Stuttgart—then part of the ancient Duchy of Württemberg. His father was a low-level bureaucrat to the Duke of Württemberg and his mother the daughter of a prominent lawyer and legal scholar who was in the service of the duchy. He attended the theological school at Tübingen, where he was roommates with Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling. An early enthusiast of the French Revolution, like many young middle-class Europeans, the excess of the Terror turned him sharply in opposition to the extreme form of revolutionary Jacobinism that swept that country, but he nevertheless remained an admirer of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The first story concerning Hegel and Napoleon is my favorite, if for no other reason than it provides a frantic imagination and context to an always overlooked section of The Phenomenology. Near the end of his long-winded explanation of the emergence of culture from the World Spirit, Hegel concludes his thoughts by reflecting on “Absolute Freedom and Terror.” Like Edmund Burke, Hegel considered the French Revolution and its consequences “the greatest world event of our time.” The sublime activity of the Spirit, in trying to make the rational actual, leads to terror—hellfire—rather than any heaven.
However, because of the movement of History, this hell is properly a purgatorial state before final sublation of the old into the new. The road to heaven, after all, runs through the fires of purgatory. As Hegel writes, “Absolute freedom qua pure self-identity of universal will thus carries with it negation.” And the manifestation of the negation is a prerequisite for universal freedom. From this conflict, “There has arisen the new shape of Spirit, that of the moral Spirit.” Thus Hegel transitions out of culture and into his famous section on Morality and the emergence of greater interconnected relationships through the eradication of the old and the rise of new relationships in society.
The purpose of the World Spirit is to negate, destroy, the uncultured naturalistic simplicity and individuality (Einzelheit), which accompanies that primordial state of existence and build it to a higher, newer, reality of integration. The negative terror which purges the world and individuals into a new state of living—the relational community, as Hegel later goes on to define and describe in detail in both The Phenomenology and Elements of the Philosophy of Right—is the purgatorial transitory state which requires the Hero of the Spirit to usher in the new epoch. This now requires us to know something of Hegel’s anthropology.
Hegel’s philosophical anthropology, most thoroughly defined in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, is already visible in the Phenomenology through his scattered reflections on “the citizen” and “the hero.” To briefly summarize, Hegel’s four archetypes of humanity are: the hero; the citizen; the person; the victim. The hero is the chosen instrument of the Spirit of History, the individual who is utilized to usher in the new age and found states. The hero, in modern parlance, is the founder of the nation. The citizen is the embodiment of sittlichkeit (ethical order), the rooted participatory individual attached to the manifold responsibilities and duties of life: family, fatherland, and community. The citizen is rooted in an identity, a state and a civil township, which grounds his existence. The person is the exemplar of the inferior Moralität (poorly understood as “morality” in English, perhaps better understood as moral feelings), wherein the person lives a sentimental—but detached and deracinated—moral life for himself. The person does not so much help others because it is the right thing to do; the person helps others so that he feels good about his own actions. The victim is even further beneath the person because not only does he live for himself; he is totally unconcerned with the good life in the abstract sense (which the person, at least, does care about) and seeks a mere materially comfortable existence for himself apart from all relations to the world. The victim, for Hegel, is what Nietzsche would later describe as the “Last Man.” Only the hero, since it relates to Napoleon, matters for us.
The Hero is the most exalted individual in the Oriental Age of Despotism because the Hero transcends the limitations of primordial life to establish the new state, nation, or community in its movement to a settled, communitarian, national existence. He and his descendants often become the “god-kings” common in Near East political theology. In modern reality, heroes still emerge to inaugurate the movement into the new order by cancelling out (aufhebung) the old.
Before 1789, the epochal existence of Europe was set in the nadir of the aristocratic age. The aristocratic age, as Hegel more fully developed in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, is characterized by a freedom for some and servitude for others (or most). This state of existence was also dominated by feudal-agrarian systems and laws; Greece and Rome were the most exemplary forms of this state of existence. The French Revolution and the birth of modernity signaled the beginning of the end of this age. The reactionary powers that confronted France in 1792, particularly the decadent Habsburg Monarchy which ruled over the feudal principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, along with Prussia and Russia, were the “lifeless corpse[s]” which the movement of History “has left…behind.”
By 1806, when Prussia foolishly went to war with Napoleon having dithered away its possible advantage of joining the War of the Third Coalition, Prussia and the Rhine principalities of the Germanies were the dying and decadent feudal aristocratic entities that needed to be negated, purged, by the World-Spirit—the Hero on Horseback to move these backwater and backward entities into the new world. Justus Möser may have thought that such an aufhebung would mean the end of thousands of years of traditions and legal codes, but Hegel believed that such negation was necessary for “universal freedom” “under the law” to manifest. It was, therefore, necessary for these states—of which Jena was situated—to experience their purgatorial cleansing before arriving in a new paradise, the so-called “end of history” and their embodiments of the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
But who was the hero to bring about this cataclysm and deliverance? It was not a German but a Frenchman, the “World Soul…astride a horse.” This conflict between Napoleonic France, where the individual will of Napoleon was already removed to allow the manifestation of the universal in the world, and backward and reactionary Prussia was inescapable. And in this conflict between old and new, “Absolute freedom [will] remove the antithesis between the universal and the individual will.” In other words, the defeat of the feudal and reactionary forces of Prussia was predestined to happen; the “individual will” and naturalistic simplicity of the Rhine principalities had to be destroyed in order to progress into the New Eden heralded by the angels of the French Revolution whereupon its many peoples could enter the age of freedom.
The hero, however, is something of a tragic figure in Hegelian thought. Hegel, we must remember, was steeped in the Greek classics and a great admirer of Greek poetry and tragedy. He was, after all, also roommates with Friedrich Hölderlin while a theology student at Tübingen who became one of Germany’s leading philhellenes. The hero was not free in the way that citizens or persons are free (echoing the heroes of antiquity fated to their labors and decrees of the gods). The hero was the chosen instrument of History. From time to time, History reaches out and lifts up “great men”—“heroes”—to do her bidding. This was the case with Napoleon. He was the instrumentalized hero of Historical Progress. Thus, he was the “World Soul…astride a horse,” as Hegel wrote to Niethammer.
As such, the hero is the universal instantiation of the World Spirit. The hero transcends parochial boundaries and genealogy while, paradoxically, advancing deeply parochial and particular creations. Take Napoleon for example. He was a Corsican who became the founder of the modern French state. As he and his armies rolled into Western Germany, he would become the founder of the Confederation of the Rhine and, by outgrowth of the destruction of reactionary Prussia in 1806 upon his infamous entry into Berlin, the modern Prussian state. By extension, he then gave rise to the modern German state founded by a latter-day Prussia brought into existence after Napoleon’s decisive defeat of the kingdom during that remarkable autumn campaign in 1806. Thus, it is appropriate to see Napoleon not merely as a French hero but a universal hero, the instrument of History that helped bring modern Europe into being despite being the Corsican-born emperor of France.
The logic that Hegel establishes for us helps us understand the adoration of such revolutionary “World Soul” heroes. The heroes of yesteryear were distinct to their own people, like Moses to the Israelites or King Arthur to the British. The heroes after the World Soul advance the universal spirit of emancipation, purgation, and new creation. Napoleon, for Hegel, was the embodiment of that spirit.
But the celebration of the latter-day hero is the celebration of fire, destruction, purgation: the eradication of the present for the creation of the new. As Stalin allegedly said, to make an omelet, one must first crack eggs. The latter-day hero is the breaker of eggs because he is the maker of the omelet. Afterwards, he leaves the plate for the rest of us to be nourished by, and we give him thanks for his work.
Hegel’s celebratory statements about Napoleon reflect a restless mind and soul who looked to the carnal to find meaning and destiny, imbuing it with a Christianized language of the Spirit for spiritual justification. Hegel’s heroic Napoleon was God in history bringing about the eradication of original sin and transforming the earth back into a New Eden. Hegel’s heroic longing becomes the spiritual yearning he abandoned in formal Lutheranism for a new, heretical, and fantastical spiritualism of absolute eros with a destructive and cathartic impulse in the world. God does not break into History through miracles. God is found in History through epochal transformation and movement to something new, grander, and more exhilarating. And nothing was more heroic and exhilarating than seeing the purgatorial fire mounted on horseback before unleashing the guns of cleansing on the dead carcass of Prussia needing to be wiped away so that she could become something new and its many people could experience a new freedom previously denied to them.
Hero-Worship was not a new phenomenon when it came to the writings of Hegel. It did, however, take on a new spiritual heart: for God was to be constantly found in History; the World Spirit is in the very men and women of the present ushering in such grand changes of consciousness through the eradication of the old and the creation of something new (of which, for Hegel, Jesus of Nazareth was a mighty exemplar of in his own theological imagination). Hegel’s heroism and World-Soul have contributed to our own political messianism and apocalypticism because we too often look to the spark of divinity in men and women driving history to its supposed teleological conclusion and the emergence of a better, freer, and grander world. Those heroes are the individuals who give us a “thrill” and a sense of rapture in their presence.
Like Hegel, we often overlook the intense destruction and dislocation that comes from this political messianism. After all, modern Europe—if it was brought into existence by Napoleon—came at the cost of millions of lives and two decades of war. Something that we might say was repeated in the 20th century to create the Europe we have today. And the modern world we have today was also born through the fires of the 20th century. Hegel might have thought he was experiencing the end of history, but his notion that a new world is born through destruction and reconstitution is still very much alive and well today.
Paul Krause is incoming editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory.