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Hegel and Fascism

Posted on: January 27, 2019

Category: Theology

Hegel and Fascism

Hegel and Fascism

I have a great love for nineteenth-century thinkers. Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Strauss, Nietzsche, and Marx are among my favourites. I used to love Kierkegaard when I was younger, but I did grow tired of his theism. Then there is G.W.F. Hegel, who I used to dislike when I was younger but have come to appreciate his struggles now that I'm older. Hegel is problematic. His thought remains influential in our society through various assumptions we continue to hold. Some assumptions are positive and some negative. I'll start with the positive.

Hegel's style of thinking is dynamic. Unlike classical Greek thought, for Hegel the universe unfolds as action. History is about motion. Things moving and becoming new things is the nature of Being (God). In Greek thought, Being or God is stillness and unmoved. Being does not become; it is. Hegel is important because he defines the modern idea of history and the universe in motion. Many young scholars today like this aspect of Hegel's thought where Being is conceived actively (becoming) rather than statically (is).

What then is the problem with Hegel? The problem is this: the universe becomes (moves, changes, actualizes) because it is aimed at a conclusion. Hegel called the conclusion the Absolute. When the universe and all that is (that is, when Being) reaches its final goal, it will have reached its Absolute form. We can call this form Final Being (an expression I have made up). Final Being or the Absolute is as static as any classical Greek thought ever was. What adds further difficulty to Hegel is that the State is the Absolute. Being, as it moves through history on the road of becoming, passes through different stages or forms of life. It starts with the individual. That's stage one. Individuals then compose families, which is stage two. Families compose civic society, and civic society composes the State. The State is the absolute form or the end of Being; so, the perfect State is the Absolute or Final Being.

There are two assumptions troubling in Hegel as Being moves from the individual to the Absolute State. The first difficulty is progress. Hegel assumed that as things develop, progress unfolds. The movement of history from the individual to the State is a movement to the Absolute expression of Being. In modern times, Hegel's notion of progress is linked to technology. In the twentieth century the development of technology was assumed to be progress, so technology was always assumed to be good. In the twenty first century, we are finding that this assumption is not true. Today, more and more people recognize that technology is a problem for humanity and for the environment. We need to learn to be stewards of technology, but we are having a hard time breaking the habit of assuming technology is always for the good.

The second problem with Hegel might be the most critical. Hegel assumed that the Absolute (Final Being) is expressed in the State, not the individual. So, he held that the fulfillment of the individual is in the State. This is probably his worst idea. In his life, the State he lived in was Prussia, and he argued that Prussia was the final expression of the State. Prussia was the Absolute State. But if the individual is fulfilled in the State, then the duty of the individual is to serve the State. In fact, even worse, the definition of the true self is the State. We can easily see that this is fascism. The individual effectively worships the State and gives the self over to the fulfillment of the State. This might be okay if the State is talking about universal health care, but if the State is talking about building a wall and vilifying desperate migrants, the dangerous assumptions of Hegel's philosophy stand out. Often, there is a temptation to put the State in an Absolute position and, inadvertently, to worship the leader of the State without critical thought. In this way, Hegel gave the structure of fascism to the modern world.

The "structure of fascism," which is the assumption that leaders are beyond question, also infiltrates religion. When our theological assumptions about Jesus, or the Bible, or the forgiveness of sin, or any number of other beliefs are accepted uncritically, then a type of Hegelian fascism is enacted. Jesus or the Bible becomes unquestionable; Jesus or the Bible takes the place of the State found in Hegel's thought. Jesus or the Bible (or perhaps the Pope or another religious leader) becomes the fulfillment, the Absolute, of the individual believer.

The saving grace for Hegel is that he never imagined his philosophy would form the assumptions of modernity. In his time, he was a highly attractive philosopher with many great students. His idea of becoming changed the very way philosophers started to think about history and the development of thought. Yet, as a nineteenth-century Prussian philosopher employed by the State, he did not see that the structure of his thought would also justify twentieth-century fascism and would encourage the temptation to worship leaders as Absolute figures. Knowing about Hegel is important. Even though he seems obscure and difficult, he defines many things twenty-first century people should no longer assume.


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