Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography/Volume 2/Hegel, Georg W. F.

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HEGEL, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, the profoundest of German metaphysicians, was born at Stuttgart on the 27th August, 1770. He could trace his descent through a long line of Carinthian and Swabian ancestors who had filled respectable places in the middle ranks of society, and some of whom, in the time of the Thirty Years' war, had suffered persecution and expatriation on account of their attachment to the protestant cause. His father was superintendent of the ducal finances—a post, it may be supposed, of much trust and responsibility. The Swabian temperament—its gravity, straightforwardness, and perseverance—is said to have declared itself at an early period in the life and conversation of the future philosopher. While still in his teens he went by the nickname of "the old man." His school and college diaries, extracts from which have been published by his biographer Rosenkranz, attest the extent and variety of his studies. They afford evidence of indefatigable industry, of pains and thoroughness, rather than of precocity of genius. Method and persistency were the characteristics of the youthful scholar, as they were of the mature metaphysician. At the university of Tubingen, to which he proceeded in 1788, he was a fellow-student with Schelling—a kindred spirit, who presented, too, some very decided points of contrast. For a time they lived together in the same room; and the intimacy thus commenced, exercised from first to last a marked influence, partly through sympathy and partly through rivalry, on the destinies of these two great thinkers. In later life they had their differences. "They stood aloof, the scars remaining;" and so wide, indeed, was the breach that, after Hegel's death, Schelling was summoned to Berlin to preach down the doctrines of his early friend, which were supposed to have become too dominant and exclusive—an enterprise which he attempted without much success. But in those early days at Tubingen, in the springtime of their youth, the identity of their aspirations (it was the era of the French revolution, when politics were more engrossing even than philosophy) seems to have knit them together, as it afterwards did at Jena, in the closest intellectual fellowship. After completing his university course, Hegel accepted the office of tutor in a family in Switzerland, which he exchanged, some years afterwards, for a more agreeable appointment of the same kind at Frankfort. On the death of his father in 1799, the small patrimony which he inherited enabled him to proceed to Jena, and to establish himself there on a more independent footing. He gave lectures on philosophy as a private teacher (privat-docent) in the university. His friend Schelling, although some years his junior, had got the start of him, and was settled as a professor (extraordinary) in the same place. Göthe, Schiller, and Wieland lived at Weimar, which was not far off, so that he was in contact with the most brilliant intellectual society which Germany at that time afforded. The genius of Schelling, as prolific as it was precocious, had by this time given to the world a series of profound philosophical disquisitions. At the age of nineteen he had shown a wonderful insight into the philosophy of Fichte, and had even carried it forward into a new development; and when Hegel now joined him he had just published his System of Transcendental Idealism. Hegel had no pretentions to such pliancy of intellect and rapid power of composition; but he, too, was laying the foundations of a system which, although identical in its groundwork, or nearly so, with that of Schelling, was intended to be far more rigorous and logical in its procedure. It was, indeed, in their method that the main difference between the two philosophers lay. Schelling was of opinion that the citadel of truth was to be carried by a coup de main, by a genial, "intellectual intuition." Hegel conceived that it was to be won only by slow sap and regular logical approaches.

Hegel remained at Jena until 1807, during which period he published a dissertation on "The Difference between the Systems of Fichte and of Schelling;" edited, along with Schelling, a journal of philosophy; and delivered lectures on the history of philosophy, and on the phenomenology of the mind. In 1803 Schelling migrated to Wurzburg, and after some interval Hegel was promoted to the chair which he had vacated. But the emoluments of an extraordinary professorship being inadequate to support him, he resigned the appointment and removed to Bamberg, where he acted for a short time as the editor of a political journal. In 1808 Hegel was appointed to the office of rector in the gymnasium at Nürnberg. Here he married, and here he remained, giving elementary courses of instruction in philosophy and religion, until 1816, when he received a call to a philosophical professorship (ordinary) at Heidelberg. Two years afterwards he was summoned to fill the chair of philosophy in the university of Berlin, which had been vacant since the death of Fichte in 1814. Thus, although the events of Hegel's life were simple and monotonous, the scene of his labours was not a little varied. Stuttgart, Tübingen, Jena, Bamberg, Nürnberg, Heidelberg, and Berlin, these were the stages in his pilgrimage, and they are here recorded for the behoof of those who may care to know where a great philosopher has been domiciled. His appearance and demeanour as a lecturer are thus described by Kosenkranz—"Utterly careless about the graces of rhetoric, thoroughly real and absorbed in the business of the moment, ever pressing forwards, and often extremely dogmatic in his assertions, Hegel enchained his students by the intensity of his speculative power. His voice was in harmony with his eye. It was a great eye, but it looked inwards; and the momentary glances which it threw outwards seemed to issue from the very depths of idealism, and arrested the beholder like a spell. His accent was rather broad, and without sonorous ring; but through its apparent commonness there broke that lofty animation which the might of knowledge inspires, and which, in moments when the genius of humanity was adjuring the audience through his lips, left no hearer unmoved. In the sternness of his noble features there was something almost calculated to strike terror, had not the beholder been again propitiated by the gentleness and cordiality of the expression. A pecnliar smile bore witness to the purest benevolence, but it was blended with something harsh, cutting, sorrowful, or rather ironical. His, in short, were the tragic lineaments of the philosopher, of the hero whose destiny it is to struggle with the riddle of the universe."

Hegel died at Berlin in 1831. He was cut off suddenly by cholera. The disease seems to have attacked his brain principally, and to have run a milder course than is usual with that formidable malady. The regulation which declared that all persons dying of cholera should be buried in a separate churchyard was relaxed, by high authority, in his favour. He was interred beside the grave of Fichte, in a churchyard near one of the principal gates of the city.

Soon after Hegel's death, an edition of his collected works was published by an association of his friends. This collection comprises his early philosophical treatises; the phenomenology of the mind; logic (metaphysic); the encyclopedia of science (embracing logic, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of mind); the philosophy of law; the philosophy of history; æsthetics; the philosophy of religion; the history of philosophy; and miscellaneous writings—in all, eighteen, or rather twenty-one volumes, for some of them are divided into parts, each of which is again equal to a volume. To give any account of writings so multifarious is here quite out of the question. It is not even possible, within the limits of this article, to go into any details respecting the Hegelian philosophy, strictly so called. A slight sketch of its groundwork and general scope is all that can be attempted. This, however, may be sufficient. To show clearly what the principle and aim of the system is, particularly as contrasted with the philosophy of this country, is what is now proposed, and this may, perhaps, afford some insight into the system itself, and form a better introduction to its study than could be obtained from any literal repetition of its peculiar forms of expression, or of its peculiar method of procedure.

This philosophy gives itself out as the philosophy of the "absolute." The meaning of this word "absolute," then, is what must, first of all, be determined. It is nowhere explained by the system, or by any of its opponents or defenders. It may, indeed, be said that Hegel's whole philosophy is nothing but an explanation of the " absolute." But a definition of one word extending over a score of volumes is very apt to evaporate before it can be apprehended. The following is shorter. "The absolute," truth absolute, is whatever is true for intellect considered simply as intellect, and not considered as this or as that particular intellect; it is truth for all intellect, and not merely truth for some intellect; in other words, "the absolute" is truth for pure intellect, and not truth for modified intellect. An illustration will help to make plain this somewhat abstract definition. Suppose five intellects, each of them modified by the possession of one, and only one, of our five senses. One man merely sees, another merely tastes, another merely smells, another merely hears, and another merely touches; and suppose an apple presented to these five individuals. Each of them would apprehend only one sensation; but while the sensation in each case would be different, the one in each case would not be different. The man who saw the apple would see one sight, the man who tasted it would experience one taste, the man who heard it (when struck) would hear one sound, and so in regard to the others. The sensations would be peculiar to each intellect; each would have its own; but the "one" would be common to them all: it would be the same for all. Here, then, in this "one" we have an absolute truth, or at any rate a truth which may be accepted as an illustration of such. If there were no other intellects in the universe except these five, it would, in the strictest sense, be an absolute truth. Here the "one " presenting nothing but what is common and intelligible to all, is to be regarded as a truth of intellect simply—of pure intellect: the "one sensation" again presenting, in each case, something which is peculiar to each intellect, is to be regarded as a truth of modified intellect. Looking at the five cases, we say that, in each case, the "one sensation," in so far as it is one, is an absolute and universal truth; while, in so far as it is sensation, it is a relative and particular truth. Such is the explanation of "the absolute;" and it seems not unintelligible if one will keep in view the illustration by which it is enforced. As a farther illustration, this remark may be subjoined. Again consider these five sensations. Each of them is a peculiar sensation; but at the same time each of them is. In so far as each of them is, a truth for pure intellect, an absolute and universal truth, emerges. In so far as each of them is peculiar, a relative and particular truth is presented. Here then we have "number " and "being," two important categories, set forth as specimens of the "absolute."

The analysis thus briefly illustrated is the main principle of the German philosophy in general, and of the system of Hegel in particular. It is true that he nowhere expressly supplies this analysis, but it is implied in the whole tenor of his speculations. He rather proceeds prematurely to build up into a synthesis the elements of pure thought, which are the result of the analysis. Hence arises, in a great measure, his obscurity, which seems, in many places, to be absolutely impenetrable. Nevertheless, in spite of all its defects, his exposition of the dialectual movement by which the categories of reason evolve themselves, from lowest to highest, through a self- conversion into their opposites, is a work replete at once with the profoundest truth, and the most marvellous speculative sagacity. Retrospectively it affords a solution of the antinomies by which Kant succeeded in bewildering the reason of his contemporaries, and it extinguishes, by anticipation, the resurrection of these same sceptical perplexities which certain philosophers in this country have of late endeavoured to bring about.

But it is in the analysis referred to that the philosophy of Hegel, and of Germany in general, finds its most signal contrast in the philosophy of Great Britain. Of the analysis in question our philosophers have formed no just or adequate conception. Hence they have misconceived the nature of "the absolute," and have failed altogether in their attempts to refute the philosophy which expounds it. They have supposed that the question concerning "the absolute" was a question which referred to the quantity or amount, and not one which referred merely to the quality or nature of knowledge and truth. They have thought that unless all knowledge was ours, a knowledge of "the absolute" could not be ours; in short, that a claim to a knowledge of "the absolute" was a claim to the possession of omniscience. This is a great misapprehension. "The absolute" has nothing to do with the extent, but only with the constitution of cognition. Wherever knowledge or thought is, even in its narrowest manifestation, there "the absolute" is known; because there something is apprehended by intellect simply, something which is intelligible, not merely to this or to that particular mind, but to reason universally. In any review of the question of "the absolute," our philosophers would do well to bear in mind, that not the range or compass, but only the nature or character of our thought has to be taken into account. That there are very serious difficulties to be contended with in establishing "a philosophy of the absolute" is not to be doubted, and it must also be admitted that the tendency of such a philosophy is towards the conclusion (whether satisfactory or not) that rational self-consciousness is the only ultimate and all-comprehensive reality—is the truth above all truth—is the primary groundwork as well as the crowning perfection of the universe. But this conclusion can neither be established nor gainsaid by any inquiry into the limitations of the human faculties. It can only be disposed of (whether pro or con) by a thorough-going analysis, of which a faint indication has been given, which shall distinguish between the absolute and the relative elements in our cognitions. This Kant attempted, but this Kant did not achieve; because in his system the absolute elements are given out as merely relative, which is equivalent to the assertion that there is no common nature in all intelligence; which again is equivalent to the paradoxical averment that intelligence has no nature or essence whatsoever. Hegel made the attempt in a far better and truer spirit. In his conception he is unquestionably right; but in its execution he has involved himself in labyrinthine mazes, to many of which no reader has ever found, or ever will find the clue. The life of Hegel has been written at large by his disciple Rosenkranz of Königsberg. He and Erdmann of Halle are, in the opinion of the present writer, the most intelligent expositors of Hegelianism. Of the heterodox deductions which some philosophers and theologians have perversely sought to deduce from the Hegelian doctrines, it is unnecessary to speak. For these neither the system itself nor its author are in any way responsible.—J. F. F.