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Does history have a direction?
If so, where are we going?
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came late to the Enlightenment, arriving when Europe’s age of reason was shading into the romantic era of heroes and hero worship. Born in Stuttgart in 1770, Hegel was nineteen at the outbreak of the French Revolution and thirty-four when Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France. From his office at the University of Jena he could hear the cannons at the 1806 battle of Jena, where Napoleon defeated the forces of Prussian king Frederick William III.
Napoleon seemed to Hegel to embody great forces of history, and with Napoleon’s victory still ringing in his ears, he pondered what those forces were and where they were carrying humanity. During Hegel’s lifetime, freedom—in the form of revolutionary anti-monarchism—made great progress in Europe and the Americas, and he extrapolated boldly backward and forward. “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” he declared.
Hegel equated freedom with the triumph of reason. “Reason governs the world and has consequently governed its history,” he said. He believed in God but couched his belief in the language of philosophy. “Reason is the comprehension of the divine work.”
Hegel identified three kinds of history. The first was “original history.” This was the sphere of Herodotus, Thucydides and other historians "whose descriptions are for the most part limited to deeds, events, and states of society which they had before their eyes and whose spirit they shared." A later generation would call these authors journalists, and they limited themselves to what they had seen and heard.
The second kind of history was "reflective history." Today we would simply call this history, for it consisted of non-participant accounts written after the fact. Reflective historians drew out themes and morals but limited themselves to particular countries and periods.
The third kind of history was "philosophical history." This was the branch Hegel favored, but it was also the one he had the hardest time defining. He sometimes called it the "philosophy of history," and indeed it was as much philosophy as it was history. "The most general definition that can be given is that the philosophy of history means nothing but the thoughtful consideration of it," he explained unhelpfully.
Hagel was nothing if not thoughtful. He spent more time inside his own head than in historical archives. And in his head he concluded that history led inexorably from slavery to freedom. In Asian antiquity, the despotic ruler was the only one who was free; everyone else was subservient to the ruler’s will. In classical Greece and Rome, some citizens were free, but many slaves remained in bondage. In modern Europe, everyone was free—at least in theory. Speaking broadly, Hegel declared, "The Eastern nations knew only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free; while we know that all men absolutely (man as man) are free."
Reality lagged behind theory, Hegel acknowledged. He took careful note of "the infinite difference between a principle in the abstract and its realization in the concrete." Philosopher that he was, he preferred abstractions, but he recognized that life was lived in the real. Real history was "the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states and the virtue of individual have been victimized," he said. Progress came only through struggle. “The history of the world is not the theater of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages in it, for they are periods of harmony.”
Individual humans were the agents of historical progress toward freedom, but they were often unwitting—even unwilling—agents. “They gratify their own interest, but something further is thereby accomplished, latent in the actions in question though not present to their consciousness and not included in their design,” Hegel wrote. This applied to the great figures of history no less than to the humble. “Caesar was contending for the maintenance of his position, honor and safety”—not for the glory of Rome or the rule of law. Yet glory and order were what he accomplished. “It was not, then, his private gain merely but an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.” Napoleon was similar, and there would be others like them.
Hegel didn’t approve of all that Napoleon and Caesar did. Yet neither did he stand in moral judgment on their actions. The heroes of world history—the figures who drove history forward—played by different rules than other mortals. “The history of the world occupies a higher ground than that on which morality has properly its position,” Hegel said. The past offered worthy lessons in philosophy but not in everyday conduct or politics. “Nothing is so absurd as to look to Greeks, Romans or Orientals for models for the political arrangements of our time.”
In theorizing about world history, Hegel sought a high point above his own time and with a better view. Yet to a degree he apparently didn’t recognize—or at any rate didn’t acknowledge—he was as much a product of his time as everyone else. Writing in Germany under the aegis of the post-Napoleon Concert of Europe, he found it easy to believe that history’s arc bent toward freedom. Slavery had been abolished in Europe and was being abolished in the colonies of the European empires. America was halfway toward ending slavery. European serfdom lingered only in Russia, the least European country of Europe. European governments were becoming less autocratic and more responsible to the people they governed. The idea of freedom had seized almost everyone Hegel knew.
But of course he didn’t know everyone. Hegel never traveled more than several hundred miles from his birthplace; Switzerland and the Netherlands were as far as he got. Would he have theorized differently had he visited Asia or Africa, or even the American South?
Possibly. But he might have concluded that those parts of the world were simply approaching freedom at a slower pace than Europe. Hegel tended to see what he wanted to see, and to judge as important what supported his theory. He would have focused on aspects of life that pointed toward freedom and dismissed those that didn’t.
If Hegel had lived into the twentieth century and witnessed the rise of totalitarianism, would he have lost his faith in freedom? Not if he had lived to see democracy defeat fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War. He would have considered himself vindicated—as some neo-Hegelians did in the 1990s.
If he were alive in 2022, would he have been discouraged by the recent retreat of democracy? No. Hegel was a big-picture guy. The data of a decade or two constituted mere noise to him; he reckoned by centuries. And by any reasonable measure, humans—including women, non-Europeans and others Hegel had scarcely considered—were far freer in the twenty-first century than they had been in his own time.
So was Hegel right? Is freedom baked into human history? Or should we hold our applause pending further developments?