14. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

“Of all the contributions to political theory which are included in this Reading Plan, that of Hegel is least likely to elicit a sympathetic response in a democratic audience. On the contrary, its main tenets are such as to produce an emotional antipathy verging even on an unwillingness to give his views a fair hearing. Yet they deserve our closest attention in spite of the distaste they may arouse in us, precisely because they represent so clearly and powerfully the antithesis of our most fundamental convictions.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 in The Great Ideas Program, page 195)

Thus Adler and Wolff introduce their consideration of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The antipathy that they refer to results from Hegel’s being viewed as promoting totalitarianism when he affirms that man is made for the state, rather than that the state is made for man as believers in democracy hold. However, in view of his also emphasizing the principles of right and justice, respecting law as the voice of reason, and insisting on constitutional government, I didn’t share the antipathy that some hold of Philosophy of Right when I read the selections from it.

However for a different reason I was tempted not to include an article on Philosophy of Right in this series of posts at Bob’s Corner on the writings considered in The Development of Political Theory and Government. The reason is:

“Hegel constructed a philosophic system. He does not treat the various fields as independent realities, but binds everything together with a few central ideas. It is difficult to understand any part of Hegel’s system without understanding the whole.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 197) 

Although Adler and Wolff go on to say that Philosophy of Right can be more easily read separately than some of Hegel’s other works, I still found it difficult. (I was also turned off by Hegel’s dogmatic presentation of his views and cavalier dismissal of other views.)

Yet because of Hegel’s importance in the history of political theory, I didn’t want to omit him in the series of posts. I discussed my problem with my daughter Allison (see Allison’s Book Bag). She suggested that I base my article on what Adler and Wolff say about the selection rather than on the selection itself. I liked her suggestion and decided to follow it except for including also a sketch of Hegel’s life. Thus this post contains a sketch of Hegel’s life and a summary of Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Philosophy of Right. The latter considers the content and method of Hegel\s philosophy, his conception of the state and freedom, and three questions about the reading.

The Life of Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born at Stuttgart, Germany, August 27, 1770, the oldest child of a revenue officer. His achievement at the local grammar school and gymnasium was unremarkable. In 1788 he entered the University of Tűbingen as a student of theology. He showed little aptitude for theology, his sermons being a failure and his finding more congenial reading in the classics. After leaving the university in 1793, he earned his livelihood as a family tutor, first at Berne (1793-96) and then at Frankfurt (1797-1800). From his years as a tutor came numerous manuscripts, in various stages of completion and of varying importance but all indicative of a great deal of study.

In 1799 Hegel’s father died and a small inheritance offered him a brief period of independence. He wrote to a friend, Schelling, asking him to suggest a suitable town for a brief period of studious withdrawal. Schelling’s answer must have been enthusiastic because Hegel joined him at Jena almost immediately. Here he became a Privadocent at the university. In the winter of 1801-02 his lectures on logic and metaphysics were attended by eleven students. Succeeding series in later years were attended by about thirty students and were devoted to a “system of speculative philosophy,” the history of philosophy, pure mathematics, and other topics. His academic career was brought abruptly to a close by the Napoleonic campaign culminating in the battle of Jena in late 1806. However despite the war his first great work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, appeared in 1807.

At loose ends Hegel edited a newspaper at Bamberg for a time (1807-08) but, finding journalism distasteful, he accepted a position a position as headmaster of the Gymnasium at Nuremberg, where he remained until 1816. In 1811 he married; the marriage was entirely happy and his wife bore him two sons. Two volumes of his Science of Logic were published in 1812 and a third in 1816. Offered professorships at Erlangen, Heidelberg, and Berlin, he accepted the invitation to Heidelberg. However after the publication of his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in 1817, the offer of Berlin was renewed and he accepted it.

The thirteen years of Hegel’s professorship at the University of Berlin (1818-31) brought him to the summit of his career and made him the recognized leader of philosophic thought in Germany. Philosophy of Right, the last of the large works published in his lifetime, appeared in 1821. His lectures on aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy were constantly revised and improved and finally published after his death. In 1830 he became rector of the university and was decorated by Frederick William III of Prussia. He died of cholera on the 14th of November, 1831.

Content and Method of Hegel’s Philosophy

To make the reading of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Philosophy of Right easier, Adler and Wolff consider two things that are central to Hegel’s philosophy, the first having to do with its content and the second with its method.

(1) Hegel is often called an “idealist” in philosophy because what for him is most real are ideas or concepts or thoughts. The most important aspect of the world is its ideal or rational character. The sensible or phenomenal aspect of the world (what we see, hear, feel, etc.) is intelligible only insofar as we recognize it as partaking of rationality. The state and its institutions, which we read about in Philosophy of Right, are of interest to Hegel only insofar as they reflect the rational spirit which is reality. For Hegel, the real is the ideal.

(2) Hegel calls his method “dialectical.” The dialectical approach, in Hegel’s sense, involves viewing everything, including ideas, as developing and changing. Most important is the development that occurs when an idea and its opposite clash. Out of such a meeting of a “thesis” and its “antithesis” there emerges a “synthesis,” a stage of development in which the earlier opposites are both contained but in such a way that they are reconciled. In Philosophy of Right the state is a synthesis of two opposite poles, subjective and objective freedom; for the distinction between them, see the next section.

Hegel’s Conception of the State and Freedom

The main political question in ancient and medieval political writings was “To what end should the power of the state be used?” Since the seventeenth century that question has been replaced by Rousseau’s “Man is born free; yet everywhere he is in chains. What is the reason for this and what makes it legitimate?” Hegel presents a mixture of these traditions, being much concerned about the problem of freedom (like his contemporaries and immediate predecessors) and yet viewing nothing as right which doesn’t serve the state (like the ancients). Because he doesn’t conceive of the state and freedom the same as most other political writers do, Adler and Wolff next consider somewhat closely his use of those key terms.

Observing that Hegel identifies the state with both freedom, “The state is the actuality of concrete freedom” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right in volume 46 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 82), and rationality, “the state is absolutely rational” (op. cit., page 80), Adler and Wolff suggest that for him freedom and rationality are closely related and perhaps even identical. They confirm this with the following quotation from Philosophy of Right:

“Rationality, taken generally and in the abstract, consists in the throughgoing unity of the universal and the single. Rationality, concrete in the state, consists (a) so far as its content is concerned, in the unity of objective freedom (i.e. freedom of the universal or substantial will) and subjective freedom (i.e. freedom of everyone in his knowing and in his volition of particular ends); and consequently, (b) so far as its form is concerned, in self-determining action on laws and principles which are principles and universal.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 80)

Subjective freedom is the freedom of the individual person to be himself, to act and do as he and he alone pleases. Objective freedom is the freedom which the will achieves when it wills not what it pleases but what is right for it. The object of the will when it wills thus wills rightly is necessarily universal. A man so determined in his choices and actions will not be free in the sense of subjective freedom: he will no longer be able to arbitrarily choose this way ot that way. But he will be free in the objective sense: he will be free from all those attractions that the will ought not to follow because they are not truly good for man. Hegel asserts:

“The idea which people most commonly have of freedom is that it is arbitrariness‒the mean, chosen by abstract reflection, between the will wholly determined by natural impulses, and the will free absolutely. If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do what we please, such an idea can be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought, for it contains not even an inkling of the absolutely free will, of right, ethical life, and so forth,” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 16; the quotation is an example of what I was referring to when I said above in introducing this article, “I was also turned off by Hegel’s dogmatic presentation of his views and cavalier dismissal of other views.”)

Returning to a statement which they had quoted earlier, “the state is the actuality of concrete freedom,” Adler and Wolff now consider how the state can be an embodiment of freedom. The freedom that Hegel has in mind is the true or objective freedom, his continuing thus after the statement just quoted:

“But concrete freedom consists in this, that personal individuality and its particular interests not only achieve their complete development…but, for one thing, they also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal; they even recognize it as their own substantive mind; they take it as their end and aim and are active in its pursuit. The result is that the universal does not prevail or achieve completion except along with particular interests and through the co-operation of particular knowing and willing; and individuals likewise do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these they will the universal in the light of the universal, and their activity is consciously aimed at none but the universal end.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, pages 82-83)

Adler and Wolff conclude their consideration of Hegel’s conception of the state and freedom thus:

“In Hegel’s view of the state, then, there is no opposition between the individual’s rights and freedoms on the one side, and the state’s rights and demands on the other. There is no need, therefore, for any provisions to safeguard the individual against the encroachments of the state. Such things as Bills of Right are absurd. The state, not the individual, is supreme. Hegel expresses his idea of the state’s grandeur very plainly: ‘The march of God on earth, that is what the state is’ (p. 141),”  (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 202)

Three Questions about Philosophy of Right

What is the relation of religion to the state?

In modern times the separation of church and state is a cardinal principle of life in Western countries. This is based on the view that state and religion are concerned with two different spheres of the individual’s life, the former with such things as individuals’ relations to one another, their property, and their security and the latter with matters that concern an individual’s relation with God.

However for Hegel the individual can have no rights apart from what the state gives him. Religion is an expression of a person’s individuality and belongs to his subjectivity. Subjectivity has its place in the state, but its ultimate destiny is always to be transformed and raised up into objectivity. Hegel describes the relation of religion and the state thus:

“If religion be religion of a genuine kind, it does not run counter to the state in a negative or polemical way…It rather recognizes the state and upholds it…The state discharges a duty by affording every protection to the church by affording every assistance and protection to the church in the furtherance of its religious ends.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 86)

What are the three powers of the state?

The usual numeration of the three powers of the state are the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Hegel gives them as the executive, the legislature, and the crown. Here is how he defines them:

“(a) the power to determine and establish the universal‒the Legislature; “(b) the power to subsume single cases and the spheres of particularity under the universal‒the Executive; “(c) the power of subjectivity, as the will with the power of ultimate decision‒the Crown. In the crown, the different powers are bound into an individual unity which is thus at once the apex and  basis of the whole, i.e. of constitutional monarchy.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 90)

Further on he notes that executive power also includes the judiciary.

What are the divisions of the Philosophy of Right?

The divisions of Philosophy of Right arise from the dialectical method by which the subject of right is treated. The dialectical method take an idea and considers it in its development. Thus Hegel writes:

“In correspondence with the stages in the development of the Idea of the absolutely free will, the will is A. Immediate…‒the sphere of Abstract or Formal Right; B. Reflected from its external embodiment into itself‒it is then characterized as subjective individuality in opposition to the universal…‒the sphere of Morality; C. The unity and truth of both of these abstract moments…‒Ethical Life.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 20)

On the same principle Ethical Life is divided into three parts: the family, civil society, and the state. And the section of the book dealing with the state is divided into three parts: the state in itself, the state in relation to other states, and the state as it is a phase of world history. On the latter Hegel says:

“The State [is] freedom, freedom universal and objective even in the free self-subsistence of the particular will. This actual and organic mind (α) of a single nation (β) reveals and actualizes itself through the interrelation of the particular national minds until (γ) in the process of world-history it reveals and actualizes itself as the universal world-mind whose right is supreme.” ((Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 20)


2 thoughts on “14. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

  1. Allison

    Thanks for discussing with me your dilemma of whether or not to include Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in your coverage of the Great Books. I’m glad I could be of help!


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