Edward Caird's Hegel



THE great movement of thought which characterizes the nineteenth century is a movement through negation to reaffirmation, through destruction to reconstruction,- in Carlyle's language, through the "everlasting no" to the "everlasting yea." Its great men are men who, like Mirabeau, have "swallowed all formulas," yet have not in the process lost their faith in the spiritual powers and destiny of man; whose emancipation from the weight of the past, from the life of custom and tradition, has only revealed to them more clearly the permanent basis of human faith and hope, the eternal rock on which all human beliefs and institutions are built. Their greatness is measured by the completeness with which the whole movement of the time, negative and positive, has mirrored itself in their intellectual history, and by the degree in which they have mastered its striving elements, and brought them to a unity as factors of their own inner life. Their weakness is measured by the degree in which they have become the passive organs and spokesmen of one or other of the opposite principles of revolt or reaction, or have yielded successively to the alternate tides of popular feeling as they swayed from one extreme to the other. No man, indeed, who is in the midst of such a social and intellectual movement, and not yet looking upon it from the vantage-ground of history, can completely gather into himself the whole spirit of an age, or enter with the sympathy of complete understanding into both of its opposed enthusiasms. No man, even if he does so, can be so far independent of the process in which he is a part, as never in the hour of revolt to confuse anarchy with liberty, and never, when the time of reconstruction comes, to be tempted to use for the new building some of the "wood, hay, or stubble" of the old which has been tried in the fire and found wanting. No man is allowed to play providence or to escape paying the penalty of the limitations of his individuality and his time.

Any approximation, however, to such a comprehensive result, any life that escapes the fanaticism of abstract denial or abstract reaffirmation of the ideals and faiths of the past, and escapes it not merely by applying the leaden rule of temporary expediency and ordinary common-sense, but by the way of a deeper insight, and a firmer grasp of the unity that binds together all the aspects of the many-sided reality, any life, in short, which does not merely change with the changing time, but has a true progress or development in it, must be of the highest interest and instruction for us. In it, as in a kind of microcosm, we can spell out more clearly the lesson which in the wider macrocosm it is so hard to read. It is this comprehensiveness of experience, this openness to both of the leading currents of tendency in their time, and this constant effort-more or less successful and on a wider or smaller scale-to reach a point of view from which these tendencies might be understood and harmonized, that gives such value to the life and writings of men so different in every other respect as Wordsworth and Carlyle, as Comte and Goethe. It is this also which lends interest to the great movement of German philosophy which began with Kant, and the ultimate meaning of which was expressed by Hegel. For that movement was, above all, an attempt to find a way through the modern principles of subjective freedom - the very principle which produced the Reformation of the sixteenth and the Revolution of the eighteenth century - to a reconstruction of the intellectual and moral order on which man's life had been based in the past.


George William Frederic Hegel was born at Stuttgart, the capital of Wurtemberg, on the 27th August 1770, five years before the birth of Schelling, eleven years after the birth of Schiller, both of whom, like himself, were Wurtembergers. The inhabitants of the Swabian highlands have long been distinguished from the other Germans by peculiarities of dialect and character, by a mixture of shrewdness and simplicity, of religious enthusiasm and speculative free-thinking, which has led Mr. Seeley to name them the Scots of Germany. By position and race, Swabia belongs to the South, by religion to the North, a circumstance which of itself tended to keep alive an intenser religions and intellectual life in a country that might regard itself as a kind of outpost or advanced-guard of Protestantism. In their general characteristics the Swabians form a sort of middle term between the different branches of the German nation. The hard rationalism and practical energy which distinguishes the Protestant North, and especially Prussia, is in them softened and widened by what the Germans call the Gemuthlichkeit of a southern race, and has given rise to a certain meditative depth of nature, which sometimes leads to abstruseness and mysticism, but is less apt to let its consciousness of the wholeness or organic unity of truth be broken and disturbed by the antagonisms of reflection. It is worth noting in this reference, that while the first two leaders in the great philosophical movement of Germany, Kant and Fichte - those who especially asserted the freedom and independence of man, and set the self above the not-self -belonged to the North; the last two, Schelling and Hegel, those who rose above this one-sided idealism to a consciousness of the spirituality of the world and of man's unity with it and with his fellow-men, belonged to the South, and indeed to this same region of Swabia.


Hegel was of a family which traced its descent to one Johann Hegel, who was driven from Carinthis by the Austrian persecution of the Protestants towards the end of the sixteenth century, and which, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gave many of its sons to the humbler branches of the civil service of Wurtemberg. His father, of whom we know little, was an officer in the fiscal service, a man of the orderly habits and the conservative instincts natural to his place. His mother, whom he lost in his thirteenth year, and of whom he always cherished a grateful remembrance, seems to have been a woman of considerable education and intelligence. He had a younger brother, Louis, who became a soldier and a sister, Christiane, between whom and the philosopher there appears to have been a strong bond of affection. We catch a glimpse of a quiet bourgeois household, governed by a spirit of honesty, economy, and industry, and in which the education of the children was the most important concern. After receiving some instruction from his mother, Hegel was sent to a so-called Latin school in his fifth year, and in his seventh to the gymnasium of his native city. He seems to have been distinguished only as a thoroughly teachable boy, ready to acquire knowledge of any kind, but with no predominant taste or capacity in any one direction. He showed from the first the patient methodical habits of the race of civil servants from which he had sprung, and was, in short, that uninteresting character, "the good boy who takes prizes in every class, including the prize for good conduct."

At the age of fourteen he began to keep a diary - it was the age of diaries - but this did not indicate in him any premature tendency to self-consciousness or self-analysis. In fact he found nothing particular to chronicle in it, except the progress of his reading, and sometimes he uses it merely as a means for practicing himself in the writing of Latin. There is perhaps a tinge of boyish pedantry in the premature seriousness with which he records the progress of his studies. A strong expression of affection and gratitude to one of his teachers, called Loffler, who had given him private instruction in addition to the regular class lessons, and who died when Hegel was in his fifteenth year, is almost the only utterance of individual feeling to be found in the diary, - "How often and how happily did he sit by me, and I by him, in the little chamber!" For the rest, the contents of the diary are an echo of the enlightened views of the day which Hegel heard from his teachers and read in the popular text-books of science and philosophy which they put into his hands. In this spirit he points out the evils of intolerance, and the necessity of thinking for one's self, condemns the superstitions of the vulgar, notices the similarity of the miracles of all ages and nations, and suggests that there is not much difference between the purchase of heaven's favor by direct offerings to the gods and the modem substitute of gifts to the Church, - all with the wisdom of a little Solon of the Aufklarung (Enlightenment).


The one study, however, which seems to have taken a deep hold upon him, and which towards the end of his school years awakened him for the first time to some freshness and originality of remark, was the study of Greek poetry. The tragedies of Sophocles especially cast an abiding charm on him; and the "Antigone," which he always considered the masterpiece of dramatic poetry, was twice translated by him - once in prose, and again, at the university, in verse. The elective affinity which thus drew Hegel to the pure undefiled well of Greek art lay very deep in his nature, and produced the greatest effect in all his subsequent work, both positively and negatively. Even during his youth he seems scarcely to have felt any charm in the romance of diseased sentimentalism for which Werther set the fashion in Germany, and which was afterwards repeated in weaker echoes by Schlegel and others. Nor, though as we shall see he afterwards came under the power of Christian and romantic art, did he ever feel anything but repulsion for that formless emotional tendency which was often in his day confused with it. "Early penetrated by the nobility and beauty of Greece," says Rosenkranz, "he never could recognize genuine Christianity in a form which excludes the earnest serenity of antique art."

His usual universality of intelligent sympathy seemed to give way to a certain bitterness of antagonism when he was brought face to face with any example of the Rousseauist disease of self-consciousness; and even in a mystic like Hamann, who attracted him by the humorous riches of his thoughts, Hegel discovered an element of "hypochondria" to which he was unable entirely to reconcile himself. But Greek art came to him as the vision of a realized harmony of existence, in which there was no war of subject and object, of ideal and real; and even from his first contact with it, he found in it his native element. "At the name of Greece," as he declared to his students long afterwards, "the cultivated German feels himself at home. Europeans have their religion-what is transcendent and distant-from a further source, from the East, and especially from Syria; but what is here, what is present, science and art -all that makes life satisfying, and elevates and adorns it - we derive, directly or indirectly, from Greece."

There is another important habit Hegel took with him from school. In his sixteenth year he had commenced the practice of making copious extracts from every book that interested him; and to judge from the manuscripts which are still preserved, he already found interest in almost every branch of science accessible to him. This habit he continued through life; so that there are very few important literary or scientific products of his time-indeed few great literary or scientific products of any time -of which he had not made a full analysis, and even copied out the principal parts. In this way he gradually accumulated a considerable number of well-arranged, commonplace books-for in everything he was exact and orderly-and, what was still more valuable, he acquired the habit not only of grasping the general meaning of the authors he read, but of entering into their specific quality, and appreciating even that subtle flavor of individuality which is conveyed in the minute turns of style and phraseology. True culture, as he afterwards taught, must begin with a resolute self-effacement, with a purely receptive attitude; and it is only through such an attitude that we can attain to that vital criticism which is virtually the criticism of the object by itself.

Speaking of the Pythagorean method of education, in which the pupil was condemned to silence for five years, Hegel says that, "in a sense, this duty of silence is the essential condition of all culture and learning. We must begin with being able to apprehend the thoughts of others, and this implies a disregarding of our own ideas. It is often said that the mind is to be cultured from the first by questions, objections, and answers, etc. In fact, such a method does not give to it real culture, but rather makes it external and superficial By silence, by keeping ourselves to ourselves, we are not made poorer in spirit. Rather by it we gain the capacity of apprehending things as they really are, and the consciousness that subjective opinions and objections are good for nothing, so that we cease at last even to have them." This counsel is no doubt somewhat hard to follow, and it is not without danger of being misinterpreted in the case of minds whose vital power of reaction on what they have received is comparatively feeble. But for minds whose springs cannot be broken by any weight of information, who possess that "robust intellectual digestion which is equal to whole libraries," it is nothing less than intellectual salvation. At any rate it is certain that Hegel had proved it upon himself from the earliest years.


At the age of eighteen Hegel left the gymnasium for the university. Destined by his parents for the Church, he was sent with a bursary to the theological seminary of Tubingen - an institution in which some show of monastic discipline was kept up. The members of the "Stift" wore a peculiar dress, and were subjected to a somewhat petty system of punishments - generally by deprivation of the customary portion of wine at dinner - for all offences against the regular order of the place. Of course theology took the first place in the prescribed order of study, though the course was divided into a philosophical and a theological portion, the former occupying two, and the latter three years. There was at the time no one among the professors of Tubingen who was capable of permanently influencing and guiding a pupil like Hegel. Some of them acknowledged the influence of Kant, then the rising star of philosophy, so far as to make him an occasional subject of lecture, and even to pervert his principles to the support of the old system of doctrine - not a difficult thing with an author in whom the letter so often falls short of the spirit.

But there was not among them even one thoroughly trained disciple of Kant, who could teach the new ideas with sympathy and intelligence. Accordingly Hegel soon learned to take the university work as a routine to be got over with the minimum of attention, and we even find that he was specially reprimanded for the frequency with which he had incurred the penalties for absence from lecture. There is evidence, however, that he steadily pursued his reading in classical authors, adding to them many modem writers, especially Rousseau, whose works were the key to the great political movement then rapidly coming to a head in France. For such reading Hegel was well prepared by his previous training; for Rousseau transcended the individualistic commonplaces of the philosophical text-books, which Hegel had been patiently copying out at school, mainly in this, that his passionate fervor of belief, his native sympathy with the poorer classes, and his sense of social injustice, changed them from the light playthings of literature into the winged shafts of speech that make men mad.

Hegel and his companions, among whom was Schelling - younger in years than Hegel, but much more precocious in intellectual development - formed a political club, in which the ideas of the Revolution were discussed; and Hegel, we are told, was distinguished among its members as the enthusiastic champion of liberty and fraternity. There was even a tradition - which has now been proved to refer to another time - that he and Schelling went out one fine spring morning to plant a tree of Liberty in the market-place of Tubingen. At any rate, it is certain that Hegel fully shared in the wonderful hopes which at the time stirred all that was generous and imaginative in Europe.

" Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven."

For the rest, Hegel took part in all the usual incidents of German student life - its camaraderie, its conviviality, its enthusiastic friendships, and even, it would seem, its love-making, though with a certain staidness and sobriety which got him the nickname of "old man" or "old fellow." He was, we gather, genial and good-humored in manner, and was generally liked by his fellow-students, but not thought to have any very great abilities. Yet he formed special ties of friendship with the two of his fellows in the Stift who afterwards showed original powers, - with Schelling, and with a young poet called Holderlin, whose verses are filled with a kind of romantic longing for Hellenic art and poetry, similar to that which was more powerfully expressed by Schiller in his "Gods of Greece."

Hegel's association with Holderlin, with whom he is recorded to have studied Plato and Sophocles, was I especially fitted to deepen in his mind the impressions which he already had received in the gymnasium from the literature of Greece. Towards the end of his university career, however, his attention began to be turned more definitely towards philosophy, especially in its relation to theology, and in connection therewith to the ethical works of Kant. And the few pages from his note-books which are quoted by Rosenkranz show already his characteristic power of concentrating his meaning in pithy sayings, - words winged at once with imagination and reflection, which strike their mark like a cannon-ball. He had indeed, as we shall see, already entered upon that course of modification and transformation of Kantian principles, out of which his own philosophy was to spring. These studies were, however, altogether hidden from the authorities of the Stift, who, when he left Tubingen in 1793, dismissed him with a certificate that he was a man of good parts and character, somewhat fitful in his work, with little gift of speech; and that he was fairly well acquainted with theology and philology, but had bestowed no attention whatever on philosophy.