Before beginning my first master’s degree in 2011, I knew that I wanted to look at the modern period, and so I spent the summer straddled three ways between my young family, part-time tech work, and reading. One of the more memorable books I remember reading that summer was Frederick Beiser‘s excellent book on Hegel (one review can be found here, another here — and a lecture of his that I can’t seem to get working can be found here). When I first found Beiser’s Hegel, I sat down at noon in a book store to browse it, and (seemingly) soon after my wife called me to tell me that I was very late for dinner and that she was concerned about me. It is that good.
I liked it so much that I corresponded with him, at the beginning of that first master’s program, about studying with him in NY State. He was warm about it; he was also conversational, and I took the opportunity to ask him about what exactly his positions on the Good, God, politics, religion, nature, and the tasks of philosophy are.
His response –which in the context of the e-mail exchange does not come across as a dodge at all– speaks volumes about the virtue of his character, which translates well into his excellence as a historical scholar: he works through the topics by engaging with thinkers who’ve worked on it, and as he always finds himself in sympathy with whatever figure he is researching, he has never dedicated the time to working out his own position apart from these engagements.
Without further ado, here is Beiser on Hegel and the Romantics.
The classical ideals of Hegel and the romantic generation came into sharp conflict with modern reality. While the classical ideals [i.e., the ideals of classical culture] demanded unity, modern society seemed to create division, and on every level: division within oneself, with others and with nature. For Hegel and the young romantics, the fundamental challenge was how to legitimate their ideal of unity of life in face of the growing divisions of modern life. The need for philosophy arose, as Hegel famously put it, from division.
Each ideal of unity seemed to be undermined by some aspect of modern life. The ideal of unity with oneself was threatened by the growing division of labor, the need for each individual to specialize and devote himself to a narrow task. The more production became rationalized or efficient, the more he would have to cultivate specific skills and talents. Rather than realizing all their powers, people could develop only one narrow side of themselves. Acutely aware of this problem, the romantics agreed with Schiller’s famous lament:
Always chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into only a fragment; always in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel that he turns, he never develops the harmony of his being; and instead of putting the stamp of humanity upon his nature he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his business or science.
Of course, in classical culture the division of labor had not been such a danger. This was not only because of the lack of technology, but also because of the entrenched institution of slavery. Free from the realm of economic necessity, the citizens of the Greek and Roman republics had more time and energy to spend on civic affairs. But slavery was not acceptable to the modern world; and so the claims of the economic world became inescapable. The problem for Hegel and the young romantics was how to achieve the classical ideal of excellence without the classical institution of slavery. This seemed all but unattainable when modern forms of production and exchange seemed only to enslave everyone.
The ideal of unity with others also faced grave dangers in the modern world. The fundamental trends of modern civil society seemed to be toward atomism and anomie, the decomposition of society and the state into a multitude of separate individuals who sought only their self-interest. Rather than joining together for the common good, individuals were forced to compete in the market place. There was no hope for participation in the community of a republic because of the sheer size and scale of the modern state, its increasing centralization and bureaucratization. The modern individual saw the state as a hostile and alien being, whose purpose was to dominate and control him. These atomistic trends of civil society were clearly perceived in Germany toward the close of the eighteenth century. Writers complained about the decline of the village community and parish from growing urbanization, and they deplored unemployment among urban masses.
Finally, the ideal of unity with nature also seemed unattainable. The ancients would identify themselves with nature, because they saw it as a living whole of which they were a part. But the whole realm of nature had become disenchanted through the growth of modern science and technology. Rather than seeing nature as an object of contemplation, as a realm of beauty, mystery and magic, the technologist gave it only an instrumental value. He was engaged in a struggle against nature, which he wanted to dominate and control by a machine. Since nature is only a machine, it can be controlled to serve us.
How, then, was it possible to achieve unity in life if modern society only creates divisions? For Hegel, and the young romantic generation, that was the crucial issue of the age. [Frederick Beiser, Hegel (The Routledge Philosophers) (New York: Routledge, 2005), 47ff.]
Dear reader, you must buy this book.
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