Hegel on History of Literature, with some reference to politics.

Hegel’s view of literary history is now doubt too complex to be summarised as it will be here, but Hegel himself had many moments of extremely reductive synthesis and summary, and what is suggested here is a reasonable framework for approaching what Hegel is doing with literature.  What follows summarises Hegel in ways that don’t always match his most direct statements, but seem to me to capture his enterprise.


There are two major stages of European culture, for Hegel, and that is the culture that matters to Hegel.  The first is classical and refers to the pre-Christian era where gods are many and the world of the sacred is like an exaggerated version of the everyday world, rather than something than can be seen as transcending the everyday world.  The second stage is the romantic, and refers to the Christian era.  This is open to confusion since the term is normally used for subjective expressivist tendencies in art as they appeared in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries.  Hegel deals with that but not in a fully integrated way, with reference to extremes of subjectivity and the end of art, as what can match philosophy and religion.  Art in the Christian era refers to art which tries to refer to the transcendent world of the Christian God.

The essential classical work of literature is the epics of Homer (the use of the name ‘Homer’ stands in for the large number of possible forms of authorship for the collection of verses we attribute to Homer) which present a world of unified rules and mores.  The essential romantic work of literature is Dante’s Divine Comedy,which presents the author on a journey through the three parts of the transcendent world in Catholic Christianity: Hell, Purgatory (where sins are purged from those who are destined for Heaven, but were not perfect enough in earthly life to earn direct passage to Heaven), Heaven.  Homer showed a unified vision of archaic Greece based on war and primitive aristocracy, from the point of view of a much later Greek world; Dante shows a unified northern Italian Medieval world through an exploration of the structures of its religious consciousness.

Later literature is disintegrative from Hegel’s point of view.  Tragedy is the product of Athenian democracy, which Hegel finds admirable but non-sustainbable:  Tragedy shows the conflicts of values, something Hegel by his famous account of Sophocles’ Antigone as a way of dealing with the conceptual limits and the historical end of ideas of sacred and civic law at that time.  The novel is quite an uncomfortable form for Hegel, because it lacks the integrated world view of Homeric and Dantean epic.  The novel deals with subjective perspectives, often multiple, shifting and ironised.  That idea of the novel had been seen as ideal union of poetry and philosophy shortly before Hegel’s started writing his best known work (that is from the Phenomenology of Spiritwhich was published in 1807.   However, Hegel reacts against this view to be found in the Jena Romantic essays of Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis etcetera. There is a political undercurrent.  İn the last years oıf the 18th century, the Jena Romantics associated multiple view points in art with ‘republicanism’, what we know call political liberalism or liberal democracy.  Like the founders of the American Republic, Hegel was suspicious of ‘democracy’, and like them said remarkably interesting things about politics, but also like them did not quite understand how republicanism could exist in the modern world through a unified system of  representative democracy. The present American system is essentially an attempt to marry a revival of Rome with the constant application of  the principle of the people directly electing representatives  at the heat of modern republicanism.    Unlike the American founders, Hegel’s thoughts perspicuous and otherwise, were not encoded as a constitution that still dominates his own nation.

The novel in the flow of Hegel’s argument is a romantic form expressing disintegrative aspects of romanticism, so hardly rising to the level of a fully formed romantic piece of writing.  This fits with his critical attitude to Romantic aesthetic theory, summarised above, and other more indirect allusions to the danger of subjectivity in literature.  There are references in Phenomenology of Spirit and later, certainly in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, to the dangers of extremes of inner self-perfection and obsession in ethics and culture, as we see in discussions of the unhappy consciousness, the beautiful soul, and subjective morality that become evil.  Some of this must refer to the dark side of romanticism, the melancholia and eventual mental collapse of Hegel’s friend, the poet Hölderlinor the suicide portrayed by Goethe in Sorrows of Young Werther, which inspired copycat suicides.

Tragedy, Athenian and Shakespearean can only be seen as disintegrative even if great, lyric poetry cam only be seen as a step towards subjective alienation from communal ethics.  Hegel has many very perceptive things to say about these forms, but cannot see the possibility of recurring greatness in literature, which most obviously conditions his view of the novel in a very limiting way.  It also leaves him with a schematic view of tragedy and a failure to grasp its continuing possibilities.



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