Hegel’s early writings on religion and Christianity, particularly The Positivity of the Christian Religion contain discussion of law, religion, and the state, which anticipate political theory work on liberalism, communitarianism, egalitarianism, and libertarianism, drawing on earlier discussions of liberty, law, and religion in different political regimes, particularly as undertaken by Montesquieu, though Hegel does not often refer directly to him.
What Hegel adds to the discussion and which can be useful for current discussions is a sense of tension within regimes and between different kinds of regime, which casts the greatest possible light on the nature of those regimes, and which incorporates a sense of change and historical process into political thought and thought about political regimes.
Hegel’s early discussion of religion includes many comments on the place of religion in politics and law, including the role that the rise of Christianity has in the general movement from ancient republics based on virtue to modern states based on positive law.
Hegel establishes four basics kinds of state with regard to the place they give to religion, as something that appears in the course of his writing on religion. The first two kinds are the contrasting pair of Greek and Jewish states in antiquity. These are taken by Hegel in republican terms, though even though he acknowledges the Ancient Jews adopted monarchy within the framework of a religiously oriented state system.
Their republican aspect is in their commitment to equality and in this Hegel follows Montesquieu’s view of a republic as based on a principle of virtue. Strictly speaking that only applies to democratic republics, not aristocratic republics, which are based on a principle of moderation. However, moderation is really a way of replicating virtue, so is not completely distinct. Montesquieu’s own clarification of the principle of virtue is that it largely means patriotism, which includes putting public goods above private benefits along with equality, which from the analyses in The Spirit of the Laws can be taken as referring to economic equality, along with equality before the law and equality in political rights.
The Greek form of republic implements equality through distribution of land in Hegel’s account, while the Jewish form of republic implements equality through abolition of private land holdings, which are only used by individuals on loan from the state. On this basis, Hegel suggests that the Greek model is more individualising while the Jewish model is more collectivist.
The other major distinction between the two kinds of republic are religiously based, though of course religion enters into the land ownership issues, so that the Greek kind of republic makes gods and law knowable to humans and open to experience, even if this may involve some mystical elements.
The Jewish kind of republic makes law something given from a divinity unknown in the way Greek gods might be known, and is so remote that the ancient Jews needed Moses, that is political leadership, and a form of physical religious manifestation as mediating agents, the Holy of Holies, which houses the Ten Commandments. The desire for mediation extends to the Jewish state and its monarchy.
Faced with Roman oppression, the Jewish state resorts to material political and military efforts to defend its spiritually justified existence. For Hegel, this is a grotesque mixture of elements, in which the fall of the Jewish state at Roman hands lacks the status of tragedy, though Hegel does compare the Jewish resistance to Rome with the destructiveness of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy, so his view of republics is entangled in a complicated way with his concept of tragedy. Since his understanding of tragedy includes a strong distinction between ancient and modern forms, his comparison of the fate of the ancient Jewish state with a modern tragedy is significant itself. Compared with the Greeks, in Hegel’s account, the Jews lacked tragedy, or maybe just ancient tragedy, and a sense of the human world of politics.
The Greek kind of republic goes through its own degeneracy according to Hegel’s Montesquieu style account of the decline of virtue, so that despotism takes over from republicanism. It is an account that can be taken as a reference to the subordination of the Greek republics to the Macedonian monarchy and then the transformation of Rome into a disguised revival of monarchy under the Emperors, reinforcing the subordination of the Greek republics to non-republican forms of government. The sense of the weakness of humanity, of its apparent lack of capacity to naturally generate goodness leads to a kind of despair that makes Christianity a rising religion, since it offers some kind of explanation and solution to this situation.
It is really here that Hegel situates the role of ‘positive law’, which he strongly associates with the positive content of Christianity. That is he associates the rise of law made by political will over laws that apparently represent some deep agreement of the community about general principles of justice, which might be described as natural justice, with the ways in which Christian churches manifest particular laws and representations of the divine, rather than just recognition of the absolute nature of the divine. The issues are entangled in Hegel’s account partly because his major discussion of law is with regard to laws favouring the state church.