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Philosophy: a poetic introduction to Hegel

Philosophy: a poetic introduction to Hegel November 21, 2005

I’m reading Heinrich Heine’s book “Religion and Philosophy in Germany“, which is actually a collection of essays he wrote in Paris between 1831-1856. It is written in the most lucid and beautiful prose I have come across in a long time. No wonder, Heine was a celebrated poet and literary critic, not a philosopher. However, the philosophy comes through beautifully as well, certainly with no more idiosyncrasies than in any philosopher who writes of prior thinkers. He writes with the general audience in mind and does so brilliantly. Here is an excerpt (in around 1804 Joseph Schelling has written the last of his influential works and G.F.W. Hegel is near publishing his great opus: The Phenomenology of Spirit):

I am of the opinion that with this attempt intellectually to conceive the absolute Schelling’s philosophic career comes to a close. A greater thinker now steps on the scene, one who rounds into a completed system the philosophy of nature, explains from this synthesis the whole world of phenomena, supplements the great ideas of his predecessors by yet greater ideas, subjects their philosophy to every form of discipline, and thus establishes it on a scientific basis. He is the scholar of Schelling, a scholar, however, who, making himself by degrees the possessor of all his master’s might in the realm of philosophy, outgrows his master, and finally thrusts him into obscurity. This is the great Hegel, greatest of philosophers begotten by Germany since Leibnitz. There can be no doubt that he far overtops Kant and Fichte. To the penetration of the former and to the vigour of the latter he adds the tranquility of a mind that works by constitutional methods, a harmony of thought not to be found in either Kant or Fichte, in both of whom the revolutionary spirit is predominant. No comparison is possible between this man and Joseph Schelling; for Hegel was a man of character.

If you have any interest in German thought (Religious or Philosophical) up to the 1830s, this is a must read. I have to admit, I skipped everything before Kant-Hegel (the third part of the book), but I’ll go back and read the other two parts as soon as time is available. Heine breaks it up into three eras, the early period of high-Germanic culture and Catholic incursion, the Religious revolution of Luther, and the Philosophical revolution begun by Kant and completed by Hegel.

Frighteningly, Heine, in the 1830s, writing to a French audience, concludes the book by warning that the Philosophical revolution was sure to be followed at some point by a political revolution, the likes of which would make the bloody terror of France (1789-1790) pale in comparison.

For if the hand of the Kantian strikes with a strong unerring blow, his heart being stirred by no feeling of traditional awe; if the Fichtean courageously defies every danger, since for him danger has in reality no existence; –the Philosopher of Nature will be terrible in this, that he has allied himself with the primitive powers of nature, that he can conjure up the demoniac forces of old German pantheism; and having done so, there is aroused in him that ancient German eagerness for battle which combats not for the sake of destroying, not even for the sake of victory, but merely for the sake of combat itself.

The Philosopher of Nature is in some sense Schelling. But he failed to make his philosophy clear and fell into rather poor poetry (at least according to our poet and critic, Heine). Nietzsche may be a fairer candidate for our Philosopher of Nature, ‘allied … with the primitive powers of nature‘. But Nietzsche is far cleverer than this. He points not to ol’ Germany, but to the Greeks for his pantheism.

Hitler himself may be a truer candidate for our ‘Philosopher of Nature’. He who so brilliantly combined the old Germanic eagle, symbol of might, and the Hindu swastika (which in Sanskrit means literally ‘own-goodness’) and the label ‘Aryan’ (which means ‘Noble one’). Hitler’s on the street cronies were the ‘Stormtroopers’ and his war began with a bolt of lightning, the Blitzkrieg. It is with Hitler indeed that the ‘demoniac forces of old German pantheism‘ were finally conjured up into modernity. (more on Heine and the Nazis, another link) So in this great book we find not only brilliant prose and lucid explication of German philosophy, but also indeed a bit of prophesy.

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