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Tragedy in Hegel's Early Theological Writings

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Tragedy plays a central role in Hegel's early writings on theology and politics. Hegel’s overarching aim in these texts is to determine the kind of mythology that would best complement religious and political freedom in modernity. Peter Wake claims that, for Hegel at this early stage, ancient Greek tragedy provided the model for such a mythology and suggested a way to oppose the rigid hierarchies and authoritarianism that characterized Europe of his day. Wake follows Hegel as he develops his idea of the essence of Christianity and its relation to the distinctly tragic expression of beauty found in Greek mythology.

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Introduction: Monotheism of Reason and the Heart, Polytheism of the Imagination and Art

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INTRODUCTION

Monotheism of Reason and the Heart, Polytheism of the Imagination and Art

The following study addresses what I will call G. W. F. Hegel’s early theologico-political writings. It focuses primarily on a series of unpublished, fragmentary works that Hegel produced while living in Bern (1793–1796) and Frankfurt (1797–1800). I will, however, make no attempt to engage these early writings as if the later system did not exist. Indeed, one of the aims of revisiting them is to read parts of Hegel’s later systematic texts through the earlier ones with the hope of capturing a spirit of engagement and an openness to future events that is too often concealed behind the still-lingering image of Hegel’s work as a triumphalist philosophy of historical progress, a totalitarian theory of the Absolute, and the last stand of the onto-theological tradition.1 Hegel’s early thought amounts to a thoroughgoing challenge to religious dogmatism and a rejection more specifically of the “positive” use of abstract, impersonal, metaphysical categories when conceiving of the divine. The force of Hegel’s challenge ought to give us pause before this persistent image of his work.

 

1. Positivity and Historical Reversal

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ONE

Positivity and Historical Reversal

In thinking, I raise myself above all that is finite to the absolute and am infinite consciousness, while at the same time I am finite self-consciousness, indeed to the full extent of my empirical condition. Both sides, as well as their relation, exist for me [in] the essential unity of my infinite knowing and my finitude. These two sides seek each other and flee from each other.… I am not one of the parts caught up in the conflict but am both of the combatants and the conflict itself. I am the fire and water that touch each other, the contact and the union of what utterly flies apart.

—Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion

Positivität: Either Life or Death

It is apparent from his earliest writings that, for Hegel, religions live and die. In his pre-Jena writings, the model for religious life is consistently the Volksreligion of ancient Greece. The sign of death is what he calls “positivity” (Positivität), and this characterizes the religion of Hegel’s own time. Most concretely, the “positive” elements of a religion are its statues, creeds, dogma, codified moral laws, and theologies,1 but, for Hegel, “positivity” means, in essence, artificially fixing what is inherently fluid. More pointedly, it is a kind of fundamentalism, insofar as this term refers very narrowly to the naturalizing or essentializing of “contingent, historically conditioned traits.”2 “Positive” law, as opposed to “natural” law, is not self-given but is instead posited by a dominant, external authority. It gives rise, in turn, to a broadly legalistic caste of mind. When it is not simply an automatic adherence to the law, legalistic thinking reduces duties to a kind of calculus: “a dead letter is laid down as a foundation and on it a system is constructed prescribing how men are to act and feel” (W 1:181/P 137).3 A positive liturgy, then, is one that presents rituals and texts as if they were fixed and indisputable facts.4 The practices that Hegel associates with positive religion are an insult to life: “To mouth incomprehensible prayers, to read masses, to recite rosaries, to perform meaningless ceremonies, this is the activity of the dead. Man here attempts to become a sheer object [Objekt], to allow himself to be ruled entirely by something that is foreign.”5 In sum, “a positive religion is a contranatural or a supernatural one, containing concepts and information transcending understanding and reason and requiring feeling and actions which would not come naturally to men: the feeling are forcibly and mechanically stimulated, the actions are done to order or from obedience without any spontaneous interest” (W 1:217/P 167). The letter is, as Hegel writes, dead.

 

2. On Expansion

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TWO

On Expansion

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big heart quit. Except for an occasional request for color she said practically nothing—until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white-people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved 1

Divided Jesus

The imperative to spread the word of the master comes after the Resurrection. The risen Jesus commands of his disciples,

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:15–18)

 

3. The Idea of Freedom as Independence

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THREE

The Idea of Freedom as Independence

Dialectic thought is an attempt to break through the coercion of logic by its own means. But since it must use these means, it is at every moment in danger of itself acquiring a coercive character: the ruse of reason would like to hold sway over the dialectic too.

—Adorno, Minima Moralia

Baptismos

With The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate fragments, Hegel begins again.1 He traverses much of the same terrain as he did in The Positivity of the Christian Religion, but now he does so in such a way that the full force of dialectic thinking becomes evident. As we will see, when the unity of Periclean Athens, as the historical proof of the possible concrete existence of the moral law, is disrupted, a shift occurs in Hegel’s thinking. This shift in thought accompanies the move to Frankfurt in January 1797 and the reunion with his friend Hölderlin, and it is expressed through a reorientation of some of the central terms I have been charting in the Positivity:

 

4. Withdrawal and Exile

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FOUR

Withdrawal and Exile

To be a subject is to be a power of unending withdrawal, an ability always to find oneself behind what happens to one.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents

Separation from Separation

In the time of fermentation that leads up to the Jewish revolt against Rome, there were those who were able to grasp the fate of the Jews but only in a partial manner—“men of commoner soul, though of strong passions” (W 1:317/SC 205). They lacked the inner vision that Hegel will later attribute to world-historical individuals. As such, they were “not calm enough either to let its waves carry them along passively and unconsciously and so just to swim with the tide, or alternatively, to await the further development necessary before a stronger power could be associated with their efforts. The result was that they overran the fermentation of the whole and fell without honor and without achievement” (ibid.). According to Hegel, Jesus distinguishes himself from these commoner souls by setting himself against the whole of this fate, such that his doctrine was aligned with none of its elements. In a gesture reminiscent of Abraham’s initial act, and, thus, a gesture that recalls the act that founded the spirit of independence itself, Jesus is said to break with the fate of this spirit in a similarly all-encompassing manner. What most clearly distinguishes Jesus’s original gesture from that of Abraham is what each is reacting against. According to Hegel, Abraham separated himself from a community of love, while Jesus separated himself from a nation suffering the fate of the rejection of love. Hegel presents Jesus’s own fate concisely: “But the enmities like those he sought to transcend can be overcome [auf heben1] only by valor; they cannot be reconciled [versöhnen] by love. Even his sublime effort to overcome the whole of the Jewish fate must therefore have failed with his people, and he was bound to become its victim himself” (W 1:317/SC 205–206, emphasis added). On its face, then, Hegel’s account of the movement from Judaism to Christianity does not appear to embody the internal “progress of the consciousness of freedom” (W 12:32/LWH 54) that he will later find in world history. The spirit of Christianity is born as an attempt to overcome the spirit of Judaism, but it is not explicitly presented as surmounting its contradictions, and there is no clear indication that we are progressing toward freedom as “the sole end of the spirit” (ibid.). Rather, it is scripted, at least in this passage, as a sublime but failed attempt to achieve this end. Yet despite Jesus’s failure to mediate fully the separation opened by Judaism, can his sublime effort still be conceived as a moment within a broader progression toward genuine reconciliation (the union of feeling and the intellect “in something beautiful, in a god, by means of the imagination”), even if it is not this final fulfillment itself?

 

5. Dialectic of Love

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FIVE

Dialectic of Love

The dead body resting there in the interminable decomposition of relics, the spirit never raises itself high enough, it is retained as a kind effluvium, of gas fermenting above the corpse.

—Jacques Derrida, Glas

Beauty as Love Objectified

The beauty found in the beautiful soul is attributed to the subject rather than the social “substance” as a whole. Indeed, it marks a rupture that opens the subjective sphere of interiority.1 For Hegel, the withdrawal characterizing this beauty of the soul is an essential aspect of the figure of Jesus, and the fate of the beautiful soul is that of Christianity in general. This is the figure in whom, as Hegel writes, “the supreme guilt is compatible with supreme innocence; the most wretched fate with elevation above all fate” (W 1:351/SC 236, translation altered). The purging of all hostile feelings, all sense of pride, all demands on another is necessary because the possibility of reconciliation and the rebirth of friendship and love depends on having done no harm to life. The soul that has detached itself from all objectivity is open to reconciliation. Only with the “cancellation” (Auf hebung, ibid.) of the hostile fate that the beautiful soul has brought into being against itself can the possibility of forgiveness arise. As an inevitable transgression against life, the original act that gave rise to the fate subsists, but “only as something past, as a fragment, as a corpse” (W 1:354/SC 239), not, presumably, as a ghost that continues to haunts the conscience. If properly buried, it will not return. Indeed, Hegel speaks of a reconciliation that conquers fate to the point where it is “dissolved into the airs of night” (W 1:351/SC 237), like a wound that heals without a trace.2 By way of forgiveness, “life has severed itself from itself and united itself again” (W 1:354/SC 239). Who participates in forgiveness? The short answer is Mary Magdalene, but a fuller response requires clarifying the proper relations among forgiveness, faith, and withdrawal.

 

Conclusion: Comedy, Subjectivity, and the Negative

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CONCLUSION

Comedy, Subjectivity, and the Negative

Ohne ihn gelesen zu haben, läßt sich kaum wissen, wie dem Menschen sauwohl sein kann.

—Hegel on Aristophanes (W 15:553)

In the Phenomenology, “the revealed religion,” Christianity, is not a failed tragedy as is the case in The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. By 1807, Christianity is presented as the fulfillment of the religious forms found in ancient Greece. What has happened in the interim? How do we explain this conversion, or inversion (Umkehrung)?1 Whereas Hegel presents Christianity in Frankfurt as die ungeheure Verbindung (a monstrous combination) over which “millions of God-seeking souls have fought and tormented themselves” (W 1:409–410/SC 293), he now sees Jesus as “a tragic hero translated from the stage into real life.”2 As a clue to the reason this transformation takes place, we might consider the fact that the movement from “the spiritual work of art” of Greece to “the revealed religion” passes through comedy as the sublation of tragedy. If, as Hegel discovers in Frankfurt, beauty is tragic and tragic beauty is not only the presentation of life but its dissolution as well, “religion in the form of art” must also be the art of its own dissolution. This occurs in the laughter of comedy. Hegel writes in the Lectures on Fine Art that comedy—as opposed to the laughter of derision, scorn and despair—implies “an infinite light-heartedness and confidence felt by someone raised altogether above his own inner contradiction…: this is the bliss and ease of a man who, being sure of himself, can bear the frustration of his aims and achievements” (W 15:528/LFA 1200).

 

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