Richard Bourke

ISBN 978-0-691-25018-2  Princeton £25

reviewed by Alan Dent


Hegel believed the  “moral outlook”, as Bourke calls it, was “outside history”. This is a very strange idea. The suggestion is, if we take a moral stance, we are setting ourselves apart from prevailing circumstances, which are assumed to be immoral. Moral corruption, Bourke observes, is endemic to social life. Somehow, our moral sense is separate from this social life. The more you think about it, the more absurd it becomes.  

Hegel, of course, knew nothing of evolution. Presumably he took for granted we were placed on earth by a deity. He spent his philosophical life and energy trying to understand the motive force of history. Did he succeed? Compared to Darwin, he failed. The latter set out to account for the proliferation of species and did so by revealing two principles. Darwin was in the dark about genetics. Today, so the scientists tell us, genetics confirms his theory. Do we have any confirmation of Hegel’s theory? Is there any serious evidence for his views?  

Hegel believed conscience was an historical product. Yet if this is true, why wouldn’t it be true also of, say, the visual system? We are able to see because biology has endowed us with a visual faculty. How would we be able to make moral choices if it hadn’t endowed us with a moral faculty? The ingenious, simple experiments in this field, runaway train problems for example, tend to show a significant degree of cross-cultural similarity. If our moral sense was historically engendered,  fundamental differences in moral judgment from one society to another would be unsurprising. Yet it appears people in widely differing cultures make fundamentally the same choices: send the train one way it kills five, the other it kills one. People, it seems, tend to choose the latter whether they live in Russia, China, the US, North Korea or the Arctic Circle.   

Hegel considered Christianity a failure because its moral posture ran up against the prevailing conditions. What was required was to use those conditions as the basis for improvement. Yet this raises the question: without moral objection to the circumstances, why would anyone want to improve them? Judaism was the thesis, criticism of its top-down nature the antithesis and out of the clash came the synthesis of Christianity, which granted more leeway to individual conscience. What Hegel is trying to do is produce a theory which retrospectively accounts for what he knows about history. There are moments of revolutionary change but they are prepared over long periods. There must be some mechanism behind this, some rational function inquiry can uncover. What, however, if history is a mistake?  

Hegel casts back to the ancients, some two to three thousand years ago. Human beings like us, ie with language and abstract thought have been here for about fifty thousand years, no one is sure and ten thousand years is a margin of error. Agriculture is about twelve thousand years old. That, it is reasonable to claim, is the beginning of history. Pre-history accounts for about four-fifths of our existence. During that time, we were hunter-gatherers, of one kind or another. There was nothing which could be called an economy. Presumably, Hegel’s historical dialectic wasn’t at work. Thus, if conscience is a product of that process, hunter gatherers didn’t possess it. What evidence do we have that twenty thousand years ago people weren’t making moral choices just as we do?  

Most anthropologists believe hunter-gatherer societies were fairly egalitarian. It’s important not to be romantic about this. Their nomadic way of life may have played a significant role: if you’re mobile, you can’t take much with you; but also their way of providing for themselves doesn’t permit the creation of a surplus. However, if we spent the first forty thousand of our fifty thousand years as hunter-gatherers, doesn’t that suggest we evolved for that way of life? There’s a hypothesis, for example, that our capacity for long-distance running is a function of the need to track prey. Wouldn’t it be likely also that we evolved a moral faculty in keeping with what we had to do to survive?  

The essential point is this: Hegel proposes we are what we are only in and through  economic, social and political circumstances. Yet consciousness as a faculty can’t be a product of historical circumstance. The content of consciousness can, but not consciousness itself. It must be a given, biological endowment. Hegel’s in an empty organism theory and as such intrinsically reactionary. The irony is he imagines it progressive. If we are empty organisms, if culture imprints on the blank slate of our minds what it chooses, why should we prefer one social form to another? Why would there have been any objection to Judaism? Why would feudalism have given way to constitutional monarchy and capitalism? If we did not have a given biological nature, what would  we be but blobs of jelly? No one contests that the growth of arms and legs is because we are biologically endowed to grow them. Why should mental capacities be any different? If we have endowed biological capacities, which we obviously do, then aren’t we faced with Milan Kundera’s “anthropological scandal”? Society can’t require us to do what is beyond our given capacities. Hegel, in the effort to make his theory cohere, exaggerates. He grants absolute power to History, working through the World Spirit; but if we deny a common, biological inheritance and propose that what we are is purely historical, why shouldn’t we be slaves, or concentration camp inmates? Where is the moral ground for criticism of social forms except that they offend against our given, shared nature? This is why Hegel has to reject moral opposition, to dismiss it as unhistorical and to put his faith in what today we call “pragmatism” or “Realpolitik” ie conformism to the prevailing norms, however vile they may be. Of course, the conformism permits a narrow band of criticism and Hegel sees this, working over time, as the source of eventual cataclysmic change; but he does not grant that it is human moral agency which matters. History does the work. We are its playthings. This, of course, was taken over almost holus-bolus by his disciple Marx, and we have seen the appalling consequences. There is a straight line from Hegel, through Marx to Stalin. 

“He prized above all else the modern constitutional state based on the idea of universal freedom” writes Bourke of Hegel in his preface. Hegel died in 1831. Where in the world was this state? If the French Revolution, which fascinated him, was an example of universal freedom, the Terror was an odd expression of it. Marx quipped that if the slogan of 1789 was “liberty, equality, fraternity,” that of 1848 was “cavalry, artillery, infantry”. The slogan of the Jacobins, the rhetoric of the murderous Robespierre were commonplace hypocrisy. It was hardly possible for the French middle-classes to proclaim they wanted a revolution to enhance their own position. What their rhetoric did was to appeal to moral high-mindedness. All political leaders do this. Hitler did it and was a genius of rhetoric who understood you never tell the people what you mean. That Hegel prized the State above all else, even the so-called modern, constitutional one, is a measure of his conservatism. The State is a product of violence. Is there an example in history of a State which wasn’t so created? The essential function of the State for centuries has been the defence of property. The State is the instrument of dictators. Without it Hitler and Stalin would have been impotent. Indeed, they were, in human terms, obviously impotent individuals, as is Trump and many more apparent leaders. The power of the State permitted them to give expression to their weakness. Leslie Brothers, the American neuroscientist, argues that the basis of human society is conversation. It permits deflation of the pompous and arrogant. The State ends conversation and replaces it with we-talk-you-listen. It’s interesting that illiterate peasants in Spain in 1936 understood this. They didn’t need philosophy to see that State propped up the power of the landowners who exploited them.  

Bourke evokes “Western morality”. What is that? How can he know that our moral conceptions weren’t in human heads five thousand years ago? Take a simple principle: aggression is wrong. Are we to believe no one among our hunter gatherer forbears embraced this idea? 

“Whereas Kant believed that moral standards were inherent in human reason, Hegel argued that ethical norms had evolved over time.” Why are these mutually exclusive? We have a moral faculty provided by evolution but it operates in particular circumstances so its content changes. It might be worth making the comparison with language: language in use changes daily, but the language faculty doesn’t alter.  

Hegel accepted Kant’s idea that “rational religion was dedicated to the goal of moral perfection.” Moral perfection? What can that possibly be? We have a moral faculty. We have to make moral choices moment by moment. The faculty doesn’t allow of perfection in the sense that it improves to the point where it can’t make a mistake. It is perfect only in the sense that at any moment we are able to choose, and what else is moral faculty for? The religious fantasies of heaven, nirvana and so on are an obliteration of moral choice: a context in which no one could do wrong would be one in no one could do right. It’s because evil is always possible that good is also. We are never exempt from choosing. This is our nature, our biological endowment. There is no teleological movement of history which will deliver us to a form of society in which good inevitably prevails.  

Writing of Jesus’s attempts to bring change, Bourke says that moral precepts and existing circumstances inevitably collided. Inevitably only in the sense that the Roman Empire was corrupt. By Jesus’s time, there had been ten thousand years of property-based society. Humanity had taken a wrong turn: it had made the mistake of believing the pursuit of material wealth could be in and of itself a moral aim. We can’t live without moral aims because we are endowed with a moral faculty ie we are by nature concerned about the well-being of others. Adam Smith understood that when he called the pursuit of personal wealth “a delusion”. When the idea of wealth as our principle aim got into the human mind, it dehumanised us. Doesn’t it make sense to call this a mistake? Hegel is intent on proving History a rational process. Marx did the same;  but there is nothing rational about choosing a way of life at odds with our nature.  

Kant viewed historical knowledge as essentially “imitation”: “one learns to walk by first being led.” True, but only if the capacity to walk is endowed. One learns to talk by being spoken to, but cats hear language and never pick it up. We can’t be led to achieve was isn’t given in our nature. 

Kant also wrote of “the great unthinking masses.” This is pure prejudice, the belief that only professional philosophers think. Everybody thinks, all the time. Try to stop yourself. The only way you can is by thinking about not thinking.  

Hegel believed the “aim and essence” of religion was “human morality”. What does this mean? Either we are moral creatures by nature or we aren’t, in which case the attempt to make us such is futile. In practice, religion has been largely about control. It’s astonishing that Hegel could survey the history of the Inquisition, witness the widespread corruption in the church and still believe in some pure essence of religion aiming at moral progress. 

It's interesting, in the light of the current hysteria about antisemitism, defined so broadly it can mean anything, that Hegel was a critic of Judaism, seeing it as a religion of “mechanical obedience” and “merely appearing to be good”. He saw Abraham (who never existed) as denatured, a man who wanted “not to love”.  Moses set the Jews against the rest of humanity.  He’d be in some difficulty in the Labour Party.  

Hegel believed Christianity failed because it posed moral precepts in opposition to prevailing corruption. Its high-minded essence was that “moral worth was esteemed over social standing and distinguishing talents”. In other words, everyone can be a person of character. What gets in the way, of course, is the false doctrine that wealth and power are hallmarks of character. What way is there to defeat that other than to take a moral stance against it?  

Christianity promoted the negative characteristic of spiritual pride, yet Hegel, in 1806 when Napoleon faced Brunswick at the battle of Jena, was thrilled to see the Corsican on horseback finding him “impossible not to admire”. Perhaps this, more than anything, reveals the hollowness of his philosophy. Napoleon was a vain, violent dictator, a man willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for his self-aggrandisement. Lost in his speculations about the World Spirit, Hegel lost also the simple ability to recognise a phoney. 

“Much of Hegel’s treatment involved a tirade against moralism, an indictment of philanthropic attitudinising in politics which disdained the realities of power and unavoidable clashes of interest,” says Bourke. He makes no distinction between morality and moralism, but the two are miles apart: the former is genuine the latter the means of concealing self-interest. Notice, also, how Bourke slips in the doom-laden phrase “the realities of power”. That’s what you hear when people are going to die in their millions. He takes power for granted because he’s on Hegel’s side. Power must never be taken for granted. It must always justify itself, it must always be challenged, and when it can’t justify itself it must be rejected. Just what Bourke means too by “philanthropic attitudinising” is worth pausing over. He is rejecting philanthropy? It’s hard not to conclude that he’s siding with Realpolitik. Yes, hundreds of thousands had to perish in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that’s the reality of power. There is, of course, a pride, much like the spiritual version of the holier-than-thou, which seizes the minds of those who believe they have understood the motive force of history. It’s commonplace among Marxists some of whom, with a Napoleonic sneer, will dismiss as inevitable the mass deaths necessary to bring about the revolution. The reality of power, or rather the self-regarding fantasies of the feeble-minded. ‘“Sometimes,” Hegel coolly remarked, “drastic means were required..gangrenous limbs cannot be cured by lavender water.”’ Notice Bourke’s use of “coolly”. He obviously approves. When people in power talk about the need for drastic measures, the poor and powerless know what’s coming.  

Bourke thinks Tacitus’s Germania was the source of Hegel’s belief in Germanic freedom. The book was written in 98 AD and much of the data appears to have been second-hand. Tacitus notes that power, to some degree, rests at the bottom and everyone has some say in the big decisions. This kind of arrangement, Hegel views as a contribution to the Germanic love of freedom. Had he been around in 1933, he might have changed his mind.  

“..freedom is possible only when a people is legally united within a state,” wrote Hegel. What does he mean by freedom? Where is the evidence? What exactly does it mean to be “united”? Were the people of Germany united by the Third Reich or those of Russia by Stalinism? The use of “only” is too categorical. Philosophers can fall into this trap: only the categorical is persuasive. Perhaps its wiser, given the limitations of our cognitive capacities, to assume that little is categorical. What is at work here, it seems, is Hegel’s need to justify his theory. If History is teleological, if it is intrinsically rational and progressive, it must be true that, the State being an advanced form, it represents freedom. “Freedom” is a vacuous term. It needs to be applied. Do people have the freedom to vote, to wear what they like, have children with whom they choose, or, to refuse to work for someone else’s profit? Hegel is hampered by his assumptions. We are creations of a deity who has a plan for us, for example. Even those who believe in that today have to recognise that if there is a plan it’s effected by evolution and natural selection, mutations are random and a big majority of the potentially advantageous aren’t retained. A very curious teleology. 

Frederick the Great, prompted by a debate with d’Alembert, ran an essay competition on the theme of the possible benefits of deceiving the public. This might be thought of as early PR. Frederick criticised the schools for the persistence of superstition and ignorance. Kant believed the people could be enlightened only slowly. Frederick introduced compulsory schooling in 1763, long before many European countries, but the methods and curriculum were hardly enlightened. Discipline was instilled by fear and physical punishment, maths in the first instance was absent. It was, of course, principally a system of control. Hegel believed in self-perfection. There was none of that in the German system of the early eighteenth century, any more than there is today. Hegel doesn’t seem to have objected to the idea that deceiving the people might bring benefits. We live in a propagandist culture which fears the enlightenment of the people and deliberately keeps them stupefied. The time, money and effort devoted to this is extraordinary. Its results are stunning: it’s said forty percent of Americans think the earth is six thousand years old. This serves well the interests of the rich and powerful, and always did. 

A condition of universal alienation was characteristic of the society of his time, Hegel believed. The spirit of individualism couldn’t break free of the required social roles and people become mere espèce, to use the term employed by Diderot. “..all relationships are mediated by the pursuit of wealth” comments Bourke. They are when that pursuit allows a minority to enrich and empower itself. Once again, Hegel is restrained by his own shackles. He needs to find the beneficent working of the World Spirit in contemporary conditions and has forbidden himself to take a moral stance. His principal disciple did the same which is why his work is on the one hand full of moral outrage and on the other dismissive of moral objections to the capitalism he saw as a necessary phase in the development of society, but loathed with a vengeance. The thinking becomes incoherent. Marx, like his master, locked himself into confusion by accepting an empty organism theory and putting his faith in History. If we are what History makes us, and only that, there is no reason Hitler shouldn’t make us concentration camp inmates, Lenin have us shot or Stalin send us to the gulag. It’s because we have an endowed nature which pre-exists our historically engendered social forms that there is moral ground from which to dismiss injustice. 

Speaking of the French Revolution, Hegel remarked that “mere disposition, unaccompanied by any overt act or expression, was made an object of punishment.” It’s a pity he didn’t develop this line and make it the centre of his work. Kafka did. Power works in this way, and Kafka knew it. You don’t have to be guilty, just accused. We have seen this recently in the wild accusations of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party which led to thousands of innocent people being expelled and the ludicrous claim Corbyn is Jew-hater. The Zionists make marvellous use of it. Any hint of disagreement with the policies of the angelic Israeli State, and you’re a Nazi. What makes this work is the power of the State. Hegel’s faith is misguided. It is when the overweening power the State is set aside and people find their own ways to fulfil their needs and pursue fulfilment that human potential is realised.  The State is essentially a social excrescence created to defend property. In its modern welfare form, of course, it defends people from the worst of the capitalist jungle; but nothing it provides can’t be provided by people working voluntarily together. Before magistrates and law, Hegel thought, “revenge is undying”. What is the evidence? There are millions of magistrates, hundreds of millions of laws, but they can’t bring social peace when wealth and power are in few hands.  

The fatal purity of the Terror, typified by Robespierre, was a product, Hegel thought, of moral principles abstracted from historical circumstances. In truth, he’s simply recognising that villains always try to clothe themselves in virtue. Surely he’d read Tartuffe? Everything genuine can have a phoney form. Self-seeking people know a masking moralism can fool. That’s no reason to set your face against genuine morality. The problem with Robespierre was that he identified himself absolutely with the will of the people. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union: the Party is the working-class; the working-class is virtuous by definition (in so far as it obeys the strictures of dialectical materialism); the Central Committee is the Party; Stalin is the Central Committee; thus, Stalin is the repository of all virtue. The will of the people is a myth unless it’s treated with great caution. Most people in the UK like the NHS. That’s reasonable and it can be ascertained by reliable polling methods and elections; but to believe in it as some abstract force which grants a few leaders the right to inflict their fantasies on society would be lunacy.  

Hegels’s faith in the State is hard to take in a world in which the USA uses extreme violence to impose its will wherever it sees fit. This is State terrorism, of which the twentieth century gave us no shortage of examples. His recognition that urban life produces greater “freedom” ignores what we know from anthropology about our hunter gatherer ancestors. As towns and cities replaced agrarian life in more recent times and commercialism flourished, it was inevitable people had to be given greater leeway, but  how does this create the “free subjectivity” which Bourke claims became the measure of all objective standards? Subjective just means personal, as objective means impersonal. An objective standard is the speed limit. It’s not my speed limit, it’s everyone’s. It serves an impersonal value: safety. Not just my safety, everyone’s. Just what Bourke means by “free subjectivity” being the measure of objective standards is hard to fathom.  

Hegel was convinced a university-trained, bureaucratic elite was a central need of the modern State. He didn’t intend this descriptively but approvingly. Today, the intellectual, bureaucratic, academic, professional elite is to a large degree the servant of the rich. Wealth buys brains and it does so to defend itself. Hegel’s astute remark about “mere disposition” is apposite: the system recognises its own. Those who show signs of dissent or resistance are quickly weeded out. Far from serving social progress, the educated elite in which Hegel believed is deeply reactionary and responsible for the entrenching of injustice, not to mention millions of deaths.  

If Hegel believed in the people, he equally believed they shouldn’t make the decisions: that should be left to ministers and bureaucrats. The people were a potentially destructive force. Exactly what was recognised by the advocates of propaganda as soon as people had the vote. Chief among them was Edward Bernays, unapologetic in his belief that people exist to be manipulated to obey the will of their betters. Influenced  by Walter Lippmann’s The Phantom People (1925) Bernays produced the extraordinary Propaganda, a manual for how to subvert democracy and ensure the people are permanently bamboozled. His work assisted the CIA over throw of the Guatemalan government. Hegel recognised that the proliferation of print media gave rise to the dissemination of much inaccuracy. The uses of literacy, you might say. His response was to disdain the people and advocate for control of what they read by their superiors. Hitler had the same notion.  

Hegel made the remark that the “actual” is “rational”. Bourke tries to defend him against his critics, Adorno for example, and Kant’s belief in moral opposition to injustice. However, no sane person could apply Hegel’s dictum to the Third Reich, or North Korea or contemporary America.  What we return to is that Hegel scuppered himself by his own project: to prove that history is teleological and progressive. It isn’t necessarily either. We don’t arrive at moral ends except by making moral choices and there is only one place where that happens: the individual human mind. When millions of minds come together in the same choice, supporting democracy for example, then a social movement exists; but it isn’t an abstract force. We are   not driven by a World Spirit or by a dialectic to betterment, we have to choose it. That is our given condition and it won’t change.  

Hegel was hugely influential, but not positively. His greatest inheritor was Marx who took over his mistakes and by doing so proposed that temporarily handing the economy to the State would solve the problems of capitalism and pave the way to a society of universal equality and freedom. What we got was State capitalist totalitarianism, mass murder, paranoid rulers and a nuclear stand-off. The essential mistake was the refusal to accept our biologically endowed nature, to claim we are entirely and only products of our circumstances. It’s such a disastrous idea it’s hard to believe two supposedly great thinkers could have embraced it. But they did, which perhaps suggests that the wisdom of the common folk might sometimes be preferable to the work of ambitious philosophers. Burke, for example, who believed the world can’t be made anew without power and violence. If that’s true, we are doomed. It isn’t and we aren’t because across the globe the common folk want peace and justice. It’s the rich and their States which get in the way.