Hegel and History

From: http://firstword.us/2008/02/hegel-on-black-history-month/

[Go show the boys at First word your appreciation and try to convince them to start writing again!]

The best argument for a liturgical calendar is that having a ceremonial calendar seems to be an inescapable concept. I am not there yet, but I have to admit that our secular civic-religious state, built on the ruins of a calendarless Protestantism, proffers a calendar that veritably bristles with memorials. February, for example, is designated Black History Month. So, to honor it in my own way, I propose to quote Hegel on Black History. After listening to his discussion, it will be possible to state rather unhesitatingly what Hegel’s view of Black History Month would be.
The quotations are from The Philosophy of History, by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Eng. tr. J. Sibree, (NY:Dover) 1956, from the section spanning pages 93-99. (I have taken the liberty to update the lexicography in minor ways.) Though the quotes are interesting enough, I intersperse a bit of my own commentary for those that might profit from it.
First, he divides the continent of Africa into three main sections: the Mediterranean coast, the Nile valley, and the Sub-Sahara. By geography and historical development, the first two couple directly into European and Asian history. The remainder of his comments on Africa pertain to the sub-Sahara.
The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas – the category of universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – as for example, God, or Law –in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting.
Here, Hegel argues that a distinction between one’s own (subjective) self and an independent, objective, and universal world is necessary for there to be history. History is all about development; development implies the resolution of conflicts or difficulties in terms of underlying principles; without the basic orientation to an objective universe this is not possible.
Think of Calvin’s argument on the correlative nature of the knowledge of God and self, so that he cannot say which to begin with. Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self, and without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.
The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mohammedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture.
This comment needs to be expanded to observe that Christian slavery such as was developing in the American South also had the ability to “bring the Negroes within the range of culture.” However, the revivals that Christianized the South were only in the process of taking place during Hegel’s productive years, and so he may be forgiven this oversight.
Next, Hegel backs up the assertion given above, by arguing that the African’s magic does not include the principle of transcendence, and thus does not rise to the level of religion properly so-called.
Religion begins with the consciousness that there is something higher than man. But even Herodotus called the Negroes sorcerers. Now in Sorcery we have not the idea of a God, of a moral faith; it exhibits man as the highest power, regarding him as alone occupying a position of command over the power of Nature. We have here therefore nothing to do with a spiritual adoration of God, nor with an empire of Right. God thunders, but is not on that account recognized as God. For the soul of man, God must be more than a thunderer, whereas among the Negroes this is not the case. Although they are necessarily conscious of dependence upon nature – for they need the beneficial influence of storm, rain, cessation of the rainy period, and so on – yet this does not conduct them to the consciousness of a Higher power: it is they who command the elements, and this they call “magic.”
In other words, trembling during the thunder storm does not necessarily involve the experience of God as God, though for some it might point in that direction. Far less does it entail knowledge of the (universal) Law of God.
In passing we should note that themes are brought out here that are with the typical conceit of the modern credited to the 20th century, such as the attribution of the need for a propitious nature as the origin of religion. Wittgenstein effortlessly exploded that thesis itself. Hegel, however, is more subtle. He continues:
The Kings have a class of ministers through whom they command elemental changes, and every place possesses such magicians, who perform special ceremonies, with all sorts of gesticulations, dances, uproar and shouting, and in the midst of this confusion commence their incantations.
Hegel’s observation of their “kings and ministers” rings true as phenomenon: we see the same thing in the west wherever large groups of Negroes gather together. If the nigger-disco is decoupled from magic, then the question to pursue is whether the Negroid urge to chaos has something more primal at its root than exercising power over nature. It is at that point, and chiefly at that point, that Hegel’s presupposition can be challenged.
In any case, returning to Africa, Hegel suggests that the instrumental creation and grasping of fetishes is a manifestation of the man regarding himself as superior to the natural order:
The second element in their religion consists in their giving an outward form to this supernatural power – projecting their hidden might in to the world of phenomena by means of images. What they conceive of as the power in question, is therefore nothing really objective – [nothing] having a substantial being and different from themselves – , but the first thing that comes in their way. This, taken quite indiscriminately, they exalt to the dignity of a “Genius.” It may be an animal, a tree, a stone, or a wooden figure. This is the Fetish – a word to which the Portuguese first gave currency, and which is derived from feitizo, magic. Here, the Fetish, a kind of objective independence contrasted with the arbitrary fancy of the individual seems to manifest itself; but as the objectivity is nothing other than the fancy of the individual projecting itself into space, the human individuality remains master of the image it has adopted. If a mischance occurs which the Fetish has not averted, if rain is suspended, if there is a failure in the crops, they bind and beat or destroy the Fetish and so get rid of it, making another immediately, and thus holding it in their own power. Such a Fetish has no independence as an object of religious worship; still less has it aesthetic independence as a work of art; it is merely a creation that expresses the arbitrary choice of its maker, and which always remains in his hands. In short there is no relation of dependence in this religion.
Undoubtedly, Hegel is a precursor to Schopenhauer’s view of religion as a sense of dependence. Wittgenstein would, I think, point out that the sense of dependence presupposes the very thing it was supposed to explain. But we should not be too reactionary in our rejection here. A sense of dependence is not sufficient to explain religion, but the converse does hold. There is an insight here. In all the world except Africa, there is some sense of the individual attaching or relating to something bigger than himself: even in contemplating a work of art. The Negro’s idol is completely in his own power: he will crush it if it fails him. Looking around for coreligionists in the rest of the world, we can perhaps see an analogy between the African fetish and the Kabalistic use of magical words. The jewish mystic has no particular reverence for words that do not “deliver the goods” as it were. On the other hand, when the jew thinks he has a word that gives power, he is not humbled before the ultimate speaker of that Word; no, he the jew is the immanent speaker, the appropriate user of that word; it is fitting that he should master the world by the use of his words. There is a strange harmony between the deepest spiritual currents of Jew and Negro that continues to stamp politics to this day.
Hegel’s insight into the aspect of images which are nothing but extensions of one’s own imagination and wielding of power may give insight into the Second Commandment. It is just this feature of autarkical and unauthorized images that is wicked when used as an access to God: it shifts the definition from the self-defining God to the self-powered man. Thus, we should probably say that all image-making has an element of the evil that Hegel identifies, but usually with a diversity of aspects. The papist bowing before his image has mixed motives: it is partly will-worship, but partly true awe before the transcendent. The remarkable thing about the African is that his image-making has reached its pure archetypal form of the one extreme, with no sense of transcendent reverence left at all.
It might in contrast be thought that there is one area where the Negro stands with an inkling of respect before a true Other:
There is however one feature that points to something beyond – the Worship of the Dead – in which their deceased forefathers and ancestors are regarded by them as a power influencing the living. Their idea in the matter is that these ancestors exercise vengeance and inflict upon man various injuries – exactly in the sense in which this was supposed of witches in the Middle Ages. Yet the power of the dead is not held superior to that of the living, for the Negroes command the dead and lay spells upon them. Thus the power in question remains substantially always in bondage to the living subject. Death itself is looked upon by the Negroes as no universal natural law: even this, they think, proceeds from evil-disposed magicians. In this doctrine is certainly involved the elevation of man over Nature, to such a degree that the chance volition of man is superior to the merely natural – that he look upon this as an instrument to which he does not pay the compliment of treating it in a way conditioned by itself, but [only in the way] which he commands.
The Oriental reverence for the dead ancestor may contain a bit of self-preservation motive: by revering our ancestors, the stage is set for my descendants to revere me, preferably by taking care of me when I am infirm. This differs with that of the African, according to Hegel’s insightful comment, in that the living “subject” actually commands and places spells on the dead.
Hegel continues with the implication for respect for self and others among the living that inevitably follows from the African’s outlook:
But from the fact that man is regarded as the Highest, it follows that he has no respect for himself; for only with the consciousness of a Higher Being does he reach a point of view which inspires him with real reverence. For if arbitrary choice is the absolute – the only substantial objectivity that is realized –, the mind cannot as such be conscious of any Universality. The Negroes indulge, therefore, that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race. They have moreover no knowledge of the immortality of the soul, although specters are supposed to appear. The undervaluing of humanity among them reaches an incredible degree of intensity. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race: to the sensual Negro, human flesh is but an object of sense – mere flesh. At the death of a King hundreds are killed and eaten; prisoners are butchered and their flesh sold in the markets; the victor is accustomed to eat the heart of his slain foe.
By speaking of (lack of) “respect for himself,” Hegel nods a bit. In one sense, the African has nothing but “respect for himself.” I think we need to couple Hegel’s insight here to his framework alluded to earlier, namely: respect for self as instance of the broader “universal,” humanity. Self-consciousness has not arisen from the immediate animal urge to the level of regarding oneself as correlated to the broader kind. After Edwards, pure and arbitrary willfulness cannot rightly be called freedom. Here, the ego has crystallized and hardened to the point that others are seen as “mere flesh,” and there is no reflexis to the insight of “shared flesh.”
“Negroes are enslaved by Europeans,” Hegel continues, “and sold to America.” This is not quite right: in fact Negroes as already-existent slaves were purchased by Europeans and Americans, as Hegel himself must realize:
Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing – an object of no value. Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely children their parents, as either has the opportunity. Through the pervading influence of slavery all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear, and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim. The polygamy of the Negroes has frequently for its object the having many children, to be sold, every one of them into slavery; and very often naive complaints on this score are heard as for instance in the case of a Negro in London, who lamented that he was now quite a poor man because he had already sold all his relations.
Rushdoony reported that in much of Africa, the monetary unit was “man.” Hegel continues:
In the contempt of humanity displayed by the Negroes, it is not so much a despising of death as a want of regard for life that forms the characteristic feature. To this want of regard for life must be ascribed the great courage, supported by enormous bodily strength, exhibited by the Negroes, who allow themselves to be shot down by thousands in war with Europeans. Life has a value only when it has something valuable as its object.
This section bristles with insight. There is a physical courage that is not admirable. Churchill feared living in obscurity more than death.
In the sentence, “life has a value only when it has something valuable as its object” Hegel teaches that “life” is not valuable in itself, but only when correlated with something else that has value. The interpretive difficulty arises, is the “value” meant to be objective or subjective? In view of the flow of the passage, I would favor reading it as subjective value, or valuation. Then, one does not value even one’s own life if not oriented to an other. Think of the Frank Sinatra chart, Spring is Here:
Spring is here! Why doesn’t the breeze delight me?
Stars appear! Why doesn’t the night invite me?
Maybe it’s because nobody loves me.
Spring is here, I hear.
Turning to the political constitution of Africa, Hegel observes:
The standpoint of humanity at this grade is mere sensuous volition with energy of will; since universal spiritual laws (for example, that of the morality of the Family) cannot be recognized here. Universality exists only as arbitrary subjective choice. The political bond can therefore not possess such a character as that mere laws should unite the community. There is absolutely no bond, no restraint upon that arbitrary volition. Nothing but external force can hold the State together for a moment. A ruler stands at the head, for sensuous barbarism can only be restrained by despotic power. But since the subjects are of equally violent temper with their master, they keep him on the other hand within limits.
What Hegel is arguing here is that the rule of law is only possible where people achieve true recognition of principles outside themselves that are universal. To honor the prohibition of theft, more of a notion of property is required than merely, “this is mine.” That I own things is nested into a reflexive recognition that others have an analogous claim on their property, and that all these claims are mediated by a social fabric that we call universal law. Otherwise, mere arbitrary and willful assertion is all that is left, and this is the despot’s counterfeit law.
Doubtless, Hegel would want to “deduce” a law against theft rather than referring it to divine command. A major part of his analysis remains for us, however: a correlative universal/particular framework – my property/Property in general – is inherent in the meaning or sense of such a law.
Fanaticism – which, notwithstanding the yielding disposition of the Negro in other respects, can be excited – surpasses, when roused, all belief.
This statement stimulates admiration for its sententious insight. Is this not exactly what we continue to observe of the Negro even in the American city: a child-like passivity on the one hand, even complacency sinking often into indolence; and on the other, a violent rage that breaks out into mayhem that is beyond belief.
Remember Channon and Chris!
To prepare for war, “the King ordains an onslaught upon his own metropolis, as if to excite the due degree of frenzy.”
The drum beat, and a terrible carnage was begun; all who came in the way of the frenzied Negroes in the streets were stabbed. On such occasions the King has all whom he suspects killed, and the deed then assumes the character of a sacred act. Every idea thrown into the mind of the Negro is caught up and realized with the whole energy of his will; but this realization involves a wholesale destruction. These people continue long at rest, but suddenly their passions ferment, and then they are quite beside themselves. The destruction which is the consequence of their excitement, is caused by the fact that it is no positive idea, no thought which produces these commotions — a physical rather than a spiritual enthusiasm.
By “positive idea,” Hegel means a rational thought, as opposed to raw emotional response to sensory stimulus.
From these various traits it is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them at this day, such have they always been. The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and the Europeans is that of slavery. In this the Negroes see nothing unbecoming them, and the English who have done most for abolishing the slave-trade and slavery, are treated by the Negroes themselves as enemies. For it is a point of first importance with the Kings to sell their captured enemies, or even their own subjects; and viewed in the light of such facts, we may conclude slavery to have been the occasion of the increase of human feeling among the Negroes.
After a brief digression contrasting the occasional occurrences of slavery amongst the Europeans themselves, and before launching into a four hundred page History of the World, he concludes,
At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it – that is in its northern part – belong to the Asiatic or European World….
What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.
Thus, Hegel would obviously regard “Black History Month” as absurd – a contradiction in terms.
We are talking about a people that never even invented the wheel!
Of course, where the Negro has, through colonization or slavery, intersected with the other races, at that moment and to that extent he becomes part of history. Slavery having (in white lands) ended by the hand of white men, the subsequent history has been the extracting of favors and benefits from white men, by political action of other white men. Thus, there is something that could be called Black History – a footnote or parenthesis to White History. But it only requires an hour or two, not a month – not even the shortest month – to tell that story.


  1. Excellent. Thank you for posting this.

  2. No prob Wheel Mac!

    Good to see you out and about.

  3. Wasn't it northern Semitic mulattoes who sold most of the slaves?

    I'm doubtful bravery demonstrates a lack of value of life, unless a person is miserable. That comment doesn't appear well thought out.

  4. I think the sale of African slaves was a trade dominated by North African Semites and Arabs. I'm not sure though. My knowledge about the subject is thin.

    Are you referring to the "bravery" defined here by Hegel: In the contempt of humanity displayed by the Negroes, it is not so much a despising of death as a want of regard for life that forms the characteristic feature. To this want of regard for life must be ascribed the great courage, supported by enormous bodily strength, exhibited by the Negroes, who allow themselves to be shot down by thousands in war with Europeans. Life has a value only when it has something valuable as its object.

    It isn't quite bravery that he is describing. In the case of the Negro, it becomes brashness rather than bravery. Bravery can only exist where there is a respect for life that is clearly lacking in the Negro.

  5. The best religious belief systems are monotheistic. How do we know this? Because the Jews invented monotheism.

  6. I was wondering if you knew that Emmanuel Swedenborg said that black Africans were more developed spiritually than whites. I kind of believe it. I have a black pastor in a mostly white church and his sermons are outstanding.