Individualism and the Theory of the State

Individualism and the Theory of the State. The importance of the Philosophy of Right did not depend upon the formal structure of its argument but upon its reference to political realities, a reference which the formalism sometimes made almost surreptitious. It dealt with two subjects of fundamental importance, the relationship between the human individual and the social and economic institutions within which he lives his personal life and the relationship between these institutions and the state, which Hegel regarded as unique among institutions. With his theories of these two relationships the remainder of this chapter will be concerned.

Before taking up his theories, however, it should be made clear that Hegel’s point of view, though it was opposed to the point of view of French and English political thought, had substantial reasons behind it and that its injection into political theory was timely and important.

The Philosophy of Right was in fact permeated by the same qualities of thought that marked Hegel’s early political writings, a firm grasp of political philosophy and a realistic understanding of political history. Indeed, in a limited sense his purpose might be described as an attempt to test political theory by constitutional history. The philosophy in question was of course the doctrine of inalienable individual rights and the meaning of that doctrine as revealed by the French Revolution.

To his estimate of the Revolution Hegel brought a point of view that was typically German and that reflected the political experience of Germans. The philosophy of natural rights had been cut, so to speak, to fit the political experience of the French and English. Hegel’s rejection of natural rights and his theory of the state was cut to fit the political experience of Germany. In a broader sense, however, Hegel’s criticism was a thoroughgoing philosophical analysis of individualism and of its validity as a theory of society.

Hence it served as a starting point for re-examining the whole range of psychological and ethical problems involved in a social philosophy. In this respect Hegel’s philosophy was perhaps more important outside Germany than within, precisely because it brought to light considerations that individualism had neglected.

There had been and there continued to be little in the politics of Germany that could give to the idea of individual rights a hold upon the political consciousness of Germans such as it had upon the minds of Frenchmen and Englishmen. As a theory the philosophy of natural rights was of course fully known to Germans but it remained for them in a sense esoteric and academic, as German liberalism proved itself to be in 1848.

In France and England the theory had been forged as the defense of a minority’s claim to religious toleration against a majority that could wield against them the power of a government already comparatively well centralized and largely nationalized, while Germany was the one country in which religious differences could be made to coincide reasonably well with political boundaries.

In France and England natural rights had become the defense of a rational revolution against monarchy, but in Germany there had been no revolution. The defense of private judgment and individual freedom of action against the state had never been felt by Germans as a vita | Interact of the nation Itself, Finally, in England individual rights by, came an adequate philosophical support for commercial and industrial expansion under a policy of laissez faire. Germany, on the other hand, in Hegel’s day and later, had achieved no such unity of national feeling as had long existed in France and England.

its mentality was filled with provincialism and with antagonisms against its imperfectly as simulated minorities. Its economy was backward in comparison with the national economies of England and France, and its government, in Hegel’s day had just demonstrated their political and military in competence before the onslaught of Napoleon. When Hegel died it would still be a full generation before Germany achieved a political unity consonant with its cultural nationalism, and Hegel was quite right in predicting that this would not occur on the lines that had bee, followed by French or English liberalism.

Its government would be g federalism created by imposing a strong state upon local units; its ministry would be responsible to the monarch rather than to a national parliament; and its economic modernization and expansion would take place not by laissez faire but under strong political guidance. The aura of sanctity that Hegel’s philosophy threw around the word state, which to an Englishman might seem pure sentimentality, expressed for Germans real and compelling political aspirations.

The difference in point of view between Hegel’s theory of the state on the one hand and French or English individualism on the other might be construed as a difference between two ways of estimating the political accomplishment of the French Revolution, and indeed Hegel did so construe it. But this difference in interpreting the Revolution depended on differing estimates of the permanently important factors in the whole evolution of constitutional government.

From a liberal point of view the Revolution was a triumph of the rights of man over the irresponsible or dictatorial powers of the French monarchy. Its permanent achievements were individual liberty, government by the consent of the governed, constitutional limitations to safeguard the civil liberties of subjects, and the responsibility of officials to a nationwide electorate.

From Hegel’s point of view some of these supposed achievements were incidental and some were mischievous illusions. The constructive achievement of the Revolution, he believed, might have been the consummation of a national state, a direct continuation of a process begun when the monarchy established its control over the nobility, the cities, the estates, and the other feudal institutions of the Middle Ages.

The Revolution merely swept away the debris of feudalism which had been outdated but not actually destroyed with the rise of the monarchy, and its Jacobinism was an aberration. As in his essay on the Constitution of Germany, Hegel continued to interpret the difference between the feudal and the modern state in terms of the contrast between public and private law.

Feudalism he conceived to be typically a system in which public functions were treated as private sinecures to be bought or sold as if they were private property. A state, on the contrary, comes into being when there arises a genuine public authority, recognized as higher in kind than the civil society which embodies private interests and also as competent to guide the nation in the fulfillment of its historic mission.

Essentially the process is one of nationalizing the monarchy. The summit of political evolution, therefore, is the emergence of the state and the acceptance of the state by its citizens as a level of political evolution above civil society.

Ethically Hegel construed this as producing a higher level of personal self-realization also, a form of society in which the modern man rises to a new height of freedom and in which there is a new synthesis of his interests as man and citizen. As a new emanation of the World Spirit the national state really is divine.

Hegel’s thought was well expressed by the historian Ranke when he said that states are individualities, analogous to one another but essentially independent of each other spiritual beings, original creations of the human spirit-one might say, thoughts of God.

On the other hand Hegel condemned the Revolution because, in so far as it pursued its ideals of liberty and equality, he thought that it really perpetuated the old fallacy of feudalism in a new form. It leveled down the functional differences between men in their social Capacities to a common and abstract political equality, which made their relation to the state a mere matter of private interest.

It reduced the institutions of both society and the state to utilitarian devices for satisfying private needs and gratifying personal propensities, which as individual passions are merely capricious. In order to attain true ethical dignity these individual motives must be absorbed and transmuted first in the institutions of civil society and then at a higher level in the institutions of the state.

The philosophy of the Revolution was therefore fundamentally false in two respects. It failed to recognize that the citizen’s personality is a social being which requires as a condition of its moral significance a part to be played in the life of civil society and it failed to recognize that the institutions of civil society are organs of the nation, which must be embodied in a public authority consonant in dignity with the nation’s moral significance.

Neither society nor the State can be said to depend merely on individual consent; they are too deeply ingrained in the whole structure of needs and satisfaction, that make up personal self-realization, The highest of all human need, is the need for participation, to be an organ of causes and purposes larger than private wants and satisfactions.

The fundamental error of the revolutionary philosophy, as Hegel saw it, was its abstract individualism. The fundamental error in its policy was its attempt to erect paper constitutions and political procedure on the assumptions of individualism.

The importance of this attack on individualism and the Revolution lay in the fact that it expressed not only the political experience of Germany but also profound changes that were coming about in the political and intellectual climate of opinion in all Europe. It was this which gave to German philosophy in the first half of the nineteenth century a position of leadership which it had never had.

The French Revolution closed an intellectual as well as a political era. The theory of natural law, which had dominated political thought throughout the whole preceding period of modern thought, became obsolete in an astonishingly short time. Its plausibility, as an intellectual construction had depended upon the great systems of philosophical rationalism inherited from the seventeenth century, which had host their authority in the nineteenth.

In France Rousseau’s radical idealization of citizenship and in England Burke’s conservative idealization of tradition had already suggested the lines of thought that Hegel philosophy systematized. The completely rational individual, pursuing ends set wholly by propensities native to his own personality, was a conception that could hardly withstand historical or psychological scrutiny.

And the dogma that his political and civil rights are imperceptible and unchangeable fitted badly with a nationalism that continually set a higher value on its own collective purposes and with an ethics that became continually more aware of conflicts between individual and social values.

Thus the nature of the individual person and his relation to his society-the psychological and ethical inter-meshing of individual need with social purpose-which had seemed a matter to be settled by a few self-evident generalities, became a problem, indeed the central problem of social science and social ethics.

The importance of Hegel’s political theory consisted largely in the fact that it set this problem. In so doing it both crystalized the anti-liberal tendencies of developing nationalism and forced a thoroughgoing re-examination of the individualism of current political liberalism. Accordingly, as was said above, Hegel’s political philosophy dealt with two principal subjects.

The first was his ethical theory of freedom and its relation to authority, which coincided roughly with his critique of individualism. The second was his theory of the state, its constitutional structure and its relation to the institutions of civil society.

More Read from Hegel: Dialectic and Nationalism:-

  1. The Historical Method of Dialectic & Nationalism
  2. Dialectic and Historical Necessity
  3. Hegel Freedom and Authority
  4. The State and Civil Society
  5. The Later Significance of Hegelianism