The Idealistic or Metaphysical Theory

The Idealistic or Metaphysical Theory is an ontological doctrine that holds that reality itself is incorporeal or experiential at its core. Beyond this, idealists disagree on which aspects of the mental are more basic.

Statement of the Theory:-

The idealist theory of the state, sometimes called the absolute theory, the philosophical theory, often the metaphysical theory, is said to have had its origin in the doctrine of Plato and Aristotle that the state is self-sufficing and that in it alone is the individual capable of living the good life and of realizing the highest ends of his existence.


Out of this incontrovertibly sound doctrine was developed a philosophy which idealizes the state and glorifies it almost to the point of deification which tends to regard it as an end rather than a means which treats it as omnipotent and omnicompetent, which places it upon a pedestal at the foot of which its members are expected to bow down and worship it, which teaches that it can do no wrong and that whether good or bad its authority must be obeyed without question, and that resistance to its commands or revolt against its authority, however oppressive or unjust, is wicked and iniquitous.

Furthermore, it regards the state as having an existence apart from the people who compose it. It is a mystical, super-personal entity above the nation organized, it possesses a will, rights, interests, and even standards of morality of its own, separate and distinct from those of individuals or even of the sum of individual wills, and it, rather than individual enterprise and effort, is the real source of all civilization and progress.

In substance, this is the idealistic or metaphysical theory, at least as it has been expounded by some of the political philosophers with whose name it is commonly associated, and by some militarists who are commonly reckoned as being their disciples. The father of the idealistic theory was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, although some would distinguish his successor, Hegel. Kant’s doctrine is found mainly in his Metaphysical First Principles of the Theory of Law (1796).

He maintained that the state is omnipotent, infallible, and divine in essence and that all its authority comes from God that obedience to its authority is a sacred duty, even though that authority is illegitimate and in the hands of usurper-that obedience being due because the state realizes a holy and divine idea.

Kant’s horror of the revolution was so great that he preached a stagnation, says Vaughan, which even Burke would have regarded as excessive. Yet when the revolution occurred, and a legitimate government was displaced by one established through violence, so superstitious was his veneration for established authority that he considered obedience to it a duty because, although founded on revolution, it realized the idea of the state. Indeed, citizens and subjects ought not to inquire too closely into the question of legitimacy; their duty is not to doubt or question the legality of established authority but to obey it blindly and implicitly.

Hegel’s Philosophy:-

But it was in the philosophy of Hege ha the idealistic theory reached its climax. He clothed it in bat gauge so abstract and metaphysical that it is difficult for an ordinary mind to understand it. His subtle formula often provokes irritation and disgust in the reader’s mind; teaching exerted enormous influence. Critics of his philosophy do not lack who attribute to it the responsibility for the World War.

The state he conceived to be the reality of the ethical spirit manifests self-conscious, substantial will of man, thinking and knowing itself, suiting its performance to its knowledge, or the pro Portion of its knowledge. Again, the state is perfected rations quality, an absolute head end in itself.

As the state is objective reason or spirit,  the individual has real human objectivity and ethical quality only as a member the state in it alone is there a realization and actualization of his own larger freedom; its service is a ministry of freedom and its claims upon the individual are of the highest order. In the state, the man raises his outward self to the level of his inward self of thought.

In brief, a state is a man in his fullness and perfection of development. The state is an entity over and apart from the people who compose it, with a real will and personality of its own, a general will and not the sum of individual wills.

It followed that the state’s action in so far as it proceeds from the general will must necessarily be infallibly right in the sense that it represents what is best in individual wills. Having a real personality of its own, the state may be regarded as an end in itself and possesses rights. In case of apparent conflict, this necessarily overrides the so-called rights of the individual so-called because the individual can have no real rights that conflict with those of the state since his rights are derived from the state.

From these premises, three somewhat paradoxical results follow:

  • First, the state can never act unrepresentative; whatever it does is an expression of individuals’ leaf will, even if it be the arrest by a policeman of a thief.
  • Second, the bond that binds the individual to his fellows and the state forms an integral part Of the individual’s personality.
  • Third, the state contains within itself and represents all its citizens; it is the realization of the moral idea.

This does not mean that the state is itself moral or is bound by morality rules either in its relations with individuals or with other states. On the contrary, it is bound neither by principles of morality nor by those of international law. There is no such thing as international law since there is no power superior to the state which can lay down rules that are binding upon it.

From these conclusions, it is but a short step to the absolutism and omnipotence of the state and the individual-a step’s sacrifice, which Hegel did not hesitate to take. But after all, he argued, the benefit outweighs the loss because it is only in the state that the individual obtains-his full liberty attains his morality, and realizes his rights. He has nothing, therefore, to fear from its absolutism.

There is a halo of divinity about it. Whether it is or bad-if, it can be bad-it is indeed the march of God in the world. It is the divine idea as it exists on earth; it is the divine will like the present Spirit unfolding itself to the actual shape arid organization of the world. Thus the state to Hegel is a God-state, incapable of wrong, infallible, omnipotent, and entitled to every sacrifice which its interests may require of the individual.

Under its transcendent character and the sacrifice and the devotion which it has a right to demand, it elevates and ennobles the individual, whose tendency is to become selfish and self-centered and carry him back into the life of the universal substance.

Hegel’s Disciples:-

At least certain of its elements, the Hegelian conception of the state found adherents in various later. German political writers and militarists, notably Nietzsche Treitschke, and Bernhardi. All three taught the indispensable City and even the nobility of war they deified and apotheosized the state; they maintained that it sets its own standards of morality, that it is not bound by the rules of international law except in so far as it chooses to be bound by them, and that every state is itself the judge of its own international obligations, Etc.

Treitschke, who pronounced Hegel to be the first real political personality among German political philosophers, maintained that no limits could be assigned to the state’s sphere. It can obviously draw all human action within its power.

He very nearly idolized Machiavelli, the brilliant Florentine who Was the first to declare distinctly that the state is power; he himself over and over again emphasized that the state is power perfectly sound prepositions, but he and his disciples drew the corollary, therefore, fall and worship it.

The first duty of the state is to make itself strong and powerful weakness in politics is the most abominable and contemptible of all sins, against the Holy Ghost, the state must therefore be self-assertive aggressive, militaristic, and a state with a superior civilization has a right and a duty to impose its civilization upon those less culturally endowed.

As pointed out in an earlier chapter, he had a profound contempt for small states; he argued that all civilization’s progress is due to the state and that the unaided effort of the individual amounts to little. Treitschke’s influence upon the political thought of his own generation was almost as great as that of Hegel in his day, and those who place the responsibility for the great tragedy of 1914 upon Germany rightly or wrongly, find the root causes in his teaching and that of other German historians and political philosophers who shared his views.

However, it is only fair to Hegel to state that his philosophy was far less brutal and materialistic than that of Treitschkc and that many of the latter conclusions can hardly be said to have had anything in common with the Hegelian philosophy.

English Idealists:-

The pure idealistic conception of the state never took full root in England’s political philosophy or the United States. However, a few English writers accepted it with important qualifications and reservations. Among these may be maintained F. H.Bradley, T. H. Green, William Wallace, R. L. Nettleship, and especially Bernard Bosanquet, whom Hobhouse characterizes as Hegel’s most modern and most faithful exponent.

They followed Hegel rather than Fichte, and none of them would have endorsed the teachings of Treitschke regarding the omnicompetence and absolutism of the state. Nor did they even follow Hegel in his adulation of the state as the March of God in the world nor Kant in his horror of the right of revolution.

Green, the most brilliant of the group, was a Kantian rather than a Hegelian. He taught that the state’s power was limited within and without and that the life of the nation has no real existence except as the life of the individuals composing the nation.

He was a Hegelian only in emphasizing the moral value and majesty of the state, holding that it is the source and creator of individual rights. If the individual challenges its authority, the burden of proof is on him to show that the state is wrong.

Bosanquet, who came the nearest among English writers to being a genuine Hegelian, likewise accepted Hegel’s doctrine with important qualifications. He was, in fact, more of a Rousseauist than a Hegelian so far as his philosophical theory of the state was concerned. His conception of the nature and limits of state power was largely negative in character like that of Green.

He attached great importance to the development of a strong, self-reliant, responsible individuality. He emphasized the state’s value in removing obstacles to the development of that individuality and in the creation of individual opportunities. Still, he never went to the length of feeding the individual into the maw of a Moloch Called the state.

Criticism of the Idealistic Theory:-

The Hegelians’ idealistic philosophy has been the object of vigorous attack, especially in late years, by many writers who pronounce it to be not only false but wicked and dangerous. In the first place, some belong to the realistic school, who denounce the ideaListic theory as being purely abstract and metaphysical.

The most eminent of these is M. Duguit, who attacks the theory because it attributes to the state a personality of its own distinct from that of the nation organized. Generally, it teaches the doctrine of the omnipotence, absolutism, and divinity of the state.

It also sacrifices the autonomy and independence of the individual to its all-embracing power, denying to him not only the inalienable right of revolution but even the right to question the legitimacy or moral rightfulness of the authority or Conduct of the state. To M. Duguit, the doctrine that the state is infallible, that it can do-no-wrong, that it is subject to no law except that of which it is itself the creator, that it is not even bound by the moral law or the prescriptions of international law except in so far as it chooses to be bound, is false and in quite.

It is only just to the idealistic philosoPhers, however, to say, that some of the doctrines which M. Duguit attributes tori they are corollaries which he has himself drawn, rather than their own conclusions and that some of them represent the extreme Opinions of Nietzsche, Trietschke, and Bernhardi which the idealists would probably never have endorsed. Certainly, they do not represent the more moderate opinions of the English idealists.

The second group of critics includes those who attack the philosophical reasoning and deductions of the idealists. They argue that Hegel and his followers’ idealistic philosophy is uns and not in accord with the facts of state life and that it leads to untenable and even dangerous results.

Some attack the theory because it idealizes the actual state and attributes it to a degree of perfection that it is far from possessing; they deny that any actual state approximates the standard of what a state ought to be. To them, the state, as the idealist conceives it, maybe laid up in heaven, but it is not established on earth.

They reject the assumption of the identity of the state with society; they deny that the will of the state necessarily represents the totality of the wills of the individuals who compose it, that the state is therefore omnipotent, that its conduct cannot be immoral or illegal, that the state is rather an end than a means and that it has ends and interests which may be distinct from those of the totality of the citizens.

The most brilliant and vigorous of the adversaries of the idealistic doctrine is Dr. L. T. Hobhouse, Professor of Sociology in the University of London, who in his Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918) subjects the philosophy of Hegel, Green, and Bosanquet, in particular, to a searching examination and criticism.

The theory, commonly spoken of as idealism, is, in point of fact, he says, a much more subtle and dangerous enemy to the ideal than any brute denial of absolutism emanating from a one-sided science. It is a mistake to regard Hegel’s exaltation of the state as merely the rhapsodical utterances of a metaphysical dreamer. His false and wicked doctrine of the Godjstate furnished the basis of the most serious opposition to the nineteenth century’s rational, democratic humanitarianism.

The Hegelian conception was designed to turn the edge of the principle of freedom by identifying freedom with the law of equality, by substituting the conception of the discipline of personality itself, by merging the individual in the state of humanity, by erecting the state as the supreme and final form of human association.

It set up the state as a greater being, a spirit, a super-personal entity. Individuals with their private conscience or claims of right, happiness, or misery are merely subordinate elements. The doctrine that the individual has no value or life of his own apart from the state and no freedom unless it conforms with law and custom as interpreted by the ethical spirit of the particular society to which the individual belongs in the virtual negation of freedom.

When we are taught to think of the world which we know as a good world, to think of its injustices, wrongs, and miseries as necessary elements in a perfect ideal, then, if we accept these arguments, our power of revolt is atrophied, our reason is hypnotized, our efforts to improve life and remedy wrong fade away into passive acquiescence in things as they are or, still worse, into slavish adulation of the Absolute in whose hands we are mere pawns.

Adverting to the Hegelian glorification of the state, Professor Hobhouse concludes, The state is a great organization. Its well-being is something of larger and more permanent import than that of any single citizen. Its scope is vast. Its service calls for the extreme of loyalty and self-sacrifice. All this is true. Yet when the state is set up as an entity superior and indifferent to component individuals, it becomes a false god. It worships the abomination of desolation, as seen at Ypres or on the Somme.

Evaluation of the Idealist Theory:-

Practically all political writers to-day reject most of the Hegelian philosophy, especially the doctrine of the absolutism of the state, its alleged divinity, the doctrine of blind and passive obedience to established authority when that authority is illegitimate and oppressive, and the doctrine that the state is an end in itself, a mystical super personal entity, an incarnation of the Absolute, with rights and interests of its own separate and distinct from those of its citizens.

It has been said that Hegel himself, in his servility to the Prussian monarchy, confused it with the kingdom of heaven and that his philosophy was founded in the dunghill of authority rather than upon science. It did not, therefore, represent the free and unbiased thought of an independent mind. Nevertheless, much of the criticism has been directed against the idealist theory that it is unfair, exaggerated, and based upon a misconception of the theory itself.

In so far as the ideal-ists exalted the state above all other human associations, regarded it as indispensable to the realization of the good life, and held that, as such, it is entitled to the loyalty of the citizen and may demand sacrifices of him to preserve its existence, that it is the sole source of law and rights, that in it, alone is the individual capable of realizing the ends of his existence fully. Without it, human progress and civilization would be impossible; the theory is entirely sound and irreproachable. For the most part, the perversions and unwarrantable deductions have lately brought it into discredit.

As to the criticism that the theory idealizes things that are not and never can be perfect, the reply has been made that the criticism rests on a misconception of the true political theory method. Like ethics, political theory is concerned with what ought to be and what actually is the real nature of a thing is when its growth is fully developed. Therefore, the political philosopher may very properly idealize the state and deal with it in its imaginary splendor and perfection.

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