Hegel, Mystic

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Edited transcript of my presentation at the Department of Philosophy ‘mini-conference’, the University of Sydney 12.09.14

My thesis explores the relationship between Hegel’s philosophy and Neoplatonism. In it, I will argue that Hegel’s philosophy is not only mystical – Christian Neoplatonic – but Hermetic.1

A common understanding of ‘mysticism’ is that it is a belief that one can attain union with or absorption into a deity or an absolute, or spiritually apprehend knowledge – through the ‘abandonment’ of self or through contemplation.

Clearly, Hegel did not claim this of his philosophy – rather, the opposite – that God can be cognised through ‘reason’, that knowledge comes not from the abandonment of self but the application of ‘reason’ to the intricacies of speculative thought.

How am I to go from the common understanding of ‘mysticism’ to the argument that Hegel’s philosophy is mystical? My answer is that consistent with the dynamism of its beliefs, mysticism (and here my focus is particularly on the dominant form of Western mysticism, Neoplatonism) has undergone continual development. With regard to Hegel, Cusanus and Böhme are key figures.

Hegel acknowledged Böhme. In volume III of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy he discussed him – ‘the first German philosopher’ the reading of whose works was ‘wondrous,’ – over eleven pages, giving five pages in the same volume to Bruno, yet he never even mentioned Cusanus – a figure in the German mystical tradition between Eckhart (whom Hegel also referred to and quoted in the first volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion from one of his sermons – ‘The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him.’)2 and Böhme.

In the same volume of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel wrote simply of Bruno ‘The fullest information about him is to be found in Buhle’s history of philosophy.’ In that extremely interesting work (and reinforcing Magee’s reading of Hegel – Buhle discusses the impact of Neoplatonism, Kabbalism and Hermeticism in general on German philosophy) Buhle wrote on Cusanus.

No direct connection has ever been established between Nicholas of Cusa and Hegel. It has been accepted that Hegel did not know of him.3 In fact, Buhle’s History is clear evidence that Hegel did know of Cusanus, and in detail. Not only did Bruno twice specifically refer to him, and with the highest praise,4 Buhle wrote on Cusanus at length, citing fourteen of his works, including his most important – three of which he discusses.5

Why did Hegel never even name Cusanus, in any of his writing – a man who was far more philosophical, and in the ‘Hegelian manner,’ than either Eckhart and particularly Böhme, of whom Hegel also wrote that his articulation was ‘unmistakably barbarous’ and that he ‘grasps the antitheses in the harshest, crudest fashion’?

My contention in my thesis will be that Hegel never named Cusanus, not only because he was so indebted to one who was known to be a Christian mystic/Neoplatonist (I have identified more than thirty points in the philosophy of Cusanus which occur in that of Hegel), but because to do so would immediately open to question the nature of Hegel’s vaunted concepts (several of which, I will contend, came directly from Cusanus), the apparent intellectual rigour of his philosophy, and particularly, the meaning of his ‘reason’ – his claims to and for it.

Magee wrote excellently on Böhme’s influence on Hegel – he concludes that we cannot understand Hegel unless we recognise his philosophy as not only mystical, but Hermeticist. He wrote ‘Hermeticists typically reject the mysticism that stops short at “mystery,” and, like Böhme and Hegel, hold that actual, discursive knowledge of the nature of God is possible’. Böhme believed that for God to develop, for God to be fully God, He had to dirempt himself from himself through the act of creation so that another was opposed to him. Through the opposition and conflict of that relationship, God could progress towards self-consciousness as man. In attaining the nature of God, man attains that of reality as a system of thought.

Part one/to be continued…



1. Hermeticism is ‘a grab bag of loosely-related subjects, including alchemy, extrasensory perception, dowsing, Kabbalism, Masonry, Mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, Paracelcism, prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, “correspondences,” “cosmic sympathies,” and vitalism.’ Glenn Alexander Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’ in Frederick C. Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, 253-280, 278

2. The editor wrote that Hegel was familiar with the writing of Eckhart from 1794. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion vol. I, Ed. Peter C. Hodgson, Trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 347

3. ‘…Nicholas of Cusa (whom Hegel surprisingly never mentions)…’ Michael Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 140. Magee, citing Beck, wrote ‘we know that Schelling was influenced by reading Nicholas (Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, 71)…However, Hegel never mentions Cusa anywhere in his published writings or in his lectures.’ In the footnote to this Magee (who otherwise writes excellently on the relationship between Hegel, mysticism and Hermeticism, arguing that Hegel was an Hermetic mystic) expressed a standard view ‘David Walsh notes that although there is no evidence that Hegel ever read Cusa, he was indirectly influenced by him through J.G.Hamann and Giordano Bruno.’ Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, 28. Redding wrote ‘In Hegel’s case, Spinozistic and Cusan elements (were) reflected through the speculative thought of Schelling,’ Paul Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, 31, also ‘Jacobi had not only introduced the German reading public to Spinoza but also to Giordano Bruno, and thereby, indirectly to Nicholas of Cusa.’ Paul Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, Routledge, London, 2009, 126. Hodgson wrote ‘Hegel was familiar with Bruno through Schelling’s work as well as that of J.G.Buhle and F.H.Jacobi,’ Peter C. Hodgson, Ed., G.W.F. Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007, 274. Jasper Hopkins wrote ‘Nicholas does not anticipate, prefigure, foreshadow, etc., Kant, so also he does not anticipate Copernicus or Spinoza or Leibniz or Berkeley or Hegel. …In retrospect, Nicholas must be regarded as a transitional figure some of whose ideas (1) were suggestive of new ways of thinking but (2) were not such as to conduct him far enough away from the medieval outlook for him truly to be called a Modern thinker. Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel never mention him, although Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz do. …Nicholas’s intellectual influence on his own generation and on subsequent generations remained meager.’ Jasper Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 26 (2002), pp. 13-29, 28-29.

4. The ‘divine’ Cusanus, ‘the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets,’ is Bruno’s guide in Cause, Principle and Unity, in which he referred to key aspects of Cusanus’ philosophy. Bruno again named and referred to Cusanus as ‘divine’ in The Ash Wednesday Supper, citing his single most important treatise, De docta ignorantia.

5. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Widerherstellung der Wissenschaften (History of Modern Philosophy Since the Time of the Restoration of Sciences), vol. 2, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, p. 81 and p. 342ff. Buhle discusses De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance, 1440), De coniecturis (On Surmises, 1441-2) and (Idiota) de sapientia (The Layman of Wisdom, 1450).

Image sources: Plotinus/Cusanus/Hegel/Böhme

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