Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 5

Hegel’s Neoplatonic world of God the self

Hegel wrote that ‘an individual man is God, and God an individual man.’1 More precisely, the kingdom of God lies within and a process which is both a withdrawal inwards and an ‘ascent’ to it is required to gain knowledge of it. Plotinus’ system provided Hegel with his model for a conjunction of the mystical and the metaphysical, the religious and the philosophical.2 It is a model for ‘strong individuals who reach god by their own internal effort.’3

That world within is created by thinking

thinking that strikes home within itself, going within itself, spreading out from there and creating its world from within.4

Plotinus described it as God giving birth to a universe within himself

The vision has been of God in travail of a beautiful offspring, God engendering a universe within himself in a painless labour5

The universal of this world of consciousness6 develops from the power of a singularity – the Neoplatonists used metaphors of seed and tree to describe it. Plotinus compared it with a tree

The Supreme is the Term of all; it is like the principle and ground of some vast tree of rational life; itself unchanging, it gives reasoned being to the growth into which it enters.7

Cusanus compared it with a seed and a tree

For when we take note of a very small grain of mustard and behold its power and might with the eye of our intellect, we find a vestige [of God], so that we are aroused unto marvelling at our God. For although the grain is so small in physical size, nevertheless its power is endless. In this piece of grain there is present (1) a large tree with leaves and branches and (2) many other grains in which, likewise, this same power is present beyond all numbering.8

as did Hegel, never missing an opportunity for metaphor, as well as drawing on the One – the wholly simple that contains not-yet existent multiplicity

The entire tree is contained within the seed. Nothing comes forth from the seed that is not in it, and this seed is simple, is a point. …It is essential to know that there is something wholly simple that contains multiplicity within itself, but in such a way that the multiplicity does not yet exist.

A more important example is the ‘I’. When I say ‘I’, this ‘I’ is something wholly simple; it is the wholly abstract universal, common to everyone. Yet it is the manifold wealth of the individual’s representations, impulses, desires, and the like. Each ‘I’ is a whole world, and this whole world is contained within this simple point, within the ‘I’, which has in itself the energy of all that comes forth from it.9

The activity, the thinking within this immaterial ‘mind’10 is utterly self-referential – it is the exploration by self of itself.

Thinking is movement within self, but pure reference to self, pure identity with self. …Thinking is…at the same time also mediation with itself11

In exploring itself, the ‘I’ creates and knows or assimilates its objects. Self-knowledge is knowledge of the whole

I know everything as mine, as ‘I’, that I grasp every object as a member in the system of what I myself am, in short, that I have in one and the same consciousness myself and the world, that in the world I find myself again, and, conversely, in my consciousness have what is, what possesses objectivity. This unity of the ‘I’ and the object…constitutes the principle of mind12

For Hegel and his fellow Neoplatonists, the completion of the process of emanation and return to the most profound unity entails the fullest consciousness and activity.13 Given his stated aim to cognise the only object of philosophy – God, Hegel’s acknowledgement of what previous Neoplatonists achieved in this regard could not be more significant

the dialectic is none other than the activity or vitality of what thinks itself within itself. The Neoplatonists look upon this connection as exclusively metaphysical, and through it they have come to cognitive knowledge of theology, the unfolding of the mysteries of the divine essence.14



1. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. I, op. cit., 534
2. Henry, ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought,’ op. cit., li
3. Chlup, Proclus, An Introduction, op. cit., 261
4. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 230
5. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.8.12
6. ‘each of us is an Intellectual Cosmos,’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit,. 169; ‘(human nature) enfolds intellectual and sensible nature and encloses all things within itself, so that the ancients were right in calling it a microcosm, or a small world.’ Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), 1440, in Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance, A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1990, 3-151, III,3,198; ‘Outside there is the natural world; inwardly there is our world, where we are,’ Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. I, op. cit., 258; ‘the world…of consciousness,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 8
7. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.8.15
8. Nicholas of Cusa, De quaerendo Deum (‘On Seeking God’), 1445, in A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1994, 314-330, III, 44
9. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, vol. I, op. cit., 50; ‘(Spirit) seeks to…fulfil and realise its own true nature…just as the seed bears within it the whole nature of the tree and the taste and form of its fruits, so also do the the first glimmerings of spirit contain virtually the whole of history,’ Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 53. Another Neoplatonist, Bergson, whose philosophy influenced some of the most creative artists and writers of the first half of the twentieth century wrote in Creative Evolution ‘…life is tendency, and the essence of a tendency is to develop in the form of a sheaf, creating, by its very growth, divergent directions among which its impetus is divided.’ In H. Larrabee, ed. Selections from Bergson. New York, 1949, 72.
10. ‘Mind is just this elevation…above the material,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op, cit., 179
11. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. III, 111; ‘(the soul) can be an object of consciousness to itself. …(in Neoplatonism) the ‘self’ which is thus known is not an isolated individual, but contains in potentia the whole range of reality. …to know the self truly is to know it as actually one though potentially all things, and thus as divine,’ Dodds’ commentary, Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., 203
12. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op, cit., 165
13. A.H.Armstrong in Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, William Heinemann, London, 1966-1988, vol. I, xxvii
14. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. II, 207

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