Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 8a

Subject and object

8.1 What is Neoplatonic thinking?

It is the divine activity of a ‘subject’ generated from unity dialectically engaging with its other, its ‘object’. As a result of what develops from that first distinction, (self-)knowledge is finally attained and spiritual reunion achieved. In Hegel’s philosophy, subject comes to unite with its objects in the consciousness of the individual just as self comes to unite with its others in the social cultus.

Plotinus defined thinking as a soul’s

kind of seeking its substance and its self and what made it, and…in turning back in its contemplation and recognising itself it is at that point rightly and properly Intellect.1

For Hegel

Thought’s occupation with itself is a self-producing…Thought brings itself forth, and what it produces in this way is philosophy.2

8.2 In knowing its objects, subject knows itself

Plotinus wrote that self-intellection begins with the need for self-knowledge and asks whether the subject can know its objects without knowing itself, arguing that self and content must be simultaneously present

it is obvious that the Intellectual-Principle must have knowledge of the Intellectual objects. Now, can it know those objects alone or must it not simultaneously know itself, the being whose function it is to know just those things? Can it have self-knowledge in the sense (dismissed above as inadequate) of knowing its content while it ignores itself? Can it be aware of knowing its members and yet remain in ignorance of its own knowing self? Self and content must be simultaneously present3

He emphasised that the second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle/Intellect/Divine Mind – Hegel’s ‘reason-world’ – and the objects themselves are all identical activity comprising knower, knowing and known, seer, seeing and seen.

the Intellectual-Principle, its exercise of intellection, and the object of intellection all are identical. Given its intellection identical with intellectual object and the object identical with the Principle itself, it cannot but have self-knowledge: its intellection operates by the intellectual act, which is itself, upon the intellectual object, which similarly is itself. It possesses self-knowing, thus, on every count; the act is itself; and the object, seen in that act-self, is itself.4

8.3 How is the subject to know itself? Distinction, desire and possession

For Plotinus, Intellect requires distinction within itself in order that there be/that it have knowledge

Either we must exhibit the self-knowing of an uncompounded being – and show how that is possible – or abandon the belief that any being can possess veritable self-cognition.5

He notes the ‘strange phenomenon’ of a distinction in one self but continues

Unless there is something beyond bare unity, there can be no vision: vision must converge with a visible object. …in so far as there is action, there is diversity. If there be no distinctions, what is there to do, what direction in which to move? An agent must either act upon the extern or be a multiple and so able to act upon itself: making no advance towards anything other than itself, it is motionless, and where it could know only blank fixity it can know nothing.6

Not only must there be diversity but that diversity must be in identity as well

The intellective power, therefore, when occupied with the intellectual act, must be in a state of duality, whether one of the two elements stand actually outside or both lie within: the intellectual act will always comport diversity as well as the necessary identity7

In describing Hegel’s method, Magee unintentionally summarised the Neoplatonic position

when the subject wishes to know itself, it must split itself into a subjective side, which knows, and an objective side, which is known.8

Fuelled by recollection, desire by the subject (and Soul) to unite with its object (and source) motivates subject (and Soul) in its passage through multiplicity to that union whereby subject dissolves object within itself.9 Hegel expressed the complex process from distinction to unity in the closing words of his Philosophy of Mind in a quotation from the Metaphysics

thought…becomes an object of thought in coming into contact with and thinking its objects, so that thought and object of thought are the same. For that which is capable of receiving the object of thought, i.e. the substance, is thought. And it is active when it possesses this object.10

8.4 Hegel’s application of this Neoplatonic distinction

8.4.1 consciousness and its other, self-consciousness

This is the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘myself’

Consciousness essentially involves my being for myself, my being object to myself. …this absolutely primal division, the distinction of me from myself11

Consciousness develops into self-consciousness which then has consciousness for its object. This is the subject of the Phenomenology of Spirit in which consciousness undergoes development through stages towards becoming aware of its ‘essence,’ attaining ‘absolute knowing.’

what consciousness examines is its own self…For consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself12

8.4.2 The ‘I’ and its other, ‘Not-I’

The ‘I’ distinguishes itself from itself, becoming its opposite. Self-consciousness confronts itself as another ‘I.’ Hegel wrote

I am aware of the object as mine; and thus in it I am aware of me. The formula of self-consciousness is I = I …as it is its own object, there is strictly speaking no object, because there is no distinction between it and the object.13

Plotinus addressed this problem of identifying an object (and a world) in the ‘I,’ long before Hegel

Then, again, in the assertion ‘I am this particular thing’, either the ‘particular thing’ is distinct from the assertor – and there is a false statement – or it is included within it, and, at once, multiplicity is asserted: otherwise the assertion is ‘I am what I am’, or ‘I am I’.

If it be no more than a simple duality able to say ‘I and that other phase’, there is already multiplicity, for there is distinction and ground of distinction, there is number with all its train of separate things.14

8.4.3 God and his other, Christ

In order to fully know himself, God must dirempt himself through Christ’s appearance in the world. God’s revelation is the first negation in the process of self-knowing. His reunion with himself in his other through Christ’s death and resurrection is the negation of that.

God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e. in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself15

Magee, to his credit and very rare for an academic, argues that Hegel was an Hermetic thinker and that Jakob Böhme was a crucial influence on Hegel. He wrote that the notion of a process of development and actualisation in God is perhaps the most significant point of influence on Hegel by Böhme

the ‘other’ is necessary for God’s self-consciousness. Without self-consciousness God would not be God, for His knowledge would be incomplete.16

But there are errors and points of contention in Magee’s forceful argument that strangely discounts any consideration of the influence of Neoplatonism on Hegel or the relationship between Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. I will address Magee’s argument in detail later but discuss a couple of the more salient points here.

He wrote that two of the doctrines of the Hermetica that became enduring features of the Hermetic tradition are ‘God requires creation in order to be God’ and ‘God in some sense “completed” or has a need fulfilled through man’s contemplation of Him.’17 Not only did I find neither in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius, I found the opposite in them

in the all there is nothing that he is not…For god is all.18

Then, so great and good was he that he wanted there to be another to admire the one he had made from himself, and straightaway he made mankind, imitator of his reason and attentiveness. God’s will is itself perfect achievement since willing and achievement are complete for him at one and the same moment of time.19

Nothing in this situation is stable, nothing fixed, nothing immobile among things that come to be in heaven and earth: the lone exception is god, and rightly he alone, for he is whole, full and perfect in himself and by himself and about himself.20

he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.21

Böhme’s words

No thing may be revealed to itself without contrariety. If it has no thing that resists it, it always goes out from itself and does not go into itself again. If it does not go into itself again, as into that out of which it originally came, it knows nothing of its cause.22

are essentially the same as of those of Plotinus, quoted above. Magee shows no awareness of or interest in this nor does he consider even the possibility of the influence of Neoplatonism on Böhme and Hegel.

8.4.4 ‘Mind’ and its other, itself

‘Mind’ is a distinguishing of itself from itself on the Neoplatonic model of knower, knowing and known

mind as such, is Reason which sunders itself, on the one hand, into pure infinite form, into a limitless Knowing, and, on the other hand, into the object that is identical with that Knowing.23

‘Mind’ is only actual through the subject seeing in its object what it lacks, what is essential to it and overcoming its Other, thereby making explicit the implicit identity of subject and object

this relation to the Other is, for mind, not merely possible but necessary, because it is through the Other and by the triumph over it, that mind comes to authenticate itself and to be in fact what it ought to be according to its Notion…The Other, the negative, contradiction, disunity, therefore also belongs to the nature of mind.24

8.4.5 being and its other, nothing

In his Science of Logic Hegel utilised all his skill as a prose poet, arguing that being and nothing comprise the first relationship in all that is to develop from there, and that they are reconciled by becoming in determinate being.

Nothing is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being.25

Theorising on this first dialectical relationship in Intellect runs right through the Neoplatonic tradition. After considering what first emanates from the One, Plotinus wrote

We may take it as proved that the emanation of the Transcendent must be a Not-One, something other than pure unity26

Proclus showed a subtlety equal to Hegel in his discussion of being, non-being and the negation of being

with respect to non-being itself, with which there is also a negation of beings, at one time considering it as beyond being, we say that it is the cause and the supplier of beings; but at another time we evince that it is equivalent to being; just as I think…that non-being is in no respect less, if it be lawful so to speak, than being27

Cusanus likewise when writing about the relation between creation, being and nothing in De docta ignorantia

Who, then, can understand created being by conjoining, in created being, the absolute necessity from which it derives and the contingency without which it does not exist? For it seems that the creation, which is neither God nor nothing, is, as it were, after God and before nothing and in between God and nothing—as one of the sages says: “God is the opposition to nothing by the mediation of being.” Nevertheless, [the creation] cannot be composed of being and not-being. Therefore, it seems neither to be (since it descends from being) nor not to be (since it is before nothing) nor to be a composite of being and nothing.28

and again between Being, being and not-being in De possest

So, in order that I may now tell you the things you asked me concerning negation, let us take the negation which seems to be the first of all negations: viz., “not-being.” Doesn’t this negation both presuppose and deny?

…For through the negation [“not-being”] you see—by a simple intuition from which you exclude everything subsequent to not-being—that the presupposed [being], which precedes not-being, is the eternal being itself of all being.29

Neoplatonic negation, not the Christian Trinity, is the engine of a process of self-knowing both philosophical and religious that is generated from unity, that develops creatively in multiplicity and as a result of that development returns to unity, to the greatest activity in the greatest stillness of consciousness. This development in Intellect, in Mind, in the ‘reason-world’ begins with a necessary first distinction and dialectical relationship between two elements – consciousness/self-consciousness, ‘I’/‘Not-I,’ God/Christ, Mind/itself, being/nothing, and irrespective of the terminology used to analyse that process, follows the Neoplatonic model.



1. Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. VII, VI.7.37
2. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 45
3. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.1
4. Ibid., V.3.5
5. Ibid., V.3.1
6. Ibid., V.3.10
7. Ibid.
8. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 69-70
9. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 166
10. Metaphysics xii, 7, 1072b in Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 315
11. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 178
12. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 54
13. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 165
14. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.10
15. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 17
16. Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, 38
17. Ibid., 13
18. Hermetica, Trans., Brian, P. Copenhaver, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000, XII, 23
19. Asclepius, Ibid., 8
20. Ibid., 30
21. Ibid., 41
22. Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), ‘The Seventh Treatise/The Precious Gate/On Divine Contemplation (1620)’ in The Way to Christ (1624), Trans., Peter Erb, Paulist Press, New York, 1978, 196
23. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 179
24. Ibid., 15
25. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 82
26. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.15
27. Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. II, Ch. V
28. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., II,2,100
29. Nicholas of Cusa, De Possest (‘On Actualised-Possibility’), op. cit., 66-67

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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