Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11e

11.3.10 Hegel infused the Trinity with Neoplatonic symbolism

As Hegel’s distortions through conflation in his discussions of the philosophies of Plotinus and Proclus in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy are reflected in his own conflated Neoplatonism (addressed in Chapter 7), so the Christian Trinity and his distortions of it provided him with a wealth of symbolism which he used to illustrate and enrich every aspect of his philosophy’s Neoplatonic process. God as a symbol for unity and difference

Most broadly, as Hodgson wrote

‘Father’ is not a divine person but a symbol designating the immanent Trinity, while ‘Son’ is a symbol designating the economic or worldly Trinity, and ‘Spirit’ is a symbol designating the inclusive or holistic Trinity.1

For Hegel, God symbolises the unitary source not only of emanation but of difference,2 Christ whose coming into the world entails the first negation symbolises the merger of the infinite Word with the plurality of the created, finite world and the Holy Spirit, actualised in the negation of that negation through the ‘death of God,’ the reunification of these first two terms. Hegel’s definition of ‘God’ is redolent with Neoplatonism

‘It (God) is also not an inert, abstract universal, however, but rather the absolute womb or the infinite fountainhead out of which everything emerges, into which everything returns, and in which it is eternally maintained. This basic determination is therefore the definition of God as substance.3 Christ as a symbol for unity in difference

the Son is other than the Father, and this otherness is difference – otherwise it would not be spirit. But the other is [also] God and has the entire fullness of the divine nature within itself.4

God, Christ and Holy Spirit all symbolise the unity-in-difference (unity-in-multiplicity) of Neoplatonic dialectics throughout the entire process, from emanation to return. Christ as a symbol for emanation

The kingdom of God – or spirit – is to move from the universal to determinacy, to pass over into actuality. This movement, the process of determining, takes place in the life of Jesus.5 Christ as a symbol for mystery

Christ was the ‘God-man’6 man mysteriously become one with God. Hegel blended Christian mystery with Neoplatonism for greater poetic effect. Christ as a symbol for the unity of divine and human

Christ’s coming to the world signified that the divine and the human are not intrinsically different – he represents the highest stage of the spiritual being of humanity. The kingdom of God is made actual through Christ. Likewise Soul in the Enneads is the intermediary between the ‘worlds’ of intellect and sense and the representative of the former in the latter. As our souls return to the One through the thinking of the second hypostasis and for Proclus, as our souls are infused with the gods, so in Christianity our souls return to unity with God through the ‘death of God’ and in the coming of a perspectival cultus of Spirit. Christ as a symbol for the unity of infinite and finite

Christ embodied the crucial Neoplatonic relationship between infinitude and the determinacy of finitude. Hegel used Christ to bring the relation between infinite and finite from theoretical abstraction into the lived world. The death of Christ reconciled the two (the finite individual with the infinite Absolute). Christ as a symbol for the unity of eternal and in time

(With Christ) The Neoplatonic timeless Trinity…at once remains timeless and yet actually enters into history.7 Christ as a symbol for the journey of the soul

The trials and tribulations of Christ are echoed in the trials and tribulations of the soul, exemplified in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

even the whole sharpness and dissonance of the suffering, torture, and agony involved in such an opposition, belong to the nature of spirit itself8 Christ as a symbol for the process of spirit and self-cognition

what this life of Christ brings to representation for us…[is] this process of the nature of spirit – God in human shape.9

With the ‘death of God’ spirit in humanity is reconciled with itself, thereby attaining true consciousness of itself. The goal of Neoplatonism is achieved. Christ as a symbol for contradiction

God’s suffering and death are the expression of his love. In dying (the death of death) he is resurrected into eternal life (the life of Spirit in the cultus, through God’s return to and eternal reconciliation with himself). Christ as a symbol for the process of negation

The death of Christ is the affirmative negation of the initial negation, his incarnation. Christ as a symbol for recollection

Because he physically dies, Christ can only live in the memories of the faithful. Plotinus wrote

At any time when we have not been in direct vision of (the Supreme), memory is the source of its activity within us10

Recollection, like a mirror, embodies higher ‘truth’ and since, for the Neoplatonist, it is closely related to love and desire, its activity (thinking or imaging) is the beginning of the soul’s ascent. Love for Christ in memory leads to desire for the return of one’s soul to union with God.

Relevant to Christ’s death and ascension, Plotinus perceptively wrote

Memory, of  course, must be understood not merely of what might be called the sense of remembrance, but so as to include a condition induced by the past experience or vision. There is such a thing as possessing more powerfully without consciousness than in full knowledge; with full awareness the possession is of something quite distinct from the self; unconscious possession runs very close to identity11

Such a recollection of Christ all the more powerfully illustrates the process of Neoplatonic return. Christ as a symbol for the means of return and unification

Hegel wrote that a single historical individual should enable the activity of reconciliation through his death and ascension, thereby actualising a universal self-consciousness of community, a unity of members in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit as a symbol for the return to unity in knowledge

Reconciliation occurs in the Holy Spirit – the third ‘moment’ of the Trinity, the unity of ‘Father’ and ‘Son.’ God, ‘completed,’ is now in his community.

Inspired by their mysticism, the Neoplatonists have always had a strong interest in the world. Chlup wrote of Proclus’ philosophy that while the Soul can never enter the realm of the One, it can open up to the gods and be filled with their power – the gods can come to it.12 This was Hegel’s intention in his use and distortions of the Christian myth and Trinity.

At every point in his use of the Christian myth and Trinity (comprised of the allegorical characters of ‘Father,’ ‘Son’ and the reunion of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ – Holy Spirit) and in his distortions of them, Hegel used them to more deeply anchor Neoplatonism in the world – God, needing completion, comes to the world, he finds and therefore we find (because we are God) completion through his participation in it, in us – ‘salvation’ lies in a philosophical community.

Hegel also used the Christian myth and Trinity and his distortions of them to poetically flavour and enrich his Neoplatonic philosophy – myth and Trinity are always present in his conceptual development, however abstract – myth, Trinity and Neoplatonic process flow out and return interlaced, but always the last sustains the other two. The rose and the owl face each other

In the Preface to his Philosophy of Right Hegel wrote of ‘the rose of reason,’13 a mystical metaphor he acknowledged he had used of the Rosicrucians to unintentionally point beyond ‘reason’ itself – the concept he had laid claim to – and which metaphor he used again in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion14 and of the flight of the owl of Minerva at dusk, as it philosophically reviews the course of human events.15



1. Hodgson, ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion,’ op. cit., 247
2. ‘The Christian God is…the triune God who contains difference within himself’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 44-45
3. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 374. Cf. ‘The Good…is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is There.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., I.6.9
4. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 311-312
5. Ibid., 123
6. Ibid., Hodgson in note 229, 149
7. Emil L. Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought, Indiana University Press, London, 1971, 172
8. G.W.F.Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, Volume I, Trans. T.M.Knox, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2010, 537
9. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 132
10. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., IV.4.5
11. Ibid., IV.4.4
12. ‘Plotinus already saw the highest aim in one’s unification with the One, in which the distinction between subject and object melts down entirely. Late Neoplatonists followed suit, though they differed from Plotinus in their understanding of what this unification means and how exactly it is to be reached. Once again (as with the henads), we are approaching an area of Neoplatonism where philosophy passes into the realm of religion. …For Proclus, to unify with the One does not mean to leave one’s ontological station and ascend from the level of soul to that of the First Principle. (The late Neoplatonists believed that) the boundaries between levels of reality are penetrable in one direction only (- from higher to lower. So) while human Soul can never really enter the realm of the One, it can open up to the gods and act in unison with them, becoming their extension, as it were, and being filled with their power.’ Chlup, Proclus, An Introduction, op. cit., 163
13. ‘To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason. …To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual, the reconciliation which philosophy affords to those in whom there has once arisen an inner voice bidding them to comprehend,’ G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Trans. T.M.Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, 11-12
14. ‘In the 1824 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, the same metaphor occurs: “in order to pluck reason, the rose in the cross of the present, one must take up the cross itself.” Most commentators agree that Hegel is making a reference to the imagery of the Rosicrucians, whose symbol was a rose blooming from the centre of a cross. Hegel himself makes it clear that he was referring to the Rosicrucians, in a review essay published in 1829. …In the Preface, prior to the “rose in the cross” image, Hegel refers to the reason inherent in nature as der Stein der Weisen, or, as it is usually translated into English, “the philosopher’s stone.” These are equivalent metaphors in the Preface: both the rose in the cross and the philosopher’s stone represent, for Hegel, reason, which he is calling upon his readers to discern in the present day. Given that the Rosicrucians were widely known as alchemists, Hegel could not have been ignorant of the connection between these two metaphors’ Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’ in Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, op. cit., 263
15. ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, op. cit., 13. Verene wrote that this has practically become the emblem and seal of Hegel’s thought. Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 26

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