13. Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa
13.1 The use of Neoplatonism
Nothing could more clearly exemplify the dishonesty that permeates modern Western philosophy, a dishonesty motivated by a careerist pandering to the requirements of the dominant ideology, than the relationship between Neoplatonism and the philosophy of the German idealists, particularly Hegel.
The reason of the former – fluid, poetic and ‘speculative’ – always eager to acknowledge meaning beyond the constraint of concepts and argument and to explore ways of conveying it was appropriated to the reason of the latter, and not acknowledged.
Where Neoplatonism’s vitality and dynamism, necessary to lifting philosophy out of scholasticism was retained, its reason was now forced into conceptual structures and this done with greatest determination by Hegel, the self-appointed master of the ‘scientific’ philosophising of the ‘concrete’1.
Yet that very determination, together with his orientation to Neoplatonism and his sensitivity to creativity resulted in him taking Neoplatonism to its highest point of development. Cusanus, following on Proclus, was instrumental to Hegel in this regard.
13.2 Philosophers who didn’t acknowledge those who influenced them
German philosophy of the period is emblematic of Western philosophy under capitalism in its failure to deal honestly and openly with Neoplatonism and with philosophers considered to be ‘suspect’ or disapproved of in relation to the dominant paradigm of ‘reason’ – an activity still little understood. Redding said of Spinoza
there was an underground distribution of his works and they were very influential in Germany in the eighteenth century. Jacobi blows the lid on this by saying that Lessing had told him that he was a Spinozist on his death-bed, resulting in many coming out saying that they had read Spinoza. Spinoza took off like a bomb. Teenagers began reading Spinoza.2
Magee wrote of the ‘highly probable’ influence of the Swabian mystical theologian Friedrich Christoph Oetinger on Hegel
Hegel never mentions Oetinger, but then neither does Schelling, even though we know from independent sources that Oetinger was important to him. The reason for this silence is very clear. Academics and clergymen who referred to Oetinger or expressed sympathy for his ideas were generally ridiculed and even sometimes dismissed from their posts.3
and similarly of Hegel’s interest in Böhme
the only reference to Boehme in Hegel’s published writings up until the Berlin period is in the 1817 Encyclopedia, where a brief reference occurs in paragraph 472 of the Philosophy of Spirit. Perhaps Hegel felt it prudent not to advertise his interest in Boehme in his published writings. By the Berlin period, however, he felt secure from academic persecution, and so decided to openly acknowledge his interest in print. Hence, not only does a reference to Boehme appear in the 1832 Doctrine of Being, but also, as mentioned, in the preface to the 1827 Encyclopedia.4
The motives of a fear of disapproval and of the termination of a career in not acknowledging a philosophical influence or interest could also merge with ambition. Küng wrote that Hegel and Schelling, though never acknowledging him, were
greatly in Fichte’s debt both for the development of the monism of Spirit and for the development of dialectic5
Magee wrote that Hegel’s ‘true infinite’ ‘would seem to owe something to Spinoza’s theology.’6 In fact all three notions – the monism of Spirit, dialectic and Hegel’s ‘true infinite’7 were staples of Neoplatonism.
Again, the motive could simply have been egotism
Hegel’s treatment of Böhme is fundamentally no different from his treatment of any number of other figures in the history of ideas: he sees him as in certain ways approaching the ideas that only he, Hegel, fully and adequately articulates.8
Other examples of German philosophers who concealed their interest in or debt to the writing and philosophies of others include Schelling with regard to Swedenborg9, Nietzsche with regard to Stirner10 and, of most interest to me, Hegel with regard to Cusanus – on which I will now begin to expand.
1. ‘Schelling…gave to his Spinozism a neo-platonic twist, and the philosophy of Schelling and, especially, after him, Hegel, showed clear features of the type of thought found in the Platonism of late antique philosophers like Plotinus and Proclus (Beierwaltes 2004; Vieillard-Baron 1979). …The neoplatonistic thought of Plotinus and Proclus had been a recurring feature of German religious and philosophical thought since the late middle ages, having appeared in influential thinkers like Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa and, later, Leibniz and Jacob Böhme. In the 1780s and 90s, there seems to have been a revival of Platonist and Neoplatonist thought in the German states, and this would come to be especially influential on early “romanticism”. During the 1790s, the poet-philosopher Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801) had even claimed to find similarities between the views of Plotinus on the one hand, and Kant and Fichte on the other (Beierwaltes 2004: 87-8). In retrospect, this does not seem too fanciful.’ Redding, ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion’, op. cit., 6 ↩
2. Lecture, University of Sydney, 13.09.10. ‘Lessing, who had died in the year in which the Critique of Pure Reason appeared, had posthumously introduced the ideas of Spinoza to the intellectual avant-garde. His enlightened friends in Berlin were deeply shocked when, four years after his death, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi reported a private conversation he had had with Lessing shortly before his demise (On the teaching of Spinoza in letters to Mr Moses Mendelssohn, 1785). In 1780 he was supposed, according to his own words, to have abandoned the orthodox ideas of God; appealing to Spinoza, he had rejected the notion of God as personal cause of the world and come to conceive of him as a kind of soul of the universe embracing the world as one and all. Thus Jacobi accused Lessing not only of pantheism, but also of determinism, fatalism and atheism.’ Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought, op. cit., 103 ↩
3. Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’ in Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, op. cit., 276 ↩
4. Ibid., 264. His further understated words should be noted ‘This, plus the encounter with Baader, makes it exceedingly difficult for scholars to dismiss Hegel’s interest in mysticism as a mere “aberration of youth.”’ ‘In the 1840’s, Schelling publicly accused Hegel of having simply borrowed much of his philosophy from Jakob Böhme.’ Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 2 ↩
5. Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought, op. cit., 151. ‘Fichte made the two “discoveries” which were to remain fundamental for post-Kantian Idealism. These were subsequently taken over and remodelled by the two younger men (i.e. Schelling and Hegel), without showing too much gratitude to Fichte! a) The monism of Spirit. …This was the “I” or the subjective reason, which proves to be a creative force and a productive power or, to use another name, Spirit. b) Dialectic. …the “I” exists in conflict with the “not-I”. Thus the structures and forms of the world arise out of the creative reason. The latter posits itself, continually confronting and overcoming the antithesis afresh. Hence, the genesis of Spirit occurs in the threefold act of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, or, to use another word, in dialectic.’ Ibid., 151-152. Plotinus was accused by his colleagues in Greece of having plagiarised Numenius of Apamea. Paul Henry ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’ in Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., lxix ↩
6. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 225 ↩
7. Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., Props., 91 and 102. The relationship between ‘infinite’ and ‘finite’ is Cusanus’ fundamental philosophical concern: ‘Your Concept is most simple eternity itself. Now, posterior to most simple eternity no thing can possibly be made. Therefore, infinite duration, which is eternity itself, encompasses all succession. Therefore, everything which appears to us in a succession is not at all posterior to Your Concept, which is eternity. For Your one Concept, which is also Your Word, enfolds each and every thing.’ Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei (‘The Vision of God’), op, cit., 10, 43, 699 ↩
8. Magee, ‘Hegel’s Reception of Jacob Boehme’, op. cit., 544 ↩
9. ‘There is not a single passage in the works of Schelling published during his lifetime that explicitly indicates that the author was engaged with Swedenborg, as were so many of the leading spirits of the time who in one way or another reacted against Enlightenment rationalism…(Schelling made only one reference to Swedenborg in his dialogue ‘On the Connection of Nature with the Spiritual World [Clara]’) but even here he is referred to only as “the Swedish spirit-seer” or “the Northern spirit-seer.” Even more astonishing, there is not a single direct reference to Swedenborg in Schelling’s letters. …as far as the available sources indicate Schelling never wrote the name “Swedenborg”…This once again confirms Ernst Benz’s assertion that the official academic judgement passed on Swedenborg was so potent “that Swedenborg was rarely mentioned by name even by his covert adherents.” Still, the references to Swedenborg in Clara demonstrate that Schelling regarded him as a true seer.’ Friedmann Horn, Schelling and Swedenborg: Mysticism and German Idealism, Trans., George F. Dole, Swedenborg Foundation, Pennsylvania, 1997, 27. Horn quoted Kant ‘in the future – I don’t know where or when – it will be proved that even in this life the human soul is in an insoluble community with all the immaterial natures of the world of spirits, and that it reciprocally influences it and receives impressions from it, of which, however, the soul is unconscious as long as everything is fine’ (p. 149 in Kants populäre Schriften, ed. Paul Menzer (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1911)’ 169 ↩
10. Safranski wrote that, wanting to read the writing of Max Stirner (Johann Caspar Schmidt – Marx and Engels referred to him in The German Ideology as ‘Saint Max’), Nietzsche sent one of his students (Adolf Baumgartner) to the Basel library in 1874 to get it. On another occasion, Safranski reports, he was quoted by his friend Ida Overbeck as saying that she would not let on that he was familiar with Stirner’s writing. Nietzsche was accused of not only having been influenced by Stirner but of having plagiarised him. Safranski quotes one contemporary of Nietzsche’s having written that Nietzsche would have been ‘permanently discredited in any educated milieu if he had demonstrated even the least bit of sympathy for Stirner’. Rudiger Safranski, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography, Trans., Shelley Frisch, Granata Books, London, 2002, 126 ↩
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