Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 12d

12.3.3 The retreat into a philosophy of subjectivity – ‘ancient’ becomes ‘modern’

‘Cogito ergo sum’ epitomised for Hegel the most important current in philosophy1 – a current in which thought thinks itself, a philosophy of subjectivity that he believed ran from the antique Neoplatonists (particularly Proclus) who drew on Aristotle’s notion of noesis noeseos, through Christianity, overleapt the Middle Ages and was revived by Descartes, who Hegel considered the first ‘modern’ philosopher

Now we come for the first time to what is properly the philosophy of the modern world, and we begin it with Descartes. Here, we may say, we are at home and, like the sailor after a long voyage, we can at last shout ‘Land ho’. Descartes made a fresh start in every respect. …The principle in this new era is thinking, the thinking that proceeds from itself. We have exhibited this inwardness above all with respect to Christianity; it is pre-eminently the Protestant principle. …it is now thinking, thinking on its own account, that is the purest pinnacle of this inwardness, the inmost core of inwardness – thinking is what now establishes itself on its own account. This period begins with Descartes.2

Because of its importance to my argument, I quote most of the note at the bottom of the page on which the above text was printed. Hegel was perfectly clear in tying together, in the same current, Neoplatonism, Christianity and ‘modern’ philosophy (of which he thought his to be the final word) which, together, uphold a ‘pinnacle of inwardness’

With the reference to a ‘pinnacle’ of inwardness Hegel establishes a connection between, on the one hand, the philosophy of Descartes and modern philosophy as a whole and, on the other, Christianity and Neoplatonism, for in discussing Neoplatonism he used the phrase ‘pinnacle of actual being’ (Spitze des Seyenden) to render Proclus’s (in Greek) ‘pinnacle of actual being’. This pinnacle of actual being is further defined, in W. 15:84 (Ms?), as ‘what is centred on self [das Selbstische] what has being-for-self, the subjective, the point of individual unity’. Hegel also sees (in W. 15:114-15) a parallel development in Christianity: ‘For human beings there has dawned in their consciousness of the world the fact that the absolute has attained this (in Greek) ‘pinnacle of concreteness’ – the pinnacle of immediate actuality; and this is the appearance of Christianity.’…Hegel regards modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, as taking up again or resuming the history of philosophy, a history interrupted by the Middle Ages.3


This view that modern philosophy follows upon the philosophy of late antiquity is based not only on the scant importance Hegel attached to the Middle Ages as far as the history of philosophy was concerned, as a period ‘which we intend to get through by putting on seven-league boots’, but also on his supposition of an agreement in content between the philosophers of late antiquity and those of modern times regarding the concept of the self-thinking thought; see, for example, W.15:13: ‘The fundamental idea of this Neopythagorean – also Neoplatonic or Alexandrian – philosophy was the thinking that thinks itself, the nous, which has itself for object.’ This theme also links these two periods to Aristotelian metaphysics and to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.4

My argument has been that not only was the Christian doctrine of the Trinity ‘closely linked’ with Neoplatonism (F.A.G.Tholuck, with whom Hegel corresponded, thought so [11.3.4]), Dodds wrote that the Christian Neoplatonists used the Neoplatonic concept of unity-in-distinction to explain the doctrine of the Trinity [11.3.4] and Redding that Neoplatonism, especially Proclus’ was central to Hegel’s understanding of Christianity and the doctrine of the Trinity [1.2]), and most probably sourced in both Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism,5 this Trinity is not the Trinity of Hegel which was based and remained based on Proclus’ philosophical triad Being/Life/Intelligence to which Hegel, following Cusanus, gave a Christian overlay – yet still obvious in its differences from the Christian Trinity6 – so that he could use it as the religious component he needed for his ‘speculative’ system and to metaphorically and symbolically illustrate and anchor in this world the Neoplatonic processes he set out and refined.

As Proclus used the henads to ‘reconcile’ ‘reason’ with faith, Neoplatonism with religion

as participated unities they bridge the gap between the transcendent One and everything that comes after it. The doctrine of the henads can thus be seen as a way of integrating the traditional gods of Greek polytheistic religion into the Neoplatonic metaphysics of the One.7

Hegel used his Neoplatonic ‘Trinity’ for the same purpose. Both intended that this merging would provide the means for the healing of what all the Neoplatonists perceived to be our spiritual, intellectual and social fragmentation. The application of ‘reason,’ together with faith and divine power would result in an ethical, perspectival cultus.

Further parallels between Proclus and Hegel are that, not only, contrary to the common perception that mysticism must be built around a mystical union with the Source, did Proclus make no explicit reference in his highly structured Elements of Theology to such a union with the One,8 Gods or God, in response to prayer, must come to us, we cannot go to them or him.9 What Chlup wrote, linking the gods of the Eastern Neoplatonists to their community and cultus applies equally to the Trinity, community and cultus of Hegel. These cults in which communities worship are tokens of the relationship between them and their gods or God.10

Proclus and Hegel equally recognised the use to their mystical purpose of inspired theological poetry (for the former, it was part of his theurgy11) – the very inadequacy of words being a plus such that, when expressed poetically, they function as symbols inspiring one to go beyond them to the unity of knower, knowing and known. Just as the text of Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Arts concludes with a a long section on poetry – for him, the most spiritual and perfect of the arts – so he concluded and almost concluded, in turn, his Phenomenology and tripartite Encyclopaedia with similar paeans in verse to Neoplatonic vitalism and mystical union

from the chalice of this realm of spirits

foams forth for Him his own infinitude.12

I looked into the heart, a waste of worlds, a sea, –

I saw a thousand dreams, – yet One amid all dreaming.

And earth, air, water, fire, when thy decree is given,

Are molten into One: against thee none hath striven.

There is no living heart but beats unfailingly

In the one song of praise to thee, from earth and heaven…13

Hegel advocated that philosophers be what Proclus was – priests and theologians (Cusanus was all three).14 In his maturity, in direct relation to the criticisms he had of his society, Hegel expressed a far more limited and gloomy view of what comprised a community both philosophical and religious – in which religion found not reconciliation with but refuge in philosophy15 from a people whose best times were past and from decay,16 in which ‘nobler natures’17 engaged in self-thinking thought and that reflected the closing words of the Enneads18 – than he had done in his much more idealistic youth. Hodgson encapsulated this

Our age is like that of the Roman Empire in its abandonment of the question of truth, its smug conviction that no cognitive knowledge of God can be had, its reduction of everything to merely historical questions, its privatism, subjectivism, and moralism, and the failure of its teachers and clergy to lead the people. It is indeed an apocalyptic time, but the world must be left largely to its own devices in solving its problems. Philosophy can resolve this discord only in a manner appropriate to itself, by zealously guarding the truth, but it must recognise that its resolution is only partial. The community of Spirit as such is not passing away, but it does seem to be passing over from the ecclesiastical priesthood to the philosophical; if so, the truth of religion will live on in the philosophical community, in which it must now seek refuge.19

Echoing Nussbaum’s words regarding the ‘metaphysico-religious’ ‘horror of the contingent,’20 one of the greatest dialecticians wrote

Religion must take refuge in philosophy. For the theologians of the present day, the world is a passing away into subjective reflection because it has as its form merely the externality of contingent occurrence. But philosophy, as we have said, is also partial: it forms an isolated order of priests – a sanctuary – who are untroubled about how it goes with the world, who need not mix with it, and whose work is to preserve this possession of truth. How things turn out in the world is not our affair.21



1. ‘With Descartes, thinking began to go within itself. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ are the first words of his system, and these very words constitute the distinctive feature of modern philosophy.’ Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 237
2. Ibid., vol. III, 104
3. Ibid., Note, 104
4. Ibid., Note, 105
5. ‘Another influence may have been the Neoplatonist Plotinus’ (204–70 CE) triad of the One, Intellect, and Soul, in which the latter two mysteriously emanate from the One, and “are the One and not the One; they are the one because they are from it; they are not the One, because it endowed them with what they have while remaining by itself” (Plotinus Enneads, 85). Plotinus even describes them as three hypostases, and describes their sameness using homoousios (Freeman 2003, 189). Augustine tells us that he and other Christian intellectuals of his day believed that the Neoplatonists had some awareness of the persons of the Trinity (Confessions VIII.3; City X.23). Many thinkers influential in the development of trinitarian doctrines were steeped in the thought not only of Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism…’ Dale Tuggy, ’History of Trinitarian Doctrines,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
6. Discussed at 11.3.7 ff.; Hodgson wrote that Hegel ‘adjusted’ his original inner ‘philosophical triad’ (my italics – which clearly reflects the structure of Proclus’ triad Being/Life/Intelligence) ‘drawn from the three branches of philosophy – the logical idea, nature, and (finite) spirit…It has the peculiar result (my italics) that the “Son”…occupies the third moment of the triad rather than the second. The third trinitarian moment, the “Spirit,” becomes a kind of appendage, treated under Sec. C of the outer triad, “Community, Cultus.” ’ Hodgson in Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 12-13. As I have argued previously (11.3.7), I disagree – Hegel’s triad remained, beneath the Christian overlay, philosophical and Procline.
7. Helmig and Steel, ‘Proclus,’ op. cit.
8. Prop. 123. ‘Pr.’s teaching here differs from that of Plotinus (a) in the absence of any explicit reference to unio mystica (the possibility of it is not, however, excluded); (b) in excluding the One from the possibility of being known by analogy.’ Dodds’ commentary, Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., 265
9. ‘(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
10. ‘Thanks to the gods (the world) is a place…where human communities may worship the gods in cults that have been revealed to them as tokens of…bonds between them and their divine patrons.’ Ibid., 136
11. ‘inspired theological poetry…in late Neoplatonic circles was incorporated into the large complex of theurgic activities and whose philosophical exegesis seems to have performed an important part in the soul’s ascent to the gods.’ Ibid., 168
12. Adaptation of Schiller’s Die Freundschaft, Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 493
13. Hegel introduced these words and page-long excerpts from a poem by Jelaleddin-Rumi with ‘In order to give a clearer impression of it, (the unity of the soul with the One, my italics) I cannot refrain from quoting a few passages…’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 308-309
14. 2., Note and 9.8
15. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 161-162
16. ‘(When a people’s) best times are past and decay sets in…satisfaction resides then in the ideal realm.’ Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 272-273
17. ‘periods must occur in which the spirit of nobler natures is forced to flee from the present into ideal regions, and to find in them that reconciliation with itself which it can no longer enjoy in an internally divided reality’ Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 143
18. ‘This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.11
19. Hodgson in Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 23
20. Nussbaum, The Musical Representation, Meaning, Ontology, and Emotion, op. cit., 259
21. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 161-162

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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