Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13g

13.6.1 Both Hegel and Cusanus sought to reconstruct the grounds of philosophy and theology and the relationship between them

What Hopkins wrote of the bishop and cardinal Cusanus could equally be applied to Hegel

Cusa was primarily a metaphysician – a theologically oriented metaphysician, to be sure.1

– in his Philosophy of Nature (a text by him that is discreetly downplayed by the academics) Hegel rejected evolution, Newton’s theory of colour, subscribed to the four elements and wrote that the sun is ‘the Notion existing as a particular body’2.

Both believed we are estranged from God – a marker of Neoplatonism. Moffitt Watts maintains her blindness in this regard, too

Cusanus, striving to overcome the disjunctions that estrange man from God and creation, comes to see that the new problems of knowledge and faith are better expressed in less formal and systematic ways. Knowledge and faith evolve through the unique movement of each individual’s interior mental and spiritual life.3

Hegel and Cusanus located the divine in human rationality and both were committed to creating what they thought of as a healing bond between Christian faith, theology, philosophy (metaphysics, ontology and epistemology) and community.

For both, as Jaspers wrote of Cusanus, ‘speculative (my italics) philosophical thinking and the Christian faith merge into one’4 and, again what he wrote of Cusanus applies equally to Hegel

It never occurs to Cusanus that his philosophical ideas and his theological ideas might conflict. To him philosophy was not a rational substructure supporting the higher, the mystery. Reflection on the mystery of revelation was itself philosophy.5

Further, the theological is not separated from the physical – knowledge of the world leads to knowledge of God. Hegel illustrated this Neoplatonic precept throughout his Philosophy of Nature

Nature is the bride which Spirit weds.6

Nature is Spirit estranged from itself; in Nature, Spirit lets itself go, a Bacchic god unrestrained and unmindful of itself7

God is subjectivity, activity, infinite actuosity, in which otherness has only a transient being8

The two forms under which the serial progression of nature is conceived are evolution and emanation. …though (evolution) is of all theories the easiest to understand, it does not really explain anything at all.9

Each of these forms (emanation and evolution) taken separately is one-sided, but they exist together; the eternal divine process is a flowing in two opposite directions which meet and permeate each other in what is simply and solely one.10

The concluding sentence of the book is

The aim of these lectures has been…to see in Nature a free reflex of spirit; to know God, not in the contemplation of him as spirit, but in this his immediate existence.11

For both, ‘science’ is indistinguishable from the cognition of self and self-knowledge is the core of our religious experience. Both committed themselves to Neoplatonism in reaction, in turn, against scholasticism12 and Enlightenment rationalism – Cusanus, in doing so, overleapt the Enlightenment13.

Both sought, on the basis of Neoplatonism, to develop a new method for doing philosophy and theology. To illustrate the extent of sameness in their identification of the ‘problems’ and their solution, I quote Moffitt Watts

Cusanus is led increasingly to believe that the central problems of theology and philosophy revolve around the dimensions of human nature and its individual and communal capacities and potentialities.14

Cusanus himself indicates in both the De docta ignorantia and the De coniecturis that he is in fact attempting to establish a new framework for philosophising and theologising…His basic critique is levelled against what he considers to be the vanity and the hollowness of the scholastic mode of logical discourse…Cusanus was prepared to take on the scholastics on philosophical grounds and to establish new grounds and forms for speculation.15

As Cusanus attempted ‘to establish a new framework for philosophising and theologising’ in the Proclean triad God/universe/Christ of his De docta ignorantia (to which I will soon return) and in his De coniecturis, Hegel aimed to do the same in his Phenomenology of Spirit and in the Proclean triad of his Encyclopaedia Logic, Philosophy of Nature and Philosophy of Spirit (see 11.3.7).

Where Cusanus’ ‘basic critique is levelled against what he considers to be the vanity and the hollowness of the scholastic mode of logical discourse’, Hegel’s basic critique was levelled against what he considered to be the vanity of the priests and the hollowness of Enlightenment Deism and ‘subjective feeling’.

That Cusanus opposed scholasticism on the basis of the attainability of its goals – ‘the rational analysis and understanding of the essences of created things and of God’16 where Hegel opposed Enlightenment rationalism which held that God cannot be cognised appears to be a major difference between the two, but it is not – the solution to this apparent dilemma lies in Neoplatonic theory, to which point I will also soon return.

Hodgson wrote that where Lessing and others had critiqued the authority of scripture as the basis for Christianity and Hume had undercut Enlightenment rationalism as a basis for Christianity, either a new philosophical theology had to be developed for the continued justification of Christianity or religion would have to be considered as a purely human expression. He added that Hegel set out to develop a speculative theology for Christianity. I disagree with the last sentence – in my view Hegel set out to develop a speculative theology (Neoplatonism) – using Christianity for its potential – both as metaphor and, in so doing, to further anchor Neoplatonism in the lived world.

 Just as Magee wrote that Hegel’s system

is an attempt to ‘re-enchant’ the world, to re-invest nature with the experience of the numinous lost with the death of the mythical consciousness17

so Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Weber’s Berufsmensch were equally Neoplatonically inspired ‘heroic’ individuals of their time, shapers of their spiritual selves in the face of the dissolution of spiritual unity by the rising tide of late nineteenth century capitalist consumerism. Two readings of the individual as God that all-conquering capitalism has thoroughly made one – ‘You are thoughtful, creative and beautiful – buy this!’



1. Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: volume two, op. cit., 3
2. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 223
3. Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus, A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man, op. cit., 229
4. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 145
5. Ibid., 148-149
6. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 13
7. Ibid., 14
8. Ibid., 15
9. Ibid., 21
10. Ibid., 26
11. Ibid., 445
12. Hegel and Cusanus criticised scholasticism from the same perspective: Buhle wrote of Cusanus ‘he attacked in particular the craze of the scholastics for debating any subject even if it utterly transcended the bounds of human reason.’ Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, vol. 2, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, 80-81; Brown wrote in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy “Hegel contrasts the increase in dialectical hairsplitting on the part of the Scholastics by the use of Aristotelian logic, with ‘the properly speculative element in Aristotle’ that the Scholastics had forgotten.” In Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. II, Note 162, 232
13.Cusanus was not a precursor of the Enlightenment. He was interested…in speculative thinking’, Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 248; ‘Shallow rationalism loses sight of the intellect by raising discursive reason to the level of an absolute and by exalting sensory experience. It believes in progress, rejects speculative philosophy along with theology…Cusanus was the very opposite of all this.’ Ibid., 249
14. Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus, A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man, op. cit., 30
15. Ibid., 225
16. Ibid., 43
17. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 97

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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