Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13p


13.6.6 The cognition of absolute truth – God is a Proclean ‘syllogism’

Neoplatonism, from its outset, was a school of amalgamation and development.1 The same explicative process that the relation between infinity and finitude underwent can be seen in conceptual development – from Plotinus’ ‘impressions’ (a term Cusanus also used) to Cusanus’ concepts in their coincidental relationships to Hegel’s full development of concepts in their dialectical relationships and in the degree to which God/Absolute Truth can be known. Where Plotinus emphasised the One’s unknowability by normal cognition Proclus, while consistent with him also more systematically explored the potential for knowledge up to the first hypostasis with his henads, beginning with Being (Prop. 138), the first element of his secondary triad.

Cusanus, despite Hopkins’ assertion that he believed ‘human minds…will never—not even in the next life—be able to discern God’s nature as it is in itself’2 was ambivalent about the extent to which we can acquire knowledge (which I will soon address) while Hegel claimed to have closed the gap of cognition, reducing the One to a prose-poetic device that functioned entirely within the Proclean triad. Differences between Hegel and his predecessors are not fundamental but developmental.

Again, particularly in relation to what can be known/cognised, the language of Neoplatonism, redolent with prose-poetic devices, should never be taken literally. Hopkins himself gave three examples where it appears Cusanus contradicted himself but, from his mystical point of view, was consistent

Nicholas’s terminology is quite fluid. No example of this fluidity is more striking than is his language of coincidentia oppositorum: (1) God, says Nicholas, is the Coincidence of opposites; (2) opposites coincide in God; and (3) God is beyond the coincidence of opposites. However, Nicholas does not understand different things by these three different statements. On the contrary, he regards them as interchangeable. Accordingly, their apparent surface-meaning is not the same as their deeper true-meaning. Because God is the Coincidence of opposites, He may be called by opposing names, as in the case of Motion and Rest. Because opposites coincide in God, there is no opposition in Him, and, thus, all names to which other names are opposed may be denied of Him. Because God is beyond the coincidence of opposites, He is ineffable, and no names, whether positive or negative, at all befit Him.3

The same mystical reasoning applies to Cusanus’ assertion that we can’t know absolute truth and Hegel’s that we can. They were ultimately arguing the same thing – their philosophies describe Neoplatonic emanation and return, from infinite unity to division and finitude, to return and resolution in the unity of an infinity of finite perspectival minds in a cultus.

Rather than being, as Buhle wrote of Cusanus’ God, a logical concept4, or as Jaspers wrote, an ‘intellectual object’ that can only be seen ‘without seeing’5, it is, for both Cusanus and Hegel a ‘logical’, Neoplatonic process

the process of constituting…distinctions within himself. It is his nature and his concept eternally to make these distinctions and at the same time to take them back into himself6

Of ‘logical’, Redding wrote

it is clear that Hegel means something quite different by the term ‘logic’ than is meant in the ‘formal’ logic dominant in contemporary philosophy, but exactly what it is committed to beyond that is far from clear.7

In fact, it is quite clear that its meaning and what is committed to are theological – neither Cusanus nor Hegel separated faith from reason (an obvious contradiction in terms blithely accepted in academic philosophy) and for both, God is what God does.8

For the Neoplatonist, ‘mind’ (not only the power of perception, understanding and reasoning but of imagining) performs its operations in order to know itself. In performing those operations it not only knows itself but, as an image of eternal unfolding Being, as the mirror of God’s ‘Mind’, it knows the immanent God itself

when, as best it can, the human mind (which is a lofty likeness of God) partakes of the fruitfulness of the Creating Nature, it produces from itself, qua image of the Omnipotent Form, rational entities, [which are made] in the likeness of real entities. Consequently, the human mind is the form of a surmised [rational] world, just as the Divine Mind is the Form of the real world.9

and, for the Neoplatonist

the more subtly the mind contemplates itself in and through the world unfolded from itself, the more abundantly fruitful it is made within itself, since its End is Infinite Reason. Only in Infinite Reason will the mind behold itself as it is10

For Cusanus, our ‘minds’, again as images of God, are not only an Absolute Oneness, but triune

just as the First Beginning of all things, including our minds, is shown to be triune (so that of the multitude, the inequality, and the division of things there is one Beginning, from whose Absolute Oneness multitude flows forth, from whose Absolute Equality inequality flows forth, and from whose Absolute Union division flows forth), so our mind (which conceives only an intellectual nature to be creative) makes itself to be a triune beginning of its own rational products.11

Hegel rebadged this

We know, in terms of our own spirit, that first of all we are able to think without this antithesis or cleavage within us, that secondly we are finite spirit, spirit in its cleavage and separation, and that thirdly we are spirit in the state of sensibility and subjectivity, of return to self – [which is] reconciliation, innermost feeling. Of these three, the first is the realm of universality; the second, the realm of particularity; the third, that of singularity. These three realms are a presupposition that we have taken up as our definition.12

Hegel wrote that Böhme had the idea that the Trinity is in everything13, which Magee repeated14 – although he also wrote that Hegel never expressed indebtedness to Böhme15 and, most importantly, that Böhme’s Trinity functions differently to that of Hegel16. I contend that developments in Neoplatonism on this subject were the inspiration for both Böhme and Hegel17.

The nature of the relationship between ‘mind’ and God, embodied in the concluding and culminating words in Hegel’s Encyclopaedia – his quotation from the Metaphysics 1072b18-30 resonates in the words of Cusanus

mind uses itself insofar as it is the image of God. And God, who is all things, shines forth in mind when mind, as a living image of God, turns to its own Exemplar and assimilates itself thereto with all its effort. In this way the mind beholds all things as something one and beholds itself as an assimilation of that one. By means of this assimilation it makes concepts of that one thing which is all things. (In this way it makes theological speculations.) In the one thing which is all things it very tranquilly finds rest as in the goal of all its concepts and as in the most delightful true being of its life. About this mode [of being], enough could never be said18.



1. ‘Heir to the great philosophies of the ancient world, those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, (Plotinus) borrowed from all of them the insights which he needed, but without surrendering at any point the dominant influence of Platonism. Eclectic in appearance but powerfully unified by the strength of a single pervading impulse, his system has, by various channels often obscure and often indirect, come to be and remained one of the guiding forces in the thought of the West, whether Christian or secular, from Augustine and Scotus Eriugena to Dean Inge and Bergson. He is the last great philosopher of antiquity, and yet in more than one respect, and notably in the stress which he places on the autonomy of spirit, he is a precursor of modern times.’ Henry, in Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., xlii
2. Hopkins in De Deo abscondito (‘On the Hidden God’), op. cit., Note 1, 308
3. Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: volume two, op. cit., 59-60
4. See 13.4.1
5. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 139
6. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 171
7. Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, op. cit., 150
8. Hegel famously wrote that philosophy is the service and explication of God – ‘philosophy is theology, and one’s occupation with philosophy…is of itself the service of God.’, Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 153, 152, 84; ‘(The subject of the theology of coincidence) is God’s activity – by telling what God does, it tells what God is, for God is hidden except as God reveals Godself.’, Bond in Nicholas of Cusa, Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, op. cit., 35
9. Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis (‘On Speculations’), op. cit., 1,1,5, 164-165
10. Ibid., 1,1,5, 165
11. Ibid., 1,1,6, 165. ‘In God all things are present in a trinity – and so too in our mind. Our mind is composed of modes of apprehending.’, Nicholas of Cusa, Idiota de mente (‘The Layman on Mind’), op. cit., Chapter title, 532. ‘Modes of apprehending’ is one of Cusanus’ expressions Hegel used: ‘the absolute Idea alone is being, imperishable life, self-knowing truth, and is all truth. It is the sole subject matter and content of philosophy. Since it contains all determinateness within it, and its essential nature is to return to itself through its self-determination or particularisation, it has various shapes, and the business of philosophy is to cognise it in these. Nature and spirit are in general different modes of presenting its existence, art and religion its different modes of apprehending (my italics) itself and giving itself an adequate existence. Philosophy has the same content and the same end as art and religion; but it is the highest mode of apprehending (my italics) the absolute Idea, because its mode is the highest mode, the Notion.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 824. To repeat the point made at 11.3.11, this quotation exemplifies Hegel’s application of the Neoplatonic metaphor of ‘shape’ to the ultimate category in his Science of Logic.
12. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 273
13. ‘(Böhme’s) sole thought is the Trinity: it is the universal principle in which and through which everything is, and it is indeed that principle in such a way that everything has this Trinity within it, not just as a Trinity of representation but as real. The rest of his thought is then the explication of the Trinity…For him this trinity is the universal life, the wholly universal life in each and every individual; it is the absolute substance.’, Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. III, 96.
14. ‘(In writing of Böhme, Hegel wrote that he perceived the Trinity in everything and) not as a Trinity pertaining to the ordinary conception, but as the real Trinity of the Absolute Idea. (LHP 3:196) Hegel notes that Böhme regards the Trinity as “the absolute Substance” (LHP 3:212)’, Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 49
15. ‘Hegel never once says anything that would indicate that he is indebted to Böhme or that Böhme in some way influenced him.’, Magee, ‘Hegel’s Reception of Jacob Boehme’, op. cit., 589
16. ‘As we shall see, Böhme’s Trinity works differently from Hegel’s’, Ibid., 550. I will soon more thoroughly discuss Magee’s position on the relationship between Hegel, Böhme and Hermetism.
17. Beck implied that Böhme and Hegel knew of or were at least influenced by Cusanus: ‘When Meister Eckhart ascribed (in accordance with his view of the Trinity) a tension within the Godhead to which God himself owes his being, when Nicholas of Cusa made God the coincidence of opposites, they set a pattern which Böhme accepted and Hegel rationalised by seeing the Absolute as itself a dialectic process’, Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, op. cit., 156; ‘There is general agreement among scholars as to the intellectual streams that coalesce to form theosophy: medieval German mysticism, alchemy, Paracelsism, and Kabbalism.’, ‘Jacob Boehme and Christian Theosophy’, Glenn Alexander Magee, Chapter 16, in Glenn Alexander Magee, Ed., The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016, 1012
18. Nicholas of Cusa, Idiota de mente (‘The Layman on Mind’), 7,106, 560

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

2 thoughts on “Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 13p

  1. Hi Phil,
    I’ve been followed with interest your exposure of the mystical strain in Hegel’s idealism harking back to Plotinus through Cusanus. Some thoughts come to mind – I’m only an amateur philosopher as will become obvious. I’ve been very involved with the natural world all my 80+ years and have regularly engaged in Buddhist and Taoist style meditation for over fifty years. My personal experiences from almost the beginning have attracted me to mysticism, but I was turned off by Christianity and its idealist trappings very early on – they seemed to be so much nonsense to me given my experiences. Plotinus appeared to me to have escaped that and was attempting to express what he had experienced during his flights over there, but truthfully I’d only explored his ideas superficially.
    My flights are much enmeshed with the natural world. Oh, they may ascend much higher, but meaning is more immediate. I’ve sought Western ways to understand and describe these trips. Plotinus’ disparaging of the natural world put me off. Stoicism and its alchemic trailings showed promise – It was only recently that I learned of his scorn for Stoicism. More to the point, I’m much attracted to Goethe, Schelling, Nietzsche, and the Phenomenologists. Goethe’s morphogenesis works followed much of the ground that Darwin would later tread. These shocked Nietzsche into declaring that all the gods are dead; in other words, all ideals lack life. Yet, there is a mystical strain running through all of this that reflects that the Buddha and the Taoists described. God and Spirit never show their faces in any traditional Western sense.
    Thus, the dialectic horns of a dilemma. I read that Hegel’s ideas pervade Western philosophy particularly in Europe, while there is a resurgence of interest in Goethe, Nietzsche, and the Phenomenologists and their ilk. I had some idea why this dichotomy was occurring, but nothing solid until I read Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World”. Idealism is typical left brain and Phenomenology right! A surely outrageous idea: mysticism is in essence the right brain experiential, Gestalt view of reality. The two halves, however, are not independent and this viewpoint leaks across to the left. There, it is mostly unnoticed by most Western intellectuals, including philosophers, whose minds are filled with words (and numbers). These philosophers, in common with most Western scientists, simply can’t get their heads out of their ideas. Quantum science shows promise to blow their brains. See the recently published “Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics” by Peter J. Lewis.
    It appears these dialectic difficulties naturally arise. I suggest there is a whole brain solution, actually a heart based one. As the HeartMath scientists have pinned down, when we focus lovingly in our hearts, the two brain halves synchronize and left brain dominance is brought in line with the mystical right. Knowing in the inspired “truth” sense becomes common place – Nous becomes present within experience. I’m describing immediate experience of oneness, of non-duality readily available to all, not about just a bunch of words. It does require skillfully focused intention freed from talk, talk, talk. Here, I propose, is the solution to your Hegel-related problems.
    Don Sanderson

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Don,

      thank you for your interest and comment. Plotinus’ philosophy is, as you know, very complex. While he regarded matter as ‘the root of evil’, not only did he write – against the Gnostics’ hatred for the material world – beautifully and with the highest praise for it (II.9.16,17), this world and everything in it is the image/are images of what is in the second hypostasis – including matter. That same appreciation for the world can be seen in Cusanus’ Book II of his De docta ignorantia.

      While my thesis focuses on Neoplatonism, I would never claim that it is the dominant form of mysticism, rather that it is the primary, academically suppressed, Western form. Cross-cultural studies of mystical belief systems could only be of the greatest benefit – I write this as a materialist.

      Your discussing the brain (in my view, the most astonishing organisation of matter yet known to us anywhere in the universe) and its ‘halves’ is crucial. We can philosophise all we want, but matter is primary.

      Best wishes,



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