Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 14e


14.2  But wait! Shockingly, there’s more! (concluded)

Hegel not only gave very high praise to Böhme for his recognition of the Trinity as a universal principle and of the necessity of ‘contrariety’, he also repeatedly made the strongest criticisms of his theosophy, for two fundamental reasons – Böhme’s failure and inability to appreciate the conceptual nature of philosophy, manifest in his dependence on sensory imagery1 – a claim which could equally be made of Hermeticism

(Böhme’s articulation of his main thoughts) is unmistakably barbarous, and in order to put his thought into words he employs powerful, sensuous images such as Salitter, Tincture, Essence, Qual, Schrack, and the like.2

and, on this conceptual basis, Böhme’s primitive grasp of the nature of contradiction

Böhme grasps the antitheses in the harshest, crudest fashion3

Magee, following Hegel, also made the same fundamental criticisms of Böhme,4 further writing

Hegel treats the parallels between his thought and Boehme’s as merely, it would seem accidental: Boehme anticipates much in modern, speculative philosophy. But Hegel never once says anything that would indicate that he is indebted to Böhme or that Böhme in some way influenced him.5

Despite these criticisms and Hegel’s never once acknowledging any debt to Böhme, Magee persists in arguing for that debt and, as he sees it, its extent, but completely fails to explore and expand on his most significant references to Cusanus – another whom Hegel not only never expressed any debt to but even knowledge of, despite the far greater number of parallels between their work (see 13.6 for a summary of them), including their equal emphasis on the abstract, conceptual nature of philosophy, their exploration of contradiction on that basis, their equal regard for Proclus and their Trinitarian triad of triads, none of which are Hermetic or in Böhme’s theosophy.

Magee cites Rosenkranz having pointed out Hegel’s interest in medieval German Christian mystics, starting from his time in Berne,6 and Magee over and again positions Schelling as the link of influence between Böhme and Hegel

Schelling was, of course, an enthusiastic reader of Böhme and Oetinger and likely encouraged Hegel’s interest in theosophy.7

But with regard to the relationship between Schelling and Cusanus, and the possibility of a far greater significance to Hegel of Cusanus than Böhme, Magee, simply quoting Beck,8 made this extraordinary comment

‘Schelling…we know, was actually influenced by reading Nicholas (my italics).’ Beck also makes the claim that the Naturphilosophie of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as theosophy and Protestant mysticism, have their roots in Cusa.9

Other than Beck and Magee, all the academics tell us that neither Hegel nor any of the German idealists knew of Cusanus – then suddenly, en passant, Magee tells us that Schelling not only knew of him and read him, but was influenced by him! How, logically, might his then close friend Hegel and their intellectual milieu which Schelling was at the centre of have been influenced as a result of Schelling’s reading of Cusanus? Magee doesn’t even question this – he only offers us a further enticement in a footnote.10 Simply…nothing more. Why so profuse on Böhme and so brief on Cusanus?

It should have been all the more pressing for Magee to investigate this relationship between Schelling and Cusanus since he named Cusanus in his discussion of speculation – a core concept for Hegel – writing not only that Cusanus associated the word with the Latin ‘speculum’, for mirror,11 that ‘Schelling and Hegel…picked up the term (from whom?) and both use it in a positive sense’,12 but that in his use of the concept, Hegel

has in mind precisely the thought of figures like Cusa, who sought knowledge of God through an overcoming of dichotomous, either-or thinking.13

Likewise, Cusanus’ use of Absolute in his philosophy

Schelling’s use of ‘Absolute’ is remarkably similar to Cusa’s. For Schelling, the Absolute is the ‘indifference point’ beyond the distinction of subject and object, or any other distinction.14

It is as though Schelling’s (and Hegel’s) use of ‘Absolute’ as a noun is nothing but a ‘remarkable’ coincidence to Cusanus’ use of it. Despite incorrectly attributing the first use of ‘Absolute’ as a noun, in reference to the ultimate principle, to Cusanus (instead of Plotinus),15 Magee himself implies a continuum from Cusanus through Schelling to Hegel

Hegel accepts Schelling’s conception of the Absolute as beyond the subject–object distinction16

Of Hegel’s approach to ‘Absolute’ Magee wrote

I believe that Hegel was aware of the fact that Boehme’s doctrine was unique in the history of mysticism, precisely in its rejection of God as an ineffable Absolute.17

This rejection of the ultimate principle as an ineffable Absolute had been explored throughout the long, developmental history of Neoplatonism, from Plotinus onwards, as I have shown. Cusanus was one who had done this and I have argued that Hegel was well-acquainted with his work. It would be far easier for such a supremely ambitious and political (as Magee has shown, both re- Hegel’s interest in Hermeticism and in his discussion of Hegel’s relations with Baader) person as Hegel was to acknowledge and focus attention on one of far lesser ability (Böhme) than on another also of genius (Cusanus) – to whom, given the parallels in their philosophies, he knew he was greatly indebted.18

Magee compounds his errors in his discussion of ‘the true is the whole’

Immediately after writing “The true is the whole,” Hegel states: “But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development.” The developmental, organic understanding of the nature of the Absolute was, as far as Hegel and the other idealists knew, original with Jakob Boehme and his school.19

If he has any concern for historical accuracy and giving credit where it is due – particularly with regard to one of the West’s greatest and most influential philosophers, rather than constructing a fanciful moat of uneducated Teutonic purity around one of Plotinus’ countless derivatives,20 Magee should make the time to study the Enneads. Not only, as I have indicated, did Plotinus repeatedly use ‘Absolute’ in reference to the ultimate principle – which Hegel called both ‘God’ and ‘the One’ – in his tractate ‘Nature, Contemplation, and the One’, translated by Creuzer in 1805, he wrote of Intellectual-Principle (Divine Mind, Divine-Intellection), 1300 years before Böhme took first breath

(In) the true and first universe (of Intellect)…each part is not cut off from the whole; but the whole life of it and the whole intellect lives and thinks all together in one, and makes the part the whole and all bound in friendship with itself, since one part is not separated from another and has not become merely other, estranged from the rest; and, therefore, one does not wrong another, even if they are opposites. And since it is everywhere one and complete at every point it stays still and knows no alteration; for it does not make as one thing acting upon another. For what reason could it have for making, since it is deficient in nothing?21

Armstrong wrote

Plotinus’s World of Forms is an organic living community of interpenetrating beings which are at once Forms and intelligences, all “awake and alive,” in which every part thinks and therefore in a real sense is the whole; so that the relationship of whole and part in this spiritual world is quite different from that in the material world, and involves no sort of separation or exclusion. This unity-in-diversity is the most perfect possible image of the absolute unity of the One22

Magee cites Böhme and Hegel using other Cusan and Neoplatonic terminology – ‘Böhme holds that nature is an unfolding of the dynamic “eternal nature” contained within God’,23 “Böhme wrote of the ‘contracted being’ of God”;24 Magee quotes Hegel using the expression ‘point of contraction’ – “the Ego is ‘contracted’ into its primordial self-relation” adding “This brings to mind the doctrine of the ‘coincidence of opposites’ in Eckhart, Cusa, and other mystics”25

Magee is continually pushing for his claim to be accepted:

The 1827 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion introduce a doctrine of the ‘immanent Trinity’ clearly inspired by Böhme’s initial triad of ‘source-spirits.’ …In sum, all the evidence indicates that Hegel’s Hermeticism was no mere folly of youth, abandoned with maturity (my italics).26

What is so striking (in his early writing) is how indebted Hegel obviously is to Hermeticism. The chief debt is clearly to Böhme (my italics).27

Hegel did go on to employ some Boehmean expressions and now and then what can be characterised as a vaguely Boehmean ‘style’ (my italics).28

But of the full details, nature and extent of the direct influence Magee tells us Cusanus had on Schelling, he shows not the least interest in pursuing.


1. Magee commented on both of these – ‘(Hegel believed) Philosophy is purely conceptual, whereas religion uses “picture-thinking”: myths, allegories, images, and the like.’, Magee, ‘Hegel’s Reception of Jacob Boehme’, op. cit., 580 and ‘Hegel is unambiguous in sharply rejecting Boehme’s “picture thinking.”’, Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’, op. cit., 258
2. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. III, 103
3. Ibid.
4. ‘Böhme does not present philosophical arguments.’, Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op.cit., 45; ‘Boehme’s methodology is to argue by analogy from human psychology to theology’, Magee, ‘Jacob Boehme and Christian Theosophy’, 539
5. Magee, ‘Hegel’s Reception of Jacob Boehme’, op. cit., 589
6. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 106; “David Walsh writes that Jena in Hegel’s day ‘had become the focal point of the German Romantic movement, and many of its greatest figures were assembled there, including Tieck, Novalis, Schelling, F. Schlegel, and A.W. Schlegel. Within that company an intense centre of interest was formed by their rediscovery of the German mystical tradition. For the first time the works of the great medieval and Reformation mystics were becoming widely available within their native land.’”, Ibid., 133
7. Ibid., 134; ‘Schelling himself was an avid reader of Böhme and Oetinger, and likely encouraged Hegel’s interest.’, Ibid., 3 etc.; Magee’s stance, revelatory of his class perspective, on the degree of parental significance he attributes to Böhme – both with regard to a resulting bastardy and modernity – is exemplified by the following: ‘Boehmean ideas were communicated to Hegel by Schelling in Jena, and they exercised a strong influence on him. Arguably it is through Hegel – whose bastard children include Marxism, existentialism, and certain strains of modern conservatism – that Boehme has had his greatest influence: not just on the history of ideas, but on the formation of the modern world.’, ‘Jacob Boehme and Christian Theosophy’, op. cit., 525-526
8. ‘(Cusanus’) theory of the polarity but unity of man, God, and nature is elaborated by Schelling (who, we know, was actually influenced by reading Nicholas).’, Beck, Early German Philosophy, op. cit., 71. Also, as previously quoted, ‘when Nicholas of Cusa made God the coincidence of opposites, (he) set a pattern which Böhme accepted and Hegel rationalised (my italics) by seeing the Absolute as itself a dialectic process, not an Eleatic product of dialectic.’, Ibid., 156. Beck’s position on the influence of theosophy and Protestant mysticism directly contradicts Magee’s: ‘theosophy, and Protestant mysticism…this stream did not lead to the most significant work in philosophy.’ Ibid., 71
9. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 28
10. ‘David Walsh notes that although there is no evidence that Hegel ever read Cusa, he was indirectly influenced by him through J.G.Hamann and Giordano Bruno. See Walsh, Boehme and Hegel, 326.’, Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 28
11. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 80
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 221
14. Ibid., 19
15. ‘Like Eckhart, Cusa would teach that God is the coincidence of opposites. (He was also the first author to refer to God as Absolutum.)’, Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 26
16. Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’, op. cit., 273
17. Ibid., 272
18. I will address the influence of Neoplatonism on Hermeticism and Böhme soon.
19. Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’, op. cit., 276
20. ‘(Böhme’s) thought is, as Hegel observed, genuinely Germanic and (as Faivre points out) owes nothing to classical sources. It is thoroughly Teutonic in character; earnest and unsophisticated, utterly lacking in irony or literary pretensions of any kind.’, Magee, ‘Jacob Boehme and Christian Theosophy’, op. cit., 526
21. Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. III, III.2.1
22. Ibid., vol. I, xxi
23. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 168
24. Ibid., 163
25. Ibid., 82
26. Ibid., 256
27. Ibid., 110
28. Magee, ‘Hegel’s Reception of Jacob Boehme’, op. cit., 590

Contents of ‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ posts

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