Recognising Hegel to have been a Neoplatonist is to take the first step in recognising the philosophical current that ran and underwent continual and ultimately profound development from Plotinus to Marx and Engels. The next step is to review the entirety of that current in order to further develop it as the method for knowledge.
Neoplatonism was never a fixed set of beliefs – rather, it was always a ‘work in progress’ which absorbed every philosophical influence that could contribute to explicating the content and developing the potential of the unsystematic Enneads.
Plotinus set down the original beliefs in his fifty four tractates – his was literally the ‘big vision’. Proclus gave that vision detailed triadic structure and definition and in so doing, advanced it. Cusanus explored the subtleties of contradiction and wrote that knowledge results from our conceptualising, which reflects God’s productive activity – but he wrote of these in static relations, not in their dialectical development. Hegel combined the work of all three, systematically developing every aspect of Neoplatonism on the basis of its unity, dynamism and vitalism.
Just as Hegel regarded Christianity as the consummate religion in the sense that it brought the concept of religion to consummation and completion, so he did with Neoplatonism. Its development could not be taken any further within idealism. Marx and Engels then took what Hegel had achieved and stood it on its material feet, making materialism dialectical and praxis fundamental in cognition.
Redding stated that after Hegel’s death his supporters split into two camps – those who thought he was advocating a traditional Christian view of existence and those who thought he was advocating a secular humanist view of human existence. He added ‘But it might be that Hegel was introducing an entirely new perspective on human existence that is reducible neither to traditional theism or modern atheism. This view is a consequence of his key concept of “recognition”.’1 Not only was Hegel’s fundamentally an ancient perspective on human existence, reducible neither to traditional theism nor modern atheism, his key concept of ‘recognition’ was also a consequence of it – of Neoplatonism.
Hegel’s ‘Trinity’ is not a Christian Trinity – it is Proclus’ triad, the broad outlines of which appear in Cusanus’ theology. Yet the Trinity served Hegel’s Absolute and Cusanus’ Absolute Maximum equally well. As Buhle astutely observed of Cusanus
The divinity to Nicholas, as to Ficino, was really the logical concept of the highest order…He must surely have suspected that notwithstanding all his purges, the understanding yet cannot conceive the maximum bereft of material attributes as something real, for without them the concept dissolves into nothingness.2
Hegel advocated the intellectualist humanism of Neoplatonism, a belief in human worth and a theoretical perspectival unity in an individualist philosophy, which unity he saw as the solution to a perceived lack of community. Yet his lived solution, following the recommendation of Plotinus, was the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’, to a community of philosopher-priests (see 9.8).3
As Proclus did to Plotinus’ philosophy, so ‘the German Proclus’ did to both of theirs – as he did to that of Cusanus. Both drawing on and responding to what they had philosophised and achieved,4 he developed to its furthest point within idealism a tremendously rich, dynamic and dialectical system with creativity at its core – which current has made such an enormous contribution to all aspects of Western culture, including science.
1. Slide for University of Sydney lecture 04.10.10 ↩
2. Buhle, Geschichte, op. cit., vol. 2.1. See 13.4.1 ↩
3. ‘And – so Hegel concludes – philosophic thought has no choice but to become a “separate sanctuary,” inhabited by philosophers who are an “isolated order of priests.” They cannot “mix with the world, but must leave to the world the task of settling how it might find its way out of its present state of disruption.” What an incredible, what a shattering turn of thought!’, Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought, op. cit., 235; also, to illustrate how profoundly the notion of ‘flight’ is associated with Neoplatonism: ‘From so fragmented a world (as that of the twentieth century) the Hegelian philosophy would be forced to flee, as surely as Neoplatonism was forced into flight from Imperial Rome. Only thus could it maintain itself as a serene unity of thought free of fragmentation.’, Ibid., 236; ‘Whether the ethics of the Neoplatonic sage had a Proclean or Plotinian form, it always created a clear divide between philosophers and laymen. …No doubt the sage could still significantly influence the actions of laymen: his superhuman moral integrity turned him into a powerful ethical model that others could admire and imitate at least partially and imperfectly.’, Chlup, Proclus, An Introduction, op. cit., 247 ↩
4. To exemplify, I recommend reading the Chapter Titles of the Books of Cusanus’ De docta ignorantia ↩