Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 12c

12.3.2 The reconciliation of faith and ‘reason’

Neoplatonism, ‘the greatest flowering of philosophy’, emerged from the soil of decay and decline, the environment most conducive to it. Plotinus taught and wrote at the time of the decline of the Roman Empire, Proclus at the time of the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity, Cusanus at the time of the passing of the Middle Ages and scholasticism and Hegel and the German idealists at the time of the decline of absolutism, the rise of science and of the bourgeoisie to domination. Hegel’s owl of Minerva only takes flight at the end of a period.

The philosophy that was most sensitive to contradiction and its resultant change, that, in reflecting ‘reality’, has contradiction as its engine and that, once ‘righted’ by Marx, enabled materialism to be developed by him and Engels far beyond the mechanical, was itself theorised in reaction – not simply to decay and decline – but, more fundamentally, to what decay and decline are the appearance of – the one absolute, change.

Negation, generated from the greatest activity in the One is the driver of Plotinus’ system, but this derivative from the merging of the philosophy of Heraclitus with Platonic dialectic and Aristotelian theology is inseparable from the greatest stillness, sourced in the stasis of Platonism. This greatest contradiction – the more the activity, the more the stillness (well illustrated by Cusanus in De possest with a spinning top) – is the beginning and end of a profound philosophy in which the attainment of ‘stillness’ is meant to overcome ‘the horror of the contingent’.1

Proclus, with his commitment to Neoplatonism

set up his elaborate Platonic Theology in an attempt to rationally justify a pagan religious tradition whose existence was threatened by the upcoming Christian civilisation2

Hegel, too, was particularly opposed to Christianity in its Deist, Enlightenment form, with its ‘fossilised and untrue religion of a segregated, hypocritical and power-hungry priesthood’3 who held that God (truth) cannot be cognised, thus obstructing, as Hegel believed he achieved in his philosophy, the reconciliation of religion and reason

the Enlightenment and its Deism gives out that God is unknowable and so lays on man the supreme renunciation, the renunciation of knowing nothing of God, of not comprehending him.4

Hegel thought of Deism and the Enlightenment as working together, against philosophy

The Enlightenment – that vanity of understanding – is the most vehement opponent of philosophy.5

He held this view in a broader context – that of what he thought was the fragmentation the of modern bourgeois world and particularly, the decline of community.

As Neoplatonists,6 Proclus and Hegel wanted to ‘reintegrate’ people and they thought that, since both philosophy and religion were necessary to this purpose and to the development of community,7 the merging of their metaphysics with theology and divine power was the means to go about it.8 Faith (pistis), for both, mediates between us and the One.9

In his early writing Hegel pursued the ideal of a non-transcendent folk religion that gave philosophical knowledge based on the experience of an immanent ‘absolute’ which is subject to negation – a religion in which God was to be apprehended as spirit in its cohesive, political community.

The religion he theorised would be

a vital, integrative, ethically transformative force in not only the personal life of individuals but also the cultural, social, and political life of a people (Volk)10

but although an idealised reading of Greek public or folk religion (Volksreligion) was his model,11 he believed that its ethos could not be revived in the modern world. Rather, he would find what was needed by

releasing the transformative power of Christianity from its dogmatic and rationalist encrustations.12

With this done, the entire community – now a church founded on divine-human unity and reconciliation – which generates the principles of political and civil life from itself13 would be the universal divine human being in whose knowledge of him God achieved self-consciousness and self-knowledge – hence completion.14 Hegel’s kingdom of God was on earth.



1. ‘This horror of the contingent, as it might be called, is at the root a metaphysico-religious sentiment.’ Charles O. Nussbaum, The Musical Representation, Meaning, Ontology, and Emotion, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, 259. Writing of the idealists ‘horror of the contingent’, Nussbaum discussed ‘the seldom-noted fascination of (the) arch rationalist (Kant) with a brand of Neoplatonic mysticism.’ He wrote ‘Toward the end of the Dreams of a Spirit Seer, Kant concludes, with characteristic resignation, that “human reason was not given strong enough wings to part clouds so high above us, clouds which withhold from our eyes the secrets of the other world”.’ Ibid., 297. The Google book review states: ‘Most Kant scholars regard the work as a skeptical attack on Swedenborg’s mysticism. Other critics, however, believe that Kant regarded Swedenborg as a serious philosopher and visionary, and that Dreams both reveals Kant’s profound debt to Swedenborg and conceals that debt behind the mask of irony.’

2. Helmig and Steel, ‘Proclus’, op. cit.
3. Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought, op. cit., 67
4. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. I, op. cit., 508. Hodgson stated the difference between the philosophy of Vernunft and the religion of Verstand most simply of all: ‘Speculative philosophy finds itself opposed by both the church and the Enlightenment’, in Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 35. Speculative philosophy is comprised of “what the Enlightenment has called ‘mystical teachings’…Philosophy vindicates the more profound teachings, these religious mysteries, namely, the speculative doctrines, the doctrines of reason. Enlightenment reconciliation, which puts everything on the same level, proves satisfactory neither to the depths of religiosity nor to the depths of thinking reason.” Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 279 
5. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 246-247
6. See 2. ‘The criticism by Hegel and Plotinus of their societies’
7. One of the most important uses of Christianity to Hegel was that it gave him the specifically religious element. ‘The Neoplatonists believed that philosophy is necessary to the development of community which in turn is the vehicle to virtue’, Dominic O’Meara on Neoplatonism, http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/ Episode 96; ‘Proclus thought that religious teachings are necessary for us – our souls are permanently connected to the divine.’, Ibid., Peter Adamson, ’Proclus’, Episode 94
8. The passage of philosophy into religion and vice versa was a marker of late antique Eastern Neoplatonism.
9. ‘modern philosophy includes a different, immediate element that is not carried out by thinking, namely, a beholding in revelation, a faith, a longing for another world. Behind appearance stands something that is true although not known.’ Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 236. Hegel, as I stated and quoted previously, repeatedly referred to God as ‘the One’: ’God is One, in the first instance, the universal./God is love and remains One, [subsisting] more as unity, as immediate identity, than as negative reflection into self./God is spirit, the One as infinite subjectivity, the One in the infinite subjectivity of distinction.’, Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 78
10. Hodgson, Ed., in G.W.F.Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, op. cit., 39
11. ‘A characteristic of the Greeks was their Heimatlichkeit – their collective feeling of being at home in the world as they were each at home in their bodies. Modern subjectivity is thereby purchased as the expense of a sense of abstraction and alienation from the actual world and from the self…In the writings he had produced in the 1790s Hegel had shown a clear attraction to the type of folk art-religions of ancient Greece in contrast to Christianity, whose other-worldly doctrines did not reflect the kind of Heimatlichkeit he valued in the ancient world…Philosophy proper only thrives under conditions of at-homeness in the world’, Redding, ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’, op. cit.
12. Ibid.
13. ‘it is within a social whole – in my relation to others – that I am led to rise above a narrow concern with the satisfaction of my personal impulses and desires and to become aware of higher duties and obligations.’ Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 182
14. I have argued previously (11.3.7, that Christ’s incarnation for the purpose of God’s achieving self-consciousness, self-knowledge and completion is not Christian but Neoplatonic metaphor and symbolism. Hodgson stated the difference between the philosophy of Vernunft and the religion of Verstand most simply of all: ‘Speculative philosophy finds itself opposed by both the church and the Enlightenment’, in Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 35

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