The Philosophy of History

The Philosophy of History

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by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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Hegel's great book about History, Politics and Philosophy.  See more details below


Hegel's great book about History, Politics and Philosophy.

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The Philosophy of History

By Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, J. Sibree

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1956 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11900-7




WITH the Empire of China History has to begin, for it is the oldest, as far as history gives us any information; and its principle has such substantiality, that for the empire in question it is at once the oldest and the newest. Early do we see China advancing to the condition in which it is found at this day; for as the contrast between objective existence and subjective freedom of movement in it, is still wanting, every change is excluded, and the fixedness of a character which recurs perpetually, takes the place of what we should call the truly historical. China and India lie, as it were, still outside the World's History, as the mere presupposition of elements whose combination must be waited for to constitute their vital progress. The unity of substantiality and subjective freedom so entirely excludes the distinction and contrast of the two elements, that by this very fact, substance cannot arrive at reflection on itself—at subjectivity. The Substantial [Positive] in its moral aspect, rules therefore, not as the moral disposition of the Subject, but as the despotism of the Sovereign.

No People has a so strictly continuous series of Writers of History as the Chinese. Other Asiatic peoples also have ancient traditions, but no History. The Vedas of the Indians are not such. The traditions of the Arabs are very old, but are not attached to a political constitution and its development. But such a constitution exists in China, and that in a distinct and prominent form. The Chinese traditions ascend to 3000 years before Christ; and the Shu-King, their canonical document, beginning with the government of Yao, places this 2357 years before Christ. It may here be incidentally remarked, that the other Asiatic kingdoms also reach a high antiquity. According to the calculation of an English writer, the Egyptian history (e.g.) reaches to 2207 years before Christ, the Assyrian to 2221, the Indian to 2204. Thus the traditions respecting the principal kingdoms of the East reach to about 2300 years before the birth of Christ. Comparing this with the history of the Old Testament, a space of 2400 years, according to the common acceptation, intervened between the Noachian Deluge and the Christian era. But Johannes von Müller has adduced weighty objections to this number. He places the Deluge in the year 3473 before Christ—thus about 1000 years earlier—supporting his view by the Septuagint. I remark this only with the view of obviating a difficulty that may appear to arise when we meet with dates of a higher age than 2400 years before Christ, and yet find nothing about the Flood.—The Chinese have certain ancient canonical documents, from which their history, constitution, and religion can be gathered. The Vedas and the Mosaic records are similar books; as also the Homeric poems. Among the Chinese these books are called Kings, and constitute the foundation of all their studies. The Shu-King contains their history, treats of the government of the ancient kings, and gives the statutes enacted by this or that monarch. The Y-King consists of figures, which have been regarded as the bases of the Chinese written character, and this book is also considered the groundwork of the Chinese Meditation. For it begins with the abstractions of Unity and Duality, and then treats of the concrete existences pertaining to these abstract forms of thought. Lastly, the Shi-King is the book of the oldest poems in a great variety of styles. The high officers of the kingdom were anciently commissioned to bring with them to the annual festival all the poems composed in their province within the year. The Emperor in full court was the judge of these poems, and those recognized as good received public approbation. Besides these three books of archives which are specially honored and studied, there are besides two others, less important, viz. the Li-Ki (or Li-King) which records the customs and ceremonial observances pertaining to the Imperial dignity, and that of the State functionaries (with an appendix, Yo-King, treating of music); and the Tshun-tsin, the chronicle of the kingdom Lu, where Confucius appeared. These books are the groundwork of the history, the manners and the laws of China.

This empire early attracted the attention of Europeans, although only vague stories about it had reached them. It was always marvelled at as a country which, self-originated, appeared to have no connection with the outer world.

In the thirteenth century a Venetian (Marco Polo) explored it for the first time, but his reports were deemed fabulous. In later times, everything that he had said respecting its extent and greatness was entirely confirmed. By the lowest calculation, China has 150,000,000 of inhabitants; another makes the number 200,000,000, and the highest raises it even to 300,000,-ooo. From the far north it stretches towards the south to India; on the east it is bounded by the vast Pacific, and on the west it extends towards Persia and the Caspian. China Proper is overpopulated. On both rivers, the Hoang-ho and the Yang-tse-Kiang, dwell many millions of human beings, living on rafts adapted to all the requirements of their mode of life. The population and the thoroughly organized State-arrangements, descending even to the minutest details, have astonished Europeans; and a matter of especial astonishment is the accuracy with which their historical works are executed. For in China the Historians are some of the highest functionaries. Two ministers constantly in attendance on the Emperor, are commissioned to keep a journal of everything the Emperor does, commands, and says, and their notes are then worked up and made use of by the Historians. We cannot go further into the minutiae of their annals, which, as they themselves exhibit no development, would only hinder us in ours. Their History ascends to very ancient times, in which Fohi is named as the Diffuser of culture, he having been the original civilizer of China. He is said to have lived in the twenty-ninth century before Christ—before the time, therefore, at which the Shu-King begins; but the mythical and prehistorical is treated by Chinese Historians as perfectly historical. The first region of Chinese history is the north-western corner—China Proper—towards that point where the Hoang-ho descends from the mountains; for only at a later period did the Chinese empire extend itself towards the south, to the Yang-tse-Kiang. The narrative begins with the period in which men lived in a wild state, i.e. in the woods, when they fed on the fruits of the earth, and clothed themselves with the skins of wild beasts. There was no recognition of definite laws among them. To Fohi (who must be duly distinguished from Fo, the founder of a new religion) is ascribed the instruction of men in building themselves huts and making dwellings. He is said to have directed their attention to the change and return of seasons, to barter and trade; to have established marriage; to have taught that Reason came from Heaven, and to have given instructions for rearing silkworms, building bridges, and making use of beasts of burden. The Chinese historians are very diffuse on the subject of these various origins. The progress of the history is the extension of the culture thus originated, to the south, and the beginning of a state and a government. The great Empire which had thus gradually been formed, was soon broken up into many provinces, which carried on long wars with each other, and were then re-united into a Whole. The dynasties in China have often been changed, and the one now dominant is generally marked as the twenty-second. In connection with the rise and fall of these dynasties arose the different capital cities that are found in this empire. For a long time Nankin was the capital; now it is Pekin; at an earlier period other cities. China has been compelled to wage many wars with the Tartars, who penetrated far into the country. The long wall built by Shi-hoang-ti—and which has always been regarded as a most astounding achievement—was raised as a barrier against the inroads of the northern Nomades. This prince divided the whole empire into thirty-six provinces, and made himself especially remarkable by his attacks on the old literature, especially on the historical books and historical studies generally. He did this with the design of strengthening his own dynasty, by destroying the remembrance of the earlier one. After the historical books had been collected and burned, many hundreds of the literati fled to the mountains, in order to save what remained. Every one that fell into the Emperor's hands experienced the same fate as the books. This Book-burning is a very important circumstance, for in spite of it the strictly canonical books were saved, as is generally the case. The first connection of China with the West occurred about 64 A.D. At that epoch a Chinese emperor despatched ambassadors (it is said) to visit the wise sages of the West. Twenty years later a Chinese general is reported to have penetrated as far as Judea. At the beginning of the eighth century after Christ, the first Christians are reputed to have gone to China, of which visit later visitors assert that they found traces and monuments. A Tartar kingdom, Lyau-Tong, existing in the north of China, is said to have been reduced and taken possession of by the Chinese with the help of the Western Tartars, about 1100 A.D. This, nevertheless, gave these very Tartars an opportunity of securing a footing in China. Similarly they admitted the Manchus with whom they engaged in war in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which resulted in the present dynasty's obtaining possession of the throne. Yet this new dynasty has not effected further change in the country, any more than did the earlier conquest of the Mongols in the year 1281. The Manchus that live in China have to conform to Chinese laws, and study Chinese sciences.

We pass now from these few dates in Chinese history to the contemplation of the Spirit of the constitution, which has always remained the same. We can deduce it from the general principle, which is, the immediate unity of the substantial Spirit and the Individual; but this is equivalent to the Spirit of the Family, which is here extended over the most populous of countries. The element of Subjectivity—that is to say, the reflection upon itself of the individual will in antithesis to the Substantial (as the power in which it is absorbed) or the recognition of this power as one with its own essential being, in which it knows itself free—is not found on this grade of development. The universal Will displays its activity immediately through that of the individual: the latter has no self-cognizance at all in antithesis to Substantial, positive being, which it does not yet regard as a power standing over against it—as, (e.g.) in Judaism, the "Jealous God" is known as the negation of the Individual. In China the Universal Will immediately commands what the Individual is to do, and the latter complies and obeys with proportionate renunciation of reflection and personal independence. If he does not obey, if he thus virtually separates himself from the Substance of his being, inasmuch as this separation is not mediated by a retreat within a personality of his own, the punishment he undergoes does not affect his subjective and internal, but simply his outward existence. The element of subjectivity is therefore as much wanting to this political totality as the latter is on its side altogether destitute of a foundation in the moral disposition of the subject. For the Substance is simply an individual—the Emperor—whose law constitutes all the disposition. Nevertheless, this ignoring of inclination does not imply caprice, which would itself indicate inclination—that is, subjectivity and mobility. Here we have the One Being of the State supremely dominant—the Substance, which, still hard and inflexible, resembles nothing but itself—includes no other element.

This relation, then, expressed more definitely and more conformably with its conception, is that of the Family. On this form of moral union alone rests the Chinese State, and it is objective Family Piety that characterizes it. The Chinese regard themselves as belonging to their family, and at the same time as children of the State. In the Family itself they are not personalities, for the consolidated unity in which they exist as members of it is consanguinity and natural obligation. In the State they have as little independent personality; for there the patriarchal relation is predominant, and the government is based on the paternal management of the Emperor, who keeps all departments of the State in order. Five duties are stated in the Shu-King as involving grave and unchangeable fundamental relations. 1. The mutual one of the Emperor and people. 2. Of the Fathers and Children. 3. Of an elder and younger brother. 4. Of Husband and Wife. 5. Of Friend and Friend. It may be here incidentally remarked, that the number Five is regarded as fundamental among the Chinese, and presents itself as often as the number Three among us. They have five Elements of Nature—Air, Water, Earth, Metal, and Wood. They recognize four quarters of Heaven and a centre. Holy places, where altars are erected, consist of four elevations, and one in the centre.

The duties of the Family are absolutely binding, and established and regulated by law. The son may not accost the father, when he comes into the room; he must seem to contract himself to nothing at the side of the door, and may not leave the room without his father's permission. When the father dies, the son must mourn for three years—abstaining from meat and wine. The business in which he was engaged, even that of the State, must be suspended, for he is obliged to quit it. Even the Emperor, who has just commenced his government, does not devote himself to his duties during this time. No marriage may be contracted in the family within the period of mourning. Only the having reached his fiftieth year exempts the bereaved from the excessive strictness of the regulations, which are then relaxed that he may not be reduced in person by them. The sixtieth year relaxes them still further, and the seventieth limits mourning to the color of the dress. A mother is honored equally with a father. When Lord Macartney saw the Emperor, the latter was sixty-eight years old, (sixty years is among the Chinese a fundamental round number, as one hundred is among us), notwithstanding which he visited his mother every morning on foot, to demonstrate his respect for her. The New Year's congratulations are offered even to the mother of the Emperor; and the Emperor himself cannot receive the homage of the grandees of the court until he has paid his to his mother. The latter is the first and constant counsellor of her son, and all announcements concerning his family are made in her name.—The merits of a son are ascribed not to him, but to his father. When on one occasion the prime minister asked the Emperor to confer titles of honor on his father, the Emperor issued an edict in which it was said: " Famine was desolating the Empire: Thy father gave rice to the starving. What beneficence! The Empire was on the edge of ruin: Thy father defended it at the hazard of his life. What fidelity! The government of the kingdom was intrusted to thy father: he made excellent laws, maintained peace and concord with the neighboring princes, and asserted the rights of my crown. What wisdom! The title therefore which I award to him is: Beneficent, Faithful and Wise."—The Son had done all that is here ascribed to the Father. In this way ancestors—a fashion the reverse of ours—obtain titles of honor through their posterity. But in return, every Father of a Family is responsible for the transgressions of his descendants; duties ascend, but none can be properly said to descend.


Excerpted from The Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, J. Sibree. Copyright © 1956 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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