Leo Strauss on Hegel reconstructs Strauss’s seminar on Hegel, supplemented by passages from an earlier version of the seminar from which only fragments of a transcript remain. Strauss focused his seminar on the lectures collected in The Philosophy of History, which he considered more accessible than Hegel’s written works. In his own lectures on Hegel, Strauss continues his project of demonstrating how modern philosophers related to ancient thought and explores the development and weaknesses of modern political theory. Strauss is especially concerned with the relationship in Hegel between empirical history and his philosophy of history, and he argues for the primacy of religion in Hegel’s understanding of history and society. In addition to a relatively complete transcript, Leo Strauss on Hegel also includes annotations, which bring context and clarity to the text.
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Leo Strauss: I believe we do not have to give long reasons why we should study Hegel in our capacity as political scientists. It suffices to mention the name of Marx. And Marx, or at least Marxism, is a legitimate subject of political science however narrowly conceived. There is another reason or objective which has very much to do with the scope of political science. Political science was always understood to deal with the political community, the commonwealth, or to use a term which came to the fore in modern times, with the state. But the state is no longer now generally taken as the comprehensive theme of reflections on human society. As you all know from practice, the term which is now in vogue, which means the whole of a society, is culture rather than state. Now this change is from a clearly political orientation to one which is transpolitical, finding as it were the root of the political in something superpolitical, and Hegel has very much to do with that, as we will ... see.
I chose Hegel's Philosophy of History and not his Philosophy of Right despite the fact that the Philosophy of Right was published by Hegel himself, and so there we have Hegel himself unquestionably, while the Philosophy of History is lectures given by Hegel and as Hegel more or less improvised them while he went in different years. And out of what his students — and apparently very intelligent students — jotted down, the original editors put together these lectures, and the more recent editor gave quite a very different version of Hegel's lectures because he had found or considered lecture notes which had not been known or considered by the first editors. But precisely the fact that that is a lecture and not a book is, in the case of Hegel at any rate, a great help, because Hegel is an unusually difficult writer and in his lectures he is much more easy to follow than in the works which he published himself.
In addition, there is this other reason why we should study his Philosophy of History: Hegel's political philosophy proper as presented in the Philosophy of Right is essentially related to his philosophy of history, and one understands his political philosophy proper as philosophy of right better if one views the historical matrix out of which that philosophy emerged, and that exactly we find in the lectures on the philosophy of history. One can say Hegel was the first to make the understanding of the history of political philosophy an essential ingredient of political philosophy itself. But in the past the situation was generally like that, say, of the relation of the history of physics to physics today. You can be a first-rate physicist without being versed in the history of physics. I mean, you will have heard some names, like Newton and so on — that goes without saying — but this of course cannot be called the history of physics. Now Hegel makes the history of political philosophy a form of political philosophy. Think of Locke: there is no concern with the history of political philosophy; he fights certain individuals who were very powerful in his time and who he thinks were fundamentally wrong, like Filmer, but to go back behind that and give, as it were, a reasonable survey of the history of political philosophy is of course in no way his concern.
I suppose you all know the fact that Hegel was born in the year 1770 and died in the year 1831. These dates are not altogether negligible, because there are other dates with which they are connected. I mention three which are crucial for Hegel. In 1781, Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason. In 1785, a man probably unknown to all of you, a German writer [LS writes on the blackboard] published a book on the doctrine of Spinoza. This was a very big splash and had very great importance for Hegel. And though Jacobi is not comparable to Kant in any way, he gave a very important turn to speculation in Germany at the time and to Hegel in particular. And the third date is known to all of you: 1789, the French Revolution. These are the minimum facts one must know if one wants to understand Hegel.
Now I will speak about Kant and Spinoza in a very provisional way, only to that extent to which it is necessary to have some answers for Hegel. Now Kant is very famous up to the present day as a critic of metaphysics. So is, of course, David Hume. But we must consider the peculiarly Kantian features, because they alone determine Hegel. According to Kant, man is faced with a fundamental alternative: either a rationalism or an empiricism; or more precisely, either the dogmatism of pure reason (or Platonism) or empiricism (or Epicureanism). I hope I didn't mix you up by the many "or's" I used; the two alternatives are clear. Dogmatism of pure reason is Platonism; empiricism classically represented by Epicureanism.
Now this is an undeniable fact that we find throughout the ages, this alternative which we can loosely call that between spiritualism and materialism. But Kant sees the situation in a new way. I give you first his diagnosis of these two alternatives. First, the world has a beginning in time and is limited in space. The reverse, the world has no beginning in time and no limit in space. Secondly, the thinking self is indivisible and therefore indestructible. Against that, the Epicurean view: everything within the world is divisible and perishable. Thirdly, the spiritualistic view: we are free in our actions. The others say our actions are fully determined by nature or fate. And finally, the first school says there is a highest cause of the world, whereas the others say there is nothing beyond the natural things and their order. I do not think that it is a question whether this is a historically correct view. We know that Epicureans of course did not admit that everything within the world is divisible: the atoms are not divisible. So Kant construed, as one could say, the two alternatives — as it were, he presented the two ideal types rather than the two historical types, which is of course perfectly legitimate.
Now the situation according to Kant, and which distinguishes him from his predecessors, is that he says that — very crudely stated — both alternative positions are demonstrable, in other words, not that neither has demonstrated his position so that you could then still say that maybe in a generation from now someone will come up and establish either Platonism or Epicureanism. Now Kant says each of these schools proves its thesis. So what is the conclusion? The demonstrations must be based on a fundamental defect. They may be formally correct as demonstrations, but based on a fundamental defect. And therefore no demonstration is possible. I add one important point in Kant's analysis of these two opposed positions. The Platonist position — which would of course also include Leibniz in modern times and generally speaking the spiritualistic philosophy — this position is favorable to morality and religion and therefore fundamentally popular. I mean not that it is easy, such that everyone can read Leibniz, but the thesis of Leibniz appealed to the masses and the state. The other position is unfavorable to religion — I mean Epicureanism, it always has this reputation — and Kant draws a conclusion which is quite remarkable: this materialistic-atheistic position can never become popular. This is one of the gravest historical errors which Kant surely ... But this shows how different the situation at the end of the eighteenth century was from what it became in the nineteenth century.
But what is Kant's solution? The assertions of empiricists — ah yes, Epicureans, we must not be very squeamish — are true of the phenomenal world, of anything which can occur to us in ordinary life or in science. We can distinguish the phenomenal world from another world: the things that have an existence in themselves outside of our thoughts, what Kant frequently calls "the thing in itself" or also the "noumenal" world. So in other words, atheistic-materialism is the only way in which we can proceed in trying to understand, say, the growth of a tree, a thunderstorm, or whatever it may be. But it is also clear that this is absolutely limited to all attempts at finding our bearings or explanation. It is not simply true, it is not true of the things in themselves. The assertions of dogmatism, of Platonism, are true but they cannot be theoretically established, demonstrated. But they are true only in practical intent, as postulates of practical reason.
The moral law is the only thing within them which cannot be understood as part of the phenomenal world, according to Kant. Now if you understand the moral law according to Kant, we are left to demand the existence of God and the immortality of the soul on moral grounds, and we can do that because empiricism, or Epicureanism, has nothing to say beyond the phenomenal world. In all study of phenomena, we must assume that every action of men is a form of necessary cause, i.e., that man's not responsible. I mean, the fact that a man committed a murder was due to his temperament, his I.Q., his environment, problem home and so on — you know the whole rigmarole. But as moral beings we know that we are under the moral law and hence that we are free to obey it and also to disobey it, and therefore that men's actions must be understood as right or wrong, as due to the right or wrong use of their freedom. And for that use of their freedom they are fully responsible. The good or evil action cannot be traced beyond the act of freedom, which is the beginning. He chose, say, to commit murder; you cannot trace it beyond that without destroying the responsibility. It is the starting point and not the result of previous causes.
Kant surely claimed to have refuted metaphysics by refuting the two kinds of metaphysics, spiritualism and materialism. And to repeat, Kant does much more than say that neither of these two antagonists proved his point. Then the issue would still be open: maybe some greater spiritualist or materialist will come up in the future and solve it. No, Kant has shown that the demonstrations are valid demonstrations, and therefore something is wrong in the very question.
Now let me leave it at this point about Kant and say a few words about Spinoza. Spinoza was not very well known at that time, and the first man who spoke highly of Spinoza and not as a character — that had been done before, that business that he was an honest man — but of his intellect and of the solidity of his doctrine, that was Jacobi, who was an opponent of Spinoza but who felt that Spinoza's doctrine is the culmination of human reason. If human reason follows its own laws, then it will arrive at Spinoza's doctrine, the denial of a personal God, the denial of immortality, the denial of freedom. Now Spinoza's doctrine has the form of a deductive system, like Euclid's work, starting from definitions, axioms, etc., which are simply presupposed. And Spinoza doesn't give you any reason why he gives these definitions or ... and therefore one can say Spinoza starts in a dogmatic way. This led to the demand of those who were attracted by Spinoza in one way or the other after Kant that this cannot be done. These very premises, or whatever the true premises are, are themselves in need of deduction. One must truly begin from nothing. Spinoza's metaphysics, now, is neither materialistic nor spiritualistic. There are two attributes of God or nature, called by him extension and cogitation, which are irreducible to each other. Soul cannot be reduced to matter, and matter cannot be reduced to soul, and they are attributes of the one substance, i.e., God. All particular things — me, this, etc. — are modes of an attribute of God. Now this [LS points at something] is clearly a mode of the attribute of extension, because it is an extended thing; but if I feel pain, this is clearly a mode of the attribute of thought, of cogitation. All particular things are modes of an attribute of God, yet the highest form of the knowledge of God, which Spinoza calls intuitive knowledge, is knowledge of the singular things or events as modes of God. In other words, if you know God in himself you know God much less than if you understand, say, this thing, or this event, the room, as a consequence of other modes, of a given attribute of God. God's full being, one can say, is in the particulars — the singular things, as Spinoza says — in God's developed stage and not insofar as he is transcended or undeveloped.
Spinoza asserts the strict necessity for everything; and in this respect, he clearly belongs to the Epicurean-empiricist camp. What does he do with freedom? Spinoza replaces the distinction between free and necessary by the distinction free and compelled. You may remember that Hobbes's Leviathan does something of this kind. So in other words, if you do something freely, this is as necessary as if you do something under compulsion. What does this mean? The free acts are as necessary as the compelled or compulsory ones. A thing is free if it exists by virtue of the necessity of its nature alone and is determined to act by itself alone. In this sense, of course, God alone is free. But we act as distinguished from our being acted upon if something takes place within us or outside of us, if this event which happens either within us or outside of us can be clearly and distinctly understood as following from our own nature. Our mind acts, as distinguished from being acted upon, insofar as it has adequate ideas, insofar as it has clear and distinct knowledge. In a word, freedom is necessity, but a special kind of necessity, understood necessity. Freedom, one can also say, is self-determination, but self-determination as distinguished from indetermination. Your nature, your innermost being, determines you; the action is determined. This is freedom. Now after these few remarks about Spinoza, I will try to give a very provisional statement of what Hegel is about.
Hegel starts from the assumption that philosophy is the quest for the substance, for the single substance of which everything else is a necessary attribute or mode, in such a way that its flowing or emerging from the substance can be clearly and distinctly understood. That substance is what Kant meant with the thing in itself. Kant has proven that the thing in itself is not knowable. That what [which] is knowable, Kant said, is only the phenomena, which are only for the thinking subject, not in themselves, the phenomena which are constituted by the activity of the subject. But what about that activity of the subject?, Hegel asks. The activity of the subject which produces the phenomena is not itself a part of the phenomenal world, because it produces phenomena. The activity of the subject both in building up the phenomenal world and the moral law, this is the thing in itself, according to Hegel. So in other words, Kant has discovered the true thing in itself without being aware of it. What Kant calls the transcendental activity of the ego, that is the thing in itself. Hegel has a simple formula for that: the substance — I mean, that which Spinoza was seeking, single substance — is the subject.
So by this combination of Kant and Spinoza, Hegel, and also some of his German predecessors, brought forth a new kind of metaphysics which cannot be mistaken for the pre-Kantian metaphysics, as I sketched them along Kant's lines before. The first ground or grounds, we can say, is not transcendent, as God or the Epicurean atoms are; it is not outside of man. The chief theme of this metaphysics is the life of the human mind, and it is primarily, to use a book title of Hegel's, phenomenology of the mind. Understanding the life of the mind — this is not the whole, but the most important part, one can say, of this new metaphysics.
Now before I go on, I would like to see whether I have made myself understood. Now please be frank. Were you able to follow this very crude presentation of what Kant effected or claimed to have effected, and of what Spinoza did on the other hand, and how this was combined in Hegel's mind? Yes?
Student: You describe Hegel as arriving at the conclusion that somehow Kant had not understood properly the thing in itself. I didn't quite understand what the two factors were that came together in Hegel's mind.
LS: Well, we have the phenomenal world, the only world we know empirically. But this world, according to Kant, is constituted by acts of the thinking ego, I mean not the habitual desires of this or that individual, but by reason following its essential laws. Now where is reason? Where does reason belong? Is reason a part of the phenomenal world? It is not, it cannot be. Why not — and that is not clear in Kant — why not simply say this is the thing in itself?
Student: That's what Hegel does.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsNote on the Leo Strauss Transcript Project
Introduction to the Transcript of Leo Strauss’s 1965 Course on Hegel’s Philosophy of History
Chapter 1: Preliminary Considerations
Chapter 2: Reason in History and the Nature of Spirit
Chapter 3: The Actualization of Spirit in World History
Chapter 4: Historical Understanding and the Folk-Mind
Chapter 5: Africa and China
Chapter 6: China Continued and India
Chapter 7: India Continued and Persia
Chapter 8: Phoenicia, Judea, and Egypt
Chapter 9: The Greek World
Chapter 10: The Greek World Continued
Chapter 11: The Greek World Continued and the Roman World
Chapter 12: The Roman World Continued and the Advent of Christianity
Chapter 13: Interlude: The Concept of the Philosophy of History
Chapter 14: The Middle Ages
Chapter 15: The Middle Ages Continued
Chapter 16: The Reformation, Enlightenment, and French Revolution