Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hegel's Views on Stoicism (part 1)

Last fall - October to be precise - after finishing up the Master-Slave dialectic, we transitioned over into the last section of Self-Consciousness, the fascinating sequence of Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness.  Not all that long after we started making our way through the Stoicism material, I took a pause for international Stoic Week, releasing my customary seven videos (focusing that year mainly on Cicero).  Then, shortly afterwards, I taught an online 4-week course on the great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

I kicked around the idea in some of our Q&A hangouts of writing a bit on Hegel's own views on Stoicism.  I was getting some queries about that, asking some important questions - What is Hegel's take on Stoicism?  Why does he view it the way he does?  Why does it comes at that point in the Phenomenology?  Is his interpretation fair to the Stoics or not?  I suppose that some of my regular viewers and readers were likely wondering how I could be rather enthusiastically interpreting both Hegelian philosophy and Stoic philosophy at the same time! (That might be a good topic to discuss in a different time and place. . . )

Long having wanted to do some writing about Hegel's views on Stoicism, and never quite finding the time for it, I decided to clear enough to at least get started on an initial entry, in hopes of writing a follow-up next month when (at least by my calendar) I'm not quite so busied by other matters.  So, here it is. . . or at least the first portion of it.

Where Does Hegel Discuss Stoicism?

One obvious place is, of course, the section of the Phenomenology explicitly titled "Stoicism." Paragraphs 197-201 really comprise the core of his treatment in that work, and by the end of that section, he has transitioned into discussion of Skepticism.  There are still backwards-looking and comparative references throughout the rest of Self-Consciousness.  In fact, Hegel engages in this right away in paragraph 202.  Paragraphs 206 and 216 contain this sort of reference.  Far later on, in paragraph 478-479 and 481 of the Spirit section, there is some further discussion of Stoicism in the framework of the legal status (Rechtzustand) of the person.  There are several retrospective references to Stoicism in the Revealed Religion section, one back to the Self-Consciousness section discussion, the other to the Spirit section discussion.

That is pretty much it for discussions of Stoicism in the Phenomenology.  What about Hegel's other works?  In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he does provide a considerably more developed discussion of Stoicism in the context of Dogmatism and Skepticism, prefaced and contextualized by his outline in his "Division of the History of Philosophy."  He also makes some interesting remarks about the (im)possibility for modern people to actually embrace Stoicism a bit earlier on in that work, in his discussion comparing History of Philosophy with Philosophy as such.   So for those who may have found Hegel's treatment of Stoicism in the Phenomenology somewhat puzzling, overly generic, and at points seemingly off-base, his treatment of Stoicism in the History of Philosophy ought to be the next place to which they go.

There is a brief reference to the Stoics in Hegel's Philosophy of Right in paragraph 138.  He also compares the Stoic retreat to inner self-consciousness from a Christian one in discussing the religious community and cultus in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, and in conjunction with Skepticism in a later discussion about evil and estrangement.  Another interesting but brief reference comes in the Philosophy of History, along with Epicureanism and Skepticism, in Hegel's analysis of the Roman World (in section 3, chapter 1).

Situating Stoicism in the Present

Like most of the other philosophical, political, or cultural movements and perspectives that Hegel grapples with, Stoicism represents one important, even arguably irreplaceable, but ultimately superseded stage of development within the broader sweep of a human history.  In fact, it is worth calling to mind this passage from his History of Philosophy:
[A]n earlier philosophy does not give satisfaction to the mind in which a deeper conception reigns. What Mind seeks for in Philosophy is this conception which already constitutes its inward determination and the root of its existence conceived of as object to thought; Mind demands a knowledge of itself. But in the earlier philosophy the Idea is not yet present in this determinate character. Hence the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and indeed all philosophies, ever live and are present in their principles, but Philosophy no longer has the particular form and aspect possessed by that of Plato and of Aristotle. We cannot rest content with them, and they cannot be revived; hence there can be no Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, or Epicureans today. To re-awaken them would be to try to bring back to an earlier stage the Mind of a deeper culture and self-penetration. 
From Hegel's perspective, one of the main matters that separates us moderns off from the ancients is the impact of Christianity as a vast intellectual and cultural force upon the development of consciousness.  So, although the Renaissance witnessed revivals of ancient philosophical positions, which can be associated with modern would-be interpreters and representatives of those schools, these do not represent a genuine rebirth of those philosophies.  As an aside, keep in mind that Hegel is writing at what appears to not be such a vast distance in time from thinkers such as Pascal in the 17th century or Hume in the 18th, both authors who distinguished their own positions from, but who grappled with not only the thought but the practices of contemporary would-be Stoics.

Hegel calls these ancient philosophies "mummies" that can be brought among living beings, but cannot be brought back to life.
Mind had for long possessed a more substantial life, a more profound Notion of itself, and hence its thought had higher needs than such as could be satisfied by these philosophies. A revival such as this is then to be regarded only as the transitory period in which we learn to know the forms which are implied and which have gone before, and as the renewal of former struggles through the steps necessary in development. Such reconstructions and repetitions in a distant time of principles which have become foreign to Mind, are in history transitory only, and formed in a language which is dead. Such things are translations only and not originals, and Mind does not find satisfaction excepting in knowledge of its own origination.
This passage goes a good ways toward indicating why, if Hegel thinks that Stoicism no longer provides a viable option for a living and livable philosophy in his own present, let alone our own time, he also devotes attention to it.  If we are to adequately understand our own murky, messy contemporaneity, we need to do so in part by retracing the many stages in the dialectical development of human consciousness -- what we call History, or at least the real and complex meaning of that history.  And that in turn requires that we come to understand what Stoicism meant, both as a philosophical perspective of those people for whom in their time it represented a highest and most adequate development of consciousness thus far,  and correlatively in where Stoicism necessarily failed and was then surpassed by other shapes of consciousness that launched off further from it.

Stoicism's Historical Moment in the Phenomenology

In the Phenomenology, Hegel situates Stoicism - as a shape of consciousness and as a transitory stage of consciousness' development - immediately after the resolution of the famous dialectic of Master and Slave.  By the end of that section, the consciousness of the Slave has developed beyond the Master, and become aware of its own independence as self-consciousness.  The question that remains unresolved - to which Stoicism is an attempt to provide and live through a coherent answer is - What then?

I am going to discuss the Phenomenology passages in more detail in a follow-up post to this one, so here, what I want to stress are just a few points that have do with why Stoicism should be the next major stage in the history of consciousness Hegel provides.  The passage to start with is in paragraph 197, where he writes:
We are in the presence of self-consciousness in a new shape, a consciousness which, as the infinitude of consciousness of as its own pure movement, is aware of itself as an essential being, a being which thinks or is a free self-consciousness.
In what he will call a bit later a "time of universal fear and bondage," Stoicism becomes possible as a coherent response, and not simple as a reactive attitude, basing itself upon what has now been realized not only as essential to human being in an abstractly universal way, but concretely, in one's own consciousness.  The human being is a thing or an animal that thinks, and whatever the physical, cultural, or political conditions of the determinate human being may be - generally dismal and constrained - a whole domain of freedom opens up in the realization of a kind of interiority, in grasping that one's thoughts at least remain one's own.

Hegel also notes another requirement for the emergence of Stoicism, "a time of universal culture which had raised itself to the level of thought".  It is not enough simply for there to be the development of widespread slavery, servitude, power throughout the world that encompasses human existence.  At the same time, there must also have been a pervasive spread of culture, an opening of accessibility and even enjoyment, at least for some, beyond the class of those who dominate and control, those who occupy the role of masters.

Stoicism, without actually changing the societal conditions people live and interact within, on the plane of thought nullifies or negates the relations of power and prestige.
This consciousness accordingly has a negative attitude towards the lord and bondsman relationship.  As lord, it does not have its truth in the bondsman, nor as bondsman is its truth in the lord's will and service; on the contrary, whether on the throne or in chains, in the utter dependence of its individual existence, its aim is to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence, alike from being active as passive, into the simple essentiality of thought.
He will say just a bit later that "Stoicism is the freedom that comes directly out of bondage and returns into the pure universality of thought."  Putting matters that way, however, does make it sound as if the philosophical movement, as well as the broader way of life it structures and integrates, is largely a response on the part of the powerless - more relevant to those in chains than those on the throne.

Is that really the case, though?  When we turn to several of the other works I've mentioned - particularly the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History - we will get a much fuller picture of Hegel's views on why Stoicism came on the scene, and what it meant for the ancient world.  That discussion, for the moment, I'll defer to a subsequent blog post, which I hope to write later this month.


  1. The reason a stoic life appeals to me so much , in fact , explains my father, grandfathers time on this planet as well... is taken to ground, "Stoicism is the freedom that comes directly out of bondage and returns into the pure universality of thought." It seems my entire life's choices were a preparation to break free and live a preferred indifference existence.

    1. From a Stoic perspective, that's entirely understandable. And from a Hegelian perspective, that's also entirely understandable. . . but it ends up being a sort of cul-de-sac of the dialectic.

    2. "cul-de-sac" , interesting... elaborate.

    3. A cul-de-sac is a road that might seem like it is going somewhere, but ends up in a dead end or a circular drive - no way to get through to somewhere else.

  2. Thanks, It's good to get an oversight of Hegel's ideas on this subject. He isn't, in fact, as disparaging as I originally thought, suggesting that stoics can act and not merely react.

    1. No, that's quite true - Hegel's criticisms are different than what one might expect at first.