The Phenomenology of Spirit, The Ethical Order Part 1

“Reason” ended with a grasping attempt to maintain reason’s initial faith in the unity of self and world. This chapter is, at first glance, an analysis of one particular attempt to build an ethical world in which there is no alienation, a world in which everyone has their place and knows exactly how to act.  The ancient Greeks have often been thought of as having a fully harmonious ethical order, and given the European tradition’s repeated attempts to revive that apparent Greek harmony, it is the model Hegel aims at through a largely implied reading of Antigone.  However, in this presentation, I want to leave open the possibility that this is a critique of any possible ethical order.

To summarize: for reasons that will be outlined below, an ethical order must straddle the line between two categories of ethical “powers”: explicit human laws, consciously built by the community, and the more implicit, natural, “divine” law.  The place in human life where the human and divine laws meet is the family, because of its inherent connection to natural matters of sexuality, birth, and death on one hand, and the role it plays in socializing an individual to join the community on the other. There is a specific point at which the family connects the human and divine laws; it is not the relation between husband and wife, because that is dominated by human desire.  Neither is it the relation between parents and children, because that is characterized by the movement of children away from the parents and into the community.  The true straddling line is the relation between brother and sister, which is free of desire, and is a free relation of both sides: the brother’s relation to the public realm and the sister’s relation to the natural household.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the line between nature and culture does not hold; everyone has duties to both the divine law and human law, and any given ethical action will always violate one or the other.  A supposedly harmonious ethical order leaves everyone guilty all the time.

Spirits Self-Division: Introduction II

The book is always unfolding two parallel lines of thought.  One side is a sort of conceptual personae, a given form of Spirit: initially, it was simple empiricism, and then various psycho-social structures like hedonism, science and now the family.  The other side is the logic underlying the movements of particular forms of Spirit.  The logic is about how a form of Spirit raises its implicit grounds to being explicit, and each time, the object to be made explicit changes.  In “Consciousness,” it was about particulars turning out to be general universals.  In “Self-Consciousness,” it was about the forms negation takes.  In “Reason,” it was about the slippery nature of givenness.  Now we are dealing specifically with Spirit, and the logic we are exploring is about Spirit’s strange self-division.

In contrast with Spinoza’s substance which expresses itself in, yet precedes, individuals, Spirit is a substance that is nothing but its divisions.  This Zizeky statement clashes somewhat with Hegel’s statement that Spirit is the unified essence of all action, but the fragmenting seems to be irreducible:  as substance, it is self-identical, but as being-for-self, it is fragmented into individual actions, the universal “from which all individuals take their share.”  That “resolving into individuals” is the moment of the action of all; it is the movement of substance.

Spirit is that division.  In action, it divides itself into substance and the consciousness of that substance, and then the consciousness and the substance are also divided.  Substance is the universal essence and End, and stands over against the individualized reality.  The middle term is self-consciousness, which was the implicit unity of itself and substance, but now becomes the explicit unity.

In these divisions, substance preserves the difference from self-consciousness, and on the other hand, it shows in its own self the nature of consciousness – creating distinctions within itself, multiple worlds.  So it splits up into distinct ethical substances, divine and human law.  And self-consciousness, confronting substance, chooses one of those, and through its action, learns about the split between its own view of its ethical action, and what is ethical in itself.  That’s how the ethical substance is raised to self-consciousness, but also how the ethical order is destroyed.

A throwaway thesis: the rigid gender roles in this chapter are an attempt to find a halting point to the constant self-division of Spirit.  Or from another angle, sexual difference is an attempt to find the ground-floor division – both ways of saying it are, in the end, the same.

  1. The ethical world. Human and Divine Law: Man and Woman.

Just as sense certainty – the consciousness of immediate abstract being – passed over into the perception of many properties, the immediate ethical certainty becomes an actual situation with many ethical connections.  But it is even more complicated – perception was just individuality and universality; in ethics, the two sides are even more divided. Initially, the division is into the positive, known human laws and the more diffuse divine law.

Spirit as human law is Spirit that knows itself reflexively.  It is the universally known law, the prevailing custom; “in the form of individuality it is the actual certainty of itself in the individual as such, and the certainty of itself as a simple individuality is that Spirit as government.” (§448)  Its truth is the authority known to all, a concrete existence.

Opposed to this is the Divine Law.  The ethical power of the state “finds its antithesis in the simple and immediate essence of the ethical sphere; as actual universality [the human law] is a force actively opposed to individual being-for-self; and as actuality in general in finds in that inner essence something other than the ethical power of the state.” (§449)  We could say it is the individual’s immediate awareness of the ethical sphere, as opposed to the conscious, known law.

The community is substance as conscious of what it does; the other side is substance as simply existing.  This division is not clean; the divine is the general possibility of the ethical sphere in general, but also contains within it self-consciousness.  “This moment which expresses the ethical sphere in this element of immediacy or [simple] being, or which is an immediate consciousness of itself, both as essence and as this particular self, is an ‘other,’ i.e. as a natural ethical community – this is the Family.” (§450)  The family, as unconscious inner notion of the ethical order, is opposed to its actual self-consciousness existence.  As an element of the nation’s actual existence, it is opposed to the nation.  As the immediate being of the ethical order, it stands against the universal.

Now we come to one of Hegel’s stranger theses: the family is not an ethical relation between individuals, either of feeling or love.  It is a relation between the individual and the family as a whole; the family is the substance of its member’s actions.  It is not a relation between given individuals, but instead between individuals qua universal; the family’s goal is to produce productive citizens.  Considered purely as a family member, a person is a mere shadow (brutal summary of §451).

It turns out the only good family member is a dead one.  An individual only reaches true universality when freed from all sensuous reality, which is to say, after dying.  “The universality which the individual as such attains is pure being, death; it is a state which has been reached immediately, in the course of Nature, not the result of an action consciously done.” (§452)  Reading through Pinkard, the family is not concerned with its own living members, but is rather sustained by the dead ones.  One’s ancestors form the substance of the family, the connection to the “course of Nature,” not what is consciously done within the family.  The family’s connection to natural ethical substance is its dead; its connection to the social order is ancestral rites.  Ancestral rites resist nature, and make it conscious.  A family member’s universality is realized when they die and become part of a family’s pantheon.

Duties within the context of ancestry “constitute the perfect divine law, or the positive ethical action toward the individual.”  Every other relationship to him belongs to human law, which have the goal of  raising the individual above nature.  Human right is ethical substance that is conscious of itself, and divine right is beyond the real world, and that divine power is what the individual calls upon.

The community’s law is openly apparent to all, and has its “vitality” in the government.  The government allows the family to do its thing, to “expand into its constituent members, and to give to each part a being-for-self of its own,” but it eventually must be brought back into the whole.  Families and individuals tend to become isolated; “In order not to let them become rooted and set in this isolation, thereby breaking up the whole and letting the [communal] spirit evaporate, government has from time to time to shake them to their core by war.” (§455)  This violates the independence of individuals absorbed in their own way of life, and throws them back into the melting pot, and checks their tendency to fall away from the ethical order, to fall into a merely natural existence.  That possibility of death shows how the human law is dependent upon the divine law, which deals with death.

To summarize: Spirit is substance that is divided into substance and the consciousness of that substance.  The human law is substance which is conscious of itself, while the divine law is substance as unconscious law tied to the general universality only attainable by death.  The awareness of that universality lays in the family, but appears as a concern with the particular family because human and divine law cannot help but be linked, and it plays out as a concern for one’s own family members.

The divine law, which governs the family, is broken up into different relationships: husband and wife, parents and children, and between siblings.  The possibility and nature of recognition is a key element of each relationship, but two of these relationships are characterized by a disparity.  In the spousal relationship, husband and wife immediately recognize each other, but Hegel claims the relationship can only “return into itself” on the basis of the child: the relationship has its actual existence in the child, the “other” whose coming into existence is the relationship.  The child is a permanent alien, and on the child’s side, their relation to the parents is affected by dependence, and only gains a self-consciousness of their own when that dependance goes away.

The unmixed form of the family relationship is the sibling relationship, especially, apparently, the brother/sister relationship.  They have neither desire nor dependence, so they are free individualities with regard to one another.  This leads Hegel to claim that,

“Consequently, the feminine, in the form of the sister, has the highest intuitive awareness of what is ethical.  She does not attain to a consciousness of it, or to the objective existence of it, because the law of the Family is an implicit, inner essence which is not exposed to the daylight of consciousness, but remains an inner feeling and the divine element that is exempt from an existence in the real world.” (§457)

The woman is associated with the household gods, and finds both her substance and her particular individuality, but her relation to them is not one of desire.  In a woman’s relationships, it is not this husband or this child, but husband and child more generally; because the woman’s relationships are not based on feeling, but the universal.  That is the difference between the ethical life of the woman and the man: the woman remains centered on universality and remains alien to the particularity of desire.  A man has the two sides separated: “since he possesses as a citizen the self-conscious power of universality, he thereby acquires the right of desire and, at the same time, preserves his freedom in regard to it.”

The wife’s relationship is mixed with some desire, and so some particularity, but in so far as it is ethical, that particularity is a matter of indifference.  But the sister has no desire for the brother, so the contingency is not present, but full recognition is possible.  Hence the sister has a major duty to her brother (hence, Antigone’s actions).

Let’s try and summarize the logic here.  While Spirit is divided into human law and divine law, the state and the family respectively, both of these divide even further.  Here, we are dealing with the further self-division of divine law, into the part related to the human law and the part specifically related to the totally general status of death.  Relations between spouses and between parents and children fall on one side of the divide, while the relation between brother and sister falls on the other side, because, as we shall see, the public/private split exists in its purest form in this relationship.  The brother goes out into the world, while the sister remains private, yet their relation is one of equitable recognition.

The family breaks up and goes beyond itself; the brother is how the family turns toward conscious universality.  The brother passes into the realm of human law, the sister becomes the head of the household and the “guardian of the divine law.”  This is how the sexes overcome their natural being and appear in their ethical significance.  “These two universal beings of the ethical world have, therefore, their specific individuality in naturally distinct self-consciousnesses, because the ethical Spirit is the immediate unity of the substance with self-consciousness – an immediacy which appears, therefore, both from the side of reality and of difference, as the existence of a natural difference.” (§459) Basically, brother and sister have two different vocations: brother public, i.e. self-consciously universal, and sister, private, unconsciously universal.  This is how the line between nature and spirit is straddled.

Just as the family finds in the community its substance, the community finds in the family the formal element of its existence, and in the divine law its power and authentication.  Neither of the two alone is authoritative on their own; human law procedes from the divine, and returns to it, and the divine has its actual existence “on earth,” i.e. through human law.

Universal ethical beings are substance qua universal, and the substance qua individual consciousness.  “Their universal actuality” is the nation and the family, and the individuality is man and woman.  This reconciles a lot of the past divisions.  For example, the individual who seeks the pleasure of enjoying his individuality, finds that enjoyment in the family.

The substance has, in its ethical powers [human and divine], positive content which takes the place of the insubstantial commands reason tried to deal with.  The man is the universal self-conscious Spirit, and is united with unconscious spirit; the divine law has its individualization – or the unconscious because real – in the woman.  The two are together the middle term which links the extremes of human and divine law.

b. Ethical action. Human and Divine knowledge. Guilt and Destiny

In all this, we have yet to deal with the particular individual.  On one hand, we’ve got the universal will, on the other hand, family.  A particular individual is still a shadowy unreality.  No one has actually done anything yet, and will turns out that individual action inevitably disturbs the peaceful ethical world.  Further, what has appeared to be two complimentary opposites will each turn out to be negation of the other.

Ethical self-consciousness is only a movement towards duty.  Since law-testing has been given up, there is no wavering, no self-contradiction:

 “Consequently, we are not faced with the sorry spectacle of a collision between passion and duty, not with the comic spectacle of a collision between duty and duty – a collision which, as regards to its content, is the same as that between passion and duty; for passion is equally capable of being seen as a duty, because when consciousness separates itself from its immediate, substantial essence and withdraws into itself, it becomes the merely formal universal into which one content as well as another fits equally well as we found before.  But the collision of duties is comic because it expresses a contradiction, viz. the contradiction of an Absolute that is opposed to itself: an Absolute, and then the nothingness of this so-called Absolute or duty.” (§465)

The ethical consciousness already knows what is has to do, and it has to choose between human law or divine law – and as we know, the two are instantiated in sexual difference.  Hegel continues,

“Now, because, on the one hand, the ethical order essential consists in this immediate firmness of decision, and for that reason there is for consciousness essentially only one law, while, on the other hand, the ethical powers are real and effective in the self of consciousness, these powers acquire the significance of excluding and opposing one another: in self-consciousness they exist explicitly, whereas in the ethical order they are only implicit.” (§466)

The ethical consciousness falls decisively on the side of one of the two powers.  It denies that the two have the same character, so the opposite between them appears as an unfortunate collision of a duty with a reality with no rights of its own.  The ethical self-consciousness beholden to divine law sees in the human law human caprice; the consciousness of law sees divine law as self-will and disobedience.  The commands of government are open to the light of day; “the will of the other law, however, is locked up in the darkness of the nether regions, and in its outer existence manifests as the will of an isolated individual which, as contradicting the first, is a wanton outrage.” (§466)

Ethical self-consciousness is very much focussed on being substance, and so has forgotten the one-sidedness of being-for-self, and forgets the distinction between itself and the world.  “Its absolute right is, therefore, that when it acts in accordance with ethical law, it shall find in this actualization nothing else but the fulfilling of this law itself, and the deed shall manifest only ethical action.” (§466)  The ethical consciousness can only do what it knows.

Ethical essence gets split into two laws, but consciousness has an undivided attitude and sticks to one of the two.  The essence remains two, but only has its existence in self-consciousness; it cannot but conflict with itself.  An ethical act – any ethical act, apparently, gives up the specific quality of the ethical life, and becomes guilt.  One cannot act according to one ethical sphere without violating the other: “Innocence is merely non-action.”  Ethical action always chooses one side or the other, and so is always a sort of crime.

Ethical consciousness retroactively learns the significance of its action.  An action which follows the dictates of one side brings forth the wrath of the other side.  In the action, only one side is manifest; “The resolve, however, is in itself the negative aspect which confronts the resolve with an ‘other,’ with something alien to this knowledge, and does not reveal the whole truth about itself to this consciousness: the son does not recognize the father in the man who has wronged him and whom he slays, nor his mother in the queen whom he makes his wife” (§469)  (I find this passage puzzling).

This inevitable guilt is not completely symmetrical; if one knows it is opposing one of the ethical powers, its guilt is stronger.  It turns out that Antigone and Creon are not equally guilty, because Antigone was aware that she was violating the city’s laws.  An act of this sort comes to see the opposing ethical power as its own actuality, and here Hegel quotes line 926 of the play: “Because we suffer we acknowledge we have erred.” (§470, Antigone 926)

Hegel’s next line is equally puzzling to me: “With this acknowledgement there is no longer any conflict between ethical purpose and actuality; it signifies the return to an ethical frame of mind, which knows that nothing counts but right.” (§471)  But the doer ruins his own idea of self; in acknowledging guilt, the other side becomes pathos; nothing counts but right, but there is no way to be right.  Basically, the individual cannot survive the destruction of one ethical power by its opposite.  The individual ends in a miserable state.

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