The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Ethical Order Part 2

Hegel has imagined for us a stable ethical order, in which everyone knows their place and acts accordingly.  In this picture, stability has been founded on the twin powers of the family’s access to the unconscious divine law and the state’s access to conscious human law.  We have already begun to see this lovely world fall apart; the divine and human law have conflicting commands, and that conflict plays out as a tragedy for the actually existing individual.  This pathos of the individual will continue to ruin the apparent unity of the ethical order, and eventually reveals itself to be an individualism founded purely upon property ownership.  The unity breaks down into a multiplicity of atomistic individuals, a breakdown arrested only by war and tyranny.

Individuals, brothers, and womankind

With both powers individualized into particular people, we get a clear idea of the conflict between them.  Formally speaking, it is the conflict of the conscious ethical order and self-consciousness with the unconscious contingency of nature.  On the side of content, it is human vs divine law.  The young leave behind the unconscious spirit of the family and enter the community, but they are still tied to nature’s contingency.  This contingency is the contingency of the two: rather than a single individual from a single family, there are two brothers, both of whom have rights in the community.  The government’s role is to produce a one, but the family produces individuals that are fundamentally multiple.  The brothers – in the case of Antigone,  Eteocles and Polyneices, violate the harmony and enter into dispute.

From the human perspective, the one who attacked the community, Eteocles, is in the wrong, while Polyneices attacked only an isolated individual.  He struck at an individual, not the community.  The community is both attacked and defended by contentless particulars, and it preserves itself at the cost of the brothers who bring about their own destruction.  He who attacks the community, destabilizing the whole, must be stripped of his very being by denying him burial rights.

The universal defeats the rebellious principe of individuality – that is, the family – and thereby enters into conflict with the divine law, a conflict of conscious spirit with unconscious spirit.  “But [the family] has only the bloodless shade to help it in actually carrying out its law in face of the power and authority of that other, publicly manifest law.” (§474)  Nature is “the law of weakness and darkness,” and is defeated by the law of the upper world, because nature only has power in the underworld.  But by stripping the inner world of its honor, the human law has consumed its own essence.  The supreme right of the human law turns out to be a supreme wrong.

Divine law fights back in this odd passage:

“The dead, whose right is denied, knows therefore how to find instruments of vengeance, which are equally effective and powerful as the power which has injured it.  These powers are other communities whose altars the dogs or birds defiled with the corpse, which is not raised into unconscious universality by being given back, as is its due, to the elemental individuality [the earth], but remains above the ground in the realm of outer reality, and has now acquired as force of divine law a self-conscious, real universality.” (§474)

Two things are confusing: Hegel seems to say that divine law’s vengeance comes through other communities – which seems to mean that other expressions of human law become absorbed into divine law.  If that reading is correct, the next statement makes a bit more sense: the dead, by not being buried, makes the divine law self-conscious and obvious.  The transgression strengthens the law?

Hegel goes on to say that “the movement of human and divine law finds its necessity expressed in individuals in whom the universal appears as a ‘pathos’, and the activity of the movement appears as the action of individuals, which gives the appearance of contingency to the necessity of the activity.” (§475)  Despite this appearance of contingency, individuality and action are, in their pure universality, the divine law.   It is the way the divine law most strongly appears in the community.  From this angle, the apparently simple movement of the individual ‘pathos’ looks different, and the crime and destruction of the community “acquire the proper and characteristic form of their existence.”  The activity of human law is the manhood of the community.  It maintains itself by assimilating individual families presided over by women.  But the family is at the same time its element, and the individual consciousness is the basis of its activity:

“Since the community only gets an existence through its interference with the happiness of the family, and by dissolving [individual] self-consciousness into the universal, it creates for itself in it what suppresses and what is at the same time essential to it an internal enemy – womankind in general.  Womankind – the everlasting irony [in the life] of the community – changes by intrigue the universal end of the government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into a work of some particular individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into a possession and ornament for the family.” (§475)

The woman scorns “the wisdom of mature age,” which cares only for the universal – that is, the smooth functioning of society.  The woman champions the raw energy of youth; the worth of the son comes from “being the lord and master of the mother who bore him,” the brother’s worth is in his equality with his sister, and the daughter, freed from dependence on the family, enters into the joy of wifehood.  However, the community “can only maintain itself by suppressing this spirit of individualism, and, because it is an essential moment, all the same creates it and, moreover, creates it by its repressive attitude towards it as a hostile principle.” (§475)

But individuality, being evil given its separation from the universal end, would be ineffectual if the community did not need it – it needs the energy of (however immature) youth as the power of the whole.  “For the community is a nation, is itself an individuality, and essentially is only such for itself by other individualities being for it, by excluding them from itself and knowing itself to be independent of them.” (§475)

The community supresses the individuals within it, but uses individuals outwardly: “War is the spirit and the form in which the essential moment of the ethical substance, the absolute freedom of the ethical self from every existential form, is present in its actual and authentic existence.” (§475)  War makes the individual feel the pressure of the negative, but the negativity of war preserves the whole.  War is won by physical strength and luck; but this strength and luck is what decides on the existence of ethical life.  “Because the existence of ethical life rests on strength and luck, the decision is already made that its downfall has come.” (§475)  Previously, the family fell to the national spirit; but now the living individuals of the nation die and fall into a universal community, a simple universality which is soulless and dead, and is alive only in the single individual, qua single.  The ethical shape of spirit falls and another appears: limitless individualism.

The ethical consciousness fell because it was directed on to the law in a way that is too immediate.  The germ of the destruction of the harmonious ethical order was present from the start.  It was an always-doomed attempt to mix the peace of nature with restless spirit.  When the determinate relation to the law is lost, spirit shatters “into a multitude of separate atoms.” (§476)

c. Legal status

The Phenomenology tends to repeat old subjects in new contexts; just as sense certainty, perception and understanding were repeated in “Reason”, now the move from stoicism to skepticism will be repeated.  The chapter on “Spirit” began with two interrelated universals: the unconscious universal of the divine law, and the conscious universal of the human law.  The two were meant to be in a stable harmony and depended upon one another – the divine law only found actual existence in human law, and human law derived its force from divine law.  We saw how the two entered into irreducible conflict, and the stable order shattered into a multiplicity of individuals.

This multiplicity is a new kind of universality, but it is no longer ethical substance.  Hegel begins this section by saying “The universal unity into which the living immediate unity of individuality and substance withdraws is the soulless community which has ceased to be the substance – itself unconscious – of individuals, and in which they now have the value of selves and substances, possessing a separate being-for-self.” (§477)  The universal splits up into a mere multiplicity of individuals, in which everyone counts the same as a legal person.

In the ethical order, the particular person was an unreal shadow which nonetheless had the divine law as a positive universal – now he has emerged as an actuality, but which is a negative universal self.  The shapes and powers of the ethical world are swallowed up in a blank destiny, which is the “I” of self-consciousness.  So from here on out, the person is a being that is in and for itself.  But this is an abstract universality, because it cannot be dissolved into substance.

Personality steps out from the shadow of the ethical consciousness.  It is an independent consciousness with actual validity.  This sort of individual which steps out from the shadow of the world was earlier prefigured in stoicism: “Stoicism is nothing else but the consciousness which reduces to its abstract form the principle of legal status, an independence that lacks the life of Spirit.  By its flight from the actual world it attained only to the thought of independence; it is absolutely for itself, in that it does not attach its being to anything that exists, but claims to give up everything that exists and places its essence solely in the pure unity of thought.” (§479)

In the same way, the right of a person is not tied to the quality of their personhood, but their personhood full stop: the “pure One of its abstract actuality.”

Stoicism ended up in skepticism, a confused rambling.  Personal independence qua legal right is just as confused.  “For what counts as absolute, essential being is self-consciousness as the sheer empty unit of the person.”  However, unlike this empty universality, substance had the form of fullness and content, and the content is now set free and unorganized, because it is no longer subdued by Spirit.

Like skepticism, formal legal rights have no particular content; “it finds before it a manifold existence in the form of ‘possession’ and, as skepticism did, stamps it with the same abstract universality, whereby it is called ‘property’.” (§480)  In skepticism, the manifold is an illusory appearance and has only a negative significance – in legal right, the manifold has a positive value.  The negative value was the self qua thought, or as implicit universal; the positive value of the legal right consists in it being mine, as something which is recognized and actual.  That is, the manifold is property.  Both are the same abstract universal.  The actual content of what I own – whether it be money or a rich spirit – is not contained in the form and does not concern it.

“Consciousness of right, therefore, in the very fact of being recognized as having validity, experiences rather the loss of its reality and its complete inessentiality; and to describe an individual as a ‘person’ is an expression of contempt.  As Findlay says, attaching rights to property is arbitrary and reduces the individual to a contemptible property owner, a mere merchant.

Hegel goes on to say, “The free power of the content determines itself in such a way that the dispersion of the content into a sheer multiplicity of personal atoms is, by the nature of this determinateness, at the same time gathered into a single point, alien to them and soulless as well.”  The single point is also a personality, but in contrast to their empty singleness, has the significance of the whole content.  The lord and master of the Earth.  He knows himself to be the sum of the powers, and considers himself a god; but since he is only a formal self, his self-enjoyment is monstrous excess.  An emperor.

“The lord of the world becomes really conscious of what he is, viz. the universal power of the actual world, in the destructive power he exercises against the self of his subjects, the self which stands over against him.”  His power is not the unity of spirit in which others could recognize themselves.  Rather, they are atoms, with no continuity.  Their relation is a purely negative, purely authoritarian. The legal personality learns it has no content, and the self of this master is a pure laying waste, the abandonment of self-consciousness.

The legal personality is meant to be essential, but it turns out to be inessential, subject to caprice.  The unessentiality of the individual is a new sphere of experience, the alienated person of culture.


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