Hegel on Freedom

Hegel’s conception of freedom is central to his Introduction to the Philosophy of History and his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) in which it is described as one of its most immediately perceived properties. Yet, it is only through philosophy as speculative knowledge that freedom can fulfil itself. For Hegel, universal history is the slow progress of its understanding and advent through three stages: the earliest one is to be found in Antiquity and is epitomised by the autocratic power of the Chinese emperors when freedom was enjoyed by one single individual. The second stage corresponds to the aristocratic freedom of a few ‘noble souls’ which remained constrained by the social structures of Medieval society. In opposition to these two periods in the history of freedom, Hegel pins his hopes on the creation of a modern state representing the political and legal embodiment of the people’s spirit.

Individual freedom makes no sense and has no actual validity outside the context of universal freedom envisioned by Hegel. Only by accepting to obey the same laws can the individual citizen of Hegel’s state truly enjoy the benefits of collective freedom. The hypothesised existence of an idyllic state of nature, as extolled by Rousseau, is nowhere to be found in human history as ‘the assumption of the noble savage’ is, for Hegel, nothing more than ‘one of those nebulous images’ produced by theory. Far from deriving from a natural right, freedom has to be ‘won through an infinite process of the discipline of knowledge and will power.’

Hegel’s freedom is therefore neither the mere consciousness of an absence of necessity nor the physical manifestation of some inner desire. Such a subjective feeling could never define rational citizens but at best, self-indulgent individuals comparable to the lotus-eaters derided in Plato’s Republic. As the very foundation and framework of collective freedom, the Hegelian state does not exist ex nihilo as it requires the adhesion of its future members and a clear distinction between those who command and those who obey. Hegel specifies that those in command are themselves servants of the state and the constitution in the same way as the rest of their fellow-citizens.

This very republican notion of equality before the law finds its roots in Montesquieu’s most influential work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), in which the French philosophe underlined the paramount importance of the religious, social and political attitudes and principles of a given people, prior to the creation of new political institutions adapted to and reflecting its distinctive character and genius. In other words, a new nation can only come into existence if its citizens to be are culturally, socially and spiritually ready to become one: ‘this unity of the universal and the particular is the Idea itself, present as the State and as such developing itself further.’ 

For this reason, morality only finds its ‘actual’ or ‘real’ expression within the law since the good of the community always takes precedence over individual freedom strictly confined within the limits of civic freedom. For Hegel, the authentic citizen is the one who actively promotes the public interest. By doing so, he fully realises his nature as a universal agent of universal Freedom. At the same time, it must be remembered that the citizen’s happiness, understood as the best possible exercise of his own freedom, can only thrive and ‘develop further’ if in harmony and agreement with the state’s own objectives. In the absence of compatibility between general political aims and personal aspirations, Hegel considered that the state failed in its original mission and thus lost its very raison d’être; ‘the state is actual, and its actuality consists in this, that the interest of the whole is realised in and through particular ends.’

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