In Hegel’s view, we are bit players in a history far greater than we can presently properly comprehend. That may sound presumptuous, but Hegel actually means it quite seriously, and he takes as his model the individual human’s maturation and uses that to explain what he’s talking about.
The World’s Maturation
When you were a child, you acted in certain ways and certain things happened to you, and you didn’t quite understand what was going on. But as an adult, you can look back on your childhood and you can now see it as a process, only dimly understood at the time that it was happening, of your coming to a mature self-conscious possession of yourself as an adult.
But in some sense, the story of our childhood into adulthood is a story of our growing ability to understand ourselves, to decide for ourselves what we want to do, and to be able freely and responsibly to decide not just what we want to do but who we want, in some sense, to be. Hegel thinks the world itself is also in this process of maturation. In fact, Hegel thinks it’s quite near its completion.
One of the signs that we are getting near the completion of this process is that the intellect of Hegel has come along to help us see that the final stages are beginning to be set. This all means that in Hegel’s view, history has a certain telling that makes sense; and that telling is in some sense a rational telling, it’s an intelligible telling. History in its most real is intelligible. As Hegel famously says, “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational.”
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Resistance to History
That doesn’t mean that everything that is, is right, that resistance to anything is always wrong. That’s not what Hegel means. History’s course is necessary in some sense for Hegel, though it’s not a terrifically narrow sense of necessity. The future is not now and will never be absolutely predictable. Our resistance to what we don’t want to happen in history, Hegel says, is as much a part of history’s rationality as the things that we do want to happen are.
Disease is a part of history and it’s real, but inoculations are a part of history, too; and in some ways perhaps, the disease is more real insofar as it prompts the inoculations. Indeed sometimes, what looks like resistance to inevitability actually has the future on its side. Sometimes adversity turns out to strengthen the weak and make them ultimately come out on top.
The Black Death that may have killed half of Europe, but also created the conditions for the Reformation 200 years later. A thing that can devastate a culture, a civilization, at one moment may, in fact, surprisingly turn out to enable that culture to survive and prosper in other ways in the future. This is what Hegel calls the “cunning of reason”; reason is cunning, it’s crafty, it surprises us all the time.
Learn more about evil as a social construct.
The Inevitability of History
Hegel thinks, even though reason is cunning, it can only be so cunning; and there is the possibility of discerning a shape and purpose to history, and reason’s aims will inevitably be accomplished no matter what. But we can’t always, at the moment, tell just what reason is meaning to do; all we know is that in the end it will make sense. In fact, it will make the only sense there could be.
All this means that in some sense things that are not as central to the story that it ultimately means to be telling, those things will not have the big role in history that they may seem to at the moment that we experience them.
History, thus, can be said to be providentially governed, and the true philosophy of history will be, for Hegel, also and simultaneously, as he says, a theodicy; a justification of all the suffering that has happened. Because evil is so deeply irrational, we must figure out why there is evil in the world; and Hegel thinks his philosophy of history is an account of why.
Learn more about evil and human agency.
Hegel and Theodicy
In fact, Hegel says very frankly that his account is “a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God.” But this is not the kind of theodicy that Leibniz offered or that Pope poeticized, which was mechanical and static; saying that all was as harmonious as a well-functioning watch.
Hegel has a more organic and developmental understanding of evil. He begins with the idea of divine providence, but once he adopts a view of God as immanent in human history, as directly governing the forces of human history and in some ways coming to understand itself in human history, the only conclusion left is that events that are real are justified precisely because they are necessary.
Whereas previous attempts to develop a philosophical theodicy aimed at reconciling humans to the existence of evil, Hegel doesn’t do that. He believes that there cannot be any absurd “remainder” to reality, any kind of postulated body of evil stuff that exists alongside the real story, so he has to show that evil is not really ultimately evil at all.
In fact, he has to show that the world is as it ought to be in all its essential rational details. “Concrete evils” happen, that is, as part of the unfolding of the logic of history; but they are finally justified by the course of history, and in that justification they turn out never to have been evils at all.
Common Questions about Hegel and the Process of History
According to Hegel, just as humans begin as children but eventually grow up to look back at their childhood as a process, humans at large can look back at previous human history and see it as a process too.
Our resistance to what we don’t want to happen in history, Hegel says, is as much a part of history’s rationality as the things that we do want to happen are.
A thing that can devastate a civilization, at one moment may, surprisingly turn out to enable that culture to survive and prosper in other ways in the future. This is what Hegel calls the “cunning of reason”.