By Professor Charles Mathewes, University of Virginia
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the most important philosophers after Immanuel Kant. Among other reflections on the world and the self, Hegel’s position on the doctrine of Original Sin was quite unique. Hegel’s perspective on Original Sin shows us something important about his understanding of how to think about philosophical concepts.
Understanding Origin Sin
The Enlightenment rejects the doctrine of Original Sin because it finds, Hegel thinks, the form in which the doctrine is taught incredible, literally unbelievable. It’s presented, Hegel says, as an external force outside of the self, infecting the self (from Satan via the apple) and also hereditary (a biological transmission in some sense); so the Enlightenment thinks of this doctrine as primitive, naïve, unscientific, and simply not true.
But Hegel, following Kant, insists that there is something to the doctrine, something the doctrine captures, even as it has been traditionally misunderstood. For him, the true meaning of the doctrine is missed in the confusions on its surface. The reality is that—and he thinks this is really important—the fact of human thinking itself, human subjective self-consciousness, is the origin of the knowledge of good and evil and thus of Original Sin. Original Sin, then, is a consequence of human reflection; human reflexivity. What does that mean?
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Human reflexivity is the ability humans have to think about themselves as they are doing something. Thinking is, in some sense, a form of stepping back from a situation and reflecting upon it from a sufficient distance to not be caught up in its immediate imminent tumult; thinking naturally estranges us from our immediate situation. We become self-conscious, and self-consciousness is a form of self-estrangement for Hegel; it’s a form of sin.
It is this way because humans, in being self-conscious, are effectively rendering themselves available to themselves as objects of thought. To so render yourself available to yourself as an object of thought is in some sense to lose your original organic integrity. That’s all Hegel means there: The loss of that original organic integrity, the loss of the ability to be in the moment is, for Hegel, sin.
Learn more about Kant’s idea of evil.
Humanity and Evil
Hegel says the doctrine of Original Sin says that humans are in some sense by nature evil; that is, it somehow is constitutive of the structures of human existence as a whole, at least as we find them. Many thinkers in the Enlightenment dismiss this view by suggesting that it’s far too pessimistic; and Hegel agrees, if we think of nature as fundamentally static. But the deep insight of the statement—that humans are constitutively sunk in evil in some sense—Hegel thinks is that, in fact, and as all should be able to recognize, “human beings are not what they ought to be,” he says. Humanity is clearly at odds with the world and its true nature.
The formulation of Original Sin, in any of the various religious formulas it’s offered in, may be stale or mythological, but the insight being communicated, Hegel thinks, is quite profound. We do, in fact, exist in a state of inevitable and, at present, inescapable estrangement from the world and from ourselves.
We know this because we are all able to watch ourselves act in the world; we have reflexivity. We all have the experience of not being fully in a moment, both being in it and not in it, just because when we see ourselves acting in that moment, just to the extent that we are watching ourselves, we are not in that moment. In fact, you can sometimes have the experience of noticing yourself not being in the moment; that is, you can sometimes have the experience of noticing yourself as you try to exist in the moment.
That kind of radical self-consciousness for humans, Hegel thinks, is bottomless, and that is a crucial fact about us as creatures and it’s a crucial intuition that the doctrine of Original Sin is trying to convey. The Fall is the rupture of pure unselfconscious identity into a split awareness, however many times that awareness may be split.
That’s formulated as evil, but also and simultaneously it brings with itself as its necessary consequence an awareness of the lost status as a one that was good. So sin is not only an experience but also gives us a kind of nostalgia for an ideal earlier state. That’s Original Sin.
Learn more about the Apocalypse and Original Sin.
A Happy Fault
Hegel thinks this is a kind of felix culpa, a happy fault; for it is a necessary fact for our maturation as self-conscious agents, an inevitable stage in our progress toward what Hegel sees as our final situation of complete self-consciousness, which is somehow also returned to a complete absorption in the context in which we find ourselves. What this endpoint is, is tremendously obscure in Hegel; it involves the complete harmony of the person and the activity they are involved in, but all of that taken back into the mind so that the mind is fully aware of what’s going on, and in some sense the mind appreciates what’s going on even as it’s engaged in it.
It’s hard to actually imagine, as it should be because we’re all caught in this now, Hegel thinks; except for a few very graceful moments, we’re all caught in this alienation. Maybe the only examples that even gesture at what Hegel is trying to get at are the examples of certain masters of particular skills: athletes, musicians, racecar drivers, dancers or actors, maybe novelists when they are actively writing and typing furiously on the computer or the keyboard. They’re people whose actions are both completely automatic and natural, and thoroughly saturated with a serious thinking-through of the situation.
This gives us a glimpse of what Hegel means, but only a glimpse.
Common Questions about Hegel’s Idea of Original Sin
The doctrine of Original Sin is presented, Hegel says, as an external force outside of the self, infecting the self (from Satan via the apple) and also hereditary (a biological transmission in some sense); so the Enlightenment thinks of this doctrine as primitive, naïve, unscientific, and simply not true.
For Hegel, the fact of human thinking itself, human subjective self-consciousness, is the origin of the knowledge of good and evil and thus of Original Sin.
In the idea of Original Sin the insight being communicated, Hegel thinks, is quite profound; that humans exist in a state of estrangement from the world and from ourselves.