The Fruits of Civilization – Georg Hegel

Georg Hegel

The new want is not so much a want of those who have it directly but is created by those who hope to make profit from it. ~ Georg Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was a major figure in German idealism: a philosophical school which posited that the properties that objects have owe entirely to their subjective perception. That something might be independent of the mind is incoherent in German idealism.

Hegel also considered economics, especially within the context of civil society and polity. Hegel thought that the institutions of society were integral to the ethics of individuals in that society. By constant exposure, the moral norms of the institutions that define society become that of the people within the society.

Hegel knew that most people consider freedom as the possibility of doing whatever one liked, without institutional restrictions. From this perspective, institutions inherently impinge freedom. Freedom is essentially defined as the ability to deviate from social mores. In contrast, Hegel thought that men who could spontaneously act upon their natural instincts were slaves to their passions: not free at all.

Liberation from base drives transforms an individual into consistently performing acts that are healthy and life-affirming, and in that sense reflects a rational will. For Hegel, ethical life involves reorienting biological drives by a higher self, which may be the product of a virtuous culture and its institutions: the replacement of one’s nature by a “second nature.” Hegel valued institutions for their potential to create a culture of ethical behavior.

In an ethical community, it is easy to say what someone must do and what the duties are which he has to fulfill in order to be virtuous. He must simply do what is prescribed, expressly stated, and known to him within his situation. ~ Georg Hegel

In this regard Hegel mimicked Möser, though from a distict point of view. Hegel considered private property an important part of the modern state, and an expression of individualism. Hegel thought that governments should encourage the widespread ownership of property.

His reasoning for this is not self-evident. One constant of Hegel’s philosophy is that states of mind only stabilize when they are grounded in the external world: in civil society and institutional rules. For instance, Hegel thought that the institution of marriage, by public recognition of the state of the union, made sexual relationships more stable.

Together with property, Hegel considered the market central to civil society, as a system for the mutual satisfaction of wants. Those wants are not all natural; instead, they often reflect culture.

Hegel approved of fashion as a quest for individual recognition through consumption, and of attempts at social climbing by imitating those of higher social standing through consumption patterns.

To Hegel, the market created a virtuous gyre of culture. The desire for individuality created a never-ending cycle of imitation and innovation.

As a balance, Hegel considered that peer pressure from interacting with society’s institutions, particularly professional associations, would temper consumerism to appropriate wants. Here again, Hegel struck a Möser pose, though again with more conceptual sophistication than Möser mustered.

Hegel thought that the pressures of competition gave market societies an outgoing momentum. The search for new markets led to trade with other cultures, and so enriched the possibilities for learning from others.

While Hegel’s Romantic contemporaries thought that the world of work and market activity was a threat to individuality, Hegel thought that a man earning a living was an important way for him to get a sense of his individuality.

Women, according to Hegel’s moral conception, belonged economically outside of civil society. Their place was at home, with the family.

Further reflecting his Lutheran upbringing, Hegel considered humans a life form wholly distinct from the rest of Nature; at least where it mattered to him.

Animals are in possession of themselves; their soul is in possession of their body. But they have no right to their life, because they do not will it. ~ Georg Hegel

Unlike Adam Smith, Hegel favored a government actively tempering the business cycle, countering disruption of international trade, and otherwise trying to cure the intrinsic problems that the market created, such as price gouging and guarding against fraud. (Hegel cited the instance of selling contaminated medicines.)

Hegel was a formidable influence on later intellectuals. Karl Marx cut his philosophical teeth on Hegel before rejecting Hegel’s bourgeois capitalism.

Hegel’s logical twists to correlate morality with government cheered on many efforts to empower the state, even as he himself retained a sense of skepticism that breached consistency: something which was never Hegel’s long suit anyway.

Governments have never learned anything from history or acted on principles deducted from it. ~ Georg Hegel