Hegel and Jefferson

“Spirit—consuming the envelope of its existence—does not merely pass into another envelope, nor rise rejuvenescent from the ashes of its previous form; it comes forth exalted, glorified, a purer spirit. It certainly makes war upon itself—consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up that existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade. If we consider Spirit in this aspect—regarding its changes not merely as rejuvenescent transitions, i.e., returns to the same form, but rather as manipulations of itself, by which it multiplies the material for future endeavors—we see it exerting itself in a variety of modes and directions; developing its powers and gratifying its desires in a variety which is inexhaustible; because every one of its creations, in which it has already found gratification, meets it anew as material, and is a new stimulus to plastic activity. “

G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, (73)

What Hegel is getting at in his Philosophy of History, particularly in the passage quoted above, is that we never really arrive at a conclusion, an ultimate truth or end of history. What we know and believe—Hegel’s term Geist (Mind or Spirit) is even broader still—is only a manifestation in time, a particular time. This manifestation is the result of an historical process; a reaction against, an improvement upon what came before it. But as such it becomes yet another idea to react against and improve upon. History is the sequence of all these ideas and this affects how one understands and reacts to these ideas.

There are generally two ways to teach philosophy: synchronic and diachronic. The synchronic approach is more common but often left me with a feeling that most philosophical ideas were very odd and ridiculous. “What curious thing for Anaxagoras to say all physus is water. What does that mean exactly?” Yet when read diachronically I always found philosophy to be quite brilliant and exciting. Just as a chess move viewed on its own may seem mundane or pedestrian but in the context of difficult game my have profound implications. “Ah, a categorical imperative still allows for a universal ethics but because it is grounded in reason and is within the reach of every reasonable individual it eliminates the need for any kind of transcendental revelation. Good move!”

And this describes the problem I have been having with Jefferson’s agrarian republicanism lately. Viewed synchronically, or worse yet backward through the history that followed him, I see a flawed program that led to the sacking of Washington in the War of 1812, continued dependence on tobacco and slavery, a lack of internal improvements in roads, education and public infrastructure and the failure to provide a secure financial basis for industrialization that undermined the state of Virginia through much of the 19th century. Yet viewed diachronically, one can more easily see that Jefferson made decisions to free the state of Virginia from the oligarchic rule of an entrenched and largely hereditary planter aristocracy. This would, in time, move the center of power in Virginia westward and broaden the franchise. This was a very difficult political maneuver and once accomplished can easily explain Jefferson’s fear of falling back on a centralized authority. He did not want to lose what was so hard to gain. But for fear of losing to internal centralized authority he might have lost to an external centralized authority as might have happened with Britain in the War of 1812. Fortunately, Monroe was able to see beyond Jefferson’s republican dogma and create a Hegelian synthesis of the republican and federalist Geist.

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~ by severalfourmany on January 9, 2011.

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