“What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” A quote that continues to be as relevant today as when it was penned. The words are of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who, having died 186 years ago, makes one wonder about human progress as the philosopher did himself.
Hegel died in Berlin after leading a life of academic ascension in Germany that culminated in the position of head of the University of Berlin. Born on the 27th August 1770 in Stuttgart, he was the oldest child of a bureaucrat. During his adolescence, Hegel’s love for intellectual thought began to manifest through his consumption and synthesis of a wide range of texts, including by the poet Klopstock and Enlightenment thinkers, such as Christian Garve and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. His love for philosophy shaped his destiny until the day he died.
In 1788, Hegel went as a student to Tübingen with a view to be ordained into the Christian Ministry, as directed by his parents. Instead he became a devoted philosophy and classics students for two years and graduated in 1790, ultimately, showing little interest in theology. Upon graduation, Hegel then dedicated his life to the study of philosophy and Greek literature and became a private tutor.
He took up a number of tutorships in parallel to his tireless dedication to his intellectual pursuits. However, it wasn’t until 1799 when he was at last able to pursue his dream of an academic career – made possible by the death of his father and a small inheritance that allowed him to take the risk of becoming a privatdozent (unsalaried lecturer). In January 1801, he arrived at the University of Jena, where the philosopher Friedrich Schelling had been a professor since 1798.
His work, influenced by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling, thus continued in the classical German philosophical tradition.
Hegel found a place for everything—logical, natural, human, and divine—in a dialectical scheme that swung from one extreme to another always leading to a richer synthesis of these extremes – an ongoing process of overcorrection to reach a kind of equilibrium.
Applied to a greater scale, essentially, Hegel saw societies developing in the same way that an argument might. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel explains that the modern state is the institution that will correct imbalance in modern culture.
Interestingly, his influence has been far reaching, especially as an inspiration to theories of opposition. Most notably, Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist; Karl Marx and in G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell.
That being said every one of Hegel’s major works is a historical exposition and, it was among historians and classical scholars rather than among philosophers that his work mainly took root.
He is buried in Berlin in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, next to fellow philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger.
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