An Infinite Deal of Nothing — Part Two

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

- John Milton, (1608–1674), ‘Paradise Lost’

As noted at the end of the previous part, behind Hegel’s philosophy of history there lies that cardinal aspiration to establish a view of history whereby history itself in the end can be seen as healing the wounds that history itself has inflicted, and this of course brings to mind a pivotal historical moment in Christian dogma that supposedly does just that, healing historical wounds that is, namely, that of the Fall of humanity, in the discussion of which Hegel also propounds a highly original view concerning the relation of historical existence to that of human essence, or human nature if you will. Hegel’s explication of the meaning behind the Fall has proven to be decidedly influential in Protestant theology and even to the present day philosophers and theologians can be observed expanding and varying upon Hegel’s interpretation while seemingly oblivious to just how deeply ingrained within it all is Hegel’s particular brand of idealism.

For Hegel recognised the Fall as providing an excellent illustration of how mythopoetic or myth-making depictions and narratives incorporate conceptual truth, although to extract the conceptual truth one must of course be able to deliver the required expositions through being thoroughly primed in the concept. To be a skilled dialetician that is, if we recall how Hegel explains dialectic in the ‘Philosophy of Right’:

‘The moving principle of the concept, which not only dissolves the particularizations of the universal but also produces them, is what I call dialectic. I consequently do not mean that kind of dialectic which takes an object [Gegenstand], proposition, etc. given to feeling or to the immediate consciousness in general, and dissolves it, confuses it, develops it this way and that, and is solely concerned with deducing its opposite — a negative mode which frequently appears even in Plato. Such dialectic may regard as its final result the opposite of a given idea [Vorstellung], or, as in the uncompromising manner of ancient scepticism, its contradiction, or, in a lame fashion, an approximation to the truth, which is a modern half-measure. The higher dialectic of the concept consists not merely in producing and apprehending the determination as an opposite and limiting factor, but in producing and apprehending the positive content and result which it contains; and it is this alone which makes it a development and immanent progression. This dialectic, then, is not an external activity of subjective thought, but the very soul of the content which puts forth its branches and fruit organically.’

I need to make clear however a very great difference difference between conceptual truth and some other particular views on truth which I attacked in On the Nature of Truth Part Two and which may seem to bear a similar resemblance; I refer to Bret Weinstein’s, (1969-), metaphorical truth (a religious assertion may be literally false but metaphorically true), or Jordan Peterson’s, (1962 — ), Darwinian truth whereby religious texts supposedly encode profound and evolutionary determined universal and instrumental truths. Conceptual truth is something quite different as hopefully will become clear.

Max Beckmann, ‘Afternoon’, 1946

The Hegelian interpretation proceeds along the following lines (updating it slightly, not to amend Hegel’s position but to remove the patriarchal presuppositions that are obviously there in the Biblical narrative written in patriarchal times and which so delighted Milton but that jar with me): Adam is a representation of Humanity in general; and the life in Paradise is the self-contentment of Hunanity in its immediacy living as he or she does in harmony, though non-reflectively, with the universal, the life of innocence which has yet to receive distinctive self-consciousness; and the life of the original couple is not so much a virtuous life as an innocence that knows neither good nor evil; and the Fall from such a state of blessedness is no accident consequent upon some tempting inducement exterior to man or woman, which is to say, from the serpent; rather, and very much to the contrary, it is the step into opposition which necessarily occurs in every son of Adam or daughter of Eve, because it is grounded in the nature of humanity; this is the step into self-consciousness.

Hegel is well known for having postulated the view that self-consciousness depends upon inter-subjective recognition. This is an important point about self-consciousness and the awareness of another self-consciousness. P. F. Strawson, (1919–2006), has claimed that ‘the idea of a predicate is correlative with that of a range of distinguishable individuals of which the predicate can be significantly, though not necessarily truly, affirmed’. That is to say, one can only ascribe mental states to oneself if one is capable of ascribing them to others which, in turn, means that one cannot have acquired the capacity to think of others’ mental states by means of reasoning by analogy from one own case; which is to say further, that another’s observable behaviour is not a sign or an indication of their mentality, but rather a criterion of it, and if we are self-conscious we have to have knowledge of others’ minds; and Eve’s appearance on the scene is certainly a game changer:

To whom thus Eve, with perfect beauty adorned

My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst

Unargued I obey: So God ordains;

God is thy law, thou mine: To know no more

Is woman’s happiest knowledge, and her praise.

With thee conversing I forget all time;

All seasons, and their change, all please alike.

- ‘Paradise Lost’

‘The Fall of Man’, 1927, M. C. Escher

Hegel, as is his wont, is thus defending a traditional doctrine of the kind that was subjected to an onslaught from the rationality that emerged out of the Enlightenment and that had haughtily castigated and dismissed such doctrine as abhorrent, demeaning, and superstitious; for a target of his was often that of the abstract understanding with its unsophisticated not to mention instability of ground in its manner of assuming a position as here with regard to its assault upon the doctrine of original sin; for Hegel saw, as the majority of his predecessors failed to do, that with biological inheritance original sin has naught to do; that it is rather a claim for sin being inevitable and ineluctable, but it has always been something of a quandary to be able to state the doctrine in such a manner to avoid asserting that man, or woman, as created by God, is essentially evil; for such a view would lead to a type of dualism between God and the world according to which man, or woman, cannot be redeemed without ceasing to be a man, or a woman; but philosophy should always strive towards monism and Hegel could deflect such a consequent given the doctrine of the implicit unity of God with man and woman. Which is to say, Adam in paradise represents man’s implicit unity with God; and we would want to say Eve represents the same with regard to woman, Milton’s infamous line notwithstanding: ‘He for God only, she for God in him’.

Nevertheless the Fall may well be an ineluctable human condition but it is in addition a necessary categoreal determination of the existence of man and woman, that is to say, it is implicative of an a priori category that plays its role in the determination of his or her essential nature. Adam’s opposition to God is not merely a contrary act of will; the opposition resides in the fact that he has come into existence as a finite consciousness, that which is one-sided, particular, self-concerned; it resides in the fact that he happens to have an individual will in any case. And needless to say, finite existence also necessarily involves some very real and quite concrete afflictions and disorders.

In the narrative Adam falls as a consequence of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the Hegelian exegesis for which turn of events is as follows: the knowledge of the immense contrariety between good and evil, infinite and finite, posits a human’s self-consciousness as individual and subjective, over against the universality and objectivity of God; and now he or she knows no longer the unreflective harmony of the animals with nature; rather, they must earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, and so they are expelled from paradise. All this is the consequence of feasting upon the tree of knowledge, and yet what God says of this human misdeed is this: ‘Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing Good and Evil’. Hegel regards such an admission as non-ironical but rather a self-evident statement of matter of fact, for, the apple of knowledge having killed off the happy hominid in the garden, the garden now brings to life the unhappy hominid with the pain, the self-serving, the evil with which we are all so familiar, as well as this particular hominid’s destiny of self-conscious reconciliation with God. One may propose a higher explanation of the sentence from ‘Genesis’ that Adam is ‘one of us’, that by this Adam is to be understood the second Adam, that is to say, the Christ. The fall from abstract unselfconscious harmony with the divine into the harrowing and tormenting disharmony of self-conscious individuated man or woman is the necessary condition for the concrete reconciliation with God, and the innocent must thereby become a man or a woman in order to share in the explicit unity of the God-man, the God-woman.

And thus man and woman fall into history, into historical trials and tribulations but also into historical destiny; this in spite of the fact that the Fall was never an actual event in history, and Paradise was never an actual human demesne; we are dealing with conceptual truth here; in this case the concept being human; for to be human means to cease being innocent; and the myth of the Fall expresses in the form of a story and in sequence the condition of being a historical creature, by contrast either to the human essence (the invariable nature of being human) or to the condition of any simply natural creature.

The truth of man and woman is in their identity with God, but this truth has been only implicit throughout most of history; and in order for this identity to become explicit, as a determinant of man’s and woman’s self-consciousness, the distinction between God on the one hand and man and woman on the other must first be posited; for the man or woman who does not know God as the infinite which stands in opposition to his or her own finitude is still totally engaged and consumed in the merely finite, even in his or her religious life.

Such an opposition must be posited before it can be aufgehoben … having undergone the process of Aufhebung that is, preserving, and changing, and eventually advancing, from the German verb aufheben, to keep, and to cancel … as in sublation, whereby a term or concept is both preserved and changed through its dialectical interplay with another term or concept; the very impetus of dialectic. And so the infinite must be an object of a man’s or woman’s consciousness before it can become the determinant, the explicit subject, of his or her own self-consciousness. And thus it transpired that the religions that came before Christianity had steadily developed man’s and woman’s consciousness of the infinite God standing in radical contradiction to all that man and woman him or herself is and does; and necessary as this development is, it deepens man’s and woman’s unhappiness. The bare and unmitigated opposition of God on the one hand and man and woman on the other, the opposition between good and evil, sends man and woman stumbling into the deepest abyss of misery, subjects him and her to the most excruciating tension of self-alienation; as man and woman knows himself or herself as impotence in the face of the Almighty, evil in the face of divine Purity; and the religions that have led him or her into this abyss have also created in him and in her the deepest yearning that these oppositions be overcome.

Max Klinger, ‘Dream’, 1884

Which of course they are, in due course. Oppositions and contradictions always resolve themselves in Hegel’s system. The concept of the preceding religions had purified itself into this opposition, and because this opposition has manifested and exhibited itself as an existing need, it has been expressed in this way: ‘but when the time was fulfilled, God sent His Son’; and that may be interpreted thus: when the need for Spirit came into existence, Spirit manifested the reconciliation; and naturally enough Hegel laid stress upon this particular passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

4 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;

2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.

3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:

4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,

5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

And we can see why through historical dialectic Hegel believes God sent His Son just at the precise time that He did; for human self-consciousness necessarily has to be made ready for the plucking so to speak before the work of reconciliation can then move forward.

Max Svabinsky, ‘Spiritual Kinship’, 1896

In the fullness of time, wait for long enough and it will happen; and though the Greek Spirit made some advances toward the fullness of time, the time was yet unripe, for the freedom of the Greeks took the form of personal idiosyncrasy; it was not yet subjected to unity of substance, it was not freedom in its objective universality; and a limitation of the Greek Spirit manifested itself in the fact that its spirituality appeared in the intrinsically plural forms involving a mediation through what was natural, in the forms of art, and of idolatry, and of imagination; and the Greek spirit was beautiful and spontaneous and for that very reason neither the substantiality of the universal nor the opposition between universal and particular, the one and the many, could arrive at self-consciousness within it. (See my articles The One and the Many, parts 1–3.

This is all very much in evidence in the opening passage of the ‘Theogony’, the genealogy or birth of the gods, a poem by Hesiod (8th — 7th century BC):

‘From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis-holder, and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals, and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athena, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth holder who shakes the earth, and revered Themis, and quick-glancing Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos, and great Helius, and bright Selene, Earth, too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: ‘Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things’.

Gustave Moreau, ‘Hesiod and the Muse’, 1870

‘Quick-glancing Aphrodite’; an epithet perhaps suggesting coquettishness, somewhat unseemly for a goddess.

Roman orderliness and regimentation was necessary to realise the development towards overcoming oppositions and achieving self-consciousness; for with the Romans, the State becomes a type of fate, a single overwhelming force that rules and steers the destinies of men and women and reduces them to mere fragments of a much larger whole, in the meanwhile disregarding the particularities of their personalities. For under Roman rule freedom becomes substantial, objective, that is, becomes the predicate of the universal, which is the State, though with a complete deprivation of simply individual freedom; and this crushing oppression, appalling as it is, can be viewed after the fact to be the necessary discipline that prepared humanity to receive the ultimate reconciliation of the one and the many, the universal and the particular, the infinite and the finite, within Christianity. The Incarnation of the Christ is the ultimate purpose towards which the world was being pulled in this oppressive discipline, and now, though still in an exterior form, the agony of the fundamental opposition enters consciousness; the power of the State becomes the universal substance of men and women’s lives, of which they are mere accidents, all insignificant, mere ciphers.

‘Death has no Terror’ from ‘The Trojan Woman’ (excerpt)

by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC — 65 AD)

Is it the truth that souls live on

beyond the buried flesh?

Or just a myth to drug weak hearts

with hope for something else?

When fingers of the one we love

ease our eyes shut forever,

when our last day blots out the light

of days that lay ahead,

and the grim urn has sealed away

the ash that was our self,

can we not give our being up

in the grave’s gift of death?

Are we, poor things, condemned to live

through more existence yet?

Or is death something absolute,

no fraction of us left

when our soul, like a burst of air

commingling overhead

with vaporous and fleeting clouds,

flees with our last gasped breath

and the cremation torches’ tongues

have licked our naked flesh?

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, ‘The Death of Seneca’, 1870

All that remains is the internalizing of this opposition into consciousness of the self as a negation of itself, divided, sinful, set over against the true and the good in an infinite opposition; and this development is accomplished in the Jewish people, which thereby becomes world-historical. Now that the opposition has become infinite, the conditions are now right for the intervention whereby the identity of God and of man and woman shall be manifested to human self-consciousness, that is to say, shall be rendered explicit, in and for itself; for before the opposition had reached this intense and gruelling pitch these terms had not even been posited in their truth, God and man or woman, finite and infinite, good and evil, and so on, and now the positing of these terms in their infinite opposition has occurred in a historical process, and now that they are posited, the time is fulfilled, and the infinite reconciliation of the infinite opposition is manifested to self-consciousness; that is to say, God sends his Son.

‘Jesus Hasting to Suffer’

By William Cowper (1731–1800)

The Saviour, what a noble flame

Was kindled in his breast,

When hasting to Jerusalem,

He march’d before the rest.

Good will to men, and zeal for God,

His every thought engross;

He longs to be baptized with blood,

He pants to reach the cross!

With all His suffering full in view,

And woes to us unknown,

Forth to the task His spirit flew,

’Twas love that urged Him on.

Lord, we return Thee what we can:

Our hearts shall sound abroad,

Salvation to the dying Man,

And to the rising God!

And while Thy bleeding glories here

Engage our wondering eyes,

We learn our lighter cross to bear,

And hasten to the skies.

‘Arithmosophic Cross’, 1952, Salvador Dali

To be continued …




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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