The Cunning of Reason — Part Three

‘Scholium, there are trist sigheds to everysing but ichs on the freed brings euchs to the feared. Qued? Mother of us all! O, dear me, look at that now! I don’t know is it your spictre or my omination but I’m glad you dimentioned it! My Lourde! My Lourde! If that aint just the beatenest lay I ever see! And a superbbosition! Quoint a quincidence! O.K.


- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’

This passage is taken from the ‘Night Lessons’ episode, wherein a variety of topics are covered, including grammar, letter writing, geometry, and history. ‘Your spictre’, that is, your spectre, an apparition, a phantom, a spook, a shade, in particular one that is of a frightening nature or appearance, or ‘my omination’, that is, my action of omening, or presaging, or portending; this disjunction puts us in mind of W. B. Yeats, (1865–1939), who, in ‘AVisiondiscusses the indecision, inconclusiveness, the hesitancy in the resolving of conflicting notions, that may be detected in much contemporary thought: ‘I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict — Spectre and Emanation — and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation’; and this statement of Yeats in turn puts us in mind of this verse from William Blake, (1757–1827):

My spectre around me night and day

Like a wild beast guards my way;

My emanation far within

Weeps incessantly for my sin.

A fathomless and boundless deep,

There we wander, there we weep;

On the hungry craving wind

My Spectre follows thee behind


Spectre and Emanation are for Blake two elements of the psyche. As Blake himself explained: ‘The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man, and when separated from Imagination and closing itself as in steel in a Ratio of Things of Memory, It thence frames Laws and Moralities’. One might think of it as a kind of safeguard of reason that the self employs as it endeavours to construe all things in terms of fixed and enduring fundamentals; and yet spectres haunt; the Spectre is the haunting persona of the human that has lapsed into the world of time and of space; the Spectre haunts through exerting its baneful influence upon a person’s anxieties, apprehensions, misgivings, self-doubts, animosities, resentments, and his or her other murkier passions; and furthermore the Spectre is a presence that operates to drag a person further and further into a fallen world; it is so appropriate to evoke the Spectre in a novel about falling, ‘Finnegans Wake’: ‘First we feel. Then we fall’. The Spectre is a mere fragment of a person, perhaps foreshadowing the Jungian shadow, the dark side of oneself, except the function of the shadow is to hide away the undesirable aspects of one’s personality, whereas the Spectre rationalizes them away. One must confront the Spectre, no small feat, to acquire mastery over it and to re-incorporate it anew into a larger conscious unity; and to the extent that a person does attain mastery over their own Spectre they thereby gain release from the restraints and shackles of a world that is in a fallen state.

‘Los’s Spectre torments him at his smithy’, from ‘Jerusalem’, 1821, William Blake

One’s Emanations, however, the female aspects of one’s being, offer the possibility for a striving towards a kind of divinity by means of celestial intertwining emissions of graceful beauty; for in one’s restored state a human is ultimately of both male and feminine attributes together in a harmonizing synthesis. The female aspect, the Emanation, grants the capacity for establishing sympathetic relations, the male aspect grants the capacity of a creative will; together forming a dependent while mutually reinforcing relation within a fully integrated being. But there are many Emanations within a Blakean universe; they range from the angelic to the demoniac; and they can either assist or impede the freedom of the individual. And the divine Emanation, Jerusalem, represents the freedom of authentic love, that which is gracious, merciful, uniting, and emancipating. Emanations can, however, also become detached from their complement, which produces the experience of being in conflict with one’s surroundings; duped, betrayed, beguiled, or impaired by them relative to one’s actions; and this happens as a consequence of the Emanation providing the medium through which one’s surroundings are related to the very purposes of exercising one’s creative will.

‘Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion’, 1820, William Blake

And as Blake also asserted:

‘Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence’.

And Yeats, under the influence of Blake, who saw a world of conflict and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation, bequeathed to us an imposing proclamation concerning the contrary forces at work in history, and concerning the conflict between the modern world and the ancient world:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

‘Enigma’, Gustave Doré, from ‘Souvenirs’, 1870 after France’s defeat by Prussia

The plight of the modern world, (1921 as it happens), things falling apart, anarchy let loose, and so on, and from such ominous conditions, it is speculated, a grotesque Second Coming is about to transpire, not that of our Lord that we initially acknowledged, but that of a new messiah, a rough beast, a slouching sphinx stirring itself to life in the desert and then directing its ponderous bulk towards Bethlehem. The world approaches a revelation, the poet says; the Second Coming is imminent, and immediately in the wake of this the poet is disturbed by ‘a vast image of the ’; this is the collective spirit of humankind; the sphinx’s twenty centuries of stony sleep have been rendered a tormented dream through the oscillations of a rocking cradle.

Yeats felt the need to order his experience within a structured belief system; thereby articulating a philosophy of history, albeit a somewhat mystical one. His theory centres around two conical spirals that he designates as gyres, one inside the other, so that the widest part of one of the spirals rings around the narrowest part of the other spiral, and vice versa. He believed that this image encapsulated the contrary motions inherent within the historical process, and he divided each gyre into specific regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods; which in addition could also represent the psychological phases of an individual’s development. ‘The Second Coming’ was intended to describe the current historical moment that Yeats was living through in terms of these gyres; as he believed that the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic revelation, as history reached the end of the outer gyre and began moving along the inner gyre. Yeats’ explains:

‘The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction … The revelation [that] approaches will … take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre …’

‘The Starry Night’, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The gyres stand for the alternation between two historical cycles; on of which is caused by order and growth; the other by chaos and decay. They are the forces at work in the cosmos; shaping the cyclic fate of the world. And now, or at least at the time of the poem, the world’s trajectory along the gyre of science, democracy, and heterogeneity is now coming apart, like the frantically widening flight-path of the falcon that has lost contact with the falconer; the next age will take its character not from the gyre of science, democracy, and speed, but from the contrary inner gyre which opposes mysticism, primal power, and slowness to the science and democracy of the outer gyre. The rough beast lumbering towards Bethlehem is the symbol of this new age; the poet’s vision of the rising sphinx is a vision of the character of the new world. All of which presents us with an experience of great aesthetic work but not only has failed as prophecy but lacks any proper philosophical underpinning; if only he had read Hegel, to draw upon his history of philosophy for his own visionary account of the contrary forces at work in history; beneath the mysticism of Blake and Yeats acute philosophical intuition is at work that is in need of rigorous philosophical formulation.

To continue where I left off at the end of part two, according to Hegel’s philosophy of history, the third constitutive element of world history, after the Idea of Spirit, (the goal of history, Spirit as freedom, covered in part one), and the means of actualization, (the passions of humankind, covered in part two), is the State as the final and perfect embodiment of Spirit. The State, as understood by Hegel, is the concrete unity of universal, objective freedom and particular, subjective passion; and therefore the state synthesizes at one and the same time freedom and passion, the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective. In the State universal freedom becomes no longer abstract, but given substance, concrete realization; for whereas the freedom of subjective passion is mere arbitrariness and caprice, the actualized freedom of universal history is organized liberty; that is to say, freedom structured by a State.

In the final analysis, the entities which are under consideration in Hegel’s philosophy of history are ,or cultural totalities; it is the State rather than the individual embodies universal freedom; for the State does not exist for its subjects, the State exists for its own sake; it is its own end and the subjects of a State are the means towards its end. It is important not to confuse Hegel’s definition of the State with an individual bureaucratic political organization; such a political organization, British Monarchism, French Constitutionalism, American democracy, and so on, they might well express the will of the State, but the two are not identical; for the State designates a cultural complex which integrates the art, religion, politics, and technology of a people into a unified self-consciousness.

It is quite apparent that the Third Reich of Hitler, according to the Hegelian philosophy, must be understood as an abhorrent and grotesque distortion of the true meaning of a State. Nazism constituted a pseudo-state, a state without a cultural content; wheras the State, for Hegel, becomes the foundation for any organization, political or otherwise; the State is responsible for all cultural activities. The implication of this is the subordination of personal morality, personal religion, and political self-determination to a corporate or group substance; and this group substance or State, insofar as it provides the foundation for all of humankind’s temporal activities, is understood as an expression of God’s (or the Absolute’s, Hegels’ God is no personal God) purpose for the world. The State is thus to be defined as the divine or Absolute Idea as it exists on earth, and there is no room for personal religion or personal morality in such a system; the individual as individual stands outside morality, and stands outside history itself. Only as a moment in the march of universal freedom, embodied in the State, does the individual become significant; the State or the culture, rather than the individual, is the bearer of history.

As we shall see in the subsequent parts, in formulating his philosophy of history Hegel traces the development of the consciousness of freedom as it moves from Eastern to Western civilisation……

A digression to end with, returning to Joyce’s ‘Night Lesson’::

Never wanting to get too technical I have eschewed Hegel’s use of the word , usually rendered as , whereby when contraries interact what is thereby transcended or overcome is also preserved; and so in the history of philosophy important philosophical ideas of the past are not forsaken or abandoned but rather preserved and changed as philosophy develops. Not to be confused with , the giving to instinctual desires and impulses a more elevated character, the kind of thing Blake and Yeats and poets in general do so well. Now, as it happens, around the age of 5 Joyce was attacked by a dog, which led to a lifelong cynophobia. Mayhap that underlies the sublimation of Canine Venus……

‘Venus with an Organist and a Dog’, Titian, c. 1550

…. into Aulidic Aphrodite.

‘Pallas Athene, Hera, Aphrodite’, c. 1912, Franz von Stuck.

Just a thought.

Omnes collidimus!

To be continued …

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. scholium = in certain mathematical works (e.g. Newton’s ‘Principia’), a note added by the author illustrating or further developing some point treated in the text; scholium (Latin), interpretation.

2. trist = confident, sure, trusty; and sad, sorrowful, and three.

3. sigheds = sides

4. ichs = ich= each (obsolete); and ich (German), I.

5. freed = three; and x to the third (power of three).

6, euchs = euch, obsolete form of euche (Greek), prayer; and Euch (German), to you.

7. feared = four; and vier (German), four ; and vierde (Dutch), fourth.

8. Qued = evil, wicked, bad; and Qu[od] e[rat] d[emonstrandum], which was to be proved (appears after theorems in Euclid); and what?

9. spictre = spectre, an apparition, phantom, or ghost, esp. one of a terrifying nature or aspect

10. omination = the action of omening or presaging; and Yeats in ‘AVisiondiscusses ambivalence in modern thinking: ‘I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict — Spectre and Emanation — and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation.’

11. dimentioned = dimensioned; and mentioned.

12. lourde = obsolete form of

13. beatenest = best; and Mark Twain, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ : ‘My George! It’s the beatenest thing I ever struck’; and A…B…C.

14. lay = the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (especially said of country); and disposition or arrangement with respect to something.

15. superbbosition = superposition, the placing of one thing above or upon another; and (Geometry), the action of ideally transferring one figure into the position occupied by another, especially so as to show that they coincide.

16. Quoint = quoi (Latin), to whom?; and what a coincidence (quincidence).

17. O[mnes] K[alendae] (Latin), all Calends, every first of the month; and omnes collidimus (Latin), we all clash together, we all collide.

18. canine = of, belonging to, or characteristic of, a dog; having the nature or qualities of a dog; Canis (Latin), ‘The Dog’, worst throw with dice (1 on a single die, 2 on a pair, etc.).

19. Venus = Mythology, the ancient Roman goddess of beauty and love (especially sensual love), or the corresponding Greek goddess Aphrodite; and Venus (Latin), ‘The Beauty’, highest or best throw with dice (three sixes).

20. sublimated = sublimate, to transmute into something higher, nobler, more sublime or refined.

21. Aulidic = Aulidike (Greek), belonging to Aulis (small port in Beotia from which the Greek fleet sailed to Troy).

22. Aphrodite = (Greek), goddess of sensual love, identified with Venus.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
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.