The Cunning of Reason — Part Two

David Proud
11 min readAug 29, 2020

‘… look look all round the stool, walk everywhere for a jool, to break fyre to all the rancers, to collect all and bits of brown, the rathure’s evelopment in spirits of time in all fathom of space and slooping around in a bawneen and bath slippers and go away to Oldpatrick and see a doctor Walker’.

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

Making several appearances throughout ‘Finnegans Wake’ is Fionn mac Cumhaill (died circa 284); often transcribed into English as Finn MacCool, a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, appearing as well in the mythologies of Scotland and of the Isle of Man; fabled warrior leader and tribal hero of the Irish Fianna, a band of warriors, the heroic, most audacious, most benevolent of the warriors who served under King Cormac. In the folklore of Ireland, Finn and his faction attained mythological pre-eminence; they possessed superhuman capabilities granting them victory in warfare, and contact with the Celtic underworld. The tales of Finn and the Fianna form the Fenian Cycle of prose and poetry, a good deal of which is narrated in the voice of Finn’s son, the poet Ossian.

‘Ossian playing his harp’, François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1801

Finn was also the name of a master builder, responsible, at the request of Lorcán Ua Tuathailm (Saint Laurence O’Toole), (1128–1180), Archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland, for the construction of the cathedral of Lund in Sweden; wherein the crypt is identifiable by its many and densely constructed pillars; every one diverse in style and the best known of which features the statue of a man in an embrace with it. According to local legend this is Finn the Giant, builder of the cathedral, and another column has a similar sculpture of a woman, possibly the wife of Finn, if the legend is to be believed.

Finn in the crypt of the cathedral in Lund

Given that he had at one time held the Salmon of Wisdom, Finn had merely to suck his thumb to receive enlightenment. The Fenian Cycle also tells of tests accomplished by Fingal and the Fianna; and of other famous Fianna members, including, Ossian’s son Oscar, Fingal’s grandson, whose lover Malvina takes cares of Fingal in his old age after the death of Oscar. Such characters reappear in an epic poem by James Macpherson, (1736–1796), who claimed that he had discovered an epic on the subject of Fingal, related to Finn McCool, written by Ossian, and which he published as ‘Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language’. The name Fingal (Fionnghall) means ‘white stranger’, the name was possibly rendered as Fingal through a derivation of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn. The authenticity of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd-century bard was questioned at once; in all likelihood Macpherson had discovered fragments of poems and stories, and then intertwined them into a romance of his own composition; he never produced the originals that he alleged existed.

‘Malvina, Dying in the Arms of Fingal’, Ary Scheffer (1795–1858)

In ‘Finnegans Wake’ there are several explicit allusions to Finn MacCool and to variations on the name; besides Fingal there is Huckleberry Finn, Finn’s Hotel, Tim Finnegan, all of them to assure that the reader is continuously mindful of Finn; and as with most of the patriarchal types depicted in the text representations of Finn MacCool again and again call to mind the figure of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, characterising both the imposing and the comedic elements within him; for both Finn and H. C. E. express a certain amount of power that can quite overawe and intimidate those around them; while at the same time, through their bearing and through their actions, they in addition exhibit a level of coarse and undignified foolishness that perpetually undermines whatever authority they are endeavouring to establish.

Finn is thus, as an archetypal figure, an incarnation of the novel’s central figure, H. C. E.; Joyce clearly intended for the title to elicit both the Irish and the Nordic origins of the Earwicker character; the name Finn at once alludes to Scandinavian ancestry and to the Irish giant who, at the beginning of the novel, lies sleeping beneath the Dublin landscape, with his head forming the Ben of Howth and his feet protruding as two hills near Phoenix Park, while Irish history is running through his mind. Finn again awakes through Earwicker’s mock heroic transformation; for as Joyce explained in a letter: ‘the title of [‘Finnegans Wake’] signifies at once the wake and the awakening of Finn, that is, of our legendary Celto-Nordic hero’. The identification of Finn MacCool with the sleeping giant below Dublin is Joyce’s own concoction, but according to the most popular account of Finn’s death, he is not dead at all, on the contrary, he is sleeping in a cave, surrounded by the Fianna; and one day he will awake and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need.

The heroic archetype recurs throughout history; as I explained at the end of part one of this series on Hegel’s philosophy of history (referred to again in the above quote from the Wake, (‘evelopment in spirits of time in all fathom of space’) Spirit uses the passions of people to achieve its final self-consciousness, setting the passions to work for itself; an integration of human passions with the aim of Spirit that is accomplished through the cunning of Reason. The cunning of Reason that weaves together all of the expressions of passion and makes them contribute to the final goal; such passions that are put to work by the cunning of Reason arising from the wills of particular individuals, playing their diversified roles, carrying out their variegated functions; particular individuals that are classified by Hegel into four distinct, yet interrelated categories; the citizen, the person, the hero, and the victim.

The citizen is subject to what Hegel refers to as customary morality; the determining factor of action for the citizen is the will of society, the will of the nation state, or the will of a religious institution; the citizen has yet to appreciate and grasp his or her subjective existence, and consequently has no consciousness of freedom, neither of personal freedom, nor of universal freedom.

- social life is fill’d

With doubts and vain aspiring; solitude,

When the imagination is dethroned,

Is turned to weariness.

- Letitia Elizabeth Landon, (1802–1832).

‘Evening on Karl Johan Street’, 1892, Edvard Munch

The person is the individual who can transcend the morality of his or particular society and act on the basis of a morality grounded in subjectivity; for it is in the person that subjective freedom puts in its appearance. The morality of the person is not subordinate but is rather determined by a personal consciousness of freedom; the person exhibits an implicit awareness of the Idea as Spirit, and thus drives beyond the static customary morality of the citizen. For Hegel Socrates is an example par excellence of the person who has been liberated from the confining morality of the citizen; for although he continued to perform his duties as a citizen, it was not the actual State and its religion, but the world of Thought that was his true home.

I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue. And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

- William Wordsworth, (1770–1850).

‘The Death Of Socrates’, 1805, Jean-Jacques-Augustin-Raymond Aubert

It is only when we come to the hero, however, that we find the world-historical individual, the historically decisive actor; who, like all all other persons, is motivated by private gain and interest, and yet his or her actions express at the same time an attunement with the will of the World Spirit. The own particular of the hero involves at the same time the larger issues of world history; the heroes of world history are practical and political people. Neither philosophers nor artists, they have no theoretical understanding of the Idea which they are unfolding; but they do have insight into what is timely and what is needed, as well as the courage to act decisively on the basis of their convictions. They know what their age demands, and they commit themselves to its challenge. Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon were such people, responding to the requirements of their times and shaping the history of the world through their decisive action. Having seen Napoleon ride through the streets of Jena, Hegel retired to his study and wrote:

‘I saw the Emperor — this world-soul — riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it’.

Napoleon was an instrument used by the cunning of Reason, in the actualization of self-consciousness of freedom. To become heroes or world-historical individuals these men had to sacrifice personal happiness. ‘If we go on to cast a look at the fate of these World-Historical persons, whose vocation it was to be agents of the World-Spirit — we shall find it to have been no happy one. They attained no calm enjoyment ; their whole life was labour and trouble; their whole nature was naught else but their master-passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel. They die early, like Alexander; they are murdered, like Caesar; transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon’.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,

See how these names are fêted in the waving grass

And by the streamers of the white cloud

And whispers of the wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

- Stephen Spender, (1909–1995).

‘The Exile and the Rock Limpet’, 1842, Joseph Mallord William Turner

The victim comprises the fourth category; such a one moves solely in the realm of private desires and inclinations; the victim has no interest in and offers no contribution to the customary morality of the citizen, nor to the subjective morality of the person, nor to the march of universal freedom exhibited by the hero; the victim is abandoned to his or her private situation; his or her goal is private success and happiness. Hegel has so very few good words to say about this type of individual; we can be certain how he would view the lamentable times we now live in; with its culture of victimhood, its identity politics, its dehumanizing of opposing voices, encapsulated in Hillary Clinton’s, (1947 — ), summation of Donald Trump, (1946 — ), supporters as ‘the basket of deplorables … they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it…’; (she forgot ableism and transphobia); or the accusations of microaggressions, and the need for safe spaces to be sheltered from the distress of encountering a dissenting opinion; then there is slut-shaming, fat-shaming, body-shaming; and so it goes on.

It is quite obvious that the victim cannot become a historically decisive figure; in a sense history moves on without the victim; and yet in another sense the victim remains a part of the historical pattern insofar as the cunning of Reason has to use all of the material which passion provides; unaware of it as they are, the cunning of Reason makes use of those claiming victim status. But in the final analysis history makes use of the hero and victim alike; for there is a sense in which both the hero and the victim are both victims; the victim is a victim of the hero and the age; and the hero is a victim of the World-Spirit. In all of this we detect the emergence of the implicatory principle of Hegel’s philosophy of history; that is to say, the individual as individual is unimportant.

‘The Fearful’,

by Sylvia Plath, (1932–1963)

This man makes a pseudonym

And crawls behind it like a worm.

This woman on the telephone

Says she is a man, not a woman.

The mask increases, eats the worm,

Stripes for mouth and eyes and nose,

The voice of the woman hollows -

More and more like a dead one,

Worms in the glottal stops.

She hates

The thought of a baby -

Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty -

She would rather be dead than fat,

Dead and perfect, like Nefertit,

Hearing the fierce mask magnify

The silver limbo of each eye

Where the child can never swim,

Where there is only him and him.

‘Grave of a suicide victim’, circa 1900, Wilhelm Kotarbiński

‘Grave of a suicide victim’, circa 1900, Wilhelm KotarbińskiSøren Aabye Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), one of the chief critics of Hegel, was later to argue that the existential significance of the individual is hereby sacrificed to the universal and the general; and Hegel certainly did provide us with a candid admission of this disregard for individuality when he wrote: ‘The History of the World might, on principle, entirely ignore the circle within which morality and the so much talked of distinction between the moral and the politic lies — not only in abstaining from judgements, for the principles involved, and the necessary reference of the deeds in question to those principles, are a sufficient judgement of them — but in leaving Individuals quite out of view and unmentioned’.

The third constitutive element of world history, after the Idea of Spirit, and the means of actualization, is the State.

To be continued ……

1.Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

2. stool = a wooden seat (for one person) without arms or a back ; and school.

3. jool — (Dutch), fun.

4. fyre = fire (obsolete),

5. rancers = rancer, a worker who enlarges or shapes holes.

6. bits of brown = bit of brown (slang), homosexuality.

7. slooping = sloop, a small, one-masted, fore-and-aft rigged vessel, differing from a cutter in having a jib-stay and standing bowsprit; and snoop, to look or pry in a sneaky or meddlesome way.

8. bawneen = In Ireland, a sleeved waistcoat made from undyed flannel worn by farm-labourers.

10. Oldpatrick = Sen Patrick (literally ‘Old Patrick’), mysterious near-contemporary of Saint Patrick, possibly a composite of Saint Patrick and Saint Palladius.



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.