Posts Tagged ‘Hegel’

There’s a powerful passage in Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History where he talks about the appalling experience of looking at the past: the display of passions and the consequences of their violence, the rule of Unreason, the evil, vice and ruin that has afflicted every society humans have ever tried to build – and the temptation to find a way in which this won’t affect us so much:

We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.”

Hegel doesn’t endorse such an attitude – but to some extent simply offers an alternative route to the same goal, explaining and justifying all the miseries of history as the working through of a necessary process. I’ve found myself thinking of this passage twice in the last couple of days, firstly in relation to Uwe Walter’s observations, in his discussion of the Mytilene Debate and how this might offer a way back from Brexit, about the excitement experienced (if only momentarily) by historians at the spectacle of a truly momentous event, a single decisive decision rather than the usual compromise, muddling through and can-kicking. Then this morning there was a striking phrase in David Graeber’s commentary on the current travails of the Labour Party and the democratising aims of Momentum: “I cannot help find it a fascinating historical experiment.” In both cases these are honest reactions, not in the least intended to belittle the actual experience of being caught up in these events or their possible consequences – but still, I can’t help feeling like one of the people on the sinking ship, as the crew squabble amongst themselves about who gets to wear the big hat and whether the charts can be trusted, while being coolly observed from the shore…

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