Dark times: How Georg Hegel predicted today’s turmoil

A 1831 painting of Georg Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, titled "The Philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

These are foreboding times. At a moment when queerphobia, white supremacy and religious zeal appear in the forms of mass violence and repressive government regimes, it is easy to feel swept away in the morass.

Moreover, the pressure of a time limit is imposed when we recall that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is still at two minutes to midnight, with the minute hand still ticking (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “2019 Doomsday Clock Announcement,” 01.24.2019.) That is, an international group of scientists has calculated how close humankind is to destruction (midnight), measuring in increments of natural disasters, government aggression and carbon emission. With 1440 minutes in a day, two minutes to midnight is too close for existential comfort. When confronted with the haunting reality of humanity’s precarious position, it is tempting to renounce hope, and to either deny facticity or throw our hands up in nihilistic resignation. In contrast to what our feelings of safety in the Vassar Bubble may lead us to believe, there is no clear future. Despite our thoughts, prayers, ramblings of wokeness and gripes with the human psyche, there is no clear solution.

A word of counsel, however, may be found in the writings of nineteenth century Prussian philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The idealist thinker ascribed the world’s inner workings to the transcendental force of Spirit. This is detailed in his “Phenomenology of Spirit,” a story following the trajectory of a vague protagonist forming itself in the world produced therefrom (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,” 02.13.1997). Just as the “Phenomenology of Spirit” describes the development of the individual, it also prescribes the fate of the world as well as the consequences of its development.

Hegel was a dialectician, meaning that he explained the development of any action as the meeting of a thesis and antithesis to form a synthesis, which then becomes the new status quo. In other words, whenever there is change, the present must be met by its opposite to make the change happen. As this applies to culture, he speaks of the “pure insight” that individuals caught up in the world may have; a revelation about something which ought to change. Whether this revelation is for the better (say, the discovery of the medicinal properties of penicillin) or for the worse (the formation of eugenicist race theory), it is described as an “infection,” a “disease,” which takes over every part of society’s being. Later juxtaposing absolute freedom against terror in culture, Hegel further explains that just as the status quo is met by a dramatic shift in thought or action, i.e., by an ideological revolution or an extremist act of violence, “What has emerged is a new shape, that of the moral spirit [of the people]” (Hegel, “Phenomenology of Spirit,” 1807)

When the world turns against us, Hegel’s account can be daunting. It is of little comfort to explain the persecutions against particular sexualities, ethnicities, religions or genders as merely being within the parameters of the spirit of the time. However, Hegel and like-minded thinkers can also demonstrate that brighter times lay ahead, so long as we decide to be harbingers of positive change.

The bleeding-heart liberal in me has been as crestfallen as every other bleeding-heart liberal that witnessed the highest point in recent American democracy being followed by the present administration. The queer in me is perpetually heartbroken to hear of atrocities like the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting or the retroactive legislation in Brunei making gay sex punishable by death (The Guardian, “Brunei introduces death by stoning as punishment for gay sex,” 03.28.2019).

However, when already imperfect times are met by the forces of bigotry and ignorance, Hegel reminds us that absolute freedom and the liberties carried with it can be sought out as a means of subverting and negating the “terror of death.” By choosing to act, we can right the ship, though it will not be easy. Nothing worth achieving comes easy, and Hegel recognizes this in stipulating that “The sole work and deed of [achieving] universal freedom is thus death.” As expected, the journey to changing a faulty world is a pilgrimage fraught with obstacles, some more dangerous than others. Activists risk being jailed and killed, and those who speak out against a system are similarly at peril of being blackballed.

The question is whether we are up to the task of being the change we seek. To fully ground ourselves, an important step we can take is devoting attention to goings-on within the Vassar Bubble. We already see positive movement in the forms of student activism that focuses both on campus-specific phenomena and issues in the world at large. Causes such as the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group ought to be applauded for their efforts to expand Vassar’s curriculum to be more inclusive (The Miscellany News, “VC calls for Asian American Dept,” 02.21.2018). Campus-based chapters of national and international groups deserve the same respect.

It is tempting to rest on our haunches and complain about microaggressions from the uncontrollable subconsciousness, or quarrel over how many commas our student newspaper uses. But student groups such as the Black Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as many other alliances, orgs and communities, use pre-existing passions honed by a liberal arts education and take to the streets to reify their goals.

Vassar students have demonstrated an eye for progressive sentiment, judging by our recent VSA executive election results. Perhaps the Vassar student populace is more than merely “woke,” though it certainly has much to do. Both within the Vassar Bubble and out in the open world, we must be the change that we seek, and be sure to remember that despite the dire situations we face, our passion and labor will lead to a better future.

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