“The religiousness and the ethics of a limited life — of a shepherd or a peasant — in its concentrated inwardness and its limitation to a few very simple circumstances … has infinite value, and the same value as the religiousness and ethics of a cultivated cognition and an existence rich in the extent of its relations and actions. This inward center … remains untouched by, and is removed from, the loud noise of world history.” — Hegel
It is astounding how profoundly misread Hegel has been1 — especially by Marx and his followers.
However, there is no denying that Hegel brought much of that on himself. With the possible exception of Kant, no writer in the history of philosophy was so horrid at the art of writing, and intentionally so. Aristotle was meticulous, no doubt, but he was not boring, nor was he obscure. Hegel was both boring and obscure in his style, which is in complete contrast to the subject matter he was discussing!
Walter Kaufmann commented on the above quotation: “While these passages are of crucial significance for any proper estimation of Hegel’s philosophy of history, it is plain that Hegel himself failed to stress this sufficiently.”2
Obscurity in style leads to a failure of your message coming across the way you intend.
That said, what he DID have to say prefigured some of the most profoundly interesting (and counter-intuitive!) findings of science, notably: the recursive nature of… nature.
If there was only one word that I could choose to describe Hegel’s philosophy, it would be the Philosophy of Recursion. Few concepts are more modern (and, appropriately, ancient) than that of recursive processes. When he speaks of “progress”, he most certainly does not mean linear progress! His favored image is the circle for good reason. He would have loved fractals!
To be fair to his obscure writing style, Zen writers (who are no less recursive3) are infamously obscure on purpose. And to be even more fair, recursion is a giant pain in the ass to wrap your mind around, precisely because it is circular! How does one present such a topic in a linear format like a written book? No wonder then that a standard answer to a question like, “What is the nature of the Buddha?”, is a slap upside the head or, “the Cyprus in the garden”4.
The passage above is one of those rare gems that can be read and largely understood without too much parsing. And it is making an interesting recursive point: all of the lessons of world history can be gleaned from an honest reflection upon a single life. It’s hard to get more Zen than that.
Now go lift something heavy,
- see Hegel: The Essential Writings, edited by Frederick Weiss. ↩
- The particular translation of Hegel’s quote at the top of the page is from Kaufmann’s Neitzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, in which Kaufmann’s comment can also be found. ↩
- Zen is very much a blend of early Taoist metaphysics, Buddhist organization, and Confucian work ethic and practicality. Because of this, it is not surprising that the playful, odd, and (seemingly) circular styles of exposition found in early Taoist work found a permanent voice in Zen Koans and stories. Had Hegel been aware of these, I’m convinced he would have found them interesting. Where Zen beats Hegel in exposition is in the positive, playful approach taken. Hegel’s writing was obscure and dour. Zen writing is obscure and fun. You can present similar information in many ways. Your choice of method says much about your personality. ↩
- see Takuan Soto’s The Unfettered Mind. ↩