As many are aware, the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is one of the most notoriously difficult philosophers to read or begin to understand in the history of Western thought. Yet even despite this nuisance, many still attempt to decipher his thought because of its encyclopedic scope and rousing luminosity. As someone who wanted to understand more of Hegel’s work, I decided to begin my ‘Hegelian’ journey by reading some of his earlier theological works at the behest of others. This method proved quite helpful, especially for a student of theology such as me. Reading these earlier works, in particular The Spirit of Christianity and The Positivity of Christian Religion, aided me by placing Hegel’s more famous later works in a context that I could both understand and a context that was, indeed, Hegel’s own. I chose to focus on The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate here because of its scope and clarity. It functions as an apt bridge or synthesis between the various branches of Hegel’s early thought. At least, I thought so.
Though I would encourage all to give a shot at reading Hegel, this just isn’t necessary for many (or most) of us. And since I took the plunge and annotated the works thoroughly, I thought it may be helpful for any needing assistance with Hegel who happens to stumble upon this article (the world is a large place, but the internet is often remarkably small at times). With that being said, I hope you find this summary helpful, accessible, and stimulating as you begin or continue your own ‘Hegelian’ journey.
Hegel’s The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate (1798): Summary & Guide
The Spirit of Christianity (1798) reflects a unique moment in the life of Hegel and the German Idealism project as a whole. The work remained unpublished until after Hegel’s death, entailing that it was likely an early attempt to synthesize his thought, paving the way for his great system that would appear later. The young Hegel, who was only 28 years old when penning this, was chiefly concerned with issues related to theology, particularly how to reconcile his love for Greek philosophy and his inheritance from Immanuel Kant’s critical idealism with Christian theology as he understood it. Richard Kroner captures this well:
“The soul of Greek religion is beauty; the reason of Kantian philosophy is morality. Hegel concluded that ultimate truth was moral beauty, and this truth he discovered in the Gospel. The moral principle of the Gospel is charity, or love, and love is the beauty of the heart, a spiritual beauty which combines the Greek Soul and Kant’s Moral Reason. This is the synthesis in The Spirit of Christianity” (9).
This becomes what Kroner calls Hegel’s “Pantheism of Love”, which Hegel contrasts with the “ugliness” of the Jewish religion and the formalism of Kantian theism (10). Both lack beauty, and more importantly, unity. This beauty and unity are found in Hegel’s reading of Christ’s gospel, which overcomes the excesses and limitations of both Jewish religion and Kantian moralism.
§ i. The Spirit of Judaism
In section one, Hegel turns to the “Spirit of Judaism”, which becomes his chief foil along with Kantianism throughout the work. He contrasts the “spirit” of Abraham, Noah, and other biblical characters with Christ, noting the fragmentation and “ugliness” of the former (182). The Jewish spirit is one of conflict and submission, disunified from nature and others. Their “thought-produced ideal” was set over and against all else, holy yet separate, providing them with a law to subject and restrain themselves, and as a result, to subject and restrain others (183).
Abraham, whose life is chiefly characterized by severance, becomes the Jewish archetype for Hegel. He leaves tribe and family, exhibiting a spirit of “self-maintenance in strict opposition to everything”, particularly in relation to foreigners (186). Hegel contrasts this with the national gods of the Greeks, who allowed for the existence of other deities (188). Prefiguring Nietzsche’s “slave morality”, Hegel argues that the Israelites craved a master since they were unable to see the beauty or deity in humanity or nature for “the holy was always outside them, unseen and unfelt” (193). In essence, they lacked unity, beauty, and freedom, being too materially minded with their concerns of purity, land, and temple.
Although the Jewish religious spirit evolved, it remains fundamentally flawed for Hegel. Hegel concludes the section by noting that Judaism is a “great tragedy” (205). Though unlike Greek tragedy, the tragedy of Judaism “can arouse horror alone” (205). Hegel’s anti-Semitism is its most lucid here.
§ ii. The Moral Teaching of Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount Contrasted with the Mosaic Law and Kant’s Ethics
Hegel now turns to the moral teaching of Jesus, contrasting the Sermon on the Mount with Kantian and Judaic ethics. Jesus appeared in a pregnant moment as Judaism was on the brink of war with Rome (205). He transcended the exclusiveness of Jewish religion, which led to him tragically becoming its victim. His spirit was not grounded in an alien, distant deity but in “the living modification of human nature” (206). He opposed the Jewish religion by humanizing and unifying it. This unification was between the ideal and the real, which he argued no longer had to be held in opposition. He did not elevate temple above nature nor object above subject (208). Instead, he shifts from the objectivity of command or the purity of an object to the “purity or impurity of the heart” (209). He made “undetermined subjectivity, [or] character” a distinct sphere from objective imperatives (209).
Jesus set up this subjectivity against objective moral and civil commands. Civil commands unify opposites “in a concept”, but this concept does not unify opposites in reality (209). Hegel looks to Jesus’ disobedience to civil commands as an example of this. Civil commands attempt to unify opposites between multiple beings, while “purely moral laws fix limits to opposition in one living being” (210). Hegel here is disagreeing with both the Judaic understanding of civil law and the Kantian understanding of moral law (i.e., the Categorical Imperative). The former is commanded from without; the latter is commanded (as duty) from within. Christ’s way (i.e., Love) transcends both of these (213).
Looking to the Sermon on the Mount, he connects this concept of Love with πλήρωμα—the “fulfillment” or “fullness” of Law (214). Christ’s righteousness unites one’s subjective inclination and the objective command. These individuals act as the Law “may command” (i.e., as the Law intends) (214). He calls this a synthesis because it destroys the law’s universality as a concept and the subject’s particularity. In the Kantian schema there remains a cleavage—“a unity in thought only” (215). Love, on the other hand, is a synthesis—an ontological “is” that overcomes this cleavage. In Love “the concept is displaced by life”, and this Love/Life moves beyond the objective—the sphere of rights, property, and laws (215).
§ iii. The Moral Teaching of Jesus (b) Love as the Transcendence of Penal Justice and the Reconciliation of Fate
Moving away from the Sermon on the Mount, Hegel begins to construct his “Pantheism of Love” as Kroner calls it (10). Jesus’ gospel is set over and against the “positive” religion of Judaism. When subjectivity is placed in opposition to the positive, “man confronts himself; his character and his deeds become the man himself (224-225). This leads Hegel to elaborate an early theological version of his dialectic (see below).
- Thesis: Objectivity (Positive Law—subjugation)
- Anti-Thesis: Subjectivity (Negative Law—freedom)
- Synthesis: Love/Life (Sublates and Fulfills Positive & Negative Law)
In this schema, Law is opposed to Love’s form though not its content and vice versa. In this dialectic, Law is taken into Love (sublation), losing its shape in the process (225).
This leads Hegel to discuss the deficiencies of penal law in particular. The content of civil law is punishment, otherwise the law could not be upheld, creating the necessity for penal law (225). Once again, this creates a cleavage between thought and reality, the ideal and the real. Civil law works in the realm of thought, categories, the ideal. It aims at making this real, actual. The punished criminal becomes the necessary universal to one outside the law (226). Unlike Love, it is not able to reform in actuality. It is “alien” to the conscience of the trespasser.
In an attempt to go beyond this impasse, he connects penal justice with the Greek concept of Fate. He writes, “Law and punishment cannot be reconciled, but they can be transcended if Fate can be reconciled” (228). For Hegel, the Greek conception of Fate is restorative. One who is chased by the ghost of his or her enemy becomes enemies with Fate by their own volition. Instead of making the law the enemy, Fate becomes the enemy. Yet unlike the Law, it reveals the “non-being” that occurs as a result of a trespass (231). Punishment from Law is only suffering. On the other hand, in Fate “man recognizes his own life, and his supplication to it is not supplication to a lord but a reversion and an approach to himself” (231). Fate offers reconciliation to Life again, not as something alien but as something lost. He writes, “this sensing of life, a sensing which finds itself again, is love, and in love fate is reconciled” (232).
This leads him to discuss rights. Rights, similar to concepts, are limited and therefore create conceptual clefts—a conflict of rights where “might against might” combat (233). Rights create endless conflict. But if these are unified, entailing the forfeiture of the rights of each party, both the courageous and the passive reach a unity without suffering and opposition (234). The failure of the courageous or the passive to accept Fate leads to an “unhappy consciousness”. One must transcend right to disentangle it “from everything objective” (235). One must lose their life to save it.
Jesus did not teach subjugation to a law or even a virtue nor the “self-coercion of Kantian virtue” (244). Virtues, instead, are “modifications of love” (244). They are dynamic syntheses of Love, “modified in infinite ways” (246). In an insightful passage, Hegel weaves all these ideas together:
“To love God is to feel one’s self in the “all” of life, with no restrictions, in the infinite. In this feeling of harmony there is no universality, since in a harmony the particular is not in discord but in concord, or otherwise there would be no harmony…only through love is the might of objectivity broken, for love upsets its whole sphere…love alone has no limits.” (247).
§ – iv. The Religious Teaching of Jesus
In this section, Hegel moves further to elucidate his understanding of the teachings of Jesus. The religious teaching of Jesus moves beyond Judaic and Kantian understandings of morality to something theo-ontological. The former subjects one to a Law outside oneself while the later subjects one to a Law inside oneself. Hegel unpacks the religious fulfillment of love, a religious or God consciousness of sorts, in the following passage:
“In the moments of happy love there is no room for objectivity; yet every reflection annuls love, restores objectivity again, and with objectivity we are once more on the territory of restrictions. What is religion, then is the πλήρωμα[“fulfillment”] of love; it is reflection and love united, bound together in thought. Love’s intuition seems to fulfill the demand for completeness; but there is a contradiction. Intuition, representative thinking, is something restrictive, something receptive only of something restricted; but here the object intuited [God] would be something infinite. The infinite cannot be carried in this vessel.” (253)
Intuition has its limits, and Love intuited becomes objective over and over again in the intuitive, reflective subject. The intuition of God—the infinite—on the other hand, somehow overcomes this quagmire.
From here Hegel moves into discussions of “pure life” (254). This is not an abstraction and is therefore not limited by the subjective/objective cleft. “Pure life is being” (254). It is a simple unity. One can reflect on the unity of things or on God, but this does not avoid the cleft. One will simply place the whole in opposition to the determinate, emptying one or the other, producing another “bondage” (255). In order to avoid this, as Jesus did, one must,
“appeal only to his [humanity’s] origin, to the source from which every shape of restricted life flows to him; he cannot appeal to the whole, which he now is, as to an absolute. He must call on something higher, on the Father who lives immutable in all mutability” (255).
This “pure life”, “being”, “origin” is the divine in which there must be no opposition. This is true because “only spirit grasps and comprehends spirit” (255). Furthermore, the Logos can be neither universal reason nor an individual person (257). He explains:
“God and Logos becomes distinct because Being must be taken from a double point of view [by reflection]…God and Logos are only different in that God is matter in the form of Logos: the Logos itself is with God; both are one. The multiplicity, the infinity, of the real is the infinite divisibility realized: by the Logos all things are made; the world is not an emanation of the Deity, or otherwise the real would be through and through divine. Yet, as real, it is an emanation, a part of the infinite portioning, though in part, or in the one who partitions ad infinitum, there is life. The single entity, the restricted entity, as something opposed [to life], something dead, is yet a branch of the infinite tree of life. Each part, to which the whole is external, is yet a whole, a life. And this life, once again as something reflected upon, as divided by reflection into the relation of subject and predicate, is life (ζωή) and life understood (Φῶς [light], truth). These finite entities have opposites; the opposite of light is darkness” (258).
Consciousness is Being reflected upon—life reflected upon in light (Φῶς). Jesus Christ came into the world as Φῶς though none recognized him. Nature came into self-consciousness [via Jesus] but “did not enter the consciousness of the world” (258). Moving into trinitarian language, the son of God is the same essence as God though only distinct upon reflection (260). “Living things” are essences as well, though distinct, “their unity is still a unity of essence” (261). The partition between God and man, infinite and finite, is therefore only within reflection (262). Knowledge leads one to posit the divine and the human as separate, but this is frustrated because they are in union though the intellect aims to separate them.
Just as Jesus is both God and man, “there is no such cleft of objectivity and subjectivity; one is to the other an other only in that one recognizes the other; both are one” (265). This entails that faith in God “grows out of the divinity of the believer’s own nature; only a modification of the Godhead can know the Godhead” (266). Salvation is a return to unity accomplished by the third member of the trinity, which “closes the circle of man’s development” (273).
§ v. The Fate of Jesus and His Church
The unity that Hegel sees in Christ is gradually unfolded into the world via the church. Initially Jesus’s nature was severed from the world, entailing “a loss of freedom, a restriction of life, passivity under the dominion of an alien might” being limited by both the spirit of Judaism and the Roman powers (284). The Kingdom of God was carried only “in his heart” (285). This was transmitted over into the early church as they set themselves in opposition to the world. They held everything in common but remained in opposition with the world. In opposition to the materialism of Judaism, the early church negated its objectivity (288). In a wonderful passage he elaborates on how their “bond of love” fell short:
“this love is a divine spirit, but it still falls short of religion. To become a religion, it must manifest itself in an objective form. A feeling, something subjective, it must be fused with the universal, with something represented in idea, and thereby acquire the form of a being to whom prayer is both possible and due. The need to unite subject with object, to unite feeling, and feeling’s demand for objects, with the intellect, to unite them in something beautiful, in a god, by means of fancy, is the supreme need of the human spirit and the urge to religion.” (289).
This “supreme need” must not be a mere symbol, allegory, or personification. This would create the nefarious cleavage within the worshiper. It must be a unifying feeling “in the heart, and object”—a spirit that “pervades everything and remains a single essence” (290). This unity must exist though each individual must be able to be conscious of its individuality within themselves. But this cannot remain a subjective feeling. It must be “united with something visible so that the whole may be unified” (291).
God introduced this harmony into the world through Christ’s incarnation. Upon his death, his followers were “thrown back on the separation of visible and invisible, reality and spirit” (291). As one would expect, this leads to the sublation and following synthesis of the Christ’s resurrection. Jesus could not have been merely a man. Otherwise, he would not be able to unify the spirit and body, the living and the dead. These are united in Christ where “the need for religion finds its satisfaction in the risen Jesus, in love thus given shape” (292). Hegel does not seem to be concerned about the historicity of Jesus because Christ’s love was manifested into life, into reality (294). This leads Hegel to posit the synthesis of a Life—the union of “spirit and body” into “a divine one” (297). This union entails miracles are not, by nature, miraculous:
“Miracles therefore are the manifestation of the most undivine, because they are the most unnatural of phenomena. They contain the harshest opposition between spirit and body…divine action is the restoration and manifestation of oneness; miracle is the supreme disseverance.” (297).
Concluding, he returns to his trinitarian ontology. The dialectic within the life of Jesus (incarnation, apotheosis, and resurrection) appears in opposition “in consciousness only, never in life” (301). Christianity has historically fought within these oppositions, and for Hegel, the dialectic’s fate is that “church and state, worship and life, piety and virtue, spiritual and worldly action, can never dissolve into one” (301).
The early Hegel viewed Christ’s love as a necessary, concrete synthesis that transcends Law (Judaism) & Duty (Kantianism). For Hegel, Judaism was according to “the letter”, from without, and was not able to restore or reform. Kant’s ethics were also problematic because there were grounded in duty and/or rights, entailing alienation from one’s own desires and the need for a punitive understanding of Law. Love, as a synthesis, overcomes these simply because love’s desire comes from within and is not forced. This dialectic of love expresses itself in the Godhead: Father (Thesis), Son (Anti-thesis), & Spirit (Synthesis), as well as in the life of Christ (incarnation, apotheosis, and resurrection).
In his later works, Hegel moves away from theology toward an ontology where this dialectic is expressed in the history of ideas via art, religion, & philosophy where Being, Non-Being, & Becoming function as thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. These opposites only appear in our consciousness of course, but in our use of reason with the dialectic they become unified. He famously wrote that the “rational is real, and the real is rational.” In human consciousness these tensions are never fully realized, but Hegel appears to be confident that they will be in history as Spirit (Geist) comes to self-consciousness through history’s march toward the ‘rational-real’.
Photo Credit: Satheesh Cholakkal
 All in text citations will refer to Richard Kroner’s selections of Hegel titled, Early Theological Writings of G.W.F. Hegel (1948).
 For Hegel “positive” means obligatory, offering positive, objective commands to be followed as in a master-slave relationship. In The Positivity of Christian Religion, he argues that Jesus did not teach a “positive” religion but a “purely moral” one (71).
 It should be noted that Hegel does not use the term dialectic in the work.
 Hegel initially had “or pure self-consciousness” here (253).