Georg W. F. Hegel was not an existentialist, but without Hegel it is possible the works of Søren Kierkegaard would not be as well-known or influential. Kierkegaard wrote in opposition to Hegel — using Hegel as a symbol of all things wrong with classic Cartesian philosophy.
Existentialism, like most Continental philosophy, owes a great deal to the works of Hegel. How philosophers read and apply Hegel has resulted in the “Hegelian” left, right, and even a centrist application of Hegel.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born 27 August 1770, in Stuttgart, Swabia. Hegel's father, Georg Ludwig Hegel, worked in the department of finance for the Duchy of Württemberg. Hegel was the oldest of three children, and therefore bore a great deal of responsibility. Hegel's mother died when he was just eleven, resulting in even greater responsibilities for the young Hegel.
His brother, Ludwig, would eventually serve in Napoleon's army. Christiane, Georg's younger sister, came to depend upon him emotionally in place of a parent. This attachment might have resulted in an emotional breakdown. According to Hegel, Christiane was jealous of other women in his life. When Hegel eventually married, Christiane developed "hysteria" and resigned from her work as a governess. In 1820, Christiane was committed to an asylum for one year. Once released, Christiane's relationship with Hegel remained strained. Only three months after Hegel's death, Christiane drowned herself.
Georg Ludwig Hegel instilled an anti-Catholic bias in his children; he was a Protestant. The Hegel family had fled persecution by Catholics in Austria a generation earlier. Deep divisions between Lutheran Protestants and Catholics made Austria dangerous for Protestants. In Germany, the Hegels rose in social standing, which also dictated one son was expected to enter the clergy. Georg Ludwig assumed his eldest son would be a minister.
Like many of his contemporaries from the emerging middle class, Hegel was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, and could read several European languages. In fact, his mother had schooled him in Latin for several years. Hegel developed a passion for reading as a boy; he took notes on all he read. At the age of fifteen Hegel even started a journal of his readings. In these journals, he would record his own ideas and theories. Unfortunately, Hegel did not always utilize these notes, preferring to quote sources from memory. As a result of trying to memorize "simply everything," many of his essays contain erroneous citations -- but most are minor flaws no affecting the underlying themes.
Hegel enrolled at the University of Tübingen in 1788 as a student of theology. As a student, Hegel met Friedrich Schelling. Schelling, five years younger than Hegel, was also a student of theology. One thing the two students shared was an interest in philosophy, especially Greek philosophers.
In 1789, several students at the university formed a political club of sorts. Hegel joined this group, primarily to engage in the discussions concerning the French Revolution and the concepts of freedom. There is some irony in this, as Hegel's works later gave rise to Karl Marx. While a member of this group, Hegel formed ties to several Jacobin secret societies, which he considered "ruthlessly suppressed" by authorities. Throughout his life, Hegel celebrates the French Revolution -- Bastille Day became a personal holiday for Hegel.
Hegel completed his studies in 1793. The records indicate he was not considered exceptional by the professors, though sufficiently skilled to work as a Lutheran clergyman. According to historian Will Durant:
He was graduated from Tübingen in 1793 with a certificate stating that he was a man of good parts and character, well up in theology and philology, but with no ability in philosophy.
- The Story of Philosophy; Durant, p. 239
After graduating from the university, Hegel befriended J. W. von Goethe, the German literary giant. The two corresponded frequently, and Hegel also visited Goethe on many occasions. Hegel often wrote in praise of Goethe's genius. Goethe was a symbol of German civilization for Hegel and many others. While Hegel might have admired the French Jacobins, he came to think of Germany as a superior collection of states.
Many university graduates found early work as tutors. Hegel followed this tradition, becoming a resident tutor for three years in the Swiss city of Berne. Carl Friedrich Steiger von Tschugg, Hegel's employer, was a Berne patrician. As a result, Hegel was given a unique view of politics, something from which he had been shielded in parent's home. So disgusted was Hegel by politics that he wrote:
The intrigues among cousins and aunts at our princely courts are as nothing compared to the combinations here. The father nominates his son, or the son-in-law who brings in the biggest marriage portion, et cetera. To get to know an aristocratic constitution, you just has to spend a winter here before the Easter election.
- from a letter to Schelling, 16 April 1795
It became clear to Hegel elections were not about the public good, but rather the good of a ruling class. Hegel began to wonder if the promise of the French Revolution could never be realized -- the people were not able to understand how politicians manipulated public sentiments. From his three years in the con Tschugg household, Hegel carried a cynicism. Worse, he began to experience bouts of depression.
Hegel's depression might have a number of explanations, but the manifestation was clear: he doubted his beliefs, his intellect, and his ability to establish a career. Lloyd Spencer writes:
He was not helped either by comparing what seemed like his own slow progress with the dazzling brilliance of his young friend Schelling, already busy developing an idealist philosophical standpoint.
- Introducing Hegel; Spencer, p. 23
With great relief, Hegel move to Frankfurt am Main in October 1796. There he joined his former university roommate, Friedrich Hölderlin. While now recognized as a great poet and scholar of Greek tragedies, Hölderlin was considered a radical in his time. He held unpopular political beliefs, non-traditional views on religion, and was prone to volatility. While Hegel remained his friend for many years, Hölderlin's emotional troubles eventually were too much for Hegel, who was dealing with his own emotional problems and those of his sister.
In 1803, Schelling wrote to inform Hegel their classmate had suffered a mental collapse. Hegel refused to assist his former roommate and never mentioned Hölderlin again. It is likely Hegel was not demonstrating a lack of compassion, but rather a recognition of his own frail emotional nature. Hölderlin apparently suffered from schizophrenia, spending the last three decades of his life under care. Amazingly, he continued to write, though unable to communicate with visitors. Hegel knew of his friends demise, but felt unable to assist.
Hölderlin had introduced Hegel to Immanuel Kant's works, forever changing Hegel's works. Kant forever changed the complexion of German philosophy, becoming one of the most important philosophers in world history. Kant developed what he named "critical philosophy." Many in Germany, including Hölderlin and Hegel, viewed Kant as a revolutionary. Some even hoped a political revolution would result due to Kant's popularity. Kant's three "Critiques" are among his most influential works. The "Critiques" are Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1786), andCritique of Judgement (1790). Kant left a deep impression upon Hegel -- and many others. The successors of Kant were known as the German Idealists, including Hegel, Schelling, and Fichte.
Hegel's father died in 1799, leaving his son a small inheritance. Apparently, the inheritance was not efficiently utilized; in January 1801, Hegel arrived in the seat of German philosophy, Jena. He was poor and disheartened, lacking a career, money, and recognition. Schelling was a professor of philosophy at the University of Jena and had published five books. Hegel's tendency to measure himself against his friend compounded his self-doubts. When Hegel was able to secure lecture's at the university, it was only as an unsalaried lecturer.
Schelling was forced to leave Jena in 1803, after falling in love with the wife of a well-known scholar. Schelling, at the age of 28, married Caroline Schlegel, who was 40. The Schelling's moved to Würzburg, where he spent time studying and writing. Hegel remained in Jena and struggled until 1807, when he was finally offered a salary by the university.
Early on 13 October 1806, Napoleon invaded Jena, having bombarded the city for most of the night. Hegel had romanticized Napoleon, and wrote of the invasion:
I saw the Emperor -- that World Soul -- riding out to reconnoiter the city; it is truly a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, concentrated here on a single point, astride a single horse, yet reaching across the world and ruling it....
Napoleon represented France, which seemed more advanced politically to Hegel. Instead of viewing Napoleon as a dictator, Hegel saw the promise of new rights and the end of feudalism. But Hegel's dream would not be realized. While Napoleon marched toward defeat in Prussia, Hegel's personal life also collapsed.
Hegel's son, Ludwig, was born 5 February 1807. Ludwig's mother was the wife of his landlord, indicating an affair during 1806. Less than three weeks later, Hegel accepted the editorship of a Catholic daily newspaper in Bavaria. The newspaper, Bamberger Zeitung, supported Napoleon, as did much of Bavaria. Hegel found himself in a good position, but it was a brief tenure.
In 1808, an associate of Hegel's found him a position as the headmaster at a gymnasium, a classical school for boys. Appointed Rector in 1808, Hegel would remain at the post until 1816. Because Hegel had also been a tutor of young students, he developed an insight into education:
Serious study of the ancient classics in the best introduction to philosophy. But perhaps not a road open to everyone.
With a stable career -- and income -- Hegel married Marie von Tucker, nearly 20 years his junior, in 1811. A year later, Marie gave birth to a daughter, who did not survive. By 1816 the Hegel's had two young sons; Hegel decided to also arranged for his illegitimate son, Ludwig, to join the family household. Apparently the relationship between Ludwig and his father was strained. Ludwig eventually moved to the East Indies.
As an instructor, Hegel had time to write a three volume work on the study and teaching of philosophy. Published in 1812, 1813, and 1816, Science of Logic would seal Hegel's place in philosophy. The massive, abstract work catapulted Hegel to the forefront of German academia. To his satisfaction, Hegel was offered positions at several major universities, including Berlin, Heidelberg, and Erlangen. Berlin's Minister of Education sent an observer to Hegel's classroom only to find Hegel's lectures marked by "false pathos, shouting, and roaring, little jokes, digressions... arrogant self-praise...." The University of Berlin decided to delay their offer, while university officials asked Hegel to carefully consider his presentations. Hegel accepted a post at Heidelberg.
The university required professors to base lectures upon recognized texts. Hegel, of course, decided he would write a text for the course and teach his own works. Published in 1817, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline is considered the most complete overview of Hegel's philosophy. The text is only an outline, intended for students attending his lectures, but it stands alone. The work apparently changed opinions in Berlin -- Hegel was asked to join the university staff by the newly appointed Prussian Minister for Religious, Educational, and Medical Affairs, Baron Karl Sigmund von Altenstein. Hegel now found himself involved in politics, at least indirectly.
In 1821, von Altenstein appointed Hegel to the Royal Academic Board of Examiners in Brandenberg. The board was expected to reform the Prussian educational system. Schools were becoming more humanistic, with less emphasis on religion. Hegel enjoyed his role in reforming an educational system he had earlier criticized. He believed changing the education of young men would eventually change Prussia and Germany.
During the last decade of his life, Hegel tried to refine his theories. He delivered many lectures and tried to expand his philosophy in various essays and texts. It became increasingly clear the system of philosophy he had developed was both too abstract and too rigid in many ways. Hegel continued to lecture until the end of his life, but the lectures were notoriously disorganized.
Hegel had become absent-minded near the end of his life. Anecdotes abound, including one story of Hegel arriving for a lecture wearing only one shoe. Yet the real decline in his later years was marked by a hypocrisy: Hegel came to believe his theories were "truths," able to withstand time. This belief contradicts Hegel's own theory that all thoughts decay, replaced by new ideas. It is clear Hegel came to believe he was the most influential philosopher of his time.
In 1831, a cholera epidemic swept across Germany. Hegel was ill for only one day. He died quietly, in his sleep, on 13 November.