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Is George Bush one of the Great Men of History?

Sorry about all those capital letters. I’ve been reading Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who has quite a thing for them. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Hegel’s grand and profoundly confusing book The Phenomenology of Spirit -- an event that’s led, however indirectly, to wondering just what GWFH would make of GWB.   

We know that the president is reported to have spent part of a vacation last year reading a novel by Albert Camus. Perhaps he has also been sneaking a peek at Hegel during the duller Cabinet meetings? OK, probably not. But he did say, not long ago, that the bloodshed in Iraq will eventually amount to a comma in whatever sentence finally sums up this epoch. That sentiment is at least vaguely Hegelian in its insistence on taking the extremely long view of things.

And so, as we await the unveiling of the Great Way Forward -- or whatever the “surge” plan ends up being called -- it might be worth considering whether the president is actually a World-Historical figure.  

First, by way of background, a kind of confession. I have been trying to finish The Phenomenology of Spirit for a long, long time. Over the years, I have gotten a certain respectable distance into the book not once but several times -- only to find it impossible to keep all of the characters straight. That’s not an entirely sardonic way of putting it: Some scholars regard the Phenomenology as a kind of novel about the development, the maturation, of human consciousness.

Hegel completed it in at what would have been a very difficult moment in his life even if Europe were not convulsed in war. He was in his 30s, but had published just a handful of journal articles. Nobody considered him a particularly original thinker. He was very much in the shadow of his former college roommate, F.W.J. Schelling, who was five years younger to boot. The Phenomenology was a sort of declaration of independence – a belated way of making clear that he had worked out his own system. It is a very dense work, at times polemicizing against other philosophers (especially Schelling) without actually naming them.

There are also passages that show some literary flair. The mixture of very technical argument with vivid imagery is stimulating but, in my experience anyway, bewildering. (At times, reading it calls to mind something Robert Browning is supposed to have said about one of his poems: “While writing it, God and I knew what it meant. Now God only knows.”)

Determined actually to finish the book during its bicentennial this year, I decided in December to make a running start by reading something else by Hegel -- namely, his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. If not quite intended as a popularization, it is at any rate much more accessible. The text was prepared, following his death in 1831, from notes taken by students attending a course he began teaching in the 1820s. By then, Hegel was the dominant force in German philosophy and drew large crowds.

Today, anybody who want to denounce Hegel as a reactionary Eurocentric dead white male will just have a field day with The Philosophy of History. It’s full of disobliging comments about Africa (“the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night”) and sweeping generalizations about the Oriental mind. He also reveals a deep interest in powerful leaders. While writing the Phenomenology in 1806, Hegel had seen Napoleon riding on horseback and had the sense of seeing the march of history embodied in a single leader. Lecturing on history two decades later, he praises Frederick II of Prussia for combining absolute authority and rational enlightenment in one neat, paternalistic package.

So, yes, the philosopher had the prejudices of his day, and he loved a man in a uniform. All duly noted. It’s easy to condescend to the illustrious dead. They can’t answer back.

But Hegel is by no means looking back to the good old days of a sound social order. He was, in his own way, a modernist -- extremely conscious that new ways of life were entering the world and establishing new criteria for legitimacy. And creating new problems.

It’s no accident that very nearly the entire range of later political ideology was worked out by thinkers taking their cue from Hegel’s ideas – from the extreme libertarian individualism of Max Stirner to the communism of Karl Marx, not to mention the various shades of nationalism and moderate reformism in between. And while his attention was riveted on developments in Europe, he also looked to America as “the land of the future,” where much of the history of the rest of the world would be recast in unimaginable new shapes.

Reduced to its simplest possible terms, Hegel’s belief is that history is the steady (if conflict-strewn) development of humanity’s capacity for reason and freedom. At least, over the long term.

From experience, we come to understand that there are regularities and laws governing the universe. And it also slowly dawns on us that we are, in turn, part of that order. Our ideas about the world -- and about our own nature -- have changed over the centuries. Hegel takes this thought to a new level: The changes in our ideas and patterns of life, over the centuries, have not been random, but are actually part of the logic of development governing the whole universe. His system is deeply evolutionary, albeit completely pre-Darwinian. Writing about history, Hegel is fond of metaphors suggesting organic growth and change. His lectures are full of seeds breaking through their husks, or babies stirring in the womb and wailing at their first breath of air.

So where does George W. Bush fit into all of this?

Well, for Hegel, history has its gardeners and its wid-wives, so to speak. They are the men (his examples are, no surprise, all men) who do what must be done for the sake of progress, no matter what the cost. It isn’t that they decide to do so. They are driven to it.

Now, just for the record, I’m not at all inclined to regard the commander-in-chief in this light. I didn’t vote for Bush, don’t like him, and consider his presidency to be more of an accident than a manifestation of Divine Providence.

But part of the struggle of coming to terms with a major thinker is learning to put aside one’s own beliefs long enough to imagine things from an unfamiliar (even a profoundly disagreeable) angle. And that’s exactly what happened upon reading the pages in which Hegel sketches out his understanding of “World-Historical persons” as his Victorian-era translator renders it. I started wondering if Hegel might have considered Bush one of their company.

“They may be called Heroes,” says Hegel, “inasmuch as they have derived their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm, regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order; but ... from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface, which, impinging on the outer world as on a shell, bursts it in pieces, because it is another kernel than that which belonged to the shell in question.”

In short, they do what they have to do. If that means abandoning multilateral diplomacy or treating the right of habeas corpus as something that belongs in a museum of quaint ideas, so be it.

“They are men,” the philosopher continues, “who appear to draw the impulse of their life from themselves; and whose deeds have produced a condition of things and a complex of historical relations which appear to be only their interest, and their work.”

In other words, they can go it alone. They have no use for the “reality-based community."

Not that such figures never benefit from the input of others. But Hegel thinks the effect of that advice tends to be small. “Whatever prudent designs and counsels they might have learned from others,” as he puts it, “would be the more limited and inconsistent features in their career; for it was they who best understood affairs; from whom others learned, and approved, or at least acquiesced in their policy.”

(I am throwing that one out into the arena on the odd chance that Tony Snow, the president’s press secretary, wants a novel explanation for why the White House has been ignoring the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Above all, the World-Historical leader must be single-minded. He is, as Hegel explains, “not so unwise as to indulge a variety of wishes to divide his regards. He is devoted to the One Aim, regardless of all else. It is even possible that such men may treat other great, even sacred interests, inconsiderately; conduct which is indeed obnoxious to moral reprehension. But so mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower – crush to pieces many an object in its path.”

Hegel had men like Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte in mind while describing these grand, history-making figures. And their fates tended to be miserable. “They attained no calm enjoyment,” the philosopher notes; “their whole life was labor and trouble; their whole nature was nought else but their master-passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel.”

Well, it’s a matter of time before we know whether Bush’s “object is attained” in Iraq, and the course of human history thereby guided safely into a new stage of progress. That looks like a very long shot indeed. And Hegel is pretty clear about success being the criterion for judging these figures. “They are great men,” he writes, “because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age.”

A little earlier in his lectures, Hegel refers to history as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.” And he well describes what a lot of us have felt over the past few years: “emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consolatory result.” It is a state of “mental torture,” of “intolerable disgust.”

The tendency, he says, is then to retreat “into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoy in safety the distant spectacle of ‘wrecks confusedly hurled’”–  which sounds to me kind of like all those painfully unfunny bits on "The Daily Show" about the situation in “Mess O’Potamia.”

No doubt it would make for a sounder and more scholarly understanding of Hegel if I could tune out these perhaps farfetched analogies while reading him. But a philosopher who can refer to “the slaughter-bench of history” is going to seem, at times, like an unusually astute pundit. This is, unfortunately, one of those times.

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