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Library: Hegel: The Theological Roots of His Dialectic
Title:      Hegel: The Theological Roots of His Dialectic
Categories:      Philosophy
BookID:      5
Authors:      Kevin Wall, O.P.
ISBN-10(13):      0000000005
Publisher:      The Thomist Press
Publication date:      October 4, 1973
Number of pages:      10
Language:      Not specified
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Title: Hegel: The Theological Roots of His Dialectic
Author: Kevin Wall, O.P.
Previously published in The Thomist, XXXVII, 4, October,
1973. Available as part of this project with permission from
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[Reprinted from THE THOME; XXXVII, 4, October, 1973.]
SHORTLY BEFORE he died of cholera in 1831 Hegel
completed a third edition of the Encyclopedia of the
Philosophical Sciences. Since he bestowed on no other
one of his ponderous works comparable care, this one has
there-fore special authority. It is, moreover, the most comprehensive
single statement of his thought and, of all his strictly theoretical
writings, the one easiest to read and understand.
This relative lucidity of the work was due to the
circum-stance that Hegel wrote it for the classroom. And although in
that situation he made considerable demands upon his students,'
he could not totally disregard their ability to understand and
to react. Responding to these restrictions he had therefore
of necessity to give the Encyclopedia something of the form of
a dialogue. He had to curtail metaphors and speak more
di-rectly to the point.
As a consequence of this he left in the work clearer evidence
of how he in the first instance came to posit the dialectic as the
principle of nature and thought, and how, subsequently, he
developed his notion of it. In the Encyclopedia he shows that
it has at least three consistent sources: Aristotle's doctrine of
the Nous; Kant's expose of the antinomies of Pure Reason; and
the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
By terminating the work with the citation from Aristotle's
Metaphysics, Hegel strikingly acknowledges the first source:
Now thinking in itself is concerned with that which is in itself best,
and thinking in the highest sense with that which is in the highest
sense best. And thought thinks itself through participation in the
1 Hegel's Letter to Niethammer, cited in Owl of Minerva 2, 4 (June, 1971),
p. 1.
object of thought; for it becomes an object of thought in the act of
apprehension and thinking, so that thought and the object of
thought are the same, because that which is receptive of the object,
i.e., essence, is thought. And it actually functions when it possesses
this object. Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is
held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active
contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the
happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we
enjoy sometimes, it is marvelous; and if it is greater, this is still more
marvelous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God.
For the actuality of thought is life, and God is actuality; and the
essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold
then that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore
life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is
what God is.2
By terminating the Encyclopedia with this text Hegel
ap-proved it as a resume of what he was trying to say. And by
this approval he professed his essential agreement with
Aris-totle that everything begins and ends in the self-consciousness
of the supreme Nous. All that is not this Nous, he thereby
implied, is from and for it. The dialectic, which structures such
intermediary things, is therefore a relational and dynamic
structure grounded in absolute self-consciousness, which
self-consciousness is, as Aritotle puts it, the highest thought
think-ing itself, God living on the loftiest plane.
Hegel came to this conclusion, the Encyclopedia reveals, by
critical reflection upon the implications of Kant's antinomies.
The section in which he describes this reflection is perhaps the
best in the work. Essentially it argues the thesis that Kant
made the most important contribution to the philosophy of
his day by discovering that the use of the categories of
judg-ment to think the transensible necessarily leads to
contradic-tory assertions. But he did not fully understand the significance
of this result. He thought that it served only to demonstrate
the impossibility of metaphysics. But if he had applied it not
only to cosmology but also to the analysis of all representations,
concepts, and ideas whatsoever, he would have realized that it
2 Metaphysics xii, 7, 1072 b 1s.
actually discloses the inner structuring principle of thought and
reality.3 It reveals, in short, the dialectic which, as lifting
con-tradiction in synthesis, sustains it and thereby sustains all that
lies between Nous as ground and Nous as end. Philosophy is
essentially the knowledge that this is so. For critical reflection,
to know this is to have the supreme insight.
The third source which led Hegel to this same conclusion
was Christian Trinitarian doctrine.4 In the Encyclopedia the
dialectic can be seen as a filtrate of this too. It is, in other
words, an abstraction from the formal structure of the
tradi-tional Christian Trinitarian God. That Hegel should so see it,
is consistent with his grounding of the dialectic in Aristotle's
doctrine of the Nous. For the younger Augustine, this was the
legitimate ground for Trinitarian doctrine on whose basis, he
thought, the Neo-platonists, using natural reason alone, had
discovered the doctrine. Although he later energetically
re-tracted this opinion, nevertheless, he continued to use the
doctrine of the Nous to ground a more tentative presentation
of Trinitarian theology. In the Encyclopedia Hegel makes it
clear that he was similarly motivated. The dialectic, which was
for him the essence of philosophical insight, arises out of
re-ligious consciousness which reveals its existence and its
char-acter. It is therefore a filtrate of Christian religious
conscious-ness. To have this knowledge is to bring concept to religion,
but in this importation religious consciousness has priority
such that without it there is no philosophical consciousness.
In other words, religious consciousness can exist without
philosophical but philosophical consciousness cannot exist
with-out religious.
Thus to make explicit the structure of the Christian
Trini-tarian God as this is found in Christian religious consciousness
is to reveal the dialectic which is, in the last analysis, Nous
thinking itself, that is to say, God living his life. And this is
'Encyclopedia I, A, 48.
J. F. Findlay, Hegel (London, 1958), pp. 30, 131. Findlay refers to Hegel's
" long brooding " on the meaning of Christian faith while he was in Bern and
what, surfacing in the Kantian analysis of Pure Reason, creates
the antinomies.
There are therefore these three sources for the doctrine of
the dialectic, but they are not independent. For Hegel, they
all spring in the final analysis from religious consciousness
which, in its Christian Trinitarian form, alone embraces the
dialectical structure of the Godhead. This being so, what was it
then that Hegel saw in Aristotle's keenly penetrating doctrine
of the Nous? It contained the movements of the dialectic, but
it did not recognize them as such. Aristotle could not, in this
analysis, have known the significance of the movements. A
purely natural theology could not have made this possible for
him. Theoretical thought arising from speculative
conscious-ness could not suffice, since it does not contain God as triadic
and therefore does not contain the dialectic in a way which
makes it accessible to critical reflection and reveals it as the
root structuring principle of all being and thought. Thus
theo-retical insight will not of itself rise to philosophical
conscious-ness understood properly as ultimate insight, namely, as insight
into the ultimate nature and function of the dialectic. This is
contained in an accessible way only in the worship attitude of
Christian religious consciousness. Philosophical consciousness,
reflecting on this, explicates its structure, thereby bringing the
concept to conceptless religious piety and revealing the dialectic.
Recollecting the long line of theologians who have
specu-lated on Christian Trinitarian doctrine, one sees that Hegel
followed a similar path. He too saw Christian piety as both
the fundamental consciousness and as fides quaerens
intel-lectum, a worship attitude ordered intrinsically to the quest of
The truth contained in conceptless piety could be seized upon
in knowledge of the dialectic. This truth, so grasped, made it
possible for Hegel to understand why Kant, when he analyzed
pure reason, discovered antinomies. It showed him also why
Kant's purely theoretical discussion of these, divorced from
their grounding in religious consciousness, could not reveal
their true significance. When Hegel then introduced religious
consciousness to discover this true significance, he could then
understand what Kant was really about and, by the same token,
the meaning of all contents of thought and manifestations of
His conviction that Aristotle had at least a glimmering of
this understanding was undoubtedly the basis for Hegel's deep
respect for the Stagirite.' This was the conviction which
prompted him to terminate the Encyclopedia by citing the
fam-ous text on the Nous from the Metaphysics. In it he saw the
key to the dialectic.
The fact that Aristotle should have had this key without
grounding it in Christian consciousness was not, from Hegel's
point of view, an inconsistency. The non-Christian religious
consciousness was for him simply an imperfect Christian ore,
containing therefore in potentiality what the latter has in act.
Aristotle, by the acuteness of his mind, was able to transcend
this limitation and dimly perceive the truth. Such is the
impli-cation of the citing of the Metaphysics text.
On the basis of these considerations Hegel is therefore able,
as he sees it, to conciliate speculative reason and religious
consciousness. He does this by making philosophical insight
ultimately depend upon religious piety. At the same time he
thinks that he does justice to philosophy when he concedes it
what he does not concede to religious consciousness, namely,
The purpose of philosophical consciousness thus becomes by
this the conceptualizing of religious consciousness. In
achiev-ing this end, it guarantees that religion will survive. In Hegel's
opinion conceptless piety alone cannot guarantee this. Of its
very nature it seeks, as faith, understanding and, if it cannot
find this, perishes.
While obviating this possibility by bringing the concept to
piety, philosophical consciousness itself comes into being, that
is to say, it emerges as the actualization of a capacity of re-
Logik I, 2, 1, A.
6 Encyclopedia, Preface to 2nd ed., p. 15.
ligious consciousness. Religious consciousness, or piety,
re-mains therefore always immanent in it. For Hegel this is the
insight which provides the key to the understanding of all
thought and reality. For all understanding whatsoever, then,
religious consciousness is the ground.
The depth and power of this conviction in Hegel's mind is
indicated by what he has to say in the foreword to the third
edition of the Encyclopedia. In this statement, made so shortly
before his death, he angrily rejects the charge that he has in
fact destroyed religion and Christianity by making man to be
God.7 He finds the charge outrageous. It could only be made
by one who pretends to have the power to judge in the name of
Christ what constitutes true Christianity and who is a true
Christian. Hegel will allow no one to make that claim and
judge him. And if anyone should attempt to do so, he would
not accept his judgment, nor would he, on its basis, or any other
basis, divorce himself from Christian tradition or from
Protes-tant piety. By his philosophy he wants only to introduce
science into both. This, in his opinion, is necessary for their
survival. At least in intention if not in execution, this late
statement shows that he had, in his own judgment, made the
Christian religious consciousness his point of departure of all
of his philosophical life.
Other serious thinkers have agreed that this is so.
Kierke-gaard thought that Hegel was in fact trying to philosophize
on the basis of the Christian religious consciousness, although
he came to the conclusion that Hegel misrepresented this
consciousness and, because of this, constructed a false
philoso-phy. For Kierkegaard, however, even a true evaluation of
Christian consciousness could not ground the construction of
a rational, systematic philosophy, such as Hegel's was, which
would be true to being. Reason even in this circumstance could
always grope for insight, but it could never terminally attain it.
Its insight would therefore never truly transcend religious
consciousness as Hegel proposed.
Encyclopiidie, Preface to 3rd ed., p. 23.
Nietzsche held the same opinion. For him Hegel proved that
German philosophy was really theology in disguise.' In his
opinion, this was what had ruined it. He did not, however,
agree with Kierkegaard that Hegel had falsified the Christian
consciousness and that this falsification corrupted his
philoso-phy. Quite on the contrary for Nietzsche Hegel's picture of
Christian consciousness was accurate. The inadequacy of
Hegelian philosophy lay not in this but in the defectiveness of
Christian consciousness itself. A philosophy grounded on it
could not be valid. It would of necessity canonize the
imper-fect will of the mediocre mass man. It would exalt the moral
standards of the weak. It would not reflect the will and the
morality of the excellent man. The very rationality of Hegelian
philosophy, essentially a negation of will, was a sign of this as
well as its effect. In this harsh judgment, if Nietzsche does
nothing else, at least he agrees with Hegel that the latter's
philosophy arose from his theology.
That is why, in Henrici's opinion and that of many other
Hegelian scholars, if not all, theologians instinctively turn to
Hegel more than to any other modern or contemporary
philoso-pher when they want to enrich their theological thought with
philosophical concepts.' They find in him not simply tools for
theological discourse, such as they find in every other
philoso-pher too, but a theology from which the tools naturally arise—
a theology, therefore, which not only explains but also creates
This may be what theologians are now beginning to realize.
And their consequent use of Hegelian terminology and
concep-tualizations to state their points of view make them inevitably
feel that Hegel's thought is again theologically relevant. At the
very least they have become aware that they cannot do what
they want to do theologically without employing this thought.
That itself may have something to say about its relevance.
Anti-Christ, Section 10.
Peter Henrici, S. J., " Hegel and die Theologie," Gregorianum 48, 4 (1967) ,
But there are indications that this practical approach to
Hegel's accomplishment is not the only one involved. The
so-called " theologians " of hope use more than Hegel's formal
philosophical tools. In part, at least, they agree with the spirit
of his approach, and they can point to no other modern
philoso-pher with whose spirit they can similarly agree. In their
escha-tologies and in their attempts by these to transcend scientific
consciousness, they too ground philosophy, such as they present
or imply it, in religious consciousness. True, this is not so much
the consciousness of the Christian assenting to the Trinitarian
God as that of the Christian assenting to the Kingdom of God
to come. But as this message is presented in the gospel of
Christ, it implies and involves the Triune God. Its Christology,
to this extent, is intimately connected with its Trinitarianism.
What they are finding in this is again the uniqueness of
Hegel among modern philosophers. In a non-theological period
such as the present, this uniqueness is what makes him so
diffi-cult to understand. He simply does not fit into the categories
by which the present makes itself intelligible to itself. As
Fackenheim justly puts it, when one confronts him one
con-fronts, as in no other modern philosopher, not only the modern
period but also the medieval and the ancient." One cannot
therefore, simply by seeing him in relation to the Kantian
critique, understand him adequately. One must see him also in
relation to the scholastics and to the ancient Greeks. The fact
that he should terminate the Encyclopedia with the quotation
from Aristotle is indicative of this. No other modern thinker
could meaningfully have done the same.
Hegel could do this because he saw in Aristotle's text a core
doctrine which in the hands of the Neo-platonists provided a
philosophical basis for the Christian theology of the Trinity.
For Hegel, this was a theological insight of prime importance.
To him it seemed to show that religious consciousness can and
must give rise to philosophy which, in its highest realization, is
the consciousness that the dialectic is the structuring principle
of thought and reality.
1° The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (1967) , Preface, xii.
No wonder that he took the theological criticism of his work
so seriously and, in the Encyclopedia, devoted so much space
to a reply. His attitude in this was entirely different from
Kant's, for whom theology was peripheral. This is why it is
imperative for one who would sound the meaning of the
dialec-tic to probe into Hegel's theological convictions and specifically
his understanding of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.
This is why, in the present upsurge of theologies of hope, Hegel,
in his theological roots, again begins to surface.
Graduate Theological Union
Berkeley, California






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