Several political and philosophical events significantly shaped Hegel’s milieu. The most significant political event was the French Revolution, from 1789 onward. During his days as a theology student in Tübingen, Hegel was a fervent advocate, but as the Revolution turned increasingly destructive, his enthusiasm diminished. In the Phenomenology of Spirit he criticizes its conception of freedom in a chapter entitled “Absolute Freedom and Terror.” Not unlike Burke, Hegel grew increasingly suspicious of all efforts to invent a new world from scratch, whether in theory or in practice, without regard for the way the world already is. However much the world needs improvement, he came to argue, reform should take a more gradual course. Hegel nevertheless harbored a great admiration for Napoleon and welcomed his invasion of Germany. A legend tells that Hegel was in the midst of completing the final pages of the Phenomenology during the very hour that Napoleon and his troops marched into the city of Jena. Hegel famously called Napoleon “world-spirit on horseback.”
The most significant philosophical event was the “Atheism Controversy,” also sometimes referred to as the “Pantheism Controversy.” In 1780 the renowned literary author Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781) was lying on his deathbed with the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) at his bedside. According to Jacobi’s subsequent report, Lessing confessed to him that the only philosopher he cared for was Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677). Now, Spinoza had been a controversial figure even in his own lifetime, and his notoriety had not since waned. Spinoza had argued that there existed only one self-enclosed, self-determined, and self-sufficient substance and nothing else. This substance was identical with the world as we know it, but it was also identical with God. Jacobi was so horrified by this confession that he proceeded to write several essays about Spinozism accusing it of being a form of atheism, and more importantly, of excluding any space for human freedom. Soon people were accusing each other of Spinozism left and right. This intellectual event left a mark on the next generation, which saw as its task to reconcile Spinoza with Kant, who was then regarded as a champion of freedom in the most robust possible sense. Hegel understood his own project as the solutuion to this problem: he described it as an effort to unify “substance” and “subject”--and its freedom.
Althaus, Horst. Hegel: An Intellectual Biography. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.
Beiser, Frederick (ed). Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2008
Neuhouser, Frederick. Foundations of Hegel’s Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom. Harvard University Press, 2000
Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2000
Plant, Raymond. Hegel: An Introduction. Blackwell, 1983
Pinkard, “Hegel: A Life,” in Cambridge Companion to Hegel and the Nineteenth Century, p. 22
Althaus, p. 267
Andreja Novakovic, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University