It is a common place among German Philosophy historians to consider Hegel as the culmination of Modern Philosophy and to compare him with what Aristotle meant for Ancient Philosophy. In this sense he was called by some of his contemporary followers the “German Aristotle”. Marx himself as a member of the so-called “Left Hegelians”, echoes and takes this denomination seriously in his doctoral thesis (See David McLellan, Marx before Marxism, Macmillan, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 52 ff.). Hegel, with his speculative System, would mark, according to Marx, the end of a classical period and the beginning of a very different one, the period that we call Contemporary Philosophy, in the same ways as Aristotle was with his encyclopedic philosophical work the speculative culmination of Greek Classical Philosophy placing himself at the gates of a new period, the Alexandrine or Hellenistic period, that followed the previous philosophy and marked the preponderance of the practical philosophical interests of the new schools of Stoics, Epicureans, etc. Marxism, Vitalism, Positivism or Existentialism, would be the modern equivalent of such Hellenistic schools likewise more oriented to action than to pure speculation.
This is already well known. What remains to be specified is in what sense, not merely historical or external, can the similarity between Hegel and Aristotle be grasped. And so, from an internally philosophical point of view, we believe that the greatness of both philosophers resides in having elaborated a conception of reality under the shape of a very simple structure, but that can be applied to every existing thing, closing a rational and global comprehension very difficult to overcome. In fact, Aristotelean philosophy was unsurpassed in its fundamental structure for centuries. It is also said (as Derrida did) about Hegel's philosophy that all contemporary philosophical rebellion against it is a futile task, for when the rebels finally thought that they had definitely freed themselves from Hegel, he appeared again when turning around any corner. Proof of this would be that the Marxist rebellion itself would have also failed with the triumph of liberal democracy and the return to Hegel that Fukuyama advocates. But lets see, then, what is that powerful structure that both philosophers would have created.
In Aristotle's case, it is the Idea of individual Substance understood as a hylomorphic compound. Against Plato, he held that the Forms or Ideas do not exist separately from the matter and in another world, but rather that the individual substances themselves, the existing beings are compounds of Matter and Form. This conception of the Substance could have been taken by Aristotle from the observation of craftsmen activities so humble and quotidian as pottery in which an at first formless matter, such as clay, is modeled or given formed. But its interest resides in that Aristotle manages to apply it in the manner of a fractal repetition to all the parts or strata in which reality is presented. In such a way that when he considers physical objects he understands them as compounds of matter and form. When he deals with living beings he interprets them as compounds of body (matter) and soul (form). When he deals with a social entity, such as a City-state, he understands it as featuring a matter, the civil body of the citizens organized according to a determinate form of State (Monarchy, Oligarchy or Democracy). In this way, Aristotle managed to elaborate a vision of reality that covered in a rational manner all that exists. He even thought of the Idea of God as a especial immaterial entity, as a Pure Form separated from all matter.
In Hegel's case, the fundamental Idea is not that of a static Substance, but rather that of a dynamic Substance, that of a Being that is Subject, something whose existence consists in becoming, in being realized in a temporal process. Hegel himself expresses this very well in his Prologue to his most famous work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, when he says that what is at stake is to understand that which exists absolutely, that is, the true ultimate ground of reality, not only as a Substance but also and mainly as a Subject, as Spirit (Geist). However, the essence of subjectual realities is not grasped through static divisions such as Aristotelean hylomorphism, but through dynamic divisions given in time. It looks like Hegel, in order to figure out the essential structure of subjectual processes, was inspired by his predecessor Fichte, who postulated the dialectic of the Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis in order to understand reality (although Hegel would modify this Fichtean scheme) and in an observation of the revolutionary processes, as the one that occurred in the neighboring France in his youth, in which a struggle or social movement appears whereby there is a transition from one situation (the Bourbon Monarchy) to its opposite (the Convention of Jacobin terror) and after which comes an overcoming of terror (the Thermidorian Directory). Hegel understands such a political process as following a ternary logical order that he will fractally project to all reality. Heraclitus with his panta rei (everything flows) is preferred by Hegel to Aristotle's Parmenidean fixism.
However, in a similar fractal way as the Stagirite, Hegel will use this basic ternary structure to organize all reality in the repetitive manner of the whole in the parts. This way he divides his System in three parts, following such dialectical order: Logic, Nature and Spirit, which represent three phases whereby reality is considered as identified with rationality (“all that is real is rational and all that is rational is real” claims Hegel), In itself (Logic), For itself (Nature) and In and for itself (Spirit). In turn the Logic is subdivided in three parts: the Logic of Being, of Essence and of the Concept. Nature is studied in three strata or logical moments: mechanical, physical and organic. The Spirit is analyzed as Subjective, Objective and Absolute Spirit. In turn the Subjective Spirit is subdivided in Anthropology, Phenomenology and Psychology. The Objective Spirit in Law, Morality and Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit). The Ethical Life in Family, Civil Society and State. The State itself appears in History as Oriental State (only one is free: the despot), Greek City-State (some are free) and the modern democratic State (all are free). Finally, the Absolute Spirit is subdivided in Art, Religion and Philosophy. Each of them in turn is subdivided in three, etc.
It is said that although Aristotelean hylomorphism kept the coherence and broadness of its systematic philosophical vision of reality for centuries, many particular aspects of its ethical, political or logical conceptions started to be overcome by Hellenistic philosophy, and Marx in his doctoral studies saw in them and not in the Aristotelean philosophy the germs of the modern world with his humanism, which comes from the Stoics, etc. In a similar way it could be said of Hegel that what will surely remain for a long time in the future is his systematic dialectical way of considering reality as a process, as a becoming that is making itself moved by its internal contradictions. That which can be overcome in his philosophy, such as his Idealism, long since began to be overcome by his most eminent critics such as the old Schelling, Schopenhauer or Marx himself.
Manuel F. Lorenzo
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)
Manuel F. Lorenzo
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)