The Young Hegelians

Had you been alive in the early-to-mid 1800s as a student of philosophy, theology, or religion in continental Europe, chances are pretty good that your studies would have been in some way influenced or otherwise affected by the Prussian thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel's ubiquitous influence upon continental thought was due largely to his series of complex and massive theories for explaining, well, basically everything ever. Because I'm a kind soul, I won't even begin to try to describe Hegel's systems of thought because most of them are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The most important concept of Hegel's in this context is his dialectical view of the world.

Although Hegel himself never used this terminology, the basic dialectical premise goes like this:

  1. Thesis - There is an idea. It is followed by...
  2. Antithesis - An opposing idea with which it comes into conflict based on inherent theoretical differences. The result of the conflict is...
  3. Synthesis - A practical conclusion that might incorporate aspects of both the thesis and the antithesis in its application or that might only be one or the other or that might be something superior to both of them.

(All of this, of course, is simplification. The Hegelian dialectic is more nuanced than this, but for the purposes of a general discussion, this should be a sufficient primer for those unfamiliar with it.)

People have always accused Hegel of having a socially chauvinistic worldview and that is honestly not an entirely unfair characterization. Hegel applied his dialectic to the entirety of human history and developed an idea that viewed prior cultures and peoples as mere precursors to the grandest and most perfect form of civilization that could be conceived: post-Napoleonic Prussia. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel condescendingly discusses those who came before him as not being aware of their true historical function, i.e., to pave the way for his Prussia. It's easy to understand the appeal of this notion, so it should be no surprise to hear that after Hegel's death in 1831, his theories on what he perceived as the inherently advanced nature of the Prussian state did not diminish in popularity among his colleagues and students. The group that affirmed this idea of Prussian developmental superiority and its role as the ultimate historical ideal is generally referred to as the Old Hegelians or the Right Hegelians.

The Right Hegelians were the influential movers and shakers of Prussian intellectual society at the time. For lack of a better word, the Right Hegelians were the ever-present and completely ominous Establishment. They held important positions at the major universities as well as within the government. To them, contemporary Prussia was the obvious choice for a truly advanced society. And why not? It was wealthy, it was well-educated, it was modernized, it was technologically advanced, it was militarily powerful, and so on. Perhaps somewhat ironically, an upstart group of thinkers known as the Young (or Left) Hegelians would appear to challenge the Right Hegelians in a very antithetical sense.

The main difference between the Right Hegelians and the Young Hegelians was the fact that while the former accepted Hegel's conclusions about the superiority of Prussian society, the latter did not. In fact, the Young Hegelians disagreed with many of Hegel's conclusions, but they found his dialectical approach to phenomenological explanation to be incredibly useful. It was their contention that Prussia was not, as the Right Hegelians claimed, the be-all and end-all of historical development. They found many flaws in Prussian society and declared that historical progress was far from over. They claimed that the cause of Prussia's problems was nothing less than its over-bearing Lutheranism and they set out at once to demolish the whole idea of Christianity because of the impediment it represented to "progress."

The first Young Hegelian tracts were very radical for the time and many were suppressed by the Prussian government. Most of the early writings attacked the foundations of Christianity with a particular emphasis on the disparity between Christianity as an ideal and its practical application. David Strauss claimed Jesus's message had been directed at the dregs of society and as such made little sense as an institutionalized religion. Contextualized, Strauss would seem to imply that Christianity began as a revolutionary movement against cultural and political oppression. Ludwig Feuerbach was even more critical, and claimed that the whole idea of the Judeo-Christian "God" was simply a reflection of man's insecurities about existence, and that in order to truly progress, man had to stop projecting his self-imposed limitations on an omnipotent being (one that is able to do everything he cannot) and overcome them. Bruno Bauer himself threw caution to the wind and simply asserted that Jesus never even existed in the first place and that the whole of Christianity was a lie in and of itself. His main "evidence" was the fact that he couldn't find any original historical records of Jesus. It would be a rather damaging blow to Christianity if it in fact turned out that Christ was simply invented. Bauer's theory is interesting, except for one small problem: it's not true. Famous ancient historians such as Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus all mention Jesus, so it's maybe not too unreasonable to say that Bauer didn't search very hard for the historical Jesus. One finds what one looks for, or perhaps more appropriately, one does not find what one does not look for.

The most famous (or perhaps infamous, depending upon how you see it) Young Hegelians were two men who would later go on to repudiate their former philosophical colleagues: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels were both radical young men at the time but were not so radical that they rejected the omnipresent Hegelian mindset. Like Strauss et al, they began their 'careers' as opponents of state-sponsored religion (and subsequently religion in general). After a while, however, Marx and Engels developed a theory that claimed religion was merely a symptomatic outgrowth of a wider conspiracy by the propertied classes to engender complacency amongst the proletariat for the purposes of maintaining their socioeconomic hegemony all over the world. The two men eventually had a major falling out with the other Young Hegelians and, like Max Stirner, wrote scathing critiques of the whole group.

Not surprisingly, the Young Hegelians were not particularly influential in their own lifetimes. The Right Hegelians were in a position to reject their works and to censor their writings, and they often did so. Marx himself had to submit his doctoral thesis to an entirely different university out of the fear that it would be rejected at his own because of his association with the group (incidentally, his paper had nothing at all to do with religion or politics). By the 1840s, the group itself had ceased to exist as a coherent entity because of the various ideological and personal splits within it. Largely forgotten, the Young Hegelians received something of an academic revival through the Frankfurt School, but that was more closely related to the mutual appreciation of Hegel on the part of both schools of thought. Obviously, Marx has had the most general lasting influence of all the Young Hegelians, but his truly important works (Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto) were written well after he had ended his association with the group. Despite the fact that most people aren't familiar with the Young Hegelians, there are lingering traces of their essential philosophical ideas all over the modern Western world. What the ultimate intellectual legacy of this short-lived and misunderstood group of thinkers who believed in the possibility of unfettered and perpetual progress will be is something that will not be entirely comprehended for centuries to come.

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