Hegel & The Modern State

The events of the French Revolution persuaded the Prussian philosopher Hegel that politics must be considered within its economic, cultural and religious context, as well in the context of history. Any a-historical social theory, such as state of nature theories and natural rights are archaic. Part of this was the need to reconcile ancient Greek & Roman liberty with modern ideas of liberty based on freedom of the individual. The French revolutionaries had tried to turn the French people into Roman citizens – with absolute loyalty to the state and the principles of the revolution, but had failed. Hegel considered how the benefits of the ancient citizen can be re-created in the modern world and combined with modern liberty.


Hegel’s work ‘Phenomenology’ includes a discussion of freedom. Hegel claimed that freedom is the central feature of human life. The mind is essentially free, and both thought and action spring from the imaginative freedom of the mind. All human activity shows that we are free and all else is the raw material of our freedom. Even swinging our arms aimlessly displays the right of a mind to embody itself in and exercise sway over the human body. But what of other people who may limit our freedom? A person may reduce another to slavery in order to maintain their own freedom. However, the existence of slavery in a society causes it to become corrupted. Manual labour is despised, and traits such as cruelty, greed and petulance become the norm. In short, such societies are economic, technological and cultural dead ends. Hegel held that freedom is more than a matter of being left to our own devices, as Hobbes said. Freedom consists in mastering the world and enjoying it. A lunatic cannot be free because his will is unformed; an addict cannot be free because he cannot control his own choices.

Philosophy of History

In Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of History’ he walks through a history of freedom by discussing various concepts of societies through history. The first is oriental despotism, where only the despot is free, and all others are his slaves. There is no debate over policy and therefore no politics. The Greek polis is a development because some are free. Active citizens contributed to political debate and defended their state, but citizenship was heavily restricted and relied on slavery. If freedom is autonomy, and true autonomy is founded in our ability to govern ourselves by reason, i.e. to collectively choose to follow a system of rules based on reason, then the sad ending of Socrates highlights the limitations of ancient Greek freedom. Socrates’ insistence on following his own system of rules based on reason led to claims of disloyalty and treason against the Athenian state, and ultimately his execution. Christianity is the inception of Hegel’s view of modern freedom: the belief in the infinite value of the individual soul leads to the belief that we should all be free. Simultaneously Christian society requires submission to a higher authority; ultimately the authority of God can be replaced by the modern state.

Philosophy of Right

Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ describes a modern society that guarantees the freedom of all. The focus is on what rights and freedoms we should have, how they are generated, and what legitimises the state. Society should be based on the general will of those in society, but Hegel’s view of the general (or rational) will is different to Rousseau. Rousseau believed that humans are corrupted by society, whereas Hegel’s general will grows out of natural social interactions, whose rationality we come to understand through education and experience. The French Revolution taught Hegel that Rousseau’s general will is too abstract and is liable to be interpreted by a single individual, such as Robespierre. The general will sustains a framework of well-ordered rules which confer rights and duties on members of society, which allows them to live autonomously, and therefore in freedom. Hegel discusses what these rights and duties are. He starts with property rights (ownership being an enabler for control and therefore freedom). These rights can be conferred by work. Hegel knew that the labourer did not achieve part ownership of the object he worked on but instead received payment, and that a legal system is required to ensure agreement on the value of work.

A legal system can also manage the transfer of ownership and distinguish between legitimate transfer and theft. To ensure freedom from theft, society must imbue people with a sense of morality. Penalties work as a deterrent (so if successful will not be required to be used), and social pressure is required to induce people to internalise those penalties as part of their conscience. If laws are at odds with our conscience, we are less likely to follow them. Hegel’s definition of morality differs to Kant, who claimed that our morality is governed by rational maxims. In other words, something is immoral if it is contradictory. For example, lying is contradictory because lies fulfil their function if someone believes them to be true, but if everyone lies then the lies will no longer be believed. Hegel implies that this view of morality was responsible for the descent of the French Revolution into terror. The combination of an extreme moral individualism (Kant insisted the individual’s reason is the final court of judgement above all else) and an extreme rationalism allowed the likes of Robespierre to believe themselves morally infallible, and therefore believe their opponents to be mad or evil. Hegel’s slogan that the truth lies in the whole meant that morality must consider the needs and values of society as a whole.

Family, civil society, and the state

Hegel also discusses the institutions of a rational modern political community, and groups them into the family, civil society, and the state. The family (meaning nuclear family) is naturally held together by the affection between individuals. The key purpose of the family is to prepare children for a life as adults within civil society. Hegel was novel in making a clear distinction between civil society and the state. Civil society is based on contractual relationships built on individual self-interest. Our actions are not coordinated by a rational will but by Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ – we are motivated by self-interest, but by promoting our own interests we promote the general interest. This requires a regulated capitalist economy with a society split into three social classes – those in the landed economy, the non-landed economy, and administrators / officials (appointed on merit). This emphasis on administrators is consistent with Saint-Simon’s view on the importance of experts to manage an industrial society. Hegel also identifies the under and unemployed as a fourth social element, which if unmanaged will agitate and torment society. Hegel agreed that capitalism during his time created too many unwanted side effects (e.g. unpredictable food supplies and economies which could lead to famine and destroy livelihoods) but believed they could be managed by greater government regulation. Marx countered that the associated loss of income would not be acceptable to capitalists. Hegel came close to justifying the modern welfare state by highlighting the virtues of official provision over the vagaries of individual charity. He also noted the possibility of indiscriminate welfare affecting the self-respect of its recipients.

The final aspect of a modern political community is the state. Hegel’s description of the state consists of three elements; the constitution, international relations, and the stage of world history. The state should be led by a constitutional monarch, with the Montesquieuan separation of powers into executive, legislative and judiciary. Hegel was critical of democracy. He favoured a limited franchise, a strong aristocratic element in parliament and Burke’s representative rather than delegate style of parliamentarian. The essence of the state is the unconditionality of our allegiance, hence Hegel’s disdain for the idea of a social contract with the state. This raises the question of whether people can be citizens rather than subjects. People know in broad terms when things are going well or not, but only experts can make policy in a complex modern society. The ultimate right of the state is to send its people to war. States must employ force in a measured fashion to secure national objectives. As Clausewitz said, war is the promotion of policy by other means.

Strong cultures, such as those of ancient Persia and Greece, are actors in world history and allow mankind to progress. The ultimate purpose of the state is to shelter the culture of its society, and the freedom this entails. Since the renaissance political thinkers had been grappling with the challenge of how to re-create the society of ancient Athens in the modern world. Hegel said that we should not try, and instead rationalised the modern state as a third way. This was a balance; it guaranteed a substantial individual freedom but ensured a strong and effectively administered state.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:




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