Elements of the Philosophy of Right


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right (German: Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts) was published in 1820, though the book's original title page dates it to 1821. This work is Hegel's most mature statement of his legal, moral, social and political philosophy and is an expansion upon concepts only briefly dealt with in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, published in 1817 (and again in 1827 and 1830). Law provides for Hegel the cornerstone of the modern state. As such, he criticized Karl Ludwig von Haller's The Restoration of the Science of the State, in which the latter claimed that law was superficial, because natural law and the "right of the most powerful" was sufficient (§258). The absence of law characterized for Hegel despotism, whether monarchist or ochlocracist (§278).

The Philosophy of Right (as it is usually called) begins with a discussion of the concept of the free will and argues that the free will can only realize itself in the complicated social context of property rights and relations, contracts, moral commitments, family life, the economy, the legal system, and the polity. A person is not truly free, in other words, unless he is a participant in all of these different aspects of the life of the state.

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing Hegel's three spheres of versions of 'right,' each one larger than the preceding ones and encompassing them. The first sphere is abstract right (Recht), in which Hegel discusses the idea of 'non-interference' as a way of respecting others. He deems this insufficient and moves onto the second sphere, morality (Moralität). Under this, Hegel proposes that humans reflect their own subjectivity of others in order to respect them. The third sphere, ethical life (Sittlichkeit), is Hegel's integration of individual subjective feelings and universal notions of right. Under ethical life, Hegel then launches into a lengthy discussion about family, civil society, and the state.

Hegel also argues that the state itself is subsumed under the higher totality of world history, in which individual states arise, conflict with each other, and eventually fall. The course of history is apparently toward the ever-increasing actualization of freedom; each successive historical epoch corrects certain failures of the earlier ones. At the end of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel leaves open the possibility that history has yet to accomplish certain tasks related to the inner organization of the state.

There were a number of issues that arose during the translation of the text. Most notably the phrase that is contained in the addition to §258, which was initially translated as "The state is the march of God through the world" as well as being translated thus: "The existence of the state is the presence of God upon the earth". From these early translations came the criticism that Hegel justifies authoritarian or even totalitarian forms of government; Benedetto Croce, whose thought had a strong influence on Mussolini, bases his Hegelian revival on this point. However, Walter Kaufmann argues that the correct translation reads as follows: "It is the way of God in the world, that there should be a state".[1] This suggests that the state, rather than being godly, is part of the divine strategy, not a mere product of human endeavor. Kaufmann claims that Hegel's original meaning of the sentence is not a carte blanche for state dominance and brutality but merely a reference to the state's importance as part of the process of history.

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