The Phenomenology of Mind, by G. W. F. Hegel

c

The Condition of Right or Legal Status

Translator’s comments: A further step in the realization of the principle of coherent sociality is reached when the individual is invested with the universality of the social order by definite enactments of the controlling agency of the social whole. His contingency as an individual is removed by his being expressly treated as a focal unity of the whole order, whose very existence is staked on maintaining him as a emit with a universal significance, and which stands or falls by maintaining him in this condition. The universal order is in this case no longer merely implicit, merely a matter of routine and custom; it is openly and objectively expressed in and through each individual component of society. The form this takes is the differentiation of the social substance into a totality of “persons”, each and all invested with express universal, or legally acknowledged, significance. This is the sphere of legal personality, or of individuality constituted by a system of Rights. It is a supreme achievement of social existence, and the highest attainment of coherent social experience. Hence the present section.

This is a condition or stage in every developed community. But the specific historical material for this section is derived from the law — constituted social order of the Roman Empire, especially the Empire under the Antonines. Here, whether by coincidence or otherwise, the culmination of imperial rule and the “golden age” of law synchronized. The triumph of Roman imperial government and the perfecting of the system of Roman jurisprudence were accomplished during the same period of time, about A.D. 131-235. There is every reason to suppose that the two necessarily arose and fell together, and that the decline and disappearance of the Roman law-constituted state should thus prepare the way for a further achievement of the social spirit of humanity. Hence the historical justification for the transition to the next stage of social life, that of self-discordant spiritual existence.

With this section should be read Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Part III, especially the introduction to this part, and Sect. III, c. 1., “Rome under the Emperors.”

The Condition of Right or Legal Status

THE general comprehensive unity, into which the living immediate unity of individuality and the ethical substance falls back, is the soulless (geistlos) community, which has ceased to be the unselfconscious(1) substance of individuals, and in which they now, each in his separate individual existence, count as selves and substances with a being of their own. The universal being thus split up into the atomic units of a sheer plurality of individuals, this inoperative, lifeless spirit is a principle of equality in which all count for as much as each, i.e. have the significance of Persons. What in the realm of the ethical life was called the hidden divine law has in fact come out of concealment to the light of actuality. In the former the individual was, and was counted, actual merely as a blood relation, merely as sharing in the general life of the family. Qua particular individual, he was the selfless departed spirit; now, however, he has come out of his unreality. Because the ethical substance is only objective, “true”, spirit, the individual on that account turns back to the immediate certainty of his own self; he is that substance qua positive universal, but his actuality consists in being a negative universal self.

We saw the powers and forms of the ethical world sink in the bare necessity of mere Destiny. This power of the ethical world is the substance turning itself back into its ultimate and simple nature. But that absolute being turning back into itself, that very necessity of characterless Destiny, is nothing else than the Ego of self-consciousness.

This, therefore, is taken henceforth as the absolutely real, as the ultimate self-contained reality. To be so acknowledged is its substantiality; but this is abstract universality, because its content is this rigid self, not the self dissolved in the substance.

Personality, then, has here risen out of the life and activity of the ethical substance. It is the condition in which the independence of consciousness has actual concrete validity. The unrealized abstract thought of such independence, which arises through renouncing actuality, was at an earlier stage before our notice in the form of “Stoical self-consciousness”. Just as the latter was the outcome of “Lordship and Bondage”,(2) the mode in which self-consciousness exists immediately — so personality is the outgrowth of the immediate life of spirit which is the universal controlling will of all, as well as their dutiful obedience and submissive service. What in Stoicism was implicit merely in an abstract way, is now an explicit concrete world. Stoicism is nothing else than the mood of consciousness which reduces to its abstract form the principle of legal status, the principle of the sphere of right — an independence devoid of the qualities of spirit (geistlos). By its flight from actuality it attained merely the idea of independence: it is absolutely subjective, exists solely for itself, in that it does not link its being to anything that exists, but is prepared to give up every kind of existence, and places its essential meaning in the unity of mere thinking. In the same manner, the “right” of a “person” is not linked on to a richer or more powerful existence of the individual qua individual, nor again connected with a universal living spirit, but, rather, is attached to the mere unit of its abstract reality, or to that unit qua self-consciousness in general.

Now just as the abstract independence of Stoicism set forth the stages of its actualization, so, too, this last form of independence [Personality] will recapitulate the process of the former mode. The former Stoicism] passes over into the state of sceptical confusion, into a broken gibber of negation, which without adopting any permanent form strays from one contingent mode of being and thinking to another, dissipates them indeed in absolute independence, but just as readily creates them again once more. In fact, it is simply the contradiction of consciousness claiming to be at once independent and yet devoid of independence. In like manner, the personal independence characteristic of the sphere of right is really a similar universal confusion and reciprocal dissolution of this kind. For what passes for the absolute essential reality is self-consciousness in the sense of the bare empty unit of the person. As against this empty universality, the substance has the form of what supplies the filling and the content; and this content is now left completely detached and disconnected; for the spirit, which kept it in subjection and held it together in its unity, is no longer present. The empty unit of the person is, therefore, as regards its reality, an accidental existence, a contingent insubstantial process and activity that comes to no durable subsistence. Just as was the case in Scepticism, the formalism of “right” is, thus, by its very conception, without special content; it finds at its hand the fact of “possession,” a fact subsisting in multiplicity, and imprints thereon the abstract universality, by which it is called “property”— the same sort of abstraction as Scepticism made use of. But while the reality so determined is in Scepticism called a mere appearance, “mere semblance”, and has merely a negative value, in the case of right it has a positive significance. The negative value in the former case consists in the real having the meaning of self qua thought, qua inherent universal; the positive significance in the latter case, however, consists in its being mine in the sense of the category, as something whose validity is admitted, recognized, and actual. Both are the same abstract universal, The actual content, the proper value of what is “mine”-whether it be an external possession, or again inner riches or poverty of mind and character-is not contained in this empty form and does not concern it. The content belongs, therefore, to a peculiar specific power, which is something different from the formal universal, is chance and caprice. Consciousness of right, therefore, even in the very process of making its claim good, experiences the loss of its own reality, discovers its complete lack of inherent substantiality; and to describe an individual as a “person” is to use-an expression of contempt.

The free and unchecked power possessed by the content takes determinate shape in this way. The absolute plurality of dispersed atomic personalities is, by the nature of this characteristic feature, gathered at the same time into a single centre, alien to them and just as devoid of the life of spirit (geistlos). That central point is, in one respect, like the atomic rigidity of their personality, a merely single reality; but in contrast to their empty singleness, it has the significance of the entire content, and hence is taken to be the essential element; while again, in contrast to their pretended absolute, but inherently insubstantial, reality it is the universal power, and absolute actuality. This “lord and master of the world” takes himself in this way to be the absolute person, comprising at the same time all existence within himself, for whom there exists no higher type of spirit. He is a person: but the solitary single person who has taken his stand confronting all. These all constitute and establish the triumphant universality of the one person; for the single being, as such, is truly what it is only qua universal plurality of single units: cut off from this plurality, the solitary and single self is, in fact, a powerless and unreal self. At the same time, it is the consciousness of the content which is antithetically opposed to that universal personality. This content, however, when liberated from its negative power, means chaos of spiritual powers,, which, when let loose, become elemental independent agencies, break out into wild extravagances and excesses, and fall on one another in mad destruction. Their helpless self-consciousness is the powerless inoperative enclosure and the arena of their chaotic tumult. But this master and lord of the world, aware of his being the sum and substance of all actual powers, is the titanic self-consciousness, which takes itself to be the living God. Since, however, he exists merely qua formal self, which is unable to tame and subdue those powers, his procedure and his self-enjoyment are equally titanic excess.(3)

The lord of the world becomes really conscious of what he is — viz. the universal might of actuality — by that power of destruction which he exercises against the contrasted selfhood of his subjects. For his power is not the spiritual union and concord in which the various persons might get to know their own self-consciousness. Rather they exist as persons separately for themselves, and all continuity with others is excluded from the absolute punctual atomicity of their nature. They are, therefore, in a merely negative relation, a relation of exclusion both to one another and to him, who is their principle of connexion or continuity. Qua this continuity, he is the essential being and content of their formal nature — a content, however, foreign to them, and a being hostile in character, which abolishes just what they take, to be their very essence, viz. bare self-existence without any content, mere empty independent existence each on its own account. And, again, qua the continuity of their personality, he destroys this very personality itself. Juridical personality thus finds itself, rather, without any substance of its own, since content alien to it is imposed on it and holds good within it-and does so there, because such content is the reality of that type of personality. On the other hand the passion for destroying and turning over everything on this unreal field gains for itself the consciousness of its complete supremacy. But this self is sheer devastation, and hence is merely beside itself, and is indeed the very abandonment and rejection of its own self-consciousness.

Such, then, is the constitution of that aspect in which self-consciousness qua absolute being is actual. The consciousness, however, that is driven back into itself out of this actuality, thinks this its insubstantiality, makes it an object of thought. Formerly we saw the stoical independence of pure thought pass through Scepticism and find its true issue in the “unhappy consciousness”-the truth about what constitutes its inherent and explicit nature, its final meaning. If this knowledge appeared at that stage merely as the one-sided view of a consciousness qua consciousness, here the actual truth of that view has made its appearance. The truth consists in the fact that this universal accepted objectivity of self-consciousness is reality estranged from it. This objectivity is the universal actuality of the self; but this actuality is directly the perversion of the self as well-it is the loss of its essential being. The reality of the self that was not found in the ethical world, has been gained by its reverting into the “person”. What in the case of the former was all harmony and union, comes now on the scene, no doubt in developed form, but self-estranged.

1. Reading “selbstbewusstlose” (1st ed.).

2. v. p. 229 ff.

3. Cp. with the above Hobbes’ Leviathan. The historical reference here is to the “apotheosis” of the Roman Emperors.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38