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

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The Abstract Work of Art

THE first work of art is, because immediate, abstract and particular. As regards itself, it has to move away from this immediate and objective phase towards self-consciousness, while, on the other side, the latter for itself endeavours in the “cult” to do away with the distinction, which it at first gives itself in contrast to its own spirit, and by so doing to produce a work of art inherently endowed with life.

The first way in which the artistic spirit keeps as far as possible removed from each other its shape and its active consciousness, is immediate in character — the shape assumed is there as a “thing” in general. It breaks up into the distinction of individualness which has the shape of the self, and universality, which presents the inorganic nature in reference to the shape adopted, and is its environment and habitation. This shape assumed obtains its pure form, the form belonging to spirit, by the whole being raised into the sphere of the pure notion. It is not the crystal, belonging as we saw to the level of understanding, a form which housed and covered a lifeless element, or is shone upon externally by a soul. Nor, again, is it that commingling of

the forms of nature and thought, which first arose in connexion with plants, thought’s activity here being still an imitation. Rather the notion strips off the remnant of root, branches, and leaves, still clinging to the forms, purifies the forms, and makes them into figures in which the crystal’s straight lines and surfaces are raised into incommensurable relations, so that the animation of the organic is taken up into the abstract form of understanding, and, at the same time, its essential nature-incommensurability-is preserved for understanding.

The indwelling god, however, is the black stone extracted from the animal encasement,(1) and suffused with the light of consciousness. The human form strips off the animal character with which it was mixed up. The animal form is for the god merely an accidental vestment; the animal appears alongside its true form,(2) and has no longer a value on its own account, but has sunk into being a significant sign of something else, has become a mere symbol. By that very fact, the form assumed by the god in itself casts off even the restrictions of the natural conditions of animal existence, and hints at the internal arrangements of organic life melted down into the surface of the form, and pertaining only to this surface.

The essential being of the god, however, is the unity of the universal existence of nature and of self-conscious spirit which in its actuality appears confronting the former. At the same time, being in the first instance an individual shape, its existence is one of the elements of nature, just as its self-conscious actuality is a particular national spirit.(3) But the former is, in this unity, that element reflected back into spirit, nature made transparent by thought and united with self-conscious life. The form of the gods retains, therefore, within it its nature element as something transcended, as a shadowy, obscure memory. The utter chaos and confused struggle amongst the elements existing free and detached from each other, the non-ethical disordered realm of the Titans, is vanquished and banished to the outskirts of self-transparent reality, to the cloudy boundaries of the world which finds itself in the sphere of spirit and is there at peace. These ancient gods, first-born children of the union of Light with Darkness, Heaven, Earth, Ocean, Sun, earth’s blind typhonic Fire, and so on, are supplanted by shapes, which do but darkly recall those earlier titans, and which are no longer things of nature, but clear ethical spirits of self-conscious nations.

This simple shape has thus destroyed within itself the dispeace of endless individuation, the individuation both in the life of nature, which operates with necessity only qua universal essence, but is contingent in its actual existence and process; and also in the life of a nation, which is scattered and broken into particular spheres of action and into individual centres of self-consciousness, and has an existence manifold in action and meaning. All this individuation the simplicity of this form has abolished, and brought together into an individuality at peace with itself. Hence the condition of unrest stands contrasted with this form; confronting quiescent individuality, the essential reality, stands self-consciousness, which, being its source and origin, has nothing left over for itself except to be pure activity. What belongs to the substance, the artist imparted entirely to his work; to himself, however, as a specific individuality he gave in his work no reality. He could only confer completeness on it by relinquishing his particular nature, divesting himself of his own being, and rising to the abstraction of pure action.

In this first and immediate act of production, the separation of the work and his self-conscious activity is not yet healed again. The work is, therefore, not by itself really an animated thing; it is a whole only when its process of coming to be is taken along with it. The obvious and common element in the case of a work of art, that it is produced in consciousness and is made by the hand of man, is the moment of the notion existing qua notion, and standing in contrast to the work produced. And if this notion, qua the artist or spectator, is unselfish enough to declare the work of art to be per se absolutely animated, and to forget himself qua agent or onlooker, then, as against this, the notion of spirit has to be insisted on; spirit cannot dispense with the moment of being conscious of itself. This moment, however, stands in contrast to the work, because spirit, in this its primary disruption, gives the two sides their abstract and specifically contrasted characteristics of “doing” something and of being a “thing”; and their return to the unity they started from has not yet come about.

The artist finds out, then, in his work, that he did not produce a reality like himself. No doubt there comes back to him from his work a consciousness in the sense that an admiring multitude honours it as the spirit, which is their own true nature. But this way of animating his work, since it renders him his self-consciousness merely in the way of admiration, is rather a confession to the artist that the animated work is not on the same level as himself. Since his self comes back to him in the form of gladness in general, he does not find therein the pain of his self-discipline and the pain of production, nor the exertion and strain of his own toil. People may, moreover, judge the work, or bring it offerings and gifts, or endue it with their consciousness in whatever way they like — if they with their knowledge set themselves over it, he knows how much more his act is than what they understand and say; if they put themselves beneath it, and recognize in it their own dominating essential reality, he knows himself as the master of this.

The work of art hence requires another element for its existence; God requires another way of going forth than this, in which, out of the depths of his creative night, he drops into the opposite, into externality, to the character of a “thing” with no self-consciousness. This higher element is that of Language-a way of existing which is directly self-conscious existence. When individual self-consciousness exists in that way, it is at the same time directly a form of universal contagion; complete isolation of independent self-existent selves is at once fluent continuity and universally communicated unity of the many selves; it is the soul existing as soul. The god, then, which takes language as its medium of embodiment, is the work of art inherently animated, endowed with a soul, a work which directly in its existence contains the pure activity which was apart from and in contrast to the god when existing as a “thing” In other words, self-consciousness, when its essential being becomes objective, remains in direct unison with itself. It is, when thus at home with itself in its essential nature, pure thought or devotion, whose inwardness gets at the same time express existence in the Hymn. The hymn keeps within it the individuality of self-consciousness, and this individual character is at the same time perceived to be there universal. Devotion, kindled in every one, is a spiritual stream which in all the manifold self-conscious units is conscious of itself as one and the same function in all alike and a simple state of being. Spirit, being this universal self-consciousness of every one, holds in a single unity its pure inwardness as well as its objective existence for others and the independent self-existence of the individual units.

This kind of language is distinct from another way God speaks, which is not that of universal self-consciousness. The Oracle, both in the case of the god of the religions of art as well as of the preceding religions, is the necessary and the first form of divine utterance. For God’s very principle implies that God is at once the essence of nature and of spirit, and hence has not merely natural but spiritual existence as well. In so far as this moment is merely implied as yet in God’s principle and is not realized in religion, the language used is, for the religious self-consciousness, the speech of an alien and external self-consciousness. The self-consciousness which remains alien and foreign to its religious communion, is not yet there in the way its essential principle requires it should be. The self is simple self-existence, and thereby is altogether universal self-existence; that self, however, which is cut off from the self-consciousness of the communion, is primarily a mere individual self.

The content of this its own peculiar and individual form of speech results from the general determinate character which the Absolute Spirit is affirmed to have in its religion as such. Thus the universal spirit of the Sunrise, which has not yet particularized its existence, utters about the Absolute equally simple and universal statements, whose substantial content is sublime in the simplicity of its truth, but at the same time appears, because of this universality, trivial to the self-consciousness developing further.

The further developed self, which advances to being distinctively for itself, rises above the pure “pathos” of [unconscious] substance, gets the mastery over the objectivity of the Light of the rising Sun, and knows that simplicity of truth to be the inherent reality (das Ansichseyende) which does not possess the form of contingent existence through an utterance of an alien self, but is the sure and unwritten law of the gods, a law that “lives for ever, and no man knows what time it came”.

As the universal truth, revealed by the “Light” of the world, has here returned into what is within or what is beneath, and has thus got rid of the form of contingent appearance; so too, on the other hand, in the religion of art, because God’s shape has taken on consciousness and hence individuality in general, the peculiar utterance of God, who is the spirit of an ethically constituted nation, is the Oracle, which knows its special circumstances and situation, and announces what is serviceable to its interests. Reflective thought, however, claims for itself the universal truths enunciated, because these are known as the essential inherent reality of the nation’s life; and the utterance of them is thus for such reflexion no longer a strange and alien speech, but is its very own. Just as that wise man of old(4) searched in his own thought for what was worthy and good, but left it to his “Daimon” to find out and decide the petty contingent content of what he wanted to know — whether it was good for him to keep company with this or that person, or good for one of his friends to go on a journey, and such like unimportant things; in the same way the universal consciousness draws the knowledge about the contingent from birds, or trees, or fermenting earth, the steam from which deprives the self-conscious mind of its sanity of judgment. For what is accidental is not the object of sober reflexion, and is extraneous; and hence the ethical consciousness lets itself, as if by a throw of the dice, settle the matter in a manner that is similarly unreflective and extraneous. If the individual, by his understanding, determines on a certain course, and selects, after consideration, what is useful for him, it is the specific nature of his particular character which is the ground of this self-determination. This basis is just what is contingent; and that, knowledge which his understanding supplies as to what is useful for the individual, is hence just such a knowledge as that of “oracles” or of the “lot”; only that he who questions the oracle or lot, thereby shows the ethical sentiment of indifference to what is accidental, while the former, on the contrary, treats the inherently contingent as an essential concern of his thought and knowledge. Higher than both, however, is to make careful reflexion the oracle for contingent action, but yet to recognize that this very act reflected on is something contingent, because it refers to what is opportune and has a relation to what is particular.

The true self-conscious existence, which spirit receives in the form of speech, which is not the utterance of an alien and so accidental, i.e. not universal, self-consciousness, is the work of art which we met with before. It stands in contrast to the statue, which has the character of a “thing”. As the statue is existence in a state of rest, the other is existence in a state of transience. In the case of the former, objectivity is set free and is without the immediate presence of a self of its own; in the latter, on the other hand, objectivity is too much confined within the self, attains insufficiently to definite embodiment, and is, like time, no longer there just as soon as it is there.

The religious Cult constitutes the process of the two sides — a process in which the divine embodiment in motion within the pure feeling-element of self-consciousness, and its embodiment at rest in the element of thinghood, reciprocally abandon the different character each possesses, and the unity, which is the underlying principle of their being, becomes an existing fact. Here in the Cult, the self gives itself a consciousness of the Divine Being descending from its remoteness into it, and this Divine Being, which was formerly the unreal and merely objective, thereby receives the proper actuality of self-consciousness.

This principle of the Cult is essentially contained and present already in the flow of the melody of the Hymn. These hymns of devotion are the way the self obtains immediate pure satisfaction through and within itself. It is the soul purified, which, in the purity it thus attains, is immediately and only absolute Being, and is one with absolute Being. The soul, because of its abstract character, is not consciousness distinguishing its object from itself, and is thus merely the night of the object’s existence and the place prepared for its shape. The abstract Cult, therefore, raises the self into being this pure divine element. The soul fulfils the attainment of this purity in a conscious way. Still the soul is not yet the self, which has descended to the depths of its being, and knows itself as evil. It is something that merely is, a soul, which cleanses its exterior with the washing of water, and robes it in white, while its innermost traverses the imaginatively presented path of labour, punishment, and reward, the way of spiritual discipline in general, of relinquishing its particularity — the road by which it reaches the mansions and the fellowship of the blest.

This ceremonial cult is, in its first form, merely in secret, i.e. is a fulfilment accomplished merely in idea, and unreal in fact. It has to become a real act, for an unreal act is a contradiction in terms. Consciousness proper thereby raises itself to the level of its pure self-consciousness. The essential Being has in it the significance of a free object; through the actual cult this object turns back into the self; and in so far as, in pure consciousness, it has the significance of absolute Being dwelling in its purity beyond actual reality, this Being descends, through this mediating process of the cult, from its universality into individual form, and thus combines and unites with actual reality.

The way the two sides make their appearance in the act is of such a character that the self-conscious aspect, so far as it is actual consciousness, finds the absolute Being manifesting itself as actual nature. On the one hand, nature belongs to self-consciousness as its possession and property, and stands for what has no existence per se. On the other hand, nature is its proper immediate reality and particularity, which is equally regarded as not essential, and is superseded. At the same time, that external nature has the opposite significance for its pure consciousness — viz. the significance of being the inherently real, for which the self sacrifices its own [relative] unreality, just as, conversely, the self sacrifices the unessential aspect of nature to itself. The act is thereby a spiritual movement, because it is this double-sided process of cancelling the abstraction of absolute Being (which is the way devotion determines the object), and making it something concrete and actual, and, on the other hand, of cancelling the actual (which is the way the agent determines the object and the self acting), and raising it into universality.

The practice of the religious Cult begins, therefore, with the pure and simple “offering up” or “surrender” of a possession, which the owner, apparently without any profit whatsoever to himself, pours away or lets rise up in smoke. By so doing he renounces before the absolute Being of his pure consciousness all possession and right of property and enjoyment thereof; renounces personality and the reversion of his action to his self; and instead, reflects the act into the universal, into the absolute Being rather than into himself. Conversely, however, the objective ultimate Being too is annihilated in that very process. The animal offered up is the symbol of a god; the fruits consumed are the actual living Ceres and Bacchus. In the former die the powers of the upper law the [Olympians] which has blood and actual life, in the latter the powers of the lower law [the Furies] which possesses in bloodless form secret and crafty power.

The sacrifice of the divine substance, so far as it is active, belongs to the side of self-consciousness. That this concrete act may be possible, the absolute Being must have from the start implicitly sacrificed itself. This it has done in the fact that it has given itself definite existence, and made itself an individual animal and fruit of the earth. The self actively sacrificing demonstrates in actual existence, and sets before its own consciousness, this already implicitly completed self-renunciation on the part of absolute Being; and replaces that immediate reality, which absolute Being has, by the higher, viz. that of the self making the sacrifice. For the unity which has arisen, and which is the outcome of transcending the singleness and separation of the two sides, is not merely negative destructive fate, but has a positive significance. It is merely for the abstract Being of the nether world that the sacrifice offered to it is wholly surrendered and devoted; and, in consequence, it is only for that Being that the reflexion of personal possession and individual self-existence back into the Universal is marked distinct from the self as such. At the same time, however, this is only a trifling part; and the other act of sacrifice is merely the destruction of what cannot be used, and is really the preparation of the offered substance for a meal, the feast that cheats the act out of its negative significance. The person making the offering at that first sacrifice reserves the greatest share for his own enjoyment; and reserves from the latter sacrifice what is useful for the same purpose. This enjoyment is the negative power which cancels the absolute Being as well as the singleness; and this enjoyment is, at the same time, the positive actual reality in which the objective existence of absolute Being is transmuted into self-conscious existence, and the self has consciousness of its unity with its Absolute.

This cult, for the rest, is indeed an actual act, although its meaning lies for the most part only in devotion. What pertains to devotion is not objectively produced, just as the result when confined to the feeling of enjoyment(5) is robbed of its external existence. The Cult, therefore, goes further, and replaces this defect, in the first instance by giving its devotion an objective subsistence, since the cult is the common task-or the individual takes for each and all to do-which produces for the honour and glory of God a House for Him to dwell in and adornment for His presence. By so doing, partly the external objectivity of statuary is cancelled; for by thus dedicating his gifts and his labours the worker makes God well disposed towards him and looks on his self as detached and appertaining to God. Partly, too, this action is not the individual labour of the artist; this particularity is dissolved in the universality. But it is not only the honour of God which is brought about, and the blessing of His countenance and favour is not only shed in idea and imagination on the worker; the work also has a meaning the reverse of the first which was that of self-renunciation and of honour done to what is alien and external. The Halls and Dwellings of God are for the use of man, the treasures preserved there are in time of need his own; the honour which God enjoys in his decorative adornment, is the honour and glory of the artistic and magnanimous nation. At the festival season, the people adorn their own dwellings, their own garments, as well as God’s establishments with furnishings of elegance and grace. In this manner they receive a return for their gifts from a responsive and grateful God; and receive the proofs of His favour-wherein the nation became bound to the God because of the work done for Him-not as a hope and a deferred realization, but rather, in testifying to His honour and in presenting gifts, the nation finds directly and at once the enjoyment of its own wealth and adornment.


1. v. sup., p. 706.

2. e.g. the eagle as the “bird of Zeus”.

3. e.g. Athene.

4. Socrates.

5. i.e. at the feast.

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