Hegel: The Philosopher of Freedom by Klaus Vieweg,
translated by Sophia Kottman
and Paul A. Kottman

Vasily Grossman’s epic of the siege of Stalingrad, Life and Fate (1980), contains multitudes. In one memorable exchange, Bogoleev—an art historian and poet who reveres Osip Mandelstam and whose mind “was unusual, clearly capable of profound thoughts, but … obsessed with petty everyday matter”—launches into his poems with his fellow inmate at Lubyanka, the old Bolshevik Krymov, before breaking off self-consciously:

“‘I’m sorry. You’re probably not in the least interested.’ Krymov grinned. ‘To be quite honest, I couldn’t understand a word of it. But I read all of Hegel once—and I could understand that.’”

Only an intellectual under Stalin could, in his prison cell, claim to have “read all of Hegel once,” still less to have understood it—and only his younger analogue could have produced anything obscurer than Hegel. Klaus Vieweg labels his new account, Hegel: The Philosopher of Freedom, an “intellectual” biography, and concedes the extent of his challenge: “The task is Herculean, if not Sisyphean.”

To trace the life of someone of Hegel’s profound and varied attainments and historical moment requires sensitivity and range. To attempt, in parallel, to chart Hegel’s scholarly and analytic growth and influences, while elucidating his arcane thought, is to fly directly into the sun.

From Caesar to Napoleon

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770. His cultured mother, Maria, “his childhood North Star,” instructed him in languages but died of typhus when he was 13. It was to remain one of his saddest memories.

Hegel’s birthplace, in Stuttgart.

The young Hegel was, not surprisingly, diligent in his studies, consistently at or near the top of his class, and steeped in the classics. One of his teachers gave him, at the age of nine, an 18-volume set of Shakespeare; for his “absolute oldest and first literary product,” Hegel would mine Julius Caesar (and Plutarch) to place Rome’s bickering second triumvirate in dialogue.

From 1788 to 1793 he attended university at Tübingen, his time there corresponding with the French Revolution, which for Hegel was “the ‘glorious sunrise’ of the modern world,” Vieweg relates, and “the ‘dawn’ of free living.” His roommates were the future philosophers Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. The trio inhabited what Vieweg calls, without much exaggeration, “the most extraordinary student dorm room of all time.”

That Hegel was merely fifth in the 1789 examination rankings is an index of Tübingen’s academic excellence. On the other hand, its restrictions, ritual humiliation, and monastic etiquette were wildly unpopular. The atmosphere, remembered by one of Hölderlin’s friends in terms unlikely to have made the school prospectus, was “unbearable from my first hour to the moment I left.” The compound effect of revolution abroad and constraint at home would find expression in his philosophy.

On graduating, Hegel taught, initially tutoring in Bern. Although he profited from the library of the Steigers, whose son and daughter he tended to—tackling Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Constant, Goethe, and Rousseau—these were largely unhappy years, and it was with considerable relief that he quit to “finally and irrevocably … devote his life to philosophy.”

In Jena, the “New Athens,” where Hegel lived between 1801 and 1807, “he rapidly became the lead actor on the philosophical stage.” He came face-to-face with Napoleon, his contemporary and hero, in October 1806, at the Battle of Jena (“a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, here centered on a point, seated on a horse, straddling and ruling the world”), and dispatched the finished manuscript of The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)—to Vieweg, “the pinnacle of a thousand years of philosophy”—amid cannon fire the next day.

To trace the life of someone of Hegel’s profound and varied attainments and historical moment requires sensitivity and range. Author Klaus Vieweg concedes the extent of his challenge: “The task is Herculean, if not Sisyphean.”

Among Hegel’s later undertakings, beginning with editing the Bamberger Zeitung (1807–8) and ending with his professorship at Heidelberg (1816–18) and “becoming world-famous” in Berlin (1818–31), I found Vieweg’s window into Hegel’s spell as principal of the Aegidianum gymnasium in Nuremberg (1808–16) particularly revealing and illustrative of his sacred commitment to freedom.

An illustration of Napoleon and Hegel in Jena, from an 1895 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

As Vieweg writes, Hegel “supported the all-round education of the individual: not just grammar, logic, and reasoning but also ethics and aesthetics” and, in contrast to Tübingen, believed “school should foster a sense of self, independence, and self-consciousness; it must be understood as a community of learners, not an assembly of masters and servants.” A typically admiring pupil recalled Hegel’s ability to spark “the eternal flame of freedom” and to “inspire in each of us our own path of knowledge and make us more astute.”

Sympathetic and well researched, The Philosopher of Freedom achieves its biographical aims. Unfortunately, readers looking for the passkey to his work will be ill-served. If anything, Vieweg’s explanatory prose may be even more mystifying than Hegel’s.

One characteristic, four-page stretch on The Science of Logic (1812) yields such clarifications as: “Qua reflective negativity, being and nothing are preforms of the other of itself, its radically undetermined logical formation”; “Finitude and infinity as movement, a regress achieved through negation, are no longer immediate but mediated in negating both, the negation of negation”; and “All determination is negation, but this negation is also the negation of negation; its unity is the unity of itself and its other. The opposition between the indeterminacy of the determination being-in-itself and the necessity of being determined, the posited, relational, mediated determinacy, the incompatibility of undifferentiation with itself, sublates itself in the relation to itself, in the generated understanding of undifferentiation as a simple and infinitely negative relation to itself—the paradigm of the concept, which is at one with itself in the other.”

Anyone unfamiliar with the verb “sublate” will marvel at its is-this-a-bet frequency. (Sublate, sublates, self-sublating …) Hegel is no picnic, yet as I staggered on, I began to wonder if Vieweg had not run over his translator Sophia Kottman’s dog and this was some diabolical form of revenge.

Compared with his 20th-century equivalents, Hegel was emotionally stable; he was galvanized rather than depressed by the “great” event (the French Revolution) and man (Napoleon) of his day; and he enjoyed unbookish pleasures: the outdoors, drinking, games. A “card-playing fanatic,” he favored whist, the Revolutionary War–era game Boston, and ombre.

“Freedom,” he concluded in his final lecture in Berlin, “is the innermost thing.” Krymov would surely have agreed.

Max Carter is vice-chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s in New York