Was Hegel a Hermetic occultist? Maybe. Glen Magee takes us on a tour of Hegel’s writings, but unlike other Hegel scholars, Magee places Hegel against the occultic backdrop of his homeland and upbringing. This allows Magee to take seriously the Hermetic references Hegel makes.
But before we can answer that question, we must define Hermeticism. It is a broad tradition of thought that grew out of the writings of Hermes and was expanded and further developed through the infusion of other traditions: alchemy, Kabbalism, mysticism, etc (Magee 1). Magee argues that there are striking similarities and correspondences between Hegel’s thought and theosophic hermeticism: Masonic subtext of initiatory mysticism in Phenomenology, A Boehmian subtext to the Preface of Phenomenology, Kabbalism in his doctrine of Objective Spirit, and Alchemical images in Phil. of Right.
Hegel’s journals included diagrams which could only be found in hermetic grimoires. Later in life he began to publicly identify with occultic figures (4). Hegel knew that men like Boehme and others were tagged as hermetics and if he publicly identified with their teachings, he knew he would be seen as a hermeticist.
Magee, following Dame Frances Yates, gives a brilliant overview of Hermetic history in the Renaissance.
THE CASE BEGINS
While we have no evidence that Hegel was a Masonic initiate, he collaborated with Masons, wrote Masonic poetry to Masons, and otherwise breathed the hermetic and theosophic air of Swabia.
Whatever else one may think about Freemasonry, and regardless of which conspiracies are true (and no doubt they all are), Freemasonry became a repository for hermetic ideas (53). Unlike their Scottish counterparts, German lodges “were teeming with magical, theosophical, mystical ideas” (56).
We know that Hegel was influenced by Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise (55) and Lessing was a Mason.
Mythology of Reason
Hegel thought a completed philosophy should be accessible to all, albeit in different degrees.
Memory as Occultic Practice
“Philosophy establishes nothing new; what we have brought forth by our reflection is what everyone already took for granted without reflection” (Hegel, EL, 22, quoted in Magee 85).
Hegel acknowledges he is within the mystical tradition (EL, 82).
Memory mediates a society’s passing down of Absolute Spirit (Magee 87).
Magee posits the Mythology of Reason as the key to unlocking Hegel (88).
Speculative Philosophy holds up a mirror (speculum) to the Idea itself: it allows the Idea to comprehend itself (88). In fact, following the Kabbalist tradition, the “mirror” allows one to behold the deeper essence of Spirit (120).
Hegel’s thought seeks to unify conceptual thinking with mythopoetic thinking (91).
Hegel’s Magic Words are the categories of his philosophy. Our access to recollection/Memory is through Imagination (93). Hegel does not seek to tell us what “Substance” or “Absolute” is; it seeks to bring it into being.
This brings us back to the Hermetic Art of Memory. “Imagination” is to evoke from memory the Perennial Philosophy. In other words, to echo Jung, it draws out from within the unconscious.
Kant and the Triads
Hegel said Kant rediscovered (wiedergefundne) the teaching about triads, the triadic form (100, PG 29, 37), thus implying it is a perennial idea. Most importantly, Hegel says Kant rediscovered it, not that it derives from Kant.
Hegel saw Hermetism and Alchemy as manifestations of a collective subconscious and that is how he could take them seriously (Magee 103).
The Divine Triangle
A triangle of Triangles, where each center was also a perimeter. The triangle also has planetary and alchemical symbols. Then there is a letter Hegel wrote to the magician Windischmann on the latter’s mental torments (116). Magee argues that the triangle represents a turning point, a “nocturnal contraction of his essence.”
Aristotle had made a connection between aether and pneuma (Generation of Animals 736b29-737a1). The element in the stars is aether. Insofar as we are capable of receiving that form, we have astral substance.
Hegel drew upon the implicit Hermetic and Boehmian influences of his upbringing in writing PG. We can see a Hermetic Structure:
A = A; All is one (hen kai pan). This is the mystical doctrine of “coincidence of opposites).
Hegel floods his works with alchemical references like “the foaming chalice.” This allows Hegel to identify Spirit with the Infinite, thus avoiding a bad infinity (147). At the end of this Grail Quest Hegel has claimed to attain “Absolute Knowing.”
Hegel holds that the Infinite and the Eternal must be knowable (152).
Moments of the Absolute:
1.Categories of the real and categories of Human Thought
2. The Totality of Conditions is itself the Unconditioned.
3. This is the ding-an-sich.
4. If we can know the totality of conditions, then we can know the thing in itself.
5. The finite things that appear to us are manifestations of the Infinite.
“Mutating the categories”
Magee suggests that these categories–based on certain passages–correspond to Minds (EL, sec. 24 passim). Hegel refers to Logic as “the realm of shades” (Science of Logic, III:47). Could we then read these “minds” as “hypostases”? In any case, is Hegel seeing them as Archetypes, or perhaps shadow-archetypes?
As they stand, these categories/ideas are empty and abstract. Hegel’s concept of the Ungrund corresponds to the ancient idea of aether. It is an ultimate, dynamic ground of all being. It is God as unrealized. This is Pure Indeterminacy.
Hegel sees “Essence” as the abstract caput mortuum (165). It is the negated definition of the Absolute Idea. It “dies” and “falls away,” yet it is the material used for further stages in the dialectic. Thus, there is a parallel between dialectic and alchemical transmutation.
We can take our earlier identification of Ungrund = aether and add a new term:
Undgrund = aether = En Sof.
It is from En Sof that the flame begins.
En Sof can parallel Ayin (or Nothing). So Absolute Infinite = Absolute Nothing. This is the primal unity that transcends subject-object distinctions. It’s telos is to develop into a true Subject.
Ayin is to become Ani (Hebr. “I”)
The Sepiroth in Kabbalah delineates the stages of God’s self-realization (169).
The Four Elements
When Hegel speaks of the square he generally has in mind the four elements (192). The triangle is the symbolic form of spirit, the square of nature. Hegel is saying that man’s consciousness exists within these four elements. And by Hegel’s time, Magee notes, the “four elements/square” had become so connected with alchemy that one couldn’t dissociate the images (193). Further, magicians and alchemists routinely made tables where the elements of one sphere corresponded to the elements of another. Hegel makes such an association in Phil. Nature, sec. 280).
Is Hegel a Hermetic? While we don’t have any journal that says, “Today I embraced Hermeticism,” we can see that he came from an occultic background, utilized occultic symbols, identified with occultic figures in public at the end of his career, and otherwise followed the same Occultic path.
2 thoughts on “Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition”
This was a fantastic intro into this. I am curious how much triads hid beneath a veneer of Trinity, and how much Christian images or thematics were repurposed to shade, or be retooled, for gnostic/thaumaturgy/hermeticism that existed underground (or, perhaps in certain periods, rather above ground, almost blatantly so).
Glad I could help. I’ve been a critical reader of Hegel for years now. I think one could find “triadic” structures in the natural/logical/hermetic realm if you looked hard enough. But until the advent of Christianity it wasn’t relevant to label them as such.
Joseph Farrell suggests that Justinian forced the neo-Platonists underground where they rose again as the Knights Templars. I’m undecided on that thesis, as my family comes from the Saint-Clairs/Sinclairs.