By the 19th century, natural rights theory had come under attack from many different angles and fell into disfavor. Providing perhaps the most radical divergence from the natural right, compact theory of statehood was GWF Hegel and his historicism. Hegel placed reason in a primary role infused in history unfolding in time. Right became subservient to the rational will of historical progress. Hegel believed that by his time, history had rationally created the “Germanic Realm” of regimes, the modern state.
Hegel’s strict historicism saw history as a Spirit coming to know itself and unfolding through different stages of consciousness over time. This “absolute” or “universal” Spirit possesses pure rationality because the rational can only be defined in terms of the Spirit itself and its progress. The Spirit progresses through time by working itself out dialectically. Through the conflict of the thesis, as the Spirit presently exists, and the antithesis within it, the Spirit can progress to a new synthesis as the latest expression of history. The Spirit develops rational self-consciousness by knowing itself through the conflict that reveals its next step.
At Hegel’s time, the state represented the fullest expression of the Spirit of that point. The state also thinks and knows itself; it has its own self consciousness (§257). The state has full rationality because it represents actuality of the absolute Spirit in the political realm. Individuals, rather than combining via natural right to create the state, find their rational expression in subjection of their wills to the fully rational will of the state. The state provides objectivity and universality to its individual members as they align with it. Reason is embodied in the state, and rationality comes to the members of the state as its interests are infused into the individual interests (§258). By willing the objective purposes of the state, individuals become reasonable creatures in accordance with the truly rational Spirit of history.
The role of reason in Hegel’s modern state can be more clearly understood in contrast with religion. Whereas the state represents rational will, religion is pure feeling (§270). The state is a rational, thinking thing and must then rule over the passionate, feeling religion. Religion only finds place in the modern state if it pursues objective truth and is actualized by the state. Thus, religion’s importance lies in terms of subjection to the state as feelings should align with and support reason. Religion can be allowed to develop under the auspices of the state in pursuit of rational actuality. The state must defend its own objectivity against the subjective truth of religion (§270). For this reason, science provides a better ally for the state because they are both in terms of actual rational objective truth. Opinions have a role in providing antitheses for the development of the state in terms of the absolute Spirit, but only recognition by the state can make opinion rational.
The subjectivity of individuals and their opinion provide an animating soul for the state as it provides objective self consciousness for them.
The rational will of the state expresses itself in the laws and constitution of that state. Thus the laws of each state represent the good for that particular state as the collective rational will of the subjective individuals within it. This is not through a contract of the wills as natural rights theories would suggest. Instead it is an organic conscious spirit embodying the individuals within it as particular moments of the Absolute spirit fully expressed in the state. Reason moves to actuality in the will of the state, its laws (§258). The constitution like the laws of the state is fully rational. The constitutions of various states arise by the differentiation of each power within the rational concept of the state (§272). The different powers require separation but also interdependence in terms of the organic whole of the Spirit. If the powers become too separate and self-sufficient they essentially create multiple consciousnesses and the state divides. Thus, the constitution must be developed and developing in history (§273). Constitutions cannot just be created by individuals; they grow. The powers of the regime are separated but must express the will of the state to have rational existence.
Most important to the state is the unifying, executive power of the monarch (or executive power) because he gives a human embodiment to the state. The monarch neatly represents in one person the rational self-determination of the state (§275). The monarch provides the visible center of unity in the objective state. The good constitutional monarch simply oversees the administration of the cogs of the state giving his approval to its rational expressions in law. By providing the “I” to the state the monarch facilitates movement of rational thoughts from ideality to actuality through the organism of the modern state. Once again, the contrast should be drawn to the natural right theory which placed the sovereign as the natural end of compact. For Hegel, the monarch is the self-expression of the state (§281) that comes out of the rational state itself, not any natural right.
Right within Hegel’s state cannot be natural in Hobbesian terms, preceding statehood. Instead rights only exist for individuals as recognized by the rational expression of the state in laws (§260). Rights follow from the will of the state and only exist in conjunction with the individual’s duty to unite personal will and interest with the interest of the state (§261). Only when right and duty from the reciprocal relationship of the individuals and objective state are synthesized can true, rational freedom exist. Unity alone is reasonable and provides a basis for rights and freedom. Inasmuch as “rights” exist, they are simply the rights recognized by reason in the thought of the self-conscious state, really civil and historical rights. The institutions of the state provide the avenue for bringing its rationality to individuals. Patriotism causes individuals to habitually will the good of the state (§268). With these united both state and individual have truly rational existence in the Spirit of history.
Externally also, the state must also be fully rational, but war and conflict seem to deny this. Not so for Hegel. War and conflict provide for the dialectic of the Absolute Spirit. Because states are each their own self-conscious unit, the spirit of history alone can judge between them. The result of wars and conflicts in history provide the synthesis between the conflicting rationalities of different states. Individual sacrifice in war is as rational as war itself because it is for duty to the rational state (§325). Externally, Hegel comes closer to Hobbes' state of nature on an international scale. Rather than might alone making right as in the state of nature, it is the rational absolute Spirit that determines the end of international conflict. Rationality is retained and extended to the universal level through the unfolding of the Absolute spirit. Nation states are the highest power on earth (§330) and work together internationally while in conflict. International right can only be understood to exist when recognized rationally by states just as internal right must be expressed in the thought of the state.
Thus, for Hegel history itself is purely rational and reason plays the central demarcating role as history judges between the nation states. The state is the fully rational expression of the spirit of history and history alone judges states. History has progressed to the point of rational statehood as the Germanic realm (§358) in which the human and divine nature are met. The state then truly is “the march of God in the world” (§258).
The development of the modern state up through Hegel can be seen as a tug of war between a deterministic and freedom perspective. This is because the though surrounding it has been a part of the larger dynamic of nature and freedom that has imbued nearly all modern philosophy. Machiavelli argued that the state is all about power and the freedom of the prince to express it. Hobbes agrees but argues the power is not free, but it is determined by nature. Locke, Montesquieu, and the revolutionaries interject that reason tells us that men are free with natural rights prior to the development of the state outlined by Hobbes. Hegel’s historicism provides the new determining mechanism that integrates reason also into the state opposing the natural right theories.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of Right. Trans. Alan Wright. Focus Publishing. R. Pullins Company: Newburyport, MA. 2002. Print.
*This has been adapted from a previous essay entitled, "The Modern State Redefined."