Universal Spirit and Utopia

November 13, 2015

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel posits the idea of a universal spirit in his Philosophy of History. He bases his idea off of various historical accounts of specific civilizations, which found the backbone structure of this universal spirit. A focus on the general patterns of history grants an enlarged view of what society (as a structure) wants. The attainment of these desires can be achieved only through trial and error. In other words, Hegel believes that a universal human spirit gains knowledge from each style of society and from there accepts the most useful aspects and discards the least useful. The full understanding of this idea leads to a kind of post-apocalyptic view of human spirit which could work to overpower the human individual, the very thing it exists to support. Hegel writes, “In its work it is employed in rendering itself an object of its own contemplation; but it cannot develop itself objectively in its essential nature, except in thinking itself.” This ability to think develops from individual thoughts and society structures.

It is a fun experiment to look at and wonder at examples of societies that exist just outside the periphery of the norm. For example, what would the universal spirit do with a town like “Jimville”, as retold by Mary Austin? She writes, “You could not think of Jimville as anything more than a survival, like the herb-eating, bony-cased old tortoise that pokes cheerfully about those borders some thousands of years beyond his proper epoch.” Austin calls herself merely a reporter, but the colorful speech and sarcastic tone proves of her appreciation. She clearly believes that Jimville is a worthwhile place, a collection of society that we often do not see or acknowledge. And therefore, she writes about it. It is possible that her simple act may be the thing that grants Jimville a place among the universal spirit.

Austin writes: “Jimville does not know a great deal about the crust of the earth, it prefers a 'hunch'. That is an intimation from the gods that if you go over a brown back of the hills, by a dripping spring, up Coso way, you will find what is worth while. I have never heard that the failure of any particular hunch disproved the principle. Somehow the rawness of the land favors the sense of personal relation to the supernatural. There is not much intervention of crops, cities, clothes, and manners between you and the organizing forces to cut off communication. All this begets in Jimville a state that passes explanation unless you will accept an explanation that passes belief. Along with killing and drunkenness, coveting of women, charity, simplicity, there is a certain indifference, blankness, emptiness if you will, of all vaporings, no bubbling of the pot – it wants the German to coin a word for that – no bread-envy, no brother-fervor. Western writers have not sensed it yet; they smack the savor of lawlessness too much upon their tongues, but you have these to witness it is not mean-spiritedness. It is pure Greek in that it represents the courage to sheer off what is not worth while. Beyond that it endures without sniveling, renounces without self-pity, fears no death, rates itself not too great in the scheme of things; so do beasts, so did St. Jerome in the desert, so also in the elder day did gods. Life, its performance, cessation, is no new thing to gape and wonder at.”

What is this view of life that Austin finds so spectacular and raw? Furthermore, what use would Hegel's idea of a universal spirit have use for Jimville? Would it be discarded? Improved upon? Or completely ignored? Hegel's philosophy spans an incredible distance, in terms of both geography and time. His point, however, is that human history does not trace that much in terms of the history of the universe. Likewise, it also proves that an average human lifetime is not much. In that short amount of time, the mind attempts to come to terms with a space of time much greater than itself, but also, in comprehending the universe, the mind participates with it. Austin writes about a very specific moment and very specific characters with names such as 'Three Finger' and 'Pike Wilson'. The specificity of this universe must, in some way, interact with the larger picture, but the question is how.

Writing about an expansive measure of time, as Hegel does, creates problems. In order to overcome these problems, Hegel limits his definition of societies to those which make a mark on the development of human spirit. Things such as truth, development or progress and written texts mark his understanding of history. These ideas then combine into a universal presence: the disembodied human spirit. Hegel continues, “At this point, then, spirit is acquainted with its principles – the general character of its acts. But at the same time, in virtue of its very generality, this work of thought is different in point of form from the actual achievements of the national genius, and from the vital agency by which those achievements have been performed. We have then before us a real and an ideal existence of the spirit of the nation. If we wish to gain the general idea and conception of what the Greeks were, find it in Sophocles and Aristophanes, in Thucydides and Plato. In these individuals the Greek spirit conceived and thought itself. This is the profounder kind of satisfaction which the spirit of a people attains; but it is the 'ideal,' and distinct from its 'real' activity.” In other words, Jimville represents a 'real' existence, but it is unclear whether or not it has a place in the 'ideal' existence.

Mary Austin clearly appreciates Jimville. This marginalized society has made a personal impression upon Austin's spirit. She carries away an important lesson from this seemingly unsavory society. It is possible that small, microcosmic societies such as Jimville could be overlooked, certainly in Hegel's explanation of the idea of the universal spirit, but also in the general makeup of this spirit. If that is the case, then what does that mean for Hegel's theory itself, or the presence of a universal human spirit?

Does this universal spirit hope to create some sort of a future utopia? If so, what would that look like? Check this blog next week for another discussion of utopia/dystopia.

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