Hegel was born in 1770. So, incidentally, were Beethoven and Wordsworth. In the same year Kant published his inaugural dissertation on ‘The Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World’, and Goethe was twenty years old. Thus Hegel, who died in 1831, lived through Germany’s intellectual and artistic zenith. His statement that he finished the Phanomenologie at midnight on the eve of the battle of Jena links him significantly with the vast and violent political changes of his time.
He was no recluse in his practical life, and no intellectual hermit. For some years he exercised great political influence in Prussia, and if as a philosopher he is a spectator of eternity, yet he was also eminently a son of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany. In his time German culture had spread-sometimes sprawled-with burning enthusiasm in all directions. When Hegel wrote, Goethe, whom one of his biographers has called ‘a complete civilization in himself-was continuing to draw poetic inspiration from an astonishing number of sources, and to play the seer, sometimes with considerable success, in the realms of natural science.
Hegel confessed himself Goethe’s spiritual son. Although the poet failed to make much of the philosopher’s writings, there is truth in the suggestion that Goethe’s ideal of self-culture has its philosophic implication in Hegel’s gigantic effort to penetrate the whole world of experience with his principles; an enterprise in which he blended, one might say, the undaunted industry of a Wagner with the brilliant insight of a Faust, and salted the mixture with a strong touch of Mephistophelian irony. Nor was Goethe more than perhaps the greatest of contemporary influences upon him. A man, Hegel insists, can as soon jump out of his skin as out of the age in which he lives, and he himself was fired by all the divers aspirations of a great historical period…
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