With Hegel, philosophy became very difficult indeed, requiring the utmost concentration. Hegel once conceded that ‘only one man understands me, and even he does not’. Some critics consider that here Hegel was exaggerating. Did this man ever really exist?
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on 27 August 1770, in Stuttgart. His family had for generations been civil servants, and his father worked in the Württemberg tax office. Hegel’s upbringing gave him a heavy Swabian accent which he retained to the end of his days, as well as the belief that self-effacement is one of the cardinal virtues of true culture. He was a sickly child and was to suffer from several bouts of serious illness before he reached manhood. At the age of six he caught such a bad case of smallpox that he nearly died. For more than a week he was blinded, and his complexion remained badly pockmarked. At the age of eleven he survived the fever that struck his entire family and carried off his mother. And during his student years he was laid low for several months by a malarial infection.
As Hegel grew up he read omnivorously – through literature, newspapers, and treatises on almost any subject he could find. Yet even at an early age he already believed in a strictly systematic approach, meticulously copying out in his journal excerpts from all he read. This thorough training in pedantry (his ‘excerpt mill’, as he called it) contained quotations on everything, from physiognomy to philosophy, from hyperboreans to hypochondria. Personal matters were included in this journal only when they illuminated an abstract principle. And on days when he found nothing serious enough to record, Hegel took this seriously enough to record why such a lamentable state of affairs had occurred.
Avid scholarly readers of this junk shop of the mind may come across side by side a report of a local fire and a criticism of a concert he has attended, followed by a description and analysis of the cold weather, a brief treatise on the homily ‘Love of money is the root of all evil’, and a list of the merits he has discerned in the Latin dictionary he has just received as a present. One scholarly reader notes: ‘He composes a Latin oration, he argues against dictating a theme in German for transcription into Latin, he puts down his school timetable in the margin, he says that he and his friends watched pretty girls, he makes notes on Virgil and Demosthenes, he is curious about a musical clock and a star atlas, and on Sunday he works on trigonometry’.
An encyclopaedic mind
It is difficult to overemphasise the importance of this ‘excerpt mill’ – as an illustration both of exceptional learning and of premature desiccation. In later life Hegel’s mammoth tomes were to contain references to an almost superhuman breadth of learning. The fact that these references often contained minor errors only confirms the encyclopedic volume of Hegel’s mind. They were invariably quoted from memory – Hegel was averse to interrupting his train of thought by looking up sources or checking quotations.
Hegel’s father was ‘a man of orderly habits and the conservative instincts natural to his place’, according to Hegel’s early biographer Caird. This archetypical employee of the provincial tax office appears to have been a somewhat distant father.
Brother and sister
Hegel’s closest human contact during this period was his sister Christiane, who was three years his junior. The motherless pair developed a strong affection for each other. The abstract principle that Hegel elicited from this rare personal emotion was that a sister’s love for her brother is the highest form of love. In his later philosophy he was to illustrate this by citing Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the dutiful Antigone is willing to face death in order to bury her brother’s corpse, and then commits suicide, an act that results in further suicides and desolation. As we shall see, the charged atmosphere of this Greek tragedy mirrored the underlying psychological truth of the relationship between Hegel and his sister. The impressionable Christiane was overwhelmed by her all-knowing brother, and her love for him developed into an unnaturally strong bond which was to have tragic consequences.