What would Kierkegaard and Hegel do about the crises of our day?
By David Lehman
June 9, 2014
These two pieces were discovered among the papers of the late Leon Elson, our one-time financial markets correspondent. A third piece—on Wittgenstein and the Benghazi Truth Commission—was left unfinished at the time of his death.
1. Kierkegaard on the Euro (June 17, 2012)
On the day the yield on the 10-year Spanish bond surged to a euro-era high above seven percent, I had the chance to interview Søren Kierkegaard before a live studio audience. The subject was the Eurozone crisis. Kierkegaard, a senior fellow with the Oscar Peterson Institute for International Economics in Copenhagen, is the author of the classic study in “evenhanded” economic theory, Either / Or, in which, most notoriously, the “Hamlet of continental philosophy” compared investing in stocks to a marriage contract: “Marry or don’t marry—you will regret it either way.” Asked for a forecast of what the market will do, Kierkegaard invariably quotes J. P. Morgan: “It will fluctuate.”
I asked him to recommend a path that flight-to-safety investors might take in this moment of high anxiety. “The flight to safety, which is seemingly the opposite of the leap across the abyss, is paradoxically the same thing,” he said. I waited for a follow-up to this comment, but there was none. “Isn’t that an arbitrary statement?” I said. He didn’t smile. “People usually think it is easy to be arbitrary,” he said, “but it requires much study.”
“What do you say to people who ask you for advice?” “My advice,” he said, “is to think in paradoxes and metaphors derived from the Old Testament and Mozart’s operas.” He spoke about the way the Don treats Zerlina in their duet in the first act of Don Giovanni. I must have looked puzzled, because he quickly added, “She didn’t know how it happened, but it happened, and so she was seduced.” Emboldened by the studio audience’s laughter, I implored him to tell the one about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai the second time. He obliged with a slight nod of his head: “The good news is, I got him down to 10. The bad news is, adultery has to stay.”
I pointed out that unemployment in Greece remained over 25 percent, and the Greeks were pulling their cash out of banks there at the rate of a billion euros a day. Kierkegaard reflected before replying in his deadpan manner that “an awkward moment of silence” might best suit the occasion. The remark drew an appreciative laugh from yours truly, with audience members joining in. My guest stood up to leave. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “Søren Kierkegaard.”
2. Chuck Hagel and the Hegelian Dialectic (January 30, 2013)
The controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel’s proposed appointment as U.S. Secretary of Defense has not been well understood. The Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator is a Republican, yet the Republicans have raised doubts about his fitness to serve as chief lobbyist for the nation’s military-industrial establishment. Critics question Hagel’s judgment, mainly for opposing the “surge” in Iraq. Others seem concerned by an alleged softness on Iran, as well as on Hamas and Hezbollah. All this has been duly reported, but the secret reason for the resistance to Hagel has gone unexplored.
What the pundits have ignored, perhaps disingenuously, is the relation between Chuck Hagel’s philosophy and that of his ancestor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists in 19th-century Germany. It is said that Senator Hagel subscribes with such zeal to the Hegelian dialectic that the usual Washington bigmouths have had to take crash courses in the work of that famously forbidding philosopher of history. Sources close to the appointee are leaking the rumor that he plans to be sworn in with his hand on The Phenomenology of Spirit rather than the Bible.
A leader of the opposition spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “The simple truth is that a vote for Chuck Hagel is an endorsement of Hegelianism, and that particular ism—though less scary than the isms of Marx, Lenin, and the Commune—arouses suspicion if only by association. Everyone knows that Hegel said history repeats itself, and Marx revised Hegel to say that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This line is quoted so often, and almost always as an admonition, that suspicion attaches to Hegel for being hoodwinked either by Marx or by History.” More particularly, Hegel’s belief that “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two” arouses worry among hardliners because it acknowledges compromise as inevitable.
Hegel has the habit of speaking in different languages, which may simply be one way of disguising his penchant for repeating himself. “Nada de grandioso se faz no mundo sem paixão.” “Rien de grand ne s’est accompli dans le monde sans passion.” As everyone knows, there is something slightly sinister in such multilingualism.
Hegel’s oracular pronouncements on history leave him vulnerable to charges of obscurantism. For example, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” or the same sentiment restated: “What experience and history teach us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Manuel Mota, the unofficial leader of the 420 Consortium, a group of Republicans and independents determined to work with Democrats to end congressional gridlock, argues that Hagel’s nomination is itself an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic at work. “It is the thesis to which the Senate’s opposition is the antithesis,” he says. Mota and other New Hegelians point to the Vietnam veteran’s endorsement of freedom on the one hand and the sublime on the other at a commencement speech given a few years ago at the U.S. Military Academy. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained,” he told the cadets at West Point. “The individual who has not staked his or her life may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but he or she has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”
My own sense of Hegel is complicated by the fact that every time I think I understand him, I realize that I don’t. This, too, the philosopher anticipated. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me,” he liked to say, and somehow it didn’t sound like a German smart-ass showing off in an Oxford pub. Although the era of the World Historical Individual is gone, Hegel’s analysis of the type was subtler than people realize. He lectured in a big hall crowded with eager note takers and would sometimes have a beer with the guys though he never let them call him by his first name. He liked pointing out that world conquerors were seldom happy. When they succeeded there was nothing left for them to do—they were “like empty hulls from the kernel.” Hegel shrugged. “Alexander died young, Caesar was murdered, and Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena.” It was always amusing to see Hegel shrug.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.