Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Nietzsche & St. Paul

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I’ve been reading my Hegel, Nietzsche and St Paul. It may seem like an unlikely combination, but then my boundaries are not very firmly set these days. There remain some constants: technology, and its power to reveal truth, is never far from my thinking; the dualism of faith and reason; ecology, monism, and the Spinozan idea of substance; memory and the philosophy of history; and theories of knowledge and epistemology. I get distracted, but ultimately there is some guidance there that keeps some orientation. But yes – dialectics.

Hegel is of course the king of the dialectic – these notions of thesis, antithesis and ultimate synthesis, best outlined in his Science of Logic (1812-1816) (though he didn’t use those precise terms). I remember an American political discussion on the idea of ‘the Overton Window‘, a concept where a politician would propose something so outlandish that it would be rejected; but its mere suggestion would nudge the former parameters for acceptable radicalism just enough to permit something formerly thought beyond the pale. In simple monetary terms, a politician might wish to increase the defense budget from $1bn to $1.2bn. A 20% rise might appear untenable; but she would nevertheless make the case for a $2bn defense budget. People would be outraged, but having rejected the proposal, would be more open to a 20% rise than they might previously have been. In a sense, this is playing the political dialectic: Thesis: $1bn; Antithesis: $2bn; Synthesis: $1.2bn. But – as is my wont these days – I digress.

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy introduces us to his concepts of Apollonian and Dionysian sensibilities, reflecting respectively the individual, ordered, classical tradition, as opposed to the chaotic, emotional, animalistic and hedonistic. There are countless dualisms that can be overlaid on top of this: order and chaos, contemporary ideas of men and women, success and failure, respectability and debauchery, noble and savage, technology and nature, fascism and communism, master and slave. In some essential ways, life is a fusion of these two qualities – the heroic and the indulgent – and its balance determines any quantum of moral good. There is a further truth, I suspect, in that one is impossible without the other, and is therefore defined by the other. So the contention is a false one, and Nietzsche arrives at and elucidates upon this position in Beyond Good and Evil and its follow-up, On The Genealogy of Morality.

St Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, was arguably the most important person in the founding of Christianity. I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s short, excellent St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle, and Tom Wright’s much longer Paul: A Biography. I’m getting a sense of the social and political ambitions of Paul and his followers, as they attempted to assert a kind of order throughout their people. Theirs was a kind of communist vision, distinct from the fascist Romans, a very distinct and revolutionary idea. It has been suggested that had Britain been a republic, Ireland may well have become a Monarchy upon gaining its independence; more dualisms setting us up for a dialectic. One wonders along a similar vein whether – had Rome been some kind of Axial age version of the USSR – Jesus might have been a fascist?

There’s no doubt of course that, whatever the protestations of political independence we hear from the Vatican these days, the Magisterium remains steadfast and unbending in its protection of dogma. Its origins may have been proto-socialist, and its teaching may remain essentially so, but its administration is hierarchical and dictatorial. Those who follow the church must obey her; for all others the fires of hell await. Heaven, or hell – you choose. There’s no dialectical synthesis in that one.

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