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Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition


Glenn Magee, (Cornell University Press, 2001)






“God is God only so far as he knows himself. his self-knowledge is, further, a self-consciousness in man and man’s knowledge of God, which proceeds to man’s self-knowledge in God.”


— Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences



1.      Hegel as Hermetic Thinker


Hegel is not a philosopher. He is no lover or seeker of wisdom — he believes he has found it. Hegel writes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowledge — that is what I have set before me” (Miller, 3; PC, 3). By the end of the phenomenology, Hegel claims to have arrived at Absolute Knowledge, which he identifies with wisdom. Hegel’s claim to have attained wisdom is completely contrary to the original Greek conception of philosophy as the love of wisdom, that is, the ongoing pursuit rather than the final possession of wisdom. His claim is, however, fully consistent with the ambitions of the Hermetic tradition, a current of thought that derives its name from the so-called Hermetica (or Corpus Hermeticum), a collection of Greek and Latin treatises and dialogues written in the first or second centuries A.D. and probably containing ideas that are far older. The legendary author of these works is Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-Greatest Hermes”). “Hermeticism” denotes a broad tradition of thought that grew out of the “writings of Hermes” and was expanded and developed through the infusion of various other traditions. Thus, alchemy, Kabbalism, Lullism, and the mysticism of Eckhart and Cusa — to name just a few examples — became intertwined with the

Hermetic doctrines. (Indeed, Hermeticism is used by some authors simply to mean alchemy.) Hermeticism is also sometimes called theosophy, or esotericism; less precisely, it is often characterized as mysticism, or occultism. It is the thesis of this book that Hegel is a Hermetic thinker. I shall show that there are striking correspondences between Hegelian philosophy and Hermetic theosophy, and that these correspondences are not accidental. Hegel was actively

interested in Hermeticism, he was influenced by its exponents from boyhood on, and he allied himself with Hermetic movements and thinkers throughout his life. I do not argue merely that we can understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, just as we can understand him as a German or a Swabian or an idealist thinker. Instead, I argue that we must understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, if we are to truly understand him at all. Hegel’s life and works offer ample evidence for this thesis. There are references throughout Hegel’s published and unpublished writings to many of the leading figures and movements of the Hermetic tradition. These references are in large measure approving. This is particularly the case with Hegel’s treatment of Eckhart, Bruno, Paracelsus, and Boehme. Boehme is the most striking case. Hegel accords him considerable space in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy — more space, in fact, than he devotes to many significant mainstream thinkers in the philosophic tradition. There are, furthermore, numerous Hermetic elements in Hegel’s writings. These include, in broad strokes, a Masonic subtext of “initiation mysticism” in the Phenomenology of Spirit; a Boehmean subtext to the Phenomenology’s famous preface; a Kabbalistic-Boehmean-Lullian influence on the Logic;

alchemical-Paracelsian elements in the Philosophy of Nature; an influence of Kabbalistic and Joachimite millennialism on Hegel’s doctrine of Objective Spirit and theory of world history; alchemical and Rosicrucian images in the Philosophy of Right; an influence of the Hermetic tradition of pansophia on the system as a whole; an endorsement of the Hermetic belief in philosophia perennis; and the use of perennial Hermetic symbolic forms (such as the triangle, the circle, and the square) as structural, architectonic devices.

Hegel’s library included Hermetic writings by Agrippa, Boehme, Bruno, and Paracelsus. He read widely on Mesmerism, psychic phenomenal dowsing, precognition, and sorcery. He publicly associated himself with known occultists, like Franz von Baader. He structured his philosophy in a manner identical to the Hermetic use of ‘Correspondences!’ He relied on histories of thought that discussed Hermes Trismegistus, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Fludd, and Knorr von

Rosenroth alongside Plato, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. He stated in his lectures more than once that the term “speculative” means the same thing as “mystical.” He believed in an “Earth Spirit” and corresponded with colleagues about the nature of magic. He aligned himself, informally, with “Hermetic” societies such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Even Hegel’s doodles were Hermetic, as we shall see in chapter 3 when I discuss the mysterious “triangle diagram”.

There are four major periods in Hegel’s life during which he seems to have been strongly under the influence of Hermeticism, or to have actively pursued an interest in it. First, there is his boyhood in Stuttgart, from 1770 to 1788. As I shall discuss in detail in chapter 2, during this period Württemberg was a major center of Hermetic interest, with much of the Pietist movement influenced by Boehmeanism and Rosicrucianism (Württemberg was the spiritual center of the (Rosicrucian movement). The leading exponents of Pietism, J. A. Bengel and, in particular, F. C. Oetinger were strongly influenced by German mysticism, Boehmean theosophy, and Kabbalism.

Most Hegel scholars have not thought it necessary to consider the intellectual milieu of his boyhood. Hegel is almost universally understood simply within the context of the German philosophical tradition — as responding to Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. Needless to say, the influence of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling was important, but it was not the only influence on Hegel. Part of the reason other sources of influence are missed or ignored is that few scholars are familiar with the complexities of religious life in eighteenth-century Germany. Those who

are familiar are almost always from disciplines other than philosophy, and almost always German. (The study of German Pietism is almost exclusively the province of German-speaking scholars.) The religious and intellectual life of Württemberg is, however, the obvious place to begin to understand Hegel’s own intellectual origins, characteristic ideas, and aims. Hegel has to be understood in terms of the theosophical Pietist tradition of Württemberg — he cannot be seen simply as a critic of Kant. Indeed Hegel, as I will argue, was always a critic of Kant and never a wholehearted admirer precisely because he was “imprinted” early on by the tradition of pansophia, which was very much alive in Württemberg, and by Oetinger’s ideal of the truth

as the Whole (see chapter 2). He could not accept Kant’s scepticism, nor could Schelling, and for identical reasons. Yet they both recognized the power of Kant’s thought and labored hard to move from his premises to their own conclusions, to circumvent his scepticism at all costs, in the name of the speculative ideal of their youth. From 1793 to 1801 Hegel worked as a private tutor, first at Berne, then at Frankfurt. As I shall discuss in chapter 3, Hegel’s biographer Karl Rosenkranz referred to this period as a “theosophical phase” in Hegel’s development. During

this time, Hegel appears to have become conversant with the works of Boehme, as well as Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Also during this period Hegel became involved in Masonic circles.



Diagram by H. R. A.