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The concept of ethical life in Hegel's Philosophy of Right

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There is more to Hegel's position than fear of a potentially destructive modern freedom. The most striking thing about the Philosophy of Right is that in it the whole distinction between tradition and modern freedom is overcome. We find a view of things in which the freedom of individuals and the given institutional order come together as one. This does not mean that Hegel ignored the difference or distinction between the two sides; he had learned from Plato and a long tradition to see in the self-conscious or subjective freedom of individuals a threat to the political and legal order. But he took up this traditional distinction between freedom and authority and tried to work out the relation between them at various stages of conflict and reconciliation. The result was a very strong affirmation of the modern world and of the connection in it between religion and history, church and state, politics and economics, and so on.

I want in this essay to explore the justification for this positive affirmation of modern freedom. Section I looks at Hegel's position in light of the concluding passages of the Philosophy of Right on war and the endlessness of conflict within the historical realm. Here I claim that for Hegel the potentially destructive freedom of modern society does not really lie outside the ethical life of the state. I argue that the seemingly endless freedom of modern society is a necessary element, though only an element, of his philosophical and theological exposition of the state. Section II summarizes my view of how ethical life and modern freedom are related to one another in Hegel's thought. Commentators have not explained his insistence that the two can be both antagonistic and radically one.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of King's College.

Publication date: March 1, 1992

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