Placing Hegel in the Liberal Tradition: Elias Buchetmann’s "Hegel and the Representative Constitution"

Placing Hegel in the Liberal Tradition: Elias Buchetmann’s "Hegel and the Representative Constitution"

Thomas Nipperdey began his magisterial history of modern Germany proclaiming, “in the beginning there was Napoleon.”  In the popular conception of G. W. F. Hegel as a political philosopher, Nipperdey’s notion can be inverted: “In the end, there was Napoleon.”  So many accounts of Hegel’s political philosophy begin and end with his chance 1806 encounter with the Corsican general in Jena. Hegel famously recounted this event by stating that in the person of Napoleon, he saw the world-spirit [Weltgeist] “astride a horse, reach[ing] out over the world and master[ing] it.”  From this quote, the idea of Hegel as the arch-Bonapartist emerges. Napoleon represents the pinnacle of mankind’s striving for the German philosopher—and the modern Prussian state serves as handmaid to a globalist, “universal” conception of statehood, whose task is to bring about the “end of history.”

Hegel’s writings buttress his sordid reputation. Infamously, Hegel writes in an addition to The Philosophy of Right that “…The state is as far above physical life as spirit is above nature. We should therefore venerate the state as an earthly divinity…” Hegel also took the side of the Prussian monarchy over the estates in the political disputes after the Napoleonic Wars. Passages and positions like these in Hegel’s “political work” expose him to the criticism that he is the architect of “globalism” in the form of neoliberal technocracy or the author of modern totalitarianism as Karl Popper contends in his Open Society and its Enemies. However, these characterizations do not easily square with Hegel’s overwhelming concern with freedom throughout his life. Moreover, Hegel’s meeting with Napoleon occurred in 1806—the Philosophy of Right first appeared in 1820, and was accompanied by a number of lectures in 1824, and additions inserted by his student, Eduard Gans after his death in 1831. In the imagination of many readers and critics, all these events become compressed into a mishmash of half-truths and intrigues about one of philosophy’s most enigmatic and divisive figures.

Elias Buchetmann’s new manuscript, Hegel and the Representative Constitution, seeks to address many misconceptions readers have about the controversial and difficult German philosopher’s political writings through a combination of textual exegesis and historical context. To Buchetmann, Hegel is not a proto-fascist or proto-Marxist, but an indefatigable opponent of aristocracy and supporter of Constitutionalism. Buchetmann points out that Hegel’s understanding of a “Constitution” differs from the social contractarianism of Rousseau or Hobbes, however. Hegel contends that a Constitution cannot be “made” through a contract, but “spoken into existence” through the dialectical relationship between a people and their representative, a hereditary monarch whose capacity to speak for a people lends the regime a sense of “personality” [Personlichkeit] that a “representative Constitution” cannot engender through a mere contract.

At first blush, Hegel’s monarchism appears utterly foreign to readers in liberal democracies. To combat this discomfort, Buchetmann begins his manuscript by placing Hegel’s monarchism in historical context. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, nearly all relevant European intellectuals spoke of the need for monarchy as a means of “preserving order” against events like the Reign of Terror. This desire to prevent another Terror also meant opposing elective and absolute monarchs to preserve executive power in the hands of established and “stable” royal lineages. In a word, Buchetmann characterizes the post-Napoleonic intellectual milieu as broadly Hobbesian with one major concession: the estates and their landed gentry should have a perpetual presence in parliamentary orders to better “educate” the masses in the “virtues” required to preserve lasting order and peace after  Napoleon.

Buchetmann evokes Hegel’s 1815 Assessment of the Constitution of Württemburg as his first major foray into contemporary debates about German Constitutions following Napoleon’s defeat in the “Wars of Liberation.” Breaking with the consensus that aristocratic estates needed lasting representation in parliamentary systems, Hegel sided with the German monarchy, not from a reactionary “need for order,” but because he feared the dominance of landed economic elites over German society. To this end, Buchetmann describes Hegel’s politics as anti-authoritarian in nature and deeply informed by the experience of Swabia as a plaything of landed elites. This characterization of Württemburg finds historical support: the poet Friedrich Schiller’s career began in opposition to the Swabian prince, Karl von Eugen’s, rigorous military academy, the Karlsschule. Eugen’s academy itself represented part of a plan to transform the Swabian city of Stuttgart into a “new Versailles,” capable of rivaling France in grandeur and military power.

The ongoing German rivalry with France meant that intellectuals attempted to locate a new source of German identity in German letters. Again, bucking this trend, Hegel turned to French authors like Montesquieu for inspiration in his articulation of what he termed a “representative Constitution.” As Hegel moved from Jena to Berlin to pursue a professorship at the city’s University, he began writing the Philosophy of Right, his first major philosophical treatise on politics. Buchetmann thereby transitions from historical to textual analysis, especially regarding the work’s third part, “Ethical Life.” Appealing directly to the text and Hegel’s lectures expositing it, Buchetmann articulates Hegel’s unintuitive political positions. To Buchetmann, Hegel argues that hereditary monarchy best serves a representative Constitution precisely because its patrimonial nature means the future monarch remains unknown, whereas an elective monarchy pulls its selectorate from a pool of known landed elites. Moreover, Hegel limits the monarch to a functionary role, “rubber stamping” decisions the people’s representatives make in a bicameral legislative body. Occasionally, a monarch may make concessions to restore property to small holders, but otherwise acts as the creature of a middle class [Mittelstand] of civil servants. 

Buchetmann’s description of Hegel’s parliamentary system delights and surprises. In his reading of Hegel, the legislature is bifurcated into a “moveable” [Beweglich] and “substantiated” or “landed” chamber. The former consists of representatives of major sectors of the German economy and other cultural and political interests in the form of “associations.” The other chamber consists of members of the landed estate who affirm decisions made by the “moveable” part. Hegel also argues the franchise should be limited to members of political associations, which serve as the major organ of political education [Kenntnis] over “the many.”  

A number of implications emerge from this reading of Hegel’s politics. Among the many virtues of Buchetmann’s manuscript is its attention to language, for the most part. However, Buchetmann does not explain what the term Hegel uses for “political education” captures in German. Kenntnis as a verb is kennen, which is often used to connote “familiarity” with something or someone as opposed to Wissen or “intellectual knowledge.”  To Hegel, then, political association is a function of recognition [Annerkennung] which involves the “life or death struggle” for mutual cognizance between peoples, groups, and ideas he describes at length in The Phenomenology of Spirit. This subtlety of language reveals that The Philosophy of Right does not radically break with Hegel’s larger project, but finds some expression in his later work.

Hegel’s confluence of political education with civic association (and indeed, civil society), as well as his Montesquieuian influences, potentially brings him in contact with other authors in the liberal tradition. Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that American democracy is unique in its tendency to work primarily through voluntary civic associations rather than aristocratic estates or individuals working independently of one another—and uses Montesquieu’s regime typology to reach that conclusion. Likewise, Publius makes liberal use of Montesquieu in the The Federalist, arguing the United States represents a “new” regime, “an extended republic.”  Luke Mayville’s work on John Adams’s Thoughts on Government identifies an egalitarian strain running through Adams’s defense of the Senate as a gathering place for America’s “landed elites” so as to “better keep an eye on them.” This notion bears a striking resemblance to Hegel’s concept of a “substantiated” or “landed” chamber in his proposed parliament. 

It would not be a fair criticism of Buchetmann’s text to fault it for not exploring all these connections. Rather, it is a virtue of the text to open Hegel’s work to these avenues. A new work on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is long overdue. The last major scholarly work to address Hegel’s political treatise was Shlomo Avineri’s 1974 Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Yet, it behooves Buchetmann to address or at least acknowledge some topics of contemporary importance. He begins the text by (rightly) identifying the recent resurgence of Hegel scholarship in the past decade. However, he does not identify a cause. Why are scholars returning to Hegel, especially on matters of deep significance like his system of logic, dialectical history, and theology?  Instead, much later in the text, Buchetmann makes a passing reference to political apathy as a question Hegel’s thought may elucidate or alleviate.

But, are democratic citizens becoming more apathetic?  The 2020 American Presidential Elections were among the mostly widely participated in American History by sheer numbers. The rising mass opposition to police brutality in the United States and France also speaks to a rising political consciousness among its participants and opponents. Can the people be “apathetic” if they are taking their concerns with the state to the streets? Or is this trend a sign of a widespread lack of confidence in the political system? Is this a phenomenon a Hegelian perspective can illuminate? After all, Hegel begins The Philosophy of Right by critiquing mass political movements as expressions of a Rousseauian “abstract will.”  If Hegel is correct that “philosophy is its own age apprehended in thought,” then some statement about the present age would certainly improve Buchetmann’s manuscript.

These issues do not sink Buchetmann’s project: far from it, in fact. Two things can immediately be said of this text. One, that engaging with it prompts a number of new and evocative questions, especially as they pertain to contemporary politics in advanced liberal democracies. Two, reading this text with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right open next to it allows readers to rediscover Hegel. It has been some time since I read The Philosophy of Right. With Buchetmann’s text, I became reacquainted with poignant passages I previously pored over and became familiar with a number of new ones that charmed and delighted me. In fact, I often became aware of passages that Buchetmann addresses before he brought them up. For this reason and others, Hegel and the Representative Constitution is a great new work of Hegel scholarship that breaks new paths in an increasingly crowded field.

Featured Image is a Statue of Hegel by Daniel Stocker