The Young Hegel and Religion

by Evangelia Sembou (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 254 Pages
Series: Religions and Discourse, Volume 59


This edited collection of essays aims to acquaint the reader with different aspects and readings of Hegel’s Early Theological Writings. These writings consist of five essays plus some unfinished manuscripts, unpublished by Hegel himself during his lifetime and compiled by Herman Nohl as Hegels Theologische Jugendschriften in 1907. This is the first such edited collection on these writings and will make an important contribution to Hegel scholarship.
The volume begins with an introduction on the intellectual background and an account of the Early Theological Writings. This is followed by a number of essays by both emerging and established scholars working in an international context. The essays offer a critical and/or interpretative approach to the aforesaid writings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Evangelia Sembou)
  • Intellectual Background
  • Reading Hegel’s Early Theological Writings
  • Folk Religion and the Fate of Christianity
  • 1 “The Tübingen Fragment”: From Moral Philosophy to Normative Social Theory (Mikkel Flohr)
  • Kant’s (Im-)practical Philosophy
  • Religion and/as Moral Philosophy
  • Popular Religion and the Realization of Reason
  • Conclusion
  • 2 In Search of a Virtue: Hegel’s Early Republicanism (Domagoj Vujeva)
  • I
  • II
  • 3 On the Violence of Positivity in Hegel’s Early Theological Writings (María del Rosario Acosta López)
  • From Abstraction to Positivity: The Genesis of the Relation between Abstraction and Violence in Hegel’s Thought
  • The Two Faces of Positivity: Disappearance and Terror in “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate”
  • The Abstraction of the Law: Cold Universality and the Fury of Disappearance
  • Abstraction and State Action: Hard Rigidity and the Terror of Death
  • 4 Hegel’s Critique of Kant and “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” (Peter Wake)
  • Kant versus Positivity
  • Modernity and its Fulfilment
  • Volksreligion versus Positivity
  • Inwardization and the Divided Self
  • Postmoralism
  • 5 The Weakness of the Law: The Opposition of Concept and Life in Hegel’s Early Ethics (W. Clark Wolf)
  • “Positivity” and Conceptual Form
  • Hölderlin’s Opposition to the Concept
  • “The Law, Weakened by the Concept …”
  • Concept and Negativity in Naturrecht
  • Conclusion
  • 6 The Notion of Contradiction in Hegel’s Early Writings (Venanzio Raspa)
  • Diremption and Opposition
  • Unification of Opposites
  • Reality of Contradiction
  • Contradiction and Complexity
  • 7 Greek Thought in the Early Theological Writings (Evangelia Sembou)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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I wish to thank Dr James Francis, the series editor, for accepting this collection as part of Peter Lang’s “Religions and Discourse” series. I am also grateful to Jasmin Allousch, programme assistant, Emma Clarke, assistant editor, Alice Emmott, editorial assistant, and Lucy Melville, publishing director, at Peter Lang for their assistance. The index was prepared by David Rudeforth.

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This volume contains chapters by a group of scholars on Hegel’s Theologische Jugendschriften. I decided to pursue this project because, so far, no edited collection has appeared on Hegel’s juvenilia. Therefore, the book will, I hope, fill a gap in the literature on Hegel, in general, the young Hegel, in particular.

Mikkel Flohr concentrates on “The Tübingen Fragment” in Chapter 1. In particular, he focuses on the idea of “popular religion” (“Volksreligion”), which, Flohr argues, Hegel uses in order to both illustrate and criticize Kant’s moral philosophy. “Popular religion” is a “subjective religion”, that is, a living set of principles which inform all human life and conduct. “Popular religion” is also the vehicle for the general education of humankind. In challenging Kant’s dualism, popular religion contributes to a shift from Kant’s moral philosophy to normative social theory.

In Chapter 2, Domagoj Vujeva deals with Hegel’s critique of Christianity, while problematizing the republican character of his early political theory. Christianity lost its initial pure character when it became institutionalized as a state religion. As a state religion, Christianity ceased to be a religion of moral teaching. Hegel’s republicanism is inspired by Greek antiquity, specifically the poleis as ethico-political communities wherein human freedom thrived. For Hegel, the modern phenomena of individualism, private property and social differentiation are due to the disintegration of these ethico-political communities. In this way, Hegel contrasts antiquity to modern times.

In Chapter 3, María del Rosario Acosta López addresses the relation between abstraction and violence through an in-depth analysis of the concept of “positivity” in Hegel’s Early Theological Writings. The author argues that, “in his development of the notion of the positivity of religion in his Tübingen, Bern and Frankfurt periods, Hegel produces powerful ← 1 | 2 → philosophical tools” for understanding the two kinds of violence “that result from the immediate (positive) translation of abstract forms of thought into concrete historical realities” (p. 94). Having demonstrated that these two kinds of violence are initially formally delineated in Hegel’s definition and analysis of the concept of “positivity”, López turns to the way in which they acquire a concrete ethico-political meaning in “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate”. Hegel’s criticism of the violence of law offers a useful analysis of the forms of historical violence that stem from a modern interpretation of the notion of “sovereignty”.

Peter Wake’s contribution in Chapter 4 first discusses Hegel’s rupture with Kantianism that is anticipated in “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” essay and that comes out fully blown in “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” essay. He suggests that “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” essay is best read in terms of a tension that is latent between (a) Hegel’s early Kantianism that aspired to establish a religious form that would bridge the gap between the human capacity for rational self-determination and its concrete realization, and (b) his commitment to an ideal of unification in beauty which he owes to the notion of “folk-religion”, itself based on his ideal of the ancient Greek community. Wake’s contention is that the young Hegel aspires to a form of “immanent transcendence” that leads him to a break with Kantian practical philosophy.

In Chapter 5, W. Clark Wolf examines the role of the “concept” in Hegel’s Early Theological Writings, especially in “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” essay. Specifically, the young Hegel sets up the “concept” as the universal element in law and opposes it to “life” and “reality”. “Reconcilability” marks Hegel’s articulation of an ethics beyond law, where “life” overcomes the “concept”. In “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” essay Hegel, Wolf argues, uses a post-Pauline opposition of law and life.

In Chapter 6, Venanzio Raspa shows that the Hegelian concept of “contradiction” has an historical and practical origin; it is also related to the terms of “split” (“Entzweiung”) and “opposition” (“Gegensatz”). Raspa offers an analysis on three levels: theoretical, historical and political-cultural. He argues that, by using the concepts of “love” and “life” that are playing a central role in the Frankfurt period, the young Hegel attempts to provide an explanation of the unification of opposites as well as to develop ← 2 | 3 → a dialectical thinking. In the “Fragment of a System of 1800” he starts to use the concept of “contradiction” in order to express complex realities.

Finally, I consider the elements of Greek thought in the Early Theological Writings in Chapter 7. I start with “The Tübingen Essay of 1793” and the notion of folk-religion, that is, a public religion. In “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” essay we also read that the Germans once had a folk-religion, which died out as Christianity expanded. In “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” essay we encounter the Greek notion of “punishment as fate”. In addition, we encounter Platonism in the religious teaching of Jesus. The young Hegel refers to Plato’s theories of Forms and anamnesis when he explains how this immediate unity with God is lost once a person is born.

Here I will offer a short introduction on the intellectual background to these writings, as well as an account of the writings themselves.

Intellectual Background

An excellent account of Hegel’s intellectual background is offered by Dieter Heinrich.1 Hegel studied theology at the University of Tübingen. It was his father’s wish that he study at the Tübingen Stift, a theological seminary whose mission was to educate and prepare young men either for ministry in the Church (as Lutheran pastors) or for public office in the duchy of Württemberg.

The ambience of the Tübingen Stift was to have a lasting influence on the young Hegel, as it did on his fellow students. The Stift was a very conservative institution and was organized in accordance with strict rules; ← 3 | 4 → it was criticized for its rigid structure and repressive atmosphere as unique in its time by a Prussian academic inspector, whose job was to visit universities and report on their activities.2 Hegel was at the Stift from 1788 to 1793. The repression was felt even more strongly by the students, given that in 1789 the Revolution had taken place in France and a new age had begun. After the French Revolution the world would not be the same again. The Revolution had led to the collapse of the Ancien Régime and had sent shockwaves across Europe. Young students at the Stift were enthusiastic about these developments; they endorsed the spirit of freedom of the times and opposed the authoritarianism of the seminary. Not only did they feel the repression of the strict rules which organized their lives at the Stift, they also disliked the theology they were taught there. This was the theology of Gottlob Christian Storr, who held the theological chair at the Stift. Storr used Kant’s philosophy in order to defend Church doctrine. Kant accorded the human mind (i.e. understanding) an active role in the constitution of reality. The understanding subsumed the manifold of sensible intuition under concepts (categories).3 Kant accepted the empiricist view that our knowledge of reality is to some extent caused by the objects which affect us. But he also believed that our conception of reality is constituted by the faculty of the understanding, so that what we know is not just the sensations caused in us by objects, rather the objects as we constitute them for ourselves through concepts.4 It followed that we cannot know what is beyond experience. Now, Storr argued, if, as Kant says, we cannot grasp what is beyond experience – namely, God –, then we should allow room for faith and revelation. Thus, Storr defended doctrinal authority. Storr’s theology dominated the curriculum at the Stift; and, in fact, Storr’s reputation as a scholar had spread beyond the walls of the seminary. However, despite Storr’s influence, at the Stift there was also a devil called Immanuel ← 4 | 5 → Diez. Diez was a tutor there and his task was to help students with their theological studies. Actually, Diez was “the most radical Kantian ever to have tutored at a university”.5 He used the spirit of Kantianism in order to direct a polemic against Christian dogmatism and Storr’s theology. Like Storr, he started from Kant’s critical philosophy; but, whereas Storr had used it to argue in favour of belief in revelation, Diez used it to criticize dogmatics. If, as Kant says, our concepts that go beyond experience lead us to transcendental illusions, then we cannot say anything about God and the supernatural. For this reason he characterized Storr’s theology as “transcendental illusion and empty chimeras”.6 Moreover, for Diez:

Christ and his apostles, believing they have insight into a realm of spirits, are phantasists; those who believe them, all theologians and the whole Christian flock, are lost in superstition.7

Diez would go so far as to dub Christ a fraud.8 As a matter of fact, Diez was careful and would mount his polemic only among friends. And, although many of his friends would oppose his criticism, he did manage to influence many of them. One of his best friends, Süskind, decided to turn from theology to church history. Some others decided not to take up posts in the service of the Church in Swabia, and sought posts in other German principalities. Certainly, Diez’s influence could not remain unnoticed. Diez’s friend Süskind was also a relative of Storr. And, in fact, Süskind helped Storr defend his theology and show that this latter was consistent with Kant’s critical philosophy. Eventually, Diez gave up his position as tutor, forwent a career as a minister and studied medicine. A few years later he died of typhus, which he contracted from some patients of his.9

This is, briefly, the intellectual climate which influenced Hegel in his youth. Hegel and his fellow students – among whom were Schelling and Hölderlin, both close friends of Hegel – disliked Storr’s theology and ← 5 | 6 → developed their thought in opposition to it. Simultaneously, Hegel and his friends were concerned with what they considered to be the socio-political and cultural crisis of their time. Life was characterized by fragmentation at all levels; the individual was separated from human relationships and the political community as well as from nature; he was divided within himself, as he could not reconcile reason with his emotions; there was also a separation of humans and the divine, as human beings had lost faith in religion.

After completing his studies at the Tübingen Stift, Hegel worked as a private tutor to a well-off family in Bern (1793–1797) and later on as a tutor to a family in Frankfurt (1797–1800). In the course of these seven years he wrote a series of essays, which in the early twentieth century were compiled by Nohl in a single volume;10 in English these essays are known as Early Theological Writings.11 These essays were not intended for publication and some of them are in fragmentary form; Hegel wrote them in order to clarify his own mind. As already mentioned, the young Hegel believed that his time was one of crisis in all spheres of private and social life; and he held the view that the causes of this experience of estrangement lay in religion.12 So in the so-called Early Theological Writings Hegel attempted to account for the social, political and cultural crisis of the German world in terms of religion. In the 1790s there was not a unified German state; rather what came to be known as Germany in the late nineteenth century following unification was at the time a great number of independent German states, diverse in size and with no clear-cut boundaries. This loose confederation of states was the result of the breakup of, what used to be, the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, whenever we refer to “Germany”, we mean the totality of the German principalities. Hegels Theologische Jugendschriften include “Volksreligion und Christentum” [“Folk-Religion and Christianity”], “Das Leben Jesu” [“The Life of Jesus”], “Die Positivität der christlichen Religion” [“The Positivity of the Christian Religion”], “Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal” [“The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate”], ← 6 | 7 → “Systemfragment von 1800” [“The System Fragment of 1800”], as well as some other fragments on love and religion in the appendix.

Reading Hegel’s Early Theological Writings

The first scholar to study Hegel’s early writings was Wilhelm Dilthey,13 who examined the thought of the young Hegel in the light of German idealism; Dilthey was interested in the Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel philosophical development.14 Another interpretation, by far a more common one and no doubt encouraged by the title of Nohl’s compendium, has been to see these writings as dealing with a religious experience and religious issues.15 Unique in the literature stands Laurence Dickey’s study of intellectual history, in which he demonstrates that the young Hegel was influenced by the culture of Old Württemberg, by Württemberg’s ideal of Protestant civil piety in particular.16 Finally, Georg Lukács and Raymond Plant focus on the social and political concerns of the young Hegel. Lukács, writing from a Marxist perspective, explores the political and economic ideas of ← 7 | 8 → the young Hegel, as well as the way these have contributed to the development of the dialectical method.17 Plant has put forward the view that the essays compiled by Nohl in his collection constitute a series of attempts on the part of the young Hegel to comprehend and account for the cultural and socio-political crisis of his time. According to Plant, Hegel sought the causes thereof in religion.18

Folk Religion and the Fate of Christianity

Already as a student of theology at the Protestant seminary (Stift) of the University of Tübingen Hegel had started to ponder on what he considered to be the socio-political and cultural crisis of his time. At this period of his life he seemed to have thought that religion, as understood and practised in the Western world, was at least partly responsible for the social and cultural reality in the Western world in general and in Germany in particular. It is because Hegel valued religion so highly that he set out to examine the causes of the crisis of his contemporary German society in terms of religion.

Religion ist eine der wichtigsten Angelegenheiten unseres Lebens – als Kinder sind wir schon gelehrt worden, Gebete an die Gottheit zu stammeln, schon wurden und die Händchen gefaltet, und sie zu dem erhabensten Wesen zu erheben, unserem Gedächtnis eine Sammlung damals noch unverständlicher Sätze aufgeladen, zum künftigen Gebrauch und Trost in unserem Leben –.19

[Religion is one of the most important affairs in our life – as children we were already taught to stammer prayers to the Deity, to hold our little hands together in order to raise them to the most sublime Substance, and had our memories burdened ← 8 | 9 → with a collection of then still incomprehensible phrases, for our future use and consolation.]20

The religion prevalent in the West at that time was Christianity (either in the form of Catholicism or Protestantism) and this contrasted sharply with an earlier religious experience which Hegel calls Volksreligion. The latter refers mostly to the religious life of the Greeks, whose religious, political and cultural patterns of life Hegel admired. There are five fragments extant on this topic and, all together, are entitled by Herman Nohl “Volksreligion und Christentum” and published in his edition of Hegel’s Theologische Jugendschriften.21 These fragments are important because they clarify the major differences between the religion of the Greeks and Christianity. These differences are not only – and significantly – differences of doctrine but differences that have to do with the essence of religion and its integration within the wider cultural, social and political world. Hegel believed that if people changed their conception of Christianity, perhaps a Volksreligion could be created out of it. What made Volkreligion and Christianity so radically different was that the former was what Hegel calls a “subjective Religion” [“subjective religion”], whereas the latter a “positive Religion” [“positive religion”]. Importantly, a “subjective religion”, for Hegel, is not a “private” one. As a matter of fact, a “private” religion can involve positive elements as well and Hegel is obviously critical of this. Rather, a “subjective” religion has to be, according to Hegel, a public affair, a religion of a people or a nation. What makes a public religion (Volksreligion) “subjective” is that it expresses itself in feelings and actions (“äußert sich nur in Empfindungen und Handlungen”);22 it is alive, effective in the innermost of our essence and active in our outward behaviour (“Subjektive Religion ist lebendig, Wirksamkeit im Innern des Wesens und Tätigkeit nach außen”);23 it powerfully affects the imagination and the heart (“sie mächtig auf Einbildungskraft und Herz wirkt”) and inspires the whole ← 9 | 10 → soul with power and enthusiasm.24 By contrast, “objective religion” is fides quae creditor, the understanding (Verstand) and the memory (Gedächtnis) are the powers that are effective in it and which explore knowledge, think it through and preserve it or believe it too.25 It is interesting that Hegel as early as in Tübingen distinguished between the “understanding” (“Verstand”) and “reason” (“Vernunft”). The Verstand he saw as characterizing his contemporary age; it is the way of reasoning of natural science that tends to examine its objects in isolation from one another and that pigeon holes, as it were, different pieces of information into different compartments of knowledge. In general, the Verstand is a faculty of the mind that analyses things by distinguishing between “form” and “matter”, “universal” and “particular”, while failing to synthesize these opposites. In so doing, the Verstand objectifies the natural world, setting it in opposition to the mind of the researcher. “Objective religion” was, for Hegel, rent with all these contradictions. This is put so nicely as follows:

Subjektive Religion ist etwas individuelles, objective die Abstraktion, jene das lebendige Buch der Natur, die Pflanzen, Insekten, Vögel und Tiere, wie sie untereinander eins vom andern leben, jedes lebt, jedes genießt, sie sind vermischt, überall trifft man alle Arten beisammen an – diese das Kabinet des Naturlehres, der die Insekten getötet, die Pflanzen gedörrt, die Tiere ausgetopft oder in Branntwein aufbehäalt – und alles zusammen ranguert, was die Natur trennte – nur nach Einem Zweck ordnet, wo die Natur unedliche Mannigfaltigkeit von Zwecken in ein freundschafliches Band verschlang.26

[Subjective religion is something individuated, objective religion is the abstraction, the former [is] the living book of nature, the plants, insects, birds and animals, how they live among and depend on each other, each living, each enjoying, they are mixed together, one can meet all the kinds everywhere – the latter is the cabinet of the natural scientist, who has killed the insects, dried the plants, stuffed or pickled the animals – and put side by side all together the things that nature divided – organized [everything] only for one end, where nature intertwined an infinite diversity in a friendly bond.] ← 10 | 11 →

Elsewhere Hegel says that the Verstand is the courtier (Hofmann) who complies complaisantly with the whims of his master.27 This master is an “objective religion” with its whole mass of religious knowledge (“religiöse Kenntnisse”), this whole system of the connection of our duties and wishes with the Idea of God and of the immortality of the soul that can also be called Theologie.28 Religion, as opposed to Theologie, can gain very little – if at all – by the operations of the Verstand, whose doubts and misleading arguments are far more likely to numb the heart than to warm it. After all, it was the Verstand that, in its self-conceit, could allow the innocent and last wish of Socrates to offer a cock to the god of health, his noble sense that he should thank the god for his death, which he regarded as a healing, go unappreciated and produce the nasty comment that Tertuallian makes in his Apologeticum.29 What cold comments were those of some of Jesus’s apostles, when the latter allowed Mary Magdalen, who had hitherto led a life of ill-fame, anoint his legs, thereby showing his love, goodwill, faith and repentance. However, Jesus’s surrounding company were too cold-hearted to empathize with that woman.30

“Enlightenment of the understanding” (“Aufklärung des Verstands”) makes us cleverer (“klüger”) but not better. It reduced virtue (“Tugend”) to cleverness, calculated for humans that one could not be happy without virtue, but this calculation is far too sophisticated and too cold (“viel zu spitzfindig und zu kalt”) to be effective in the moment of action or in general to have influence on our lives.31 It is precisely this sort of calculations that make the Spirit (Geist) so impoverished that, like a wanderer in the desert yearning for a simple drink of water, seems to yearn for its refreshment the mere feeling of the Divine in general.32 ← 11 | 12 →

However, since religion, in the “subjective” sense, is a thing of the heart (“eine Sache des Herzens”), the question might be raised to what extent abstract argument (“Räsonnement”) can be involved in it, if it is to continue being a religion at all. For, when one thinks a great deal about the genesis of one’s emotions, about the practices or customs (“Gebräuche”) that one has to join in, it is almost certain that these feelings of holiness are going to lose their aura of sanctity.33 Therefore, the task that Hegel set himself in “The Tübingen Essay” of 1793 is to explore what institutions (“Anstalten”) are requisite so that the doctrines and the force of religion can enter into the fabric of human feelings (“daß die Lehren und die Kraft der Religion in das Gewebe der menschlichen Empfindungen eingemischt”).34 In other words, how can a “subjective” religion be created out of an “objective” one? Or, how can a Volksreligion be created out of Christianity?

Most importantly, a religion should avoid becoming a Fetischglaube, which believes it can gain God’s love for itself through something other than a will that is good in itself,35 so that one is constantly at loggerheads about dogmas (“daß man über dogmatische Lehren ewig in den Haaren liegt”).36 A Volksreligion, by contrast, has to be set up in such a way so that, negatively, is able to give as little occasion as possible for cleaving to the letter and the ceremonial observance and, positively, the people may be led to a Vernunftreligion and become receptive to it.37 Hegel provides us with three ways whereby an “objective” religion could be transformed into a Volksreligion. Firstly, religious doctrines must be based necessarily on “the universal reason” (“die allgemeine Vernunft”) of mankind – or, for that matter, a people or a nation – if they are to appeal to the common people.38 These doctrines have to be simple (“einfach”), so that they do not end up being solely a scholarly apparatus; they should be understood by people in the street. Moreover, they have to be “humane” (“menschlich”), ← 12 | 13 → in the sense that they accord with the “spiritual culture” (“Geisteskultur”) and “stage of morality” (“Stufe von Moralität”) that a people has reached.39 In “Die Positivität der christlichen Religion”,40 an essay he wrote a couple of years later when he was a private tutor in Bern, Hegel makes the same point. His concern at the time was that the German world was fragmented not only politically (as there was no national state) but also socially and culturally. There was no common culture, a culture – that is – shared by all the social strata.

The imagery [Phantasie] of our more educated classes [gebildeten Teile] has an entirely different orbit from that of the common people [gemeinen Stände], and the latter do not understand in the least the characters and scenes of those authors and artists who cater for the former.41

Whereas, Hegel continues:


VIII, 254
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
the young Hegel Early Theological Writings law and ethics
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. VIII, 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Evangelia Sembou (Volume editor)

Evangelia Sembou holds a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford. She has taught political theory and philosophy at several Oxford colleges as well as in the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. She has also taught philosophy in the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck College, University of London, and has written on Hegel, political and social theory. She is the author of Modern Theories of Politics (Peter Lang, 2013).


Title: The Young Hegel and Religion
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