Tag Archives: Philosophy Criticism

Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Glenn Alexander Magee.

Magee Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Writing very consciously in the vein inaugurated by Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Glenn Magee details the esoteric contexts and underpinnings of the work of G.W.F. Hegel. This is not a work of tendentious revisionism. The wonder is not that Magee can read Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, but that — in light of the evidence which he marshals — so many others have managed to avoid the obvious conclusion. A review from The International Philosophical Quarterly quoted on the back cover of my copy claims that the work exposes “Hegel’s dark side,” but Magee makes no such judgment. When he writes about indicting and convicting Hegel of Hermeticism in his final chapter, he is very plainly using a cacophemistic rhetorical figure. Hermeticism as Magee defines it (and he does a competent job of doing so) could be “dark” to the conventionally pious Christian, or to the rationalistic secular sorts who may have had the upper hand in the 20th-century study of Hegel, but it wasn’t to Hegel, nor to Magee nor me.

I came to this book after reading a good deal of the “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom Hegel figures as the culmination of an obsolete crypto-theology, and I was open to the possibility of heightening my intellectual sympathy for Hegel. Magee pulled that off quite nicely. After reading his treatment of The Phenomenology of Spirit as an initiatory rite (!) I found myself for the first time ever actually considering a full read of that forbidding tome.

Magee has a lot to say about the kabbalah, which he understands to have been influential on Hegel both directly (in Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata and the like) and via the work of Jacob Boehme. Most of his points are fairly sound, but he did not impress me as a scholar of kabbalistic history. He seemed thoroughly dependent on Gershom Scholem. And his transliterations were distractingly erratic; for instance, he wrote Ayin for AIN, although the same word was elsewhere Ein (in Ein Sof).

Likewise, Magee’s appreciation of the history of alchemy seems adequate for his task, but not thorough. In this case, I think he errs (in a way he does not with the Kabbalah) in deeming alchemical methods to be all of a sort. When he declares that “there is no way to decide if the alchemical opus is intended to be entirely figurative or symbolic, or if there is both a literal, physical operation of some sort coupled with a mystical doctrine” (209), it seems clear that he could benefit from the work of recent researchers into alchemy in the history of science, such as Lawrence Principe.

I have no such complaints about Magee’s efforts to contextualize Hegel with reference to the development of Rosicrucianism in Germany. In this case, he draws on appropriate and reliable scholarship in a way that has apparently been neglected by earlier Hegel scholars. Merely in passing, I was delighted to note Magee’s observation about the genesis of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton” in The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin (1952), where he is discussing the effects of Joachimist prophecy. 

I was cumulatively impressed with Magee’s thesis, which at one point he puts like this: “Hegel’s speculation, as I have characterized it, is a sophisticated, post-Kantian reappropriation of the memory magic and ‘active imagination’ of Hermetic thinkers such as Bruno and Boehme” (103). He covers Hegel’s ideas about magic, and the essential identity between Hegel’s “speculative philosophy” and esoteric (or mystical) religion. I strongly recommend this book to those who enjoy readings in the history of ideas, and who want to be able to appreciate the aquifer feeding a wellspring of 19th-century philosophy.

The Fiery Brook

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ludwig Feuerbach, trans. Zawar Hanfi, part of the Radical Thinkers series.

Feuerbach Hanfi The Fiery Brook

Editor/translator Hanfi considers Feuerbach valuable solely as a precursor to Marx, a perspective which certainly limits the usefulness of Hanfi’s extensive introduction. The selections in this volume are quite worthwhile, however. Five out of eight are first ever published translations into English, and they include programmatic essays covering the span of Feuerbach’s intellectual work from his first breaks with Hegel (“Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy” 1839) until 1844. Although Hanfi doesn’t remark it, the latter year is significant in being the year in which Feuerbach’s writings were subjected to withering public criticism from Max Stirner. This volume thus neglects the significantly different (and to my mind, even more interesting) positions of the later Feuerbach developed in The Essence of Religion and its sequels. It does, however, include the essays “Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy” and “Principles of the Philosophy of the Future,” which show Feuerbach’s emergence from his anti-Hegelian analytic phase into a new work of synthesis and positive theory on atheistic, “sensuous” grounds. These two essays are in an aphoristic form that presages the work of Nietzsche, and they expound in part the anthropotheistic principle that is at the core of my interest in and sympathy for Feuerbach. 

The early, anti-Hegelian pieces are often rather muddled, and this feature evidently stems from a stylistic limitation (later overcome) to attempt always to present flawed and obsolete philosophies from their own “point of view,” to “let each phenomenon speak for itself.” (179 n.) The constructive progress of Feuerbach’s views is evident, due to the chronological arrangement of the contents of this collection, and the recapitulation involved in the final “Fragments Concerning the Characteristics of My Philosophical Development.” The preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity is far more incisive and persuasive than the introduction to the first. 

Even in the “Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy” there is much unwelcome (to my mind) valorization of pain and suffering. In the later works, this gives way to an emphasis on enjoyment and love. Throughout, once Feuerbach has broken with the “theologians and speculative fantasts,” he emphasizes the reciprocity of humanity with sensual nature, and the sovereignty of man–however unwitting–over the God he has created. 

“The new and only positive philosophy … is the thinking man himself” (169). It is “certainly based on reason as well, but on a reason whose being is the same as the being of man; that is, it is based not on an empty, colorless, nameless reason, but on a reason that is of the very blood of man” (239). “Truth is man and not reason in abstracto; it is life and not thought that remains confined to paper, the element in which it finds and unfolds its existence” (249). “Truth does not exist in thought, nor in cognition confined to itself. Truth is only the totality of man’s life and being” (244, all italics in originals). 

There is much development evident in the writings collected here, but the book ends on an appropriate note: “”What am I? Is that your question? Wait until I am no more.” (296) He still had “more” to him, as subsequent decades and major works would show, even if they are not addressed by this volume.