Historical Figure - Significance - Hegel's World-historical Figure

Hegel's World-historical Figure

The German philosopher Hegel defined the concept of the world-historical figure, who embodied the ruthless advance of Immanuel Kant's World Spirit, often overthrowing outdated structures and ideas. To him, Napoleon was such a figure. Hegel proposed that a world-historical figure essentially posed a challenge, or thesis, and this would generate an antithesis, or opposing force. Eventually a synthesis would resolve the conflict. Hegel viewed Julius Caesar as a world historical figure, who appeared at a stage when Rome had grown to the point it could no longer continue as a republican city state but had to become an empire. Caesar failed in his bid to make himself an emperor, and was assassinated, but the empire came into existence soon afterward, and Caesar's name has become synonymous with "emperor" in forms such as "kaiser" or "czar".

Søren Kierkegaard, in his early essay The Concept of Irony, generally agrees with Hegel's views, such as his characterization of Socrates as a world-historical figure who acted as a destructive force on Greek received views of morality. In Hegel's view, Socrates broke down social harmony by questioning the meaning of concepts like "justice" and "virtue". Eventually, the Athenians quite rightly condemned Socrates to death. But they could not stop the evolution of thought that Socrates had begun, which would lead to the concept of individual conscience. Hegel said of world-historical figures,

It was theirs to know this nascent principle; the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expend their energy in promoting it ... They die early like Alexander; they are murdered, like Caesar; transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon ... They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age.

However, Hegel, Thomas Carlyle and others noted that the great historical figures were just representative men, expressions of the material forces of history. Essentially they have little choice about what they do. This is in conflict with the views of George Bancroft or Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised self-reliance and individualism, and in conflict with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who also felt that individuals can determine their destiny. Engels found that Hegel's system contained an "internal and incurable contradiction", resting as it does on both dialectical relativism and idealistic absolutism.

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