Hegel’s Hypocrisy per Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin




Hypocrisy connoisseurs will certainly enjoy Eric Voegelin’s work, On Hegel. Voegelin charges Hegel with hypocrisy, in the sense that hypocrisy is the sin of pride in contradistinction to the humble role played by virtuous Christians, including himself, the arrogant author of a book condemning another man for his arrogance. According to Voegelin, Hegel fabricated a philosophical system that was bound to be false because it was founded on his own weakness, which, of course, Hegel was well aware of because he wrote it to overcome his own sickness. In other words, Hegel tried to pull himself up by his bootstraps. He acted like god while knowing he was not god.

“Thou hypocrite!” was once a favorite expression of Christians who derived its pejorative connotation from Alexandrine Jews who used it as a synonym for hanef – a godless person. Reverend James Marsh wrote a famous discourse on the subject, published in Boston by Crocker and Brewster in 1843 as part of Marsh’s literary Remains. Marsh quoted Luke XIII: ‘For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore, whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness, shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets, shall be proclaimed on the housetops.’ Reverend Marsh wrote, “These words of our Savior were uttered in connexion with a warning, addressed to his disciples, against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In their immediate application, they were intended as a dissuasion from that conscious purpose of concealing selfish and corrupt principles under the show of respect for the law of God, by which the Pharisees were distinguished.” Thus does Reverend Marsh’s love for Jesus Christ – to whom he believes we must flee to since we cannot hide from him – based on hatred of another religious group.

In fact the Christian cult evolved from the liberal Pharisees sect whose rabbis taught, besides survival of the soul, not only the strict observation of religious law which the Christians were wont to reject in part, but also the gradual, humane reformation of that law. There would be no Christians without the Pharisees. Early Christians then turned on the Pharisees and called them hypocrites for pretending to be good, and even for actually doing good works while presumably having bad or selfish intentions; that is, for having bad faith: not believing in Jesus Christ as the one and only savior of humankind. Hence the great scapegoating injustice perpetrated against the Pharisees, rendering their name synonymous with ‘hypocrite’ as if they were all godless persons. On the other hand, Christians presumed that they were the only ones in possession of the real god, incarnated in a single man; but this was a supreme arrogance that Jews simply cannot stand for and still be Jews.

A man may think he is a god unto himself, but the sane man knows he is not god of the world or universe; every man who knows himself knows that he is limited and is not omnipotent. He who acts like a god while knowing he is not god is a hypocrite. Of course pessimistic Christians live not for this necessarily evil world but for the good world beyond, hence any attempt to bring the good order of heaven to Earth is hypocrisy. Wherefore Voegelin believes that Hegel is the typical system-building philosopher who would set himself up as a savior of the corrupt world, yet who is a hypocrite because he knows his salvation plan is built on his own sickness in the sick world, the rotten ground of the original sin of pride. Such spiritual rebellion is the product of an existentially deficient man; it aggravates the troubles of this world, making itself yet another source of the disease plaguing

Voegelin argues that, while prophets are not bound by history, philosophers are so bound. Philosophers wrongly assumed a religious role and declared that philosophy had emerged from religion to finally reveal the pristine primordial deity, ridding the world of the old evil god. In effect, such a philosopher implies that “History is an immanence of god leading up to Me, the One who will inaugurate the New Life.” He discards mysterious symbols, replacing them with “scientific” explanations of the good old mysteries; those intellectual fabrications are disguises for hypocrisy and are mistaken for knowledge by gullible and credulous people who would struggle for personal freedom from tyranny. Witness, for instance, the 1789 French Revolution, an historical example of such salvation-activism and its horrible result in anarchic freedom instead of the totalitarian outcome outlined in Rousseau’s little book that the rioting revolutionaries waved above their heads as their guide although many were illiterate and did not know a word of it.

No, says Voegelin, man is no god, he is merely a sorcerer – he can only see the directions of history, and, with the help of language, evoke its shapes, ghosts, fictions. Hegel tried to use his imagination to eclipse God’s Creation – unable to redeem himself, he created a holy book of philosophy and recommended the diabolical system therein to the world as its salvation. Therefore Hegel’s conceptual spiritualism should be replaced by unquestioning humility, voluntary suffering, repentance – by a pessimistic religious system of virtual suicide – that the individual person might be saved by his unconditional surrender to his own god and in effect to the status quo on this Earth, in order live the life of Riley in the hereafter.

The hypocrisy of all this is unavoidable, for, if hypocrisy is arrogance concealed to deceive, everyone is a hypocrite. Hence it takes a hypocrite to know one and to say – like perverse Christians who love to cast stones first yet cannot see the beam in their own eyes – “Thou Hypocrite!” Not that they all do; not that we should agree with the proposition that Christianity on the whole is the epitome of bigotry, of hate-based group love, of the most awful sin of pride, of the very apotheosis of hypocrisy.

Christianity has no monopoly on hypocrisy. Nor do the Pharisees, or the Alexandrine Jews who gave the Greek term for ‘actor’ its pejorative connotation. Judaism and Christianity are inseparable – Christianity does not have its own religion for it is unwilling to reject its Old Testament tradition with its barbaric patriarchal god, and admit that a genuine god of Love would have to be a complete Stranger to this world. Judeo-Christianity has often been debited or credited with the creation of the Western world, curse or blessing that it might be. But we might want to consider that religion did not make the man, it discovered him in his hypocrisy or underlying crisis between the real and ideal, between Earth and heaven. We find profound truths about men and women in Judaism and Christianity. We note well its revolutionary nature in the Jewish revolts against political empire; but the fiercely independent Jews would have had a virtual tribal theocracy under their messianic king; whereas we note the tendency to individualism and the multiplication of sects among Christians – this author’s favorite Christian, by the way, lives in a cave in the watershed, and calls Christian churches in the area “dens of iniquity” and “pits of vipers.”

In fact, for many Christians of all kinds, god is synonymous with freedom. Now the individual in its will to exist forever without impedance is an anarch. It would brook no resistance to its will, it would be omnipotent, it would be free from everything – absolutely free, as if it were the one and only god almighty, the supreme arbiter who has no reason to think before acting. God is the social projection of such individual freedom, a positive abstraction without any content at all, for any content would limit such a god. Above all, ‘god’ stands for the abstract unity of a group, just as the imaginary ‘I’ stands for the abstract unity of the individual divided from and confronted by the multiplicity of the world about him.

So much for omnipotent, absolutely free gods. The rest of us are free FROM something or the other. For instance, a certain strain of Christians, taking their cue from revolutionary Jews, would be free from the state. They might admit that a police force and a few public works are necessary given the original evil of humankind whose salvation by universal love will not be accomplished until the return of the god’s solitary son – the Greeks called the solitary son, who appeared as the brilliant and pure (Phoebus) Sun of Zeus, ‘Apollo’, for far-flung ‘unity.’ Throughout history Christians like everyone else have had a love/hate or ambivalent relationship with absolute states. The absolute god is an indefinite abstraction or Power whose forms cannot be maintained without the political distribution of that power; hence Christianity owes its present existence not only to its god but to absolute tyrants whose ‘might makes right methods’ were often similar to those employed by the unpredictable Terrorist Almighty of the Sky who did not let even innocent infants stand in his brutal path; the Hebrew thunder-god El, for instance, and the volcanic YHWH down south. On the other hand, with the advance of civilization, for which Christianity and Judaism does get ample credit, tyranny was curbed by the legal distribution of its own power.

With that in mind, we are not surprised by Voegelin’s attack on Hegel. Indeed, many good Christians hated Hegel with a passion, and called him a madman because his philosophy spelled absolute political tyranny, to be provided on Earth according to the systematic providence of the World Spirit. Hegel was initially a ‘liberal’ or an advocate of democratic liberty; his sympathies were with the French Revolution until its excesses caused him to violently back-pedal to the absolute state, which he conceived as the concrete embodiment of the god of the universal ethic, the nebulous Good (of course there is no etymological relationship between ‘god’ and ‘good’). For Hegel, individuals were so much dust to be ground up by the universal world mill operated by the world spirit. And whatever is here and now, is here because it ought to be as it is. Of course a few heroes or representative men are of greater moment as they help the wheel roll from China to its future in parts West; as certain Chinese Buddhists know, the Pure Land is in the West, the future into which the Sun descends – it appears that China may rule the world after California falls into the ocean.

It takes a hypocrite to know a hypocrite. As his critic Voegelin knew, Hegel himself wrote about hypocrisy from a similar perspective, that hypocrisy is the pretense of godliness, which is in itself an arrogance. Hence it would suit this occasion to provide a brief description of Hegel’s definition on hypocrisy for the hypocrisy connoisseur to savor.

In hypocrisy there is a difference between the good appearance presented by the subject and the subjective reality of his evil or selfish intent. Insofar as the subject is wholly self-interested or selfish, and conceives that he alone is a law unto himself, as if he were god almighty or the universe, he represents evil; for the particular subject in itself without any object other than itself is an empty or false universal. “On its formal side, evil is most peculiarly the individual’s own, since it is precisely his subjectivity establishing itself purely and simply for itself….” On the other hand, the moral man has the universal social good in mind and intends to conduct himself accordingly.

A hypocrite has a bad conscience when he is aware that his will conflicts with the “true”, or social, universal; yet, despite hits bad conscience, he sets himself up as pious and righteous in order to deceive others; or, he may use one good act performed as justification in his own eyes for his bad deeds; he may also justify some evil deed by finding a single good reason for it – say the recommendation of a single minister.

Hegel addresses the “empty formalism” of preaching duty alone. “Because every action explicitly calls for a particular content and a specific end, while duty as an abstraction entails nothing of the kind, the question arises: what is my duty? As an answer, nothing is available except to… strive after… one’s own welfare, and welfare in universal terms, the welfare of others…. Specific duties, however, are not contained in the definition of duty itself…. Duty itself in… self-consciousness… is inwardly related to itself alone… is abstract universality… it has identify without content, or the abstractly positive, the indeterminate…. In every end of a self-consciousness subject, there is [this empty or abstract] positive aspect necessarily present because [this general] end is what is purposed in an actual concrete action. This aspect he knows how to elicit and emphasize, and he may proceed to regard it as a duty or a fine intention. By so interpreting it, he is able to pass his action off as good in the eyes of both himself and others, despite the fact that, owing to his reflective character and his knowledge of the universal aspect of the will, he is aware of the contrast between this aspect and the essentially negative content of his action. To impose this way on others is hypocrisy; while to impose on oneself is a stage beyond hypocrisy, a stage at which subjectivity claims to be absolute.” (The Philosophy of Right)

The hypocrite’s deeds give the lie to his fine words. Even if they do not, we can accuse him of having bad intentions. Hegel, in Phenomenology of Mind, describes the psychological strategy of the hypocrite who knows his moral duty is socially determined yet takes his own individuality as the whole to which he alone has a duty. “(The particular self’s) pure self, as it is empty knowledge, is without content and without definiteness.” Yet it becomes “conscious of the opposition between what it is for itself and what it is for others, of the opposition of universality or duty and its state of being reflected into self away from the universal…. Over against this internal determination there thus stands… the universal consciousness; for this latter is is rather universality, duty, that is the essential fact, while individuality, which exists for itself and is opposed to the universal… is held to be Evil by the consciousness which thus stands by the fact of duty, because of the lack of correspondence of its internal subjective life with the universal; and since at the same time the first [empty individual or evil] consciousness declares its act to be congruency with itself, to be duty and conscientiousness, it is held by that universal consciousness to be Hypocrisy.

I think we get the picture. We see evil and good in their extremities at opposite ends of the continuum. Individual and society, particular will and universal will. With the horrors of the French Revolution in mind, Hegel favored the right-wing authoritarian end. It is no wonder that men and women pretend to be good as publicly defined. Are we all hypocrites? It seems that both Hegel and Voegelin, the critic who called Hegel a hypocrite, might agree that humans, as anti-social individuals, are originally evil. Is the man who admits he is evil and acts accordingly a hypocrite? Or is the sociopath a hypocrite?

Hegel presents the concrete state as the solution for dissolution of evil – the state is somehow provided by the World Spirit – we fear that it is a dystopian Totalitaria, a virtual prison. Voegelin would apparently have an indefinite, abstract god preside, but this personal god is the projection of the individual anarch in its original evil which both philosophers rightfully fear. In any event, may god forbid theocratic tyranny under fictitious gods. Further, we have good reason to fear the man-made calamities of the personification and deification of nations and states even more than the irregular natural wrath of the Terrorist Almighty.

We hope for a happy medium or golden mean rather than an “either good or evil” for our conversation or dialectic, that our conversant life may never end. Yet progressives may not be rid of the either/or, even if they say progress is from a lesser good to a greater good instead of from evil to good. Divided as individuals from unity by self-consciousness, we are given an underlying crisis or hypokrisis that requires decisions. We suspect that hypocrisy is the human predicament. But we do not want to water the pejorative term down and render it meaningless in its application to certain individuals who are much bigger hypocrites than others. Hypocrisy connoisseurs will appreciate the sophisticated philosophical hypocrites only in comparison to the vulgar ones in their collection.


Voegelin, Eric, HISTORY OF POLITICAL IDEAS, V.12 ON HEGEL, Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri 1997

Hegel, G.W.G., THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF MIND, transl. J.B. Baillie, London: George Allen 1949

Hegel, G.W.G, HEGEL’S PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, transl. T.M. Knox, Oxford: Clarendon: 1942

Robinson, Jonathan, DUTY AND HYPOCRISY IN HEGEL’S PHENOMENOLOGY OF MIND, An essay in the real and idea, Toronto: University of Toronto


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