Hegel on the Negro, part 2

Hegel next takes up slavery. He is fundamentally opposed to slavery, but holds that it has an important role to play in historical development. It is also characteristic of the Negro:

Another characteristic fact in reference to the Negroes is Slavery. Negroes are enslaved by Europeans and sold to America. Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing — an object of no value. Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely children their parents, as either has the opportunity. Through the pervading influence of slavery all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear, and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim. The polygamy of the Negroes has frequently for its object the having many children, to be sold, every one of them, into slavery; and very often naive complaints on this score are heard, as for instance in the case of a Negro in London, who lamented that he was now quite a poor man because he had already sold all his relations.

The poverty of African spiritual understanding also explains, for Hegel, African courage:

In the contempt of humanity displayed by the Negroes, it is not so much a despising of death as a want of regard for life that forms the characteristic feature. To this want of regard for life must be ascribed the great courage, supported by enormous bodily strength, exhibited by the Negroes, who allow themselves to be shot down by thousands in war with Europeans. Life has a value only when it has something valuable as its object.

Hegel’s discussion of negro contempt for humanity, in this passage and those quoted previously, should be contrasted with Rousseau’s theory of history from the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Rousseau had suggested that man has two intrinsic passions: the passion for self love (the desire for self-preservation) and compassion (the desire for the preservation of others). Hobbes, in contrast, had admitted only the former of these principles. Hegel is denying that either principle is fully present in natural man (i.e. the negro). He views history as progressive, and Africa forms the antechamber for his philosophy of history, because in Africa proper (as Hegel terms sub-saharan Africa) history has not yet gotten started. Such ideas, he believes, are only recognized after a people has passed through a historical process of advancing spiritual ideas.

Unlike Hobbes or Rousseau, who held that man in his natural condition already has the ideas needed to found a good political order [by means of a contract], Hegel is clear that this is impossible. Such ideas come about only through a process of historical development. (That building nation-states in Africa would prove difficult at best is an easy corollary of Hegel’s view.) As Hegel puts it:

Turning our attention in the next place to the category of political constitution, we shall see that the entire nature of this [Negro] race is such as to preclude the existence of any such arrangement. The standpoint of humanity at this grade is mere sensuous volition with energy of will; since universal spiritual laws (for example, that of the morality of the Family) cannot be recognized here. Universality exists only as arbitrary subjective choice. The political bond can therefore not possess such a character as that free laws should unite the community. There is absolutely no bond, no restraint upon that arbitrary volition. Nothing but external force can hold the State together for a moment. A ruler stands at the head, for sensuous barbarism can only be restrained by despotic power. But since the subjects are of equally violent temper with their master, they keep him on the other hand within limits.

Among the Negroes, it is with their kings as it is with their gods. Both king and god are killed whenever they are found displeasing:

If the Negroes are discontented with their King they depose and kill him.

Hegel relates some of the information he has concerning the practises of negro tribes and their kings, noting that

Fanaticism, which, notwithstanding the yielding disposition of the Negro in other respects, can be excited, surpasses, when roused, all belief.

and going on to describe, at length, the frenzied killing which African tribes partake in. He notes that the barbarity of the negro erupts irregularly and unpredictably, and offers this explanation:

Every idea thrown into the mind of the Negro is caught up and realized with the whole energy of his will; but this realization involves a wholesale destruction. These people continue long at rest, but suddenly their passions ferment, and then they are quite beside themselves. The destruction which is the consequence of their excitement, is caused by the fact that it is no positive idea, no thought which produces these commotions; — a physical rather than a spiritual enthusiasm.

As usual with Hegel, the ideas (or lack thereof) of the Negro are the cause of his behavior. Hegel concludes with some reflections on the characteristics of negros, their significance as revealing the natural (i.e. pre-historical) condition of man, and their implications for the problem of slavery.

From these various traits it is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them at this day, such have they always been. The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and the Europeans is that of slavery. In this the Negroes see nothing unbecoming them, and the English who have done most for abolishing the slave-trade and slavery, are treated by the Negroes themselves as enemies. For it is a point of first importance with the Kings to sell their captured enemies, or even their own subjects; and viewed in the light of such facts, we may conclude slavery to have been the occasion of the increase of human feeling among the Negroes. The doctrine which we deduce from this condition of slavery among the Negroes, and which constitutes the only side of the question that has an interest for our inquiry, is that which we deduce from the Idea: viz., that the “Natural condition” itself is one of absolute and thorough injustice — contravention of the Right and Just. Every intermediate grade between this and the realization of a rational State retains — as might be expected — elements and aspects of injustice; therefore we find slavery even in the Greek and Roman States, as we do serfdom down to the latest times. But thus existing in a State, slavery is itself a phase of advance from the merely isolated sensual existence — a phase of education — a mode of becoming participant in a higher morality and the culture connected with it. Slavery is in and for itself injustice, for the essence of humanity is Freedom; but for this man must be matured. The gradual abolition of slavery is therefore wiser and more equitable than its sudden removal.

Just to drive them home, I repeat the main points: the negro is man in his natural or pre-historical condition. That natural condition is one of perfect injustice. Freedom is the essence of man, but man must be matured for freedom through a historical process. Slavery is unjust but natural to natural man (whose modern representative is the negro), and going through slavery is the first step in the negro’s spiritual development. It is only by becoming slaves, for Hegel, that negros began their journey up the ladder of history. Hegel wrote before the high age of European colonialism, but he would have considered colonialism similarly: only through colonialism did the free sub-saharan African enter history.

16th Century Ethiopian Emperor Lebna Dengel. A Portuguese observer described him thus: "In age, complexion, and stature, he is a young man, not very black. His complexion might be chestnut or bay, not very dark in colour"

Since Ethiopia and Liberia are the only states in Africa not to become subject to colonial powers, we might ask Hegel how he accounts for these cases. Liberia would present him with no difficulties, since it was founded by freed slaves, who had entered history through that route. At for Ethiopia, he would probably reply by combining the following answers. First, he might appeal to its very early contact with the foreign principle of Christianity. The Ethiopian church is the only pre-colonial branch of Christianity in Africa, and offered some early elevation over African darkness. Second, he could point out that the Ethiopians don’t quite fully belong to Africa proper at all, being a boundary case heavily connected first with Egypt and the Nile (the only time Hegel mentions Ethiopia is in connection with Egypt), and later with the middle east and Islamic settlement. Finally, he might point out that the Ethiopian population has not, on the whole, entered history even today – only that portion most exposed to foreign principles has. It seems that, on the whole, Hegel’s prediction that it is only through enslavement or the importation of foreign principle that negroes can enter history has stood up very well.

Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II. Hegel probably would not have considered him a Negro, but as racially, linguistically, and historically connected with Egypt and the middle east.

Hegel concludes his discussion of Africa thus:

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it — that is in its northern part — belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.

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About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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4 Responses to Hegel on the Negro, part 2

  1. Columnist says:

    This fanaticism also surprised Arab who converted Black people to Islam.

  2. Pingback: Introsphere roundup: June 13 – June 30 | The Second Estate

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Sick European understanding. Hegel was very ignorant…

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