PHILOSOPHY: Love in early Hegel

In my experience, Christians’ opposition to Hegel is based on the apparent support that his dialectic method gives to relativism and the idea the opposing truths can both be true. This is valid if one considers a narrow definition of knowledge. In this paper, I will argue that Hegel’s dialectical philosophy concerns the relations between people, i.e. the bodies of knowledge, and has its roots in Christian theology. I hope to demonstrate the relevance of a Christian Hegel to law by applying it to my own research into environmental law and, in particular, as an agent of behaviourial change with regard to household recycling.

Philosophy of Love

It is true that, from Hegel’s point of view, Reason is the governing principle of the world. In his Philosophy of History, he asserts that Reason is the Sovereign of the World[1], that the history of the world is a rational process. But he writes about Reason as “the Truth, the Eternal, the absolute powerful essence” that reveals itself in the World in which nothing else is revealed by its honour and glory[2]. He may as well have been talking about God and, indeed, he calls God the “most concrete representation” of Reason[3].

But Reason has not always had pride of place in his philosophy. In the first ten years of his career, when his focus was on theology, a young idealistic Hegel saw love as the force that held the world together. In his essay Love, he said that true and proper love only existed between living beings who were equal in power and thus, in one another’s eyes, living beings from every point of view. Genuine love excludes all opposition – it is not the same as understanding or reason, it doesn’t restrict, it isn’t limited or finite and it is not one feeling but a combination. It destroys objectivity in that the separate being exists as something united to another.[4] Hegel goes on to consider a philosophy based on love in his treatise of Christianity, The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate. This essay represents a time when he believed that love was the highest kind of knowing for humans and could only be objectively expressed in the religious symbol of the Beautiful Soul of Jesus[5].

Alan Norrie has argued in his essay Law and the Beautiful Soul that Hegel’s focusing on love was part of the contemporaneous movement of moral expressivism, which involved a strong belief in the possible perfection of humanity in the future[6]. Hegel came at the tail end of the movement, but was thought to be influenced by his close friend and Romantic poet Holderlin. Moral expressivism was certainly the antithetical position to an Enlightenment vision of a society of atomistic, morally self-sufficient subjects. It sought to unite people through the highest self-feeling, which would be manifested in community life. It was a part of the spirit of the times which unleashed the French Revolution and a backlash against narrow materialist ideology. Norrie described it as “a sense of the possibility of changing the world radically, of overcoming the negativity and deathly quality of the present in favour of a future of self- actualisation, harmony and community.”[7] According to moral expressivists, what one ought to do was the foundation for what the world should become and what one ought to do was believe in the “possibility of a new moral world with a genuinely unifying public sphere and an ethical sense of community”.[8]

Unfortunately, as the French Revolution turned from a popular revolution into state-sponsored terrorism, he lost his faith in love and prioritised reason. In The Spirit of Christianity, he seemed to be exploring why the community of love that was set up by the early followers of Jesus could not be sustained by modern individuals[9]. However, says Alison Ormiston, love as a knowledge of unity “remains the source of the modern will in its drive to realise its unity in the world, albeit a source which becomes unconscious”[10].

In his subsequent, more mature philosophy based on rationality, he does not “seek to replace the knowledge of love[11].  If anything, one could argue that love never really left its place at the heart of the dialectic. A more mature, rational Hegel, in The Philosophy of Right, in setting the family as the building block of society, said that it was love that held the individual consciousnesses in a family together. Hegel describes love as “the consciousness of the unity of myself with another”. Self-consciousness is only achieved by renouncing my independent existence and by knowing that I exist as part of unity with another.[12] Love is made up of two elements, the will to be[13] no longer an independent self-sufficing person and the gaining of myself in another person, in whom I am recognised and whom I recognise. As result Hegel says “love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding…Love is both the source and the solution of this contradiction.” [14]

Ormiston argues that the tension between love and reason which Hegel tries to reconcile in The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate actually points towards an attempt in his later work to “preserve love against the divisive and eclipsing effects of a narrower, abstract rationality”[15].

Hegel posits that the biblical Flood in Genesis was a symbol of hostility between man and the environment[16]. But, one could push Hegel’s starting point back even further: the hostility between man and the environment began when humans went against God’s commandment. They decided to depart from the sustainability and balance of the Garden of Eden and take what they wanted, instead of what they needed.[17] There is a clear connection in his philosophy between our dialectic to nature and our dialectic to each other, which is the dialectic of both man and the environment to God or the lawmaker. But, from a human point of view, we can only know whether separation from God/law or nature came first through faith or omniscience.  Whether man’s separation from God (or external law) or nature came first is both impossible to identify and unimportant. In The Spirit of Christianity, Hegel documented the to-ing and fro-ing of the Israelites from separation from the world to separation from God. The point he was trying to make was that both dialectics exist simultaneously. God was showing that separation is a fiction. It was not possible to be separated from the environment or from his law unless there was a breakdown in the dialectic. According to the ‘Identity’ theory of Holderlin, “being separated from the world…is derivative and corruptive of a more primal identity that exists in nature…primordial unity of subject and object is the divine”.[18] In other words, the dialectic between us and the environment is both law and the divine (underlying law). The purpose of the dialectic, of law and of the lawgiver, far from restraining life, is to protect the Identity that exists in beings, particular identities and maintain the environment. The dialectic is law, God and the State[19] and love[20].

Reframing the law

The dialectic of love is, for Hegel, manifest in the notion of Christian virtue in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount[21]. Indeed, when we say that God is a dialectic, we can talk about both the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He expand the concept of law so that it can accommodate both the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. According to Norrie, the “law is persistently antinomial in its form…legal concepts generally hunt in pairs, in the sense that law is essentially dichotomous.”[22] The law is objective and subjective, universal and particular, the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’, which are the essence of the actual and the ideal. If we take God’s law in the Old Testament, then rules such as ‘you shall not kill’ or ‘don’t bow down to idols’ could be regarded as the distant ‘ought’. Jesus set the fundamental law as ‘Love God above everything and thy neighbour as thyself’. What Jesus did was to refocus the law from negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement. No longer was it the primary job of law to impose external restrictions of behaviour. Instead, its role was to empower the individual by acting in accordance with the spirit. The restrictions would then flow naturally from one’s internal convictions or love.

Ormiston wrote 

“Love…overcomes the inevitable clash of duties that emerges under rule-bound morality. For if moral rules or commands are considered as absolutes in the multifaceted reality of concrete situations, we will be faced with the paradoxical situation of having a plurality of absolutes. If this is dealt with by ranking specific duties as to which is most important, the lower duties take on the status of vices. Love, on the other hand, is the ‘one living spirit which acts and restricts itself in accordance with the whole of the given situation’. Against the elevation of particular duties absolute, we have love as a ‘living bond of the virtues’, their ‘all pervasive soul’.[23]

This refocusing of the law from negative to positive reinforcement of course raises the question as to how this changes the nature of man’s relationship to the environment. Law based on love is the dialectic between humanity and the environment and within humanity, it is that which holds society and the environment together.

More practically, this can be seen from the harmful effect that hostility of one section of humanity towards nature actually does have to another section of humanity; this is not very loving at all. For example, methane, the greenhouse gas released from decomposing rubbish in landfills, is “over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over 100-year period”[24]. The UK’s Health Protection Agency has forecast that up to 10,000 people could be killed by 2012 as a result of the effects of global warming – heatwaves, malaria outbreaks, respiratory problems and food poisoning[25].  Therefore, it is difficult to argue that contributing to landfill waste by not recycling is an example of loving one’s neighbour.

The debate over the last ten years has focused on how to ‘encourage’ households to recycle more. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, local authorities were given the power to charge for waste collection[26] in order to fund some kind of incentivised recycling scheme. This became known, rightly or wrongly, colloquially as the ‘bin tax’ “that would hit people in their pockets with exorbitant fines, enforced by an army of bin bullies to snoop through people’s rubbish” [27]. The current government is repealing the power to charge in its Locallism Bill, as it promised shortly after the 2010 general election[28], whilst still encouraging local councils to offer rewards for recycling.

The question, therefore, is what happens when someone does not ‘comply’ with the law of love? Is it okay to punish someone for not acting in a loving way? Is the fear of punishment tantamount to force? More importantly, is it still love if one is paid? After all, the whole point of love is that it “modifies itself to respond to the context” rather than simply imposing itself on “particular circumstances”[29].

Law versus justice

The person who breaks the law, the trespasser[30], has “put himself outside the concept which is the content of the law” and so must lose the rights comprised in law. However, that loss to the trespasser can only be actualised if the law is “linked with life and clothed in might”[31]. Punishment must take place but the “executor” of the law, the judge, is a living being of whom justice is a particularity. But there may be a tension between the idea of universal justice (punishment for a wrong) and the particularity of real justice. Or, justice is the dialectic between a universal law (the ‘ought’) and the particular situation of the specific wrong[32] (the ‘is’). In Christianity, Jesus was the method of justice bridging the separation of the universal lawgiver (God) and the particularity of the sinner (man), representing both the universal law giver and the particular sinner. In other words, justice is law and justice is love.

Now, the lawgiver is satisfied when the trespasser is punished[33] but the problem is that the trespasser may not be reconciled to the lawgiver if he sees the lawgiver as interfering in his freedom (“an alien power”) or as just bad or unfair (“a bad conscience…the consciousness of a bad action”). In the case of a law compelling households to recycle, he might either want the freedom to choose how to live or not be convinced of the need for the law in the first place. There can be no reconciliation as long as punishment is regarded as absolute, unconditional or insubordinate to a higher sphere (justice). But if punishment is represented as fate, i.e. consequences or harm, it is the “equal reaction of the trespasser’s own deed”[34]. Unlike the penal law, reconciliation with fate “occurs within the orbit of life”. It seems that punishment as law is telling someone to do something on account of the lawgiver’s authority, whereas punishment as fate is about educating and informing someone to act in a certain way to avoid the consequences of the act. Indeed, with regard the rights of one form of lawmaker, parents, over the free choice of children. Hegel argues that it is limited to correction and education[35]. Chastisement is not the same as justice; it is a subjective morality, the object of which is to restrain a freedom bound by nature and instil universality into the child’s consciousness and will. “Man does not possess instinct what he is to be but must first of all acquire it.” [36]

This seems to suggest that there is nothing inherently wrong with punishing non-recyclers. What is important is that people should understand – thus being educated and informed – why they should keep the law (and thus why they are being punished). Jesus didn’t overcome the separation between man and the environment, man had to recognise that Jesus was the bridge between man and the environment.

But there was more to recocilation than the physical, visible incarnation of the lawgiver within society. The incarnation of God took upon himself the punishment that was due to sinful man (all of them), a punishment – marched through crowded streets then nailed to a cross on top of hill for all the world to see – was about as public as one could get. And this perhaps is the whole essence of social responsibility: knowing (and/or seeing) that our actions affect someone else should (also) be the motivation for imposing our own limits.

Fate has a “more extended domain than punishment”, to the extent that it arouses “even by guilt without crime and hence it is implicitly stricter than punishment”. As a result, the guilt can be experienced as a sense of injustice or a desire for justice[37]. “If someone suffers an unjust attack, he can arm and defend himself and his right, or he may do the reverse. It is with his reaction, be it battle or submissive grief, that his guilt, his fate, begins. In neither case does he suffer punishment; but he suffers no wrong either. In battle he clings to his right and defends it.”[38] Fighting for what is in danger does not mean losing what he is struggling for, but in facing danger, he has subjected himself to fate. He can respond with courage or grieving submission, courage being greater because it has recognised the possibility of failure or wrongdoing and taken responsibility for it.

The Beautiful Soul

The tension between courage and grieving passivity is the tension between taking responsibility, with all the suffering that entails, and not doing so. But the latter is grieving because it is points to a certain hopelessness, that one is resigned to one’s fate. One can take responsibility – and be joyful – when one recognises that the separation between the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ can be overcome. One grieves passively when one believes that the separation cannot be overcome or even if one denies the ‘ought’ – that is when the ‘is’, society, the environment becomes meaningless.

Hegel calls the of courage and passivity ‘The Beautiful Soul’[39]. The ‘ought’ of law – be it moral or civil – is external, from an external, separate lawgiving authority. The ‘is’ is internal and corresponds with our own inclinations, passions, circumstances – the ‘is’ is life. When we follow the ‘ought’, it is courage because it is going against the desires of our own self for something greater. The Beautiful Soul, therefore, is the of courage of passivity, the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. The Beautiful Soul isn’t the antimony of law, it is the law in its completeness. It is the representation or symbolisation of the law of love. Anything less, any hint of separation, points to the struggle and imperfect morality of the Unhappy Consciousness. Life is varying degrees of unhappiness and suffering.

Hegel seems to suggest that the desire of the original Beautiful Soul – Jesus – was a withdrawal from the suffering of life, by highlighting the extreme nature of Jesus’ call to hate father and mother and to cut out the eye that cause you to sin (Luke 14:26?) In reality, Jesus is using hyperbole to emphasise the difficulty of achieving between law, life and the environment.  Similarly, Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek and give away more than what the thief wants (Matthew?) only sounds like withdrawal in a world of imbalance and rights. The Beautiful Soul is meant to reflect a world of balance[40], not a withdrawal or alienation from the world. Indeed, during the Last Supper, Jesus expresses his love for his friends (and through them, humanity) by washing their feet with water and sharing and consuming the fruits of nature, the bread and wine[41].

The key characteristic of the Beautiful Soul is forgiveness. One forgives those who have done him wrong, for “a heart thus lifted above the ties of right, disentangled from everything objective, has nothing to forgive the offender, for it sacrificed its right as soon as the object over which it had a right was assailed, and thus the offender has done no injury to any right at all.”[42] Ormiston writes:

“If one continues to assume one’s place in the competitive world regulated by a system of rights, then one will always be involved in an injury to life, to the fundamental unity with the other. But if one withdraws from this system of justice, from the profanity of the public world, if one stops making claims on others, then there will no longer be feelings of resentment, Hostility and pride. By clearing the self of these emotions, the way is opened up to love, to the sensing of a life similar to one’s own that takes individuals back to the truth of their life and to the real bond of community with others.”[43]

When Jesus said “you sins are forgiven”, it was not meant as a cancellation of wrongdoing, punishment or consequences but a recognition that the other’s heart was “like his own”, elevated above law and consequence. Striving for the Beautiful Soul, the heart of the dialectic, is an act of faith – not in knowing the Beautiful Soul as superior to one’s own self but in knowing “spirit through spirit, and only like spirits can know and understand one another”[44]. The difference in spirit that exists between the Beautiful Soul and the Unhappy Consciousness is the hanging onto a parent by a child. But the Unhappy Consciousness who nevertheless strives for the Beautiful Soul recognises the Beautiful Soul within.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of the dead of the night to ask how he could be born again, Jesus replied: “Man as man is not an altogether sensuous being; he is not by nature just confined to pleasure-seeking. He has spirit in him too; as a rational being, he has received as his inheritance a spirit of the divine essence. Just as you undeniably hear the howling of the wind and feel it blow, though you can neither control it nor even know whence it comes and whither it goes, so the autonomous and immutable power makes its presence known to you from within. But just how this power is linked with the rest, with any changeable human sensibility, and how it can give ascendancy over our sensuous capacity – this we do not know.”[45]

Shortly before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving a guide within themselves. “The seed of goodness that reason has sown inside you I have awakened in each of you, and the memory of my teaching and love for you will sustain in you this spirit of truth and virtue”. He even prayed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he has taught only the law that “silently dwells, however misunderstood, within each and every heart”.[46]

Later, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel said that the people who ‘make a difference’ to world history are those who “grasp just such a higher universal, make it their own, and realise this purpose in accordance, make it their own, and realise this purpose in accordance with the higher law of the spirit”.[47]

Whether one believes the Beautiful Soul existed as a real person or not, it is the act of reaching for the Beautiful Soul that casts light on the Beautiful Soul within. When one strives to be law-abiding or socially responsible, one recognises the potential to be as such. The more one strives, the more becomes. But until one actually does become a Beautiful Soul, as long as there is any hint of the Unhappy Consciousness, love will always be a struggle This seems to explain why the government’s own statistics show recycling rates to be increasing, albeit slowly, without external law or incentives, and raises questions on their need.

It is important to emphasis that the Beautiful Soul does not mean a loss of individual personality. The Beautiful Soul of Jesus showed the perfect balance between the different types of love. Yes, there was agape love, commonly know as the love of the Good Samaritan. But Jesus was someone who engaged with society. He had his own group of friends and he went to parties and, though having nowhere to rest his head, no doubt took pleasure in what he did have (filial love). Of course, being human, he would have had all the basic human desires for what he didn’t have (erotic love) – he ate and drank, at the very least he became hungry. If he didn’t have any erotic love, it is unlikely that Satan would have tried to tempt him with food, power and riches. But being balanced, he did not give into temptation. Even on the night of his arrest, he desired not to go through what was coming.

Hegel thought that if the spark of the Beautiful Soul was lying dormant in the Jews (or humanity, for that matter), then Jesus’ teaching would have had an overwhelming effect. In a parody of the most damning hellfire and brimstone preachers, he said that Jesus’ words would have been the breath to kindle the spark into a flame and “burn up all their petty titles and claims”.[48] Yet, throughout the rest of his philosophy, change is not meant to be instantaneous. Sometimes things may happen suddenly, but only if the gradual movement of the spirit is resisted. Hegel has later posited that it was a few “Great men”[49] of history, who arouses the conscious spirit. One could go further and say that it is the Beautiful Soul within the “Great men” [50] who arouses the spark of the spirit in others.

The hatred with which Jesus’ message was received was due to the particularities of man, because the people “were ignorant” of the spirit within and did not search for it within their souls[51], but that didn’t negate the possibility of a Beautiful Soul lying dormant within. In the Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, there is no contradiction between the simultaneous existence of the Beautiful Soul and the Unhappy Consciousness. Indeed, the Unhappy Consciousness reaches towards the Beautiful Soul because the Beautiful Soul is within (and vice versa).  His words were the breath to kindle the spark but the fire takes time to consume all it can. The duration of the flames depends not only on the volume of flammable material but also on whether we try to throw water on it. If recycling is the metaphorical incinerator that burns household waste, then government statistics show the fire to be increasing in strength. The question is whether incentives or laws are an accelerant or water to put it out.


Department for Communities and Local Government (2010). It’s time for recycling rewards, not bin taxes. 7 June 2010. [Accessed: 8 June 2010]

Hegel, G.W.F. (1795). The Life of Jesus. In Hegel, G.W.F; Three Essays, 1793-1795; University of Notre Dame Press, Notra Dame, Indiania; (1984, Ed/Trans: Fuss, Peter; Dobbins; John); pp104-165

Hegel, G.W.F. (1799). The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate. In:  Hegel, Friedrich; On Christianity – Early Theological Writings; Harper and Brothers, New York, USA; (1961, Trans: T M Knox); pp182-301

Hegel, George W.F. (1821) Philosophy of Right. Dover Publications, Inc, 2005, New York.

Hegel, G.W.F (1824). Reason in History, A General introduction to the Philosophy of History. Liberal Arts Press – Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953. (Trans: Hartman, Robert S.) 

Hegel, G.W.F. (1837). Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Hegel-by-Hypertext. 

Norrie, Alan (2004). Law and the Beautiful Soul. King’s College Law Journal, Vol 15, Issue 1 (2004), pp45-62.  URL: [Accessed: 05/06/2010]

Norrie, Alan (2005). Law and the Beautiful Soul. Glasshouse, London

Ormiston, Alice (2002). The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate: Towards a Reconsideration of the Role of Love in Hegel. Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol 35, No 3 (September 2002), pp499-525. Canadian Political Science Association and the Société québécoise de science politique. URL: [Accessed: 18/08/2010]

Pickles, Eric (2010). We’ll boost recycling with a gentle nudge. The Guardian, 8 June 2010. [Accessed: 08/06/2010]


[1] Hegel, 1837, para 12

[2] Hegel, 1837, para 12

[3] Hegel, 1824, p.15

[4] Hegel, 1795, p31

[5] Ormiston, 2002, p500

[6] Norrie, 2004, p46

[7] Norrie, 2004, p46

[8] Norrie, 2004, p47-8

[9] Ormiston, 2002, p499

[10] Ormiston, 2002, p503

[11] Ormiston, 2002, p503

[12] Love is the dialectic of self and other, family is a dialectic of dialectics. Love is both consciousness and feeling.

[13] ‘will to be’ – is this a conscious decision or an instinctive leap or something else (an encounter)?

[14] Hegel, 1821, para 158 – Addition

[15] Ormiston, 2002, p504

[16] We are arguably going through another global flood as a result of climate change, of which one of the causes is increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

[17] Hegel, 1799, p182-3

[18] Ormiston, 2002, p508

[19] Hegel, 1824, para 41

[20] See note 4

[21] Ormiston, 2002, p509

[22] Norrie, 2004, p49

[23] Ormiston, 2002, p510

[24] US Environmental Protection Agency

[26] Climate Change Act 2008, Section 70 & Schedule 5

[27] Pickles, 2009; BBC News, Government rules out pay as you throw waste charges, 7 June 2010; Sherman, Jill, Chip and bin tax aims to force more recycling, The Times,; Friends of the Earth, Bin Tax scrapped, 7 June 2010,

[28] Department for Communities and Local Government, 2010

[29] Ormiston, 2002, p510

[30] Hegel, 1799, p225

[31] Hegel, 1799, p226

[32] Hegel, 1799, p226

[33] Hegel, 1799, p227

[34] Hegel, 1799, p230

[35] Ormiston, 2002, p511: “Reconciliability constitutes an escape from the inherent divisiveness of rights-based justice.”

[36] Hegel, 1821, para 174

[37] Hegel, 1799, p232

[38] Hegel, 1799, p233

[39] Hegel, 1799, p234

[40] Hegel, 1799, p236

[41] Hegel, 1799, p248

[42] Hegel, 1799, p236

[43] Ormiston, 2002, p512

[44] Hegel, 1799, p239

[45] Hegel, 1795, p108

[46] Hegel, 1795, p156

[47] Hegel, 1824, p.11

[48] Hegel, 1799, p281-2

[49] Hegel, 1824, p.12

[50] Hegel, 1824, p.12

[51] Hegel, 1795, p154