by Nicholas Desjardins
It is not an easy thing to fit art in its entirety into a neat set of classifications. Much easier is the work of tearing down such a set of categories by simply pointing to edge cases and positing new principles instead. Such work, however, would hardly do justice to G.W.F. Hegel’s thought. I maintain that Hegel’s classification of art into the Symbolic, Classical, and Romantic forms does helpfully describe the different ways in which we relate to these different kinds of artwork, and yet, in the spirit (or Spirit?) of his idea of immanent critique, I argue that out of the historical process he outlines emerges a cycle that, far from being a relic of the past, remains constantly at work on both a societal and individual level.[i] In this process, the Symbolic artwork, by gesturing to an inherently vague and unknowable Absolute, fosters a sense of wonder which inspires philosophical study and self-reflection. This investigation then leads to an appreciation of the holistic, all-encompassing beauty of the Classical artwork, which provides a way of making sense of reality in a harmonious, ordered manner. This serene unity, however, interrupts itself by providing the foundation for the movement into deeper self-reflection and interiority brought about by the Romantic artwork.
The Symbolic form of art is that of which a rudimentary natural form is used to symbolisethe ineffable, incomprehensible divine. Whereas the oldest human cultures, in Hegel’s formulation, worshipped nature as the divine (for example, the worship of rivers and the earth in animism, or the worship of fire in Zoroastrianism), the realm of art proper appeared when certain ancient civilisations began to use nature to symbolise the divine, or the “Absolute Spirit.”[ii] Like the Absolute found in many world religions (for example, Brahman, the Dao, God), Hegel’s Absolute is the self-conscious sum and totality of all reality.[iii] However, it is not something static and pre-defined—it is not a simple first principle or transcendent realm that, once realised, can simply be returned to, providing a final resolution.[iv] Rather, it is a historical process, ever-unfolding in dialectical motion through human self-reflection, negating itself and resolving that negation to arrive at a higher level of development.[v] Art thus has an inherent problem: it is trying to portray an infinite process in finite form.[vi] The Symbolic form attempts this by gesturing towards the Absolute, modifying natural forms to evoke a sense of a vague, indeterminate divine of indescribable cosmic magnitude.[vii] The effect on the viewer of such works, like the mysterious al–Khaznehof Petra, the magnificent temple-city of Angkor Wat, or the infinitely-detailed Tibetan thangkas, is to present a form that can be apprehended by the mind, but which simultaneously evokes a sense of something more—something that seems immanent but continuously eludes any attempt to grasp it in its entirety.
It is for this reason that Hegel equates the Symbolic form with the Sublime, meaning that it is at once utterly unimaginable (in meaning) and neatly understandable (in form).[viii] He takes this description even further, however. While Immanuel Kant would only say that the object is suitable for evoking a sense of the Sublime, Hegel argues that the object itself is Sublime.[ix] Whereas Kant appreciates the Sublime as an ennobling and moralising force, Hegel relegates it to a mere aesthetic quality, marked by the artist’s failure to find an adequate form to embody the divine, resulting in a vague and unsophisticated vision of the Absolute.[x] I question, however, whether this vagueness is necessarily a weakness.
By presenting an idea that is ultimately unknowable in opposition to a form that can be easily grasped by the mind, the Sublime artwork prevents intellectual complacency. Like Socrates’ endless questioning, it unsettles one’s basic assumptions and reminds one of how much one does not know. Indeed, it nurtures a sense of wonder.[xi] “The man who does not yet wonder at anything,” Hegel explains, “still lives in obtuseness and stupidity.”[xii] Yet in his early development, Hegel’s imagined ancient man learns to stand back from his surroundings, seeing them not in the mundane, everyday sense of a collection of particulars, but in terms of universal, structured concepts.[xiii] As art develops, from the “crude” architectural forms of the Symbolic through to the sculptures of the Classical and the poetry of the Romantic, it becomes better able to conceptualise the Absolute.[xiv] Yet I argue that these more “sophisticated” forms, precisely by being more clear in their conceptualisation, lack the raw mystery of the Symbolic, and thus its tendency to cultivate wonder. While the Classical and Romantic forms of art may serve as higher methods of self-reflection and philosophical contemplation, the Symbolic remains relevant and important for motivating that investigation in the first place.
As evidence, I would point to what Hegel called the paradigmatic example of Symbolic art, the pyramids of Egypt.[xv] Far from being superseded by all the other works of art that have been built in the thousands of years since, the pyramids retain a potent place in the popular consciousness, in virtue of the Sublime awe they inspire and the wonder and mystery that seem to surround them.[xvi] It is precisely the vagueness of their Symbolic form that allows the pyramids to symbolise a vast variety of different meanings (deep history, ancient divinity, harsh autocracy, the triumph of human will), yet this vagueness prevents them from ever being fully apprehended. Like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the Kaaba, they remain as a kind of anchor for wonder, reminding us that we do not yet have it all figured out.
The vague, blurry image of the Absolute Spirit brought about by the Symbolic form becomes clear and immanent in the Classical form of art. Sharing in the love for the classical Greeks that was popular during his time, Hegel identified their sculptures as the next step in art, as they finally gave form to a shape suitable for presenting the divine.[xvii] The magnificent statues of Zeus and Athena serve as a suitable vessel for the Absolute, since, unlike the pyramids, they do not present it in terms of raw, unthinking nature, but in human form.[xviii] This form is unique for Hegel in that it is “alone capable of revealing the spiritual in a sensuous way,” since the human being, the only thing capable of self-reflection and consciousness, is the only form in which Spirit can reside.[xix] The Classical form, by embodying the Absolute in anthropomorphic sculpture, unifies its shape and meaning in such a way that the Absolute can now be apprehended through the sensuous form of the artwork.[xx] Yet, this is not the Absolute in its full, indeterminate, infinite form, that Sublime image that the Symbolic gestured towards—this is the universal Absolute in determinate, particular form.[xxi]
Whereas the former vague Absolute is equated to the Sublime, Hegel equates the determinate, sensuous grasp of the Absolute found in Classical art with the beautiful. Beauty is truth as experienced through the senses. Since the Classical form allows this experience of beauty by unifying sensuous presentation with spiritual truth it is the most beautiful of the art forms.[xxii] This is not a mere aesthetic quality. Since beauty is embodied in the human individual, it served as an all-encompassing guide for the Greeks on how to live their lives and organise their society.[xxiii] Indeed, for Plato, beauty (kalon) was a term with strong normative, moral implications. In his time, to call a person or a society “beautiful” was a holistic appraisal of its virtue and value.[xxiv]
For Hegel, this is both the strength and the fatal weakness of the Classical form. On the one hand, by embodying the divine the Classical form turns what was previously an abstract, intellectual form into a living ideal, through which the Greeks were able to become self-conscious and self-determining individuals while still retaining their communal ties in a “happy harmony” within their “serene kingdom”.[xxv] Yet on the other hand, the cracks in this harmonious unity were inevitable, as subjectivity requires the division of the Spirit—it must move outside of itself and look back in reflection.[xxvi] Thus, by embodying the self-conscious Absolute Spirit, the Classical artwork ensures that its unity will form its thesis, and thus that its antithesis will inevitably disturb its harmony.[xxvii] Like all other unities in Hegel’s framework, it contains within itself the contradiction that will eventually overthrow and supersede it.
I am not so sure that the Classical form is a mere relic of the ancient Greeks, however. It seems to me that the concept of an all-encompassing ideal, characterised by a unity of nature and spirit, still plays a powerful role in present-day society. In the corridors of the most cutting-edge technology companies, one will hear programmers and engineers talk about “reality” and “science” not as processes or areas of investigation, but rather as a principle which is found equally in the moral life, the successful romance, and the ideal ratio of width to length in the design of the iPhone. Similarly, the term “natural” is in certain communities used equally to express a moral compulsion, the aesthetic quality of a forest, the virtue of a certain way of life, and the spiritual value of an individual. Like the Greek kalon, these ideas bring the ineffable Absolute down to a comprehensible human level, embodying it in an aesthetic principle that serves as a measure and guide for all aspects of life.[xxviii] As long as they are realised to be only a determinate, and thus incomplete form of the Absolute Spirit, I think that these notions can provide a useful stepping-stone for spiritual and intellectual progress, since they provide a unity to be reflected upon in the next stage of art.
In the final form of art, the Romantic, the Absolute Spirit once again breaks free of its external form, but not through a failure of the artist (as in the Symbolic) but rather due to a more sophisticated realisation of the Spirit as a self-determining, self-conscious Absolute.[xxix] The Romantic form arrives alongside Christianity, which breaks from the prior relationship between religion and art by locating Christ not in artistic depictions, but in a historical character.[xxx] The Christian God, having descended to Earth in the figure of Christ, is no longer above nature (as in the Symbolic), and through the death of Christ, God is no longer merely embodied within nature (as in the Classical), but now transcends it.[xxxi]
In the Romantic form, art is reaching its limits, as the Absolute cannot be realised through external form, but only in the interior, inward, self-reflective process.[xxxii] As the Absolute Spirit has come to be understood in its subjective depth, as something from and within humans, Romantic art is burdened with the task of representing that subjectivity in sensuous form.[xxxiii] Seeing as the Absolute is now recognised in its true infinite, universal sense, the Romantic artwork is unable to adequately represent it in a particular form, and thus instead tries to draw the viewer’s attention to their own subjectivity by depicting in its form only that aspect of the divine that has, like in the story of Christ, reached down into particular existence.[xxxiv] This tension between free, infinite, self-determining Spirit and the limits of external presentation to the senses is what ultimately leads to Hegel’s “end of art”, where artistic presentation can no longer carry on the work of presenting the Absolute and must give way to the comparably more capable field of philosophy.[xxxv]
This end must be read as the end of a classification of categories, not a hierarchy in which each new form makes its predecessors redundant. Were that the case, one would have to wonder why art still occupies such an important role in human society today. Even more, one would have to wonder why the precise examples that Hegel points to in the Symbolic and the Classical forms (the pyramids, or the Greek sculptures of the gods) are far from outmoded, but remain very popular objects of study and celebration. As I have argued, this is because Symbolic artworks, by evoking a tantalising, Sublime mystery, act as a kind of anchor for wonder. They wedge the gate of philosophical investigation open, tempting one to wander in. Once inside the gate one comes across Classical artworks which offer beauty, a sense of serene harmony that provides comfort from the unsettling feeling of the divide between the known and the unknowable that is brought about by the Symbolic. This beauty can lead to a kind of stagnation if one takes it as a final truth, but provided that one instead answers the call to go further, the unified form of beauty provides something to grasp on to as one moves upward into the greater self-reflection and interior development of the Spirit brought on by the Romantic form.
In this sense, then, the Romantic could be called the “highest” form, but not as the culmination of a grand development of human consciousness that has already happened. Rather, it is simply the third step in a cycle of development that is always happening on the different levels of society, community, and even within the individual. In less abstract terms, this is the cycle at work when a young girl is entranced by the mystery of the pyramids, inspiring a love of history that leads her to spend her teenage years enjoying the beauty of the Greek myths where, through their lessons and archetypes, she learns to make sense of the world—a sense that she nonetheless overthrows and advances past once she enters university and uses her understanding of those myths as a foundation for engaging with classic films, through which she continues her journey of self-reflection and dialectical development.
Nicholas Desjardins is currently undergoing his Honours year in History where he is investigating the history of the Spiritualist tradition in Queensland. His interests lie in religious and cultural history, with a particular focus on mysticism, esotericism, and the occult.
[i] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 1–4; Julia Peters, Hegel on Beauty, Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy 7 (New York: Routledge, 2015), 10.
[ii] G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 315–16.
[iii] Olga B. Panova, “Spirit and Language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Absolute Spirit,” Procedia: Social and Behavioural Sciences 200 (2015): 305–6.
[iv] Panova, “Spirit and Language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Absolute Spirit,” 505–6; David James, Art, Myth and Society in Hegel’s Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2009), 12.
[v] Panova, “Spirit and Language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Absolute Spirit,” 505–6.
[vi] James, Art, Myth and Society in Hegel’s Aesthetics, 16.
[vii] James, Art, Myth and Society in Hegel’s Aesthetics, 16; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 300.
[viii] James, Art, Myth and Society in Hegel’s Aesthetics, 9; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 304; Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 431; G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 171.
[ix] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Cambridge: Hackett, 1987), 99.
[x] Genevieve Lloyd, Reclaiming Wonder After the Sublime (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 89; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 302; Lydia L. Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 55.
[xi] Lloyd, Reclaiming Wonder After the Sublime, 18.
[xii] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 315.
[xiii] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 315.
[xiv] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 9–10.
[xv] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 65–67.
[xvi] On a more anecdotal note, it seems a common phenomenon that someone who finds Classical sculpture pretentious and “doesn’t get” Romantic paintings is utterly fascinated by the intricate web of conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of the pyramids. This seems to me to be a vast improvement over them lacking curiosity at all, and I think Hegel would agree.
[xvii] Peters, Hegel on Beauty, 8.
[xviii] Peters, Hegel on Beauty, 8; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 433–34. There is an interesting parallel here with Hindu philosophy, which makes a distinction between Brahman, the impersonal Absolute, typically thought of in technical, intellectual terms, and Bhagavan, the personal Absolute, typically thought of in the figure of Krishna or otherwise anthropomorphic forms.
[xix] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 433–34; Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 170.
[xx] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 27.
[xxi] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 301; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 301.
[xxii] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 170; Peters, Hegel on Beauty, 40.
[xxiii] Peters, Hegel on Beauty, 8.
[xxiv] Nickolas Pappas, “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” in Plato’s Aesthetics, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-aesthetics.
[xxv] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 436–37.
[xxvi] Panova, “Spirit and Language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Absolute Spirit,” 504; Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 78; Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 504.
[xxvii] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 171.
[xxviii] Peters, Hegel on Beauty, 8–9.
[xxix] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 436; Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 100–101.
[xxx] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 80.
[xxxi] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 435–36; Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 101.
[xxxii] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 518.
[xxxiii] Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 102.
[xxxiv] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 518; Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 172–73; Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 105–6.
[xxxv] Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 10; Moland, Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism, 6.
Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hegel, G.W.F. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Translated by William Wallace. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.
Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
James, David. Art, Myth and Society in Hegel’s Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2009.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Cambridge: Hackett, 1987.
Lloyd, Genevieve. Reclaiming Wonder After the Sublime. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.
Moland, Lydia L. Hegel’s Aesthetics: The Art of Idealism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Panova, Olga B. “Spirit and Language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Absolute Spirit.” Procedia: Social and Behavioural Sciences 200 (2015): 502–8.
Pappas, Nickolas. “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” In Plato’s Aesthetics, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-aesthetics.
Peters, Julia. Hegel on Beauty. Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy 7. New York: Routledge, 2015.