“Its shape is in fact shapelessness, the all-embracing light of the morning.” – J.N. Findlay, Analysis of section 686 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
It’s impossible to see where light begins and ends. You can see it in the green leaves of the trees as much as in the clear blue of the sky. As much in the grey tarmac as in the glistening ocean. Light permeates all things that are visible and yet is none of them.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the story of the human spirit – or “Spirit” – as it struggles to find itself.
Spirit has discovered that it cannot be morally pure: you can do your duty, but you cannot be free from sin. Any moral stand taken results in hypocrisy – and yet a stand must be taken. Spirit goes around and around and has begun to despair again.
Spirit wants purity because it does not want to be limited. Recognising its own hypocrisy, Spirit seeks to be free from it.
Spirit sees a way out. It takes refuge in simplicity, escaping for now from the intricacies of moral debate. It finds this simplicity, this peace, in religion.
Spirit can stop retreating now that it has found God. A God that is lord and master and does not retreat from its object. God’s object is Spirit itself in its purity. Be one with God and know thyself. Self-contemplation: God is within me and spreads His light outward to all things that come within my vision. I have found a God that is akin to the sunrise, who spreads His light over all objects, making them visible while Himself being none of these particular things. God is the essence but not the being of these objects, making their appearance possible while leaving them to their own mundane existences.
Duty and morality fade into the background and the Truth is now found in that play of light over and above the things of the world. Truth is found in detachment from the things of the world.
This God, this Spirit, is now the “shape of shapelessness”, the simple relation of Spirit to itself. It is “the pure, all-embracing and all-pervading essential light of sunrise”. It is “formless substantiality”. The “simplicity” of this form of being means it moves about “aimlessly” and “without stability or intelligence”. It is vast and without limit, and therefore sublime rather than beautiful. It is something fearful and incomprehensible to moral consciousness, its beam vast and uncaring, and its heat potentially destructive of any particular thing that comes under it.
The human spirit will not linger long here. It cannot for long remain satisfied with the empty play of light on surfaces. It has been a relief from the contradictions and pressures of moral and ethical life, an escape. But Spirit will move on and search for new religious forms and find contradictions and pressures anew, and finally find a place for moral and ethical life again.
(I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller, with an analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay)
(Image is from Pixabay)