Hegel, Reason, and the Unhappy Consciousness

As the sun sets in Canto II of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim, Dante himself, explains that he is not worthy to undertake the journey, through Hell and Purgatory, to Heaven. I lack the strength and skill, he says. The poet Virgil, Dante’s guide, listens patiently before he replies: you are merely afraid. He goes on to give a rousing speech, inspired by a message he himself received from Heaven, which fills Dante’s heart with courage. Now the pilgrim can go on.

This canto illustrates the plight of the “unhappy consciousness,” which Hegel describes in his Phenomenology of Spirit. The unhappy consciousness sees nothing in itself but sin and weakness. Everything worth living for – everything essential to itself – can be found only in a distant, and ultimately unreachable, beyond. The unhappy consciousness is the medieval Christian mind that can only get a glimpse of God through penance and absolution; a mind that is elevated to sublime joy in those moments of reconciliation with the divine, when its heart is filled with courage again by the intervention of the priest and his rites; a soul that crashes down to despair again when it reflects on its own sin, on the fresh sins for which it has not yet been absolved, and sees once again a great chasm between itself and God.

In the final canto of Dante’s Paradise, we find St Bernard praying, on behalf of the pilgrim, that the Virgin Mary might allow the poet a glimpse of God. Dante looks up and sees before him the perfection of the universe. Before describing his vision, the poet prays that he might be able to relate even “just one spark” of the vision of light that he saw – now he has been returned to Earth from Heaven the vision has faded somewhat. This notion of a vision granted from above which fades when contact with the divine diminishes; the prayers to an outside power to aid him in creation – these are symptoms of the unhappy consciousness of the medieval mind.

“Reason” is the next stage of consciousness, directly following the discussion of the “Unhappy Consciousness” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Reason finds in the notion of absolution the key it requires to go on: in absolution we saw the reconciliation of the individual with their own essence. Whereas the unhappy consciousness feels gratitude for this reconciliation – since it was bestowed by the grace of God – reason takes its absolution for granted. This is because “reason,” in the sense Hegel means it here, is self-consciousness aware of itself as self-consciousness: in other words, it sees itself as both the conscious subject and as the sole object of its consciousness. The world that consciousness, as reason, sees is only its own self: “reason,” for Hegel, means “idealism.” The “God” of the unhappy consciousness was only ever self-consciousness itself and so reason – at least for now – has no use for a concept of a transcendent God in a distant Heaven.

(I’ve been reading: Dante’s Inferno, translated by J.G. Nichols; Dante’s Paradise, translated by Mark Musa; and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit translated by A.V. Miller.)

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