By Douglas Anele
Virtually all the commentaries in the Nigerian media concerning the largely surprising outcome of the November 8 presidential election in the United States of America suffer from one fundamental defect: they were not situated within a philosophical theory or paradigm which alone can give intellectual depth and meaning to such an important event pregnant with possibilities of global ramifications.
But why is the outcome of the presidential election in America a matter of global concern that requires an intelligent and philosophically robust response? Answer: because the United States is the only genuine superpower right now despite China’s explosive economic and industrial development in the last three decades.
Therefore, whoever is elected President there is inevitably thrust into the vortex of world history. To appreciate the meaning of Trump’s defeat of Hilary Clinton within the context of contemporary history, I shall outline a philosophy of history that captures the kaleidoscopic character of that event. Afterwards, I shall interpret the key points of the election, particularly the fact that Trump who many Americans believe, following Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama, to be “temperamentally unfit” to govern surpassed expectations (including his own) by securing an impressive electoral college victory even in areas that consistently voted for Democrats in the past.
Some of the questions that would be addressed in this discourse include: What is the most appropriate philosophy of history for understanding the political earthquake that occurred in America on November 8? How can that very philosophy provide an intelligible explanation of Trump’s emergence as the next President of America notwithstanding the formidable credentials of Hilary Clinton and strong opposition from mainstream establishment of his Republican party? Is there a connection between Trump and what the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, called “the cunning of reason”?
Can Trump metamorphose into a world historical figure or will he end up as a mere footnote in the annals of American Presidents? Would Hilary Clinton have been more suitable for that metamorphosis? What lessons can we as Nigerians learn from what happened in America concerning the uncertainties of contemporary democratic practice, the status of America in the world and the future of democracy worldwide?
My analysis of the recently concluded presidential elections in the United States would be situated within the theoretical framework of Hegel’s highly influential philosophy of history. Ever since he formulated his theory of history in Reason and History and in The Philosophy of History, scholars have debated its merits and demerits. Yet, they unanimously acknowledge that the metaphysical interpretation of world history offered by Hegel is a rich source of valuable insights about the historical evolution of nation-states and how the desires and passions of certain paradigmatic individuals shape the emergence and historical development of world civilizations.
It also contains illuminating ideas concerning how the unintended and most especially the unintended consequences of human actions lead to surprising outcomes that change the course of history. Consequently, an analysis of what might be called “the Trump Phenomenon” along Hegelian lines would afford us a deeper understanding of the historical significance of Trump’s impending presidency and what it would mean not just for America but for the rest of the world as well.
According to Hegel, the methods for treating history can be categorized into three, namely, original history, reflective history and philosophical history. The first one deals with firsthand reports or eyewitness accounts of those who were present at important historical events, whereas the second pertains mainly to universal history compiled by professional historians.
But philosophical history, the most important of the three, concerns itself with penetrating the mass of historical facts or data to see if there is an underlying order, any rational core or pattern in the historical process. It is the task of the philosopher of history to ascertain and identify any underlying meaningful process taking place as history unfolds with the passage of time. Clearly, Hegel’s concept of philosophical history is premised on his general philosophy of absolute idealism and its basic axiom that the real is rational and the rational real.
For Hegel, the rational key to history can be discovered by intellectually penetrating the surface of existence to its rational and dialectically developing conceptual core, motivated by the quest for the underlying rational truth of history. The rational concepts of history are not in conflict with historical facts nor do they constitute a separate set of entities superior to the facts. Rather, these rational concepts which underpin the facts of history are actually the facts themselves “more deeply understood.”
But what is the underlying rational core or truth of history that Hegel speaks so eloquently about? To answer that question, one must revert to Hegel’s notion of the Absolute or Absolute Spirit, a sort of philosophical surrogate for the Christian God. World history has meaning because it is the scene in which Spirit, the Absolute, reveals itself and unfolds itself to the consciousness of humanity. Hence, philosophically understood, history is the rational architectonic of the truth of the Absolute, unfolding, becoming manifest, being revealed in time to finite consciousness.
Meanwhile, as the rational structure manifests itself dialectically in temporality, it exhibits God’s plan for the world. Hegel argues that history has an underlying rational structure powered by dialectical logic and that it is teleological. History, he posits, has a purpose; it is the purposeful movement towards God’s plan for humankind. The general picture of world history painted by Hegel is rational, purposeful and good. In his own words, reason, which is the unfolding, developing truth of the Absolute, rules the world.
At first glance, Hegel’s hyperbolic positive assessment of world history explodes into smithereens in the face of horrendous suffering and evil in the world. How can a philosopher of Hegel’s stature ignore the unspeakable pain and anguish people experience everyday? Now, Hegel accepts that there is much evil in history: he claims that history is the slaughter-bench on which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states and the virtue of individuals have been crushed. History fills us with the frightful agonizing realization of the misery, destruction, death and obliteration that have been the lot of even the noblest human hopes and achievements in the past, which will also befall our dreams and struggles eventually.
But what is the point of all this suffering, all the evils manifest in history? If the rational core proclaimed by Hegel is good, why all the destruction and pain? Hegel answers by claiming that his philosophy of history is a theodicy, a theory that justifies God and vindicates him against the accusation that he allows so much evil in the world. In working out his program of philosophy of history as theodicy, Hegel points out that the argument against God for allowing so much evil in the world is based on a superficial understanding of world history. One need to go beyond the surface, beyond mere appearances in history to grasp what lies latent and potential in it.
According to Hegel, what is latent in history is Spirit, the Absolute; and the essence of Spirit is freedom. Freedom is not the license to do as one pleases. What Hegel calls substantial freedom is attained when an individual aligns the ideals that guide his or her life with those of the society. Members of a society are free insofar as they have internalized the ethical ideals and fundamental beliefs of the spirit of that society, such that they recognize that the ethical and political ideals which they value as their own actually coincide with the ideals embodied in the laws and institutions of the organic totality of which they are a part. Hegel claims that the whole movement of world history is the process through which the Absolute manifests to finite beings the meaning of their own substantial freedom. By implication, this means that history is the progress of humanity towards the consciousness of its own freedom.
Substantive freedom is achieved because two elements are involved in history. First, there is reason, the rational concept of freedom that the Absolute, the ensemble of rational truths, is seeking to unfold, reveal, externalize and express to finite spirits.
Secondly, we have human passion. Hegel correctly observes that human desires, passions and personal aims, people’s drive to satisfy their selfish interests – the entire infrastructure of human subjective wills – are the most effective springs of human actions. In apparent agreement with David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who claimed that reason is the slave of the passions, Hegel affirms that passion, not rationality, is what motivates human beings, that “nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”
We now come to the most interesting, intriguing and tantalizing idea in Hegel’s philosophy of history, which is key to our analysis of Donald Trump’s upset victory at the polls. To be continued.