The Slaughter Benches of History: Hegel and Radical Extremists

Why the recent attacks in Norway should remind us of the inherent danger of the political word.

The correlational dichotomy between words and deeds is as old as history itself, ranging from Alexander the Great reading the Iliad, which supposedly inspired him to conquer the world, to the disturbing image of Nietzsche's writings inspiring Hitler's crazed fantasies of a new Aryan age. A more positive example is Abraham Lincoln seeking inspiration in the King James Bible and in Shakespeare to understand the nature of politics.

Political men in this context should be read as men of action (including radicals). Leo Strauss, in his work, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, summarizes the predicament succinctly by stating that every political writer bears some responsibility for political actions just as the political actor -- as an individual -- bears responsibility for his deeds:

In a sense, all political use of Nietzsche is a perversion of his teaching. Nevertheless, what he said was read by political men and inspired them. He is as little responsible for fascism as Rousseau is responsible for Jacobinism. This means, however, that he is as much responsible for fascism as Rousseau was for Jacobinism.

The crucial question is, of course, the interpretation of words. Political radicals do not need to pore over thousands of pages of philosophical text to come to a conclusion on any perceived political malaise; their narrow extremism fosters the amputation of a single word or phrase -- preferably taken out of context -- that can be inserted into their perverted Weltanschauung to justify violence.

A recently released RAND Report, entitled "Radicalization, Linkage, and Diversity: Current Trends in Terrorism in Europe," claims that the radicalization process in Europe, especially among European Muslims, occurs individually with radical preachers, veterans of various conflicts and webmasters of radical websites all acting as radicalizing agents; there is no coherent top-down approach to recruiting terrorists either Islamic or right wing. Individuals, therefore, are the pivot on which radicalization takes place, amplified through modern technology and supported by an unfiltered, often amateurish reading of texts which end up "rationally" justifying mass slaughter.

For example, the 18th century idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel held that the drivers of historical change litter the "slaughter bench of history" and are often prone to misinterpretation (not that run-of-the-mill terrorists ever glean from Hegel in their leisure time). The Gedankenexperiment (the thought experiment) that Hegel's idealistic philosophy could cause real violent political repercussions might be considered excessive. But Hegel might be the influential messenger of divinely inspired mayhem, as John Dwyer points out:

History, from one perspective, was a slaughter bench. Hegel suggested that war, far from being an argument for atheism, was part of God's divine plan. One shouldn't think in terms of armies fighting one another, said Hegel. One should view warring societies as the embodiment of conflicting ideas. Wars were the battleground in the conflict between ideas and, in this dialectical struggle, the most progressive idea eventually won out.

That this "idea" has often been fought over by violent means appears logical in Hegel's mind when looking at the sum of human history. Gleaning a Hegel quote -- naturally taken out of context -- it is easy to discern the radical cachet of some of his statements:

The only work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, and indeed a death which has no inner range and fullness, for what is negated is the unfulfilled point of the absolute free self. It is thus the coldest, flattest death, without any more significance than slicing through a head of cabbage or than a gulp of water.

Crudely put, Hegel says it is all necessary: the gruesome but mundane particulars of the "terrible labor of negativity," the working out of the "cunning of reason," and the human desire to satisfy desire. At least a superficial reading of the passage above might yield this conclusion.

The Hegelian "cunning" in this context is to give expression to a calculation of "reason" as the sum total or effect of all the individuations of reason acted out by man in the course of human time (even the current terrorist attack in Norway); reason as an impersonal force that "knows" how to direct man in his working out the Spirit of the Absolute as a logical historical process.

An analogy might be helpful to understand this finer point: Viruses act as if they have a collective mind. It is known that their virulence is directly proportional to the concentration of human hosts. The virus will kill more people if it "knows" it does not need the host to survive very long because it can readily travel to a new host. History has shown that a virus seems to act collectively and changes its rationale and physiology in response to conditions.

So too, according to Hegel, reason seems to have a mind of its own, a cleverness or cunning that gets its way at all costs. Who would guess that massive slaughter in revolutions, terrorism or the killing of the innocent would be part of reason's plan to fulfill human history? Seeing the "way" of reason -- its "cunningness" -- is one of those insights only visible to astute observers, according to Hegel, at the end of history. In a strange sense, the tragedy in Norway could be interpreted as another example of this cunning of reason and a further confirmation of the inexorable "slaughter bench of history" with someone like Breivik playing the perverted role of a surrogate for god.

But this thought alone has a terrible whitewashing effect, making one think of the soldiers' response to Shakespeare's King Henry when accused of being engaged in an unjust cause: "Our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." In a sense, all of this philosophizing brings one back to the judicial benches of Nuremberg in 1946. No higher authority should ever be invoked to justify the killing of the innocent. Whether Hegel is being facetious, cynical or prophetic are several possible afterthoughts of his curious interpretation of reason. Words are what we make of them; in the end, we have to bear responsibility for both what we utter and what we do.

A version of this article has been published in Foreign Policy Journal.