Hegel and Original Sin:Consciousness qua human self-consciousness is the Fall itself.

Below is a very short essay considering Hegel’s re-working of the doctrine of original sin. If you are unfamiliar with Hegel the first paragraph may be a bit confusing, but the rest of it should be intelligible. While I don’t entirely agree with Hegel’s reworking, I think it offers some important insights into human subjectivity. Enjoy!

Self-consciousness is the moment of the tautology “I am I.” It distinguishes itself from itself and moves beyond this distinction back to itself.[1]  It is a relation with itself consisting of an existential anxiety regarding its self-certainty. Feeling itself in its unity it wants to declare itself as self subsistent, yet it is located within the simple substance of Life, which is nothing other than the dialectic of unity, differentiation and the sublation of differentiation in a heterogeneous dynamic whole. Self-consciousness must reach certainty of itself as an autonomous being apart from this whole. It seeks to do what no other object can; it seeks to separate itself out from and above the whole of Life and the objective world.

Self-consciousness is characterized by an existential hubris and drive for autonomy. This is the Hegelian fall into original sin, a moment of Hegel’s abeyant Lutheranism. In Lutheran thought, original sin appears on the scene when Adam and Eve disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit.[2] They assert their autonomy over and against their creator and thus lose their place within the harmonious whole of Eden. They, with the rest of humanity latent in Adam’s seed, must wait for the salvation of the Messiah.[3]

I. The Fall of Self-Consciousness

Hegel addresses this pictorial (i.e. religious) representation of the Fall in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (LPR).[4] He is seeking to unify the antithesis present in the two statements: (1) humanity is by nature good, and (2) humanity is by nature evil.[5] Analogous to the movement from Revealed Religion to Spirit in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel distinguishes between the content of this story and its form: “a simple, childlike image.”[6] What the content reveals is that consciousness qua human self-consciousness is the very Fall itself. In Genesis, humanity achieved the knowledge of good and evil and became like God by eating the forbidden apple. Hegel suggests that when the pictorial husk is thrown out the content reveals that,

Humanity has elevated itself to the knowledge of good and evil; and this cognition, this distinction, is the source of evil, is evil itself. Being evil is located in the act of cognition, in consciousness… a judging or dividing, a self-distinguishing within oneself.[7]

This is what distinguishes humanity from purely animal life, which doesn’t make this distinction.[8] It’s also what enables human subjectivity.[9] Humanity is this inward distinction and is thus torn asunder from the beginning, self-estranged.

The concept of man is that he is both good and evil, which arises out of humanity’s knowledge of good and evil.[10] Humanity’s good is its reaching beyond its naturalness towards the infinitude of thought: Spirit. Yet, again, the tension is present. Humanity is still animal and as such is characterized by its desirous drives. For Hegel, it’s in humanity’s tendency to remain within natural being and “the sphere of desire” that evil is present.[11] Humanity is spiritual as well natural and in light of this must strive upwards toward its spiritual nature. This is, dialectically, the cleavage and the appearance of evil, which is why Hegel will call the cleavage itself evil.[12] If humanity was purely natural, then following its instinctual drives would be good: a state of innocence. But humanity is not purely natural. Humanity is this split within itself, natural being striving for the infinitude of thought.[13]

However, humanity qua singular human being is a subject. This subject is a singularity. Its immediate will is selfish, private, and “distinguished from the universality of willing and opposed to the rationality of the will that has been cultivated into universality.”[14] Each human subject must be mediated, raised up out of its natural state of willful selfishness into the pure realm of Spirit. The human subject must be socialized. This is the point at which we (the phenomenologists) find ourselves in the section preceding the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Self-consciousness has emerged from the manifold of Life and seeks its own self-certainty.

There are two points I want to draw out from this section of Hegel’s LPR: (1) humanity in its unique mode of self-consciousness is alienated from itself and from nature, which should be understood from both a sociological and a psychological perspective; and (2) the sublation of this alienation is already present, implicitly or in-itself, within humanity. As Hegel says, “the subject is the infinite power of unity: it can bear this contradiction.”[15] Before any reconciliation is reached, however, we must move through the dialectic and this must brings us back to the Phenomenology of Spirit and the movement of the ‘I’, which will be addressed at another time.

[1] Hegel, PS, 161.

[2] As Luther says, “In paradise the devil desired to make Adam equal with God so that Adam might be his own god and care for himself, thus robbing God of his divine work of caring for him. The result was the terrible Fall of Adam.” See Martin Luther, Trans., Theodore G. Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) 117.

[3] Genesis 2-3 Christianity, including its Lutheran form, has interpreted God’s statement, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”, as referring to Christ.

[4] Peter C. Hodgson ed., Hegel Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One Volume Edition, Lectures of 1927 (London: The University of California Press, 1988.)

[5] Ibid., 438.

[6] Ibid., 445.

[7] Ibid., 443.

[8] “Animals have no consciousness, they are unable to make distinctions within themselves, they have no free being-for-self in the face of objectivity generally.” (Ibid.)

[9] “Humanity, however, is reflection and consciousness, and therefore it engages in the process of distinguishing; for this reason it is something actual, a ‘this’, a subject, distinct from its concept.” (Ibid., 441.)

[10] On one side is the natural will of humanity, which is selfish and evil. (Hegel, LPR, 443.) This is split into two parts: 1) humanities estrangement from God, and 2) humanities estrangement from nature. (Ibid., 447.) In its split from God humanity is estranged from itself. It is not what it knows it should be. Humanity is split between its consciousness and its natural will qua natural drives and inclinations. (Ibid., 447-448.) Humanity is also estranged from nature. It cannot just follow its natural drives and inclinations for it recognizes a higher ethical norm. Yet, the natural world appears as not rational. It does not conform to the higher ethical principles that humanity recognizes. In light of this humanity’s state is unhappiness in the world. (Ibid., 449) On the other side, this cleavage is what makes possible thought. This is the infinitude of man, his immortality, his divinity. This is Spirit moving out from nature and is humanity’s natural goodness. (Ibid., 446.)

[11] “When humanity exists only according to nature it is evil… the person who follows passions and instincts, and remains within the sphere of desire, the one whose law is that of natural immediacy, is the natural human being.” (Ibid., 440)

[12] “It is in stepping beyond the natural state of humanity, beyond its implicit being, that for the first time constitutes the cleavage within humanity; it is what posits the cleavage.” (Ibid., 439.)

[13] It follows that to represent humanity as ever existing in a state of innocence is to represent humanity falsely, not according to its concept. (Ibid., 440.)

[14] Ibid., 441.

[15] Ibid., 452


2 thoughts on “Hegel and Original Sin:Consciousness qua human self-consciousness is the Fall itself.

  1. What´s amazing about Hegel philosophy is its capacity to mold and be applied in the most different contexts and be able to shed new lights on them. But, at the same time, his philosophy maintains its resilience and internal consistency.

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