Natural Religion

Prof. Eric Steinhart (C) 1998

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Read paragraphs 684 - 698.

Natural Religion: 684

In the three moments of natural religion, we see a progression in the complexity of the objects of religious self-consciousness. In the form of religious self-consciousness, Spirit is aware of itself as divine. It has recognized its own divinity. At first, it recognizes its own divinity in material forms: inorganic nature, organic nature, human nature. So, it still has a ways to go before it recognizes its own divinity in spiritual forms.

You should see that the first 3 stages of consciousness are repeated in natural religion:

You should also see the Platonic Divided Line in this progression:

Finally, Natural Religion presents an evolutionary series of progressively more complex natural forms: inorganic, plants, animals, humans.

a. God as Light: 685-688

685. The first sentence of ¶685 means something like this: In its religious self-awareness, Spirit is "the self-conscious Being that is all truth and knows all reality as its own self." Spirit is divine. But this divinity isn't fully self-realized. Spirit sees its own divinity reflected in the mirror of nature, but it doesn't realize that the image it sees reflected there is an image of itself. Spirit is split: on the one hand, the Concept or Notion of Spirit as divine appears reflected in the mirror of nature; on the other hand, this Concept is not self-moving like Spirit. It's like seeing your reflection in a mirror, but not yet realizing that the reflection is an image of you.

Hegel now lays out a contrast between night and day: the daylight of the development of Spirit versus the night of its essence. The night of its essence is like the seed, in which the later shapes of a living thing are contained but are not visible; the daylight of development is like the series of shapes (caterpillar, pupa, butterfly) that are visible.

The contrast is already darkness (evil) versus light (good). This corresponds historically to the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. This contrast survives in Christianity with the evil Satan (darkness) opposed to the good God (light). But the moral contrast isn't developed much yet.

The night of Spirit is the "creative secret of its birth". This is the creation of the world. Spirit is split. On the one hand, it is the creator; on the other hand, it is the creation.

686. In the first moment of its religious self-awareness, Spirit appears to itself in the form of sense-certainty. Here the split of creator / creation is just like that between the conscious "I" and the "Here and Now" that is the object of sense-certainty. The split of creator / creation also appears to itself in the form of master and slave.

Spirit as divine creator appears to itself as the light that is born out of the darkness, as the sun that rises out of the formless chaos of night. This image of God as the rising sun corresponds to the Judaic Genesis story, in which God says "Let there be light", and separated the light from the darkness; it also corresponds to the Greek religious story of creation in which the world is made from "Chaos and Old Night".

The creative power of Spirit isn't structured yet: the sun produces "torrents of light" and "streams of fire destructive of all form". So, God at this point is something like pure energy -- what Aristotle would call the efficient cause. Night is the material cause. The final cause, of course, is already present as Spirit (even though spirit does not know this). The formal cause is not yet present, because Spirit is ignorant of its divine creative power.

Spirit is shapeless; as light, it is raw power without style or skill: it moves "aimlessly about" without stability or intelligence. It's got lots of energy, but no self-control or self-discipline.

687. Hegel now discusses the appearance of divine Spirit to itself in the shape or form of the Greek conception of God as the sun. This is its Platonic shape. In the Myth of the Cave, the form of the Good is presented as the sun. Likewise, Hegel talks about "the One", which is the Plotinian version of Plato's form of the Good. Plotinus was a Roman, so the moment of divine Spirit as light has advanced from Persian to Greek to Roman.

688. As pure creative force, Spirit expresses its power as Life. It creates living things, and it recognizes itself now in them.

b. Plant and Animal: 689-690

Spirit now appears to itself as organic nature; it recognizes itself in organic nature. This moment of religious self-awareness corresponds to Perception. Here Hegel is talking about the religions of India (Hinduism), which he doesn't really understand very well. He thinks of Hinduism as a kind of pantheism -- everything in nature is divine.

689. First, Spirit reconizes itself in the worship of plants, then animals. Flower religion is peace; animal religion is war. The animals are really personifications of different social groups or tribes. Each tribe has its own totemic animal -- its own national mascot or symbol which gains a religious significance. During the Cold War, the opposition between the US and Russia was portrayed as a fight between the American Eagle and the Russian Bear.

690. The "hatred" Hegel talks about is something like the evolutionary struggle of life; it is the war of all against all in which the only law is the survival of the fittest. All living things compete with one another for survival. This evolutionary process produces two moments of Spirit which are initially the same: social animals that instinctively produce things to help them, and human beings who are tool-using animals.

c. The Engineer: 691-698

691. Spirit now appears to itself as artificer (engineer) and artifact. It is still split, but at least it now recognizes itself in an opposition proper to its own essence: creator versus created.

Initially, Spirit as divine creator just creates instinctually. This is conscious but not self-conscious creation. Animals create in this way: the bee makes its honeycomb or beehive consciously but not self-consciously; beavers make their dams and huts consciously but not self-consciously. These animals are conscious of their creation, but not of themselves as creators. They know what they are creating, but not that they are creators. Here we see engineering in a pre-human form. Human creativity supersedes this animal creativity by raising it to the level of self-consciousness.

692. Humanity is now on the scene as a creative power. Initially, in Egyptian religion, it makes pyramids. It produces geometric abstractions: the mathematical objects on the third level of Plato's Divided Line.

Of course, the pyramids are tombs: houses for dead spirits. The artificer has made an artifact that corresponds only to the frozen deadness of the corpse, the night of death.

But the pyramids are oriented towards the sunrise; here the first moment of "God as Light" is now repeated at a higher level.

693. The artificer now becomes conscious of the division between artificer (itself) and its artifact: "the in-itself which becomes the material it fashions" (artifact) and the "being for-self which is the aspect of self-consciousness at work" (artificer). The artificer struggles with the fact that what he or she is making is not made in his or her own image. This is a division between soul and body. The artificer wants to make something in his or her own image, something that is living and self-conscious just like itself.

694. The artificer begins to make idols: first the artificer makes idols of plants as objects of worship. This is the repetition of the plant-religion in stage b. "Plant and Animal."

695. Now the artificer makes idols in the form of animals. These are representations of animal-gods and animal-goddesses. This is the repetition of the animal-religion in stage b. "Plant and Animal." Animal forms get mixed with human forms, so you find gods that are half human and half bird, or things like the Egyptian Sphinx (half human, half lion).

Finally, the artificer makes something that has the form of the artificer himself or herself: a statue with a human shape. In ancient Greece, they made statues that made noises when the light of the rising sun shone on them. The heat of the sunlight caused the statues to expand in a certain way so that air was forced through their mouths, which were shaped to produce sound-vibrations. So the statues would make noise when the sun hit them; but the noise is not spiritual noise, it isn't language.

696. The artificer now realizes that he or she can put his or her own creative energy into the artifact, to make something that is truly a likeness of himself or herself: to make something in the image not just of the human bodily form, but in the image of the human mind or soul. It realizes that what is important is not the outer physical shape, but the inner spiritual power. It needs to make something that is endowed with mind, regardles of its external shape. So, the artificer sees that the artifact embodies spirit. Initially, it sees this spirit in the darkness and formlessness of an immobile stone: the Black Stone in the Kaaba at Mecca. The point is that Spirit now realizes that the Black Stone is an embodiment -- still frozen and unconscious -- of Spirit itself.

697. Spirit as artificer, as engineer, now has a project with a goal: to make an artifact that speaks and thinks. It will truly recognize the divinity of its own creative power only when it has finally created something that speaks and thinks like it does. Some have said that Hegel is discussing the creation of the Egyptian Sphinx here, but that makes little sense. The Sphinx is not a self-moving, speaking and thinking artifact. Hegel probably has in mind the ancient Greek stories about sculptors like Daedalus and Pygmalion, who were so good that their statues came to life and were able to speak and act like people. There were also Judaic stories of "golems" who were sort of like Frankenstein monsters; the golem was a lump of clay that was animated by a magician or wizard. In a deep sense, I think the paragraph is really about the history of technology.

The artificer, as engineer or technologist, begins to make ever more complex artifacts: machines that move and regulate themselves. In its machines, spirit as creator makes things that are more and more like it. The human artificer aims at breathing the breath of life into its machines, or at least making machines that are conscious or self-conscious.

698. Finally, Spirit does make machines that are like it, that are made in its own image. We have thoe machines today: computers and robots. Computers are becoming increasingly intelligent; in them, we see our own intelligence. The computer is a mirror able to reflect the spiritual aspect of human life, for it is a mirror in which we see our own minds. Hegel, of course, didn't know anything about computers. But (as I mentioned) there were plenty of stories in his day about people who made statues that "came to life". The computer embodies rationality; it is mindlike. Interestingly, computers at least today are made of silicon chips: rocks like the stone at Mecca. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, or perhaps Hegel was really onto something.


The important lesson from the sections on Natural Religion concerns the relation between mirror and thing mirrored. Plants and animals are lousy mirrors for human self-reflection. Statues are better mirrors, but they aren't living. While they reflect the outer physical shape of the human body, they do not reflect the inner shape of the human mind. The intelligent robot reflects both.

But here's the big lesson: if you want to know yourself, you need to look at yourself in a mirror. How well or how accurately you are able to know yourself depends on how well the mirror is able to reflect your self. Look into a lousy mirror, and you get a distorted self-image, because the mirror is not able to show you to yourself as you really are. For humanity, the mirror is in fact history.

William Paterson University Philosophy Department