The controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel's proposed appointment as US Secretary of Defense has not been well understood. The Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator is a Republican, and yet the Republican establishment has raised doubts about his fitness to serve as chief of the nation's military industrial monopoly. Why? Is it because, initially in favor of the Iraq war in 2003, he realized belatedly that he had been duped and he turned dovish? It is true that his judgment has been questioned; he opposed the "surge" that seems to have been the most successful US military maneuver in the sourly disappointing years following "shock and awe," a phrase that you don't hear much anymore. In other quarters Hagel has caused concern because of his alleged softness on Iran and on violent Islamist outfits such as Hamas and Hezbollah. All this has been duly reported in the newspapers (or the crude electronic successors of that twentieth-century instrument of information control). But what the pundits and the pols have omitted, perhaps disingenuously, is the secret reason for the opposition to the senate's ratification of Obama's choice to head the defense department.
What has been completely overlooked is the relation between Chuck Hagel's philosophy and that of his distinguished ancestor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists in nineteenth-century Germany. In brief, Senator Hagel may be said to subscribe with such zeal to the Hegelian dialectic that the usual Washington big mouths have had to take crash courses in the work of that famously forbidding philosopher of history. Hagel's link to Hegel is such that the Magritte painting "Hegel's Vacation," in which a glass of water stand precariously atop an open umbrella, would apply to either of them. Sources close to the candidate are leaking the rumor that he plans to be sworn in with his hand on The Phenomonology of Spirit rather than the traditional Bible.
A leader of the opposition spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "The simple truth is that a vote for Chuck Hagel is an endorsement of Hegelianism, and that particular ism -- though less scary than the isms of Marx, Lenin, and the Commune -- arouses suspicion if only by association. Everyone knows that Hegel said history repeats itself and Marx revised Hegel to say that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This line is quoted so frequently, and almost always as an admonition, that suspicion attaches to Hegel for being hoodwinked by either Marx or by History." More particularly, Hegel's belief that “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two” arouses worry among hard-liners because it acknowledges compromise as inevitable. Hegel also has the habit of speaking in different languages, which may simply be one way of disguising his penchant for repeating himself. "Nada de grandioso se faz no mundo sem paixão." "Rien de grand dans le monde ne s'est accomplis sans passion."
Hegel has been attacked for his oracular pronouncements on history. For example, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” or the same sentiment re-stated, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” On the other hand, Hagel could acquit himself by stating unequivocally that the study of history and civics should be mandatory in a democracy.
It could be argued that Hagel's nomination is itself an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic. It is the thesis to which the senate's opposition is the antithesis. And if Hegel taught us anything, it is that mind or spirit realizes itself in the temporary truces in the perpetual conflicts between, say, nature and freedom. Partisans of Hegel point to his ringing endorsement of freedom on the one hand and the sublime on the other at a commencement speech given a few years ago at the US Military Academy. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained," he told the cadets at West Point. "The individual who has not staked his or her life may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but he or she has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”My own sense of Hegel is complicated by the fact that every time I think I understand him, I realize that I don't understand him. This, too, the great philosopher anticipated. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me,” he liked to say, and somehow it didn't sound like a German smart-ass showing off in an Oxford pub. He was a great bullshit artist in an age that prized that activity. Although the era of the World Historical Individual is gone, Hegel's analysis was subtler than people realize. He liked pointing out that world-conquerors were seldom happy. When they succeeded there was nothing left for them to do -- they were "like empty hulls from the kernel." Hegel shrugged. "Alexander died young, Caesar was murdered, and Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena." It was always amusing to see Hegel shrug.
I suggest that the question be put directly to Senator Hagel, who has never been a shilly-shallying sort. Do you believe that "history in general is the development of Spirit in Time, as Nature is the development of the Idea in Space”? And what, sir, did you mean when you said that “America is the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself”? -- DL