The Death of the Hegelian Dialectic

January 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Angry ManThe Hegelian dialectic is dead.  And I, for one, am not altogether happy about it.

Don’t misunderstand me.  In seminary, I was taught to be suspicious of the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularly explained.  The idea that a thesis and antithesis should somehow always be reconciled and, ultimately, compromised to form a synthesis spelled death for Christian orthodoxy, my professors warned me.  And I agree.  I cannot endure a Hegelian dialectic that synthesizes away the truth claims of Christianity.  Nor can I tolerate a Hegelian dialectic that undermines the very nature of God, as Hegel himself was prone to do, believing that God was a thesis who had need of an antithesis to form a new synthesis.  Hegel saw God not as a concrete Being, but as an ever-evolving process, always on the road of becoming.  I should also register my utter revulsion for how the dialectic was used by men such as Karl Marx in the promotion of Communist tyranny.  Furthermore, I would also disagree with the Hegelian dialectic’s contention that its outcomes should ultimately be devoid of any real resolution as a synthesis immediately becomes the next thesis in need of antithesis – a never-ending tension to an anxious nowhere.  But, with its dangers duly noted, I also believe that Hegel’s dialectic has some usefulness for the moral conversations of our day.  The ability to clearly lay out a moral thesis is important.  And listening to another’s antithesis – working to understand both its reasoning and its merits, even while noting its deficiencies – is generous.  And working toward a synthesis that actually lasts rather than just becoming the next thesis – provided such a synthesis serves to clarify rather than to compromise important moral principles – is noble and needed.  In this specific and admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of Hegel’s dialectic, while still keeping my eyes wide open to its problems and pitfalls, I find it useful.  But Hegel’s dialectic seems all but dead in 2016.

Writing for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman puts his finger squarely on the moral mood of our age in his article, “The Age of Protest.”  Mr. Friedman, quoting Dov Seidman who is the author of the book How, explains:

“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance – it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal – we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”[1]

Moral arousal has become ubiquitous, says Seidman.  Everyone everywhere seems to be commenting on some morally significant issue.

Now, on the one hand, as Seidman notes elsewhere in his comments, moral arousal can be a good thing.  When we see evil in the world, we need to be willing to confront it.  Indeed, this is what the Christus Victor theory of atonement, for all its problems, explains well – that God in Christ has confronted and conquered sin, death, and the devil.  On the other hand, there is a shadowy underbelly to our constant state of moral arousal, which Seidman goes on to pinpoint as moral outrage:

When moral arousal manifests as moral outrage … “it can result in a vicious cycle of moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions.”

This strikes me as profoundly true.  Rather than looking at one moral thesis, another antithesis, and then, when appropriate, forming a helpful synthesis that engages a more morally comprehensive reality, the goal has become to bludgeon into submission anyone who disagrees with or has a concern about a given moral thesis.

In his interview with Seidman, Friedman notes:

There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses – including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable – and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.

Both in the case of the Yale protesters as well as in the case of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the anger and bluster of moral outrage has nearly drowned out the sobriety and thoughtfulness of moral conversation.  In an article for Commentary, John Podhoretz notes that the rise of both Donald Trump among Republicans and Bernie Sanders among Democrats has much to do with the raw anger in both parties: “Trump said in the last debate that he was content to be a ‘vessel for anger.’ Sanders yells a lot in debate, thus signaling anger.”[2]  These days, moral outrage appears to be non-partisan.  But it doesn’t mean it is particularly helpful.

Sober and thoughtful moral conversation on complicated issues requires, as Seidman notes in The New York Times, “perspective, fuller context, and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”  The problem is that many of the people who howl the loudest with moral outrage do not seem to be too interested in the hard work it takes to have moral conversation.  Instead, they want only tendentious and raucous stump speeches that buttress their angry biases.

So what is the way out of this culture of moral outrage?  I hesitate to wax prophetic – because predicting the future is a dangerous and, if you get it wrong, an embarrassing business – but I have at least a hunch that the answer may simply be “time.”  Our bout with fury may simply need to burn white hot until it burns out and we are left confronting the truth about which James, the brother of Jesus, wrote so long ago: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20).  In other words, nothing is really solved by our constant outrage.

Eventually, we’re going to have calm down and thoughtfully figure out what is right instead of thoughtlessly diving headlong into the kind of angry tirades that feel right right now.  Because of this, I am confident in the return of a cautious version of the Hegelian dialectic.  And I am also confident that we can become a little wiser if we, once again, learn to use it a little oftener in our moral conversations – not to compromise on principle, but to clarify what is true and good instead of just being angry at what is wrong and bad.

___________________________

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “The Age of Protest,” The New York Times (1.13.2016).

[2] John Podhoretz, “Trump and Sanders: ‘Apocalypse Now,’Commentary (1.21.2016).

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